The Prayerful Way Forward (or, The Way of Compassion, Part II)

These thoughts were offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 13, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from Luke 6:36 and Ephesians 6:10-24.
     I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here. Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion


On Friday, May 4, at the conclusion of the Council of Bishops meeting, a much-anticipated press release was published offering the bishops’ recommendation on a way forward for our denomination.

Over the past year and a half a commission comprised of United Methodists from around the world and from a variety of theological viewpoints have gathered to discuss how The United Methodist Church might find a way forward through the gridlock of discussion about human sexuality.  United Methodists have a variety of opinions on the matter: some agree with the current teachings of the church—that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching”—others, including myself, want to see the church become more inclusive.  The traditionalist and inclusivist positions have created gridlock for our denomination, cultivating a great deal of distrust and a fracturing of our denomination into groups.  For nearly 50 years, the battle lines have been drawn.

In 2016, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church—the global legislative body of our church which meets every four years—came to yet another impasse.  Recognizing the dilemma, the General Conference voted to organize a “Commission on a Way Forward” to discuss how the church might faithfully move the conversation forward.  Their task was “to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”  They completed their work in March (2018) and the bishops heard their final report at their April/May (2018) meeting.  The bishops, holding to their word, released a statement offering recommendations, based upon the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, for how to navigate the impasse.  A joint press release was followed up by individual press releases from many bishops, including Bishop Devadhar of The New England Annual Conference.

The bishops are forwarding what is being called the “One Church Plan”  This plan, if approved at the special called General Conference in February 2019, would allow annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to make their own decisions about the inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

This is an oversimplification, but it basically says, if you want to uphold the traditionalist viewpoint you can; if you want to be inclusive be inclusive; but, this is not going to be a legislatively mandated matter.

As you can imagine hardline traditionalists are upset that the church might become more inclusive.  Hardline inclusivists are upset that the church might maintain its current traditionalist position (at least in certain areas of the United States and the world).  Both “sides,” almost immediately, began airing their complaints about what they perceived to be the bishops’ collective lack of leadership.

All of this fire-spitting was inflamed by a miscommunication from United Methodist Communications (or was it from the individual bishops themselves?) which seemed to suggest that the bishops were not going to forward any specific plan, but simply pass along the Commission on a Way Forward’s work to be considered by the 800+-member General Conference.  This took several days to clear up, the bishops will be forwarding the “One Church Plan” as their proposal to move us forward.  But there still seems to be some confusion on what is going to be considered and talked about in February (2019) at the General Conference.  We do not yet know if the “One Church Plan” being forwarded by the bishops will be the only model considered.  The Judicial Council is currently meeting to deliberate this matter.  Their ruling has not yet been released.

Oh, but there’s more…

On Monday, May 7, the bishops announced the results of five constitutional amendments.  In order to amend the constitution of The United Methodist Church, an amendment must pass at General Conference and then pass by a two-thirds majority vote of all members of every annual conference in the Church.  Three of the five passed, two did not.

Amendment 1, which did not pass, would have added a paragraph to our discipline stating that men and women are equal.  Included in this paragraph was a statement that said it is “contrary to Scripture and logic” to assign any gender to God.

Amendment 2, which also failed to pass, would have added gender, ability, age, and marital status to the list of characteristics that do not bar people from membership in the church.

The failure of these two amendments was interpreted as a retrogressive step for The United Methodist Church.  In the wake of this release the fire-spitting continued and got worse as people looked to find a scape-goat.  As details of how each annual conference voted were released and analyzed, people vilified one another and the Church.

Four days after the release of the vote totals, it was discovered (interestingly through a dialogue on a clergy Facebook page) that the wording voted on by the annual conferences was not the wording approved at General Conference.   A revote will happen at every annual conference the next time they meet.  The theological statement—“the contrary to Scripture and logic part”—was removed at General Conference.  There is hope that it will pass on its second, corrected go around.

Nevertheless, the fire-spitting continues; scapegoats are being roasted; and, I’m quite convinced that Jesus is weeping.

Leaders—clergy and laity alike—have shown very little compassion (the ability to “suffer with” one another) this week.  Rather than trying to understand why people came to the conclusions they did or voted the way they did, people became more entrenched in their own ideologies.  They were unwilling to step out of the trenches, cross the battle lines and sit with one another as they struggled to figure out what was going, why it was going on, and how we might move forward together.

