I passed the huge billboard every day when I walked to the Convention Center in Portland, Oregon for General Conference. At first I didn’t get it. But as I became accustomed to the traffic gridlock in downtown Portland and noticed all the bikes, the billboard began to speak to me about the pachydermic problem in The United Methodist Church; namely, three elephants in the road.
The Elephant in the Road
How long are we going to pretend this isn’t happening? Inching our way to and from work, a half-car length at a time, arriving already tired, returning practically dead. Let’s face it, rush-hour commuting is a pachydermic problem. But it can be dealt with by the tiniest buttons. Push it and you’ll see. Getting to work can be
a lot less work.
RIDING IS THE NEW DRIVING
The first elephant in the United Methodist road was finally named last week. We are not of one mind around human sexuality, and unless we change the way we address this issue, we will surely separate and perhaps die. We have faithful United Methodists who will not budge from their conviction that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and scripture. And we have faithful United Methodists who will not settle for anything less than full and immediate inclusion of all LGBTQ lay and clergy in the life of the church.
For far too many years our bishops, clergy, local churches and General Conference have all hesitated to do the hard work of listening to one another’s stories and opening our hearts to the possibility that we may not know the entire mind of God, the one who fearfully and beautifully created every last one of us. How long are we going to pretend this isn’t happening?
While individuals on both sides of the human sexuality debate decry the decision of General Conference to follow the Council of Bishops’ lead in creating a commission to develop a way forward (Read), the majority has decided that being right is not as important as being in community. How ironic that cultural competency and freedom for contextual ministry are current buzzwords in The United Methodist Church…until the subject changes to human sexuality, whereupon the elephant reappears and blocks the way forward.
My hope has always been that we will find the collective (if not unanimous) will to compromise in a way that honors all. Now is the time, for we are already tired, returning to our places of ministry practically dead. The gifts of every person in The United Methodist Church, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are desperately needed in order to fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The second elephant in the United Methodist road was the need to complete our collective repentance for the Sand Creek Massacre. Last week Gary Roberts, author of Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre; A Historical Review of Methodist Involvement, Influence and Response, spoke to our General Conference about this ugly time in Methodist history. On November 20, 1864, in the midst of the horrific Civil War in our country, a tragedy equally as brutal took place at a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment in Colorado.
Colonel John Milton Chivington, a Methodist Episcopal Church pastor who joined the Union Army, led a surprise attack by 675 soldiers on a chief’s village that had been promised security. About 230 people were indiscriminately slaughtered, two-thirds of whom were women, children and the elderly. Their bodies were mutilated beyond description, and strings of scalps were publicly displayed.
In addition to Chivington, a prominent Methodist layman, Col. John Evans, was responsible for the policies that resulted in the Sand Creek Massacre, for he wanted a railroad to be built through Indian lands and force Arapahos onto reservations. The US Congress as well as public opinion strongly condemned the Sand Creek Massacre, but there was little response from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which chose to follow the US policy of manifest destiny rather than the gospel teachings of Jesus.
An act of repentance for healing relationships with indigenous people took place at the 2012 General Conference, but we did not fully include descendants of the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre. Last week William Walks Along, a Northern Cheyenne descendant of the massacre, addressed the conference by saying, “As descendants we choose not to be disinterested. Nor will we engage in bitter denunciation. We have developed trust, respect and honor with The United Methodist Church and now extend our hands to them. How we live today as humans will demonstrate what we value the most. We will not forget, but we can share our humanity.”
It was a profoundly moving moment at General Conference. We confessed our collective responsibility for the atrocities our Methodist ancestors committed against the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, and all of us received grace from the healing of historic wounds.
Roberts concluded his talk by emphasizing that the massacre is not just a historic relic.
Rather, Sand Creek reminds us that elephants of the past roam our roads yet today. The United Methodist Church has much work to do as we still struggle with racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, bigotry and white privilege. But it can be dealt with by the tiniest buttons. Love, grace, deep listening, respect, confession, repentance. Push them and you’ll see.
The third elephant in the United Methodist road is the danger of placing God’s Word in a box of our own making. All of the General Conference delegates received a set of prayer beads that were specifically made for our time in Portland. At the end of the string of beads was a wood pendant with a cross carved out of the middle. At closing worship each day, we were asked to hold and finger our prayer beads as we prayed for God’s guidance and grace to make the most faithful decisions we could. The tactile effect of holding my prayer beads every day in worship reminded me who I am and whose I am. The beads also kept General Conference centered and hopeful in the midst of difficult conversations on the pachydermic road.
Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr shared these words in his daily meditation for May 19, “Isn’t it instructive that the spiritual formation of the original disciples happens with Jesus on the road? In effect, the disciples learn by doing. They grow into an understanding of this God of love, this God of compassion, this God who loves justice, this God who makes all things new, by participating as active observers and agents of compassion, justice, and newness. And, yes, necessarily, they pause with Jesus to reflect, ask questions (sometimes stupid questions), and pray. But the spiritual adventure described in the four Gospels does not happen in the sanctuary; it happens on the road, in the company of beggars, prostitutes, and lepers.”
Could it be that The United Methodist Church will find its hope in the very midst of our pachydermic problem? Could it be that by tending to our own hearts through practicing the spiritual disciplines of self-examination, prayer, sacred reading, worship and the sacraments, we mitigate the need to judge others and insist on winners and losers? Could it be that we will discover our future by actually riding our elephants on the road together? Could our pachydermic problem lead us on a new path to unity? I pray so.