It’s like Summer’s gift to Winter as a hospitable gesture welcoming the presence of change. But with change, comes insecurity, tension, wonderings, and maybe even regret. When changing from one thing to the other there is a vulnerability that often meets the very act of courage that it took to initiate the change in the first place. It is in this time of, “not yet,” that really has a way of uncovering our true desires, wants, and needs. As I’ve recently expressed on a social media post, I am still grieving the loss of my pastoral identity that was so foundational to my self-identity. While I am still ordained an elder in my home conference of the United Methodist Church, I know this season of researching a PhD is the “Autumn” to my Winter. There’s a sense of “not yet” but a promise of “it’s almost time.” When my time of researching the PhD is complete, I am sure the Lord will let me know of the next pastoral task He has for me.
Until then, I sit in this Autumn. It’s a contemplative season to reflect upon the past, to welcome the future, and Winter is the season of dormancy, which gives way to the budding green of flowers and leaves in a most beautiful season of new life found in Spring. While there are many things on my mind to which I reflect, there is one that resonates with me quite often, and there’s a verse I’d like to briefly share that brings about this reflection.
In 2nd Corinthians 11:28, Paul concludes a list of troubles and pains by saying that after all of that suffering, the one thing on his mind is: “my deep concern for all the churches.” Having served in ministry for almost two decades, I have watched the ever-widening gap between culture and Church continue to split. But more recently, I have been witnessing a split within my Church (the United Methodist Church) and the global Church. Weekly, and sometimes daily, there are more United Methodist congregations disaffiliating from the denomination, and my deep concern is: What does Jesus really think about it? On the flipside, I watch the sluggish, and sometimes seemingly disillusioned response of the existing UMC, as the Episcopacy proclaims that Church is messy, and there is a bright future for all theological beliefs and practices in the future UMC. What does Jesus really think about this?
I appreciate the claim of integrity for those who disaffiliate andthe hope of those who remain, I do. However, I am deeply concerned for the Church because the proposed organizational structure in the newly formed GMC (which many disaffiliating congregations may align with) is precisely the one that is failing the current state of the UMC. The moment we (the UMC) boasted in our global impact was the moment we began to lean on our own understanding and trust in our strengths, rather than allow our weaknesses and vulnerability to be a strength with our dependence on Jesus. The moment we became concerned with our political correctness was the moment we cared too much about what the world thinks of us. We are not the world; rather, we are for the world. I often wonder if we have attempted to become a Westernized political sect that could be considered an actual political party on voting day?
I have not come to this conclusion over night but over a period of several years coupled with ministry pains and experience as a clergy, as well as over the last year in studying the difference between the Church of England and the Church in England during the post-Reformation centuries leading the 18th century Evangelical Revival. When King Henry VII declared himself the authoritative voice of Church and State, it was a moment of vulnerability for the Church because the Church struggled to locate it’s true supreme head. Was it the Pope or the King (monarch?) With the different monarchs that came to the throne, there was truly an unstable authoritative voice that attempted to infiltrate the Church for the next two centuries. What I’ve noticed in the midst of all the instability was that while the Church of England struggled to claim its denominational position in the known world, the Church in England persisted through the use of the Book of Common Prayer and clergy/theologians/laity who simply knew that Jesus was (and is and will always be) the Head of the Church. When the Church ofEngland finally resolved the tension about who was to bear ecclesial and political supremacy, the Church in England had always persisted. But, the 18th Evangelical Revival was different in that stability had arrived, yet it was met with complacencyand not much invigorating excitement for the future.
What made the 18th century Evangelical revival so unique was that there was a contrasting revelation of sacramental life, especially in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, during a time when the mystery of Christ’s real presence was seemingly misunderstood or reduced to the ability of humanity’s reason to understand it. While the Church of England, for the most part, had been “enlightened” with reason, it failed to appreciate the vulnerability of wondering how Christ was truly present at His table.
While the “adults” fought in the next room, the children continued to play and get along because they knew who was in charge. So, my deep concern for my own beloved Church is not simply limited to the shortage of resources that fuel a global non-profit organization, my deep concern is for the Churches (those who disaffiliate and join the GMC or those who “Stay UMC”) and that would miss the gift that Autumn is to Winter. My deep concern is that we will not reflect on the past season (of the glory summer days!) without due consideration for what is to come in Winter – a time when we must let go and let death and dormancy do its rightful thing because THAT is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: In death, there is life.
I am realizing that my grievance of being a pastor as I once knew is really a time to reflect on the faithfulness of Jesus and know that season is about end in that way. Why? Because Jesus prunes the things he wants to grow. He cuts down that which is not fruitful. Yet, he promises the power to move mountains if we have a mustard seed sized faith. In this contemplative time for me, I know that Jesus has always been doing that to me since I’ve become a follower. Sometimes it hurts, because Jesus is pruning things that weren’t growing. Sometimes I’m really comfortable with how much control I have over my own garden that I forget to acknowledge that the One who has begun a good work in me will see it through to completion. My deep concern for myself is that I fail to reflect on the past without asking Jesus what He wants to do with me in the future. My deep concern for the instability of the UMC right now is that we do the same and fail to remember that the Church in the world will continue because Jesus is the Head. Finally, what I’m realizing in this Autumn season is that my past is not solely indicative of my future, but my present reality, with all its unknown variables and vulnerability in the “not-yet”, is a good indicator of what is to follow, simply because it reveals my deepest concerns, cares, wants, needs, and desires.
Finally, if I’ve learned anything from what I’ve read in this past year it is that a true ‘revival’ of the Church is only at the handsof Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, in His time. When I’ve been in a season of “Autumn,” I tend to return to Summer or push through to Spring. Doing so is costly because seasons need time to work things out, and when rushed, something really stunning and beautiful may be missed.
So, I’ll hang out right here in Autumn, reflecting, and looking forward to what Jesus will continue to do in me. To anyone reading this in the GMC, UMC, KFC, ABC (ok joking here!), wherever you land denominationally, what do you believe Jesus is wanting to work in and through you? Spend this vulnerable time of Autumn doing so. I am.
(and now I feel completely ‘naked’ in exposing my deepest concern for the Church – but that is Autumn.)