“The church is full of oxymorons. Want to hear one? United Methodist.”
I laughed. It was funny. But I also winced. Because it’s painfully true. Our unity as a denomination, as the church universal, has been a joke for a long time. I can’t imagine what it looks like to people standing outside of our Christian community. Well I sorta can. I’m sure it looks ridiculous. I’m sure it looks like we are haters and liars. We say one of the marks of the church is unity…and then proceed to fight it out Jets and Sharks style (we do have some awesome songs and hand motions).
When I was younger, although certainly old enough to know better, one day I got mad at my sister. She was annoying me even after I had asked her repeatedly to stop. Finally I started yelling at her and then…I tried to choke her. Not my finest hour. I quickly realized this was a bad idea…like super quickly…and stopped. I hadn’t consciously thought “Oh I should choke her now” but I was just so ticked off! I was a kid, I was mad, and I had zero impulse control. I don’t really remember what happened after that. I remember letting go and backing away. I remember her crying. I remember my mom staring at me in disbelief as my sister had told her what happened. But I mentioned it to my mom the other day and she doesn’t remember it. My sister doesn’t really remember that much of it either. But I remember it very vividly as one of the most shameful moments in my life. I am the big sister. My job is to love and protect and encourage. But I got angry and it got ugly.
My sister and I are very close now. We talk most days, although we both have very busy schedules so we don’t get to talk every day. We definitely don’t agree on everything but we do respect and love one another too much to let that be an issue in our relationship. We are sisters and that comes first.
I recognize that the bad blood and difficult divisions between our denominations and our church members run much deeper than anything that exists between my sister and I. We don’t have centuries of animosity and bitter fighting between us. But scripture tells us to love each other as brothers and sisters so we need to look at how families interact when they are at their best and try to learn from that. That means being respectful even when we disagree. It means listening even when all we want to do is get up and walk away. It means agreeing that no matter what we disagree on we are still family; we still love each other.
It doesn’t mean finding creative new ways to separate ourselves. It doesn’t mean choosing sides and throwing separate parties during annual conference. It doesn’t mean congratulating ourselves on our ability to be “mostly civil” when radical, familial love is the standard we are called to.
One of the fundamental parts of the Christian life is the celebration of the Eucharist, although some of us call it the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table or maybe something else I’m not yet familiar with. We don’t all celebrate it in the same way, look at it in the same way, or celebrate it at the same time. This fundamental ritual (sacrament, ordinance) of our faith shows the seriousness of our divisions.
Jesus sat at his table and blessed the bread and the wine in the presence of his actual enemy, Judas. Yet as Christians we can’t come together over this same holy meal because we cannot agree on theological issues. Don’t misunderstand me- the divisions in our denomination and the church universal run deep and a long way back. I respect that these divisions are real and are often heartbreaking and critical for people. Hear me clearly: I don’t deny that these divisions are real and important. What I am denying is the idea that we can’t find a way to still be one church. Really? We can’t all agree that Jesus is Lord? We can’t come to his table? We can’t disagree with someone and still worship with them? Still exist as one church?
It gets easy to separate from those who disagree with us when they aren’t people that we know or love. And that’s hugely problematic because loving our neighbor is the second greatest commandment we have. Is there any debate there?
If instead of seeing division and debate we saw people what would happen to our church? If we picture it as one big feast with all the members of our church family seated at the table what would happen to our view of the church universal? Could you stand on your chair and cast them out? Could you refuse them a seat?
I’m not saying we have to agree. Because frankly I’m not going to agree with everyone and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I don’t want to be the church without Africa. I don’t want to be the church without Asia, Europe, South or Central America. I don’t want to be the church without women, men, or children that don’t look like me. I do want to try to love people as Christ loves them and see them as Christ sees them. I want to find ways to compromise, to agree to disagree and to let that be ok. Because I don’t want to not be in community with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
This first semester in seminary has been a struggle for me. I’ve struggled with the sheer volume of differing thoughts, doctrines, and opinions. How can we possibly hold all these things together? And the truth is we can only do it if we hold them with an open hand. If we close our hands and decide that these things alone must be right then we will have to let go of the ideas and people that don’t fit. But if we hold them with an open hand we are able to stay in community and conversation.
I don’t agree with you. I think your theology is sketchy at best. But I love you as my brother/sister. I love you because you too are made in the image of God. I don’t want us to be divided. Can we talk about it? Can we each be uncomfortable so that we can at least be together?
I don’t have any real answers. I only have a burning desire to take seriously our calling to be a united church.