My family and I are hikers. As often as we can, we take to the trails, enjoying nature in all its peace and solitude. Recently, the family went on a short two-mile trek, mostly just to get out of the house and enjoy a warm sunny day in November. As we hiked, the mental noise and clutter of all the things going on in my life began to intrude, robbing me of the relaxed mood. I didn’t realize just how much until I yelled at my son for falling down. He’s eight, a little wobbly on his feet, but full of energy and at that moment in need of expending some. He took off down the trail, running full tilt and stumbled over some rocks. As he hit the ground, I yelled something at him about getting up, a response born not out of the situation itself but mostly from my own anxieties about the ‘clutter’ in my head. My wife looked at me and offered a few less than gracious words about yelling at him and then added, “He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up.”
Those words, He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up, are, I think, apropos for the situation that United Methodism finds itself in now. Historically, it seems like every generation of every denomination has needed to fall and pick itself up again. In this case, Methodists have been falling for years: since 1840 and the schism into MEC (Methodist Episcopal Church) and MEC, South; since the end of the classes and bands in the late nineteenth century; since the 1920’s and rise of Liberal/Boston theology in our seminaries; since 1972 when the General Conference instituted the wording on homosexual ministers and homosexual marriage. Depending on your context, any or all of these things can be positive or negative and yet each of them marks a point at which disagreement arose and was never really settled. In each of these cases, we as Methodists decided either to ‘leave each to his own’ or we simply ignored the existence of these things happening by hiding in our local contexts.
What is happening right now with the Commission on a Way Forward and the 2019 General Conference is simply the UMC having to figure out how to get up. We have been falling and now we’ve hit the ground. The question is, how will we get up? Options exist from the extremes and the middle with a great deal of commentary from all sides, at times polite in the name of good discourse and at others hostile with ill intent, to the point that this week, the Council of Bishops had to issue a letter saying,
“In recent months, we have experienced these negative behaviors escalating into more aggressive, and violent expressions of hate, prejudice, and anger directed against others. We are hearing of and observing angry words now escalating to actions that are resulting in fear, anxiety, loss of security, and even physical harm. These actions are repugnant to us as your bishops.”[i]
As I watched my son lie there on the trail, every instinct demanded I reach down and help him up. I’m his father, he’s my son, this is a no brainer. And yet he needed to lie there, feel the sting of those scratches and bruises as a reminder that next time, he’ll have to be more careful. In a way, I think God is allowing us to hit the ground, feel the sting and sharp pain from the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and pick ourselves up again. Many questions abound as to how and frankly, I have no idea what that will look like: a single denomination segmented into local areas that contextualize their theology to the people they serve, a fracturing into three or four denominations, an implosion of the whole thing. Who knows? I only know one thing: it will hurt, and we will have to pick ourselves up. How we pick ourselves will determine the kind of Methodism that comes from this.