March 2, 2019
As a young missionary I was assigned to Cuba during a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, which provoked an economic, political and spiritual crisis on the island. Cuba had been very dependent on the former Soviet Union and its systems reflected that dependence. The early 1990s brought shortages of food, transportation, medicine, and power outages, but there was also a political and spiritual crisis because the socialist system—that had led many Cubans to embrace as a quasi-religion—had collapsed. Many Cubans experienced an existential crisis of faith and began to search for a new faith. Some lost faith, many had nervous breakdowns, others threw themselves onto unseaworthy rafts to cross the Florida Straights.
I lived through these days of uncertainty and attempted to listen, accompany and be present with the Cuban people in the midst of their desperation. Sometimes I would be at the park with my children and perfect strangers would ask what I was doing in Cuba at a time when it was illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba. This was an opportunity to witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ. Other times I would pick up hitchhikers along my commute into Havana and they became curious about the lyrics to the Spanish praise music in the car and would ask me about Jesus Christ. Others warned me that this was a dangerous time in Cuba and I should think of my children and leave. Another time I was in line at the market and someone stopped me and asked me to teach him about the Bible, so I invited him to come to my home and began teaching Bible study. Other neighbors asked if they could join. The group grew and so we moved it to our back patio. Eventually the group grew even larger and we moved to the sanctuary and it evolved into a weekly mid-week service.
When we approached Holy Week I proposed having an Easter morning service outside. This was a tradition at my home church and I found it to be a meaningful part of the Christian liturgical calendar. We planned the service carefully and then carried the pews into the open space between the church and the parsonage. We set up the musical instruments and the crowd arrived and filled up the pews. As the sun rose it began to beat down on the congregation. People began to stand and move to the shade. As the order of worship continued, more and more people moved to the shade. By the end of the service, now mid-morning, the pews were empty and the congregation was crowded in the shady periphery. Clearly what was very meaningful in my home context did not translate to the tropical Cuban climate.
As a young missionary, I had to realize my mistake: that just because something is meaningful in one context doesn’t mean that it will translate and be fruitful in another. When we assume that what works in my culture should work in another we are being ethnocentric. Although the Gospel message of the Risen Christ is the same, it is most fruitful when presented in a way that is culturally appropriate.
The 2019 Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist church held in St. Louis was another painful example of the importance of ministry context. While I was not there in person, I was able to watch some of the live-stream and have the following reflections. I observed how difficult it is to be a global church. The UMC is in mission in more than 125 countries and it was evident how difficult it is to translate the gospel from one context to the next.
In spite of the pain and the sadness that many people are experiencing as a result of the General Conference, I see some positives, some observations and ask some questions:
* The people called Methodist are an Easter people. We have seen the movement born in England within the Church of England and spread around the world. We believe in a resurrected Christ who rose on the third day and defeated death.
* I witnessed the diversity of cultures where United Methodism has been planted. This is evidence of the translatability of the Gospel. We believe in God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ who came in a certain place and time, yet transcends culture.
* The intent and promise of God’s creation is the fullness of the Reign of God and the church is a means to this end. The Bible speaks of difference and misunderstandings in the church, so we know that conflict is not new or unusual in the church (see Acts 22). God’s ultimate purpose is not a perfect earthly church, rather the fulfillment of the Reign of God. How can we become a church that participates in God’s mission while pointing to God’s Reign?
* The people called Methodist have a passion to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In speech after speech, motion after motion at General Conference the central motivation of people from a variety of perspectives, was to carry out this mandate. Can we create a structure that trusts and enables United Methodists to proclaim the Gospel faithfully in a variety of contexts?
* At General Conference I witnessed a common passion for Christ’s church and a sincere attempt to be faithful to the church and to do what God has placed on one’s heart.
* I heard the centrality of Scripture as a central theme in many of the speeches, although interpreted from different lenses in light of tradition, reason and experience. Through it all, the Bible is the inspired word of God that is living and breathing and continues to speak God’s word to edify God’s people. Can we interpret Scripture through a loving and graceful hermeneutical lens? In the Wesleyan spirit can we read individual Bible verses in relation to the whole of the canonical body?
* Much of the pain and sadness that has resulted from the 2019 General Conference is real and has some people feel that their stories, context and culture were not taken into account. A church institution contains both the blessing of structure and resources to enable the mission, but also the drawback of establishing boundaries. John Wesley, time and again, broadened these boundaries as he saw the possibilities of lay ministry, women in ministry, world mission, and eventually blessing a new church in America. John Wesley wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
* The United Methodist polity of annual conferences, connectionalism, and concept of Christian conferencing is part of the Wesleyan DNA and legacy. American Methodism has adopted and molded this into the democratic system of proportionate representation according to annual conference membership. While this system has flaws, it is majority rule and I witnessed a way for a large and diverse denomination to make decisions together. The Traditional Plan was approved in a contentious vote by a 438-384 margin. I believe it is unfortunate to make such a major decision by such a small margin, leaving many people hurt and excluded. Would it be wise to postpone contentious votes or seek a better decision-making process that would cause harm until a broader consensus can be found?
