Photo of book cover by Mike DuBois, UMNS. Photo of Margie Briggs courtesy of Cass Community Publishing House.
By Kathy L. Gilbert –
The tale begins with suicide, mixes in a few miracles, but has no ending because one woman and two small United Methodist churches believe faith can’t be measured by the number of people planted in the pews. Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas? is lovingly written by Margie Briggs who chronicles the ups and downs of her more than 10 years as a lay minister to Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel — two small rural churches in Missouri.
The book begins with a shocker when a seemingly happy pastor is late for Sunday service. Worried parishioners go to his house and find him dead on his couch with a 12-gauge shotgun between his legs and a copy of his will next to his body. Briggs was a certified lay speaker at the time and a member of another United Methodist church in nearby Creighton, Missouri. The Rev. Cody Collier, district superintendent, asked her to step in temporarily until a pastor could be assigned to the stunned churches.
“For two months, I preached about God’s love and grace. I listened to anyone who was ready to talk,” she writes. After those few months, the churches were assigned a licensed local pastor and Briggs thought her time as a preacher was done. But the new pastor’s ministry abruptly ended when police came looking for him one Sunday morning. He left his stint as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army on Saturday night and took the collection bucket home with him.
Collier called again. “Can you just get them through until Christmas?” he asked Briggs. She said yes and has been preaching most every Sunday since.
Lay ministers are not ordained and cannot baptize or consecrate the elements for Communion, but throughout the book, Briggs talks about how many times God helped her navigate her ministry despite those restrictions. “My only degree is in life,” she states with candor. Briggs follows her faith and her churches trust her.
One of her favorite chapters in the book is about God placing her in a man’s life as he was dying. He had asked her to baptize him and she knew that during the final hours of a person’s life, anyone is able to baptize. “That day I received the firm affirmation I was doing what I was called to do, being in a small community sharing the Gospel wherever, whenever, however it needs to happen. What happened that day will live forever in my heart,” she said, in an interview with United Methodist News Service.
Briggs believes the denomination urgently needs small churches throughout the denomination in both rural and metropolitan areas. Over the years the two churches have renovated their buildings, started a food pantry, begun hosting yearly Christmas and Easter parties for the community, started holding luncheons for school teachers and first responders — and they’ve grown.
When Briggs first started, the combined worship attendance had dropped to 14. “In the 10 years since 2006, the Calhoun church has celebrated 60 baptisms, 16 re-affirmations of faith and 30 letters of transfer. Drake’s Chapel has had eight baptisms and 15 transfers during that same time,” Briggs writes. “To God be the glory.”
Each of the chapters of the book are short but powerful moments in time. Included at the end is a study guide written by Kay Kotan, a credentialed coach, church consultant, speaker, and author.
In a funny twist of fate, Briggs and her husband were once Sunday school teachers and youth sponsors for a troublemaking little boy named “Bobby.” “Bobby was the prime example of a boy who challenged us. Every time I turned around, he was up to no good,” she writes. She marvels at the boy who later became her boss, Bishop Robert Farr.
Farr wrote an epilogue for her book. “This book is full of ideas on how to reach people through small congregations and examples of how lives can be changed and transformed,” he wrote. “Every small congregation could benefit from using Kay Kotan’s study guide, at the back of the book, to explore some of the questions posed about ministry, mission, and outreach.”
Cass Community Publishing House published the book and the Rev. Faith Fowler, pastor of United Methodist Cass Community Church in Detroit, is publisher. “Cass Community Publishing House has the mission of providing a megaphone to under-represented voices, and Margie’s book fit both because we don’t hear enough from people in rural settings and because very few books are authored by lay people,” said Fowler.
“Her story is compelling and important for rural pastors and small congregations searching for inspiration. Margie has walked the talk. Now she has shared what she tested and tried without filtering her description or hiding her mistakes,” Fowler said.
In the introduction, Briggs states her hope that the book will rekindle people’s faith in churches that have fewer than 100 members. “There is an urgent need for small churches both in declining rural areas and in impersonal metropolitan areas where many struggle with isolation and loneliness.”
Kathy L. Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.
