What Is the Will of God?
So did you hear the news? The Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC as unconstitutional at 4pm today. Everything the General Conference spent the last 10 days working on regarding restructuring was sent to the Judicial Council and they came back and said it was in conflict with the constitution of the United Methodist Church, and it was not salvageable in its present form to move forward. As I write this the General Conference is working late into the night to figure out how to adjust what they did and what they left undone in order to have something for us to live under for the next four years. What is curious to me is the statement one delegate made. In debating and deciding whether to refer this PlanUMC to the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to be fixed and brought back to the General Council 2016, she asked, did the General Conference not notice that the Holy Spirit showed up at 4pm and took our breath away. God spoke. We got it wrong.
I have often prayed, God if this decision is of you, let it succeed, and if it is not, let it fail . There is something more than human hearts and hands at work, and if whatever a church body votes on ultimately has fruit, I believe it is because the Holy Spirit gives it life. I never presume to fully know the mind of God, and I never presume something getting a majority vote of a body of Christians is the will of God either. We can get it wrong. But neither is the judicial council God. Just because the proposed plan violated some of the principles of our constitution does not mean it was outside the will of God. Our constitution in the Book of Discipline is also a human document. God could well be calling us into a new form of church that is radically different from our heritage and therefore would not fit neatly into our constitution. Is that possible?
Now for the sake of full disclosure, I was not a great fan of PlanUMC. It did not address adequately the depth of change I believe we need to make as a church. So I am not advocating for its return. But neither am I advocating for our current form of church structure. It too has it challenges and limitations. General Conference today alone proves that!!
If you ask me what I think is the will of God for the United Methodist Church, I would have to say that I don’t believe God cares much about our structure. I think what God cares about is are we carrying out the mission: preaching good news, announcing pardon to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the burdened and battered free, and announcing, “This is God’s year to act!” (Luke 4). And however we organize ourselves to embody that mission and accomplish that mission is up to us. There are lots of ways to get it done. Some will be more effective than others. Some will value certain things over others. There is more than one right answer to the question of do we have a structure that embodies our Christian values and allows us to focus on and accomplish the mission?
One of the things I have learned about the will of God is I rarely see it or know it before I act. I try to listen to the nudges of God. I steep myself in the scriptures to seek to live my life in accordances to those practices and principles. And then with my best intentions, information and yes, intuition, I act. Sometimes I act and way opens easily. Sometimes I act and doors close. Does that mean one way is of God and another is not? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Usually, I only discover that in hindsight. It is in the fruits that I know if God was really in that or not. Did the love and grace of God grow in me and in the world as I moved in that direction? If so, no matter how easy or challenging it was, it was most likely of God.
And that is why I found the delegate’s statement so curious. Yes, the judicial council action, coming as it did, was a red flag to our structure and plans and a sign to pay attention. But was it God telling us we were wrong? That is moving us into dangerous ground. Faithful and committed Christians have been working hard all week to listen to and follow God’s leading. One vote or action does not trump another as more of God or less of God. Where God is in all of this remains to be seen. For it is by our fruits that we shall be known…when the decisions of General Conference are said and done and the Book of Discipline 2012 is published and we begin to live it out, if it increases our love of God and neighbor, and the United Methodist Church is more faithfully and fruitfully engaged in the mission of God, then and only then we will know whether we got it right or not. And even then, it will not be right for all time, but for now, was it enough to allow us to take the next step? Because that is how I have learned God works as well. We don’t get the whole game plan, the entire road map. God wants us to rely on God, not simply on our own insight and understanding. So we take a step, and we see. And we learn from that step, and we recalibrate and take another. Always listening, searching, discerning, but not waiting until we have it all figured out perfectly, all absolutely right We can never fully know if it is of God or not until we go. And that is what is most important…that we go. The mission awaits…and that I do know is what God wants and wills for you and for me and for the world!