It was a cold, nasty, awful weekend in central North Carolina. I was surprised to see anyone in church on Super Bowl Sunday. It was one of those days where the temperature was hovering in the high 30s, and if it dipped any lower, we’d be blanketed with snow, but that didn’t’ happen. It was just a cold drizzle. I wondered who would get out of bed and drag themselves to church on a day like yesterday. But, as is usual on mornings that begin with such skepticism, I was surprised at what hot coffee, companionship, and a little prayer will do to warm the human soul. We weren’t as full as last week, but overall, those who braved the weather impressed me, and I thanked them for making an effort.
The wet weather moved east overnight, and the blue skies returned to North Carolina. The winds were still cold, but at least there was no rain. It was dry. We could see the sky and sunshine. Oh, how I had missed the sunshine over the past week. My body and soul needed physical and spiritual vitamin D. If I couldn’t see the sun and blue sky, how on earth could I look for Chinese spy balloons?
This morning as I went to the car to meet my parents for breakfast, I glanced skyward for the first time in several days. Was there anything above the church listening to our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? I was hoping I might see something I could not spot because of the previous day’s inclement weather. But, instead, I realized yesterday morning: if there’s anything that will change the subject from disaffiliation, it is intelligence-gathering balloons traversing the United States (or North Carolina) from China. So let me say thank you to the People’s Liberation Army for making coffee time about something other than the slow-moving train wreck that is United Methodism. Or, as you guys would say, “谢谢 (Xièxiè).”
The balloons (or objects) raise some interesting theological questions for United Methodists. Our government says the first balloon was equipped with listening and intelligence-gathering equipment. We know for sure that it floated over North Carolina. I wonder what it would have picked up as it went over our Methodist churches and homes during the week it was airborne. What would the balloon have heard us say about our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Would the balloon have picked up that those people who say they are so open to welcoming and admitting the stranger, the other, and their neighbors on Sunday morning go straight home and say just the opposite during the week? Would it have picked up that we make ever so slightly racist jokes about Black History month from our places of permanent white privilege while talking about the need for anti-racism as an annual conference priority? Would the balloon have heard us telling our neighbors misinformation about the disaffiliation process? Who knows what the balloon heard? Perhaps that’s why we are so nervous and so ready to shoot them down so quickly. We can’t let the truth get out. Fire the missiles! Destroy the evidence.
So, we go out on clear days, look skyward, and check to see if someone is listening to what we say and knows our secrets. The answer is yes. Someone does know, and we can’t kill that someone with a Sidewinder missile.
We are in bad shape if we need a Chinese balloon to remind us that God is listening or that we have a conscience.
The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Drawn from Jesus’ biblical injunction before his ascension in Matthew 28, what could be wrong with our mission statement? Here’s my question: do we make disciples? Isn’t God the one who makes disciples? We cannot make a disciple any more than the Large Hadron Collider can fully recreate the conditions of the early universe. The God particle is reproducible for only the tiniest fraction of a second, if at all. Like the physicists at CERN who seek to create the conditions present in the early universe just before the Big Bang, we in the United Methodist Church can only make the conditions where discipleship might occur.
We do not make disciples. God is in the disciple-making business. We are assistants, facilitators, and helpers in the process. To assume the primary role (I’ll deal with the scriptural mandate in a moment) gives us far more power and authority than we were ever intended to have, hold, or wield as members of the kingdom of God. We do not decide who gets to be a disciple, who gets in, who stays on the fringe, and who is eligible to follow Christ. Jesus made that decision. To hint that we have a lead role in that process is to understand why United Methodism is in the state we are in today. We’ve thought we’re the ones making disciples all this time. Nope, it’s not us. We help. More often than not, we’ve spent the better part of the past fifty years hindering the process. Our job is to help set the right conditions for discipleship to occur, like setting the mood on Valentine’s Day. We buy the roses, a thoughtful card, and some chocolate and make reservations at a nice restaurant. It’s God, however, who seals the deal. United Methodists do not make disciples. God makes disciples.