The 45th March for Life Rally in Washington D.C. on Friday, January 19, 2018. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
By Courtney Lott-
When David Watson looks at his 11-year-old son, he sees someone created a little lower than God – a treasured fellow human bearing the divine image. When the rest of the world looks at his son, we might mistakenly only see a young man with Down syndrome. If private thoughts were made public, there are even those that believe he shouldn’t have been born. Convinced his life, and the lives of his parents, will be weighed down by unnecessary hardship, these individuals feel that the most compassionate choice would have been to end his existence while still in the womb.
Technology and scientific progress make this decision a possibility. Now a mother and father can discover genetic disorders like Down syndrome. Armed with this information, proponents of abortion urge the termination of such pregnancies, a practice Dr. David Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary, recently called “eugenics.”
Defending the sanctity of all human life at the United Methodist worship service on the day before the March for Life in Washington D.C., Watson discussed the dangers of considering “intellect and rationality as markers of the divine image.” With due respect to Augustine and Aquinas, two theologians who originally identified this as a sign of humanity, such an attitude lends itself to a potentially dangerous thought process.
“The equating of humanity and intellect… seems to have permeated Western thinking very deeply,” Watson warned from the pulpit of the chapel of The United Methodist Building next door to the Supreme Court of the United States. “Perhaps that is one reason that 80-90 percent of pregnancies in which Down syndrome is detected are terminated, often at the urging of medical practitioners. In fact, in Iceland, people with Down syndrome have been almost entirely eliminated as a people group by means of prenatal testing and abortion. Why is this allowed? Why are we not calling this what it is: eugenics? Perhaps the reason is that people with diminished intellectual capacities are somehow seen as ‘less than’ – less than the rest of us, less than human.”
Advancement in neonatal science is changing the conversation around abortion. While new technology can determine if a baby has a genetic disorder, it also allows parents to see very human gestures in the womb. Many consider this technology the reason the millennial generation is now polling more pro-life than their parents.
Because of this, the pro-life movement has heavily relied on science to promote their cause in recent years. This represents a shift in the debate over abortion, as pro-choice activists have long claimed to have science on their side.
While this might be considered a great victory, some pro-lifers worry about the consequences of relying too much on science to promote their cause. Whether an embryo or fetus is a person cannot be answered by science, they argue. Instead, it’s a question of philosophy, theology, and human ethics. If these aspects are removed, it can all come down to a mere medical procedure completely devoid of moral argument.
David and Sean Watson.
According to Dr. Watson it all boils down to whose image we are created in. “Not all human beings can think,” he said to the pro-life assembly. “But all human beings can be in relationship to God and other people. Not all people can love, but all people can be loved – loved uniquely by God, and loved by one another.”
Watson furthered his point by proclaiming that our main reasoning behind abortion, particularly the termination of pregnancies in which the child tests positive for “diminished intellectual capacities,” is a desire for individual freedom.
“We have freedom, and freedom – choice – has become a value above all other values. We want freedom to do what we want, to shape our identity and destiny,” Watson said. “People with diminished intellectual capacities don’t fit the template of human beings as entirely free and rational subjects, and therefore they are viewed as aberrations.”
Appealing to morality that comes from God, Watson points to the New Testament book of Hebrews. The writer proclaims that God created humanity a “little lower than the angels” and “crowned them with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:7). This is true, Watson said, even of those who are inconvenient for us and those that are different than us.
“Human beings have achieved feats of genius in our attempts to dehumanize the other, to make ourselves more and others less, and most often with tragic and lethal consequences,” he said. “History is rife with examples of how we make our tribe, our race, our people, our nation somehow more human than those unlike us.”
We use language to dehumanize the unborn, people with severe brain injuries, and people of other cultures, Watson said. This is a rebellion not only against our creator, but also against the way we are created. If the church does not stand up for the value of all human life, he said, then there is no hope.
Watson ended his address by reflecting on the beauty and joy his son’s life has brought to their family. “I have no ambiguity about his value as a human being. He is created a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor. He bears the divine image. He is fearfully and wonderfully made. And he is a baptized Christian. I know who he is, and I know whose he is. Much of the world does not. Much of the world would suggest that it would be better had he never been born. But they are wrong.”
