We are facing a momentous few days in United Methodism. In just over a week, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to make a decision on the “Way Forward.” What does this mean? Methodists, like other mainline denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are coming to terms with what it means to welcome LGBTQ persons into our congregations and ordained ministry. This is has been a very heated discussion in Methodism for many years. Now, the church is in a place to make a decision, one way or the other, or seek a compromise. Emotions are running high because both sides in this debate feel strongly about their positions. When this process is over, some people may decide they can no longer remain in the United Methodist Church. Others may look to create new versions of Methodism which reflect their theological priorities and understanding of scripture.
Like much in our country, what’s happening in the church feels disconcerting and confusing. Our church is polarized. The state of our religious discourse is tribal and toxic. It’s hard to find common ground amid the clichés and church jargon. Fear drives our responses to the world around us. Despite our differences, most people share one premise: We don’t want our church, country, or life to change into something that feels less comfortable and less holy. We like our routines and habits. We also prefer our interpretations of scripture.
In one moment, I find myself asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” In the next, I will seek every opportunity to proclaim God’s love for each of those God made. I don’t want to get along. It is a confusing time. I have found that when the world feels this uncertain, it is an excellent time to reflect. How did we get here? What brought us to the moment? Why do we think this way about a specific issue? If we have a good idea about what brought us to this point, we might find a way forward.
My reflection begins with today, this time in history. After following the debates over the future of the United Methodist Church for many years, attending countless meetings and conferences, it’s hard to know what to think about United Methodism. I really don’t know. The anger on display, the self-righteous strutting of those seeking to gain power over others, and our love of the institutional church itself lead me to believe that our current incarnation has little to do with Christianity. In many ways, we’re like a spiritually active civic club with chapters across America. That’s not who we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become.
We don’t feel Christian. Methodism, on a bad day, pulls me away from Christianity. I’m lured into the trap of caring more about what means to be a United Methodist with a pension and a home to live in than I am someone who is identified as a Christian. I don’t like to believe my Methodist identity trumps my Christianity. It shouldn’t. Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on following Jesus. At best, they should co-exist. These past few years, even that’s been a challenge.
Not that being a Christian is any more comfortable than clinging on to Methodism. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ make it next to impossible to call oneself a Christian. Sex scandals in every denomination, the co-opting of faithful people as pawns for partisan politics, and Christianity’s slowness to meet the needs of a hurting world make hard to say, “I’m a Christian.” I want to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those people who do these hurtful things.” Then, despite my best intentions, I realize that anytime I say, “Those people” I’ve already tossed vital elements of my faith out the door. So yes, in 2019 it’s hard to identify as “Christian.” Given all the caveats placed on what one must believe (by believers on all sides of the spectrum), I don’t know if I match anyone else’s definition of being a Christian other than my own.
If I feel out of place and unable to identify with either Methodism or Christianity, what do I do? If the ideas and attitudes have become so polluted by politics, fear, and the vagaries of human emotion; where do I look? If I don’t know what to do with the institution of United Methodism and Christianity looks nothing at all like I remember in Vacation Bible School; I can go find Jesus. Jesus isn’t an institution or idea. (We’ve tried to make him one.) At a point in history, there he stood. His words, recorded by his followers, are an undeniable testament to God’s priorities. Those words remain mine to read and then to share. They are a call to engage with God beyond our institutional priorities, tribal politics, and justifications. I may not know where I relate to United Methodism. At times, I am uncertain about labeling myself Christian in 2019. However, I can always return to Jesus.
Where do I go? I gather with the crowds who’ve come to hear him speak. These listeners and onlookers are my people. I can feel their energy and enthusiasm. By the seashore, people came from all directions. They could see, hear, and explore the impact of his words in ways we’ve lost. Jesus was unfiltered. There were no attempts to make him more understandable or applicable to the lives of the listeners. When Jesus speaks, life makes more sense. I get what he says. He moves me in ways Saint Augustine or John Wesley never has. Listen to his words:
“Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
Jesus sees the poor and hungry. We love to talk about the poor. We fly to visit the poor in other countries while neglecting the poor on our doorstep. By acknowledging what is difficult for us to see, Jesus draws us closer to serving others.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I can always return to Jesus. Jesus knows the broad sweep of human emotions. He accepts that there is a joy to be lived and sorrow to be embraced. I recognize there is room for me and my baggage in Jesus’ life.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors to did to the prophets.”
Jesus knows it’s hard to walk the line between religious expectations, tradition, and a world in need. If you come back home to Jesus and rely on his words, some people are going to hate what you say and do. Some people will hate what I’m writing. A strong response, according to Jesus, is a measure of success. Keeping our identity formed by our interactions with Jesus, despite the reactions we receive, is part of building the kingdom.
We can take Jesus’ words, package them as our own, and offer it to the world as Methodism or some other variety of Christianity. Or, we can mingle with the crowds and listen to Jesus.
Despite the structures, systems, and commissions which define our way of life as United Methodists (and Christians); it is still possible to associate ourselves with Jesus. Everything else is window dressing. This is us, who we are; the poor, hungry, troubled, joyful, and alive.
Richard Lowell Bryant