Category Archives: Reflections on Faith

What Happens when a Church Splits

What Happens when a Church Splits

by Nathan Decker

“The history of the Church of Rome is a constant leakage of members into such breakaway cults,

which go on splitting.”  Mary Douglas

 

I’ve been here before.  I watched while I was in college as the Southern Baptist Church split and fractured into an alphabet soup of CBF, SBC, Alliance and all sorts of brands.  Dying and grief are processes.  There is a process the United Methodist Church is entering which feels all too familiar, as if someone has started music we have to dance to, even though we don’t like the steps it is making us take.

At first there is an attempt at reconciling the differing views (and yes, I get the irony of my use of that word).  When this fails, we begin making each other out to be the enemy.  Like children on a playground sorting who is on who’s side, we grieve the loss of longtime friends to the other side and question each other about our motives, faithfulness, and views.  Tragically, this has already started with the statements by people about the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Reconciling Movement.  This is messy because there is something about being human that wants it to be a simple left or right, yet we are complex.  There is a lot of space between on the spectrum of any question.

There is only so much energy and institutional loyalty and patience.  When the side who has the votes refuses again and again to compromise for the good of unity, eventually the minority recognizes that they are not only unwelcomed but also are being systematically disenfranchised.  It starts small, a position here and there.  Then because those in power need to know who is faithful, they will create a creedal litmus test like the Baptist Faith and Message which all must take an oath to uphold and follow.  For us in the United Methodist Church, we already have this in the oath all clergy take regarding the Book of Discipline.  The General Conference created accountability with teeth and a spirit of division instead an accountability of love and grace.  There was no interest in compromise.

Unless God intervenes to stop the music we keep playing, the next step in our dance will be a split.  Try as we might to be dignified and respectful, this step is painful for all involved.  There will be a fight about who is the ‘historic United Methodists’ who represent the core values of the denomination.  Progressives/Centrists will accuse Traditionalists of stealing their church from them while Traditionalists will accuse Progressives/Centrists of watering down the Gospel to be more like the culture.

Those who stay in the denomination will find they suddenly have power to finally ‘fix’ the church, and they will shoot themselves in the foot trying to keep their coalition together once the so called enemy they named is no longer with them.  They will have the option to step aside and let new leadership rise from within the ranks, or they will try to find a new enemy to keep their shrinking gathering together.  The most difficult problem will be that infused in the DNA of the church now is a strong belief of ‘Us vs. Them.”  The church will always see the world as the enemy who must be conquered.

Those who leave to create a new denomination will have an even harder task.  There will be an old guard who want to create what they just left with only the one change to be inclusive.  But they will have to face a growling beast of differing opinions who want to create something brand new.  There will be so many suggested changes to structure and the way we do missions; it will be messy.  Some will assume because of past position and prestige they will be the leaders of this new group, but they will find others see opportunity or feel called to do so as well.  The saddest part of any church splitting is the expense of energy in division instead of the pursuit of multiplying and being fruitful.

My hope is not in the United Methodist Church.  My hope is not in institutions, interpretations, or in being right at the expense of relationships.  My hope is in the Savior who taught us that in order to experience resurrection, we first have to die.  We have to die to self.  We have let our egos, our agendas, and our belief that we know the right answers and right paths die.  We have to die so that we can experience resurrection in Jesus.  In many ways, the church that ordained me as an Elder has died.  Like all deaths, this death has brought me great grief.  But I wait, as Christ waited in the tomb three days.  I wait for Easter.  I wait for resurrection.   After all, it is what Jesus would do.

 

No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.

– Jesus in John 15:13

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Prayer for the Shootings to Stop

Prince of Peace, Comforter, Creator –

while we placing offerings in the plate,

a shooter was putting a bullet in the chamber;

while we were counting attendance,

he was sizing up ammunition;

while we came to pray, giving thanks for life,

he came to kill.

The people gathered in the sanctuary,

yet evil ripped through hymnals, pews, and people.

God have mercy.

Comfort your people’s pain.

Help us lay down our fears and weapons of massacre.

Aid us as we unload our anger and guilt.

Wipe the tears from our eyes so that our aim might be as true as your aim.

Gently trigger us into a holy conversation about peace

so that we might lead through this tragedy,

so that we might prevent another from occurring.

All in the name of the innocent crucified Savior, Jesus, Amen.