Courtney Lott is the editorial assistant at Good News.
Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly. Photo provided by Wanda Jackson.
By Steve Beard-
It was a surreal scene for a teenage girl to be cruising down the highway in 1956 wedged in the front seat of a Pontiac Star Chief between her father and Elvis Presley. But that was the dizzying case for 18-year-old Wanda Jackson right at the time when rock and roll was percolating and beginning to flip American teen culture upside down.
As a budding country music starlet from Oklahoma City, Jackson was recruited as the lone female performer to play alongside rock and roll pioneers such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Elvis. “They were kind of like my brothers,” Jackson told Good News. “I always kind of preferred the company of men, anyway. I had my dad there and it made it possible to work with that many men. I wouldn’t have done it had I been alone. I couldn’t have.”
With her father as her chaperone and the watchful guardian of her reputation, she was not permitted to ride with the guys, but Elvis was allowed in the front seat of their Pontiac on the way to the next concert stop.
Jackson, 80, known as the Queen of Rockabilly, still performs live, has released dozens of albums, and has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards. Her many fans include Bob Dylan, Adele, Jack White, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello. Jackson’s new autobiography Every Night Is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (BMG) is a coming-of-age memoir of how a knock-out performer could have a five-decade career in country, rock, and gospel and not lose her soul.
Without a doubt, Jackson’s relationship with Elvis played a key role in the trajectory of her career. When they first met in 1955 at a radio station on the first stop of a tour, she had never heard of him. Nevertheless, Jackson thought he was handsome and charming. Not long after, they began dating. “He asked me to be his girl, and I had his ring,” she said. She wore it around her neck for about a year before their career paths tamped out their long-distance relationship. The romance did not last, but she still has his ring – and fond memories.
Originally, Wanda’s father couldn’t comprehend Elvis. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” he told Wanda as they both watched Elvis with a bright yellow coat and slicked-back pompadour getting into the front seat of his bright pink Cadillac. “Elvis might as well have been getting into a rocket ship,” Jackson recalls in her book. “You might should stay away from that one, Wanda,” her dad said. “I think this Elvis character could be a nut.”
Eventually her father grew to admire Presley. It was the young singer from Memphis that convinced Jackson to transition from country music to the newly minted rock and roll sound that was becoming a cultural sensation. “We knew that Elvis had stirred things up and times were changing,” Jackson told me. Presley tried to convince the Jacksons to look to the youth market – the ones buying the records and calling the radio stations.
Wanda’s father saw the wisdom in the advice. “I think Elvis is right,” he told his daughter. “I think there’s a new trend coming.” Everything was happening so quickly. “We didn’t know how long it would last but Elvis made me promise that I would try it,” she said. Despite her misgivings, she eventually knocked out spitfire hits such as “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” and “Let’s Have A Party.”
Jackson was a certifiable shimmering star and glamorous renegade in the male-dominated golden era of rock. She played guitar, got scolded at the Grand Ole Opry for trying to get on stage with exposed shoulders, and provocatively had an African-American piano player at a time when strict segregation was brutally enforced. Her 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction finally celebrated her indisputable musical legacy.
At the same time, Wanda and her husband, Wendell – an IBM computer programmer who became her manager and publicist (who died last year) – were suffering all the side effects of fame, partying, and life on the road. “After about 10 years it was pretty hard,” Jackson said. “Wendell was very jealous and that caused problems. … There was a lot of drinking – the outcome of that was treacherous. … We loved each other. We didn’t ever think about divorce. Murder, a couple of times,” she joked with laughter. “No, we loved each other, but we were drinking too much. We were gone too much. We were arguing. I couldn’t live that way and neither could he.”
The success, liquor, and showbiz lights were not enough distractions to heal her spiritual ache. “Sometimes I would lie in bed at night with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was missing,” she wrote. “I felt restless and anxious. … But I still couldn’t shake that dull but persistent sense of emptiness inside.”
