Oh, what a tangled web we weave!
This spring, my husband and I acquired Remy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Or he acquired us. Not sure which. Anyway, some of these lovely, loving animals have long silky hair. Regular, gentle brushing becomes the only requirement.
Remy, our dog, however, well . . . somehow he got my hair: wild, unruly, and extremely prone to tangles and mats. We took him to the vet for a shampoo and “puppy pedicure” (sigh), and they apparently didn’t put a conditioner on his fur after the shampoo.
Plus, I made the mistake of letting him wear his halter non-stop for a couple of weeks. It was like a safety-blanket to him, and I did not pay attention to what was happening to his wild and unruly fur underneath it.
When I finally removed it, I found a mat about two inches wide and an inch high. It took me over eight hours to get it fully untangled.
I cut off what I could, slowly getting him accustomed to the somewhat frightening sound of the scissors so I could snip safely. However, for most of it, I had to untangle it, patiently, almost hair by hair.
Remy got so used to the routine that he often fell asleep in my lap as I worked away.
The UMC is an intertangled mat
But this intertangled mat only too well pictures the ongoing mess in The United Methodist Church. Please, right now, take the time to read the excellent work by Dr. William B. Lawrence. He writes of the many ways that GC2019, also known as the “I hate gays” conference of our church, violated the very basis of the Methodist movement.
Yes, this piece is long, complicated, and will take some time to read and digest. But it is necessary. The quick tweet-world one-liner will not satisfy or solve this situation.
We all need to know the background. We must have informed people if we are ever going to untangle this mat and find our graciousness and become the aroma of Christ again.
To get back to Remy: yes, I could have hired a professional groomer and had them forcibly hold that sweet animal down and shave off that tangled mess. It would have been quick and easy, with the trauma over in minutes. That appears to have been the hope of those who did pass the Traditionalist Plan: Just shave off the progressives and get it done.
Covenant, not contract
Instead, Remy and I deepened the bond between dog and human. He learned to trust me more fully, and I learned to read the signs when he had experienced all he could take for one de-tangling session.
That’s what those do who live in covenant with one another. In a covenantal, not contractual community, we trust that others have our best interests at heart. We believe that those who undertake to untangle the matted mess will do so motivated by compassion, unselfish love, patience, gentleness, and adequate sensitivity to give all the time necessary to complete the task.
When any relationship, human to human, dog to human, human to church, has lost trust, then the relationship moves immediately into an adversarial mode.
Don’t believe me? Spend some time reading advice columnists. Probably 99% of the questions revolve around broken trust in some sort of relational activity.
The anguished cry, “How can I ever trust him/her again?” reverberates through the questions and answers, through the tears and anguish and pain of betrayal. As Dr. Lawrence’ work reveals, the work of the General Conferences since 1972 have repeatedly betrayed the core values of Methodism. No wonder we have a trust problem.
I came into United Methodism in 1998, after years in a conservative religious environment that emphasized a punitive God-male-father-anger-figure, leaving me with a scarred and damaged soul. I thought I was breathing profound grace.
And, I was . . . but I was only a divorced straight woman, so by then, space had been made for me. I wrestled with my internal conflict over the incompatibility teaching but walled it off. I was too focused on my personal traumas and need for healing to find the energy to fight battles for those still outside those bounds.
The legitimate questions of traditionalists
And here’s where the traditionalists genuinely have my sympathy and genuine compassion. They ask, I believe, the question: “What are the boundaries? If we admit those in the LGBTQI community, what about those who support polyamory?”
We may add these questions as well: What about polygamy–one man, multiple wives (which, by the way, would have a great deal of biblical support), or polyandry, one woman, multiple husbands (one would be hard-pressed to find written biblical support for this one)?
Their fears are real–when is some diversity too much diversity? For example, how many different ways to approach the truths of Scripture can we support? Frankly, the tighter we make the approaches, the more likely that initial growth will be faster. Most people are not trained theologians. They do want their spiritual authorities to tell them what to believe and exactly what the boundaries are so they can go on with their lives.
This is one of the fascinating lessons I learned after a year of being a Mystery Worshipper. I analyzed why conservative churches with very tight boundaries tend to grow more rapidly. A hard, unquestioned, immovable, non-diverse atmosphere helps.
So where are the lines we can use? Again, re-read what Dr. Lawrence has written: those lines are pretty clear in historic Methodism and well summed up in the General Rules.
We do not have amorphous boundaries. We do have boundaries that commit us to avoid evil and harm, commit us to do all the good we possibly can, and focus us on the habits that help us stay profoundly in love with God. These are good and sound limits and also can be contextually applied where necessary.
