Fear, Fragility, and the Quest for Power in The United Methodist Church

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

-2 Timothy 1:7

 

Sometimes, you have to quote it like you first heard it because that was the time it was most real. I don’t know how true that is for others, but it is true for me. When I first heard the scripture above, I was a young man trying my best to live into a call I’d heard from God in a small, charismatic, fire-baptized, spirit-filled church in Austin, Texas.

Just two months prior, I walked into the office of the pastor of that church with terror in my knees, but certainty in my heart to declare I had heard the voice of God calling me to ministry. The pastor quoted 1 Timothy 1:7 from of a Spirit-Filled Life Bible translated in the New King James version (one I still use despite the heated exchange I had with a Hebrew Bible professor my first year in seminary about translation accuracy) to assure me that fear of the call I was answering was not of or from God. My pastor assured me that if I chose to answer God’s call, then God also endowed me with power to live out that call in all of the ways I have been gifted to do so. When I left this church for seminary, and ultimately chose the United Methodist Church to live out my call to ministry, I discovered 1 Timothy 1:7 in the life of the fire-baptized, grace, love, and spirit-filled Anglican priest John Wesley, who like me, met God on the college campus and had his heart strangely warmed by the Holy Ghost in a church where the unconditional, fearless love of God was being preached!

And that scripture, no matter how many ways I’ve learned to quote, translate, and preach it, has always meant to me that fear is not God’s bag of gifts for accomplishing anything in God’s Church for God’s Kingdom. Yet for some reason, in the last few years that I have convened with my colleagues and laity of my beloved United Methodist Church, fear has dominated our discussions on how the church will live out its mission in this world. White progressives and conservatives alike are fearful and fear-driven!

Fear of loss… who and how many will leave? Who keeps the “stuff?”

Fear of the other… we can’t let them in, let them serve, let them lead, let them love…

Fear of being honest… we can’t say that or they will think this about me/us…

Fear of the truth… but what if I’m wrong? What if they’re right?

Fear of the unknown… we can’t change what I’ve always known about MY church…

FEAR. Demobilizing, unbridled fear. Fear that is disguised as strategy. Fear that is driven by intentions of self-preservation. Fear that creeps in robs creativity and open mindedness. Fear prompts us to grab everything seemingly in our control, and take our proverbial ball and go home. Fear demands power, often disguised in righteous indignation and appeals to morality. Fear.

And when fear goes unchecked and unidentified, it almost certainly leads to fragility: empty apologies, micro and macro aggressions toward the other, belittling of oneself, and anger.

In two of the four days we have gathered for this General Conference, one thing has been revealed to me more glaring than anything else:

The fear, fragility, and quest for power from white progressives and conservatives is the real reason we are here. And everyone else are pawns in this game, especially my LGBTQ and Central Conference family.  The sexuality of our LGBTQ family and the appeals to our Central Conference family to side with one plan or another in this American empire are worth more than votes! The future of church’s unity is not contingent upon recognition of sacred worth and how well the Central Conference aligns to our American political, ideological and theological frameworks but if we are truly for the liberation and equality of all people by the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

While our outside protesters are wrong on one front, they are right in this regard: we need to repent! Our repentance has nothing to do with hell but everything to do with life, liberty, and love for one other and the church God has called each of us to keep with holiness and no blemishes (Ephesians 5:27).

This not the Spirit of God, but the spirit of fear! How do we know? I’m glad you asked!

When meetings begin with frightened confessions, it is the spirit of fear leading us. The need for encouragements and exhortations to “push hard” and win-loss language is proclaimed, indicate the spirit of fear leading us. When newsletters are distributed lined with “beware of the other” rhetoric, fear is leading us. Anytime the body of Christ is gathered and concern for legislation takes PRIORITY over worship, the Spirit of the Lord has been quenched and the spirit of fear is leading us. When we care more about the plan we champion for the church to adopt than the option to love those who disagree with us, the spirit fear is leading us. When groups attending General Conference are silent but their heart aches with compassion for all people regardless of their position, the spirit of fear is leading us.

I will appeal to scripture again: First to Jesus then back to Paul. Jesus, standing in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, proclaims,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The Spirit that comes from God brings good news, release, recovery, freedom and Jubilee. Can we say this is the spirit we’ve encountered at General Conference thus far?

Come back here, Paul!

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (liberty).” (2 Cor. 3:17)

Anyone feeling liberated or free? Or the better question is, are we all feeling liberated or free?

When prompted to stand to worship and lift our voices to God for God’s wisdom, love, and precious Spirit, will we desire to adjourn in order to plan our secret meetings (which actually happened by the way) or will we attune our hearts towards God’s beckoning for liberation? When our hopes are dashed by unfavorable voting results and our aspirations for the church seem lost, will we invoke the Spirit of the Lord or succumb to the spirit of fear?

We have two days left. Lord, in your mercy…

(Thank you to Rev. Dr. Joe Daniels leading with power, love, and soundness of mind!)

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