Tho’ Lovers Be Lost Love Shall Not
The future of The United Methodist Church hangs in the balance, we are told. We have to do this, or perhaps that, but most certainly the opposite of the other if we are going to become a strong, vital denomination again. There are as many thoughts about what ails us as there are offered cures. We no longer value doctrine. We need to focus solely on Scripture. We should worship in a traditional style again. We are focused too much on ourselves and not enough on mission. We should not focus so much on doctrine. The Bible is only one of the sources for our theological reflection and understanding. We should encourage more contemporary worship styles. We need to remain committed to a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality. We need to open ourselves to same-sex marriage and the call to ministry experience by LGBTQ people.
So many answers. Usually they are offered to questions no one is asking. More than that, they become rallying cries for folks to choose sides. If you don’t agree with me, you aren’t a Christian. No matter what you think you believe, if you do not believe as I do you are going to hell, to suffer conscious torment for eternity (or at least until hell is destroyed in a lake of fire at the eschaton). It seems we enjoy hell-fire-and-brimstone arguments if not preaching. It is necessary, after all, to make clear demarcations between ourselves and everyone else. If our identity is either porous or equivocal, we are told, we cannot do what we are called to do. More: We cannot be who we are if we don’t know who we are.
I’m going to tell a secret. Actually, it’s not a secret. So, OK, I’m not going to tell you a secret. It’s more a truth, really, that all of us would prefer not to consider. No matter how hard we try, however, there is no escaping this truth. The hierarchy doesn’t want it spoken aloud. All the church pundits and pontificators, the folks who seem to make it their life’s work to be heard on any and every subject that catches their attention, they probably don’t think about it at all. Your average church member? This is a truth they either do not know or no not care to consider, because it seems so final. None of this, however, makes it any less true.
That’s quite a wind-up, isn’t it?
See this? Once upon a time – in the 12th century – this was the largest Cathedral in Scotland. All that remains of it now, however, are a couple walls. Even those aren’t complete. Where the faithful once gathered to sing and pray and worship God, now only grass grows. Insects, spiders, and field mice live out their lives where once stood an altar to God. Tourists come, take pictures of the bare remnants, and probably shake their heads in sadness at what once was, but is now no longer.
Here’s the non-secret: This is the future of the United Methodist Church. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, no matter what nostrums or rostrums we imbibe, no matter if we revive and add millions to our membership rolls . . . we shall die, leaving behind – perhaps – some bare remnants like St. Andrew’s, but more than likely little more than old photos and forgotten piles of archives sitting unread somewhere.
This isn’t a counsel of pessimism, however. It’s a reminder that our Church lives in no small part by that covenant that we renew each year, usually on or around New Year’s, part of which reads “or be put aside for thee.” No on speaking that, however, considers the possibility that our whole denomination might well be set aside for God, our race run, our fight over, new races by new people set out to be run through places and in ways we cannot even imagine today.
When we make the faith claim that the Church is the Body of Christ, we rarely consider all that entails, not least of which that it is both fully Divine and fully Human. Like it’s Head, the Church faces temptation, pain, suffering, and – yes – death. This isn’t something horrible. As Christians, we ask with St. Paul “Where, of death, is thy sting?” We no longer fear death because we know the finality of death has been swallowed up in victory. As it approaches, we can prepare ourselves to welcome it, believing in our hearts that death no longer holds us hostage.
As with us as individuals, so, too, with us a communities of faith. They exist for as long as they serve the purposes set before them by God, then they pass away. Not because of sin or senescence; nor because of polls or demographics; if we believe this, we have too little faith to call ourselves Christian. At some point, it will be the work of others, picking up where we left off, finishing what we started. I don’t get sad thinking about this. In fact, it excites me considering the possibilities the future always holds. Should we get so caught up in saving ourselves, for no other reason than some misplaced sense of loyalty and faith, we might well miss all sorts of opportunities to prepare the way for those who will come after us.
None of this is to suggest the end for the United Methodist Church is nigh. About that, I have neither opinion nor much emotional interest. I am far more interested both in what we do now and where we might well go in the future. Please notice I don’t mention anything about identity; that, friends, is the gift of God, about which we have no say. No, I want the United Methodist Church to be The United Methodist Church, remembering that defines us, regardless of all the arguments and demands from one group or another. I am excited about our work in all the world; I am in prayer for the people we serve, and who serve us by teaching us what it is to be Church; I remember United Methodist Christians all over the United States, in various countries across Africa, in The Philippines, in Latin America, and Europe and am thankful. I look down the pew during worship on Sundays, and I see my daughters singing, listening to the sermon, praying, sharing Holy Communion, and I know the Church will be in their faithful, capable hands, and will be shaped by them as much as it has shaped them.
Still, that end shall come. No matter what we do. Me, I’m going to continue to give and work and pray and worship and witness because that is the commitment we make when we become members. All the rest, well, St. Thomas said it and I’ve quoted him before but it bears repeating: All the rest is straw.