The “big” girl rode her bicycle in circles in the parking lot of their apartment building. Two “little” girls watching in admiration. The older girl was all of six, but earned the admiration of the littles by the simple mathematics of childhood– she was in school and could ride a bike without training wheels. On this particular afternoon, the big(ish) girl was testing her power. She would circle around to her admirers, who sat watching from the curb, testing their loyalty by soliciting votes. The girls on the curb were required to raise their hands (which all those who went to school knew was the best way to vote) when she called out a question: “Who likes…” There was only one way to earn her praise—by raising their hands at the correct moment.
Innocent enough when the questions were things like: “Who likes chocolate ice cream?” But after a couple of rounds, the questions got trickier. “Who likes me best?” Uh, okay…we do? And then, the show stopper, “Who hates Jenny?” Jenny was apparently out of the bicycle rider’s good books (I’ll call her Carol). Carol continued riding around in circles shouting out questions to her two acolytes. “Who hates Jenny?” she called again. The little girls looked confused. The questions had been easy and fun up until this moment. Do we raise our hands for this one? Jenny isn’t here, after all, and Carol is.
The above is a story from my early childhood. I remember sitting on the curb next to one of the other girls who lived in our apartment complex, watching the older girl ride her bicycle. I remember the game. And I remember the last question. I can’t remember whether we raised our hands or not. It is too painful to contemplate. But my guess is, that we did. I don’t know that either of us even knew the maligned Jenny, but I know we wanted the approval of Carol. We wanted to be noticed. We wanted to be included in her game. We couldn’t have been more than four years old. The memory haunts me.
Human beings want to belong. And belonging is a good and healthy thing. But, when belonging comes at the cost of declaring someone else to be the leper, the unclean, the unworthy, the outsider, the enemy—then it may be time to rethink our definition of belonging. In anxious times, human beings find it easier to circle the wagons, draw the boundary, set the rules for membership in ways that will keep us feeling safe. Then, when things go wrong, we can place the blame on those outside our own circle.
Today, people from all over our Methodist connection are gathering in St. Louis for the special called General Conference. Our representatives will look at the recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the Council of Bishops. In some ways, the voting (that will occur before everyone heads home next week), comes down to a single issue: How wide are we willing to draw the circle? Of course, it is more complicated than that. But, none of that really matters at this point. The lines have been drawn, as they have been drawn, and redrawn for millennia.
On that day, so many decades ago, I was as confused as any four year old could possibly be when I was asked to choose who would be loved and who would be hated. And though I could not possibly have named what I believed in that moment, something shifted in my little four-year-old self. I would never knowingly “raise my hand” to exclude anyone again.
I hope you will pray for the church this week. We will have the candles and kneeler ready in the sanctuary if you want to come in to light a candle and pray, or just pray wherever you happen to be. I will be around if you want to talk and process. It will be difficult to figure out how much of the action you want to follow online. It will be easy to get sucked in by the drama, the tension, the overflowing emotions. Take care of yourselves. And, on March the 3rd, when everyone has returned home, and the dust has settled, we will worship together and receive communion around the table. Whatever the outcome. And then we will continue being the church that God continually calls us to grow into—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison—and proclaim the love of God to a world in need of true belonging. And, beloved, we will be drawing the circle wide.