In my vision, I am hurrying along the deck of a sinking ship. Passengers wearing life jackets mill around me. They are aware that the ship is going down, but this awareness has not prompted them to get into the lifeboats.
Why the delay? Are they waiting to see if the ship can be saved? It will not be. There are only two options-- floating on the water in a lifeboat warm and dry with others, or floating in the water in a life jacket cold and wet all alone.
Why am I not in a lifeboat yet? Because I felt responsible for the passengers. As long as they were on the deck, I felt a duty to stay with them and point them to safety. Now I am reconsidering that decision. Maybe I serve them best by leaving the doomed ship and entering a lifeboat. The passengers are not following my verbal instructions; would they follow my lead if I went into a lifeboat ahead of them?
I was thinking about the debate among progressive members of the UMC when I imagined this visual analogy. Options are being discussed-- continuing to work for reform, transferring to a liberal church, schisms of one form or other. Which one of these alternatives represents the lifeboat of my vision? I am frustrated because I am still unsure of the right path to take. I want certainty, even though I know there is none.
The evening before the vision, I had been reading a book by Natalie Goldberg that reminded me of this basic human dilemma--
That blankness that the mind draws when we try to answer a riddle or understand a joke, can we make friends with that? With not having an answer? With the final rootless inability to grasp anything? Look around. There is nothing that doesn't eventually fade away. We are left with nothing.
After the big 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, my friend Geneen said, “I always thought that I could rely at the very least on the ground below my feet and then the earth was shaking and cracking open.”
To know this groundless truth and yet not become desolate, disillusioned, fatalistic. To come right up against the emptiness of the notion of the solid self, a solid existence, a solid thought, and be willing to taste its true transitory nature. There is nothing to hold on to.
That is the goal of sitting practice. Of sitting still. If we can even say such a thing as a “goal” as we sit in the middle of nothing.
-Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing, p. 13
I was doing my Christian version of a sitting practice, trying to be at peace with the transitory nature of things made by humans, when I had the vision. It takes practice to sit still rather than run away when the ground is breaking up. Full-time appointments are not as plentiful as they were when I first entered the ministry. Pastors share in the plight of their parishioners. No ones job is secure, not in the church not in the broader society. This is the legacy of neo-liberal globalization.
Natalie Goldberg told me that my not knowing was just the way things are now. I should not expect to have the answer. There are no sure, safe, right answers in this time of transition. As far as Natalie is concerned there are no answers even when times are stable. That is her Buddhist perspective. Nothing is certain. All things crumble apart. All is impermanent.
From my Christian perspective only God is eternal, only God is permanent, only God can be a source of security, a sure foundation, the rock of ages. Human-made things will become obsolete and fade away, including the UMC. I try to sit in the middle of painful finitude in hope of communing with the Infinite One who called the Church into existence.
When I am stilled, I stand a better chance of remembering that Christ is praying for the Church (see John 17:21).
May they all be one,
as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You.
May they also be one in Us,
so the world may believe You sent Me.
That is as close as I come to a sure answer. The lifeboat is the movement that seeks to unify the Church, not just the UMC but all Christians.
The United Church of Canada. The Uniting Church of Australia. The merged churches in rural Nebraska. These are the models of ministry that came up last night as I discussed the possible options with other worshippers at the Urban Abbey, a progressive UMC ministry. As you consider the future of your denomination, what comes to mind when you remember Christ’s prayer for the Church?