On Sunday, two cousins, Gene (we’ll call him Gene One) and Gene (Gene Two), who also share the same distinctive last name and who had not seen each other in over fifty years, met for lunch.
I am married to Gene One. Gene Two is the stepfather and business manager of David Little. David Little is the composer for the new opera, JFK, which opened at Bass Hall in Fort Worth on Saturday, April 23, 2016. The opera is set at the Texas Hotel, which is in Fort Worth and the place where the Camelot couple spent their last night together before the fated motorcade in downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
On that day, I and a group of friends from J.L. Long Jr. High school in Dallas, TX, had obtained permission from our parents and school principal to leave school, take a bus downtown and watch the motorcade. In a day so different from ours today, there were no adult chaperones. Just a group of 13 and 14 year old kids having an adventure and learning about politics.
We waved frantically at JFK, Jackie, the handsome Governor Connally and his elegant Nellie, and then board a bus to the drug store about 1/4 mile from our school. Stopping to get a $.05 coke, we saw a TV blaring the news that JFC was shot.
We slowly walked back to school. Messages of frantic calls from our parents greeted us when we checked in, so we phoned them and reassured them that we were OK and didn’t need to come home.
We Think Differently: My First Understanding
I walked down the silent halls of the school. I saw teachers weeping, their heads down on their desks.
It was my first glimmer into a world that was not 100% Republican. Although I was shocked by the death, I was more shocked to see my teachers weep. My parents were Republican. All our friends were. Dallas was a Republican, hate-filled outpost for anything Democrat.
Even as young as I was in 1960, I could not understand how JFK could have won the election since everyone I knew was a Republican. I was just young enough to think that everyone thought the way I did.
But they don’t. And there is no better place to see those deep divisions than in political and religious discussions. That’s why etiquette books have long suggested that those two topics not come up at dinner parties. Passions run too high.
As a nation, we can and do duke out our differences on the debate floors, over the Internet and in the press. But every four years when the shouting is all over, we still are a United States. We won’t break apart the nation because of our deep disagreements. A few may move to Canada or buy their private islands, but the rest of us will hold together because we know we are better together than separate.
Not so with religions, especially of the more independent protestant traditions.
But right now, my focus is on The United Methodist Church which also has an every four year major, “duke-it-out” fight at our General Conference, starting in just two weeks, May 9.
I sat in church yesterday morning and heard a powerful sermon by the Rev. Jeff Hall, Associate Pastor, Highland Park UMC. A lectionary preacher, he brought us fully into Acts 11, where Peter recounts his story of his vision from God. In that vision, Peter learns that that which he had considered unclean his entire life is now declared clean. It is from that vision that the whole world of grace opened to the non-Jewish world. That world stayed closed before, suspicious of all it considered “unclean.”
As he spoke, God gave me a vision. It is a vision of a church emerging for what are going to be the inevitable ashes of the current United Methodist Church.
We are going to have to split. We do not have the overarching commonality of the United States, nor is there a sufficiently high stake in union to overcome differences.
The Essential Question
In my vision, I saw a question that we who call ourselves Progressive must ask if we are going to emerge from this as a group of truly Christian people who are indeed infused by a wide grace.
That question? What do the Conservatives need to be successful here?
I ask that after observing Gene One hopefully reaching the conclusion point after years-long protracted battle about a complex business issue. They finally reached the bargaining table by discerning with the other side needed to have in order to successfully move forward. Neither will get all they wanted, but both will be able to move forward after the final settlement.
So I don’t think it is crazy to ask, “What do the Conservatives/Traditionalist/Evangelicals really need?” Once asked, we see how we can make it possible.
The other option is to fight to the death. That, in my opinion, makes us non-Christian. Yes, the latest salvos indicating that the Conservatives want a highly punitive structure for any who disagree with them theologically does indicate they call for a fight to the death.
We Can Play by a Different Set of Rules
But we don’t have to play by those rules. We can play it by a whole other set of rules. We can play by the rules called grace.
We can play by the rules that Jesus set. If your enemy asks for your cloak, give him your coat. If your enemy asked you to carry something one mile, carry it for two.
What if we simply stop treating the Conservatives as the enemy? What if we say, “You are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Tell me what you need. Let me see if I can get this for you.”
