Who I think I’m listening to effects how I listen (and hear).
Wesley believed that, when we listen to Jesus in The Sermon, we are listening to God. God has definite opinions, Wesley believed, about how the Christian life should go.
I think there may be something here for United Methodists. I think we have a God problem. Some of us disagree so fundamentally on who we think we’re listening to that I have started wondering if we reference the same God. Behind our fights about how to understand the Bible, or what status the Bible has; behind our war over sexuality, or whether to divest from companies doing business with Israel, is a deep disagreement about who God is and how God acts.
I read a blog post the other day by a UM clergy. We are members of the same annual conference. We thus share in the covenant in a particular way. By the time I got to the end of the blog, I felt this sinking feeling as this thought pierced my mind: “There’s really nothing that I can tell we agree on.”
Disagreement is often healthy. If, however, we disagree so consistently and so basically, then what holds us together?
Let’s work backwards for a moment. Pick any of our controversies, listen to what terms we use to define them (and our opponents), then notice further how we describe God’s involvement. How do we implicate God with our arguments? Remember, if we quote scripture, it’s not only about scripture. We implicate God when we use scripture, don’t we? What other sources do we bring to the work? How we use them also tells us something – even if indirectly – about who we think God is and what we think God is doing.
If we’re using God talk only to bolster our tactical arguments, then God is completely irrelevant and we should drop the pretense of including God at all. I don’t think that’s what people do, but I guess, since I brought up this possibility, I worry that we succumb to this temptation far too often. Most of the time, however, I think we hold fierce and sincere convictions about who God is and how God works that provide real guidance for how people talk about our struggles.
In our most obvious disagreements, we differ so fundamentally that it’s hard for me to be confident we’re following the same God. I feel not one whit of pleasure in this admission. I am a Methodist preacher’s kid, a lifelong United Methodist. I long for adequate unity, sufficient unity that at least we can see that we do actually belong to each other. I confess, I don’t see it. (I do not believe our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are adequately holding us together.)
I am not calling for schism, but precisely the opposite. We United Methodists have a God problem. If the Triune God is One, we need to find unity – the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – at least enough that we can recognize each other as fellow travelers.
Let some of us keep working on how to improve structure in order to exercise faithful stewardship with resources. But let us also start talking more openly about our God problem. If we did so humbly, prayerfully, maybe the Lord would heal us.