The Art of Letting Go:
Don’t Let Your Past Constrain Your Future
First Sunday in Lent • March 10, 2019
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 29:10-14 and Isaiah 43:18-19 (adapted from the NRSV translation)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village (NYC)
When Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE, virtually the entire governmental, military, religious, and economic elite were either executed or carried away into exile in Babylon. The whole structure of the kingdom of Judah was destroyed and the economic and social system decimated. Since the Israelites believed that their social systems were ordained by God, this was a faith shaking event.
So, it was both counterintuitive and also powerful for them to hear prophets among them say, in essence, “This terrible thing has occurred and we are going to have to endure the consequences for a time, but this is not the end. You have to let go of this painful past and look to the future God toward which God is leading us.”
Two weeks ago, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted a new “plan” for the denomination that will double down on enforcing the hateful, discriminatory rules and practices that have part of the UMC for decades. For the past several years, many regions of the church have refused to comply with the unjust rules, but the new legislation puts at risk any bishop or clergy who flaunt the rules, anyone who performs a same-sex wedding, any openly LGBTQI person in ordained ministry, and even lay persons who serve on Boards of Ordained Ministry that vote to approve LGBTQI persons for commissioning or ordination. The expressed desire of those behind the Traditional Plan is to force out as many of the more liberal and progressive Annual Conferences, churches, leaders, and members as possible and, if necessary, to decimate and destroy whatever is left of the United Methodist Church.
From our own recent experience, we can begin to get a sense of what the Israelites must have felt going into exile in Babylon and witnessing the destruction of their social and religious structures. It can feel, in some ways, as though we are being forced into exile from our own church.
This is the context in which we begin our new worship series for Lent titled, “The Art of Letting Go.” When we planned this series, we did not know we would find ourselves in our present circumstances. Yet, in an odd way, it is a fitting theme to be exploring right now. I will focus in part today on what’s happening in the UMC and our relationship to it, but the broader purpose is to explore together learning to let go as an emotional and spiritual practice.
Today, I want to direct our gaze toward letting go of our painful past. We’ve all got pain in our past – every one of us – and in some ways, we have a collective painful past too. We need to learn the art of letting go so we do not allow the pain to constrain our future and prevent us from experiencing the freedom and abundant life that God desire for all of us.
Now, the Babylonian conquest and the exile is an imperfect analogy with our own circumstances. We are not exactly in exile. We’re still here! We are still in the United Methodist Church, for the time being. And we still have a bit of room to maneuver. We have many allies with whom to discuss, debate, and discern a way forward. God’s call and promise echo to us through the scriptures, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
As we have to begin to prepare ourselves psychologically, mentally, and spiritually for the process of letting go of the pain we have experienced, we don’t really know fully yet all that we will need to let go of. We are living in an in-between place, a place of uncertainty, of some ambiguity. And the pain is too fresh to simply let go of it all at once. An important thing we can do is to strive to not allow the pain we are experiencing to drag us either into hopelessness or into false hopefulness. I feel compelled to warn us against that false hope. We ought to let go of the idea that we are ever going to restore the UMC to what it has been for so many of us – the denomination of our childhood or at least our adulthood, that embodied Wesleyan theology and practice, that nurtured us, and helped us to grow spiritually, that for some of us, recognized our call and ordained us to ministry. That “church” is dead. This is painful for us and we will have to learn over time to let it go if we are going to move into the new thing toward which God is leading us.
I urge you to have no illusions about this. I do not see any chance that the direction the General Conference chose is going to be reversed. The judicial council and some Annual Conferences may put some roadblocks in the way for a time, but we cannot stop this. The votes for a fundamentalist and anti-inclusive denomination are only going to increase in subsequent General Conference sessions.
On the other hand, I do not advocate an exit right now. I believe that over the next year or two we have an opportunity to bring over to our side many regions, congregations, and individuals, who have not declared themselves strongly in the past. In fact, just in the time since the Traditional Plan was adopted, we have seen the Western Jurisdiction declare it will not comply with enforcement of the new rules. Most powerfully for me, we have witnessed hundreds of congregations make public statements, put messages on signs, and put up rainbow flags for the first time – to show their support for full inclusion of LGBTQI persons. If you want to be heartened and inspired, search online for “Methodist Churches Are Rebelling,” or you can find the article posted on the Church of the Village Facebook page. It includes 20 photos showing examples of this witness. I read this morning that 1,000 persons have newly declared themselves to be reconciling United Methodists since the General Conference. And I have heard stories that many churches have done the same.