Love is the only Torch We carry

Love is the only Torch we carry

By Nathan Decker

O, Virginia… watching the events of this weekend in Charlottesville brought me pain.   To see torches again used as beacons of hatred in my lifetime, Lord, have mercy on us.  When a group of white nationalists with anti-immigrant beliefs rapes the torch of Lady Liberty, the irony should not be lost.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has once again been trampled on by members of the Know-Nothing party of the 1800’s.  We shouldn’t be afraid of the light.  The flame of torches usually represents people coming together.  In the past, I have proudly watched the torch represent efforts for peace at the Olympics, hope for new discovery in Education, and the eternal flame of Wisdom guiding us.  Shame on us for making it symbol of division and fear!

Much of what transpired this weekend was based in fear and grief.  The city of Chartlottesville’s decision to take down a statue ripped off the band-aid on the surgical wound our nation has been dealing with ever since the Constitution told African-Americans they were 3/5 human.  Our nation’s history is complex and up for interpretation and retelling.  Each generation takes up the momentous task of looking back with guilt and pride in an effort to plow a new path into the future.  There are always attempts at shouting the loudest to diminish the voices of others.

As we stand up against the evil of white supremacy, we have to acknowledge the grief that is being expressed.  The way history is told in this nation has mostly been from a white perspective as if whites were the only leaders and contributors.  In recent years this wrong is being righted.  Those who were silenced and oppressed have had the opportunity to add their story to the history of our nation.  White nationalists and supremacists see this as diminishing white history.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Adding missing slices to the pie only makes the pie more full and does not require us to make other slices smaller.  Yet, this is the fear I see in the eyes of those carrying torches of darkness and yelling hate.  They believe they are losing their part of the story.

We can bravely shine brighter than the faces of fear.  We can learn to build relationships with those carrying torches of hate so that we might show them light, love, and the Christ who welcomes all tribes and nations together.  We can, as friends of mine did in Charlottesville, have peaceful conversations with those with whom we disagree.  We can listen to their concerns as well as make our concerns heard.  Through the conversations that lead to relationships, we can admit that all lives matter to Christ, we are one nation made up of many, and love shines brighter.  Love is the only torch we are called to carry into the dark night of hatred and apathy.  We shall overcome by letting peace on earth begin with each of us lifting up love.  After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

 

Goodness is stronger than evil;

                Love is stronger than hate;

                Light is stronger than darkness;

                Life is stronger than death;

                Victory is ours through Him who loves us.”

                                -Bp. Desmond Tutu

Let’s be Honest, some folks aren’t going to make it!

From Matthew 13:1-9

Mrs. Smith was one helluva teacher sent from Heaven.  I know because I had her for English.  I know because I watched her put up with Ed.  Ed didn’t want to be in school, Ed didn’t want to learn the puns of Shakespeare or the alliteration of Blake, and Ed didn’t want to be told what to do.

Through it all, Mrs. Smith never gave up.  She’d offer extra time on tests he had no intention of completing.  She’d push him to enter rap lyrics into a poetry contest, but Ed didn’t do extra work.  She’d encourage him to redo the homework he turned in before she graded it, but all this was casting pearls before swine.  Ed didn’t care.  His apathy, a black hole, sucked the energy and impetus around him.  Ed didn’t care.  But Mrs. Smith cared, and she never gave up on him.

Today’s world has joined what some psychologists call the ‘cult of self.’  At the expense of self-awareness and self-limitations, we boost self-esteem eclipsing reality in exaggerated egocentric effigies of us.  We know the education system is failing, yet more students get A’s and Honors than ever before.  If a C is the average, how come so few kids get them?  Ivy League Students were surveyed and 80% of them claimed to be in the top 5% of their class.  And everyone gets a trophy.

But it’s not just kids… Social Media enables us to tell the world about us and to live in a world that revolves around us.  We Instagram what we’re eating, tweet the songs we’re singing, and post “Best Vacation Ever” every time we slip away.  Narcissism rises as we can literally count how many likes, shares, comments, friends, and followers we have.  We create monsters who no longer can be told they are incorrect and will not admit that they made a mistake all in the name of the god called self-esteem.

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells us a parable about farming.  We show up clutching to our report cards, trophies, awards and affirmations; Jesus ruins it.  God loves us, but some of us just aren’t going to get it.  The parable of the sower casting out his seeds is pretty familiar to all of us.  We know about the different types of soils: the path, the rocks, the thorns, and of course the good soil.  And each time we hear this parable, we tell ourselves the same things:  “I’m so glad I’m the good soil,” or “I used to be like that soil, but now I’m the good soil,” or “here’s a list of things I have to do to make sure I’m the good soil.”  We are so focused on ME! ME! ME! we’ve retitled this parable.  No longer is it the parable of the sower but the parable of the soil.

