Life… it is full of moments – ups and downs – that define our existence by testing the very core of our humanity. This is arguably the most inevitable phenomenon of life even as members of the Church. However, what does not always arise within us is a willingness to embrace and learn from life’s countless tests, especially for us, the Church. Unfortunately, in many instances we are sanctimoniously confident that our ideological convictions are precise and unadulterated, we have nothing much more to learn concerning the divine or the world around us, and we speak inerrantly and absolutely for God to others as if God does not ever speak through others to us. Since these realities often drive unforgiving walls of self-righteous piety between the Church and the world, in my opinion, what is ultimately more important is not the fact that we merely exist as a group called the “Church” but that we become human enough to allow the very core of who we are to be shaped by life. We must also value the experiences that perpetuate the life-long process of our shaping as human beings and as Christians. For me, one of these pivotal experiences was unquestionably the 2019 special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.
Since the core matters of discussion were same-sex marriage and same-gender-loving clergypersons, it was quite enlightening to experience firsthand the impassioned sentiments of those who were on opposing sides of the debate. Having come from a theologically conservative household, I most often had heard theological rhetoric concerning homosexuality that was conservative, rigid, and exclusive. The language was centered in a theological conviction that God designed humanity to be procreational making only heterosexual union pleasing to God as it can produce offspring. Conversely, it was at a circle discussion activity organized for seminary students that I intimately experienced the theological views of people who differed just as passionately. With listening ears and an open heart, I was able to hear the testimonies of persons who mentor youth and young adults who are same-gender-loving and those of persons who are same-gender-loving and devastated by the UMC’s conservative vote on the matter that evening. I also witnessed the tears of those who endured years of confusion, ostracization, and self-hatred because of sexual feelings that they did not choose. They had finally reached a personal breakthrough when their feelings of shame were met by God’s unconditional love. However, they suffered a new disappointment when the UMC ruled that openly embracing all of who they are made them unfit for ministry and marriage within the UMC. Sitting with them in solidarity and simply listening, an act that many fellow believers are often unwilling to do, reshaped my embedded theology considerably since there was no theology that I had ever heard that could justify to me such exclusion. If homosexuality is a “sin” that makes persons unfit for ministry and marriage, then what about all the other sins that we all commit unapologetically or unknowingly… does (or should) God then render us all “unfit”? Does God have a hierarchy for sin or is the hierarchy sustained by human bias? Bearing in mind that we are United Methodists and not Roman Catholics, is this religiously socialized hierarchy of sin a legitimate Protestant doctrine? These are all theological and theodicean questions that reshaped my thoughts and heart during this life-changing moment.
The 2019 Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church taught me that we as human vessels called the Church exist with at least two very critical blessings having been bestowed upon us. First, we are endowed with the ability to be shaped – intellectually, spiritually, and ethically – by life as opposed to simply having to exist. Second, we are granted didactic experiences that are divinely designed to be the instruments by which we are shaped. If we, the Church, a family of imperfect people who are not omniscient, do not humbly embrace the lessons that life’s experiences have to offer, then I fear that the righteous walls that we build would quell our growth and ability to spread transformative love and fulfill the Great Commission.