The Deep Center

My childhood home is on Lake Highland, in Orlando, FL.  As early as I can recall, I grew up swimming in the lake – along with the ducks, algae, lily pads, bass, alligator gar, turtles, amoebas, and gators.  In warmer seasons, I must have been in, on, or by the lake every day, as I swam, skied, sailed, canoed, fished, etc., etc.

Lake Highland is not a large lake.  When we skied, or sailed, we just went around and round in circles.

But, as I recall, especially during the hot summer months, the water in the middle of the lake, where the water’s deepest, was significantly cooler and clearer than along the shoreline.  Along the shore, the water was hotter – like a bathtub.  The warm, shallow shoreline produced algae, grasses, cattails, and lily pads.  After summer rains, trash deposited along the shore, washed in from the surrounding roads.  Occasionally, a dead fish carcass floated to the shore.  And, of course, gators hung out at the shore!

Swimming in the deeper, middle waters was highly preferable – and safer!

The deep, middle waters.  That’s a metaphor for my religious life, and, specifically, my denominational affiliation.

I’m a United Methodist Pastor.  One thing I’ve appreciated about being a United Methodist has been that we’re considered a “middle way” expression of Christianity.  Within United Methodism, there’s room for high liturgy AND revival.  We have traditional AND contemporary worship services in most churches.  We have a high view of sacraments AND a commitment to the “born again” experience.  We save souls AND feed the hungry.  Our membership rolls include people as different as George W. Bush AND Hillary Clinton.

One of my favorite experiences in seminary was the theological debates, where I was surrounded by future United Methodist pastors, some FAR more liberal-minded than me, and others FAR more conservative.  Both sides stretched my thinking, understanding, and deepened my personal convictions.

I resonate deeply with uniquely United Methodist phrases like “the radical middle” or “the deep center.”

Though there are, and always have been, United Methodists at the extreme edges, most United Methodists exist in the “middle.”  Recently, these “middle” United Methodists have come to be known as “centrists.”

I’m a centrist.  I believe in the authority of Scripture, the Creeds, and am orthodox in most of my theological convictions.  I read classic and contemporary Christian authors, from a variety of Christian traditions. I love contemporary and traditional/liturgical expressions of worship.  I lean progressive on a number social issues, including the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of my denomination.  I believe in personal holiness and social justice.

As a centrist, I realize there will always be people who disagree with me, on a variety of beliefs, styles and positions.  I have friends, colleagues, and parishioners who are far more progressive, and others who are far more traditional/conservative – I’m thankful for each of them!  I’ve lived in this dynamic tension for the last thirty years, and valued it.  Though it isn’t always easy, the deep center has been a reliable place for constructive dialogue and spiritual growth.

But, in recent months, the UMC has become an increasingly inhospitable place for centrists.  Maybe, the UMC become inhospitable for everyone.

In February, traditionalists took control of a special, called “General Conference,” where, instead of finding a “Way Forward” for ALL United Methodists regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion, they actually made it more difficult for LGBTQ+ persons, and their allies, to feel welcome or wanted, moving us collectively to the “right.”  Since then, progressive and centrist United Methodists have shifted further “left,” countering the recent conservative sway.

Sides have been taken.  Bold lines drawn, with centrists/progressives on one side, and traditionalists on the other.  There are winners and losers.  There’s finger pointing and name calling.  Feelings are hurt.  Gloating abounds.  Nerves frayed.  Patience worn thin.  Trust dissipated.  Threats made.  Relationships strained.  Advocacy for some, perceived as attack by others.

In some places in our denomination, traditionalists have gained ground.  In other places, like my own Florida Annual Conference, progressives have prevailed… for now.

Frankly, it all feels pretty “swampy. ” While my metaphor isn’t perfect, and may just add to the mountain of offense already out there, it feels like the deep center of my spiritual lake has turned into a shallow, tepid, gator-filled swamp.  Having worked at Florida State University for eleven years, you should know how I feel about gators and swamps!!!

I don’t mean to imply that progressives and conservatives are shallow, dirty, or swampy – but, if the metaphor fits…  I’m mostly taking about the loss of the deep center.

Here’s my concern.  If the United Methodist Church divides, which seems increasingly likely – and, possibly necessary –  what happens to the deep center?  Though I consider myself to be on the “left” side of the middle, do I automatically become “right” of center, if the traditionalists leave?  Will I be progressive enough?  Will I be TOO orthodox in my biblical and theological convictions?