In 1971, The Living Bible, paraphrased in common language, was published and she read it out loud to Wendell as they were on the road. “We tried to make sense of it,” she said. “We were really searching.” While they were away, the Jackson’s two children were being cared for by Wanda’s mother. The kids loved the new pastor at their church and hounded their parents to hear him preach. “Even though we were open to trying to understand the Bible during those long stretches of interstate, we weren’t that anxious to go hang out with a bunch of church people,” Jackson wrote. “That wasn’t really our crowd.”
Between tours, the pastor informally connected with the Jacksons and ended up being as personable and engaging as their children had reported. What Wanda and Wendell remembered from their time with the minister was his direct message: “Everyone needs Christ, no matter who you are. Sometimes people are afraid to admit they need Christ, and they’re afraid to turn to Him because they feel like they’re not good enough or they’ve done some things that make them feel like God couldn’t possibly love them. But He does.”
They wrestled with the weight of those words while they were back on tour. “We were running,” she recalls. “Running from the reality that our marriage was suffering. Running from the fear that our lives were unraveling. Running from Brother Paul’s words that everyone needs God.”
When they returned home from the concerts, they fulfilled the promise to their kids that they would attend church. “We got up late – kinda hung over – but we were late getting to church,” she said. While in the service, Wanda sensed a divine voice say, “Walk with me.” She turned to Wendell. “There is something I’ve got to do,” she said. “Let me out of this pew. I’ve got to get right with the Lord.” He joined her.
“We took hands and walked down the aisle and gave our hearts and lives to Christ,” she recalled, as the congregation sang the old hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.” “It was just unbelievable. The pressure was lifted off. The guilt, the sin, was lifted off. It was just marvelous. We were two new creations in Christ. Everything changed for the better.”
Photo provided by Wanda Jackson.
The shift of spiritual dynamics also detoured Jackson’s career path. “I started to record gospel. That’s where my heart was,” she told me. “I wanted everyone in the world to know the salvation that I experienced.” That decision was fraught with its own challenges. “I had never had stage fright playing in honky tonks, but the first few times I sang at churches, I was so scared I was throwing up before I went on,” she wrote. “I was used to singing for people who were there for a party. It was nighttime, and there was smoke, and everyone was drinking and acting silly and having fun. Suddenly, there I was in a long dress – not a miniskirt – and no fringe and no go-go boots. And it was daylight and everyone was sober! I didn’t know how the church folks would react to me.”
She was caught in a cultural and spiritual skirmish. The country music disc jockeys wouldn’t play her gospel. “They thought it was too churchy,” she said. “And the church, on the other hand, thought I was still too country. I fell through the cracks.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and she and Wendell shared their gospel message all over the world.
Jackson’s career took on another unexpected twist with the eruption of a rockabilly revival in the 1980s. She discovered that she was still considered a star in Europe and Scandinavia. The fans lined up to hear Jackson playing her classic hits. Meanwhile, The Stray Cats, The Blasters, X, The Cramps, and Rosie Flores were spearheading a rockabilly resurgence in the United States. Her songs had once again found a receptive audience.
“She’s vibrant and edgy without being abrasive, and sweet without being saccharine,” observed musician Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, at her Rock Hall induction. “This is a woman who has rhythm and joy, in equal parts, to the depth of her soul…. She’s not a red-carpet-celebrity-hand-out-rehab-tabloid kind of person. She’s a person of strong religious conviction, deep integrity, a road warrior, and a rock and roll queen.”
Each generation has turned in one way or another back to Wanda Jackson’s music. Her last two albums were produced by critically-acclaimed recording gurus Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. “I believe God has given me two deep desires, and He’s provided me with the opportunity to fuel them both,” she testifies in her book. “First, I love to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s great to get on the stage, feel those drums pounding behind me, and get the audience on their feet. Second, He gave me the desire – and also the courage – to talk about my faith onstage, whether I’m at a church revival or a punk rock club.”
She testifies that there is a “holy hush” that falls on the audience when she talks about her faith in God. “Every once in a while, I’ll have a drunk girl sarcastically yell out ‘hallelujah’ or something. Some guys have mouthed off a little bit, but the audience will shush them for me, so I don’t have to say anything,” she wrote. “I think my fans respect me, but I also try to be cool and respect them by not talking too long.”
