Splitting the Church is Just “Tacky”

© Ivan Grlic, Dreamstime

 

Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.

This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.

We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?

But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.

I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.

Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”

That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.

Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.

McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:

• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African    American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license

At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.

I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.

To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.

When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.

The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.

I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.

But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”

When in Doubt, Love!

Wedding photo 2

Saturday, June 30, is our 57th wedding anniversary. It’s a bittersweet, reflective time!

Linda has reached the stage in her disease that she rarely acknowledges my presence. I’m not sure that she now knows who I am. After being married for 57 years, expressions of love and affection go largely unacknowledged.

Several times throughout the day, I stand or sit beside her bed, take her hand, caress her face and hair, and kiss her on the forehead or cheek. I feed her, brush her teeth, watch her sleep.

Often in the quiet of the early morning, I sit in silence beside her bed and wonder: Does it matter to her that I am here? Who am I to her now? What is going on in her mind? Why does my presence sometimes seem to agitate her? Why does she often say “quit” when she is touched?

Those are painful questions for which there are no clear answers. But I have come to this conclusion: When in doubt, love! I don’t always know how best to express that love, whether leaving her alone is sometimes the loving act. But withdrawing love is not an option.

It’s not because I promised 57 years ago that I would love her in “sickness and in health.” I don’t love her out of a sense of duty. Loving her brings joy, meaning, fulfillment to my own life. Neither do I consider her a “burden.” Just her being is a gift! I love her now as she is, as I loved her as the gorgeous and vibrant young woman I married.

There’s a mystery in all this! Linda continues to teach me a lot about life and what it means to love in this broken and confused/confusing world.

Political chaos, corruption in high and low places, mass shootings, normalized hate-filled rhetoric, disrespect for others, cruel separation of migrant children from families, scorn for the poor, widespread racism, arrogant nationalism, . . .! Feels like the nation has lost its mind!

And my own beloved denomination which I have served since my teenage years is tragically divided over homosexuality and threatens to split as we did over slavery in the nineteenth century. To do so, will damage our witness to God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ and simply mirror the brokenness in our nation. Feels like the church has lost its mission!

I don’t know the best way forward for our nation. Political parties have conflicting agendas and visions. Compromise and the common good are being sacrificed on the altar of personal power and partisan agendas. I know that we as citizens can’t withdraw from the process, even if we feel our vote and advocacy make no differences. Love demands that we stay engaged!

Neither do I know the best way forward for The United Methodist Church. Some caucus groups are drawing lines in the sand and maneuvering politically to win votes, all in the name of faithfulness to truth and doctrine. I realize that whatever is done will be rationalized as devotion to God and our Wesleyan tradition. But I think John Wesley had it right, “All schism is a failure to love!” At least, least us confess our failure to love!

I sometimes feel overwhelmed! Grief and loss are constant companions. So much is beyond my control. My life partner seldom knows me. The future looms ominous. Some problems seem unsolvable. The nation totters. The denomination falters. Doubts arise.

Yet, I am learning from a love honed over more than 57 years this practice: When in doubt, love!

So, I will continue to love Linda even if she doesn’t recognize me or acknowledge my presence.

I will stay engaged on behalf of justice, compassion, and hospitality in our land and love those whose political views are contrary to mine, even if it seems to make no visible difference.

And, I will continue to serve the church whatever institution emerges and whatever forms my service takes, even if I don’t see any results.

After all, love will win! God IS love! The pivotal victory has already been won in the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Amid personal suffering, political corruption and violence, and rigid religious threats, Jesus LOVED and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

When in doubt, we will love as Christ loves us!

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That Which Endures

A friend whose wife died from Alzheimer’s disease said, “Living with dementia is like having a perpetual funeral.  Every day brings another loss until nothing remains but grief.”

I can relate to the feeling! Dementia diseases gradually strip away memories, ideas, decisions, mobility, initiative, bodily control, recognition of family and friends, and finally breath itself. Each loss triggers grief and the one you miss is sitting beside you. We lose them a brain cell at a time!

Of course, it isn’t just dementia that strips life from us. Everything passes away—our looks, our intellect, our abilities, our energy, our mobility, our health, our independence, our cherished relationships, our productivity, and finally life itself.

Is there anything that survives through all the losses? Is there a constant which holds us together amid perpetual change, persistent loss, and death’s finality? Or is grief all we have left?

Living and working among people with dementia has confirmed for me that one reality not only endures but actually thrives amid loss of cognitive and physical functioning. Dementia erases memories, strips away knowledge, garbles or mutes language, diminishes abilities, narrows relationships.

But this remains:     L    O    V    E          hands_11.4.2017

The Apostle Paul declared it more than twenty centuries ago: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end”(1Corinthians 13:8).

Love is not sentimentalism or warm fuzzy feelings.  It is entering the messiness, anguish, resistance, and hostility of the beloved with a non-anxious, gentle presence. It is action on behalf of the wellbeing of the other. Love is radical acceptance when behaviors feel unacceptable; compassion without expectations; continuing to care when the caring is not returned.