Jesus tells us about God.  Jesus lets us know God doesn’t give up on us.  Jesus is tells us about God’s wasteful generosity.  A farmer goes out to plant.  How many farmers do you know cast seed out on Highway 58?  How many farmers do you know throw seed on rocks or among thorns on purpose?  How many farmers do you know who are tighter than spandex on an 800 lbs gorilla?  Farmers I know count their fingers after they shake your hand.

God is not your average farmer.  Our Lord is so generous every soil gets seed.  God loves the road.  God loves us when we are hard and mean as asphalt.  God loves the rocky soil.  God loves us when we are shallow, undisciplined, and unwilling to let his love affect us deeply.  God loves the soil with thorns and thistles.  God loves us when we let money, worry, friends, and family come before what really matters.  God loves the good soil.  God loves us when we are ready to receive his Word, take it into our lives, and bear fruit.

This is not a story about us.  This is a story about God’s wasteful generosity.  God is willing to love even when there is little chance the love will be returned.  Our part in the story is to love like God loves.

Jesus sat down by the sea and told us a story about God: the most generous, loving, wasteful farmer the world has ever known.  Let’s be honest, some folks are just not going to get it, but that doesn’t stop God from loving them.  It shouldn’t stop us from loving as well.  God gives so much grace in the world that some of the grace is going to waste.  Some folks just aren’t going to follow Jesus.  Yet, God doesn’t give up on them… and neither should we.  After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

Dramatic Reading for Matthew 28

Dramatic Reading for Matthew 28

Needs four readers, one off-stage, three on.  One has luggage, one has a hammer, and one has a camera.

Voice off stage:                                As you Go-

Reader 1:                             “Yes!  We’re going on a trip!  I wonder where God is sending us.  I can’t wait!”

Reader 2:                             “I hope it’s exotic!  I’ve always wanted to travel overseas!”

Reader 3:                             “I’ll bring my camera and some dough, you know souvenirs will be so cheap there!”

Voice:                                   <Clears throat until they listen>  As you are going, Make-

R2:                                          “YES!  It’s a construction trip!  I wonder what God will have us build!

R1:                                          “I bet it’s a church or a school or maybe even a hospital!”

R3:                                          “I’ll bring my old shirts from college!  We can hand them out to the poor children!  We can even get the kids in church to collect happy meal toys to hand out!  Those kids will be so blessed by our presence!”

Voice:                                   <Clears throat again>  As you are going, make Disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow everything I’ve taught you.

R3:                                          “What’s that mean?”

R2:                                          “Disciples?  How do you build those?”

R1:                                          “All nations… including this one?  Does that mean we’re not going anywhere?”

Voice:                                   As you go about your life where ever you happen to be, share what you have been given.  Invite people to see my love in you.  Bring them to me to experience my love in the baptismal waters.  Teach them to follow the my path of peace.

R1:                                          “This isn’t going to be easy.”

R2:                                          “Yeah, I mean, folks around here already know me.”

R3:                                          “But they don’t all know Jesus.”

R1:                                          “Do you think we can share Christ here, in our homes and at our jobs?

R2:                                          “Do you think they will see Jesus in me?”

R3:                                          “Do you think I can still get a souvenir?”

Voice:                                   You don’t have to go anywhere to share the Gospel.  God has already placed you where you are an expert on the culture, language, and people.

Make disciples, immerse them in Christ’s love, and teach them the way of peace.  Amen.

Litany for Passing the Peace

When we pray…

Our heads our bowed.

When we praise…

Our hands are held high!

And when we grieve…

Our eyes break in tears.

Worship is action.  Belief practiced.  Vision lived out.

When we see injustice…

We raise our voices.

When we see need…

We rush with aid.

And when we are broken, when we have broken…

Covenant.  Promise.  Love.

God sends peace.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

Will we share the peace God has sent?

Will we heal the broken, mend the relationships?

<silence>

The peace of Christ be with you.  And also with you.

(at this point the congregation is encouraged to share the peace using the line above)

Growing in Unusual Places

Christians should disagree.  Churches should have conflict.  Being of one Spirit does not mean we are called to all think, act, give, vote, and look the same when we gather to worship our Lord.  Because of who God is and who the Lord created, we shouldn’t be surprised about this.  But we are.

I’m not used to being surprised when I do yard work.  Recently, I was clearing out some overgrown brush and trimming some trees.  As I was working on one tree, a startling revelation occurred.  It wasn’t one tree.  Sure the roots were one, and even the base was one.  But four distinct trunks were growing out of the base.  The pairs were different in bark, leaf, and density (remember I was cutting some of them).  Somehow, long before I lived here, two trees grew out of the same spot and self-grafted into one another.