After her talk, Jackson launches into Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” “Almost everyone knows the words,” she said. “They start clapping and singing along with me. It’s like a Baptist revival.”
Hank deftly crosses over in honky-tonks and sanctuaries. So does Wanda.
“I’ve learned what it means to find peace and meaning, sometimes in the face of adversity,” she concludes. “I’ve learned to find my grounding in a good man, a good family, and most importantly, in a good God, who is the source of all light and truth. These are the influences that have allowed me to keep the musical party going for decades.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
Pete Shilaimon is the producer of the new movie Forever My Girl. He was born and raised in Baghdad and escaped Iraq with his family to avoid religious persecution. Photo by Rosie Collins, courtesy of Catholic News Service.
By Courtney Lott-
“God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: ‘Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.’” – Genesis 1:26-28 (MSG)
At the beginning of the world, the God of the universe made humanity in his own image. He stamped his likeness on us so we might reflect him more than any of his other creations. Each one of us reveals his character in unique and special ways. “I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him,” observed Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the great scientist, astrologer, and mathematician. “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”
Some of our brothers and sisters see divine interaction through reason and logic. Others see it through God’s creative nature. These minds produce art, music, drama, poetry.
As Christ followers, our art should be the best art. After all, when we create we are walking in our father’s footsteps after him. Unfortunately, so much modern Christian art – movies, music, books – comes across as cheesy at best and lazily done at worst. When a faith piece is executed well, audiences sit up and take notice. These are the kinds of movies Pete Shilaimon strives to produce.
Shilaimon’s road to Hollywood was a winding one. Raised in Iraq, his family fled to Greece when the war with Iran broke out. As refugees, the family looked to his mother for guidance and wisdom, a practice Shilaimon keeps to this day. “Faith is big for my family,” he says. “It’s played a very key role in my life and my decisions. Pretty much every decision I have a conversation with my higher power, Christ, and I talk to my mom.”
For college, Shilaimon attended the University of California, Irvine. There he majored in theater and eventually moved to Los Angeles. For a few years, however, he drifted away from the film industry. Wanting to help people get in shape, he opened a gym and Pilates studio in Beverly Hills. Countless producers and actors came to him for health and wellness. Eventually, one of his clients encouraged him to become a producer himself and asked Shilaimon to go to Atlanta to work on the film The Grey. Shilaimon has gone on to produce such movies as Risen, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Jackie.
Throughout his career, he has striven to make quality faith-based movies. Shilaimon believes it is a slap in the face to such stories if they are cheesy or their production value is a mess. This is why he seeks to make films that are accessible to everyone, not just an audience who will go see anything with a message about God. In Risen, he focuses the story on Clavius, a Roman soldier who is faced with doubts about everything he has believed in while searching for the body of Christ.
“If you really think about Risen, that movie was so spectacular because we’ve all been in Clavius’ shoes where we questioned our faith, or questioned our journey,” Shilaimon says. “We cheat ourselves when we just make faith based films for just the faith base. I think it’s a disservice for the faith base to be honest.”
It is honesty and vulnerability that make a film resonate rather than reverberate. Themes of doubt, of questioning, ofinsecurity, and forgiveness reach a wider audience because they are relatable. Forgiveness is the theme of Shilaimon’s newest project, Forever My Girl. Based on a book by Heidi McLaughlin about how people mess up over and over, this film portrays a beautiful picture of confession and forgiveness.
In Forever My Girl, a country music star named Liam Page goes back to his hometown for the funeral of his best friend from high school. There, he faces the consequences of leaving his bride Josie at the altar to chase after fame and fortune.
Though the main plot centers around a romantic relationship the story deals with familial relationships as well. “It was such a relational story that I thought there was something beautiful and magical there,” Shilaimon said. “The dad is a preacher. And that angle was really sweet because he’s going on and on about forgiveness and how we as human beings really need to love and forgive each other. And how we need to pick people up and not throw them down. So it resonated with me because it’s what my mom teaches my brothers and my sister and myself.”
Written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, Forever My Girl is the fourth female director LD Entertainment has utilized in two years. As a production company, Shilaimon said it believes very strongly in empowering women to direct, giving them equal pay, and providing equal opportunities.
