As our United Methodist General Conference is convening, I find myself thinking a lot about unity and our oneness in Christ. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jesus in the last week, letting his prayer that we may be One wash over me and become my prayer.
Elizabeth and I got married in January of 1998 and proceeded to move to Minnesota. Winter, as you might imagine, is not a good time to move to Minnesota. I was writing my dissertation and walking 1/2 mile up a hill every day to the library at St. John’s University. When the wind blew from the north, it felt like the trek was uphill both ways, the snow and wind were unrelenting. We were ready that year for Spring.
As soon as the world around us melted, (it was May before we saw grass), we set about exploring the state whose weather had held us captive during the winter. One of the places we visited was Itasca State Park. We were given directions in simple Minnesotan: Drive up Brainerd, turn left at Babe (the giant blue ox), follow the river until it stops. The river, of course, was the Mighty Mississippi.
Growing up in Arkansas, the Mississippi River defined the geography and culture of half our state. It was the major source of commerce, and agriculture revolved around the silt-infused bottomland where the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers came together. Crossing the Mississippi could only happen on high bridges that spanned more than a mile in length from one side to the other. And here, in Minnesota, we could just step across it.
That this dinky little thing that was less than a creek could at some point be called “mighty,” seemed unfathomable. We were thousands of miles from the Mississippi I knew, which raised my awareness of the fact that this river would never be called “mighty” by itself. What would the Mississippi be without the Ohio, the Wabash and the Tennessee? What would it be without the Illinois, the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Red? Without the waters of these river systems pouring in from 29 states and two Canadian provinces, the Mississippi would be just another river.
Richard Foster describes six different expressions of Christian faith and life across the generations from the New Testament to today as “Streams of Living Water” (Foster, Richard J., Streams of Living Water, HarperOne, 2001). Each stream has its own watershed that feeds it, yet they all ultimately feed into one River of Life. These streams of Christianity can appear quite foreign to one another, and may seem as far apart as Pittsburgh and Bozeman, yet they all carry life in them, and they all flow toward the same end.
When we think of the diversity of the church, we tend to see it as a polarity between conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and progressives. We tend to draw our battle lines more along political lines than any other. Foster has helped me see and appreciate the depth of our many expressions not only for how they are different, but also for what they share. The six streams Foster identifies are: the contemplative stream, which expresses itself as the prayer-filled life, the holiness stream, which leads to a life of virtue, the charismatic stream in which we see Spirit-empowered lives, the social justice stream filled with compassion, the evangelical stream centered around the Word of God, and the incarnational stream as an embodied expression of sacramental living. Even those descriptions are far too simple because it is not like evangelicals don’t know compassion or social justice sorts don’t pray. Virtue is not exclusive to the holiness folk nor the sacraments to the incarnational stream. It is a matter of how they are fed, not about dividing lines. When streams come together, the waters become one.
Our United Methodist church comes out of the holiness tradition. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, brought people together who were looking for a new way to live and taught them how they could be better together by helping each other live lives that glorified God through scripture study and prayer, Spirit-filled, sacramental worship, and justice seeking relationships with neighbors. A life of virtue could never be lived on our own, Wesley taught, we need each other, in all our diversity, to make our world look more like the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed. More than almost anyone else I know in Christian history, John Wesley bridged the streams and helped them feed into and off of one another, creating in the process a mighty movement called Methodism.
Today, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is convening in Portland, Oregon. The General Conference is made up of clergy and lay representatives from every annual conference around the United States as well as countries around the world. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, we have no Pope, no singular authority figure in United Methodism, no one person speaks for what the denomination believes or how we act. Only the General Conference can speak for the denomination and establish the rules we agree to live by. We decide it all together, which makes for sometimes awful political debate and sometimes amazing, awe-filled moments of recognizing the Spirit alive in one another.
Our denomination is held within a flawed, human system in which people sometimes try to score points on one another and prevail through politicking. Yet within that system I am convinced that the Holy Spirit still moves, if we can stop grinding our axes long enough to listen.
Just as our country has undergone tension over various expressions of human rights in the last century, so our church has struggled to learn how to welcome and appreciate women’s leadership, how to receive the incredible witness of the African-American community, how to embrace the contributions of the disabled, and how to celebrate the gift of human sexuality even as we hold one another within a covenant that moves us toward greater holiness.
As Christians, at our best, we tend to approach these issues differently from the culture at large. In our American legal system, we work to establish the “rights” of various minorities.
In the church, we ask a different set of questions such as, “in whom does the image of God dwell?” and “how can we nurture that image into its fullest expression in each life, and in our life together?”
For instance, being clear that the image of God dwells in African-Americans meant that we had to oppose slavery, as John Wesley did, because it kept us from seeing and celebrating the fullness of life together as children of God. Of course, as many other churches divided during the Civil War, so did ours. Our division came from our inability to see the image of God in one another, or to receive one another with all our different faces, our different experiences and cultures, even our different pieties, as a gift to one another.
As we approach General Conference this year, more than any other in recent memory, there is talk about division and irreconcilable differences. The polarity is set up, much as it is in our political culture, between conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and those who seek social justice. It is, in my mind, a false dichotomy based on caricatures of one another that pretend social justice advocates have no grounding in the prophetic witness of the scripture and evangelicals have no compassion for their neighbors.
In my heart and mind and life, I can tell you I am grateful for those who taught me to love with a fuller heart beyond the boundaries of my experience, and I am grateful for those who continue to press me to find how my life can more fully be shaped by the witness of scripture. I am grateful for those prayer warriors whose contemplation of the mysteries have taught me to trust in a God who is bigger than my little agenda, and for the Spirit-filled leaders who remind me that I can’t define or limit where the Spirit moves any more than I can stop the wind from blowing. I am grateful for the witness of John Wesley who calls me to a life of virtue that can’t be measured from the outside in, but can only be lived from the inside out, and for those who relentlessly live the sacramental life, reminding me that in our brokenness, we are still one body in Christ.
At the last supper, Jesus prayed for his disciples, and he prayed for us and all who would come to find life with him because of their witness:
“I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one” (John 17:21-23a, CEB).
It is of great comfort to me that Jesus is praying for our unity as the children of God, that we will come to see in one another the very likeness of the One in whose image we were created. The great sin of threats of schism is that we cease to see one another as we are, we fail to receive the gifts we offer one another as part of the whole body of Christ. Our unity is not something to strive toward, it is something that is already accomplished in Christ. Our failure to recognize that unity is the log in our collective eye as we continue to twitter and tweet about the speck in another’s eye.
My friend Trevor Hudson, a Methodist pastor in South Africa where they know a thing or two about division, once said this to me:
“If you want to welcome Christ into your life, just remember that you’ll also have to welcome and receive all the friends he brings with him” (Trevor Hudson).
I like that image. When Jesus comes into my life, he brings a wide array of friends I would never have thought to embrace, and yet we become one because he has loved each of us into a life that is bigger than the one we left behind.
In these days of our General Conference, will you join me in praying with Jesus for us to discover our greater unity even as we receive the great blessings of our diversity? Will you pray with me that we will see in one another the image of God, and know how to nurture that image into its fullest expression in Christ? Will you pray that the political aspects of our General Conference will become means for the Holy Spirit to move instead of ways we grind our axe on one another? Will you pray with me that a spirit of gratitude will well up in all those who represent us, gratitude for one another, even in disagreement, gratitude for our church’s world-wide witness, and gratitude for Christ, our head, who binds us together, and whose love that is bigger than any of us flows through us all?
After all, what would the Mississippi be without the Ohio, the Missouri, the Arkansas and the Red?