For many United Methodists it will likely be a blue Christmas this year; probably next year, too.
I’m not thinking of Blue Christmas like:
- the song about missing someone we love, “I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas without you” (Elvis Presley Version, Animated)
- or the Blue Christmas/Longest Night Worship Service held by some churches in Western Christian denominations on December 21 and focused particularly on experiences of loss and grief at Christmastime.
- nor am I making muted reference to how our denominational divide in some ways echoes the binary designations of “red” and “blue” in American politics.
I’m referring to the generic descriptor for sadness, depression, and disappointment. There is an underlying sadness within many UM congregations this year.
For hundreds of United Methodist congregations, this will likely be the last Advent/Christmas they worship together.
Breaking Up Is Hard (and painful) to Do
Estimates vary, pending the outcome of special and regular sessions of UM Annual Conferences this year and next, but something like 3,000 to as many as 5,000 congregations are expected to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination before the end of 2023. This Christmas will be their last as United Methodists.
An unknown and perhaps unknowable number of other congregations will also have taken a vote and, failing to reach the 66% majority required to disaffiliate, will remain United Methodist as decided by as few as 35% of those voting. The actual numerical majority within each of those congregations will be left to determine individually whether to remain or to leave.
No emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy person chooses to be part of any organization, or congregation, where they are not wanted, and their theological commitments are at best tolerated and at worst held in contempt. Many of us will realize, as we hold our candle and sing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve worship, that in the New Year we will be joining the nearly 50% of United Methodists, about 5 million, who, since its inception in 1968, have left the denomination in the USA already. No wonder Christmas this year might be especially blue for many United Methodists.
Don’t take your love away from meNeil Sedaka
Don’t you leave my heart in misery
If you go then I’ll be blue
‘Cause breaking up is hard to do
Excuse me for interrupting this sad situation, but how about opening our ears to the disruptive lectionary readings for last Sunday?
The personal impact of our denominational fragmentation might make us want to scurry into the cozy warmth of decorations, Cyber Monday specials, our favorite Christmas music, and the assurance that it’s somehow “A Wonderful Life” after all. Sanctuaries will be decorated and Christmas activities, from Angel Tree projects to children’s Nativity pageants, to Christmas Eve Services, will certainly help to make things feel “normal”. Can’t we just ignore or avoid all the church conflict until we put baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and Magi, along with the angels, donkeys and cattle, away until next year?
In the wisdom of the Church, at the beginning of the Advent Season we are drawn to the shockingly intrusive Scriptures about Jesus’ Second Coming, the judgment of the world – and ourselves – and the urgent imperative to “prepare the way for the Lord!”
Did you hear the gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent (November 27)?
Jesus speaking, said:
37 “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. 38 In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. 39 People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.
40 “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.
42 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. 44 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.
N.T. Wright notes that this is Noah’s solitary mention in the Gospels. Poor Noah! How come he’s largely restricted to those few chapters in Genesis? Perhaps, as Bishop Wright notes and, more importantly, as Jesus says, Noah’s days were ordinary days. Eating, drinking, life as usual; no signs, no hint of what is to happen. Though some have understood Matthew’s text as referring specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., it is also read as referring to the ultimate future, the day of Christ’s return, when some will be “taken” and others will be “left”. Jesus’ mention of Noah is a reminder of what things used to be like. Not so any longer.
We are used to the ordinary. The arrival of Jesus, in Bethlehem and at the Second Coming, is totally extraordinary. God breaks into our history, continues to extend the light and life of salvation by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within and beyond the community of Christ-followers. But there is more on the horizon: “Christ Has Died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” The Lord is coming again “to judge the living and the dead.”
Through this denominational uproar, by God’s grace, we are experiencing again the familiar being taken from us. Christ is calling here and now for us to lift our heads and look forward with resilient faith, persistent courage, and great expectation. A seismic sifting is upon us in both church and the wider culture. It’s a season of wheat and chaff, of grieving the past but not getting stuck there. A great divide requires us to make a bold choice for the future. The coming of the Lord Jesus is not the signal to huddle in our comfort zone; it is the glorious news of redemption and reconciliation with an accompanying lifetime invitation to be part of the Jesus Mission.
The Breakup is Time to Wake Up
Without doubt there will be a blue haze over the Christmas celebrations for many United Methodists this year. Change always brings loss and loss is always accompanied, in some measure, by grief. United Methodism is a house divided. Yes, each congregation has a choice to make about denominational affiliation. More importantly, however, each congregation and each member of each congregation, has a choice to make about fidelity to Jesus Christ and the cause of Christ’s mission, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name.
The Apostle Paul expresses the practical and personal implication in the Epistle Reading for the First Sunday in Advent this year (November 27):
11 This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living. 13 Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.
We look to the past with gratitude. At the same time, we look forward with expectant hope, prayerful anticipation, and faithful action toward a fresh start in a new chapter of the Jesus Mission for each of us.