Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill. They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance. Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did. Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back. Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.
“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said. “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse. There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord. We would do well to call upon him.” (180)
I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next. As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear. We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.
In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do. He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God. In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely. It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much. “You did not say it fair,” she says. “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back. Amen.” (181)
Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line. So Preacher Dob amends his prayer. “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.
Something happens in the night. The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect. Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:
“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)
I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission. I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”
Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us. But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future. A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.
This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made. I have no doubt there will be losses. But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us. And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us. When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.
How does the story end? I’ll let you read the book to find that out. But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery. Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.
“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said. “He has told us to complete the journey. He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing. We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)
Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.