Friday, September 16, 2016

From where I sit: These are the times that try our souls

By Rev. Dr. Tom Salsgiver, Director of Connectional Ministries

Thomas Paine, one of the early fathers of our country, wrote a series of pamphlets that are entitled The American Crisis. One of the most famous quotes from that series is, “These are the times that try our (men’s) souls.”

Those words by Paine have been rattling around in my mind ever since General Conference 2016. Indeed, most United Methodists — no matter which side of the same gender debate one finds oneself — find these times extremely trying. With the exception of General Conference of 1844 and the issue of slavery, I don’t think there has been a time more trying to our souls.

I have been struggling to make sense of all that is going on. My soul, like many, is deeply troubled for the division that is in our beloved United Methodist Church.

I am no great theologian. I’m simply a Christian and a pastor who is struggling, trying to make sense of living these days faithfully.

But in my struggle, I know and believe with all my heart a few things. It is these things that I cling to in the uncertainty of what tomorrow brings.

I share them with you simply as one believer to another.

This is God’s church — not mine. Before you and I were formed, before our foreparents were formed, our predecessor denominations were created by God. That means that this church isn’t yours and it isn’t mine — it is God’s. God will do with our church what God will.

 I must put away my sense of ownership of this denomination and the outcome of our struggle. It is not mine to hold on to with every ounce of my being. I must open myself up to the in-flowing of the Holy Spirit to hear and feel God’s Spirit. I must be attuned to the voice of God who speaks in the midst of chaos, of uncertainty, and, yes, even in the midst of division.

Now is the time for earnest prayer. My prayers have changed over the last few months. My prayers are now not my will for the solution and our future, but what is God’s will for the future. I have tried to stop telling God what I think about the future and simply go to God’s throne of grace to hear the voice of God. I must continually pray that my thoughts get out of the way and allow God’s thoughts to flood my soul. It’s hard, but I keep praying the prayer of Jesus in the Garden, “not my will but your will.”

We must get beyond “which side are you on” and wrap ourselves and our behavior in Colossians 3:12-17. We must move beyond gathering those around us who believe just like we do to “clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” We must “forgive each other and we must clothe ourselves with love.” And we must “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.”

Until the Commission and the Judicial Council make recommendations and decisions, we must decide, are we going to spend all of our time mobilizing “our side” (whichever side that is) and spending all of our time talking and debating the same gender issue or are we going to make disciples for the transformation of the world?

If we spend all of our time making plans for “what if,” and if we spend all of our time deciding what will we do “if,” I think we will miss God-given opportunities to make disciples for the transformation of our community and our world. In remembering the parable of the talents, I pray that even in these next few months God won’t find me wasting my time with the what if’s. There are hungry people to feed, there are souls that need loving, and there are people in our communities that desperately need to know the love of God and the salvation of Jesus Christ. How many souls will not hear and know God’s love if I and our church spend all of our time and energy talking about the future instead of going out and telling the good news of Jesus Christ?

As difficult as it is, I must trust that God is with me and with the United Methodist Church, and we must move into the future with hope and assurance that God will be with each of us and all of us no matter the outcome.

There is a chorus that is found in The Hymnal, which is the Evangelical United Brethren Hymnal of 1957. I go back and read that chorus often. I have to believe and trust in its words so that as we face the future, we face it unafraid.

I (we) will not be afraid. I (we) will not be afraid.
I (we) will look upward, and travel onward, 
And not be afraid.

He says He will be with me (us). He says He will be with me (us).
He goes before me (us) and is beside me (us), 
So I’m (we’re) not afraid.

His arms are underneath me (us). His arms are underneath me (us).
His hand upholds me (Us), His love enfolds me (us), 
So I’m (we’re) not afraid.

He will give grace and glory. He will give grace and glory. 
His cross before me (us), His banner o’er me (us), 
So I’m (we’re) not afraid.

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