Do you see the freedom that this brings? We don’t have to strategize in smoke-filled rooms to see if we can outmaneuver them, or outvote them, or out-anything them.
In fact we can wish the best for those on the side of this theological debate that we who call ourselves “progressive” can no longer occupy and maintain our own spiritual integrity.
This does not make any of us evil. It does make us very bad partners at this point in time.
It means we do not demand dead bodies or insist others bow down to an understanding of what is right and just that seems anathema to them.
It means we do as Jesus said and go to the cross for our enemies.
It means we will embrace betrayal. No question about it. We will feel betrayed.
It means we will wonder if we will survive.
But we will. We will because we believe grace will never stop speaking.
Will we lose much? Yes. I believe that if those on the conservative side are willing to give us an honest answer, they will say that they want the name and the structure and the apparatus of what is currently the United Methodist Church.
The Worst That Can Happen
They may ask us to leave. Laity might lose beloved church homes into which they have poured uncounted time, love, energy and funds. Clergy will suffer greatly. Leaving will almost certainly mean no income, no housing for many, possible loss of ordination credentials.
But are we willing to bring the whole church down in order to prove others wrong, to keep security? The temptations are great to do so. The result may be the loss of our collective souls.
We must ask these questions. We also need to know what they need AND what we need in order to be successful and thrive.
The African Church
My vision also offered a picture of the African church. Yes, there are many problems with the Africans and their absolutist anti-homosexual, “kill them or imprison them” stance. Many of us find this utterly repugnant.
But that is their world. We must honor the world to which they bring the words of Jesus. It’s not ours. We are the richer nation; we have resources; we can help to support a church that is beginning to transform the face of Africa.
It may not be done the way we would do it, but then again, who are we to call ourselves God?
Several weeks ago, as I was pondering the nature of the intense need to reproduce in the natural world, I ended up with this graphic that actually came from a bunch of leaves and seeds and other things falling in a swimming pool. The mess was leaving me frustrated until I began to see the beauty in it.
Life must reproduce itself. Reproduction is always messy. Children rarely turn out as their parents expect. Eventually, they also must grow up and form their own families.
Let us face it: everything changes when we reproduce and grow. Let’s embrace that change. It could be that we are going to get kicked out of the nest. It may be a necessary part of survival.
Put Our Swords Down
At the time of Jesus’ arrest, Peter wanted to take up his sword. Jesus told him to put it down. He healed the soldier’s ear.
What if we put our swords down?
What if we seek to bring healing to those on the conservative side of the divide?
What can we offer in the nature of healing?
What can we offer so that they may succeed in doing what they believe that they can do: greatly increase the numbers of the United Methodist Church by bringing a far more conservative and biblically inerrant doctrinal base to it?
Do I agree with that hermeneutic? No. In fact, may it never be.
I have been in their world. I know it intimately. I know its strengths and weaknesses. I know what it is built upon, which in my opinion offers a shaky understanding of the Holy Scriptures.
But I also know that this is their hermeneutic as it was mine for much of my life. When I left, I feared I would lose my salvation. But I think we need to honor those who do inhabit that world and respect them as sisters and brothers.
So I say to you, my readers who are on the more conservative side, “What do you want?” “What means success for you? “How can I help you get it?” “Will you honor my own spiritual integrity in the process?”
A few years ago, I wrote a book about the dying process in the United States. I wrote this as my mother was dying and I saw the complications of actually letting an aging and major stroke-damaged body and brain die without all of the interventions demanded by our current medical system. I kept saying, “Death is the Great inevitability.”
I still grieve my mother’s death, and yet I know out of it has come a resurrection. That’s the nature of life. We must experience death so that life can once more emerge.
It very well may be that the Conservatives will need the death of the Progressives to get what they want. If that is so, then I say, “let’s move on and find the rebirth.”
But again, we need to know: “How will we define a successful outcome, both for the Conservatives and for the Progressives?” Let’s just lay it on the table.
Above all, let us be totally Christian in our response. Let us yet once more see that life emerges from death, that the Resurrection is ours to claim, the the power of the Gospel is real and alive, that we can lay down our arms and call out “Peace, Peace.”