Lay of the Land: Let’s face it – Following Jesus can be ‘untidy’

By Richard Hearne, UMR Columnist…

In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley are finishing dressing for dinner when Matthew wants to give Lady Mary an affectionate embrace. Lady Mary puts off the advance with the words, “That would make me untidy.”

Richard Hearne

These words came back to me when I was leaving a tense but productive meeting at church, and one of my friends stated that they wanted to get off all committees and just go to church. What my friend was saying is that working in the church to “make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is untidy. This seems to be a fairly common response from many church members who think the church is too involved in untidy ministries that make them very uncomfortable. A lady once told a preacher friend of mine that she just wanted to sit in the sanctuary and “let the love of Jesus pour over her.”

As I continue to study the life and ministry of Jesus, the Disciples and Apostles and John Wesley (fairly important figures in United Methodist theology), I am impressed with how untidy their ministry was. Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry in his hometown and his neighbors threaten to throw him off the cliff. His message is so radical and untidy that the officials that are in power have him crucified.

Almost all of the Disciples and Apostles, according to tradition, suffered death as martyrs for preaching the Good News. Paul tells us of his beatings, imprisonments and finally his death in a Roman jail. John Wesley was expelled from full connection with the Anglican Church because of his work with those living on the margins of society—the poor, sick, those in prison. Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the AME Church is quoted as saying, “We preachers find it much safer to preach about Jesus than to preach what Jesus preached. Preaching about Jesus often endears us while preaching what Jesus preached could endanger us.”

This is all very untidy, and a long way from sitting in a pew on Sunday morning and letting the love of Jesus pour over us.

Staying the course

For many years I have been have involved in church work at either the local, conference or general church level and the feeling of dealing with untidy situations remains a constant. On any number of fronts, a church member must face the reality of politics (defined by many as the art of getting things done), tough financial and personnel decisions and supporting, in many cases, unpopular ministries. Many of the “nones,” folks with no affiliation with a local church or denomination, are most critical of us church folks for spending too much on ourselves—especially our grand and beautiful buildings. For many churches, after paying for the building and salaries of staff there is little left for programs and ministries. Thus churches continue to struggle with how to respond to the needs of those on the margins.

So how do we learn to deal with the untidy ministries that I believe we are called to be involved with—even ones about which we may have disagreement? We must be involved in the same types of ministry that Jesus and Wesley deemed important—the homeless, the jobless, the hungry, those suffering from addiction and disease and those that are oppressed. We must stop judging who is worthy of our assistance based on some type of personal criteria (if I give them some money they will just spend it on wine or cigarettes) and give freely because that is what Jesus calls us to do.

At a time when so many are saying they want to leave the United Methodist Church because of the General Conference stance on homosexuality, abortion, alcohol, gambling, tobacco, gun control, war, etc. etc. etc., my counsel is that we must stay and work for change—whatever we think that change must be.

We must continue to focus on, as Bishop Scott Jones says, the “extreme center.” We don’t have to agree on every item but we do have to agree to stay in relationship with one another. We must have the courage of our convictions without demonizing each other—“to love our neighbor as ourselves.” We need to stop calling each other names and using harmful words like incompatible, homophobic, hateful. We need to treat each other for who we are—daughters and sons of God who all receive God’s love and grace, which is so undeserved.

So I am committed to stay in the church—specifically the United Methodist Church—even though it is untidy. How about you?

Mr. Hearne is former lay leader of the North Texas Conference.


Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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