by David E. Woolverton
I’ve been a church pastor for over thirty years; consequently, there’s still a lot that I have to learn. Yet, there’s one thing I do know: Church conflict makes good people do stupid things. Why? In my experience, it’s usually because we either forget who we are, we forget why we’re here, or we forget where we’re supposed to be going. I know because I’m one of them.
Conflict leadership fundamentally is not about the resolution of disagreements. It’s about leading people through a discipleship process that helps them remember who they are in Christ, why the Church exists, and what the mission of the Church actually is.
Developing a Kingdom of God mind-set is critically important for conflict leadership. The local church was never intended to be the end of the process of discipleship, but rather a means to an end. The church is a movement of God’s Spirit, a vehicle by which God accomplishes God’s mission of multiplying disciples for the transformation of the world, through divinely-empowered acts of self-sacrificial love invasively perpetrated by lives changed by Christ.
Clearly, the best way to navigate through conflict situations is to work harder on the front end in creating a normative culture in our churches built around the Way of life that Jesus modeled, and then to reinforce that culture within the day-to-day relational connections of the congregation. Why? In simple terms, we become what we allow.
The language of the Kingdom of God communicates – in multiphasic ways – the values that Jesus Himself espoused. Learning that language comes best by immersion in real time – living out and living into the cultural expressions of community life under the leadership of Jesus Christ. Those values are seen first in the mandates that Jesus brought to the table of fellowship with the Twelve. It was as they journeyed together, ate together, laughed together, learned together, prayed together, did life together that Jesus taught them the most basic qualities of life in the Kingdom of God… and then challenged them to live out those values with each other as a testimony to the world: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
All those values create a visual image of how the Body of Christ, the Church, is to be different from the rest of the world. The Church thrives best when it is living out those values, representing Jesus in the world by how it treats those within its fellowship. When conflict arises, the Church has the opportunity to represent itself differently than the human condition would warrant, so that its witness is consistent with the values of the One who gave His life for the sake of its mission, as well as with the sanctification processes wrought by the Spirit embedded in His people.
It would seem that the problem with conflict is that we humans tend to think and respond way too often within a linear worldview – when, in fact, reality calls us into seeing life and all its complexities more as a mosaic. A mosaic is a “picture or pattern produced by arranging together small colored pieces of hard material, such as stone, tile or glass.” Most often, the best view of a mosaic is from a distance – so that one may see the full expression of the visual image that the composited tiles are to represent. For me, the mosaic is a powerful way of looking at different facets of the life of a disciple – from grief and trauma, to conflict and contrition, to forgiveness and reconciliation.
My theory is that when a “significant” event occurs – aka, a conflict, a trauma, a loss, an offense, a violation, a birth, a marriage, a divorce, an affair, a suicide, etc. – that event becomes imprinted on a tile in the greater masterpiece God is rendering out of our life story. Our emotional response to that event creates a framework for how that event is catalogued and interpreted by our mind, coloring our experience of its expression within our day-to-day life. The more “traumatic” the event, the more intense becomes the emotional reaction and the more focused we become on that event as defining our reality. Trauma – or more specifically, intense emotional pain – restricts our view to the individual tile representing that significant event, preventing us from seeing the larger picture of how that event contributes to our life story. Additionally, it blinds us from seeing how God could possibly redeem that pain.
As we proactively empower a mosaic view of our life together, we nurture a communal perspective of the redemptive capacity of God for all experiences in the lives of Jesus’s followers, both individual and corporate. For Jesus’s followers, God reframes our experiences of brokenness, inviting us both to trust Jesus’s redemptive work on our behalf, as well as to learn how to mediate and moderate our responses to our own feelings of offense for the sake of the greater mission.
There is an over-arching rhythm to the Kingdom of God’s discipling culture that anticipates conflict and invites us to harness its energy towards transformation and growth. That rhythm is based on the all-encompassing value of self-giving love – and followers of Jesus are called to live that love better than the world does.