The expressions of love change, but the reality endures. I have known scores of people with one or more of the dementia diseases. I have yet to meet one who did not respond to being loved, even those in a comatose state. And even when the ability to express love is gone, love is generated with those who enter the person’s story.

Linda no longer comprehends the word “love.” Yet, she expresses and responds to love! Language now fails her; but gentle touch, brushing her hair, a smile assures her of value and worth. She can no longer feed herself, so slowly placing food in her mouth becomes a sacrament of love. Mobility is gone! Turning her in the bed or smoothly transporting her to a recliner become means of bearing her in the arms of compassion.

She no longer has control of bodily functions. Washing her and keeping her clean is an exercise in love’s humility and servanthood.  Her filters are gone and emotional control is lost. Being with her, absorbing her anger and frustration with non-anxious presence enfolds her in unconditional love.

The love is reciprocal. Linda’s expressions of love are rarely verbal. Occasionally, she will say “thank you” to a service rendered.  But her more typical expressions of love are these: a fleeting smile, reach for my hand, raising of an eyebrow, look of recognition in her eyes, calling my name or that of our daughters, growing calm with a caress of her face.

Love endures because love is God! The Scriptures clearly declare: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7).

Love is that which is ultimate and the most permanent reality in the universe! Everything else may pass away. LOVE is as permanent as God for God is Love!

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Catepillar1In response to a photo I posted which captured a moment of connection with Linda, a friend, Betty Cloyd, replied with the title of a book by the eighteenth century priest Jean-Pierre Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The phrase captures the profound and transcendent nature of each moment.

Sacrament is often defined in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The English word comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. The term is also derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion,” or mystery.

So, how does the present moment rate as a sacrament? Each moment becomes a mysterious gift within which the holy and transcendent is present as grace, the loving power of God to create, renew, reconcile, and transform.

Pastoral theologian John Swinton contends that people with dementia do not lose their “sense” of time; they lose their “tense” of time. The real time is the present moment. Those who care for them must learn to be present in the moment.

Regrettably, I have never been as contemplative in my spiritual quest as I have wanted to be. But people with dementia, including my wife, are teaching me to be truly present in the moment. It’s hard work! I have to slow down, concentrate, pay attention to little movements and subtle expressions.

Celebrating the present moment is an art and craft. It is learned and honed with practice, requires disciplined attentiveness, mindfulness.  It is one of the gifts Linda is giving me now! She is teaching me the sacredness of the present moment.

We often speak of the ministry of presence. I frequently hear pastors, laity, and family members express hesitate about visiting people with dementia. “I don’t know what to say! They don’t know me when I arrive or remember when I leave. So, why visit?”

It is a devilish temptation which robs people with dementia, their pastors and family members of the sacrament of the present moment. From my experience as a caregiver and pastor, I am convinced that the feeling/experience of a momentary connection lasts far beyond the cognitive awareness.

People with dementia are hypersensitive to emotions. Linda senses moods of which I am unaware. I cannot hide my frustration or stress from her! It may be that as people with visual impairment become more sensitive to sounds, people with cognitive impairment develop added sensitivity to feelings/emotions/attitudes.

With very few exceptions, the one reality to which people with dementia respond is LOVE, even those in the severe stages. And you can’t fake it! They know if you care! They sense if you are afraid of them or uncomfortable with them. They sense if a caregiver really values them as persons or only relishes the paycheck or if a pastor or family member is only visiting out of a sense of duty.

What is the sacred within the present moment? It is LOVE! Love transforms the present moment into a sacrament!

A gentle touch, a clasp of the hand, a warm embrace, a silent presence, a  spontaneous smile, a compassionate act—these become sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

As we fill a moment with compassion we experience the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we experience God, the source of all love!

(Photo by Norma Smith Sessions)

“Why Don’t You Get on with Your Life?”

“Why don’t you get on with your life?”That was the question raised to a friend whose wife is in a memory care facility.

For six years, he has visited her daily between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Since the disease has taken her language, he mostly sits silently beside her, gently holding her hand. She responds with an occasional smile or a momentary twinkle in her eyes.

The casual observer assumes that she no longer knows her husband, rendering his visits meaningless. As I often hear from medical staff, family members, and friends, “They aren’t there anymore. She/he is already gone.”

If they are already gone, why continue to invest time and energy in relating to them?  Or as one daughter said about not visiting her mother, “She’s not the mother I’ve known. I want to remember her as she was.”

A pastor remarked, “They don’t recognize me when I visit or remember that I’ve been there. I have so many other things to do. They aren’t really there, so what purpose does a visit serve?”

Pat Robertson suggested in response to a caller on his television program that a husband can justifiably divorce his wife with dementia. His reasoning:  “. . . I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone.“

Since the person with Alzheimer’s is “gone,” it seems permissible that “you get on with your life!”

