If God is unity and totality, and all things come from God and all things are under the command and control of God (God the ground of ALL being), then how many sides does God have? An infinite number or one? And if infinite — including all sides with no sides outside — isn’t this the same as one? Have I blown your mind yet?
The basis of this question comes from an encounter I had this morning at the Norske Nook in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. I stopped for eggs, toast and coffee, and across from me — one table away — sat an older woman (older than me, anyway…) reading a well-worn Bible. Well-worn is not fully descriptive. I estimate that each and every page in this Bible has been touched, studied, and turned a thousand times. It could no longer close flat — the pages were all crinkled and feathered and fat. Marks in pencil and pen annotated every page. Bookmarks, scraps of paper, dried flowers, Post-It notes and napkins marked dozens of special places. The woman made eye contact and I said, “You’ve put that Bible to some pretty serious use.” Her response was, “It’s the only book I read.” I replied, “If you’re only going to read one, that’s the one to read.” She smiled, started to turn back to her reading, then asked, “Do you ever read it?”
What went through my mind was a brief, “what am I getting myself into?” thought. I decided to jump in, and let her know that I am an ordained United Methodist pastor. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she said, simply, “Oh.” Not an “isn’t that interesting, oh,” but a kind of “that’s too bad, oh.” I laughed and asked her what “oh” meant. She said, “I don’t care much for church. In my experience, church does more to hurt people’s relationship with God, than help it.”
I absolutely love finding people who blow away stereotypes and labels, and this woman, Mary, is a delightful example. We talked a little bit about her feelings about church and God, and she revealed to me that she is pro-life when it comes to babies, but a strong supporter of the death penalty. She is a card-carrying member of the NRA (she showed me) and loves hunting. She thinks Obama is the worst thing that has happened to this country since George W. Bush, whom she referred to as “our dimwit president.” She works for social services and volunteers at homeless shelters and food pantries, and is an advocate and advisor for Muslim women, and is adamantly pro-immigration. She battles human trafficking and she thinks Governor Walker is misunderstood and “as good a politician as Wisconsin deserves.” She gave up on the church for the simple reason that she thinks organized religion is designed to “force people to choose sides.”
Mary shared her basic philosophy — best summarized as “live and let live.” She said, “Okay, God is God. Everything created comes from God. If it comes from God, it is good — even if it gets broken or dirty, it still belongs to God. What right do I, or anyone, have to pass judgment on something that comes from God? Every church I have ever been a part of spends more time deciding who is acceptable and who is not, than joyfully accepting everything as God’s.”
“I absolutely hate the idea of abortion. I believe every new life is precious. I want every child to have a chance. And I am working with young Muslim women abandoned and abused and taken advantage of, barely existing in poverty, dealing with racism and prejudice on every side. A lot of them are pregnant. I do everything in my power to convince them to have their babies, but in the very rare cases that I can’t convince them, I do everything I can to make sure they get a safe, medically protected procedure. It isn’t my decision to make, and it isn’t my place to judge. I have one responsibility and one duty. To love the person I am working with and make sure they are safe and cared for.”
Now, agree or disagree with the position and the logic — Mary didn’t learn this kind of compassion and selfless care from any church. In fact, in her personal experience, churches don’t operate this way. “I don’t want to waste my life arguing about who to love and who to hate, who deserves love and who doesn’t. God is love. God is infinite. Love is infinite. There are no sides — no inside, no outside — to God. I gave up on church because church kept forcing me to take a side. I chose God instead.”
As our denomination debates schism and possible split; as we claim our human differences are much greater than God’s reconciling love; as we look with suspicion at one another, silently assessing which side we’re on, it might be helpful to wrestle with Mary’s view — a view well articulated in the letter to the Ephesians. I think about Mary’s well-read, well-loved, and well-revisited Bible. Could be she’s on to something that those of us who don’t spend as much time as Mary with our own Bibles are missing.
Categories: Christian witness, Personal Reflection
A view from the pew: The United Methodist Church has become too restrictive in its thinking. It has lost sight of the fact that the biggest battlefront is not always the glaring social justice issues but is also the individual who wakes up each morning and makes the decision as to whose immortal he/she is going to be (this is somebody else’s expression). In his book, “On the Threshold of Grace”, Donald Haynes describes how during the 20th century church became about “churchianity” at the expense of Christianity and “churchmanship” at the expense of discipleship. Several years ago I heard Bishop Schnase speak in San Antonio. During the talk, he pointed out that the church had got it wrong in that a person who showed any spiritual depth was immediately put on track to be a pastor; otherwise, a lay person had “arrived” when they became a trustee. Everybody laughed, but it is a sad truth. All three statements describe my life long experience with the church. It is why there is no real spiritual depth in the pews. It is why there are very few people walking the walk and talking the talk 24/7. It is why there are very few people who are competent, confident and conversant in their faith 24/7. And this is very sad for the United Methodist Church because it is in existence because John Wesley changed the world by connecting individuals to the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun and then enabled them to live a life centered in God 24/7 regardless of their circumstances; as a result, God was then enabled to change communities one person at a time.
As to “sides” within the UMC; I have recently grounded myself in basic orthodox Christianity with a Wesleyan accent. It landed me in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace. It is a far cry from the modern fundamentalism which is present on both sides of the sexuality argument. To even think about living in peace, both sides have to accept that the other’s view is as much a matter of conscience as their own. And my nominee for least likely to co-operate on this: the liberals/progressives; as far as I am concerned, the ball is mostly in their court. Personally, I think the fact that the General Conference has come up with the exact same answer 11 times over 40 years carries some weight. If we can’t expect God to speak and work through our processes, then how is he going to speak to us as a denomination?
Another Classic Wordsmithing Br. Dan…………
I wish I had the ability to travel to these HOTSPOTS of Discipleship with you…………Rice Lake in January/WINTER? MY GOSH……..
oh, and BTW Congrats on your New Conference Position.