Well, what about Matthew 28? Didn’t Jesus commission the disciples after the resurrection, in his own words, “to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit”? Yes, that’s what the Bible says. Now, I’m going to say the quiet part out loud. Jesus did say those words, I don’t believe this nor do most mainstream New Testament scholars. They, like I, hold that the man we’ve come to call Matthew, writing fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ death, put those words into Jesus’ mouth. In short, the event did not occur. Jesus didn’t give these instructions while standing on a mountain after his death. It’s an important Biblical story we should reckon with because it has led to well-meaning church planting but also centuries of colonialism and slavery. However, we shouldn’t base our mission statement on a post-resurrection apocalyptic myth.
Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community lived under an interim apocalyptic ethic. They thought Jesus was coming back any day, especially after the Temple’s destruction and the leveling of Jerusalem. For the writer of the second gospel to update Mark’s unfinished ending with such a dramatic conclusion and clear instructions would provide hope to his people until the end finally came. We’re still waiting on that last verse to come true, “the end of the age”. Matthew missed it by a good two thousand years. He also misunderstood how discipleship worked and put words Jesus never said into a scene that never existed in an attempt to give hope to beaten and forlorn people. United Methodists have spent the past fifty years trying to do something we should have been partnering with God to accomplish instead of trying to do ourselves and look where we are.
Here’s an idea: change our mission statement. Even if the church doesn’t change it, change it for yourself. Let’s go back to letting God make disciples. We’ll create the conditions for healthy disciple-making. We don’t need to justify our disciple-making based on Matthew’s resurrection appearance. We’ve got plenty of “come and see” call stories down by the Sea of Galilee that work just fine. Fish for people, take nothing, have conversations, and build relationships. Create the conditions for good relationships and let God do the rest. Assuming the primary responsibility for disciple-making undercuts the very heart of the Wesleyan understanding of Grace. Do we even realize what we’re saying? No, we don’t. It’s time to abandon Matthew’s contradictory proclamations. Let’s get out of the way and let God do the work of discipleship-making.
There is much for United Methodists to address in addition to the primary matter still occupying most of our Methodist time. What else must we discuss, with equal amounts of prophetic force, as we continue into the third decade of the 21st century? How, in an era of dissolution and disaffiliation, where these controversies mark an apparent dilution of our message, ministry, and purpose, do we continue to proclaim the revolutionary teachings of a 1st-century rabbi executed by the Romans (in the most brutal form of capital punishment possible), for speaking on behalf the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed? How do we share the rabbi’s life and teachings when many remain ignorant of Jesus’ life and death? How can we speak to the life-giving reality and hope he addressed when we find ourselves willingly mired in the same systems of death, power, and dominion which take life, oppress people, and stifle the light of the world? Yes, it’s time to step back, take a breath, take a knee, say we are sorry, find a breach, and begin repairing the world today. At the moment, this may be all we can do. This is the least we can do. It is something we must do. God is calling us to multi-task: end capital punishment, stop the normalization of mass gun violence, confront cycles of systemic poverty, upend a health care system that is bankrupting ordinary Americans, and call out racism whenever and wherever we see it.
The movement to free United Methodism from the downward spiral of cultural, social, and religious oblivion is not solely a battle to find space for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in our pulpits and pews. As we begin black history month, we remember the need to work continuously and diligently for the rights of African-Americans, queer African-Americans, and all other persons of color to be heard and seen in congregations across the United States. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are not unachievable ideals, boxes to be checked, or Marxist talking points. They are the very hallmarks of the kingdom of God. It is what I call Critical Grace Theory. Without diversity, equality, and inclusion, there is no Grace, freely given and freely received. Suppose we cease to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, a message rooted in cultural diversity, human equality, and radical inclusion. In that case, we forgo the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We stop being Christians. We become spiritual nomads, willing to worship anyone or anything that uses the trappings of our former faith to provide us with the one thing we think we need more than anything else: security. In our frantic quest for safety, we’ve allowed ourselves to be scared of anyone who isn’t like us. Fear kills God. Fear kills religion. Fear kills the love of neighbor. Fear is killing us. Fear killed Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, authentic Christianity, has never trafficked in fear. Jesus’ message is hope, joy, light, and love. You are not hearing the gospel if you do not hear these words in your church. When you encounter these teachings, you will see diversity, equality, and inclusion practiced on an unimaginable scale in most American congregations. I long for this long denominational winter to end.
I look forward to a spiritual spring, the coming kingdom of God, where God’s love is available to all who seek and desire a relationship with the church and Jesus without any preconditions. Why is this so much to ask?
In the meantime, we are not powerless! You have a voice. Now is the time to start with a conversation and coffee. Make some new friends. Contact your AME, AME Zion, CME, or other African American religious neighbors. Learn some Black history, especially the Black history of your community. Ask questions. Pray with your sisters and brothers in Christ. Remember Isaiah 58: repair the breach and restore the streets.
This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.
When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.”
Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.
Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.
If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.
Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.
What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?
What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?
Quoting Leviticus seems to be all the rage these days, so I thought I’d give it a go. Leviticus 19:1-2 says something like the following, “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” Now at the risk of sounding like a cross between a Methodist Andy Rooney and Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with our continued forced dichotomy between personal and social holiness?” Isn’t it time we stopped beating this dead horse? Is this not one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in, because we’ve lived in this under this bipolar, schizophrenic definition of holiness within the Wesleyan tradition for so long such that the two can no longer co-exist in the same body, the body of Christ, in the psyches of the people called Methodist. The quest to be holy in two different ways has literally (and figuratively) driven us insane and pushed us into some dissociative personality disorder-clinically speaking. As religious groups go, United Methodists are not the best example of a denomination with good mental health. Or, as my grandmother, who never went past the eighth grade, would have said, “we have lost our ever-loving minds.”
All through the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we hear this same injunction repeated: you be holy because I (God) am holy. God doesn’t make the distinctions between social and personal holiness. A human being created these artificial divisions. Some of us feel more comfortable emphasizing one form of holiness over another. I think it’s clear from reading the text that God is a God of the community. We discover our personal and individual identities within the community and the society created by the larger community. Our communities, tribes, and clans tell us who we are. That’s what the Old Testament says. I am a United Methodist by accident of birth and geography and no other reason alone. My community and family determined my religious affiliation. Had I been born in Pakistan in March of 1974, I would be a Muslim. Society forms our beliefs long before we develop a sense of individual identity. Creating a sense of social holiness is the first step toward teaching and achieving personal holiness. We are defined and shaped by our cultures.
Ultimately, I am encouraged that the God of Israel shows no distinctions between personal and social holiness. God sets a goal and enables us to follow along, knowing we will fail at our tasks. We will never be as holy as God. It is impossible. We can never match God’s holiness. Does this mean we should stop trying? No. I think it means we should go about our quest for holiness with greater humility, kindness, and justice, realizing we will never figure it out. Just when we think we’ve got holiness locked down, we’re probably in as unholy a state as we’ve ever been. It’s time to hop off our high holy horses, find someone else, and tell them how sorry we are for getting our unholy cart before the Lord’s holy horse.
We are all dying. Some of us are just going about it faster than others. Here’s the thing, though; you don’t know how quickly you’ve been dying until it occurs. Death happens to you; you don’t happen to it. The 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne said this: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.” The Roman orator and statesman Cicero put it another way. To philosophize (or, in my case, to theologize) is to learn how to die.” I’m in school every day. My dad has cancer, people I went to high school with are dying, colleagues are going into cardiac arrest, my denomination is on life support, and who knows how long I’ve got. If I do the math with the meds I take and the average life expectancy of someone in my shoes, I should move from the parsonage to a tent in the cemetery. Believe me; I’m not being morbid; I’m only considering ways to save my family money.
If you read through anything I’ve written, you know it’s been a brutal fall and winter for my family and congregation. COVID, cancer, and related misery have taken their toll. When combined with the suffering we want to remember worldwide, our hundred-plus-person prayer list is more than many of us can continue to bear. We are, as Psalm 40 says, in the mire, the mud. But, as I said a few weeks ago, we keep searching for a better way to pray.
My office phone rang at about 1:30 this afternoon. Someone had died. We would need to open their plot in the church cemetery to prepare for a funeral on Saturday. That’s how death works. I’m not talking about the biological mechanics of death. This person’s life and quality thereof ended long before his widow called. Most of the dying process (biologically and spiritually) happens before the person physically dies. Grief comes at the graveside. Grief is the empty room. Grief is calling a name and hearing no response. Death is now. Death is a front-row seat to life shutting down, emotional walls being built, fears being conquered, and life being lived despite, well, despite.
To paraphrase the Baghavad-Gita, we are both life and death, coexisting simultaneously. Despite death, there is life. Despite life, death remains. When we pull back the simplistic Cartesian veil of existence, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle with each other. Scoot over and make some room. Each of us needs to find a place, a community, and a home in the community of learners. Why? Because no one will make it out alive, and it is from that community of those who remain that we will learn to carry our grief together.
It seems that many people have ideas for the post-disaffiliated United Methodist Church. What do we do next? Individuals who make more money than me, with more degrees and fancier robes, are huddled around conference tables as I write, thinking about this problem.
A phrase I hear floated in meetings, messages, and memorandums is “remnant congregations.” Have you ever heard a more apocalyptic expression? The remnants, those “left behind” after disaffiliation, need new church homes. Our conference seems bent on shuffling them into online congregations and planting new churches. I’d hoped they’d identify communities like mine where those left without a place to worship could find “sanctuary congregations.” So far, no one is talking about “sanctuary congregations”? We are stuck on “remnants.” That’s part of our problem. We had too many little churches in the first place. I’m not sure the answer is to restart and replant more little churches that cannot financially sustain themselves. It might make more sense to make the churches that didn’t disaffiliate stronger by flinging our doors open to anyone and everyone who needs a home. But what do I know?
As we consider our future, I think the most critical point for our decision-makers, connectional tables, bishops, superintendents, and remaining denominational powerbrokers to consider is: God is not a Christian. Let me take that one step further. Not only is God not a Christian, but God also is not a United Methodist. God has never read the Book of Discipline. God is God. Our attempt to domesticate God into our old, white, upper-middle-class image has failed. We should stop trying to make God fit into the idolatrous notion of an aggrieved American, English-speaking culture warrior. God does not care about the success or failure of our inability as Christians (or Methodist Christians) to get along or agree on 6th BCE Canaanite understandings of human sexuality, 1st-century Roman ideas of marriage, or 18th-century Anglican standards regarding the ordination of men and women, or 21st beliefs concerning LGBTQ equality. This is because God is not a Christian. For this matter, God is neither a Sikh, Muslim, Jew, nor a Hindu.
We are only what we are by accident of birth and geography. We are Methodists because we were born to Methodists (as statistics reveal) living in the southeastern jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Gravity and family put us here. God had nothing to do with it. Say it with me: God is not a Methodist or Christian. If we think God is one or both, we’ve forgotten this point: God is concerned for all God’s children, regardless of denomination. The more we cling to our team and tribal identity to solve this current dilemma, the more confused, angrier, and further from God we travel.
While God is neither a Christian nor Methodist and is not as invested in our petty squabbles and legal battles as we are, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about us. We’ve forgotten that God doesn’t care about the teams (Methodist, Shiites, Sunni, Baptists, Global Methodists, United Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Judaism) or the supporter’s clubs (Duke University’s Iron Dukes, the University of North Carolina’s Rams Club, or pick your school’s fundraising organization). It is the individual who matters most to God. God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. God is a people person. The teams don’t matter; God is not keeping score. What is this disaffiliation if nothing other than an exercise in keeping score? Who is the holiest, has the most virtue, respects scripture, and who loves tradition the most? We’ll add up the points at the end of the game, and whoever has the most that’s the person big daddy God up in the sky will love, and we’ll be guaranteed a place in heaven. That’s not how it works. Why? God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. It’s not about winning the game.
This experience is about the pleasure of being in the field and community with others. Maybe we should be thinking more about strengthening our existing faith communities instead of acting on that same, tired old mantra: God is a Christian, a Methodist, everyone else is wrong, and we’re the ones who’ve got it all figured out. Less tribalism never hurt anyone.
Traditionalists think United Methodists like me are the problem. But unfortunately, I think the people who self-identify as traditionalists don’t understand what it means to be a “traditionalist.” For many in our denomination, being a “traditionalist” is holding to one position on human sexuality and marriage. For me, being a traditionalist means many different things. It’s never been about the conflict between my vision of God and the rest of the world. Here’s what I envision when I hear the words “traditionalist” and “traditional”:
I eat the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
I watch the Andy Griffith show every day. Mayberry wasn’t perfect. Andy dealt with bigots, addiction, sexism, the place of technology in society, people set in their old-fashioned ways, greed, and hate. And he did it without a gun. I embrace that vision of traditional America.
I miss my grandmother every day. She died in August 2005. She made great biscuits.
I read the Bible every day.
I want “Softly and Tenderly” sung at my funeral. The words “come home” are powerful.
I believe love is the best tradition of all.
I believe people are afraid of God’s new plans because they prefer the traditions of slavery in Egypt.
I believe there are hurtful traditions.
I believe in the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount.
I believe Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is largely absent from our debate on tradition.
I’m so traditional that I still believe that the Gospel is a Love Story, not a Sin Story.
I come from a tradition where people didn’t weaponize the phrase “The Word of God.”
It took guts for the Apostle Paul to walk away from his tradition. I love him for that.
I’m so traditional and rooted in the past; I remember when going to church was fun and not perpetually teetering on the edge of destruction. I miss that tradition.
I believe traditions, in their best sense, should give meaning to our lives.
Traditions should not be used to demean people from being whom God created them to be.
I say no to the idolatry and false God of manufactured human traditions.
Our task is not to protect tradition. We are to proclaim the Good News.
Tradition can quickly become a form of institutionalized violence.
The divine is bigger than any of us or our ideas for creating new Methodist traditions.
I’ve been thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. You know, the kinds that aren’t abstract, are doable, relatable, and reflect changes I’ve considered making but never followed through with or dared to start in the first place. With three or four days left until the official start of the New Year, today is as good a day as any to take a whack at my list.
I believe 2023 will be the year I stop believing (or giving lip service to) in a place called “Hell.”
After much consideration, I’m not sure I’ve ever believed in a literal “Hell .” In high school I read Dante. After living in Russia for two years, I started to think that if there is a Hell, it is as he described: cold and frozen. It’s also somewhere east of the Urals. I saw the cartoons; Bugs Bunny ended up there regularly but always managed to make it back to this side of eternity. I never gave it much thought where bad people went they died. As a child, I suppose, I thought people simply disappeared. I had this image, shaped by the first Superman movie, of villains floating perpetually in space, separated from God and surrounded by total darkness. If there was a Hell, that’s what I pictured it to be. I didn’t know to call this idea “Hell” but that’s what I thought happened to bad people when they died.
I grew up middle class in the middle of North Carolina in the mid-1980 in a mainline United Methodist Church. I am as middle as they come. We were there every time the church door was open. For the life of me, I can’t remember (even in the one revival I recall being held in our congregation) anything said about Heaven or Hell, and if we didn’t change our ways or accept a Jesus on specific terms, we’d end up in Hell. I didn’t drink or party like some kids. So my memory is pretty good. The youth group was fun, and I can’t recollect any fundamentalist or evangelical-style brainwashing. We weren’t a cult or a cult trying to pass as a church. I grew up in what I thought was a typical United Methodist Church. I only met people with radically different religious experiences once I went to divinity school. I thought everyone must have grown up in a bland, centrist church like mine. One of the reasons I wanted to become a minister is that I thought Methodists could spice things up a bit. I didn’t want to bring tent meetings back to Methodism, but we could be much more engaging. I found the Bible thrilling. It was full of great stories, and we were doing a pretty dull job presenting the “greatest story ever told.”
I remember one occasion when I was probably in middle school or had just started high school, and I asked our pastor about Judas. It was after a Maundy Thursday service.
I wanted to know, “If it was in the divine plan for Jesus to die and be betrayed by Jesus, why were we so hard on Judas?” He didn’t have an answer for me. I still have that question. That’s probably about as close as I came to questioning Heaven, hell, and universalism (a word I’d never hear until I went to college). I wanted to know about Judas’ role in the crucifixion. If Judas was integral to the plan, how could we damn him to Hell? Wouldn’t Jesus, who forgave everybody, forgive him too, especially if Jesus needed him at a cosmic level? His eyes glazed over.
He told me to go home and pray about it.
I’ve been praying about it for over thirty years now. And you know what; I think Judas was forgiven.
I can’t point to one single event, encounter, verse, book, or theologian which pushed me to the universal side. It’s probably rooted in my service as a pastor for over twenty years. I know I was well down the path toward universalism long before I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Reading Bell was like going to group therapy; I realized there were other people like me, and I’d found a safe space to share my feelings, even if it was only within the pages of a book.
I keep coming back to scriptures, both from Paul: Romans 8:37-39 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4. When Paul says in Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things, to come, nor powers, no height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe him with every fiber of my being. Paul says nothing will separate us from God’s love. How that works, I am still determining. I cannot read that passage and think the God who wants to overcome anything and everything in all creation to be with those he created would let an idea, yes, an idea, like “Hell,” get in the way.
Paul opens his second letter to Timothy with a call to prayer, “I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This and good and pleases God our Savior who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”
God wants everyone to be saved. That’s Paul speaking, not Richard. Why would God create a system then set the rules in opposition? Why would God want something for everyone then prevent God from obtaining it? Why would God not get what God wants? I thought nothing separated us from God’s love, yet if “Hell” exists, God denies God’s own will for humanity. Is God God if God is constantly overruling his own will? Why should anyone be left behind if God is as powerful as we proclaim? I am no longer content with the idea that God cannot or will not accomplish God’s desires for the reconciliation of all creation.
While serving in Northern Ireland a few years ago, I preached during a Holy Week service in Londonderry. A couple of days after my sermon, the circuit superintendent invited me for tea. He’d heard concerns about my sermon; some in the congregation had picked up “universalist themes .” I am trying to remember what I was preaching, but it had nothing to do with universalism. It was one of the bread of life texts from John. Nowhere in my mind did the idea of universalism occur when preparing the sermon. Yet, here, publicly, for the first time, my superintendent questioned me about being a universalist. He didn’t ask if I was a universalist. Instead, he asked, was that what I intended to say, and I answered truthfully, “no, I didn’t.” Looking back on that sermon in 2014, I guess I accidently beamed universalism. To be honest, I was a little mad at myself. The only time I’ve been officially called out by anyone in the church hierarchy for being a universalist and I did it unintentionally. I wish I had known that’s what I was about to do. I’d have made a much bigger statement: Protestants and Catholics will all go to Heaven.
I believe God wills and desires the salvation of all. I guess that makes me a universalist.
No one can prove Heaven exists. You also can’t empirically prove Hell exists, though I’d expect some Southwest airlines customers could make a good argument for the latter. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and James Tabor have described how both ideas developed over time through interpreting scripture, literature (Dante did more to shape our vision of Hell than anything in the Bible), and western history. It takes faith to believe in God. How much more faith does it take to believe in a God who wants to torture those who that same God created? (More faith than I’ve ever had in a God of love.) I don’t have faith in a God of cruelty and torture. I do not have enough faith to believe in a God that loves enough to create us and then, if we screw up bad enough, kills us because our God-given free will made us irredeemable. I’ve never had that faith. I don’t want it. You do you. It doesn’t work for me. I’ll keep my faith in the God of Love, and we’ll work it out in the end.
This began as a discussion of New Year’s Resolutions. I want to lose both theological and physical baggage. I think it’s time to bundle up and go for a walk. See you outside!
It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.
My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.
I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?
Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.
What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.
You must be logged in to post a comment.