“We need to treat women in Hollywood the same way we treat our men,” Shilaimon says. “Four female directors in two years is unheard of. Women are just as talented as men. We were hiring them before it was cool.”
Belief drives the art Shilaimon makes. There are some movies he has produced that merely make it possible to create the ones he’s passionate about, and there are some movies he made years ago he would not make today. Realizing this is simply a matter of growing up, he says. Now, Shilaimon has more freedom to create the stories he is passionate about.
“My company believes in all the films we make,” he says. “Some are commercial, some we make from pure, pure love because we love the subject matter.”
Courtney Lott is editorial assistant at Good News.
By Rob Renfroe-
The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads. We are a divided church, and the truth is, we are a hurting church. Some believe our differences are so great and the ongoing battle so destructive that it is time to part ways. For over four decades, conservative and progressive United Methodists have expended enormous emotional, financial, and spiritual resources to gain the upper hand in a denomination that has declined every year since its founding in 1968. Surely our efforts and our finances would be better devoted to evangelism, discipleship, and missions. For the sake of the lost and the poor, shouldn’t we set each other free to pursue what we see as God’s calling upon our lives and our ministries?
Others believe we must do all we can to remain united. Those who champion this view do so because of the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17. They contend unity makes us a more effective church and therefore more likely to fulfill our mission of making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We are better together, they claim. But, of course, that begs the question: Are we really together?
Our differences go deeper, to some of the foundational questions of what it means to be the church: Is Jesus Christ the only way to God? Is his death on the cross the only means for salvation? Are the Scriptures fully inspired and authoritative for revealing God’s will and binding on how we should live? We believe the answer to these questions is a resounding Yes! while others in the church would answer differently. The painful truth is that we cannot agree on these central matters of our faith.
When a United Methodist bishop writes that we must not make an idol out of Jesus – the definition of an idol being “a false god” – while others believe Jesus is “very God of very God,” are we together?
When a professor at one of our United Methodist seminaries teaches that other religious figures bring the same light to their followers as Jesus brings into the world, while others believe Jesus is utterly unique – the way and the truth and the life – are we together?
When one of our bishops encourages his churches to pray that we “take the next faithful step forward not based on … doctrine, tradition, or theology; judgments, fears, or convictions,” and many of us believe that it’s our theology and doctrine that tell us what it means to be faithful – are we really together?
Many also recognize there are profound differences in the way we approach the Bible. More than a few laypersons would be surprised to learn many pastors and bishops would align themselves with the approach of the Reverend Adam Hamilton, the founding pastor of Church of the Resurrection (Leawood, Kansas), when it comes to biblical interpretation. Hamilton has proposed what might be called a “three buckets” approach (he calls his three categories buckets): (1) some parts of the Bible were never actually true expressions of God’s will, so they do not apply to us, because they reflect only the time and place in which they were written; (2) other parts were true expressions of God’s will at one time, but no longer are, so they do not speak to our current context because God’s will for us has changed; and finally, (3) there are those parts of the Bible that were true, still are, and always will be.
This interpretive strategy is foreign to Wesleyanism and to orthodox Christian teaching in general. Others believe, myself included, along with the Apostle Paul that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that certain parts of the Bible can be discarded because, contrary to what the church has believed for two thousand years, we who live in and have been influenced by a postmodern culture now know better. When we do not agree on the inspiration and authority of God’s word – are we really together?
The inspiration of the Bible. The divinity of Christ. How we are saved from our sins. How we determine God’s will for our lives and for the church. These are not small matters. They strike to the core of what it means to be Christian. If United Methodists are not together on these foundational issues – and we’re not – can we really claim that we are together as a church?
The United Methodist Church in general has been able to overlook some of these differences because we do not vote on them at General Conference. And many pastors are careful not to reveal to their congregations their less than orthodox beliefs. They know the uproar it would create if they were open and honest about their views. As progressive pastor Rev. Tom Griffith stated years ago in his article in Open Hands, “Give a Cheer for Our Evangelical Brothers and Sisters”: “Although the creeds of our denomination pay lip service to the idea that scripture is ‘authoritative’ and ‘sufficient for faith and practice,’ many of us have moved far beyond that notion in our own theological thinking.”