As John 13 begins, Jesus is spending His last hours in the Upper Room with His closest friends. He knows what’s coming towards Him: betrayal, arrest, abandonment, severe beating, a mock trial, scourging, humiliation, crucifixion, an agonizing death. He knows He has limited time to equip His disciples with what they will need to endure not only the darkest night of their souls’ journey, but a mission that will become bigger than they would ever know. As an expert carpenter, He must whittle down all that they saw Him do and heard Him teach into one main lesson, something they will never forget. So, He takes off His garments, wraps Himself with a servant’s towel, grabs a bowl and a pitcher of water from near the entry door, and proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet. Each and every one of them. Including the one who would betray Him. In spite of Peter’s protest, Jesus embraces this act of self-denial for it visually implants into each of their memories the profound illustration of that one lesson.
When He finishes, Jesus takes off the towel, puts away the bowl and pitcher, puts His garments back on, returns to His place at the table, and asks a critically important question: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (v. 12).
Back then, feet were dirty. Literally. And they smelled. Those guys did a lot of walking. Upon entering a home, foot washing was the house servant’s job, or the homeowner’s, if they could not afford a house servant, as a sign of hospitality. But it also served a very practical purpose: It improved the atmosphere of the home. Hold on to that thought.
Jesus’s act of humble service demonstrated that genuine love is willing to get dirty. It’s willing to shed rights and privilege for the sake of someone else’s best. It’s a willingness to assume that another person – any person – is more important than you.
“Do you understand what I have done for you?”
Then Jesus explains His object lesson. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17, italics mine).
Notice that Jesus sheds His positional authority (i.e., He took off His garments and donned a servant’s towel) to demonstrate His object lesson, and when finished, He “returns to His place [of authority]” (v. 12), and then uses that same positional authority to tell His disciples not to use their positional authority. Now, that is leadership.
In the Kingdom of God, typical values are upended, lessons are paradoxical, and disciples are challenged to live… and lead… differently than those in the world.
Meanwhile, back in the Upper Room, in the face of betrayal (Judas, in John 13:18-30) and denial (Peter, in John 13:31-38), Jesus downloads into them the main idea of His object lesson: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, italics mine).
The anxiety in the room is rising. The reality of Jesus’ departure is getting more palpable. Judas exits. Peter is prophetically confronted with his pending denial. Jesus is losing the disciples to their fear. So, He speaks words of peace and promise (John 14) and invites them into a new metaphor, a vine and branches (John 15). Then, like a master-teacher, He repeats the main lesson:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command”. (John 15:9-14 NIV, italics mine)
The model has been demonstrated, explained, reinforced and encouraged. It has to be enough… for now. Their destiny is about to unfold. They leave the Upper Room and go to the Gethsemane garden where, in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays – for Himself, His disciples, and for all of us who are yet to believe.
The core framework of conflict leadership is learning to dance the rhythms of love – the self-giving kind of love that Jesus embodied. It is the over-arching language of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, it must be the priority of the local church. As leaders, we must model, disciple, reinforce, encourage, and pray for that kind of love within the culture of our congregations. Without it, conflict leadership will be moot.
As the Church of Jesus Christ, especially within conflict situations, we need to lean into the redemptive love of God – a commitment to what can be, not just what is – based on the covenantal markers of the Cross-Event of Christ. A price has been paid for this special relationship – the relationship experienced between congregation members, but reflective of the bond between the Church and Jesus.
That price was intense and intentional – and its commitment must undergird the process that mediates our personal and corporate brokenness. Our individual pain and offense must be brought under the umbrella of our corporate missional witness and our corporate mandate of covenantal, accountable love. In doing so, God redeems our pain and uses its story as an embodied, prophetic testimony to God’s greater mission. Through it, God connects God’s long-suffering call to faithfulness with our willingness to submit our pain to a larger mosaic of global healing and redemption.
