I am a child of United Methodism. Mom was a Presbyterian and Dad was a Methodist, but about the time that the Methodist Church and the United Evangelical Brethren were getting together, so were my parents. Mom says that the primary difference between the Presbyterians and the Methodists was that the Methodists played their hymns faster. She approved. (She also obviously never studied theology!). In any case, I never knew anything of Presbyterianism. I was raised in, and partially by the United Methodist Church.
To say that my family spent a lot of time at church would be an understatement. In kindergarten, I was a fly in our church’s reenactment of the plagues of Moses, complete with trash bag body and butter tub eyes strapped to my head. I can still remember fighting with my brother over who got to jump out of the treasure chest in the skit for pirate-themed VBS when I was in elementary school. (He won, and amongst other things, I still hold this against him).
My brother and I joined the Boy Scout troop at our church in the middle of elementary school. We didn’t know until later that the reason we joined was that there were tensions between the troop and the church, which lacked overlapping in members. My parents deployed us as little United Methodist mediators. It worked out well. One Boy Scout Sunday, I remember sitting in the front pew with the other members of my troop. I quickly realized that, not being familiar with church, the parents of the other boys must have told them to do whatever I did. Upon this realization, my worship practice became explicitly and randomly ritualized. I prayed with my hands straight against one another, then with fingers interlaced, now kneeling, now standing. I was greatly amused as the entire row followed whatever I did. … Oh yea, I should note that as a child I also remember my parents picking me up and carrying me to the back of the sanctuary multiple times to correct my behavior when doing so in front of the rest of the congregation would not have been appropriate. Good times.
In high school my family moved houses, and we moved to a new Church. Ironically, we moved from West Side UMC to West Heights UMC. As our home town had expanded westward, so had the Methodists, leaving churches like West Side in the center of the city. In any case, the similarity in name is apt. We were at a new church, but not a new Church. We were United Methodists. West Heights did, however, have a younger congregation, and a much more active youth group than West Side. Predictably, my family was soon immersed in this new setting.
I went to confirmation camp at Camp Horizon, one of the two beautiful United Methodist Camps in my home state. It was there that I first felt a call to ministry. I was out lamenting my inability to master the subtleties of middle school romance with a particularly beautiful co-camper, and audibly complaining to God about the situation when I stumbled across a large ant hill. Looking down, I saw these creatures whose home had been destroyed. They did not pause to complain to God, but rather immediately got to work putting their home back together. I found myself chastened, and called to build something. I suppose the rest of my life will be spent working to understand exactly what that means.
During high school I was also a participant in church camp out at Lakeside, our Conference’s other camp. There was lots of singing, lots of worshiping, many pranks, and of course more girls. Jan Hathaway, one of the camp leaders and my minister’s wife, called the phenomenon of camp hook-ups “hormone evangelism.” I have always appreciated that turn of phrase.
My home church also kept us busy. “Caravan” was an annual summer road trip. The youth group developed, then celebrated a creative worship services with United Methodist churches across the country. It was your basic worship-for-housing scheme. When my family started going on Caravan (you know my parents had to be sponsors every year!), there were two vans full of kids. We entertained ourselves with a set of walkies-talkies with which we could communicate between vans. By the time I graduated high school over 50 youth were going on Caravan, and we had long since outgrown our vans and moved on to a bus. And, man, the stories: sleeping in “haunted” homes and churches, meeting fun and quirky people, but mostly just growing up together.
My experience in higher education reads like a list of United Methodist Colleges in the Midwest. I studied undergraduate at Southwestern College in Winfield Kansas, where I sang with outreach and praise groups at Chapel and at Churches around the country, became a student assistant to the campus minister, and was one of the first member of the Institute for Discipleship.
I then went on to seminary at Southern Methodist University, where I was a member of the “Perkins School of Theology Drinking and Cussing Society.” For their protection, I will forever keep the names of other members a secret, though really we did much more BBQing and socializing than either drinking or cussing. We mostly liked the aura of rebelliousness.
It was at Perkins that I found my love of theology and social justice. Bishop Scott Jones told in one of his lectures about coming to seminary and learning about Wesley. He said it was like coming back to a home he didn’t know he had. My experience with moral theology was quite similar. Though, in retrospect, it should have been no surprise. I am a United Methodist, a concern for social holiness runs in my veins. So I continued on at SMU, getting my PhD, and starting to teach.
On the way to my current position on faculty at Central Methodist University, I stopped off to teach for two years at Hendrix College in Arkansas, another of our Church’s fine institutions of higher education. I have been blessed to see many of my students go on into ministry in the Church, and have been even more blessed to have been in ministry myself at several rural churches. That little boy, who started out at West Side United Methodist, has consecrated the Eucharist and has baptized newborns. And, as anyone who has done the sacraments can tell you, there is nothing quite so humbling or joyous.
Now, why do I tell you all of this? Because, in recent days there has been much talk about schism within the Church. People talk of the one issue separating them, and carry on as if there is nothing that holds us together. And I wonder about my own story. I knew nothing of the language of “connection” until I reached seminary. But as I look back, it is written all over my life; in churches across the nation, in camps, in colleges, seminaries, and mostly in the many people I have been able to minister to, and who have ministered to me. I am a child of the Church, not of the progressives or the conservatives, but of the CHURCH. So, for those who crash the meetings of the Connectional Table pushing your agenda, for those who proclaim that schism has already happened, for you I have a message: Please get over your sibling rivalry, and rejoin the connection. If that is impossible for you; if you must go, go. But do not try to take part of my Church with you. To say, “Can’t we just go our separate ways, I to the left and you to the right?” does not leave any place for those of us who have lived our lives in the extreme center of grace that is the United Methodist Church. Finally, if you bring our Church to schism, don’t expect anything about it to be amicable. This isn’t just my Church you are trying to tear apart. It is my home. It is my family.