Where is the deep center of United Methodism?  Is it gone?  Is it gone for good?

Returning to my lake analogy, when you walk through the thick algae growing along the shores of Florida lakes, stinky, swampy gasses are released.  Wading into the tepid shallow waters, your feet sink into muck, slimy algae clings to your legs, and gassy stench bubbles up, filling your nostrils.  It isn’t pleasant.  Growing up, I learned to skip the shallow shoreline, by canoeing to the center of the lake for my swims, where the water was deepest, clearest, and most refreshing.

I like swimming in the deep, clear, refreshing waters – literally and metaphorically.

Again, I don’t mean to imply that my strongly conservative or progressive colleagues are shallow, muddy, or stinky.  I’m just missing the middle.  I think we need the middle.  I worry about who we are, or will become, if the middle is gone.

 

9 thoughts on “The Deep Center

  1. Beautiful: relationships with people on all the edges as well as the middle and learning from each and everyone. “Via media” comes to mind … a middle way.
    As an United Church of Christ pastor, I’ve been watching the UMC, praying for her people, knowing it’s not easy.
    Blessings in your ministry.

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  2. That’s a wonderful analogy being a Floridian myself. I’ve always been a fan of a happy middle I’m not a Methodist but pray for the Church.

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  3. Vance, I so appreciate your heartfelt story and know it to resonant with many at this moment. Thank you for sharing and speaking of the grief.
    In my experience where the lake has boundaries you can see and a middle that you can find, the middle of the church changes based on your context and history. I’ve been called a radical and a conservative depending on my address. Fear and risk look completely different depending on where you are standing. Would I wear a rainbow stole if I was a layperson in Kenya? Those who walked across the Selma bridge or stood up and demanded to be seen and heard at Stonewall 50 years ago shifted the middle for the nation and our church. In so much of the work I have done, many have never gotten to experience the cool comfort of the deep middle. What I really like about your lake metaphor is that it is not a straight line going from left to right. And most lakes are not a neat circle. A vibrant lake has abundant life everywhere in it messy shores and all in between.

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  4. What if we couldn’t have a middle without the periphery? What if it is in our nature as humans to attach to clarity and refreshment, while avoiding or skipping what seems messy, swampy, inconvenient, distracting and somewhat revolting or just unclear and scary. As Richard Rohr might say: “Everything belongs”, no? The loss I fear is the acceptance and tolerant embrace of many voices. As if right is so right and wrong is so wrong, we fight instead of making peace. Is that too loosey goosey? Oh well…

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  5. Dear Brother Vance,

    Your honest and candid and passion filled postings are the things that help reminds us of all the similarities we share with each and everyday we awaken to new possibilities and untold blessings.
    Your analogy about using the lake you grew up in as a young boy brought back a flood of my own memories of such experiences growing up in Pensacola Florida. Thanks for the trip down ‘Memory Lane”.
    Much like yourself…I too am no longer that young boy….but a mature man who has scars and bruises from the trials and tribulations of a life lived by trying to do what has been asked of me by my family, my friends, my community , my country and my God.
    Yea- I have made a few poor choices along the way and grace and the love and support of my ‘extended church’ family was there every step of the way to allow me to be the man that I am today.
    We have changed so much in our culture , in our language and in our hearts and spirits due to so much shouting and bullying either RIGHT or LEFT….we have forgotten the art of loving one another and respecting one another.

    I have been living me life as a gay man in the United Methodist Church for over 20 years and I am do not have an agenda to promote other than to help bring other souls into the kingdom to help us do God’s work for God’s people.

    I leave posting these awesome lyrics from the song by the Newsboys…that maybe…just maybe we can find our way back to the Middle!

    We believe in God the Father
    We believe in Jesus Christ
    We believe in the Holy Spirit
    And He’s given us new life
    We believe in the crucifixion
    We believe that He conquered death
    We believe in the resurrection
    And He’s comin’ back again
    Let the lost be found and the dead be raised
    In the here and now, let love invade
    Let the church live love our God will see
    We believe, we believe
    And the gates of hell will not prevail
    For the power of God, has torn the vail
    Now we know Your love will never fail
    We believe, we believe

    I remain your faithful Brother-in-Christ always,

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