(Note: this is an article I wrote in February of 2017. As the sermon this week is about hope, I think this article is just as apropos today as it was last year. We have a plenteous mission field in which to immerse ourselves.)
I have had the glorious gift of retreat for the past week and a half. Six days on an island/key with two old and wonderful friends, and (so far) three days at a Trappist monastery. I have purposefully surrounded myself with creation, friendship, religious icons, solitude and silence, and prayer offices. I have purposefully avoided the news and social media banter. Time and distance has allowed for thought and reflection, and I’ve come to believe that the Church, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, is missing – and has been missing – some grand opportunities.
I’ll preface this by saying I was raised and am a social and political oddity. My father was a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans, yet wouldn’t avoid the draft for the Korean War even at the insistence of my grandfather, who had lost a son in World War II. My mother was a social liberal as well, growing up a coal miner’s daughter and whose mother’s only sources of income were social security and the Black Lung Benefits Act. Both of my parents grew up in poverty, and while social liberals they were fiscally conservative - yet very generous with their own money in their community and in helping aging parents. My father became a college professor. My brother and I are well educated as well; my brother has four degrees and I have two. We grew up in a small southern college town that hosted students of many different nationalities. Our neighbors were Cuban refugees, and their youngest son and my brother became best friends (in fact, my brother’s Spanish became nearly as good as his English). He, like my father, went into academics and is a college professor and research scientist in immunology. You could probably call both of us “educated rednecks” – my brother has a farm where he regularly hunts and fishes. I gave up both early in life and became a motorcyclist and shade tree mechanic instead, at least where hobbies are concerned.
Unlike my Midwestern parents, my brother and I became products of Southern culture. We hunted, fished, and hauled hay in the summer. At the same time, we also played baseball, tennis, and golf. At home we were surrounded with books, intellectual conversations, and political discussions, yet we also went out in the evenings and ran around with friends whose parents were white-collar and blue-collar, upper-middle class and lower-middle class, and (because of the university) of every color and nationality: white, black, Cuban, Indian, Korean, Arabian, Lebanese - and we all did things that were wholesome as well as the things that can often land young people in trouble. We both went to the same college where our father taught, and met and became friends with even more diverse folks: Japanese, Venezuelan, Iranian, African, and Russian. We were both active at the Wesley Foundation. It was a unique childhood and education.
As I reflect on where I’ve been, and where I am now, I see a lot of angst and fear. Not just in the rural area in which I serve as a district superintendent/shepherd of a few counties in far Western Kentucky, but across the world. So much anger and division around politics – and not just here in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit campaign has caused great chasms amidst its citizenry. This spring France will have an election that has the potential to be as divisive as our own U.S. election. And immigration woes are not unique to the U.S., as the U.K., Germany, and Sweden are struggling with how to handle refugees. Some of it is logistics, for others it involves cultural biases, and for still others, fear. There are no easy answers. It becomes more complicated when you try to live in the tension of logistical and political realities versus a Christian faith that embraces the Beatitudes and Great Commandment not as suggestions, but as a way of life.
The temptation is great to pick a “side” in all this – and in the U.S. we tend to think and align ourselves in polar terms, using an either/or logic. Picking either side would make my life easier, and either side would probably win me more friends. But there is a reality that, as one who is both Christian and a pastor, I can’t escape: on any given Sunday, either in the United Methodist Church or most other churches, the folks in the pews are usually split 60/40 on political alignment, one way or the other (at least, according to a study quoted in a recent issue of Christian Century). There are of course exceptions, but it’s fair to say that God-fearing and believing people are Democrats and Republicans alike, and both attend our churches. My own denomination finds itself in the same ideological camps beyond Democrat or Republican: are you Good News/Confessing Movement/WCA or are you RMN/MFSA? Preaching partisan politics or alignment, at least to me, just seems pointless and possibly violates the vow to do no harm. But more importantly, it’s just plain ineffective - and I believe - theologically and biblically unsound.
As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few weeks ago, if you read Romans 12 AND 13 in context, we pray for our leaders that they might be godly people, and then - pretty much - pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: sacrifice, don’t allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, please God. Let Caesar, the President, and the Prime Minister be about their work, but know as Christians that love fulfills the law and does no harm to a neighbor. We put on the robe of Jesus the Christ. That’s our task; not to be about a political party’s business, but to be about the Lord’s business.
That may mean that we willingly and sacrificially place ourselves in the middle of the fray; in that messy middle isn’t a fence, but a cross, and a cross we are commanded to bear. Not in a martyr, “look at me” sort of way, but in a servant, sacrificial way. And it’s not to avoid being political, but in fact to EMBRACE a politic: the many, many folks for whom the Church may be saying it is doing something for, but when it comes to doing, has done damned little. I would add that I have to indict myself as well. The Church has not filled a vacuum – it has created one.
The very same people who are in “backlash” politically have seen (a) the government fail them, and (b) the Church fail them. Why or how that’s occurred, or even if their reasons are “right” or “wrong,” matters little. People are hurting. In the area I live in, I’ve watched factories and industries dry up in the 50+ years I have been alive. Hopelessness turns people to drugs and addictions. Nones and Dones either found the Church wanting, or (worse) shooting their wounded. Secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters have become idols while the primary Gospel message of love, grace, and hope has been lost. That’s less my observation, and more the observation of the growing number of people who love God and Jesus Christ, but have come to the conclusion that the Church sucks. Some of those same people have concluded that government sucks, too. I grew up with these folks, lived with these folks, and now seek to shepherd and pastor these folks. Many of them no longer attend a church, or have never attended to begin with – and in their minds, for good reason. You can learn a lot by occasionally hanging out with people outside of the Church. Jesus did some - most - of his best work there.
Charles R. Morris, a columnist for Commonweal, wrote a great article in the January 6th issue, “Backlash: Trump’s Rise Is Part of a Pattern.” It discusses the historical and present political sways endemic to our world. One takeaway is this: things are very broken – both in government and in the Church – and those who have been ignored and hurting for a long time are now responding. In response to a perceived void, the void is being filled - for better or worse. One fact is undeniable: nature abhors a vacuum.
This could be an opportunity for the United Methodist Church - as well as any other church or communion - to shine. Instead of continuing the mostly insular argument about who’s theologically and ideologically correct, we could decide to make disciples and let God sort it all out. In short: progressive folks? Go make disciples who are progressively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Conservative folks? Go make disciples who are conservatively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Pastors? Go shepherd wherever you’re sent and love your people, even if some of them have politics you don’t like. Let your call and your love outweigh your opinions (wow, that even sounds Wesleyan!). Build bridges across the gaps. Outdo others in showing love and compassion (wow, that even sounds biblical!). And everyone: realize that as a Church, we are a minority that more and more people have less and less respect for, and even less inclination to be a part of. We are called to minister to the least, the last, and the lost – of which the number continues to grow. Our world needs hope. Our Church used to be in the hope business. Jesus still is.
There is no shortage of people who need saved from despair, pain, and hopelessness. They are rural and urban alike. But we DO have a shortage of professed Christians who are willing to ditch their own politics and partisan theology and go tell people that they are children that God loved and cherished since the day that they were born.
The reality is that there aren’t just two sides. This world and the people in it represent a multifaceted reality that needs hope, love, grace, and peace. We don’t have to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The question is: what are we willing to give up that is a stumbling block to those who are already stumbling? Are we willing to jump into the fray rather than take a side in it?
“They will know we are Christians…”
Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017