The Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church has a practice each annual conference of giving Wesley awards (gold-spray-painted John Wesley bobble-heads) to highlight innovative ministries in the conference. I think it’s a great practice because it keeps the morale high at our annual gathering in a time when United Methodism is in turmoil.
Earlier this spring, I was very excited about a campaign against sexual violence at Tulane that members of NOLA Wesley had a leadership role in. I got an email that the deadline for Wesley award nominations was coming up, so I thought why not put NOLA Wesley’s name in the hat for our anti-sexual violence campaign.
A couple months later, the campaign had not really materialized due to a variety of factors that weren’t any one person’s fault. And I got a call from Bishop Cynthia Harvey on my cellphone to ask me about the Wesley award. I told her the campaign hadn’t come together and that I hoped she would consider granting the award to the Wesley Foundation at Southeastern Louisiana University where my buddy Sam Hubbard has started a coffeehouse ministry that is a major inspiration for the cafe that NOLA Wesley is launching this fall.
Sam and I are very much alike. We’re workaholic entrepreneurs who will headbutt our way through closed doors. We don’t believe in waiting around until everybody’s ducks are in a row because the best way to get your ducks in a row is to start walking. We’re both evangelists who desperately want the world’s outsiders to know Jesus’ love. As evangelists, we are both pragmatic and open to the Holy Spirit’s continual reshaping of our understanding of how to disciple people and how to preach the good news.
Sam is also employed by the stereotypical conservative powerhouse church in the Louisiana Conference: St. Timothy’s on the Northshore. He’s been getting his training at the stereotypical conservative seminary that has trained most Louisiana clergy: Asbury. I don’t actually know where he stands on the sexuality debate that is threatening to split our denomination, because it just hasn’t needed to come up in our many conversations that have involved the many other ways we think alike.
So the bishop and I had a great chat about the way that we need to have a church where theologically diverse people like Sam and me can connect on our common ground and cross-fertilize our visions for ministry. She said she’d never had a clergy nominate another clergy for the Wesley award. It didn’t feel like a terribly noble thing for me to do; I just wanted a college ministry to get highlighted at annual conference.
So yesterday, the bishop decided to give both Sam and me Wesley awards. At first, I was really embarrassed to receive a Wesley award that I didn’t earn. But then God helped me to see it a different way. It was kind of like the bishop in Les Miserables giving Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks. Our bishop was making an investment into a vision for church where people like Sam and me can inspire each other in ministry even if we’re theologically diverse. She wanted to be able to put up a picture at annual conference of two guys who might seem to be on “opposite sides” but are great friends.
I take my bishop’s investment seriously as a personal challenge for how I conduct myself. I’m very passionate about my advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion. Part of how I argue for my position is to argue that the conception of holiness that precludes queerness is rooted more in modern middle-class moralism than in the model of biblical interpretation exemplified by both Jesus himself and the apostle Paul. But how can I say what I think God has called me to say without making a caricature out of traditionalist United Methodists whose spiritual identities are no less rich and complicated than my brother Sam Hubbard?
I don’t understand what God is doing. He keeps on putting people in my life as partners in ministry who dismantle my sense of us and them. It’s happened in a lot of other ways recently as well. I receive it as God’s way of evangelizing me into a more wholesome discipleship. I need to keep their real human faces in front of me every time my mind starts composing a punchy, overly simplistic rant that has the potential to get a lot of retweets.
I’ve said before that I’m open to whatever ecclesial/institutional arrangement of United Methodism best empowers the widest possible proclamation of the Christian gospel in the greatest variety of evangelistic contexts. I don’t need any particular institutional arrangement to pick up my phone and call my friend Sam Hubbard. But I do need people like Sam to help me listen to God. Whatever happens with United Methodism, I need to be intentional about living out the connectional, relational accountability that is the greatest legacy of John Wesley. That’s what I’ll try to remember when I look at his gold-spray-painted bobble-head.
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