I used to steal away into the sanctuary of Community United Methodist Church when I was a kid—this is fifth, maybe sixth grade—and lay on my back in the cool wooden pews, staring up at the ceiling with nothing short of wonder.
(Note: this wasn’t on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening or any other time when one would expect to find a kid laying in the pews.)
I don’t remember what was on the ceiling, but I must believe it wasn’t necessarily beautiful or awe-inspiring. I can safely guarantee there were no Sistine-like paintings, perhaps not even some finely stained wooden beams. The church was beautiful, but not like the Catholic near-cathedral only a few blocks down the road.
And yet, I Ioved going in there. I felt welcomed. And I felt safe.
I attribute these afternoons to my later infatuation with Wesleyan theology and the United Methodist Church. I was dyed-in-the-wool, a total nerd for my denominational heritage. And in a time when people were beginning to shun church membership—when the specifics of denominational doctrine became muddy and, dare I say, inconsequential—I would turn to my fellow purists and be reminded that the Methodists believe in sanctifying grace.
And man did I learn about grace as a budding Methodist. More than that. Grace was wrapped around me like a blanket, trusting that even though I might not understand it now, eventually I would. And I would need that lesson. I would need to remember that there was nothing I could do to separate myself from God’s love and that no matter how far I ran (pretty far) or how long I stepped away (it was a minute), God would always pursue me.
Always. That’s a big-ass word, theologically speaking. And it’s pretty damn good news for a lonely kid who pretty much broke into the church looking for safety and acceptance. Later, in divinity school, I would embrace (much to the chagrin of future Lutheran co-workers) the idea of Christian Perfection, or the belief that God is constantly at work in us. In the world. The process of sanctification, finally complete. A continuous hope in the power of being surprised.
It was amid this grace-filled theology when I first heard a record scratch. I had just graduated from college and was struggling to understand a recent calling to ministry. I read the Bible every day. I served as a youth leader for a local church. And I had just started venturing out onto various theological limbs that would eventually define my faith.
That same year, The United Methodist Church reaffirmed a statement in the Book of Discipline, stating that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I admit that I was unprepared – both theologically and Biblically – to articulate why that felt wrong and counterintuitive to what the same church had taught me.
And make no mistake; it is wrong.
How could we believe in a robust – nearly undeniable – version of grace and maintain a stance that was lacking not only in grace, but in the basic tenets of the gospels? I put my ordination plans on hold. I considered other denominations. But a belief that grace can change even the hardest of hearts, that God is constantly pursuing even those who sow seeds of hate and harm, tied me down with chains made of the strongest material possible—hope.
Last month, nearly twenty years later, Methodists from around the globe gathered for another General Conference in hopes of finding a way forward. Even though I’d left the denomination five years earlier, unable to raise my kids with integrity in a church that wouldn’t fully welcome them, I had my own hopes. Mainly that the denomination that baptized, confirmed, and called me into ministry would finally find a way to embrace every person who walked through their doors, no matter what. To live into that big-ass word, always.
But they didn’t. The voting results at General Conference not only affirmed the homophobic language but—at least for the time being—strengthened the penalties for clergy who stand against this simplistic and, let’s just admit it, grace-lacking view of scripture.
Since the vote, many of my friends have renounced their membership in the church. Many are choosing to stay and fight. And unfortunately, there are too many more who once again must watch as their sacred worth is litigated. Having their status as beloved questioned. People who, like me, were raised in a church that reminded them that God’s grace could never be defeated. People who, unlike me, were on the receiving end of actual and legitimate harm.
On the heels of Ash Wednesday, it’s fitting to think about what some are calling the death of a denomination. And it’s fitting to think about repentance, the fact that all things return to dust. It doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make it hurt less. But perhaps the call to repent and believe the gospel has more meaning because of it.
Because we know the gospel declares that none of us are less-than. It reminds us that—always—we are known, wanted, and accepted. And it tells us that resurrection is coming for all of us, including the church that has shaped and wounded so many people.
While it isn’t liturgically appropriate to say as much during Lent, Easter is coming. Dead things will be resurrected. They may not look the same as they did before, but they will be alive, and they will represent the grace and the gospel that I desperately searched out in that small United Methodist Church years ago.
And no denominational doctrine or polity, no General Conference vote, nothing in all of creation, can ever separate us from that coming kingdom.
Image via creative commons
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Bryan Bliss
Bryan Bliss lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of three novels, including We’ll Fly Away.