In Defense of Church…

…and in praise of my mother.

I want to tell the brief story of my mother as an illustration of what the church can do.

In a few days, my mother will officiate her first funeral. Last year, she began serving a small local United Methodist congregation as a Certified Lay Minister. Her certification means she has undertaken many hours of training in the finer arts of church leadership: preaching, administration, etc. As a lay person she has taken on the title “Minister,” but she in all other ways but the title, she is their pastor.

What I want to say gently, is that this congregation is an African-American congregation. They have had white pastors before, so them having a white “Minister” is not new to them. Nevertheless, the church is part of the local NAACP, they celebrate Kwanzaa, they pray for the schools weekly, they have hosted COVID clinics, they are a small, elderly, active black church. Having served a black congregation myself, I know that it can be a tremendous blessing. So far, it has been a good fit for both my mother and the congregation.

What’s notable here, is that my mother was born in a whites-only town in the hills of West Virginia. I;ve been thinking about that fact a lot recently. She didn’t get to go to college. For almost all of her years, she has attended all-white churches. But her denomination, the United Methodist Church, does make efforts (some better than others) to reconcile the racial divides within our communities. While we have a sharp history of blatant racism: from the Sand Creek Massacre to divisions over slavery to Central Conferences; we also have efforts to be better as seen in recent episcopal elections, in the work of our Commission on Race and Religion, in the work of caucus groups such as Black Methodists for Church Renewal and MARCHA. And we have a women’s division that has been forward thinking for a long time, addressing matters of race and ethnicity as spiritual matters.

For my mother, the United Methodist Women (now United Women of Faith), has been her ticket to understanding others better. She has read 1000+ books in the UMW reading program. She has participated in the UMW’s Spiritual Growth retreats, General Assemblies and Mission U and as such has made friends with Methodist women of many racial backgrounds. Since I’m already speaking for her, let me say that having black friends has made a world of difference for my mother. And the church has provided a safe way for her to expand her horizons. I am very proud of her that in her retirement years she’s still striving to serve with courage and faith.

A Wesleyan Reformation?

A few days ago, I saw a post related to an interview Bishop Karen Oliveto gave in which the interviewer asked “What can you say about the reformation happening in the United Methodist Church?” Bishop Oliveto says more eloquently what I have been feeling about the state of the church: while we have been in a season of prolonged discord, a season of relief from the discord is coming. And I feel strongly that a smaller but more unified United Methodist Church will find renewed focus and power. We will be smaller. We will have plenty of like-minded and like-spirited people and congregations. We will be challenged to care for those people and congregations isolated in the lands dominated by the GMC. Nevertheless, with adequate care and faith, we will be less stymied by divisionists. I suspect that we will be creative and fruitful in maintaining connection even in the face of such isolation. I think we will remember the circuit riders and the missionaries who carried good news to remote places because we loved those places and people before even met them. And with such a spirit, we will thrive. Pursuing the things we want to pursue may very well prove to be easier. Check out the Facebook post, as Bishop Karen says it so much better.

So, I’d like to put these two things together: the wonderful work of the church that I’ve witnessed in my mother AND this idea of a reformed Methodism. What I would like to see in a reformed Methodism is a deeply held, collective attitude that all of us are on a journey of discipleship. I want to see the church help people grow spiritually AND conscientiously. I want to see a discipleship of both prayer AND action. I’d like us to have the kind of faith that graciously receives someone as they are and blesses the image of God within while helping them grow into that image.

I love what the church has done for my mom. (I could write another post on what she has done for the church.) And I would like the church to see what is possible when we give people the opportunities to grow and serve. May the reforms that are on the horizon be shaped by the wisdom of our successes and the humility of our struggles, so that God is glorified and God’s people are uplifted by all we say and do.

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