Asking For a Seat at the UMC Table

The United Methodist Church is in the news.  NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and many others.  They have been meeting in General Conference, where elected delegates from the global church debated whether to maintain prohibitions on LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, or to eliminate some of those prohibitions, or to put into place further restrictions and prohibitions.  By a slim margin the further restrictions and prohibitions ruled the day. 

This morning I awoke to a message from a family whose children were in the Christian education program I led several years ago.  When the news came late yesterday about the UMC General Conference decision, they called their local church and withdrew their names from the membership.  They refuse to be part of a church that excludes people.  They want to be part of a church that invites everyone to the table, that embodies grace for all people.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church.  I remember clearly my baptism in 1969, just a year after the denomination was formed through the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  I remember clearly my Confirmation classes.  I remember clearly the Sunday school teachers and choir directors who taught me the songs and scriptures of the faith.  I remember the mission projects of the United Methodist Women and our youth group.  I remember worship with the Spanish language congregation in our town.  I remember hearing the words of resurrection hope at my father's funeral in the same United Methodist Church, his coffin at the rail where I knelt to be baptized, where I knelt for communion, where I first heard the call of God into ministry.

Bible studies with diverse groups of people have played a key role in my ongoing formation as a disciple.  More times than I can count, I have been in studies on the book of Acts.  Always we ponder the diversity and differences in the early church, and how the church began to understand itself and its mission.  In Acts 10 there is the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped God.  His prayers open him up to receiving a vision, in which he is told to send for Simon Peter.  Peter meanwhile, has a vision of his own, in which all kinds of food are lowered by a sheet before him.  He refuses to eat, citing his adherence to Jewish purity laws.  A voice from heaven said: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  Before he can puzzle out the meaning of this vision, he gets the call from Cornelius.  When he enters Cornelius' house, full of Gentiles worshiping and praying, Peter tells them that it is unlawful for a Jew to visit or even associate with a Gentile, "but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

Every time I study the book of Acts, this passage causes me to ask myself - who have I put into that category of profane?  Who am I refusing to associate with or visit?  Who do I refuse to invite to sit next to me at the table?  Examination of my own heart is an essential practice, a way to open my heart to the work of sanctifying grace, the movement of the Holy Spirit.

God's table is open to all.  When LGBTQIA+ persons call to the church, they are like Cornelius, faithful in their prayers and asking to have a seat at the table.  When the church refuses to recognize them, they are closing a door that the Spirit holds open.  The church throughout history has often closed doors, treated people as less-than, ignored the cries of those who want to be welcomed around the table.

At the World Missionary Conference of 1910, the majority of the delegates were men from Western Hemisphere nations, men who controlled the missionary agencies.  Of the 1,215 delegates only 19 represented non-western countries.  One was Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah.  V.S. Azariah was one of the founders of the National Missionary Society in India.  Azariah was one of the few non-western speakers at the Conference.  His words have proven to be a conviction of the missionary movement, and its inability to see where it ignored the cries of those who wanted to be welcomed as equals around God's table. Azariah's words regarding racism in the missionary movement still call the church today to examine itself, to see where it does not invite everyone to sit at the table.

"The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves - but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the Perfect Image of our Lord and Christ.  It is only 'with all the Saints' that we can 'comprehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.' This will be possible only from spiritual friendships between the two races.  We ought to be willing to learn form one another and to help one another.  Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest to the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body.  You have given your goods to feed the poor.  You have given your bodies to be burned.  We also ask for love.  Give us FRIENDS!"

Dr. Brian Stanley comments on Azariah's speech:  "...the riches of the glory of God will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship.  No one ethnic group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  If the church is not multi-racial, its Christology will actually be distorted."

No one group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  By cutting out a group of people who are begging to be given a seat at the table in the UMC, we are distorting our image of Christ.  We are denying ourselves the opportunity to discover more deeply the glory of God.  We are cutting off the opportunity to learn together, to make room for the Spirit to move in our hearts as sanctifying grace.

If the political structure of the UMC closes a door, then it is time for the missional movement of the UMC to open more doors.  Through prayer, we can be open to the leading of the Spirit, we can be ready like Cornelius and Peter to see and hear where God is calling us to meet with others, to form Christian friendships.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to seek out diverse ways in which to pray together, sing together, worship together, work for justice together.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to be the church that Azariah calls us to be, united in Christian fellowship, offering space at the table to all people, listening and learning from each other, looking for the glory of God.  It is time, mission-minded United Methodists.  It is time. 

 

Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 2009.