On purely human terms, this is not easy, of course. We must navigate through the powerfully inclement storms of our feelings – of violation, guilt, shame, justified anger, self-righteous indignation, unchained and recurrent emotionally traumatic memories, entitlements, the need to avenge, the need for revenge, rage and outrage, hatred, isolation, alienation, bigotry, fear, terror, to name but a few – in order to arrive at even the possibility of healing. On purely human terms, this does not make logical sense, when all our sympathetic impulses cry out for therapeutic intervention – the validation of our feelings and individualized treatment plans… and our perceptions of justice. Offense, by human nature, often compels us to push away from one another, not lean towards each other, unless, of course, we are trying to justify our victimization through collusion of shared misery.
Yet God is not defined by our human need for life to make sense. And the Lord of Life has issued a command. What will we do with that?Regardless of whether one considers the General Conference decision an ecclesial victory or a reflection of theological heresy, the entire process, in my opinion, was a no-win scenario. From the prospects of obtaining unity around the issues before us, I believe the specially called General Conference Session was already doomed to fail before it began. Approaching any significant conflict from the standpoint of positional negotiations automatically structures the resolution process into a win-lose arrangement. We began with options – a Traditional Plan, a One Church Plan, a Simple Plan, etc. – and dared our representatives to find enough voting ground to choose. Each leg of the journey, as item after item was chosen by “yes” or “no” vote, the weight of the win-lose arrangement became palpable. Win-lose within the Church always carries with it the ramification of abuse of power, layers of filial abandonment, and missional decay… even when we believe we are defending “doctrinal purity” or “social holiness.” Is there truly a “winner” when we must bear on our actions – however righteously intended they may be – the separation of those who are part of our fellowship? Would we not genuinely grieve at the prospect of significant portions of our Body exiting; or would we rejoice with relief? What if the proverbial shoes were on the other foot?
It is the aftermath of any conflict, the “wake,” that always reveals the character and life-doctrines of its participants. Stress always exposes both our strengths and vulnerabilities. Win or lose, what does our wake reveal about our own discipleship? Our own character? Our own value integrity?
Additionally, “unity” – a term used by both “sides” of the conflict – was significantly defined by standards only supported by each party: “Let us come together and be united as you support what is the most obvious way forward – ours.” This was not simply a clash over doctrine; it was a clash of perceived irreconcilable values and identity. And in spite of all of the years of a priori dialogue, no movement towards each other could be found to prepare the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the gathering in St. Louis. Mediation is only possible when both parties at least are willing to look for a mutually agreeable solution. Mediation did not take place in St. Louis. Doing the work of conflict leadership is laborious and emotionally draining, and thus we resort to parliamentary procedure to define our course.
Rather, from the perspective of its perceived goals, the General Conference session was doomed to fail – at no specific fault of any particular participants, and regardless of whichever plan was to be chosen. The stage was set long before anyone set foot onto the floor of the Conference, longer even before anyone was elected to be a delegate, and longer than before the bishops gathered to commission the Way Forward. No-win scenarios in conflicts occur when we focus on what we see solely in front of us, in linear terms, and thus fail to ask the most important questions. In my opinion, we did not ask the right questions.
For example, if genuinely we are wanting to create a solution to our long-embedded impasse, would we be willing to draw an end to the United Methodist Church as we know it? Would we, could we, fathom an act of self-sacrificial love so radical – for the sake of the mission that we proclaim – that we would sacrifice intentionally the very Parent-Church that gave birth to our present circumstances? The pattern of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as a test of faithful trust may seem antithetical to our 21st century mind, perhaps even reprehensible. Yet woven into the biblical meta-narrative is the invitation to “take nothing with you” as we go on the mission field of the gospel (cf. Mark 6:6b-13). When the Apostle Paul says that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God” in Romans 8 he is issuing both a declaration of assurance as well as a missional mandate.
Even if such an action was not what we in fact would perpetrate, asking the question and being willing to move into that direction has the power to set us free to value the mission greater than the vehicle designed to achieve it.
Rather, we sent our delegates into this special session each with the goal of preserving the “unity” of the Body of Christ, which we inevitably and mistakenly and perhaps unconsciously assumed meant the denomination and its doctrine – into which everyone had to fit, preferably agreeably.
