At the 2018 Indiana Annual Conference, I shared an experience of being a passenger on an airline sitting in an exit row. The flight attendant’s questioning came in two parts: “Are you aware that you are sitting in an exit row seat?” and “Are you willing to assist in case of an emergency?” The flight attendant required each individual in the exit row seats to give a verbal, “Yes.”
I then asked the Lay and Clergy members of the Annual Conference if they were prepared and willing to act as Missionaries for Jesus Christ in the face of emergencies in our mission field of Indiana to which they responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
Today, we find ourselves sitting in an exit row. Present emergencies include the opioid crisis, food insecurity, health disparities, suicide, violence, fear of “the other,” and overcrowded jails and prisons. Our greatest emergency may be the harvest of thousands of Hoosier residents with no spiritual home or relationship with Jesus.
Loneliness, fear, anger, racial discord, discrimination all thrive in environments where the presence of Christ and His love are absent. Being the presence of Christ is indeed our call as United Methodists to be missionaries in Indiana and beyond.
The United Methodist Church has come to a decision point regarding what some have deemed our “protracted emergency,” which can be described as an environment in which a significant proportion of the population is acutely vulnerable to the disruption of livelihoods over a prolonged period of time. The Special-Called General Conference to be held in St. Louis, Mo., February 23-26 will bring together 864 delegates from across our global denomination to join the Bishops of the Church as we prepare to answer, “Are you willing to assist in case of an emergency?”
We do have an emergency, or so it would seem. How do we define our ‘togetherness’ (our pursuit of unity) or life together as United Methodists? When we attempt to consider changes or maintain language in our Book of Discipline regarding ordination, marriage, and the inclusion and rights of persons whose orientation and identity is described as something other than heterosexual, we are not talking about an issue or strangers.
Descriptive names have been used over time to identify differing sexual orientation, including gay, queer, and LGBTQ. However, we are not talking about unknown neighbors or invisible strangers. These persons are our sisters, brothers, children, and grandchildren.
Silent, soft-spoken, or outspoken, we are facing a future where we must acknowledge the family we already have and not pretend they are not in the room. We are engaged in a 40-year struggle that is a distraction for some and a deep contemporary challenge for our Christian witness as we consider our understanding of holiness, sin, and grace, the will of God, love, and fidelity, and our own theological task.
The Bible has something to say no matter what your position is on the best “Way Forward” for The United Methodist Church. Our current Book of Discipline has more than sufficient wording to allow us to minister to all people and not foster a perpetual state of emergency.
In our Christian roots, we hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. And in our Social Principles, we declare that “all persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment.”
During the most recent Government shutdown, author and editorial contributor to USA Today Paul Brandus wrote an article, “6 Emergencies More Important Than a Wall.” Indeed, on February 27, after the Special-Called General Conference, there will remain other emergencies.
I borrow from the list of Paul Brandus’ article:
· Teachers are quitting: Teachers are quitting in record numbers for several reasons, including, low pay, dangerous work environments, poor working conditions. Who will teach our children in the future?
· Empty piggy banks: “Four out of 10 Americans couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense according to the Federal Reserve.” A living wage and a culture of saving can be championed by the Church.
· U. S. life expectancy is falling: Data from the Centers for Disease Control show 2017’s third annual decline. For a country as developed and wealthy as ours, we should ask why drug overdoses killed 70,237 in 2017. There were 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, a four-decades high; and more than 100 million Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic, an omen of future trouble.
· Hatred and fear have not decreased: According to FBI reports, hate crimes have increased over the past four consecutive years.
While we continue to hear of further heartache, division and barriers being created, I wonder if many of our problems could benefit from a Church and a government that focused more on unity for the common good and less on debating the certainty of our claims on the truth?
While the news is reporting on the prospects of a wall being built on the border of Mexico, there are many problems that would benefit from a government and a Church that focused on more unity for the common good and less protracted debates on the certainty of our claims on the truth.
As I have been reading the New Testament, I have been paying attention to Jesus’ promises. In John 14:15, Jesus promises not to leave His followers as orphans. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments… I will ask the Father and He will send another (helper or companion)…”
Later, Jesus says in verse 26, “The companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.” If you keep reading, Jesus begins sharing his identity as the True Vine, connected to God and His love. “As the Father has loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my Love” (John 15:1).
While we sit in the emergency exit row, we have some choices. I suggest we pray and not stop. I suggest we trust the promises of Jesus that our companion is the Holy Spirit and that our mandate is to love as Jesus loved.
Our presenting emergency is not to open the exit door at 30,000 feet but to answer with a resounding “Yes!” to our willingness to assist in the many emergencies that call for a Missional Church willing to stay in love with God and neighbor in the face of emergencies that press against Jesus’ prayer that we be One!
Here I am, Lord, send me.
Bishop Julius C. Trimble