Being the Church When It Hurts

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. — 1 Corinthians 12:14, RSV

Believe it or not… most people disagree with their church home of choice in one way or another. I know it’s hard to believe that an institution made up of humans could ever fail to spiritually deliver, but I’m afraid it’s true. Many Roman Catholics I know disagree with the Vatican’s take on sexuality and birth control. As an Episcopalian, I know many in my denomination disagree with the unstoppable “progressive” train powering through the national church at the moment. Recently, many United Methodists were crushed by the General Conference decision to maintain and “shore up” restrictions on LGBTQ+ inclusion in marriage and ordination rites.

Anyone familiar with church history knows that there have been many times when the faithful were (or should have been) at odds with the institutional church. The Christian religion has been complicit in many less-than-stellar historical events. We were silent in the face of German fascism, and we resisted the American Civil Rights Movement. We hunted and tortured “witches,” force-converted numerous groups of people, and participated in the violence of colonization. We persecuted Jews and participated in the mutual disaster of the crusades.

Thankfully, that’s not the whole story, as we also resisted and fought for righteous change in the midst of all those dark moments.

As an institution, we have failed quite a bit. But it’s also true that when the people of God are filled with and guided by His Spirit, we actually become the Church we were intended to be, even if it means resisting the establishment. God’s Church is not limited to the Pope, cardinals, bishops, deacons, priests, or pastors. It is not limited to the conferences or conventions. God’s Church is made up of all God’s people, and that includes you.

We’ve gotten in the habit of confusing institutional decisions with the extent of the Church’s reach. When the authorities decide something, that must be it, right? Wrong! You represent the Church! If God is calling you and those like you to move, then move!

Let’s say you are a lay United Methodist who was put off by the General Conference decision last week. The UMC will not bless same-sex unions or ordain members of the LGBTQ+ community, so what can you do? Well, you and those like you could make it a spiritual practice to attend and participate in same-sex weddings for those you know and love. You could also host small groups that enable LGBTQ+ members to explore their calling to preach and teach the Word of God. What if you’re a Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Roman Catholic? You could advocate for honest, accurate, and realistic sexual education resources that will help reduce unwanted pregnancies. Are you a conservative Episcopalian? Make your voice heard as you lovingly defend traditional language and practice, advocating for a more cautious approach to ecclesiastical change.

The point is this: You are not without power, especially when you are guided by the love of God and neighbor!

When we are faced with the evils of this world, we often ask where God is. We wonder why the Church doesn’t seem to be making a difference. The answer is God is where He needs to be, and the Church will make a difference when you and I decide to be where we are supposed to be. The Church is not a building, conference, or institution. It is a people. If we can remember this and put it into practice, we can shine the light of Christ in any darkness, and it will not be overcome (John 1:5).

I’m not saying you should leave your organized religion and go rogue. We’ve had enough “Jim Jones” activity in this crazy world, I think. What I am saying is that you can still follow the path God has set before you, filtered through the love of Christ, even when the “powers that be” set off in a different direction. In fact, doing so can lead to all kinds of positive, Spirit-filled change beyond anything you initially thought possible.

Now, take heart, child of God. You are not alone, and we are nowhere near the finish line. As long as the people of God actively and earnestly strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the best is yet to come.

Peace be with you!

Where to Put One’s Faith

…That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations. — Psalm 67:2, RSV

People have a habit of looking to our human institutions to solve problems. A good example would be this past week’s General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It should be known that every person had already decided how they were voting with regard to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members in Christian ministry and marriage. While the circus may have been moving, as various speakers took to sharing their perspectives and beliefs on the matter, no one was going to be swayed away from what they had previously decided.

For myself and others, the results were disappointing, but certainly not surprising. The United Methodist Church serves the god of numbers, and whether it’s money, members, or votes, the biggest number is the clear winner, and obviously symbolizes the approval and work of God. Now, the UMC is not the only denomination or institution to function this way. Most human-based structures operate with the same basic understanding of power, and we look to such places as if this is where God has made His ways known.

The problem is this isn’t true.

As God declares in Isaiah 55, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (verse 8). Indeed, God’s “ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts” (verse 9). Just as God’s ways differ from our own, so the way God reveals Himself runs counter to human expectations, and there is no better example than Jesus.

When God made Himself known to us in the One who would be called “Christ” or “King,” He didn’t choose the way of Roman royalty. When He decided to deliver us, He didn’t become a general of legions, or the charismatic leader of an insurrection. When God wanted to teach us His ways, He didn’t spend all His time in the established Jewish synagogues or Roman temples, re-iterating the same old teachings.

No, all of Christian belief and practice began as a response to the God that shouldn’t have been. Our faith is dependent upon the child who shouldn’t have lived from a place that shouldn’t have mattered. We learn from the Teacher who shouldn’t have taught, the Healer who shouldn’t have healed, and the Prophet who shouldn’t have prophesied. Our King washes feet, our Deliverer suffers death, and the condemned Man brings us to new life in God.

Christian institutions have arisen in response to this story, and that is not a bad thing. It’s good to have a community with which we can grow in our journey. What is bad, however, is that for far too many people, the institution has now become synonymous with the God it intends to serve. Christianity has been represented by powerful organizations that look more like those who would try to silence Jesus than the people who initially embraced Him.

We have forgotten that the Spirit of God goes where It wants, and does what It wants. The Spirit cannot be wrangled or possessed, and it is not beholden to the written code of any church or government. Further, God’s Church is not confined to one set of walls. The Church is a people, filled with and guided by the Spirit of God, and it reaches across every boundary we humans try to erect.

If we want to see a change in the way the world seems to work, we must take our place as members of God’s Church and citizens of His Kingdom. Instead of looking to our government or church policies to heal this broken world, the task falls to us to live out our lives and relationships in the life-giving way of Christ. We are called to imitate the Incarnation, allowing the Spirit of God to become “incarnate” in us as we live according to the selfless example of Jesus.

This is not a call to abandon your denomination. This is not a call to anarchy. Rather, it is a plea for us to seek change from the bottom up, beginning with us and the way we choose to love God and others. As the UMC and other others have learned, human institutions have their limits, even when attempting to express something sacred. They will not always get it right, and they are not always the chosen method by which God reveals His will. Religions and governments may get things wrong, but when the people of God seek diligently after what is right, the Spirit of God still has plenty to work with.

It is my prayer that my brothers and sisters in the UMC will find comfort in the fact that God is God, with or without the votes. I also hope that those who are distressed due to governmental, political, or social issues will remember that no human power or authority has the final say. Instead, we should live intentional lives of service to each other in the name of the One who really is in charge, that His “way may be known upon earth,” and His “saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2).