GROWING IN GRACE
There’s a cute Disney movie that came out about 15 years ago called “Lilo and Stitch.” It’s the story of an alien that crash lands on earth and befriends a curious and fiesty young girl named Lilo. The movie follows their hijinks as they learn the value of family bonds. There’s a great line in the movie where Lilo teaches Stitch one of her native Hawaiian sayings: “Ohana means family…and family means no one gets left behind.”
I remember a conversation I had with a pastor friend as I was getting ready to start seminary. I confessed to him that I struggled with our denomination’s stance on human sexuality and I wondered if the Methodist church was the place for me. Although he and I didn’t agree on this topic, he confessed that he also struggled.
“But that’s the beauty of The United Methodist Church,” he assured me. “There’s a place for us all!” He reminded me that the Church is a family. And family means no one gets left behind — even if we don’t always agree.
I have to admit that I struggle with the tension in our denomination. I’m sure many of you do, too. We focus so much on what separates us that I’m afraid we forget about what unites us. And in the process I’m afraid we lose sight of important things like evangelistic zeal, growing healthy churches, and faithfully serving our communities. We’re so focused on preserving our tiny fish bowl called “the Methodist system” that we often forget about the big ocean we’re called to swim and serve in.
I don’t know what 2019 will bring to The United Methodist Church. And I’m afraid that things might get uglier the closer we get to the called General Conference. Fear tends to bring out the very worst in us. But if General Conference brings out the very worst demons in us, I’m grateful for the signs of our better angels shining through:
- I’m grateful for leaders like South Georgia’s own Rev. Dr. John Stephens who reminded us in a CNN interview that the “Chapelwood navy” doesn’t care about people’s religious backgrounds or politics when they show up to rescue them from the flooding in Houston. They’re there for one reason: because God called them to show up and be the hands and feet of Jesus. That’s a witness of what the UNITED Methodist Church could be!
- I’m grateful for leaders like my friend Rev. Josh Hale of First UMC in Liberty, Texas. Josh’s church is currently housing more than 50 people who have seen all sorts of loss and destruction. There’s no interview process to get into the doors at FUMC — if there’s space to house you, you’re in. No one gets left behind if they can help it. What a witness of what the UNITED Methodist Church is all about!
- I’m grateful for the hard work we saw good Methodists undertake in Albany, Ga. when disaster struck earlier this year. Porterfield UMC didn’t check to see if everyone agreed on a theological exam before they fed them a hot meal. Albany First didn’t vet people they helped. Neither did Christ UMC or any of the other Albany churches. They bore witness to what the UNITED Methodist Church is all about to the people of Albany!
- I’m grateful to a friend who has debated me many times on theological matters but who was literally the first person who reached out to me last fall offering his church as a safe haven for people leaving Savannah before Hurricane Matthew arrived. He and I may not agree on everything, but I’m so glad for those Holy Spirit moments when we are UNITED in our Methodist Church!
I don’t know what 2019 will bring. And Lord knows we need to get busy planning and dreaming and daring to innovate because the last thing we can afford now, theological division or not, is to lose our vitality as a church.
It’s funny how moments of disaster — a more immediate fear than theological division — can actually open us up to Christ’s love casting out fear as we band together to help one another. Or to put it another way: God can use moments where we are most truly the church to UNITE us in ways we never imagined.
Maybe our prayers in the aftermath of disaster should always be the familiar liturgy: “Lord make us one with you, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world … because there’s a place for everyone and no one gets left behind. Amen”
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at email@example.com.