In the New York area, we are at annual conference, and so I want to share just a few of my thoughts as we begin this time of holy conferencing. Many people in the United Methodist Church are surprised to find out just how much our church government mirrors the U.S. secular government. Just like many of us learned in freshman Civics, the UMC is a representative democracy with three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. We also have a constitution, elections, and—yes—politics.
This year, in our annual conference, people are campaigning to be elected to Jurisdictional Conference (a larger regional body that elects bishops, among other things) and General Conference (that big long meeting of the international church every four years and the only body that can officially speak on behalf of the church or make any changes to our church law), and interest groups are endorsing them (See MIND’s endorsements here—which include me!). And various groups are meeting to strategize around how to advance their agendas—just like in the secular world. And, not unlike in our secular government, sometimes it can be a bit much, sometimes power becomes more important than principle, but most people have good intentions and are really trying to make our union more holy.
At this time in our denominational history, the most contentious and emotional arguments will center around LGBTQ equality (See MIND’s proposed legislation here.). And, while our strategizing and debate on these questions are important, I always approach these gatherings wondering, “What is really at the root of our disagreement?” This is my more gracious way of asking, “What are these people THINKING???”
Sometimes, we progressives chalk disagreement up to homophobia, self-hatred of closeted selves, fear of the feminine, and the last gasps of rigid modernity drowning in a postmodern world. And, as a biased progressive myself, I tend to think that each of these is at play during various moments of debate on the conference floor. But, as a Christian, I am required to pray for my “enemies”, and that messes with me every time. When I pray for those with whom I disagree, when I lift them up to God, I remember that they are more than the harm they cause my Queer friends. They are more than their hurtful words. They are beloved children of God whose lives and experiences are to be taken seriously. They are sons and daughters, sisters, brothers, parents and friends, human beings struggling to live a life of meaning, and products of their own past, just like me.
And many of them have good intentions. They are trying their best to make sense of God and the Bible and the world, just like we are. And, while some on all sides do simply try to find passages in the Bible to justify their opinions, I think that, for some, there is a real question about how to reconcile our holy texts with the modern world. Progressive Christians simply read the Bible differently from many Conservative Christians, and I think it is important to take this seriously. Not only is this one of the unique ways that our political debate differs from that in the secular world, but especially for the sake of those LGBTQ kids who have been taught that to belong to the Christian community is to read the Bible literally, we absolutely need to talk about how we read scripture.
When we don’t read the Bible “literally”, there is sometimes a misconception that we think the Bible is less sacred than those who read literally. For this reason, I really like some of the language that author Marcus Borg uses. Borg talks about reading the Bible seriously rather than literally. Reading the Bible seriously is more difficult and is a lifelong process. It involves studying the historical and literary world of the scriptures. It also involves reading the Bible, not alone, but with others from around the globe and across differences and time. It involves sitting with ambiguity, allowing for imagination, and reveling in questions. And, most of all, it acknowledges that the Holy Spirit has the freedom to make new meaning of the Holy Book in new times, which means we don’t get to just sit on one interpretation, but we have to always be waiting, listening, watching for God to reveal something new.
As I was listening to all the coverage of Maya Angelou’s death this week, I learned that she always wrote with a Bible by her side. And, perhaps not unrelated, I heard a quote from her that really sums up what Progressive readers are seeking when we read scripture:
“You know, there is a world of difference between facts and the truth. You can have so many facts that you don’t deal with the truth. You never get to the truth. You have the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, the methods how – blah blah. And never get to the human truth. The human truth is as elusive as the air. And as important as the air.”
Maya Angelou on Tell Me More
As we begin our holy conferencing this week, may we not just seek facts and votes and wins and losses, but may we truly seek the sacred truth in scripture and in each other that is as elusive and as important as the Spirit of God.
You can live stream the New York Annual Conference, June 4-7, here or follow it on Twitter: @NYACUMC #NYACUMC @MINDNYAC #GC16 @umcofthevillage @sweetjubilee