* I also saw shortcomings of our church at the General Conference in the form of assumptions and generalizations about people groups and cultures. I heard too many examples of ethnocentrism and not enough attempts to understand the perspective of the other. I saw misunderstandings and lack of empathy for the hurt and pain of others. As Easter people, participating in God’s mission, how can we strive toward perfection and understand other interpretations of the Gospel and the contexts that produce them?
* I have participated in churches where association with the UMC is both a liability and a blessing. Some have strategically attempted to de-emphasize denominational affiliation and signage. To be associated with a larger denomination can help us with connections and resources, but we all need to interpret the church in our local context. There was a perception prior to General Conference that the One Church Plan would detract from ministry in some contexts, while the Traditional Plan would hurt those in ministry with and among the LGBTQ community. How can we understand and empathize with the impact of our decisions upon those in contexts different from our own?
* John Wesley established the rules of the United Societies in 1739 that are paraphrased by Reuben Job as three simple rules: 1. Do no harm, 2. Do Good, and 3. Stay in love with God. Without offering generalizations or placing blame, I saw several instances where our church fell short of adhering to these simple rules. Can we have difficult conversations while recognizing the legitimacy and humanity of those with whom we disagree?
* I observed people who come from positions of privilege cast judgment. Christ said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Christ did not come to crucify; Christ was crucified. How can we as a church be Christlike with those who are marginalized by society?
* I observed a continued need for ongoing theological education. There are new believers and people called by God to serve, who desire theological training. The Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification calls us to live by grace upon grace and on a path toward holiness of heart and life. I heard young people state that they had a calling to be a pastor and wanted to enroll in seminary, as well as long-time laity state that they had been in ministry without any formal theological training. How can we use our educational institutions and denominational resources to provide greater opportunities for continuing education, theological and cultural competency training?
* In the US ministry context, polls of young people indicate greater acceptance of same gender marriages. Our young people grow up and attend school with LGBTQ+ persons and feel empathy for their struggles. We have members of the LGBTQ+ community who are in our churches, seminaries and active in ministry. When the church makes harmful and judgmental statements against same-gender relationships it becomes increasingly difficult to reach out—not just to members of the LGBTQ+ persons–but also their allies. What is the most Christlike way to be in ministry with, among the LGBTQ community?
* In some countries around the world homosexuality is forbidden by law and punishable by death. How can we understand the implications of General Conference for ministry in varying contexts?
* Understanding of human sexuality has increased through scientific studies, so that we now know much more than we used to, although it continues to be a mystery. Many people ask if one’s sexual identity is already formed at the time of birth or the product environment? The former interpretation challenges Christian theology of creation where God created human beings and declared us to be created in the likeness and image of God. While we do not fully understand human sexuality and we cannot presume to know the truth about the mystery of human sexuality. How can we be more patient, less judgmental and graceful toward people who we don’t fully understand?
* In the aftermath of General Conference, if we are hurt, it is because we love and feel the pain of those most deeply impacted by the decisions. Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 13:13 “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” How are we embodying God’s love?
* As a people, we believe in a Missio Dei. We follow a missionary God who created the universe and continues to be a renewing, restoring and redeeming power in the midst of our human failings. God’s promise is to fulfill the promise of universal restoration or the Reign of God in all its fullness. As John Wesley wrote in his sermon “The New Creation:”
“This is the introduction to a far nobler state of things, such as it has not yet entered into the heart of men to conceive—the universal restoration which is to succeed the universal destruction.”
As a young missionary I made the mistake of trying to minister in one place, the same way I did at home. It didn’t work. I confess my ethnocentrism and ask God to continue to perfect me with spiritual eyes to see. Yet in spite of my human failings, as I listened to the desperation of the Cuban people during the economic, political and spiritual crisis of the 1990s, God worked through me, in spite of myself. I was not Cuban, would never fully understand what it felt like to be Cuban, and always had the option to return to the US. Yet my children attended a Cuban public school, we had a ration card, lived in a parsonage, and accompanied the Cuban people for six years. Although I was assigned as a missionary by the GBGM, I did not have all the answers and had much to learn from the Cuban people.
I want to continue to be discipled and be transformed as I allow God’s grace to work in, through and around me. If I had returned from Cuba the same as I left, I would have learned nothing. An ability to be in dialog and listen is central to God’s mission. It was only when I was able to transcend my culture that I could relate and invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that brought peace, wholeness and salvation. During 15 years of missionary service in different placements I lived and served among people who were very different from myself yet built deep bonds of friendship and mutual respect that continue to this day. In spite of differences I choose to stay in relationship.
In these days following the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference, while many grieve the pain and hurt within our denomination, I invite us to understand the differences in the context of the other, allow God’s love to continually transform us so that we can transcend culture and see Christ in those with whom we disagree. I invite the people called United Methodist to place God’s mission first and enable it to flourish—in spite of us–even in ways that we don’t fully understand.