Griffith continued, “We are only deceiving ourselves – and lying to our evangelical brothers and sisters – when we deny the shift we have made. … We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good! What is bad is that we have tried to con ourselves and others by saying, ‘we haven’t changed our position.’ ”
But for over forty years we have had a very public and divisive debate about our church’s sexual ethics. Our differences regarding this important and sensitive topic have become painfully apparent. That division has grown to the point that The United Methodist Church is now in crisis. So much so that in 2016 the General Conference instructed the Council of Bishops to create a commission to develop a plan to end the rancor that has come to characterize General Conferences and much of the life of the church.
Even with our differences regarding sexuality and marriage, we have been able to stay together as a church so far because we have had a common practice. We committed ourselves to welcoming all people to receive the ministries of the church, regardless of how they identified in terms of gender or sexual preference. We also agreed that our pastors would not marry same-gendered couples, nor would “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” be ordained to the ministry. Though evangelical United Methodists believe Scripture speaks clearly against same-sex practice, we could live in a church with different opinions because we had a gracious, biblical position we all covenanted to uphold.
Of course, that’s where we were, not where we are. One of our US jurisdictions has now elected a married, lesbian bishop who has stated that she has presided at approximately fifty “holy union” ceremonies for gay couples. Many other pastors (including at least one bishop) have performed same-sex marriages, and the defiance of some has been met with as little as a twenty-four or forty-eight hour suspension. Others have been tasked with writing a paper on why the church should liberalize its teachings on marriage. In other instances, bishops have completely dismissed complaints filed against pastors who performed same-sex weddings. At this point a number of annual conferences and boards of ordained ministry have defiantly and publicly rejected our church’s ordination standards. And even though our Judicial Council has ruled their defiance out of order, at least two have voted to ignore the council’s decision. One bishop, in defiance of the church, has even commissioned and ordained openly gay, partnered clergy.
In a recent address, Bishop Scott Jones stated, “Twelve of our [US] annual conferences are in schism right now. They are unwilling to live by our covenant and that places them in schism. This is the first time that bishops and conferences have deliberately disobeyed the General Conference since 1844.”
Twelve annual conferences. That’s over one-fifth, and there are others who do not live by the Discipline; they just haven’t stated so publicly.
Before we can begin to answer the question, “Are we better together?,” we must first ask, “Are we together?” Regrettably, the only honest answer to that question is to frankly acknowledge we are not.
Many of our churches no longer use official United Methodist curriculum in their classes because they do not trust it. Many of our congregations no longer pay all of their apportionments because several of our boards and agencies are unaccountable to the local church and promote progressive causes contrary to Scripture. Many of our largest churches no longer include “United Methodist” in their names because they believe our “brand” has been tainted and therefore being associated with it harms their ministry. Some churches, including two of our largest, have even left the denomination because they felt the turmoil in the church impeded their ministry.
Are we still one church? If we are, then we cannot act as if we are two. If we are two churches, then we should no longer pretend to be one.
Every pastor who has been ordained in the United Methodist Church and every layperson who has joined since 1972 knew or should have known the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Over thirty years ago (1984), General Conference voted to prohibit the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And for more than twenty years (beginning in 1996) the church has instructed pastors not to perform same-sex marriages. Of course, persons who disagree with the church’s positions have every right to advocate for change. But what they do not have is the right to defy our teachings and at the same time condemn and attempt to shame others who support the church’s views.
We in the United States must constantly remind ourselves we are a global church. Therefore, we must recognize that the vast majority of United Methodists believe our teachings are graciously stated and well grounded in Scripture and rooted in two thousand years of Christian tradition. They have been taught and practiced by Christians in all times and in all places, and still are today. Only a small and struggling minority of US Protestant churches has endorsed teachings to the contrary. We should not strive to be like them.
People on all sides are sincere in their beliefs and committed to them. For the sake of justice, progressives feel duty bound, on their reading of Scripture, to work for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in every aspect of the church.
