May 3, 2012 Tom Berlin

We Are Called To Be on God’s Side

It seems that no one feels things lightly at General Conference. Every issue brought to the floor, from whether we will continue to call lay speakers by the same title, to the administrative structure of the church, to proposals for the pension board to divest funds from certain corporations, is felt stridently. My experience of Methodists (let me apologize, it is felt important by many to say United Methodists, whenever Methodist is used in reference to the denomination, otherwise we forget the Evangelical United Brethren Church that was in the merger in the 1960’s. In doing so, we do great disservice to our history and exclude those who came to the union this way…). As I was saying, my experience of United Methodists is that we are some of the most reasonable people I know. We often demonstrate the ability to meet in the middle on most matters in the life of the church. (I’m sorry, by saying meet in the middle, I did not mean to imply that there was anything wrong with the ideological right or the left, but simply used it as a reference to two people with varying viewpoints coming together in a place that is mutually agreeable; and my apology to anyone who may feel that I suggest the middle as some smoking lounge for compromise, truly, some of my best friends are in the middle, and on the right, and left. But I digress.)

However, lock us in a convention center for two weeks and wow, suddenly we feel things very strongly. And when blood sugar levels get low, some group will march a protest past to get us fired up again.

Now that Twitter has been added as a new communication layer, you can see this in real time. When issues are discussed on the floor of the conference, hundreds of tweets launch in salvos. My favorite part is when people observe, after someone makes an impassioned and informed speech on their side of the issue, that God seems to be at work here. Each person of the Holy Trinity is invoked, such as, Is this the will of the Creator?, The Spirit is moving among us, and what would Jesus do? Sorry, that is actually an arm bracelet rather than a tweet, but you get the idea.

Likewise, when a motion is voted down, and so many are, a round of The Methodist Church (people, can’t you understand the importance of using the word United when you tweet! Could you at least put up a U? This is important to us!) is out of touch with the Spirit.

We are fairly certain that God, in these matters, if not in all that is before us, is on our side. Or my side, as the case may be. And if my side prevails, then God is happy with us.  But if my side is defeated, then God is, well, not angry…., because we have a strong theology of grace. Maybe just grumpy. Or disappointed. Picture God saying, It’s not that I’m angry that you voted the way you did on the pension fund. It’s that I’m disappointed…

But clearly, and I say this to all my fellow delegates in all Christian love, God is clearly saddened, even a bit cranky, when my side does not garner the votes necessary to carry the petition. The way I wanted.

This is an old problem. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural, talked about the Union and Confederate sides and stated, both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. Lincoln had the high moral ground on that one, so no one can blame him he poked the enemy by adding, it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

It seems to me that unless you are Lincoln talking about slavery in the middle of the Civil War, it is important to remember that God is not on our side. We are called to be on God’s side. That means we have to do the hard work of discerning the will of God on all these petitions. And that means that in some matters I will get it right. In other matters I will get it wrong. Because I am a delegate to General Conference, and not God. The good news is that we are not left to figure things out on our own. We have the Bible and the blessing of good theology. We are people of the world. We know things. And we have good minds, except when I took that cold medication yesterday afternoon and got a little foggy. This does not mean that majority vote is the will of God. God’s will should not be confused with the wisdom of the crowd.  That is why we often have to fix stuff four years later.  So what are we to do?

I have some suggestions for me to consider.  You deal with it any way you want.  This is for me:

  1. Know that some things are worth standing at a microphone and others are not. Too many times at the microphone is more hubris and less Holy Spirit. Maybe the Lord of the Universe could prompt another delegate sometime.
  2. Leave room for wonder. When a vote doesn’t go the way I want, rather than assuming that bad people were successful at wrapping their evil tentacles around the less discerning masses of General Conference delegates, I am offering a little prayer: God, what are you up to here? What am I missing? Why didn’t I see it that way?
  3. Feel some things strongly. Some things are worthy of stating your opinion to 1000 people who are mostly strangers who you know may not agree with you. If the Holy Spirit is teaching you through others, then the Almighty may want to teach others through you. Sometimes you need to say it.
  4. Don’t gloat, even internally. Don’t go anywhere near a gloat. Those things are poison to my spirit and are not of God. I fell into a gloat one time as a boy in 1974 and did not crawl out of it until the mid-‘80’s.  It was dark down there. These issues are important to people. I did not agree with the Divestment lobby, but the young woman who drove an hour to meet with me to share her view—the same one who came all the way to Tampa to continue her efforts — deserves my respect and even my appreciation. She didn’t change my mind, but she broadened my world.  She made me struggle with the issue. I want to remember that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit.
  5. Know when you have a deal breaker. There are issues significant enough that one can, in good conscience, leave the church over them. Such matters are at the nexus of one’s understanding of Scripture, life experience, passion, and calling. That varies for each of us. But every hot issue is not that issue.
  6. Leave it in God’s very capable hands. Much of what we discuss has real impact on the world. Some of these decisions will bless thousands of people at a time, and one person at just the right time. But many don’t. I am coming to realize that some of my strong opinions are a manifestation of my pride, my need to be right, and my desire to get my way, rather than a function of my servanthood to Christ.

I have a friend who says that it is very helpful to leave the convention center during lunch or dinner and go a few blocks away just to see that the vast majority of the world does not even know about our little meeting. The world is still spinning. The sun is still rising and setting. When I take that walk, above the noise of traffic and the city, I can hear the still, small, voice of God whispering that I don’t have to hold it all so tightly, because we are, all of us, held in far more dependable hands.


Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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