What if preserving the denomination was not necessarily the only option? I’m not talking about shutting down the denomination, as some had proffered, as an act of conflict avoidance or as an act of resigned anger. As followers of Jesus, we are not called to tolerate one another, but to love one another. Love also demands that we step into the dirty places of interpersonal challenge. Rather, I’m talking about an act of radical love from a Parent on behalf of a Child for the sake of a greater mission. Would we do that?
It would seem to me that after a gestation period of over 40 years, nurtured by often vitriolic debate, the labor pains are finally announcing that a birth is about to take place. And in the womb of the Parent are two – maybe three – newborns that have been grabbing at each other’s heels trying to see which will emerge first and receive the birthright… when in fact, the Parent, to model its own Upper Room object lesson, is needing to give its life “as a ransom for many.”
Lest we miss this, the United Methodist Church is in transition… whether we like it or not. In order for us to enter into the “new beginnings,” as William Bridges has so wisely taught us in his classic book, Managing Transitions, we must go through an “ending” phase. And the season we then must enter into is the “neutral zone” of high anxiety and high creativity. God is transforming us on our way towards transforming the world for Jesus Christ. Would we be willing to engage the creative parts of the neutral zone within which we find ourselves – in spite of the high levels of reactive anxiety we feel? The United Methodist Church as we have known it is going to die regardless. Would we not want to end it with eulogy rather than unresolved bitterness that reflects the very image of what we, on both sides of the debate, have preached and taught against. If our Wesleyan values of scriptural holiness and social holiness are indeed to be embodied with integrity, and if indeed we espouse the underlying mandates of call and love intertwined within ordination and marriage, then for the sake of our witness to the world, our unique faith in Jesus Christ must compel us to lead through this conflict differently.
Using a golfing metaphor, I believe it’s time for the United Methodist Church to declare a mulligan, a do-over. It’s time for “both” sides to come back to the Table, realize in love that they are God-bearers of an important legacy that is far more important than each is individually, and celebrate in eulogy their Parent as it willingly dies for the sins of its children in order for them to have Life. Of course, I would suggest a much smaller group – perhaps consisting of Adam Hamilton, Rob Renfroe, their counterparts in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, and a few others who also would be willing to handle the deeper, tougher realities that prophetically are before us. Definitely they should be persons who have the maturity to ask honest questions and make honest decisions apart from the vitriolic need to justify or save face. Handling this with 860 delegates is further illustration of the muddled adage, “Wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name… there’s bound to be a fight.”
It’s never too late. Never. Nothing that happened at St. Louis was a surprise to the Alpha and Omega. Perhaps what happened needed to happen in order to set the stage for more honest interactions. What spurred on John and Charles Wesley, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright, Francis Asbury, Philip William Otterbein, Barbara Heck, Sojourner Truth, Sophronia Farrington, Clementina and William Butler, Fanny Crosby, Anna Howard Shaw, Charles Albert Tindley, and the many, many others towards creating a next step for the Kingdom of God, was not the preservation of a denomination, but a movement of God’s Spirit in reaching people – all people – for Christ. We must remember who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going.
Ultimately, each Child of the Parent will show itself as being “of God” by the fruit that is borne from their labors.
God is not defined by our human need for life to make sense. And the Lord of Life has issued a command. What will we do with that?
E. Woolverton has been an ordained elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference
of the United Methodist Church for over thirty years. Currently, he serves
full-time as Lead Pastor at St. Paul’s UMC, Elizabethtown, PA. Additionally, he is the United Methodist
Student Advisor, Affiliate Professor of Leadership Studies, and Program
Director of the Masters of Arts in Leadership at Evangelical Theological
Seminary, Myerstown, PA. David also is a
doctoral candidate in conflict leadership, a Spiritual Care Professional with
the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, a church conflict consultant, a
clergy mentor, and a workshop leader for clergy and congregational transitions.
