I have been a Methodist my entire life. Methodism came from my Dad’s side of the family. My Mom’s side of the family was Church of Christ. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out that the Church of Christ believed that I was going to hell because I didn’t belong to their church. To make matters worse, I became an ordained United Methodist pastor!
I deeply love and admire my Grandpa Cheairs. He was a rancher and farmer in Texas. I was with him near the end of his life when I was still a young pastor. Cancer had eaten away a large part of his face, and he was extremely weak as he laid in his bed. The nurse said to him: “I bet that you are proud that your Grandson is a United Methodist pastor”. My Grandpa started to shake. With all the energy he could muster, he raised himself onto one elbow and said: “I think…that the boy…is confused”. Then he fell back onto his bed. The nurse had a shocked look on her face when she looked at me. I shook my head “no” to keep anything else from being said. I continued to love my Grandpa even when he couldn’t accept this part of my life. I never doubted his love for me, either, and I knew that he would give his very life for me if necessary.
Back in those days we had annual family reunions. The last one I attended was right before we moved to Alaska twenty-two years ago. I was taking a walk with one of my distant cousins when she whispered: “Mark, I don’t think that you are going to hell”. It amused me that she whispered even when we were by ourselves. Later, though, I was shocked when we were getting ready to eat. One of the older men always said the prayer before we ate. As I jockeyed for position in the food line, I heard someone say: “We want to ask brother Mark to say the prayer”. I looked around to see who else was named Mark, and found they really were talking about me. All these years later, this memory of being embraced by my family still warms my heart.
As we struggle in the United Methodist Church with who is to be fully included, my heart yearns for the day when everyone is embraced by the family. I’m alarmed that we have claimed an authority that Jesus didn’t give us. That is the authority to exclude people from the faith. When we use phrases like “incompatible with Christian teaching”, we are declaring that there are people that Jesus would not love and receive. Truly, are we qualified to make a statement like this?
The scripture that comes to my mind where it appears that Jesus is going to reject someone is his encounter with the Canaanite woman. She was shouting for Jesus’ attention because her daughter was tormented by a demon. Jesus’ disciples encouraged him to send her away because she would not quit shouting. We are told in Matthew 15:24-28 (NRSV): “Jesus answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” Where would we be if Jesus had held firm to his position that he was only sent for those of the house of Israel?
If the United Methodist Church is going to exclude people, why do we narrow the list just to our LGBTQ+ family members? If we are going to be exclusive, we should be able to create quite a long list of people to exclude. Maybe a scriptural starting point is with the ten commandments.
My desire is to be part of a church that follows Jesus’ teachings, and example, of being inclusive. To my LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers, I want you to know how grateful I am that you are part of the family. Your faith and courage inspire me. I love you, and I’m so sorry for the pain that those of us in positions of power have inflicted on you. It is my hope that I will live long enough to see the United Methodist Church be a fully inclusive church for all people.
Your brother on the journey, Mark
Further thoughts: I wrote this article on Monday and decided to wait until after the Called General Conference finished to share it. I was saddened by how General Conference ended. I kept waiting for an answer to be found that would unite us. This didn’t happen. When there is this much pain in our church family, there are no winners. Everyone loses. God has a way, though, of working through pain to bring new possibilities. Hope continues!