The United Methodist Church finds itself at a dangerous impasse.  We are on the brink of great division.  The body is broken.  Siblings in Christ are not united, but find themselves at odds, as enemies with one another.

We must seek a more compassionate way.
We must pray.

To be honest, I’m cautious of corporate calls to prayer.  In my experience, corporate calls to prayer can be a tool for advancing one’s own agenda.  They can also be used as a means to air dirty laundry and spread gossip.  It is rarely used as a means for trying to understand, let alone take on, someone else’s suffering; but, faithful, compassionate prayer does just that—it seeks to understand what another is going through.

Compassionate prayer draws people together such that they can identify with each other’s suffering.  It seeks not only to name what another is going through but seeks to help us identify with them through their joys, their concerns, their trials such that their joys, concerns, and trials are our own.  Compassionate prayer is a self-less act that draws us and those we pray for closer together and closer to God.

Compassionate prayer is not easy.  It as an opening of ourselves to another’s situation.  And, if that’s not hard enough Jesus instructs us to pray for not only those we like, but also for those we loathe and do not understand.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[f] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you…[1]

Compassionate prayer calls us to identify not only with those whom we understand, but also with those we don’t.  Compassionate prayer seeks to understand those we disagree with and those we dislike.  Its not a short lifting of a name, but a struggle to learn and identify with another wherever they might be (even if that’s in opposition to our own place of being).

Christ calls us to pray for our enemies: this is the ultimate act of compassion.  Henri Nouwen et al., in Compassion, writes that compassionate prayer

requires discipline to allow those who hate us or those toward whom we have hostile feelings to come into the intimate center of our hearts.  People who make our lives difficult and cause frustration, pain, or even harm, are least likely to receive a place in our hearts.  Yet every time we overcome this impatience with our opponents and are willing to listen to the cry of those who persecute us, we will recognize them as brothers and sisters too.  Praying for our enemies is therefore a real even, the event of reconciliation.  It is impossible to lift our enemies up in the presence of God and at the same time continue to hate them…  Prayer converts the enemy into a friend and is thus the beginning of a new relationship.  There is probably no prayer as powerful as the prayer for our enemies.  But it is also the most difficult prayer since it is most contrary to our impulses.  This explains why some Saints consider prayer for our enemies the main criterion of holiness.

As disciples of the compassionate Christ, who assumed the condition of a slave and suffered death for our sake (Ph 2:7-8), there are no boundaries to our prayers.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses this with powerful simplicity when he writes that to pray for others is to give them “the same right we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy.”  When we come before God with the needs of the world, the healing love of the Holy Spirit touches us touches all those we bring before God with the same power.  Compassionate prayer does not encourage the self-serving individualism that leads us to flee from people or to fight them.  One the contrary, by deepening our awareness of our common suffering, prayer draws us closer together in the healing presence of the Holy Spirit.[2]

If The United Methodist Church is to really find the peace that surpasses all understanding, if its to find unity in Christ in the midst of its great global diversity, then we must pray compassionately.  We must lift those we disagree with up in prayer and seek to understand and suffer with them.  I believe this is truly the place we need to start if we are ever to find a way forward together.


Other Ideas, Thoughts, and Questions:

  • There were three plans considered by the Council of Bishops, and forwarded by the Commission on a Way Forward. The traditionalist plan would have maintained the current language in the discipline and increased accountability.  The one church plan would allow for decisions of inclusivity to be made at a local (annual conference, local church, individual clergy) level.  The multi-branch plan would have divided the denomination into like-minded groups or conferences held together by a binding agreement or constitution.
  • The constitutional amendments that were ratified made the following changes (paraphrasing): 1) during elections of delegates to General Conference, nominations can be made from the floor. All delegates are elected by a simple majority vote; 2) the election of bishops shall occur at regular intervals or as a vacancy occurs; 3) the Council of Bishops were empowered to hold one another accountable and resolve complaints involving a bishop.
  • I wonder how our prayer lists might change if we were to truly pray compassionately? What might they include, more than names?  Would (could) they include people we do not know?  How long might they be?
  • We cannot find the peace that defies understanding if we do not first seek understanding.

[1] Matthew 5:43-44, Common English Bible.

[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeil, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p109-110.