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The world needs the United Methodist Church, Conference Lay Leader Margaret Borgen told Conference members gathered for Sunday’s Laity Session. And she asked those in attendance to consider that it still might be possible for the UMC to give the world a single, united witness.
The thought of people falling away from the church brings her sadness, she said, as does the thought of the church splitting over the homosexual issue, but God is not done with the UMC.
Borgen explained that as a layperson she was without formal theological training and did not compare to any of the ordained preachers speaking at the Conference.
“What I bring comes from a life shaped and nurtured in the United Methodist Church,” she said. “It comes from someone who, like you, loves the United Methodist Church, not just for what good it does for me, but for what it does in the world.”
As I began preparing for today, I thought about one of the first, maybe the first, sermon I gave as an adult. When I was in college, our Wesley Foundation at North Dakota State University had teams (I think they were called deputation teams.) We went out to provide worship services for small rural churches that didn‘t have pastors.
Certain decisions, Borgen said, especially spiritual ones, don’t need to be made over and over, such as attending church regularly. She’s reminded of this every time new members join the church or confirmands become new members, she said, because they’re saying “yes” with the rest of their lives.
For most, she said, membership vows in the United Methodist Church are a serious commitment.
“For you who are clergy, your responses to the ordination questions represent a lifelong commitment,” said Borgen. “From the moment we made those commitments, as laity or clergy, they became one of the prior decisions that guide our lives. We just try to live them, maybe a bit out of habit, but mostly because once made, those prior decisions, become part of our DNA.”
“So, I feel sad when I hear of United Methodists who no longer feel committed to membership vows,” she said. “I feel sad when I hear of clergy who have lost the optimism and fervor they felt as they were ordained.”
“Perhaps some don’t worship regularly or give to the church or promote apportionments because they don’t like a position the general church has adopted,” she added, “for example, immigration reform. Some may be dissatisfied with their pastor or a pastor may disagree with a decision of the conference or the general church. Or, they may be distressed about the UMC’s action, or inaction on LGBT issues.”
“Regardless of the reason people leave or become passive members, the loss is not just to the church but to the person who feels estranged and is no longer surrounded and nurtured in their faith,” said Borgen. “Whether we were raised in the church or came to it intentionally as adults, the loss of our faith community would leave an unspeakably large hole in our lives. We don’t want that to happen to people.”
For a long time, she had trouble understanding and was also a little impatient with those who wavered in their commitment to the UMC, she explained.
“It’s easier to understand now in a time of turmoil and indecision in our church over LGBTQ issues,” said Borgen. “And it feels like it’s gone on for a really long time. Actually, it has been going on for 46 years.”
She recalled how Bishop Laurie spoke for the Laity Session, the bishop said that the world needs the UMC.
“I so agree,” said Borgen. “It needs us because as Jesus’ followers and in his name, we feed, we clothe, we fight disease, poverty, and injustice. We meet immediate needs and, even more importantly, the UMC is an agent of systemic change, trying to alter the very conditions that create needs for direct service.”
“We do this because Jesus’ life and words tell us that every single person is valued and worthy of respect,” she added.
Borgen explained how as a member of the General Board of Church and Society, she’s seen how the UMC is a presence bringing people together at the United Nations, and how the church works with the movements of people throughout the world.
“I have seen how, in spite of the church’s historic failures to act regarding racial discrimination and discrimination against women, the UMC now is an effective advocate of inclusion for both women a racial equal,” she said. “I have seen how just the fact of our physical presence on Capitol Hill, is a positive moral influence.”
“Bishop Laurie is right,” stated Borgen. “The world needs the UMC.”
Individuals in all kinds of situations also need the UMC, she said, whether they are struggling spiritually, or who have never even heard of Jesus, or who have seen the hypocrisy of some Christians and been alienated.
“We believe that God’s love and grace is waiting for each person and that Jesus shows the way,” said Borgen. “At its best, the UMC preaches and teaches out of the belief that both the head and the heart, the intellect and emotion, are essential to a deep and sustained faith. It’s a unique and important perspective that we offer.”
“Yes,” she said, “the world needs the UMC.”
Borgen remarked how the LGBT controversy related to the church had been going on for 46 years, beginning at the 1972 General Conference just four years after the Methodist Episcopal and the Evangelical United Brethren churches merged to become the United Methodist Church.
“But the controversy has only become more intense,” she said.
No matter one’s view, she said that discussion about LGBTQ issues in the church sometimes seems unsolvable, as with the Israeli-Palestinian strife in the Middle East, or like the long years of war in Northern Ireland or South Africa’s long struggle with apartheid.
