I realized that I was being chatted up to see if I were interested in the job of pastor of this new, independent church. They wanted a young, orthodox, Methodist-flavored, evangelical, articulate, etc. All I had to do to get an interview (and probably, the job) was to ask the NEXT QUESTION that lay beyond the pleasantries. I could write my own ticket. And I was miserable where I was (for a variety of reasons). It would have been so easy to ask that next question. But I didn't.
For one thing, I was afraid to. I would have felt presumptuous -- and wary of being my own Board of Ministry. Like The UMC or not, like my Bishop and Conference or not, I did not trust myself to just set up my own parade. Respect for tradition also constrained me. Could I "take authority" without being given it by some properly constituted Church? Finally, it occured to me that the beginning was faulty, and would probably contaminate the issue -- at least for some time. All of these people were probably in denial over the sin of schism -- they had to be. They would be defensive about it for a long time. I couldn't see defining a group I led as "not-UM." It would have to have a raison d'etre expressed in positive, rather than negative terms. So I politely let the question go unasked, and the visit wrapped up in vague courtesies.
Well, many years later -- Spring of 2000 -- as we UMs approached the momentous gathering called General Conference, crisis and conflict were in the air. A huge confrontation was coming, and many of us, conservative AND liberal, felt that the future of The UMC hung in the balance. Proposals were before the Conference that would make it an organization committed to unacceptable things. Like many others, I watched in fear and fascination while I wrestled with what I would do.
In the end, I decided that if certain things came to pass, I could no longer remain a UM pastor. Would I retire? resign? transfer somewhere else (and where else was better, pray tell)? I couldn't decide. But a door had been blown open, and I had one foot outside it, ready to bolt if the worst came to pass.
Well, General Conference 2000 resoundingly reaffirmed the stands that I had decided were non-negotiables, and everything settled back down. But I noticed a funny thing last year, in the run-up to General Conference 2004. While the passion of four years previous seemed to have been expended, and nobody expected the apocalypse or anything, yet in writing to one of the delegates, I found suddenly a well of anger and fear I didn't know I still had. And I discovered that, while I had withdrawn my foot from the doorsill and moved back completely into the room, the door was still open. It was thinkable to leave, and under certain conditions, still desirable. This surprised me.
I see now that I didn't open that door in 2000: it blew open from the pressure within the house. And I'm not holding it open, nor able to close it completely. It's going to stay open until something happens -- some fresh wind of the Spirit? -- to blow it shut again. And I have to deal with this.
I believe God blesses obedience. And I have been obedient. But I do not believe it is disloyalty to say, I have limits. Beyond X, I cannot go. Where, exactly, is that line that cannot be crossed without consequence? How will I know if I've crossed it (or the denomination has)? Will I have the courage to do what I should in that day? Even in days of relative peace, these thoughts continue to trouble me.
I find myself investigating issues of authority and apostolicity and church governance, trying to decide issues I thought long settled. And I look upon the Powers that Be in my denomination and my Conference, and I say, You are on trial. You may not realize it, but there are lots of guys like me, who are trying to decide if it's worth it to stay in and follow you. If it's not, whether it's possible to get rid of you. And if that's not, at what point to hang it up and go out that door that stubbornly refuses to close itself.
A friend says, the sheep need shepherds who will stay and defend them, teach them, love them. (I know, I know.) I want to do so, but I am not the only decision-maker in this equation. Though I am the only one who can decide what I should do.
"And I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
'Give me a light, that I may tread safely in the dark.'
'Go forth, and put your hand in the hand of God,' he replied.
'That will be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.'"