I spent 24 hours this week meeting with a group of 16 leaders in the United Methodist Church discussing the issue of homosexuality and if there is a way to hold the denomination together given the strong convictions on the right and the left in the UMC. The issue hinges on how we read and interpret scripture.
Around the table were conservatives, moderates and liberals (for want of better terms) on both sides of the issue and some in between. There were laity and clergy and bishops.
We didn’t solve anything during those 24 hours, despite praying and hoping we might. Perhaps the most important thing that came of the meeting, for me, was breaking bread with several folks on the other side of the debate. On Monday night at supper I had the chance to sit next to a pastor with whom I had traded “open letters” debating one another. Our letters were gracious and I thought we both sought to model civility, but sitting with him sharing our stories I found we shared much in common. He was no longer a debate partner, but a brother in Christ.
Later Monday night I had soft drinks in the bar of the hotel with four others, one woman I had not met before. She leads an unofficial group in the church. The five of us shared our convictions about the issue at hand, an issue we each have strong feelings about. We disagreed in places, agreed in others. The conversation was punctuated with laughter at points. As we were leaving the next day the woman said to me, “You know, I was surprised, I really like you.” I felt the same about her.
Did these warm fuzzy feelings resolve the problem? No, of course not. But they are an important part of moving forward. I spoke with former US Senator Jack Danforth last week about the current polarization in American politics. Danforth also served a short stint as US Ambassador to the UN and, in addition to being a lawyer, politician and diplomat, he’s an Episcopal priest. Among the things he noted that have contributed to the rancor and gridlock in D.C. is that the Republicans and Democrats seldom break bread together any more. They’ve stopped seeing each other as people who share more in common than divides them.
Divisions have always been a part of the church. Nearly every New Testament letter bears witness to this. On the plane ride home I read 1 Corinthians which starts off, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you.” In Ephesians Paul issues another plea for unity. In Philippians Paul begs the Philippians to “be of one mind” and he calls out two members of the church for their conflict with one another.
The famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, was Paul’s answer to these divisions. In verses 4-8 he taught the Corinthians what love looks like, “I will show you a still more excellent way: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
In Philippians Paul offers these words to stem the divisions there: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He then goes on to record the famous Christ-hymn calling for believers to assume the role of the servant.
Breaking bread, sharing stories and laughing together with those we disagree doesn’t resolve the issues that divide us as a nation or as a church, but it does remind us that those with whom we disagree are human beings, beloved children of God and it opens the door for us to see them not simply as adversaries, but as friends. And this may lead us to work harder to find solutions to those issues that divide us, whether we are members of congress or leaders in the United Methodist Church.