Generally, I write something for our consideration on Wednesdays, purposely focusing on the smaller community of the UMC of Preston Hollow and those who follow us. Today is different. The intentional audience is wider, yet my hope is, it is still a word for all of us.
I am weary of all the division and side-taking that seems to have overtaken all of us. We choose up sides and defend our stance to the bitter end. Its unhealthy and its not in keeping with who we are called to be as Christians and as Americans. Of course, that’s my opinion. I’ll get back to it being my opinion in just a moment.
When I graduated from Southern Methodist University 25 years ago with my DMin. with honors, my father (who considered me a know-it-all) said, “Well, you finally do know it all!” It was quite a funny joke between us. I repeated to him what some wise professor had said to me, “what education really does, is it teaches us what all we DON’T know.” Those words have haunted me all of my ministry. What all I don’t know. And that covers sooooo much.
One of the things that drew me to the United Methodist Church was its theology of Grace, but also the professionalism I saw in its clergy, the intentional study they engaged in, and the real camaraderie that seemed to exist among the pastors. Somewhere along the way, it seems I wandered away from the collegiality and camaraderie to engage in more “Lone Ranger” actions. I believed I could do it all on my own. I believed my clergy sisters and brothers were on their own doing their thing, and so was I. I paid lip service to the whole idea of connectionalism. That was just a fancy word we used to say how we stand apart from other denominations.
In my over 30 years of pastoral ministry I’ve come to know how little I really do know. I’m in awe of so many of my clergy sisters and brothers. They are brilliant academicians and theologues. They are clear-eyed strong preachers with insights that I could never hope to come up with. I’m really just a hack next to them. My faith is more simple, more child-like. Its like the often told story about Karl Barth at the University of Chicago. A student asked him if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology. Barth is said to have replied, ““Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” This really has been my guiding theology all of my life. I’m not smart enough or wise enough to debate the fine points of theology with others. I know the words we use in theological circles, I know the arguments we lay out for our different positions on various issues. But I don’t really know or comprehend what they mean, like I do when it comes to the words “Jesus loves me.”
I’ve been hearing an increasing tone in those who are saying the United Methodist Church is dying, its dwindling, its on its way out. They say connectionalism is dead. In my own feeble way, I have to beg to differ with those statements.
This week has taught me more about the ways of Jesus and about the connectionalism we should continue to be proud of and foster. Those who take the Lone Ranger road of ministry tend to believe they are in competition with other clergy for appointments, for recognition, for positions of power. Connectionalism tells us we are in this together. We stand on each other’s shoulders, and lean on one another when we are too weak to stand.
I’m an outlier, I’m a progressive who has always felt like I was on the outside looking in, when it came to my relationship to the conference and my clergy sisters and brothers. I believed I had to hide my true nature, and to do so I had to keep everyone at arm’s length and be a lone ranger. This was to my detriment. If I couldn’t be accepted for who I am, I would never experience connectionalism at its finest.
This week has opened my eyes like never before. As you may know, my beloved life partner, Antoine, passed away on Monday morning, with me by his side. That continues to be a hard statement to write. The outpouring of love and support from my clergy brothers and sisters has been overwhelming. Not just the progressive pastors, but the conservative ones as well. The clergy AND laity of the North Texas Conference have covered me in prayer like I’ve never experienced. From the bishop and members of the cabinet, to clergy in small and large churches, to laity in churches I’ve served or come in contact with. They have all expressed a tenderness and concern for me that I would have never imagined.
Now to my opinion. This is the way its SUPPOSED to be. We can fuss and cuss with one another over our disagreements on theology, or social norms, or any other issues that seek to divide us. But as children of God, we are called to lay those things aside and love one another. Kind of like the way Jesus does. I know, I know, my theology is simplistic and maybe even naive.
Our world seeks to divide itself in so many ways. Division pays off sometimes in short-term gains. One side can best the other side and get their way, but at what cost? The cost is the loss of decency, compassion, grace, acceptance and love. If Jesus can love me, who out there can I not love?
The North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church has shown me such grace, such love, such compassion. I cannot tell you how deeply moved I am by the presence of Jesus I’ve come to know in all of you. Whatever time I have left in active ministry, I will endeavor to be a better colleague, more connected to each of you.
Your fellow traveler on The Way,