He is the 2011 recipient of the Harry Denman Award in Evangelism. Portions of
this article are taken from his book, Kingdom
Rules: What I Wish I Knew About Church Conflict Before I Became a Pastor
(soon to be published) copyright © 2018 by David E. Woolverton. All rights
 “mosaic,” New Oxford American Dictionary Online, Version 2.2.1 (194), Apple Inc., 2005-2006.
 William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991).
Copyright © 2019 by David E. Woolverton. All rights reserved.
By Clarita Anderman Krall
Anger and a call to arms, figuratively speaking, to continue the quest for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ United Methodists in their own church! This struggle for God’s justice is not over!
These were the range of emotions that I felt and thoughts that I had after the Traditional Plan was approved on Tuesday, February 26th, by a close vote of 438 to 384, a mere 54 votes difference. If only 28 more delegates had voted to defeat the Traditional Plan, it would not have passed.
As I listened to the delegates who spoke in favor of the Traditional Plan, it was my pained observation and understanding that, often, their views were expressed as an indication of our Church needing to be “biblically observant.” It made me feel as if those delegates do not believe that persons with a different opinion are being “biblically observant,” when it is rather the case that United Methodists of devout faith just DO NOT AGREE and do not always interpret scripture with the same point of view. Throughout the history of Christianity, Biblical criticism is an area of study that exists because of differing understandings within the faith.
The oft quoted scripture supporting the position that same gender relations are outside acceptability within church teaching are passages in which Jesus is asked a question about divorce. (See Matthew 19 and Mark 10.) At that time in social history, there was not a legal recognition of same gender marriages. Had there been recognition, Jesus’ teaching on divorce would, most probably, have been all-inclusive. Yet, the United Methodist Church has found a way to accept persons who have been divorced as members and clergy in churches. Revered Old Testament figures practiced polygamy and kept concubines. However, these practices do not sit well today in our 21st Century North American practice of United Methodism.
Even John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, did not always agree with George Whitefield, another cleric in the early Methodist movement, particularly on the theology of atonement. They “agreed to disagree.” I cannot understand why our denomination cannot continue in that tradition of agreeing to disagree on something that has nothing to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Bible students understand that there are various ways to interpret scripture, dependant on historical, societal, and cultural differences. When the Pharisees learned how Jesus was answering the Sadducees, they piled on and sent their best religion scholar to ask him about which command in God’s law is the most important. He answered, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22:37-40, The Message translation)
Not accepting the LGBTQIA+ community, as God created the community, flies in the face of Jesus’ second commandment. I do not believe that the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, since 1972, has been in keeping with Jesus’ commandments.
BY BISHOP PEGGY JOHNSON
According to the Visitor’s Center at the “St. Louis Arch” National Park, this city has always been “the gateway to the west.” The earliest major trails that settlers used to travel to points west went through St. Louis, Missouri.
This “Show-Me State” metropolis is also known for some strategic and historic court cases during the 19th century. One was the case of Dred Scott (1799-1858), a slave who petitioned the court for his freedom in 1847.
Scott won his freedom, only to face numerous appeals trials that eventually landed in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled that slaves were “property” and had no right to file lawsuits in courts.
Scott and his wife Harriet were sent back into bondage. But in the years that followed, they returned to that same courthouse and were finally emancipated in 1857.
Another historic case in St. Louis dealt with the issue of women’s suffrage. Virginia Minor (1824-1894) sued the state in 1874 for the right to vote according to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was denied, and her petition also ended up at the Supreme Court, where the decision of the lower courts was upheld.
Sadly, Minor never lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment that finally gave women the right to vote in 1920. However, her valiant efforts were part of the movement that eventually gave equal rights to women at the voting polls.
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church met in St. Louis February 23-26 for an historic special, called session. The order of business was to decide whether to retain or remove two of the denomination’s bans: one on hosting or officiating at same-gender weddings; and the other on ordaining self-avowed, practicing homosexual clergy.
For two and a half years a carefully chosen, inclusive group of 32 United Methodists from all over the globe gathered nine times to find A Way Forward for the church. They finally presented three possible plans for consideration: the One Church Plan, the Connectional Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.