“But do you remember what happened in Northern Ireland?” asked Borgen. “After years and years of contention and fighting involving labor and religion and politics, a ceasefire was reached in 1994.”
One of the key leaders, Gerry Adams, led people to think about it in a different way, she said.
“The issues were not all resolved. Many details remained open,” explained Borgen. “But the decision was made that continued dissension was bad for Ireland, bad for the people and that it needed to be looked at differently.”
Apartheid in South Africa seemed so entrenched that there was little hope, she recounted. Many who could, both black and white, left the country because they saw no hope of ending apartheid.
But then, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 26 years from 1964 to 1990 but he did not come out of prison bitter but instead committed. Mandela and W.F.de Klerk, the white president of South Africa, entered into conversations to about ways for South Africans to live together more peacefully, said Borgen. Not only did Mandela become the first black president, he did not live out of bitterness for all the years lost, instead of with a commitment to change the dialogue.
As in Northern Ireland, there was no magic and struggles continued, she said, but the decision was made, and the weight of apartheid was lifted. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk received the Noble Peace Prize.
“What seemed impossible became possible when people of moral courage decided to imagine different solutions,” Borgen said. In both of those overwhelming circumstances, a change was possible. When leaders focused on the big objective and imagined innovative solutions, they found their path forward.”
She proceeded to tie these examples o the current LGBT struggles in the Church.
“What if we begin again, reframing our LGBT discussion, committed to the premise that God is not done with the UMC and that we must find a way to keep it whole?” Borgen asked. “What if we begin again, with an unshakable belief that this is not about us and our preferences and our comfort level?”
What if we begin again, with the conviction that the world needs the witness and presence of the UMC?” she queried. “If we have clarity about that as our goal, we can go forward in a new and different way to find new imaginative solutions.”
“I am a United Methodist who strongly wants us to stay United,” Borgen told the laity Session crowd. “Who believes we can have a stronger Christian witness and a greater Christian impact on the world as a whole church.”
She recalled that at the Laity Session, after talking about God not being done with the UMC, Bishop Laurie had posed the question, “What am I willing to give up to achieve that? To keep the church whole.”
“Maybe, she said, 'it’s being right,'” Borgen recounted. “How hard it is to give up our idea about what it is to be right.”
“If we cling to absolutes on either side, we will not be successful in finding a path forward, continued Borgen. 'My way or the highway' that does not lead to solutions. And, by the way, it’s an attitude I’ve heard both from people wanting no change in the church and from people wanting more change than is proposed.”
Faithful imagination can lead us to a solution that honors the beliefs and values of all United Methodists, she told the Annual Conference Session. Faithful imagination can lead us to a solution that moves us from either/or to both/and as we seek to be a whole church offering a unique Christian witness for the world.
“If we are able to stop the repetitious and sometimes disrespectful rhetoric that too often has characterized our discussion,” stated Borgen, “to listen deeply, and to imagine what might be, I believe God will lead us to that glorious, stronger church that exists now only as our deepest desire.”
The issue of how the church addresses homosexuality is a very big issue for the church, she said, and she did not want to minimize it.
“But perspective sometimes is helpful,” Borgen said. “I want us also to remember that there was a time when women’s inclusion in the church was just as big an issue. And there was a time when racial inclusion was just as big an issue. And now, we take those forms of inclusion for granted and even celebrate them. We can find hope in perspective.”
She said both scripture and experience say that one can imagine a different United Methodist Church in which, though members come from many places and have different beliefs and gifts, and it is possible to give to the world a single united witness.
“It seems like we have been at this for a very long time," Borgen said. “We’ve become weary.”
“Have you heard MLK’s speech after the successful completion of the Selma to Montgomery march in March of 1965?” she asked. “On the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, AL, he asked, 'How Long?'”
“The struggle had been long, and people were tired, and they wondered how long it would be until their lives were better until conditions changed,” she explained. “Martin Luther King preached, 'How Long? Not Long. How long? Not long.'”
“We in the UMC are also weary and ask, 'How long?'" Borgen said.
It’s possible to let go and allow faith to lead, she said, or allow Prophetic imagination to guide toward a new way forward.
“We can let go and be less defensive of where we each stand right now,” Borgen told the crowd. “We can change the current realities of stress and strife and uncertainty and fear and wasted energy that tear at us apart and weaken God’s church. We can faithfully imagine the good to which God will lead the UMC on the other side of this dilemma.”
“We can be confident that it will be good,” said Borgen. “God is not going to abandon the UM church.”
“And,” she added, “when the question comes 'How long?' we can faithfully answer 'Not long!'”