The great American institution and rivers of grace

by the Rev. Ben Gosden*

I was born in a river town. I grew up in a town where the river was a historical source of economic sustainability. It gave us power as it exercised its power. I grew up knowing how to both fear and appreciate the beauty of the river. You feared it because it could be dangerous if you ventured too close and were unsupervised. But you also learned to appreciate the way the sun set in the west and how if you were lucky you would be paying attention to the horizon to catch that brief and fleeting moment when the sun and river appeared to share a gentle kiss as the day came to an end. I grew up knowing rivers are symbols of new life and change.

I can’t help but wonder if our beloved United Methodist Church doesn’t also need to be reminded of God’s call to new life and change.

I’ve recently been interested in the back-and-forth between the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) and the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD). It seems there is a question of media bias at play in how UMNS covered the dramatic and complicated story involving Mary Ann Kaiser’s removal from the ordination process in The Southwest Texas Annual Conference. The IRD alleges that UMNS was soft in their reporting and portrayed a blatant bias in their coverage. You can read more here.

I’m not concerned so much with whether or not there’s validity to the IRD’s accusations as much as I’m mourning the fact that we’ve now officially “jumped the shark” as an American institution.

You see we’ve resorted to forming camps that push political agendas and spend enormous amounts of money and energy trying to derail the efforts of those camps who oppose their causes. Rather than focusing on the mission of the church (forming disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world), we find it much sexier to defame and destroy the political stances of one another. IRD is a group with a particular bias accusing other groups of bias because, after all, there’s no such thing as objectivity in a world centered on dividing and conquering your opponents.

But there’s more.

We’re on the heels of what many argue was one of the more unproductive and divisive General Conference gatherings. Without much meaningful legislation passing, the time quickly dissolved into protests and character attacks on those who would oppose or support certain causes and issues. People reported back to their annual conferences with a sense of defeat and frustration after two weeks of gathering with not very much to show for the time together.

Wait…our legislative body struggles to work together to pass anything for the good of everyone? Our church culture is shaped by political camps with self-serving agendas and tactics that would rather break down and destroy than build up and edify? We bicker back and forth about bias at the expense of doing anything for the good of everyone?

Maybe we HAVE finally become the great American institution?!?!

I was born and raised in a river town. So you can imagine my particular affinity for the old spiritual, “Down by the Riverside.” The lyrics are simple and yet profoundly prophetic:

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ain’t gonna study war no more.

I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Study war no more.

By nature, we acknowledge as United Methodists that we are continually moving on towards perfection. And we are also keenly aware of the fact that it is only by God’s grace that we’re able to be the people God calls us to be. And so we pray for the grace to lay down our swords of slander and our shields of divisive rhetoric. May we “study war no more” so that we may be taken, blessed, broken, and given in Jesus’ name for the sake God’s redemption of creation.

But be warned: venture too close to the river of grace and we’re all liable to be snatched up and given new life.


*The Rev. Ben Gosden is an Associate Pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon, GA. He blogs on the intersection of faith, life, and the Church at

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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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I agree with the Rev. Ben Gosden that, "it is only by God's grace that we're able to be the people God calls us to be." However, perhaps the good Rev. Gosden should lead by example and lay down his sword and shields of divisive rhetoric toward IRD first. Dios le bendiga.

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