The Council of Bishops overwhelmingly supported the One Church Plan. However, the decision was in the hands of the 833 voting delegates to this worldwide assembly.
Their gathering began with a spirited day of prayer, then a day of legislative committee work and finally a day of plenary voting. The voting process was confusing, to say the least, with many amendments and points of order and rulings from the denomination’s top court, the Judicial Council.
In the end, the international body of conservative, moderate and progressive members voted by a narrow margin to support the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains our current policy that does not allow people who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained ministers and does not permit our pastors to perform, nor our churches to host, same-gender weddings or holy unions.
Some enforcements to the church’s current Book of Discipline were also added in this plan. The full Traditional Plan is now in the hands of the Judicial Council to be vetted for constitutionality.
Some petitions have already been ruled as unconstitutional, but time and the tedium of Parliamentary Procedure did not allow for much correction. The Judicial Council will rule on which parts remain valid at their April 23-25 meeting.
There is deep disappointment and hurt in the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual+) community and among their family, friends and supporters at this time.
Hundreds of people came to St. Louis to advocate for the One Church Plan. It would have removed the restrictive language in the Book of Discipline and allowed pastors, churches, Boards of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conferences to act out of their conscience on these matters.
In addition, over 15,000 young adult United Methodists signed a petition imploring the church to begin to open the doors to the LGBTQIA+ community. I encourage you to remember them in your prayers and reach out to offer them comfort, conversation and encouragement.
After General Conference ended, I looked up and saw the Arch, this huge stainless-steel tourist attraction, built in 1965, that reminds us about our history of western expansion. St. Louis’ slogan is “Still Moving On.”
Likewise, the church is still moving on in mission and ministry for Jesus Christ. Nothing can stop the church from evangelizing and doing the work of Christ. People of goodwill who believe differently about the important issues voted on at General Conference are and should be “still moving on” together to reach and help heal a hurting, broken world. We still have a “charge to keep and a God to glorify!”
St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, the scene of historic legal battles against oppression and for civil rights, is now a museum located fittingly next to the Gateway Arch. The two should inspire in us another message for those whose hearts are grieving at this time. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The gleaming St. Louis Arch also bends toward justice. Dred and Harriet Scott were eventually a freed from slavery. Women finally got the right to vote. Some important, lasting moments in history happened right there in this gateway city.
Here and now, during our winter of discontent, something important and lasting happened in The United Methodist Church as well. We will never be the same.
I believe with all my heart that eventually The United Methodist Church will become a welcoming and affirming denomination in ministry with the LGBTQIA+ community. Like the arc of justice, the wait is long, and the struggle can last a long, long time.
Habakkuk 2:3 says “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The temptation for many is to give up. But I implore the church to continue the work of relationship-building and holy conversation and fervent prayer, until there is a new day. Then the consciences of all will be respected and the lives of all will be welcomed as no longer strangers in God’s household.
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The United Nations has declared that 2019 is the “International Year of Indigenous Languages.” (Check it out on www.en.iyil2019.org). Studies have shown the following statistics: There are 7,000 languages spoken worldwide (among 5,000 indigenous cultures), 370 million indigenous people in the world, 90 countries with indigenous communities, and a whopping 2,680 languages that are in danger of extinction.
Why is this important? According to the U.N.,“Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory. But despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate.”
Furthermore, the United Nations suggests that “awareness and respect for indigenous languages builds sustainable development, peace, reconciliation, and it is a fundamental human right.”
Christians surely need to take notice if we profess that we are called to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)
As the former pastor of a congregation that used American Sign Language as its primary means of communication, I learned quickly the power of language for an individual’s ability to grow personally and professionally. The “majority” hearing world largely had the upper hand in decision-making settings. The sign-language-user was often forced to accommodate and take a lesser role in leadership and influence.
