A devout North Georgia layperson, a true saint of The United Methodist Church, approached me at a recent wedding reception and asked me how I’d describe these times in The UMC. I paused to reflect and said, “Holy Incubation.” He thought a minute, nodded and said, “That describes how it feels.”
I’ve read other pundits describe this time as similar to Holy Saturday. Very few left the General Conference 2019 in St. Louis without the feeling of immense loss, like something had died. Most of us know that it was the end of The UMC as it had previously existed. But most of us have also returned home and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in many ways. We know that God is at work, as God was at work breathing resurrection power into the tomb and throughout all of creation on Holy Saturday. We grieve, not as those without faith but fully expecting God to bring resurrection to our Church in ways that we cannot now fully see or comprehend.
Let’s be honest: a 53-47% vote should never be a desired outcome. In my many years of pastoral ministry, we ideally sought consensus, or less ideally a vast majority, before moving forward with any major decision in the life of a congregation. If that didn’t come, we’d agree to pray together and live life together until God gave us a clear path forward. The problem with 53-47 is that someone who voted against you is always in close proximity. When you combine close proximity with strongly held opposing viewpoints, you are asking for paralyzing tension in the system. Anger, the go-to expression of hurt and fear, becomes a systemic constant and, not surprisingly, people take sides. Sadly, as Diane Kalen-Sukra notes in Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community and What to Do About It, “Incivility is contagious—often spreading by way of righteous indignation until those without legitimate grievance have come down with symptoms and taken sides.”
We saw in St. Louis just how rigidly the lines between the 53 and 47 had been drawn. I felt my heart breaking as I watched people I loved, both 53’s and 47’s, lose themselves in a “no-holds-barred fight to the finish” embarrassment to the Church of Jesus Christ. If the Church exists, as Wesley emphasized, to administer the means of grace with the end of bringing everyone to perfection in love, St. Louis seemed to reflect that The UMC had failed in its most basic task, in what it exists to do. As Jesus commanded in John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other" (John 13:34-35 CEB).
Not much love was on display in St. Louis. Worse yet, our division and bad behavior were fully documented for the world to see. I am very grateful that I was so immersed in meetings following the end of General Conference that I failed to see our failure to love described in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and broadcast on the Today Show and across the media outlets. In a time when an increasing number of people have never experienced the Church, and when an increasing number of people are done with Church, and when our country and world seem hopelessly polarized, we gave the world the incredibly poor witness of a failure to love coupled with nasty remarks and bad behavior. I’ve said many times that God would consider our failure to love and work toward unity to be a far greater sin than who we choose to marry or ordain.
So now we find ourselves on a Holy Saturday that follows the Good Friday damage to our mission and witness in St. Louis. God, in God’s time, will reveal to us what our resurrected Church will look like. Even I, one who has consistently and earnestly preached and taught the need to model the gift of unity in the Holy Spirit that God has given us, now concede that perhaps the 53-47 divide is more than our limited capacity to love can handle. I know that I do not want to be part of another General Conference like those I witnessed in Portland and St. Louis. If it takes a major reformation of The UMC to avoid that, so be it.
At a recent gathering of clergy and laity, the two most common questions were, “What happens now?” and “What do we do now?” They were disappointed that I couldn’t give them a bullet point list of exactly what will happen, but I don’t have a crystal ball, and God frowns upon that kind of discernment, anyhow. But, after reviewing the Gospels and Paul’s letters, I can offer the following guidance:
Watch and pray.
It has helped me to consider this a time of “Holy Incubation.”
Incubation is a multi-faceted noun with many nuances: a process of thinking about a problem subconsciously while being involved in other activities; to maintain under conditions favorable for hatching, development, or reaction; to cause or aid the development of an idea; to brood; to ponder an idea slowly and deliberately as if in preparation for hatching it.
Incubation describes many pregnant moments in Scripture: the Spirit, God’s wind, broods over the deep, chaotic waters in Genesis, preparing for all of creation. In the quiet desolation of Holy Saturday, the crucified Christ becomes the resurrected Christ. The women, going about their usual burial activities, encounter the risen Christ. The apostles wait, watch, and pray as they await the gift of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. No one ever knows exactly what God is up to, but the incubation period is preparation for wondrous acts beyond their wildest dreams or expectations. As Corrie ten Boom said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” God always delivers.
As we go about our everyday missional and ministerial activities, I invite you to brood. Watch and pray about what new thing God could be calling The UMC to do and to be. I called a deacon in South Georgia just after deadly tornadoes ripped through her community. She replied via text that, in the midst of the suffering, her eyes were opened anew to the power and presence of the Church and the need for a strong and expansive connection. Such insights are helpful any time we go through Holy Incubation.
Reclaim the “Method” and understand that the goal of the Christian life is perfection in love.
St. Louis showed me we need to go back to the basics and do some remedial work on watching over one another in love. Everywhere I preach or teach I ask those assembled what a close friend said to me years ago, "I’ve asked every Methodist I know the following question, and no one has ever been able to answer it: What is the method?" At the heart of being a Methodist is the methodical attention to the means of grace. We spend time daily studying, pondering, and meditating upon Scripture. We bask daily in God’s loving presence, praying and listening. We gather in small groups to hold each other accountable and to encourage each other on the journey toward perfection in love. We go to public worship and take Holy Communion often. We share our faith and engage in works of mercy, serving others, seeking justice and ending oppression, and addressing the needs of the poor. And, day by day, month by month, year by year, this methodical, intentional exposure to the Holy Spirit gives us the mind of Christ and perfects us in love.
We all need to recommit ourselves to the “Method” that lies at the heart of Methodism, reminding ourselves that the goal is perfection in love. We regularly make ourselves open and vulnerable, so the Holy Spirit can do its transforming work. If its fruits are not evident, if we are not loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, gentle, kind, faithful, generous, and self-controlled, we are kidding ourselves. You can have perfect doctrine and be a jerk. You can have lofty ends, but if your means to those ends involve nastiness and manipulation, you’ve missed the point. In Christ’s economy, it is better to be loving than right.
Practice submission: EVERYTHING goes below mission.
Early in our time in St. Louis, one of the many speakers (I can’t remember who or when) mentioned the word “submission,” which took me right back to Mrs. Stille’s high school Latin class. I remembered that our English word submission is derived from the Latin meaning “under mission” or “under being sent.” For the Church, EVERYTHING comes under mission. Mission is always the priority. Being sent forth in the name of Christ to introduce him to others is always the main thing. We have gotten distracted and forgotten to keep the main thing the main thing. It is time to call the Church back to a state of submission.
During this time of Holy Incubation, let’s focus on mission. How do we align resources to serve mission? Why would we keep anyone from being fully included on mission with us? Looking at the state of the world, it is an all-hands on-deck time for Christianity. We could have a Church poised to evangelize ALL people, whether traditionalist, centrist, or progressive, in all nations. Every minute and dollar spent arguing with each other detracts from our mission. It also presents a dreadful witness to the world.
I invite you to join me in the practices set forth above and to pray for the United Methodist Church in this time of Holy Incubation. Our known God is in the resurrection business. Let’s join God in this work and see what God has in store for our beloved United Methodist Church.
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