Across the North Carolina Conference, United Methodists are gathering for “Circles of Abundant Grace.” These Circles of Abundant Grace are facilitated conversations that are focused on the future of the United Methodist Church. These Circles offer the opportunity to learn about “where we are” as a denomination concerning matters of human sexuality. These Circles are also settings for participants to speak as well as to listen to one another honestly and lovingly.
The Circles offer an opportunity to clarify the decisions of the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. One of the 2016 General Conference’s actions was forming the “Commission on a Way Forward.” The Commission on a Way Forward was set up by the Council of Bishops and has begun studying matters of human sexuality and unity in the United Methodist Church.
Conversations are happening in each Annual Conference as a part of the Commission on a Way Forward. The Commission recently released an Epiphany Message.
Each Circle of Abundant Grace has been undergirded by prayer across the NC Annual Conference and the denomination. Circles in the NC Conference have been opened with the following devotional.
Philippians 2: 1-4, If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
The Apostle Paul is writing to followers of Jesus Christ in the Greek town of Philippi. Apparently, there has been ongoing, unhealed conflict between members of the church and the unresolved disagreements are harming the young community of Christians in Philippi. Paul responds to the quarreling by teaching the Christians in Philippi-as well as Christians today, how they are to behave. The instructions are quite clear. Followers of Jesus Christ are to live out of love and humility by putting first the interests of others in the community. Personal interests are less important than the interests of others.
This humble, loving way of living is part of what Paul means when he exhorts all of the Christ-followers in Philippi to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Having the same mind as Christ does not necessarily mean thinking alike. Having the mind of Christ means loving alike.
Love requires listening- really listening. Consider that the person who is speaking is a precious, unrepeatable soul formed from the dust of the earth and the breath of God. Regard the person as one for whom Jesus died just as Jesus died for you.
At first, intentional listening may feel awkward and forced. Learning to listen is a skill that requires practice, just like learning to play the piano or how to pole-vault. There will be failures and there will be small victories along the way. In time, with practice, and through the grace of God, each one of us can have more fully the mind of Christ, looking not to our own interests, but, to the interests of others.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached words very much like those of the Apostle Paul. Wesley said,
Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite.
Our gathering here today demonstrates we can come together as children of God to love alike. We trust that the abundant grace of God will guard our hearts and minds as we engage in holy conversation in this time and this place. Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, you call all people who follow Jesus Christ to be in community with one another. Sometimes being in community is easy and sometimes it is very hard. We don’t always agree, and–when we don’t agree over difficult or heartfelt issues, we are tempted to separate from one another. Holy Spirit, help us to remember that you have bonded us to one another in baptism. Help us to continue to live into our baptisms by honoring one another. For when we honor one another, we honor you. This day, may our words, our thoughts, and our actions, honor you, Triune God, by speaking and listening with your love. Amen.
May we strive to speak and listen always with the love of the creating, redeeming, and sustaining God.