Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere.

And sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, we find ourselves.

If you are a traditionalist/orthodox/evangelical Christian in a United Methodist Church in Northern Illinois, and you’ve been paying attention to the unraveling of the UM denomination, you might be feeling a bit like everyone got an invitation to the disaffiliation party…except you.

This past weekend (12/3/22) special sessions of annual conferences were held to vote on approval of disaffiliations. Here’s what happened:

Kentucky Conference57 churches left the UMC
Texas Conference294 churches left the UMC
Northwest Texas Conference146 churches left the UMC

This coming Saturday (12/10/22) the North Alabama Conference is set to approve the departure of 185+ congregations.

Already various other conferences have approved departures: 249 in North Carolina, 144 in Indiana, 93 in Ohio, and so on. (For a current updated official list, here you go: Current List of UM Disaffiliations Approved By Annual Conference).

And on the list, right between North Texas and Northwest Texas, is our conference, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. Approved disaffiliations: 1 (and that was in 2019).

If you are a Progressive United Methodist watching all the congregations leaving the denomination, you may try to hide your smirk. How wonderful! No more wrangling with traditionalists at General Conference! No more dead-weight conservatives holding you back from a glorious future without the fetters of traditional theology, morality, or a priority on evangelism! Even more, you might be heartened to recognize that the conservative voices in Northern Illinois have cleared out, or been cleared out, a long time ago. Merry Christmas!

But if you are a traditionalist Christian layperson in a United Methodist congregation, especially if you have only recently become aware of the fracturing of your congregation’s denominational home, you might be disillusioned, confused, and angry. You may feel uncertain about the commitments of others in your congregation and skeptical about the integrity of your pastor or District Superintendent or Bishop.

And what if you voice your concerns?

Without question you will be told that it is better to #BeUMC or #StayUMC than to depart. United Methodism is open and inclusive, you’ll be told. There is room for everyone, even traditionalists, you’ll be assured. Besides, though the number of congregations leaving may look impressive, it is only a small fraction of the total number of United Methodist churches in the USA. Pay no attention to that minority group of malcontents, you’ll be warned. And frankly, as Bishop John Hopkins has observed, even if you want to leave and even if you have good reasons to leave, the cost the annual conference will require you to pay before you leave will be much more than you can afford. Meh, Christmas…

Bewildered? How Wonderful!!

Bewilderment is that state of being confused and perplexed. That describes a lot of United Methodist laity. Etymologists, the people who study the origins of words and their meanings, indicate that “bewildered” is rooted in the experience of being lost in the wilderness. We can think of it as being led into the wilderness and left to puzzle our way out. It’s no wonder that our emotional climate control might get stuck on disappointment, frustration, and anger. We’re in the wilderness.

If that describes you or the folks in the congregation of which you are part, here’s another take:

Being in “the wilderness”, from the testimony of Scripture, is the place for dealing directly with the deceptions of Satan, confronting the temptations and idolatries of our own soul, and, amazingly, hearing God speak to us personally and directly. When we are in the wilderness literally, we don’t know the way out. When we are in the emotional/spiritual/relational wilderness, we don’t know which relationships to trust, often find our familiar spiritual resources are inadequate, and come to realize that rather than looking forward to being with our “church friends”, well, there is now an underlying rumble of conflict almost anytime we’re together. It’s awkward and uneasy. We know conflict might break out at almost any time. And there is only so much of this we can endure.

The lectionary Gospel reading from the Second Sunday of Advent (12/4/22) is particularly pertinent for those of us who may feel that we are in the wilderness and left to puzzle our way out here and now.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

(Matthew 3:1-12 NIV)

This testimony to the ministry of John the Baptist can help lift our heads and our hearts:

The wilderness

Henri Nouwen, in his slim and poignant book, The Way of the Heart, writes that being in the wilderness, a literal place of solitude without all the distractions of our normal, busy, overly full lives, provides us with access to the underlying illness of our souls.

Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers (and followers!) of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people’s fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives. (p. 21)

The experience of confusion and perplexity can be an opportunity for us to see our loyalties, idolatries, and self-deceptions clearly. The people coming to hear John the Baptist preach had to literally leave their comfortable places and go, literally, into the wilderness to hear his message and offer their response. We may not have chosen this emotional/spiritual/relational wilderness in which we find ourselves, but there is an opportunity for us here and now, nonetheless.