The advice may be well intended.  Neurocognitive diseases do change people, stripping from them capacities to remember, communicate, and reason.  Personality changes are real and often dramatic. Difficult behaviors emerge.  Reciprocity vanishes or diminishes. Dependency escalates with ever-weighty demands on spouses and family.

Caregiving can be all consuming, with devastating physical and emotional consequences for the spouse.  Relentless grieving and pervasive sadness take their toll. Therefore, there is some value in suggesting that “you get on with your life.”

The advice, however, is based on a devastating myth:  Identity and worth lie in our capacity to think clearly, remember rightly, communicate plainly, and behave appropriately. It is the popular acceptance of Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore, I am.”

My friend responded succinctly and firmly to the suggestion that he get a life. He said simply, “This is my life!” He added that he enjoys spending time with his wife. Love is central to who he is. She may not always cognitively know him, but he knows who she has been and who she IS; and he loves her for all she has been AND for all she is! Love gives life, joy, connection to both!

Those of us who refuse to live by the myth know something very important: THEY ARE STILL THERE!  We are more than our thoughts or capacities or behaviors. We are distinct, beloved children of God, whose worth and identity are held permanently by God!

Those who take the time and energy to be attentive, to get inside the world of loved ones, to listen to the feelings behind the incoherent language, to really BE PRESENT know the person is still there!

Sometimes we see it in a faint twinkle in the eyes, or a characteristic gesture, or a fleeting smile, or a slight squeeze of the hand. When it happens, there emerges a profound joy which may last only a moment.  But the joy is real for both, and the residual effects endure longer than can be measured.

On the rare days when my friend does not arrive at the memory care facility at 1:00, his wife can be seen standing at the window looking out toward the parking lot. Mysteriously and inexplicably, she knows it’s time for her husband to come. She is STILL THERE! And he knows it!

Saved by Story

I had settled in for the evening after a long day. The phone rang as I was about to drift off to sleep. “Is this Reverend Carder, the preacher who is quoted in the newspaper as being against the death penalty?” the irate woman asked. I had gone on public record in opposition to executions in the Tennessee.

“Yes, I am opposed to capital punishment,” I calmly replied. What followed kept me awake most of the night and taught me a lesson that is being relearned in my relationships with people affected by dementia.

“Tell me why you are against it,” demanded the caller. I began to explain that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Before I could make my point, she interrupted, “It would deter that one murderer!”

Next, I stated that the death penalty runs counter to my religious faith. Again, she would have none of my argument. “The Bible says, ‘an eye for an eye’,” she retorted. I countered with quotes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Turn the other cheek. . . Love your enemies.” The debate was on!

Our verbal clash went back and forth with ever-escalating emotional intensity. Then, she blurted out something that abruptly ended the arguing!

“If your daughter had been murdered, you’d think different,” she yelled while sobbing uncontrollably.

I had totally missed her! I had seen her as an opponent, one with whom I disagreed. I missed her as a person, a grieving mother of a murdered child. I was bent on winning an argument. I should have been listening to her story, especially her pain.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry,” I said with embarrassment. I shared that as the father of two daughters I couldn’t even imagine the pain of one being murdered. I apologized for my insensitivity by arguing with her. For another hour I listened to a heart-wrenching story of horrific loss and harrowing grief.

She ceased being an opponent and became a person with a story I needed to hear. We both moved from an abstract argument to sharing stories behind our ethical/theological perspectives.

We like to think that our ideas, doctrines, affirmations, and understandings are derived purely through rational thinking. We assume that our truth is totally objective, universally applicable, and detached from our personal stories.  But behind every theological, ethical, and political proposition is a story; and we never fully understand another’s perspective until we hear his/her story.

The caller’s position on the death penalty couldn’t be separated from her experience of having a child murdered. My opposing position is inseparable from having a friend awaiting execution and earlier having sat with a mother whose son was executed in another state. The mother whose son was executed loved him no less than the grieving mother of the murdered daughter. Both had children who were intentionally killed, one by a boyfriend and the other by the state.

Our church and society are awash in arguments—political, theological, ideological. Placing opponents within the margins of our dismissive categories prevails over seeing them as persons with stories. And, we would rather lead with our arguments than with our vulnerabilities and hurts. Consequently, we compound the polarization, deepen misunderstanding, and intensify suffering.

We organize into groups of those who fit within our margins of preferred categories—“progressive,” “evangelical,” “liberal,” “conservative.” It’s easier to control the margins than to listen to the stories of others, especially the painful ones. But we can be sure that no one fits neatly into any of the categories, if we know their stories.

In reality, truth can never be severed from story. Arguments over abstract propositions are more about winning and losing than about understanding and growing. Positive change emerges from shared stories of pain and struggle more than from quarrels and contentious debates.

God didn’t redeem the world with an argument. God saves the world by entering our stories with The Story of a Love that shifts the margins outside our prescribed categories.