My wife Diane and I recently went to the Missouri Annual Conference. We were there to participate on an LGBTQ+ panel hosted by Missouri’s RMN coordinator, Trish Gunby. Stepping onto the conference floor for the first time was an awe-inspiring experience for two Methodist newbies. Over 1,000 attendees sat at tables in rows facing the stage with large screens displaying PowerPoint slides and speaker close-ups. As motions came from the floor, Bishop Farr turned to an attorney behind him before responding. It was highly organized and business-like; reminiscent of a megacorp’s stockholder meeting.
On Friday afternoon Bishop Farr spoke about A Way Forward. He joked about the elephant in the room as a cartoon pachyderm appeared on the screen. Farr warned we should all be prepared for disappointment because no one is going to get what they want. He expressed his disappointment at the level of vitriol the Bishops themselves have exhibited.
Farr continued on to say we are facing multiple moral challenges, because elderly people in nursing homes rely on UMC pensions to simply live. He warned that churches leaving the UMC could create a pension crisis, and that these people could be at financial jeopardy. Farr closed with an impassioned plea about unity, offering to barnstorm the state to try to keep the UMC together.
I was moved by the thought of the elderly retired servants of God, many of whom don’t even know all the brouhaha is underway. I was moved by his passion. But those emotions were nothing compared to what came the following afternoon.
At the LGBTQ+ panel on Saturday, Gunby introduced participants and led us through the discussion points she’d planned. At the end, she opened the floor for questions. A slight, somber girl with wide eyes and a short, shining bob of smooth brown hair stood up and took the mic. She was probably 12 or 13 years old. It was a brave action to stand in front of the 130+ members of the audience, speaking truth to power. She wanted to know what she should tell her friend who was about to come out as gay to her mother, because she expected to get kicked out of her house.
Our panel fell silent. Diane finally spoke, offering a prayer for the girl’s friend and her family. It was the most appropriate response, and the only one for that moment.
Afterward, the girl and her parents joined us at the dais. She said her friend tried to come out previously, but ended up pretending she was joking when her mom started beating her. Another woman came up a few minutes later. She described in tears how the youth group she led helped a young man who’d been forced to leave his Christian academy when he came out. She was frustrated that the wider church isn’t similarly driven to encircle those who are being denied the right to faith in Christ, simply because of their sexual identity.
A study from the May 2018 American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that suicidal ideation in LGBTQ+ young people is significantly higher for those who view religion as important. As Christian LGBTQ+ activists, Diane and I hear horror stories all the time. Diane cries almost every day because of what she encounters in her social media work. Lives are lost, families are torn apart, and people are turned away from God by the very ones who should draw them close.
Diane told me about a concept which came to her as she’d prayed in the middle of the night. The concept was that love is a spiritual discipline, and that practicing it brings about unity. In Acts and in many epistles, we read about arguments which threatened churches in towns scattered throughout Turkey and Greece. Disagreement frequently revolved around the need for circumcision and for adhering to customs related to food. It was hard for Jewish people to believe the good news really meant relinquishing the idea that Law was the key to holiness. Arguments over issues of Law brought about disunity.
These New Testament stories should instruct the UMC about how to proceed when it comes to same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual persons. In each story, the law of Love was determined to be Jesus’ will.
In Acts we see that when people came together to share what they had, pray, and break bread together, the church grew by thousands. This is what happens when we practice love as a spiritual discipline. If we choose the radically inclusive love of Christ, some churches will leave, and the current financial platform for pensions may indeed be temporarily unsettled. But those are business issues which need to be problem-solved rather than used as deciding factors. The UMC megacorp should (and must) mitigate that risk now rather than hope it doesn’t happen.
A spiritual discipline of love can’t ignore the reality of teenagers who end up homeless or dead. If we live out the radical inclusiveness of Jesus Christ despite those who want to cling to Law for righteousness, the church will grow. If we don’t, we shouldn’t call ourselves Christ-ians.
Bishop Farr was right. There was an elephant in that gigantic corporate meeting space. But the elephant wasn’t that we don’t have agreement about A Way Forward. It’s that we are weighing the very lives of teenagers against the difficulty of managing pensions.
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