Trendy, performative religion

There is no doubt that the attraction of the latest religious celebrity had large crowds coming to hear John the Baptist preach and taking a dunk in the Jordan River. They went through the motions of “repenting and being baptized.” Some meant it. For many others it was, apparently, just the “righteousness du jour”, for when it came to the actual realigning of life with God’s moral law, the number of those who became disciples of the Savior Jesus was, at least initially, very small. Let’s face it straight up: most of us think “integrity” means being true to ourselves, not necessarily faithful to Jesus. G.K. Chesterton pointed out this fork in the road when he observed: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Authentic repentance makes room for moral integrity

John the Baptist called out both the Pharisees (generally the religious legalists) and the Sadducees (generally wealthy elites whose concerns for the Jerusalem Temple were to leverage it for social and political influence). The call to authentic repentance required setting aside the priority on personal, political, or party agenda. The credentials of institutional religion were and are worthless if not rooted in devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus as expressed in living by the moral law revealed in Scripture. This is the baseline expression of “seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

The late William (Billy) Abraham, UM Seminary Professor, wrote:

For Wesley, integrity means bringing human agents into line with the original design that God put in place for them from the beginning of creation. …Human beings are robust agents with real abilities, responsibilities, and moral capacities. They are intended to match a vision of what it is to be persons, and they are designed according to a divine plan that is objective and good. Essential to that plan is living a life in keeping with the moral law, a law that is itself a transcript of the divine nature. Hence, integrity means being aligned with this plan, fitting snugly, freely, and beautifully into what God has marked out for us. Of course, we have fallen from this plan, but God has acted in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to bring us back into line with the original design. God has come to enable us to be and live as creatures made in the image of God. A healthy human person is not someone who rejects the law of God; on the contrary, she desires to bring her life into line with all that God intends for her. So God’s laws, God’s plan, God’s objective design, are not a burden or a hindrance to true existence; they are essential to the objective order of things.

(Wesley for Armchair Theologians, p. 80)

The Transforming Power of the Holy Spirit

John the Baptist was clear that his ministry and message were preparatory and anticipatory. The baptism with water he offered, an outward sign of a desire to turn from sin and turn toward God, was largely a project of good intentions and moral effort. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, promised by the Lord Jesus, actually changes our desires and shapes our actions (see Ezekiel 36:26-27). The moral law of God is no longer be something we try to do, but something we were empowered to do and want to do. Even more, the Holy Spirit assures Christians of our identity as adopted children of God (Romans 8:15-17). The Holy Spirit gives dreams and visions of God’s great and glorious future (Joel 2:28-32). No more oppressive, performative, simply moralistic religion! It’s the amazing era of being sent together under the influence of the Holy Spirit for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name.

Axes and Winnowing Forks, Fruitfulness and Fruitlessness, Wheat and Chaff

Finally note that in the wilderness the seriousness of faithfulness to Christ is pressed by images of axes cutting down fruitless trees and winnowing forks separating wheat from chaff. These are images of the judgment that awaits all persons everywhere…including you and me. Though the headline of our denominational schism is often cast in terms of LGBTQIA+ issues, the much deeper convictions of what we believe and how we behave overall are at the heart of the matter. The Scriptures provide overwhelming testimony that religious institutions can tragically and completely become ends in themselves rather than living expressions of Christ-centered, scripturally grounded, life-giving engagement with the world here and now because they have in mind the world yet to come.

We can easily become focused on the process of disaffiliation, the disposition of church property, the requirements of discernment, congregational straw polls, official church conference votes, unfunded pension liabilities, etc., etc. The underlying weightier matters of faithfulness to Christ, the authoritative word of Scripture, the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, and the calling to offer ourselves in word and action for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name can be overwhelmed by our personal and organizational anxieties.

Finding yourself bewildered in the UMC this Christmas? Praise God! It may be just the time to get clarity and renew conviction for heading into the future of God’s calling for you.

Hey! Don’t take my word for it…about ignoring or overlooking the weightier matters underlying the current fragmentation of the United Methodist Church. For a helpful recent review of what has brought us to this place of division over many decades, here you go A New Look at an Unfinished Controversy. This will help illuminate, I think, your consideration of axes, winnowing forks, fruitfulness, fruitlessness, wheat, and chaff.

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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