Finley Peter Dunne was the first to use the phrase "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." He said it in reference to the job of newspapers. I've always been told it's the job of preachers. And, as a preacher, I've subscribed to the theory. After all, that's what Jesus did. To the lepers dealing with disease and ostracism he brought healing and hope; to the pharisees who self-righteously spoke of their faithfulness he brought affliction. The church I serve is a place where all people can come no matter their station in life - no matter their affliction, one might say. My hope is that every person who walks into St. Paul's on a Sunday morning will leave having found a place of hospitality and love. Comfort. Equally, I hope that every person will leave challenged to follow God more faithfully, no matter what that means for them. Affliction.
Here's the rub. As the days and weeks and now months have gone by post-election I'm having a hard time finding anyone who is comfortable. Affliction is easy to find. President Trump has continued to find ways to speak or act against almost every category of person that can be named causing all of them (and all of us who care about them) affliction. At the exact same time, many who supported Trump are also feeling afflicted by a media that keeps pummeling Trump and a perception that those who didn't vote for Trump don't see him as a legitimate president. The church I serve has not lost any members for months because of the "hot topic" of human sexuality. We have lost members because of our pro-refugee stance. We have lost members, or at least attendees, because people are tired of hearing about contentious issues. And yet there is no question that if we had not taken the stand we have taken or talked about what we have talked about we would also lose members. How do you preach comfort to the afflicted when everyone feels afflicted and what comforts one group is precisely what afflicts another group?
As is often the case, the United Methodist Church is a reflection of our society. Everyone feels afflicted. This week we essentially hold a trial for Bishop Karen Oliveto. That's not really what it is, but certainly that's how it is perceived. Here's the interesting part. As an advocate for change in our denominational position on everything associated with LGBT rights I feel afflicted. For more than 40 years we have argued back and forth and virtually every vote has gone against change. There is some hope that this one decision will go our way (because it is clear to me that the Judicial Council doesn't really have jurisdiction in the case), but even if that happens the demographics and previous votes suggest that there is little chance of making true progress at a 2019 called General Conference. But that's not all! While the "progressive" side feels afflicted, it is the "traditionalist" side that is actually leaving the denomination even before General Conference...even before the Way Forward commission makes a recommendation...even before the Oliveto case. Repeatedly, I hear traditionalists say the UMC is a lost cause - even though that's not how the votes have ever gone.
I've sometimes shared in premarital counseling that there are times when it is more important to be in relationship than to be right. Sometimes being right is more important - for example, spousal abuse is never right and should end the relationship. But what if my spouse says it's my turn to take out the trash and I am positive that I was the last person to do that? Is it worth an argument and grabbing video from the security camera to prove that I'm right? Or is it better to say "Yes, dear" and just take out the trash? Is it more important to stand by the principle that I am right or is it better to stand by the relationship regardless of who is right?
As I've written elsewhere, the movement from the progressive-center wing of the UMC is not to say we are right. Indeed, that large group includes some who would say same-sex marriage is not right. The movement is to a position that says we are willing to allow space for a variety of opinions - even those that we disagree with , even if we are really sure that we have this right - because we value the relationship of all our sisters and brothers.
In the local church I will admit that I haven't figured it out yet. I don't know how to comfort the afflicted when everyone feels afflicted. I know I have to preach the Gospel. And I know that unity even with those we disagree with is part of the Gospel. It's a quandary. Maybe a microcosm of the State of the Church as a whole.
As we sort all of this out, please pray for your preachers. Pray for the Way Forward Commission. Pray for the Judicial Council and those representing differing views. Pray for wisdom, for restored relationship, and for a way through the narrow path that we must navigate.