The spectacle caused me to share it with my neighbor who was also doing yard work.  We talked about the struggle that these trees must have endured together.  We marveled at how nature finds a way for life to survive in even the most unusual places.  At first we talked about cutting one tree away from the other, but determining which was the original tree was now impossible.  So I trimmed back the dead branches, pruned back the ones that were not going to grow, and left the two trees growing together.

Christianity is a faith that calls us to grow in unusual places.  Faith should surprise us even when we’re not used to it doing so anymore.  In a world that seeks to have manicured monoculture lawns, nature reminds us that diversity is the norm with dandelions and crab grass.  Romans 11:17 gives us the image of a wild olive shoot being grafted into the stump of Jesse.  Paul is using this image to support the reality of his day; Christianity was spreading to Jews and Gentiles ~ to those who expected to be included and those who didn’t even get an invite.

The spectacle of the early church was not how uniform it was but how utterly diverse they were.  Rich and poor broke bread together.  The ethnic backgrounds represented three continents.  People of power were washing their slaves feet.  Former prostitutes were sitting with the wives of Senators.  They struggled and endured together.  At first there was talk of trying to cut them away from one another, but in the end the various branches grew together as community.  No wonder the neighbors gawked.

Christians should disagree – on lifestyles, on politics, on economic development, and even on theology.  Churches should have conflict.  Living things are always in flux and chemically unbalanced.  They do, however, reach a point when all is at homeostasis and there is no more conflict: it’s when they die.  The Living Spirit calls us not to be of one opinion or one vote.  Our faith is a faith of multiple branches growing from the same stump.  Sure, there are times when we’d like to cut away from one another, but our job isn’t to cut or to prune.  We’re supposed to leave that to the Master.  Sure there are easy places to grow, but that’s not where we were planted.  Our calling is to grow together in mutual love and respect for one another’s differences in belief, background, and practice.   After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

 

Originally published in the Tidewater News, August 2016.

Love is Particular

 

Jesus never said “Love everybody.”  I’ve checked.  It’s not in the Bible.  Now before you begin writing letters to the editor or perhaps to my Bishop, hear me out.  I’m glad Jesus never told me I had to love everybody.  I can’t.  It’s not humanly possible.  Loving the whole world is something divine, and even God struggled to do it on the cross.  Instead of commanding us to love everyone, Jesus commanded us to “love God,” “love your neighbor,” and “love one another.”  I’m glad he said it this way.  Loving our neighbor is much more particular and scandalous than loving everyone.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes our neighbor by telling the story of the “Good Samaritan.”  Neighbors are not simply the people who sleep in houses in close proximity to our homes.  Jesus defined neighbors as the people we encounter on the way.  At first this may seem like an easy command, but what if we loved each person we interact with along the way?  Sure, family and friends are pretty much assumed, but what about the others?  The cashier at the store who was slower than grandma’s two step shuffle?  The coworker that tells the annoying overused joke for the thousandth insult?  That loud-mouth who disagrees with us about politics?

And what about the people we interact with through our purchasing power?  We are a global economy.  Each swipe of our plastic is impacting someone’s life.  The child sweating in the factory putting buttons on our shirts?  The underpaid and overworked woman sewing brand names into our tagless underwear?  And let’s not forget closer to home – migrant workers picking vegetables amid the fog of carcinogenic insecticide.  God, this is difficult!

Loving everyone actually might be simpler.  Why not reword the command into the golden rule?  Instead of “Love thy neighbor” let’s use “Love everyone the same way you want to be loved”?  Some people don’t have self-love, self-respect, etc.  Using the golden rule, I could mistreat and disrespect everyone equally in the same manner I expected to be mistreated and disrespected.  God is smart.  Even the Lord ‘chose’ a people to be particularly loved among all humanity through whom the rest of the world would encounter the divine love.  This is the scandal of the particular in the universal.

God doesn’t simply love everyone; God loves you.  All of the you’s who there are out there in the cosmos.  You are a unique human who has very particular needs; your experience of God’s universal love will be particular.  I think this is why the Bible uses Father as a metaphor for God and God’s love.  I love my two children.  I do not love them equally.  They know it, too.  They’ve asked.  I’ve told them each and every time that they ask the same answer.  I love them as much as they need me to love them.  I love them equitably.  I love them particularly.  The Lord’s love is enough.  God doesn’t love one more or less than the other.  God loves us as much as we need to be loved.

Jesus taught us to love like he loved.  When we encounter one another in any way we become neighbors.  We’re called to love our neighbors in the same way that God loves us.  Love is particular.  Don’t try to love everybody.  You’ll fail.  Instead of going global, go local.  Love your neighbor.  After all, it’s what Jesus would do.

 

Originally published in the Tidewater News, July 2016.