We evangelicals cannot change our position without, in our own minds, compromising our belief in the inspiration and the authority of the Bible. That’s something we will never do. What’s the solution? More fighting and endless debate? Stricter rules and stronger punishment? Another forty years of delusional thinking that if we just stay at the table, debating and arguing with one another, we will be able to reconcile irreconcilable positions?
No. Now is the time for us to honestly acknowledge we are no longer together, and pretending we are is not a viable option. The best way forward is a fair and amicable separation, where both sides are free to pursue what they believe God is calling them to do.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He is the author of several books, including the brand new Are We Really Better Together? with Walter Fenton (Abingdon 2018). This excerpt published from that book by permission.
By Elaine A. Heath-
“The thing is,” my neighbor said conspiratorially, “I really love to iron. I iron everything. I iron every day.” Corrine, a Lutheran, lived across the street and was a faithful member of a neighborhood spiritual formation group that I led. She had grown up in the Depression, kept a very tidy house, and was a fabulous cook. She adored Elvis Presley. I adored her.
“What is it about ironing that you find so meaningful?” I laughed.
“When I iron, it’s a kind of ritual. I put the water in the iron and plug it in. As I press the fabric, the steam rises, all fragrant and clean. All the wrinkles go away. One by one they go away. Something about the steam, the wrinkles, and the regular movement of the iron across the board brings peace to me. I feel at home and at ease. Things that were troubling me don’t seem so overwhelming. I even feel closer to God. It’s a spiritual thing.” She paused, then grinned sheepishly. “You probably think I’m crazy,” she said.
“No, Corrine, I think you are a contemplative,” I answered. “You have found in ironing what others have found through forms of prayer that involve the five senses, bodily movement, and a repetitive activity that quiets the mind and opens the heart to God’s presence.”
“Golly,” she said. “Who knew?”
What Corrine discovered in ironing is a “means of grace,” to use John Wesley’s language. That is, ironing is a pathway for her to encounter the healing, peaceful, loving presence of God. Thomas Keating might note that, for Corrine, ironing became a form of centering prayer, a way to descend from her mind into her heart. Wesley didn’t write about ironing as a means of grace, but he would likely affirm Corrine’s experience, especially since Corrine regularly participated in worship, partook of the Lord’s Supper, read the Bible, prayed, and took part in our neighborhood spiritual formation group. Wesley felt that anything and everything can become a channel of God’s love for those who are always open to and seeking God.
With wonderful generosity Wesley argues that people can experience God without external acts such as reading the Bible or fasting. The acts themselves are simply channels through which grace flows. He also firmly denounces empty ritualism in which Christians go through the motions of prayer, worship, and so on but have no desire for God’s transforming work in their lives. Indeed some of his harshest words in sermons and elsewhere are directed toward Christians who love “a form of godliness without the power.”
But Wesley was concerned about these spiritual disciplines because he faced in his own context a “spiritual but not religious” movement of Christians who left the church and abandoned the means of grace. These Christians felt it was no longer necessary to read the Bible, partake of the Lord’s Supper, gather in worship, or engage in other ordinary Christian spiritual disciplines because Christ’s direct love was enough. Wesley was alarmed about the corrosive effect that this movement would have upon Christian commitment, because most of us need habitual practices that daily open our hearts and minds to God’s transforming love. Moreover, without regular reminders we will drift away from God’s missional call to love and serve our neighbors.
In all things Wesley’s goal is for Christians to participate in God’s good work, carrying the love and power of Jesus into the world. He calls this process of increasing holiness “going on to perfection.”
There are five means of grace that John Wesley called “instituted,” meaning these are spiritual practices that were instituted in the New Testament and are binding for all time and in all places. The five means of grace are prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conferencing.
One beautiful aspect of Wesley’s theology is that spiritual practices are seamlessly integrated with practices of loving our neighbors well. This is why Wesley said there is no holiness but social holiness. A life of genuine prayer inevitably leads to a life of hospitality, mercy, and justice. Each of the five means of grace help us as communities of faith to pray more deeply and live more missionally as followers of Jesus Christ.
Elaine A. Heath is Dean of the Duke Divinity School and Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology. She is the author of numerous books, including Five Means of Grace: Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way (Abingdon), from which this was adapted. Reprinted by permission.