Transforming Our Conversation, or We’ve Been Doing this Wrong

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You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!

I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

 

Ah, the question of sexual immorality. Is same-sex sex this immorality? Or is it immoral to not correct the oppression of those who have been created LGBTQ+ by God and placed in the body of Christ to live together in fully loving relationships? As people who follow and try to live like Jesus Christ this is a conversation we should be having well.

 

But, we don’t. Notice the other actions produced by selfish motives: hate, fighting, losing your temper, conflict, group rivalry, and my favorite in our present circumstance, competitive opposition (I really do like the CEB translation here). We are in, and have been for some time, competitive opposition. We as United Methodists have dug ourselves into quite a hole. I know many on both sides say how much they have talked to each other, but in all my experience that is exactly what has happened: people have talked to each other, not with each other. We have talked to, and in talking to have created camps, and groups, and country clubs, and competitive opposition.

 

So how do we start digging out of this hole? I think we need to start where Paul asks us to start – by living out the fruits of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and gentleness have not been a frequent aspect of General Conference, or many Annual Conferences that are not monolithic in their thought and practice. And frankly, the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness practiced in those Annual Conferences is often a false one, created by not realizing those in their midst who do not agree as opposed to being the Church in agreement.

So how do we live into this different, odd looking world where we don’t competitively oppose one another? Dr. Douglas Campbell, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, talks about the love commandment in the Johannine writings and how those writings compare the world of Christ in contrast to the world outside of Christ. In talking about how we love one another, John points toward using interpretive charity toward one another – the goal is to hear one another in the best possible light. The world, on the other hand, lives through interpretive hostility – trying to find the worst possible intention and meaning of what a person has said. In my experience, we in the United Methodist Church tend toward interpretive hostility in our debates with one another. I have seen interpretive hostility rear its head in nearly any kind of discussion as we look for the opposition to try to sneak something by us on the issue of human sexuality.

 

It is natural to fall into interpretive opposition when people have been hurt as much as they have. Susan Pennock gives an incredible poverty workshop where she talks about the differences between people who have been raised with a middle-class mindset and those raised in generational poverty. Often the decisions made by those in poverty seem foolish to those raised with a middle-class mindset. Mrs. Pennock points out over and over that “you only know what you know.” We do not always know what others think we should know. People say and do incredibly hurtful things more often than not because they just don’t know better. Scathing replies never help. It is difficult, but this is something we must confront.

 

This story will not approach the level of hurt and frustration experienced by many in the debates about human sexuality, but I think it underscores a valuable lesson. My grandparents farmed until they could no longer physically do so. In the late 1940’s my grandfather had just put up a new hog shed. It had an enclosed shelter for bad weather and a concrete, fenced in, outdoor area for nice weather and feeding (concrete to keep the hogs from digging out). This concrete slab was slanted downhill so when it rained everything would flow away from the shelter. This, as with all hog buildings of the time, created a pool of what we will call ‘slurry’ on the outside of the fence opposite the shelter.

 

Grandpa was going to clean out the hog building for the first time. The hogs, as always, were not cooperating. He could not even start to get on the tractor after opening the gate before the hogs would start to escape, so he went to get Grandma to help him out. Grandma was about to go to town, and this was when going to town meant something. She was dressed up in her town clothes (she had one town outfit, which ranked just below her one Sunday outfit. Everything else she wore were what we called ‘everyday clothes’ that could get dirty). Grandpa told her it would be fine. She would drive the tractor onto the concrete pad and he would carry her out over the fence, so Grandma agreed to help.

 

Grandma got up on the Farmall H with a loader on it. Here is where the problems started. The gate was opposite the shelter where all the slurry was. The big puddle there had created a lip between the ground and the concrete slab. The front tires of the tractor would hit the slab and not move. The back wheels would start to spin, and that was bad because it would start to send slurry toward Grandma and her good clothes. Grandpa told her to back up and come in full throttle. She could hang on as the tractor bounced up onto the concrete slab and all would be fine.

 

So, Grandma did what Grandpa suggested and came in full throttle. Only, instead of the front tires bouncing up onto the slab, they both blew out with a bunch of slurry around them. This shot the slurry up in the air and into the fan, which was also running as fast as possible. The fan then shot the slurry right into my Grandma sitting on the seat. It literally hit the fan.

 

Grandpa tried to ask if she was OK, but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get the words out. Grandma just got off the tractor and walked through the slurry to the house. Grandpa slept on the couch for two weeks.

 

My grandparents lived together happily for 71 years until Grandpa died last December. Grandma still gets mad if that story comes up, and until his death Grandpa would still try to keep from laughing. They were able to get through it, but one of the biggest lessons is they were both doing their best. Grandpa was trying to support his family. For every one dollar’s worth of corn he fed the hogs he got three dollars back when he sold them. He was doing his best to expand the hog operation and keep the farm on solid footing. Grandma was doing what she could to help. She could drive tractors and do as much work as anyone else and was helping her husband and the farm. In doing their best, Grandma ended up washing manure out of herself and her good clothes, upset at Grandpa’s reaction, while Grandpa was sleeping on the couch with his tractor with two flat tires sitting in a foot of runny manure. This is where doing their best got them.

 

The vast majority of people on all sides of our fight over LGBTQ+ issues have been doing their best. In the process of doing their best, people have been hurt, have left the denomination, and have seen it hit the fan so many times we are covered in metaphorical manure and looking for ways to escape and clean up.

 

We can clean up without having to leave each other, however. We can talk about LGBTQ+ issues without shoveling slurry into fans. This is not our end. We are washed in the blood, and that is more powerful than even my Grandma’s ability to clean clothes.

 

So let us follow the Spirit! Let us go with each other to be washed clean and keep from going down the path toward schism. This is the first of several posts where I detail what we can do. I invite you to both get dirty with me as we take this difficult journey, and try to live out the fruit of the spirit with me, as we figure out how to move forward together.

 

This post if by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.