The same is true for indigenous people and their languages. There is an inequity issue whenever the majority culture uses its language power to control the minority when it comes to the distribution of benefits and opportunities. “English-only” initiatives are oppressive because they tilt power toward the majority and create a “them” and “us” dynamic. This minimizes the giftedness of all people and negates their unique and empowering languages.
The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles speaks loud and clear about social justice (Paragraph 162 2016 Book of Discipline “The Social Community”). “We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God…” it states. “We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection.”
As the people called Methodist, we should learn about these precious language issues that are a source of empowerment and equality for our sisters and brothers. Around the United States Native American tribes are teaching their indigenous languages with faithfulness. They yearn for support and affirmation.
Brett Jackson, a young adult Nanticoke Tribal leader writes: “Tribal language is important to me because it connects me to my ancestors, it teaches me their values and perception of the world, and continuing to use the language is essential to further teach my culture.”
Kesha Braunskill from the Lenape tribe added: “I feel that tribal language is our link to preserving our culture. It’s as important as the responsibility to pass on knowledge and traditions to each generation. Language is a part of it all.”
More information about this can be found on the “Indigenous Language Caucus” website: http://www.yuchilanguage.org.
Make it your aim to learn a new language this year, maybe an indigenous tribal language, and with it would come a whole new world of culture and community that you have never known before. Here are a few Native American words for starters:
From the Lenape Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Theo Braunskill):
“A’ho” means “Hello”
“Wanishi” means “Thank you”
From the Nanticoke Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Mike Harmon):
“Gichtishi Manito” means “God or Great Spirit”
“Eweenetu” means “Peace”
From “Eastern Cherokee Heritage” (permission given by RagghiRain Calentine, chair of the Peninsula Delaware Conference’s Committee on Native CONAM):
“Osiyo” means “Hello”
“Oginalli” means “My Friend”
“Ama” means “Water”
Listen to the beauty of the Cherokee language set to music by logging onto: https://youtu.be/Nf1SdNyB-Wc This is a translation of the hymn: “There’s Just Something About That Name.”
RagghiRain Calentine is hopeful. “The Cherokee words are passed on from generation to generation. Our Native tongue isn’t going to be forgotten or lost. Our ‘Mother Tongue’ is waiting for each one of us to speak our own unique language. This is a gift from the “One and Only.”
(From a sermon preached at a meeting of the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops and Episcopacy Committee, January 30, 2019.)
During the May 2016 United Methodist General Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, the Council of Bishops was authorized to create a Special Commission on the Way Forward for our denomination. They were to wrestle with our Book of Discipline’s prohibitions against ordained ministry and marriage for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—whether to keep, strengthen or remove those prohibitions.
On a Sunday there in Portland’s “City of Roses,” I was invited to preach at a local church and then treated to a tour of the city’s amazing rose gardens. I learned on that spring day that the city had an excellent environment for cultivating roses.
I am known to be the ultimate “black thumb” of plant growers. Plants just look at me and die. I am the only person who can kill a snake plant; and as a child, I would pay my sister to water my part of the family garden plot. That said, I am fond of lovely flowers that someone else cultivates and grows.
As in plants, the art of cultivating relationships, even in navigating deep and painful church conversations, is an important art to me and should be to you as well.
In the 1400’s there was a bloody, protracted civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” Two competing, English families—the Yorks, bearing the symbol of a white rose, and the Lancasters, symbolized by a red rose—fought bitterly for control of the British crown for 32 years. It seems that our denomination’s at times bitter controversy over homosexuality and ministry and has gone on even longer.
Our jurisdictional College of Bishops, our international Council of Bishops, and leaders and parishioners throughout our global church have been discussing and pondering, praying and fasting, and yes, even fretting, as we approach our February 23-26 special, Called Session of General Conference.
I pray we will cultivate, in our decorum and discourse, some sturdy, beautiful roses in St. Louis, even in the cold of winter. Unfamiliar with the art of cultivating roses, I researched it using Google and found some important, transferable lessons for us:
Roses need a proper balance of acid and alkaline in the soil. There are many kinds of fertilizers designed specifically for roses; and it all comes down to achieving balance. Since not all soils are the same, the right fertilizer works to enhance what the soil is lacking, so that roses can thrive.
