As I listen around the conference, I hear anxiety and frustration about the future of our church. What is going on? Is anything happening? Should we stay? Should we leave? The sense is that the outcome of the 2019 General Conference has changed The United Methodist Church profoundly; whether we find a way to stay as one or whether we split, we won’t go back to the way we were. Many of us feel it is time for something new to form and yet that new thing hasn’t begun to take shape and we’re not sure its even being shaped. These feelings have led me to think more deeply about new life.
This is the season of new life. As I think about the process of bringing new life, it is often messy. A few weeks ago, during Holy Week, we re-experienced the messiness of the passion before the resurrection. Jesus’ last week was extremely painful, messy, and ugly. It was painful physically and emotionally. But out of that messiness, God brought not only Jesus’ new life but our new life as well.
When I think about new life, I can’t help but think about the birth of babies. Spring is the time when many animals give birth. I think about the birth of my own children. Birth is messy. It is extremely painful and taxing. As I was laboring to give birth to my daughters, they were still such a mystery. I couldn’t imagine the form they would take. Oh, I had some ideas I knew they’d have fingers and toes and the basic human shapes, but the miracle of their individuality. How God would knit them together physically, but also how God would knit their personalities, interests, and talents. It was such a mystery then in the midst of the contractions- what is now so familiar to me.
I think we are in the midst of that messy birthing process in our denomination. The shape of the future is still such a mystery. Different groups are meeting, different visions are vying for attention, people are for power and others are grappling with what is God’s desire for our future. There are a large number of us waiting on someone to deliver this mysterious new thing. I think we can learn a few things for this time from other birthing experiences.
- Birth is messy. There is just no getting around it. It can be excruciatingly painful. We are in a messy time; there are no easy or quick answers. No one has figured it out yet—not the bishops, not the groups meeting and there are competing visions and desires. It’s messy!
- The new life comes when it comes. Of course, you can schedule a surgical birth, but the natural birth process comes on its own time. We are going along as usual when the birth pangs hit and, bam, you are in the birth process until the new life comes. God is in control of this timing. We can do our part, for sure. And we should do our part, but ultimately God will unfold the new life in God’s time.
- When you are in the birthing process, everything else falls away. In the midst of contractions, so many things drop away. Thoughts of who’s making dinner, the worries about my work performance, the argument I had with my friend, have I paid the water bill, will I be a good mom—all those thoughts and worries drop away as you are laser focused on breathing through the pain, getting through this contraction. Over the next months and maybe even years, I think we, as a church, will have to let go of some less important things to focus on our part in this birthing process. Some of our demands and dilemmas are going to seem less important as we face the denominational changes in front of us.
- The birthing process is God’s design. We tend to think of God as a God of order and beauty—and God is, but God also designed the messiness of birth. In fact, God takes the messiness and uses it to create new life. Yaconelli wrote about a Messy Spirituality and he spoke about how Jesus embraced that messiness. He wrote, “What landed Jesus on the cross was the preposterous idea that common, ordinary, broken, screwed-up people could be godly! What drove Jesus’ enemies crazy were his criticisms of the “perfect” religious people and his acceptance of the imperfect nonreligious people. The shocking implication of Jesus’ ministry is that anyone can be spiritual.” Jesus embraced the messiness of human life—the birth, the entanglements of relationships, and demands of everyday life and of death, even death on a cross. And out of all that messiness he brought new life, not for a select few, but for all.
In this Easter season and in this season in our denomination’s life, we are called anew to trust God completely. We are called to embrace the uncertain future, the messy birthing process with the assurance that God is with us and that God will unfold the mysterious new life in God’s time. So, let us breathe with the pain and uncertainty. Let us lean into each other for support. Let us give ourselves permission to let some things drop away so we can focus on this new thing. And finally let us trust the God of creation, the God of new life, the God of resurrection.
Grace and peace,