David Brooks of the New York Times pointed out earlier this week that approximately 47,000 Americans will die this year by suicide, and another 72,000 by drug overdose. We can quibble over those numbers, but why would we? Regardless of the final statistical outcome, the appalling truth is that we now live in a country where “deaths of despair” are an indictment upon who we are as a people. And on the work we are doing as a church.
Tomorrow I will board a plane for St. Louis to serve as a delegate to the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The four-day meeting will involve a democratic political process to determine how our church can move forward on the agonizingly divisive issue of human sexuality. There is nothing wrong with politics – even church politics – and I have been a part of these meetings for many years. But I confess that I have grown weary of them for one simple reason: our brokenness is essentially spiritual and not political. No matter how much we do to heal, or damage, the body of Christ in St. Louis, we will all return to mission fields where real people are experiencing deep pain, and where we claim to have the answer in the love of Jesus Christ. If a single one of us returns home feeling like a winner or loser because of the outcome of an internecine church fight, may God have mercy. And may those who need us to be with them in the trenches of ministry forgive us for being so distracted by the political fight dujour that we forgot about the life-and-death battles they are waging.
All the above does not mean that how the church handles issues of human sexuality does not have existential significance for people on both sides of the debate. But it does mean the answer will not be found in St. Louis. The answer will be found in our pews, where an amazing diversity of precious human beings gather each week to hear the Word proclaimed that God is love and that Christ is both Alpha and Omega. It will be found in a tutoring program where a fifth-grade student working at a third-grade level finds the resources and support to catch up in only three months. It will be found in a grief support group where a new widow discovers that her life, though inalterably changed, can continue with grace and love and hope. It will be found in a 12-step program where the spiritual crisis is named and confessed, and someone walks out to live another day with God rather than succumb, quickly or slowly, to a death of despair.
If we do not value our mission over this fight, if we allow it to discourage us or diffuse our energies, if we abandon our humble place in the body of Christ out of pride or anger, if one child is lost because we have mismanaged our priorities, may God have mercy.
Rev. Don Underwood