Clear and Decisive?
By Scott Hughes
Like many others in extension ministry, Annual Conference serves as a homecoming for me to visit with friends and catchup with fellow ministers and past parishioners. Whether I am at my own Annual Conference or another, the ordination service is always one of the highlights of the Annual Conference experience.
It certainly was the case this year at the North Georgia Conference (my home conference) as Rev. Byron Thomas had the congregation in a Holy Spirit frenzy emphasizing our call to ministry. His refrain was that our “very soul has business in this world.” The sermon was an inspiring reminder of our general and specific call to ministry. It was his closing illustration that left me pondering. He ended his sermon with an example of a pastor who in light of the current realities of the United Methodist Church had thought about retiring. This pastor’s perspective changed regarding retiring when he realized that he’d have the opportunity to preach a “clear and decisive word” into this current situation. This example received thunderous applause and many vocal ‘amens.’
As moved and energized as I was by the sermon, there was another lingering thought. For all those who were obviously agreeing about their desire for a ‘clear and decisive word,’ I could not help but think, “What if this ‘clear and decisive word’ was in opposition to their previously held beliefs?” “Would they still be as energetic and enthusiastic to receive it?”
During the Old Testament prophets, many Israelites also desired to hear a ‘clear and decisive word.’ In their case it was that God would act to rescue Jerusalem from the impending doom of the Babylonians. The false prophets declared as much. But it was the small minority of prophets who gave the actual word of God, in this case of impending discipline and judgment by God through the Babylonians. Similarly, we could observe the crowd who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday who seemed convinced this might be ‘a clear and decisive’ moment only to have a very different opinion when persuaded by the Pharisees and Sadducees come Good Friday. As we see from a couple of scriptural examples and from our understanding of sin, we are often blinded by our desires and perspectives. Thus, even when we do hear a “clear and decisive word” from God does not mean we’ll recognize it or accept it.
Even when we do hear a clear and decisive word from God does not mean well recognize it or accept it.
Add to this dynamic our particular situation of a partisan society that tends to put every issue in the category of “either you’re with me or against me,” “ally or foe,” and where compromise is a dirty word. Evermore so for us Methodists, Frederick Schmidt pointed in his recent blog post (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2018/06/methodists-the-politics-of-leverage-and-the-future-of-protestantism/) that our faulty understanding of the priesthood of all believers has become distorted to the priesthood of each believer. A “clear and decisive word” we may want, but do we want it so desperately that we’re willing to do the hard work of learning which involves questioning our assumptions? Even more, are we willing to be submissive to an authority other than our self?
Courageous Conversations, structured dialogues for learning, help us to do that hard work of questioning our assumptions and gaining perspective from others. A willingness to do this hard work can become a means of grace that puts us in a better posture to discern God’s will in chaotic times.