Thursday, February 6, 2014

On Methodist grandmothers, Episcopal ordination and theology discussed over a pitcher of beer.

Maw Maw died the same day I was confirmed. I have often thought she meant to spite me. I came from Methodists, staunch Methodists.
There were two Methodist bishops in Maw Maw’s lineage and as far as she was concerned, Methodism was the only way to follow Jesus. So, when I decided to seek out my discipleship in the Episcopal Church, I didn’t tell Maw Maw.
I was in seminary – as a Methodist.  It was not a good time to change horses. I could say that the reason for my conversion was that I was called to The Episcopalian Way, and this would be true, but mostly it was because I thought the Episcopalian seminarians were so cool. These were the smart ones, they took challenging classes and every Wednesday the entire group (which was small in our Methodist seminary) would celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, then walk over to the pub and discuss theology over a pitcher of beer. I wanted to be like them. It wasn’t the beer, it was the way that gathered. No one judged, no one squabbled, no one was ever absent. They really loved each other.
I wanted that kind of belonging and that is what I found when I made the switch. When I first came to The Episcopal Church I found a wonderful sense of belonging that eased the angst of my seeking. Once I learned the prayer book, the hymns, the history and doctrine and learned when to sit, kneel or stand, I felt I had come home. Most converts put it this way, that we have found our home after some searching. And there was a significant feeling of specialness in the fact that I was making the choice.
Then I found out about the hurtful things Christians do to each other. Belonging was turned into elitism. I observed power abuse, arguments over "rightness,” divisions and much weeping and wailing. And I saw lots of "belongers” leave. I learned that changing denominations doesn’t free you from pettiness and bickering. In fact, drawing this kind of "us and them” lines in the sand creates the kind of culture that can lead to getting caught up in such division.
My sense of belonging was threatened by other opinions and I wanted to fight to defend it. I wanted to stay under the steeple sipping the wine, wafer and word as if it were medicine meant just for me to feel better about me. I wanted to enjoy the fellowship in the same way, to lap up the love amongst the vestments and flowers. But, though we must "rejoice in the power of the Spirit” we are also commanded to go "forth into the world.” There is work to be done. And it is not always easy nor pretty.
Stanley Hauerwas recently said, "The greatest threat to the church today is not atheism, it is sentimentalism.” This has helped me to realize that my desire to stay under the steeple and dance and sing as if church were just a party was keeping me from following the work of my calling.
It is good to enjoy the beauty of our buildings, vestments, ancient prayers and music but what I have learned that is the most important thing about being a Christian is the imperative to seek ways to care for the poor, the sick, the lonely, the widows and orphans. This is the only way to respond to what we receive in the beauty of holiness. And it is in the response to our Lord’s command to go into the world that we are most likely to find belonging, regardless of denomination.  Changing denominations isn’t the cure.  The church is changing, following Jesus means learning to flow with the changes. Following Jesus out into the world is the way to belonging.
In response to the vision proposed at annual council by Bishop Bourlakas, to become a more missional diocese, I have experienced increased hope that we are indeed on our way to caring more for the poor than for our sentimental journeys and in the process we are reviving our parishes and our souls.
Maybe I didn’t need to leave the Methodist tradition to learn this, but I’m glad I did. As for Maw Maw, she made it to 100 and lived a good life. I’m sure she’ll understand if I find a new way to follow Jesus.

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