I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills His purpose for me. – Psalm 57: 2 (NRSV)

A word of advice that has helped me navigate complex situations is this:   Know your why.  For me, and I suspect for many Christians, our why is all centered in Jesus. He is our “all in all,” as St. Paul says in Colossians 3:11.

When I think about what is happening in our United Methodist Church in the aftermath of General Conference 2019, it reminds me of a verse from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive.” The verse goes like this: “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last.” The General Conference seemed to be a mighty conflict, which has left us with fightings and fears, uncertainty and confusion, and even renewed hope and excitement. I think everyone will agree that it has stirred up the waters of our life together.

So, how does knowing our why help us to deal with General Conference? For me, it makes a difference to ponder our “troubles” in the light of Jesus and what we know of Him from the Gospels. The presenting question that is dividing us is how we will treat persons who practice what our Book of Discipline calls “homosexuality.” The lynchpin of the matter lies in whether or not we will continue to teach that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” If we do, then we will not allow same-gender marriages or ordain persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. If we do not continue that teaching, then we could allow same-gender weddings and accept persons for ordination. That was the debate at General Conference, and the decision was that we would not change our teaching, but instead would insist that it be enforced even more rigorously.

But why? How does that decision relate to the purpose of our being which is found in Jesus? In the Gospels, there is no specific occasion when Jesus either teaches about the issue of what we are now calling LGBTQIA+ inclusion, or meets a person who is identified in this way.  So we are left to speculate, or wonder, or imagine about this. Had such an encounter taken place, what would Jesus have done? Would He have responded critically and told the person to repent, like the rich young ruler in Luke 18? Or would He have responded affirmatively as He did with the leper in Mark 1, defying the taboos against touching lepers? Would Jesus’ teaching about LGBTQIA+ have fallen outside of the “narrow way,” described in Matthew 7:14, or would it have fallen under the open invitation to “all who are weary and heavy-laden,” in Matthew 11:28? Would Jesus consider this person like the rich man in Luke 16, who is consigned to Hades, or like the prodigal son in Luke 15, who is welcomed in with extravagant grace? Would He have been off-putting, as with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, or protective, as with Mary who is criticized for her immoral behavior in John 12? How do we imagine Jesus would have responded, had such an occasion arisen? That, to me, is what really matters. That is my why.

My guess is that different people will imagine Jesus responding in different ways. Wouldn’t it be interesting to do this with a group of followers and listen to hear their explanation for whatever they have imagined Jesus would have done? Though I have never been involved in that particular exercise, I have been involved in similar ones, and we have always been able to listen to one another with respect and curiosity, sometimes with debate and disagreement, other times with wonder and appreciation. Never though would we insist that everyone agree on something we are only imagining.

For me, there are some things about Jesus that we do not have to imagine. They are very clear, and they are essential to our faith: prayer, forgiveness, loving God/neighbor/self, and more. The question of LGBTQIA+ practice is not on that list. The truth that I believe about it is not the truth that others believe about it, but that truth, even though it comes from my walk with the Lord Jesus and my understanding of His life and ministry, that truth is not sure. My imagining could be wrong, and so could the imaginings of others on this question. We see it in the light of our why, but that light, in this case, is as in an (ancient and distorted) mirror dimly not yet clearly, face to face with Jesus (1 Corinthians 13). So, it takes a posture of humility, which also comes from the why in Jesus (Philippians 2), not insisting that I am right, nor agreeing with others who insist that they are right. But instead, owning that my truth is an opinion, not the Truth, and I could be wrong.

John Wesley offers us the following wisdom (albeit in the male-oriented language of his day) in his sermon on “Catholic Spirit.” [1]

 And it is certain, so long as we know but in part, that all men will not see all things alike. It is an unavoidable consequence of the present weakness and shortness of human understanding, that several men will be of several minds in religion as well as in common life. So it has been from the beginning of the world, and so it will be “till the restitution of all things.”

Nay, farther: although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it); yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true. Nay, every thinking man is assured they are not, seeing humanum est errare et nescire: “To be ignorant of many things and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity.” This, therefore, he is sensible, is his own case. He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?”

That kind of thinking is what creates what many United Methodists talk about as the “big tent.” I believe it comes from who Jesus is and what He has done for all of us. Friends, this big tent is a blessing I would hate to lose. I fear it has been torn by the recent action of General Conference, and pray that we will find the wisdom we need to repair that damage. In our local churches, I invite us to be gentle and humble with one another, to love one another even though we do not agree with one another, and to recognize that blessings that come when we are in community with others who are different from us, not echo chambers where we all agree but healthy families where we don’t agree on everything but still care for and bear with one another “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3, NRSV)

I plan to walk with all of our churches across this diverse district, though we do not all agree on the direction of the General Conference. Through the year ahead, we seek wisdom together, we will share resources together, we will have conversations with those who don’t agree with us together, and we will look for a better way to be church together, as we make every effort to stay true to our why under the cover of the big tent of Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Grace and Peace,


[1] https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit