Walls, Bridges, and the Future of the UMC

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Hello, my name is Grant, and I am an exile of the United Methodist Church. The exile is somewhat self-imposed, I’ll admit, but it is an exile all the same, as I am no longer a part of a body which I once loved dearly enough to want to work for its future.

The body has expelled not only me but a great number of my cohort. Many of the people that I know to be godly, spirit-filled people well-equipped for ministry in the UMC have been chewed up, spat out, and left embittered by the church. In fact I can only think of a handful are still doing ministry. I went to class with them, worshiped with them, and saw them grow, and nonetheless, the majority hit a wall.

Walls, sadly, seem to be the structures that the United Methodist Church desire to build.

This coming week is a big one for the UMC as hundreds gather together for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, coming together to discuss what is being called “the Way Forward.” The issue that they ostensibly wish to tackle centers around the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, their marriage and ordination within the church, and all matters of faith that seem to revolve around this question. There have been countless digital and paper pages written about which way the People Called Methodists should go.

This is not one of those blogs.

I will not discuss the vagaries of the proposed plans, Traditional, Simple, One Church, or any alternative. I have no desire to hash out or defend any particular plan, as that is best left to the people who will discuss them in their committees. No, I simply wish to work out my many emotions and theories about the direction my spiritual home, my fellow bearers of the Holy Spirit, seem to be going in.

classic-chiseled-faceThe Rising Walls

Right now, it is my guess that the way that the church will decide to go will probably be the one that will be most painful for everyone involved. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but I simply do not think that, with all the money spent and power gained by the conservative/Traditional Plan supporters, there is slim chance that the General Conference will do anything but go with what they have defaulted to since the 1970’s. Yet, in the event that the Simple or the One Church plan does pass, the pain will be no less great. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. In every single event, every option will end with someone building a wall.

In the eyes of the people in favor of the Traditional plan, it is a matter of conservation. They believe that the correct path of the church is to defend itself against what they see are faulty or ungodly interpretations of God’s Word. Their faith is a faith that demands a wall be built between them and the ungodly who somehow defile or lessen the strength of the church’s authority. Their church, their faith, cannot withstand and encroaching world of gray uncertainty. And so they will build more walls. More divisions. And more people will run into those walls full force, and then dazed, will walk away disheartened.

Perhaps you might say my characterization is inaccurate, or insensitive to the dear and heartfelt beliefs of those in favor of the Traditional plan.

At this point in my life, I don’t care.

I used to care. I used to care very deeply, in fact. I dedicated my life to engaging in dialogue, creating an open space in study and in church meetings to discuss matters of all kinds of range and depth, often to wonderful results. However, this was in the local church, and when it comes to denomination-wide matters, the game changes entirely. Soon, control and power come into play in a whole new dimension. And the darkest, most fearful beliefs of those afraid of change, afraid of the other, and afraid that what they knew and loved might not always be how they imagined it would be come to the fore. Fear reigns. And when one is afraid, one seeks to defend. And what better defense is there than a wall?

I have seen what these walls do to those who believe in the gospel of transformation, renewal and grace. There is little grace in a wall, and there is little grace in the fearful. I am tired of being afraid of offending those who have little grace in their hearts. I am tired of being afraid of people who, in seeking to defend their little kingdoms from perceived threats, end up ostracizing, alienating, and disowning people who God desires to know, and love, and give grace to.

Mackinaw-Bridge-Walk-2018-from-south-tower-1Extending a Bridge

One of my dear friends in the Louisiana conference asked her congregation, “Who does God love?” In asking this question, she sought to truly probe those who let fear and suspicion color the gospel. Does God love the refugee child at the border? Does God love the woman who has an abortion? Does God love the Lesbian, the Gay man, the Bisexual? Does God love the Trans man, woman, or non-binary person? Does God love the sex worker? Does God love the poor? The African American? The Latinx? The downtrodden, the forgotten, and the unloved?

I will answer her question with a resounding YES.

God does love all of these people. And because God loves them, God wants us, in God’s church, to love them. 

God’s love is extensive, and radical, and life-changing. God’s love says YES. God’s love and grace is so vast it can encompass anyone who seeks it. God does not discriminate, and neither should we. More than that, God affirms the gifts and graces of all who seek to know the divine, and that includes all of the above and then some. God affirms and loves those who seek faithful relationships with each other, no matter how that might look.

On the other hand, God desires us to abandon our walls. God didn’t want us to build up huge towers. God, as revealed in Christ, told his followers to go out and tell people of the grace that God offers. Go to every town, every nation, every corner of the earth. Tell them what God has done for them, and then show them with their love.

I believe in an ever-changing world, influenced by the Almighty power, grace and love of the divine. I am convinced of a future that God is going to reveal to us in due time, and that future is revealed in the most “unconventional places.”

God’s love doesn’t look like a wall, or a building, or a bulwark or barrier. God’s love is a bridge, from the future to the present, an Advent realized when we understand that God’s power is manifest when we share in blessed communion with each other, and seek the good, the just, the merciful and the grace-filled.

constructionThe View of the Construction from Exile

No matter what happens, the church is going to be in pain for the foreseeable future. Walls will be built, no matter what. And in 20-30 years, those who built the walls will find that the ones they tried to exclude will still be inside their supposed safe-space, and will cry out for justice once again.

Because that’s the thing about God’s grace. You can try to resist it, and you might even succeed. But God is infinitely creative, and the cry for justice and love will never die, not completely. The fight will continue. But I believe that in the end, of course, we will see that the ones building bridges will have the new iteration of the church that looks just a bit more like God’s kin-dom. One that may not have as many people, or as much money, or power, or public prestige as the ones with the the high walls, but it will be vibrant, and rich, and life-giving. It’ll last longer, and give hope to those who need it. It’ll be warmer, and filled with much needed grace.

That’s the church I want to be a part of.

That’s the bridge I want to help build.

So this week is going to be hard. Walls will inevitably be built.

But we must always keep an eye to the future, to see what God’s going to do next among the rubble and the ruins.

God has a knack for resurrection, after all.

 

About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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