For the US, a nation where same-sex marriage is widely recognized as a general societal good, we do harm when we oppose it. In other contexts, multiple wives may be seen as a societal good. For example, these marital arrangements may be necessary when the numbers of marriageable men have been decimated by war. There, the church may do harm by opposing that practice.
The wrinkled ladies parallel
Now, let’s turn briefly to wrinkled ladies. Apparently, this video has been around a while, but I just now saw it. As I explained in my last post, being a wrinkled lady now, I could hardly stop laughing and also recognized the truth of it. And totally identified with the woman who can’t dance either!
Here’s the deal: The United Methodist Church is a wrinkled old lady. Just like many aging people do, we bought into our versions of magic skin creams to try to push back the damage. However, when it comes down to it, we just need a pair of jeans that fit and flatter us.
It’s not that hard to do. A little more give here, a little more stretch there, a more realistic, less idealistic look at just how bloated and wrinkled we are, and we’ll find those comfortable jeans that fit. Then we have room to move and dance and play and be free to be the aroma of grace to the world.
The problem, unfortunately, is that we have one tiny little structural flaw impeding our progress.
Can a committee clean out a closet?
Another story here to illustrate: a few days after that detangling my dog, my sweet husband asked me to help him clean out his closet. I was thrilled as I had been itching to get my hands on it for some time.
We got to work. Since both of us tend to make quick decisions, in minutes we ended up with a pile of clothes for donation and a much less cluttered closet. But we did have our disagreements: some shirts he really liked, I don’t think look good on him. Some things I particularly liked ended up in the donation pile.
In the process, it dawned on me how much harder this would have been if we had needed to get buy-in on all these decisions by our many children–we have a blended family and we are talking a LOT of variously-related offspring. Each additional person in the process would leave it more and more cumbersome.
Assuming that that majority expresses the best wisdom (a very questionable assumption, by the way, and one completely lacking biblical support) votes would have to be taken. Close votes would leave half the decision-makers unhappy. We would have been lucky to have discarded one pair of obviously worn and increasingly uncomfortable shoes.
In other words, you can’t use a committee to clean out a closet. Or, for that matter, to decide on the perfect pair of jeans. Or, as we know all too well, to sort out the problems in the UMC. And yet everything in our connection must be done by committee.
In the disastrous five days that we called GC2019, that committee, precisely because of a lack of mutual trust, consisted of 864 people, minus a few who couldn’t get visas, plus a few who voted illegitimately. So, we have a now voided vote and a better idea of what happens when we go into a meeting knowing we can’t trust one another.
We cannot continue this pattern. Well, we can, and go ahead and slowly die. But there are better options.
We have two tasks
To move forward, we face two herculean but not impossible tasks.
First, we are going to have to “Marie Kondo” the UMC. (An aside, I do wonder what it would feel like to have one’s name turned into a verb, but her process really is fascinatingly freeing and transformational.) In other words, we need a far, far smaller, more nimble, less-committee-written, Book of Discipline.
Second, we are going to have to decide to trust each other. And here is where it gets just a bit more complicated.
I have linked here a PDF copy of the Summer 2019 edition of Christian Ethics Today. In it, there is a vital piece by John C. Dorhauer called “Steeplejacking: How The Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion.”
I implore you to read it. Yes, like Dr. Lawrence’ article, it will take some time. Again no tweeted one-liners can fix this mess. Ultimately, restoring trust will require an apology from those who have permitted John Lomperis to have such a large role in setting UMC policy. We also need a public acknowledgment of the wrongness of a decision to let an ex-CIA agent, Mark Tooley, attempt to re-create the church in his image.
The WCA, the Good News Movement, and any other groups associated with Mr. Tooleyand Mr. Lomperis must renounce their connection with the Institution on Religion and Democracy and return any funding they have received. These two men are indeed United Methodists. And, sadly, they have spearheaded a movement to destroy the core of United Methodism and its long-standing work on the part of social justice.
When these things happen, we can move forward. Without them, I’m just not sure.
In the mid-90’s I was recruited (remember my conservative religious roots) by the IRD to infiltrate a gathering of Christian women seeking to re-imagine their spirituality in more female-friendly terms. I learned first hand what the IRD was about: to destroy liberal Christianity by any means possible. I quickly disassociated with them. I know that many see this as a crazy conspiracy theory. I’m not exactly given to them, but this is one time, I do not believe I am wrong. And yes, I expect some kickback from the IRD for these comments. Again, read what Mr. Dorhauer wrote in Christian Ethics Today. But someone has to speak out. And I will make any moves to destroy me or hurt me as public as possible.
And so thus are today’s musings by a wrinkled woman and her mat and tangle-free dog.
Author and columnist, the Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas is a retired clergy member of the North Texas Annual Conference. This post is republished with the author’s permission from her blog The Thoughtful Pastor on Patheos.com.