Quotations from page 125

John Allen Chau and the Assumptions We Carry

Today as I sat down to write about John Allen Chau and the distance between opposing viewpoints, I realized that the moment to comment on this subject passed back in early December.  Many articles and posts were written just after the news hit that Chau had been killed as he tried to land on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal.  I wanted to write in mid-December, but it felt reactionary.  Reflection and careful thinking take time.  That time means that jumping on the bandwagon while the topic is hot is not an option.  While I may be late to the subject, it is still important to consider what happened between Chau and the people he attempted to reach, and what happened between those who saw him as reckless and those who saw him as a martyr.

In last week’s post, I argued for love as our guiding ethic.  Looking at the conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys and the Indigenous Peoples’ March, I suggested that the entire situation could have looked very different if the boys’ chaperones had guided them to listen to the people they disagreed with, to hear what Nathan Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples’ marchers were communicating with their songs and drumming.  What would that situation have looked like if everyone in that situation held space for questions, listening and learning from each other?

 The Obligation of Christians

In that same vein, I printed out two articles regarding the actions of John Allen Chau.  One was an opinion piece by a professor of religious studies posted at Religion News.  The other was a piece posted by The New Yorker.  Dr. John Stackhouse argues that how a person thinks about the actions of Chau depends upon how one understands the obligation of Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment – Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew to “go, therefore” and make disciples of all nations.  The New Yorker article describes the conversation amongst missionaries and mission agencies regarding the approach taken by Chau – direct proselytizing – in contrast to relief and development work.

Dr. Stackhouse presents the case for proselytizing in stark terms.  Chau believed that the people of North Sentinel Island were in imminent danger of losing their eternal lives, as though an asteroid was approaching their homes and his faith required him to preach Jesus to them.  Despite Chau’s study of linguistics and missionary anthropology, and despite not knowing the language of the Sentinelese people, Chau “contravened the express wishes of the islanders” and attempted to land on their island.  Chau would have learned through his study that gaining the trust of people in order to show respect for their culture and to learn their language takes time.  The people he was attempting to reach have no immunity from modern diseases, and despite his efforts to quarantine himself he would have presented an infectious risk to the very people he wanted to reach with a message of salvation.

 The Assumptions We Carry Into Mission Work

The assumption behind Dr. Stackhouse’s argument is that without verbal proclamation by a Christian the Sentinelese people can never know God.  If people have not heard about Jesus from a Christian or had the Bible preached to them, then God cannot have revealed God’s self to them. 

The assumption that God cannot save God’s own creation without human intervention is one that needs unpacking.  The assumptions we bring to any mission work should be examined.  Dr. Stackhouse asserts that Christians simply have to decide if they believe those persons who have not heard a verbal proclamation of Christ are going to hell or not.  If you agree, then Chau is a martyr, and if you don’t, well then let’s just “agree to disagree on this basic point”.  Further, he asserts that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the time of Christ, so it’s all good if we disagree.

 Not Agreeing to Disagree

My argument is that if we simply “agree to disagree” then we are not unpacking the assumptions and biases we bring to our mission work.  Holding space for each other, listening to each other, asking ourselves difficult questions, these are the ways in which we dismantle our own prejudices and cultural blinders.  We may continue to disagree, but without listening to each other and continuing the conversation, we will not learn from each other.    An ethic of love guides us to listen to each other and work through our difficult questions.

The New Yorker article quotes Dr. Ed Stetzer, professor of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College: “The history of [mission] is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change – but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.”  Dr. Stetzer’s description of mission history reveals that scholars of mission have examined assumptions and biases, working through difficult questions and learning from the past. 

Wycliffe Bible Translators is mentioned in the New Yorker article as well, due to their policy of only sending translators when they are invited.  This is also the policy of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.  An invitation from a presiding bishop of an area is required for a team of volunteers to go to a mission project.  Policies like this have developed after mission sending agencies carefully considered difficult questions and listened to those they aimed to serve.  Waiting for an invitation means that a volunteer team is not in charge of the mission project.  The host country or church decides when or if they want outsiders to come. 

 Building Bridges of Understanding

So this brings us back to learning how to listen.  As I’ve said before, learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  Rather than simply agreeing to disagree, which means we do not have to face our vulnerability or change, Christian love makes it possible for us to hold space for each other.  Christian love is the guiding ethic which makes it possible for us to hear each other and build bridges of understanding.  When our brothers and sisters in countries that had received missionaries during colonialism spoke out against the assumptions underneath decisions by mission agencies or denominational leadership, it took Christian love to guide those mission and denominational leaders so that they could change.  Through listening and building bridges of understanding, we have an opportunity today to improve our mission practices.

I don’t have an easy solution for the conversation about John Allen Chau’s approach to the Sentinelese people.  I would defer to those with experience in the region, both local church leaders and mission organizations that work in the region.  I firmly believe in and trust the work of the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God can work in ways well beyond my imagination.  I believe we are better when we pray, think, and work together.  May we all continue to hold space, listen, learn, and build bridges of understanding and grace.