Open our ears

When you go through seminary, you are taught how to listen to other people. In formation classes and in pastoral counseling classes, we are taught how to listen. If you take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education — as all United Methodist clergy candidates in Indiana are required to do — you get both classroom and practical training in how to listen.

We need all this because it turns out that listening to other people is incredibly difficult to do.

We usually don’t listen to people. What we do is sift through things other people say in search of bits and pieces we can react to. Or we react involuntarily out of our own emotions, wounds, biases, and convictions. We don’t listen, and we don’t hear. We use the other person’s statements as fodder for our own.

I’m am reminded of this frequently. I’m reminded of it in my own life because I do it all the time and need to be reminded to listen rather than react and respond. I am reminded as well because the members of the United Methodist Church have been actively engaged in not listening to each other for many years.

I see it all over our church conversations and politicking about sexuality.

Time and again, I read and hear the words of clergy who claim to be representing the views of others, but they say things that the other person would never claim as their own. We attribute to others motives they do not hold and evil intentions that they would disavow, and yet we continue to attribute those words and motives to them.

More often than not, people defend such statements by saying they are only reporting what they hear coming from the other person. But they are not really listening. They are reacting. If they were sitting in a session with their CPE instructor, they would rightly be invited to take a closer look at their descriptions of the other person.

Here is the simple process I have been taught, and I try to hold on to.

After another person speaks, report back what you heard them say. Then ask if what you said is what they said. If they say it was not, then you try again, until the person who spoke agrees that what you said is what they said.

Of course, in dialogue across the denomination, such an exchange is rarely possible, but the spirit of that exercise can and should inform how we talk to each other and about each other because we cannot love each other in disagreement if we are not willing to listen to each other.

And let me be clear, being willing to listen does not require us to agree. I can listen to your position so well that I am able to state it back to you in words that you would claim as your own and still say I do not agree. We can listen to a person and still conclude that they are wrong or in error, and we need to permit them to do the same regarding our positions.

In the end, every one of us is going to meet Jesus and discover that we are wrong about some of the things we believe. Only God knows everything. It is a sign of humility to listen to someone who does not share our opinions. When we listen, we acknowledge that only God has nothing to learn about the world.

To listen is not to agree.

To listen is not to endorse.

To listen is simply to treat the other person as you would like to be treated.

The Bible calls that love, and calls us all to do it.

In the coming months, the United Methodist Church will come to some decisions that will change the very nature of our church. It is unavoidable work. It is work that we should carry on as Christians.

I pray God will convict me when I fall short in this area, make me ready to repent, and help me to better love my brothers and sisters even in the midst of disagreement.

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Are we a church or an institution?

Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?

Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.

As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”

These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.

In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*

I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.

It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.

If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.

The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.


*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?