Thursday 23rd April 2020 @ 6:47 pm
Warning. Lockdown theological reflection. Contains an offensive thought to some. I usually get an email or two asking me if I am OK when I write from the heart like this – so to you kind people who wonder, am I OK?
Honestly, I feel really good and well, thank you for caring.
Very recently I came across a note written just over two years ago. It was penned toward the beginning of a silent retreat that was part of my sabbatical. I came across this note/reflection while looking for a comment I know ‘is somewhere’ with regard to preparing a sermon for this Sunday. If I go beyond Thursday without feeling a sermon is ‘in–shape’ then I get jittery. I was flicking through the notes from that retreat, gently asking myself ‘what did I learn / has anything changed / what have I not done that I hoped I would,’ when I hit a sentence that flooded me.
The note sprang from an experience of being in Foundry UMC Washington DC while on my yearly ‘notorious sinners retreat’ (see Brendan Manning) with two amazing friends. The practice is, we eat, walk, talk, drink, tell the truth and help each other fumble through this life. They are vital humans to me. And on this particular Sunday we walked through downtown DC, had Marine1 (or one of them) fly over the top of us, and we attended a church I will never forget.
I’m taking some time to set this note up, because I know the reflection will piss some people off.
More than what I have just said.
Foundry UMC blew me away.
I can’t remember the details, which is fine, because I remember the feelings. Present that day, in an old–style building (with a gallery n’all) was the most wonderful hotchpotch of people. Small old crusties with big smiles. Tall young vibrants with rainbow hair. The smartly dressed and the hardly dressed. The healthy wealthy and the obviously not. Every ministry leader wore a cassock – white. Every choir member wore a robe, every musician played like a professional, every reader had rehearsed their part, and every microphone turned on and off when it was meant to. The worship started with the lead pastor giving a deliberately inclusive welcome – uttering deliberately that age, race, gender, wealth or sexual preference were no barrier to joining in worship with their church family.
The sermon was socially liberal and theologically orthodox
The worship was liturgically conservative and socially inclusive
The welcome was as warm as any I have received anywhere in the world.
It was brilliant.
And it broke my heart.
his is what I wrote one month later going into my silent retreat.
“Foundry UMC in Washington – a brilliant and inclusive and multi/ racial worship service. Which depressed me as there wasn’t one church in Irish Methodism where I could participate in a service like it.”
Some good friends will have just had their heart sink into their stomach.
I hear my mum’s voice, “you just can’t help yourself sometimes can you.” [You should have been in the conversation after she heard me say “arse” on the radio]
But I also hear another voice.
A voice that whispers,
“Thank you. You said it.”
And it comes from most of my friends (and a multitude of students) who have not found a church in Ireland where they have felt welcomed, treasured, inspired or held – part of a family. They find no worth in church, although many of them find worth in God. They do not have connection, and nothing they have experienced in churches makes them desire it. It’s heart–breaking.
I feel that my denomination is part of my family. They raised me and I love them. I truly do. Like any family I have frustrations and angsts, but being invited to face those frustrations and angst is what helps me grow, continuously – and I sincerely hope I never get to an age where I somehow stop growing/learning. I really never want to arrive at a place where I think I know it all. I have experienced huge sadness and disbelief at the actions of my denomination at times, at other times I could not have held more gratitude and pride. I have been incessantly angry with them, and I have been crumpled with sheer joy at being present with them. I have led, I have stepped back, I have spoken, I have been quiet. And in these days it is an absolute honour to be their representative to Trinity College.
My denomination was there at my beginning. And they will be there at my end. Which I hope is far off, but might be sooner than I hope given these fraught and strange days.
Who knows what today brings, never mind tomorrow. Hence, my writing, honestly. Why would I not?
This note, the note that saddened me because I could not think of a Methodist church in Ireland where my heart rate would rise at the thought of attending and being in ministry, has hung over me like a small cloud since the DC experience. There are many reasons why people in church leadership find these conversations tough – and now (at this age with my current experiences) I can understand a little more what shapes decisions for maintaining a status quo. Family commitments, pension plans and levels of security and tenure can all bubble under a surface, unacknowledged or even suppressed, ultimately leading to smallness of life and ministry.
For the record, in my own reflection there wasn’t one other denomination/church in the north of Ireland where my mind could even flirt with a conversation. Methodism at it’s heart is a passionately socially liberal working out of the stories of Jesus – and for all our faults, I don’t see any other denomination getting anywhere closer than us. I am proud of that heritage and that continued effort.
And so my issues have remained.
My heart–felt disappointment.
My deep love for what has been, and awkward hope for what can be.
My appreciation for what I have received,
alongside my sadness at what has been withheld.
My desire to keep engaging positively with my ‘tribe,’
maintaining love as the cornerstone we build on.
These things all remain
Then of course, much later, and much more recently came the real kicker.
If I cannot think of a place in my denomination where I can be part of a community where inclusion and embrace are central to acting out faith, where Scripture is an inspiration not an interrogation, where effort meets grace and grace meets effort, and where people who come into any sort of contact with us are left in no doubt that Love Wins, then why … why … why oh why, would I not try to help build one?
My apparent appetite for deconstruction, which is of course much easier, remains.
Perhaps my commitment to reconstruction is beginning to bloom.
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