As we lead into this era of the life of the church, we need a balanced respect for all people and their hearts around human sexuality. Polarization happens when we stop listening and learning from the voices of all. Bishops are called to be bishops to all. So, we must strive to respect all and honor all.
We also seek the balance provided for us by the four values of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. What a gift this has been for us in navigating other struggles with acceptance or rejection of leaders based on their gender, race and marital status. The quadrilateral gives us grace to grow spiritually in our understanding of diversity.
Balance is not easy. It calls us to patiently listen and respect others and to humbly realize that we need both acid and alkaline to be the church that Christ wants us to be. We need everyone, even those who interpret scripture in different ways from us.
Roses need water to thrive. Water is the most essential thing for life itself. It is why space explorers are so excited about finding water on Mars. One can live without food for a long time; but humans die quickly without water. When members of the General Board of Church and Society visited the southwest U.S. border last summer, the Border Patrol told us the first thing that people crossing the Rio Grande into Texas ask when they are picked up is, “Tienes agua?” “Have you water?”
Fundamental to the Christian faith is the water of our baptism. We all stand in need of the unmerited favor of God that washes away our sins and gives us new life in Christ. We not only find salvation through the cross of Christ; we also become one with our brothers and sisters: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We become one body with our many different gifts.
Our unity, no matter our stand on various social issues, is found in our baptism, our oneness in Christ, our shared salvation through the same Lord. Leading others effectively requires us to “keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is not easy, but it is by far the basic unifying factor for us to stress, teach and preach. The salvation of the world is our mandate.
When landscapers came to plant Rose of Sharon bushes in the front of the parsonage we moved into last year, I noticed there was a great deal of space between the plants. It looked a bit sparse, I thought. Maybe a cost-saving decision to plant less. Was I ever wrong!
Rose of Sharon bushes grow and spread quickly. Had there been more plants placed closer together, we would have been pulling out some bushes before long. Roses need space to grow and thrive.
In the original call to the Way Forward Commission we bishops asked for as much mission, unity, space, contextualization as possible. Space, air or gentleness with differences is another key thing our bishops strive to lead into. We are well aware of the differences among us as a global church. Space gives a chance for the Spirit, the breath of God, to move among us. Prayer and the means of grace make space come alive.
How lovely was the letter of the early church after their “General Conference” in Jerusalem, read in Acts 15. The Jewish Christian leaders said to the Gentile Christians that they did not have to be circumcised and follow every letter of the Jewish law. That space allowed the church to thrive and grow in the Gentile context. This is true wisdom for us today as we strive to maintain unity.
Obviously, a rose plant needs sun to thrive. The heat of the sun with its photosynthesis nourishment causes a plant to thrive.
In like manner, the church needs the fire of the Holy Spirit sending us into mission: mission among the poor, the neglected, the abused, the flooded, the burned up and burned out, the unemployed, the incarcerated, and the disenfranchised. Our leadership keeps the main thing the main thing as our faithful “why.” But it also calls the church into greater avenues of outreach, mercy and justice as the “how” and “what” of our faithful works.
My late father, who was a gardener, always said I was not part of his gene pool because of my lack of interest in plants. He used to work in a community garden in the retirement community where he lived. The wonderful thing about this garden was that everyone was in it for the mission of raising vegetables and those savory Maryland tomatoes.
Their methods varied, their backgrounds were diverse; but they would take care of each other’s plots when anyone was away for surgery or vacation or other reasons. Their common mission was the unifying thing.
Can’t the church of Jesus Christ find the grace to do mission together and work out our differences in other ways? Leadership can’t do enough of this kind of modeling.
May we cultivate roses in St. Louis: with a healthy balance of spiritual soil; with the living water of our unifying baptismal commitment to Christ; with the freeing air and space for grace that allows for various contexts to coexist; and with the consuming, cleansing fire of our passion for mission.