We are faced with trying to maintain a difficult balance right now. We can’t completely let go of the UMC and the pain and harm so many of us have experienced in its conferences, meetings, and structures. I feel like I have two apparently contradictory impulses going on inside of me at the same time. One is the say, “I am done with the UMC.” That’s a valid impulse – a good impulse I think. But I also recognize that I don’t know yet – none of us knows – exactly what being “done with the UMC will look like. Will our Annual Conference continue its practice of inclusive ministry? Will it continue to disregard a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation in decide whether they are qualified be candidates or commissioned for ordained ministry? Will our bishop continue to lay hands on LGBTQI persons to commission and ordain them? Will we refuse to have trials in the NY Annual Conference? Beyond the Annual Conference, will individual congregations decide they cannot be a part of this process of discernment and just leave now? Individual clergy and lay persons are already in that process of discernment as well.
I am confident that our community – the Church of the Village – will stay together and move forward together in whatever direction we decide to go under the leading of God’s Spirit. I sense a general desire among us to be part of something new that will be more inclusive from the outset – that will declare its desire to affirm, support, and celebrate every child of God.
I feel within myself the strong pull, already, to let go of some aspects of our painful past in the UMC and what happened at General Conference in order to begin to live into the future God has in store for us. I do hear God’s voice in the words composed by the prophet: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Of course, the art of letting go applies to our whole lives and not just the UMC or the Church of the Village. Every one of us has experienced deep pain in our pasts. For most of us, we are still struggling with and dragging around some of that pain. For many, the past still constrains or diminishes our future.
Letting go of our painful past has some parallels to forgiveness. Like forgiveness, one reason we need to let go is to be healed. Our inability to let go becomes part of our brokenness. When we cannot let go, we end up carrying around these rocks – sometimes the size of boulders – that weigh us down and prevent us from experiencing freedom and abundant life.
Letting go does not mean we have to forget about our pain. In fact, it requires a clear-eyed recognition of the hurtful words, sinful actions, evil intentions, and harmful acts inflicted on us and their physical, emotional, and spiritual impact. Only when we face all of this fully, can we set down the burden we have been carrying and move forward freer and more lightly.
Letting go of our painful pasts is not easy – it requires persistence, sometimes patience with ourselves and others, and a lot of hard internal and communal emotional and spiritual work. We may require vehicles like pastoral counseling, psychotherapy, meditation and prayer, and support groups for processing of the pain. It may demand that we confront persons who wounded us, moving toward forgiveness, rebuild relationships or build new one, strengthen or find new communities of care, and engage in challenging work toward reconciliation. And a crucial part of being able to move toward freedom and abundant life is our life together in community. Just as we have a God who is a community in three persons, we are called to live in loving, Spirit-filled community with each other. We love one another, serve one another, and help one another let go of our painful pasts in community.
As many of you know, I was a member of a left-wing political organization for 16 years after I graduated from college. It was a voluntary organization, but once you joined, you had to commit yourself completely. I was all in. For a few of those years, I worked full-time for the party, and I gave most of my time, energy, intellect, and a lot of my financial resources to further the goals of this organization. There are a lot of complicated reasons for why I decided to leave, but one big aspect of it was that, toward the end, the party took some actions I felt were harmful and specifically unjust toward me. So, ultimately, I felt compelled to resign. That meant that I had to pretty much immediately cut off relationships with a lot of people I really valued. That caused me a lot of pain. I felt hurt, angry, conflicted, uncertain, and depressed. I felt exiled. Had I not been able to let go of that pain and all of the feelings that accompanied it, I might never have been able to join another organization or community for any purpose. I might have been too afraid of being hurt again. Yet, over time, I was able to let go. I did find my way first to a community building group, the Foundation for Community Encouragement and, through connecting with persons in that group, to Christ Church in Manhattan. It was there that God called me to become a preacher and pastor. Only because I learned to let go, could God lead me to “a new thing” that God perceived could bring me freedom and abundant life.
If you find yourself unable (yet) to let go of a “big rock” you have been dragging around – a terrible wound to your body or soul – I urge you keep working at it – individually and in this community and other communities and with all the resources you can muster. We may have to endure destruction, exile, and pain for a time, but that is not the end for an of us and certainly not God’s desire for our lives. Hear again God’s promise:
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”
“When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me…and I will restore your fortunes and gather you together.”
We can depend on God to be with us through our exiles and carry us through the painful experiences of our lives. For God can “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God will never leave us – no never leave us. God will always help us to find our way forward toward freedom and abundant life.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.