I have a confession to make:
I love the form. I grew up in church kitchens and parlors as bereavement dinners were cooked. I had far too much fried chicken, and far too many shaved carrots suspended in lime jello. I attended two churches each Sunday and a third church on Wednesday evenings.
I was baptized as an infant. I started District Camp at the end of the first grade and haven’t stopped going since. Confirmed at the age of twelve, I clearly remember encountering Christ at Crosspoint Camp and saying “Yes. I am yours, and you are mine. So be it.” I heard God say upon my confirmation, “I am setting you aside for ministry.” I can still close my eyes and see what the sanctuary looked like as Rev. Wilkins placed a cross around my neck at the kneeling rails of the little UMC in Lindsay, America, and hear that voice.
I served on my first Ardmore District committee at fifteen, preached my first sermon at seventeen, and joined my first OKUMC conference board at eighteen. I took my first church at twenty. Growing up, I held funerals for my rabbit and my goldfish, and when students pretended to get married on the playground, I was always the minister. In college, I continued to hear God’s voice. I am still convinced I am here and in the UMC for a reason, and I am trusting God to continue to light my path one step at a time.
I love the form. I know the Discipline, the committee and board structures, and just enough Robert’s Rules of Order, Revised to be dangerous. I once read from the Social Principles about the rights of the aging to an employee at the nursing home when there were reports of bed sores. “I’m from the Methodist Church and I’m here to help!”
I served in Moore through two different natural disasters and remained in awe at the power of UMCOR and VIM to bring long-term solutions and healing to the community. I attended the young clergy summit at the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. and remember the profound feeling of having a church presence just a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. I remember being trained in evangelism and receiving the Holy Spirit by Bob Pierson, and being trained in restorative justice by Stan Basler. I remember being helped to articulate my calling by Wendy Lambert and Guy Ames. I remember being taught about compassion by Jennifer Long and about missiology by Jeremy Basset. I remember being coached in confidence through preaching by Frankye Johnson, and Erica Thomas taught me how to sing again.
There are circuit riders in my family history. My great-aunt worked for general agencies of the UMC. My father and step-father are both pastors, my brother was in UM disaster response. My wife works for a Wesley Foundation, and she has Methodist pastors and prairie riding preachers in her family history. For heaven’s sake – we met in New Testament Greek and on our first date talked about sacraments and our favorite kinds of stoles. Who does that?
I love the form. When I see the cross and flame, it brings me comfort. I remember roaming the halls of churches and finding the old closets full of treasures and stairways to old, unused bell towers while my parents were in district meetings. The United Methodist Church is a Form, one that I love.
My wife, Aly, bought me a couple of Scott Erickson paintings for my birthday. I have one sitting on my desk that is both challenging and comforting. It is a church in an hourglass, with the words:
“If you love the Form, you have everything to lose. If you love What gives it its form, you’re free to receive whatever it is turning into.”
It reminds me of the Apostle Paul standing on the Areopagus in front of the court of justice for the people of Athens in Acts 17. He boldy proclaimed that in God “we live and move and have our being… as your own poets have stated, we are God’s offspring.”
I love the form, but I know that my love for the One who gives it its form must be greater, and I must become less.
Many have seen the news about potential changes in the UMC, have read my and other pastors’ letters, and have read and watched the responses of Bishops and large church pastors. They are wondering – as I am wondering – “What happens next?”
Either through experience and practice, or perhaps through sheer stupidity, I am awaiting the answer to this question with a non-anxious presence. I will practice it when alone, with my family, and in the midst of my congregation.
Because the future of the Body of Christ will continue to be in our local congregations. Congregations like the one I serve, where faith is being developed and people are striving to make a difference locally and around the world. It is a church full of faithful people seeking to make a Christian difference. Whatever happens to the denomination, the fact remains that the primary arena for disciple-making and difference-making is the local church. The future unity of our Institution is uncertain. Like Paul and Barnabus, after a heated exchange on the direction of mission and who to take with them, there will be those who choose to reconcile and part as friends, while remaining branches of the True Vine and bearing fruit that will last.
If I focus my love and desire on the One who gives it its form, and not on the form itself, I move from having everything to lose to being free to receive what God is doing. That is a hope and comfort for me. I desire that it would be a hope and comfort for you, as well.
Love the form, yes; but give yourself to the One who gives it its form. In doing this, God will become greater, and we will become less.
…and I still cannot enjoy the taste of lime jello.