We voted last night. First United Methodist Church Waynesville gathered in an official capacity and hundreds of people voted. We voted on our identity. This might seem a curious thing for a church to do, conditioned by the frequency of votes for budgets and buildings. But the United Methodist Church has voted on its identity for decades. Every four years, the votes of an international delegation have divided the church on this question of who we’re going to be. The escalation of this conflict has reached a breaking point for our denomination. Our Leadership Team discerned that a vote of our own was an important first step in our attempt to find a way forward as a local church. We are a church of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, so this kind of vote is scary and risky. But we take risks for the things that really matter, and the fear becomes a big motivation to pray! Years ago I attended an all-day prayer event at a Catholic retreat center. As I was leaving, I noticed an insightful piece of art with this quote from Jerome Murphy: “If we leave it to the Spirit there will be nothing left in the church—but Jesus and dancing.”
Gertrude Nelson shares a story in her book, To Dance with God, about an afternoon when she was working on a sewing project. The trashcan near the sewing machine was filled with scraps of fabric. Her 3-year-old daughter, Annika, was fascinated by this basket full of scraps and she began digging around searching out the long, bright strips. With treasures in hand, she fled the room and disappeared. A little while later, Gertrude went to check on her, and she found Annika in the back garden sitting in the grass with a long pole—taping the pieces of fabric to the top of the pole. “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” And as she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind, Annika started to dance. Last night was about our attempt to stay together—to dance together—and I believe our only hope of success is for all of us to be swept up into the joy of the Sacred Dance. My prayer is simple. I’m asking the Holy Spirit of God to hold us close enough and whisper loud enough for us to hear the music.
I wonder about us, you know. I wonder how all of this is going to shake out. I’ve only been your pastor for two years, but I feel like I know you. We have worshiped together with organ and electric guitar, with harpsichord and fiddle; we’ve flipped pancakes together, unloaded pumpkins together; we’ve exercised together and fed the homeless together. We’ve prayed together at the communion table and baptismal font, in the hospital room and at the grave. This is what I’ve come to know about you—not one of you wants to close the door on anyone. I have seen and experienced such love in this place. You know that each of us is a child of God—all of us in desperate need of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. So I believe that we agree on most of the identity statement presented by the Leadership Team and shaped by the congregation.
But we don’t agree on all of it. I know this because I have heard your voices; I have gotten your letters; I have read your emails. It is interesting to me that our disagreement comes from different understandings of what it means for us to be faithful. We are all trying to be faithful—to live in ways that we believe are pleasing to God. We interpret the Bible differently—and that is no small thing. We have friends on all sides of this who have decided they can no longer journey with us—the differences proving to be too great. And that makes me sad.
We voted last night. Ninety-one percent (272) affirmed our identity statement; nine percent (27) were not ready to do so, and a few abstained from the vote (3). I am trying to imagine how all of you are feeling today. I feel overwhelmed with deep love for all of you, and I want you to know that I am proud to be your pastor. I respect you as a unique child of God, and I respect the convictions you hold about your faith, even if they are different from my own. Some have asked me if FUMC will officially join one of the specific movements within our denomination that represent the different theological positions. My answer has always been no, because we are all of them. Our identity is clear: we are the living body of Christ, welcoming all, growing in faith, engaging the world. There is room for us all on this dance floor, and I pray we can stay together—dance together. The world needs us to take the lead, and teach them the moves.