In a “Mid-term State of The United Methodist Church Address” on March 2, 2023, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, president of the Council of Bishops, called members to “be the architects of a renewed, revived and reclaimed United Methodist Church.”
Listen to the full message and join us in embracing a hope-filled beloved community.
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The year was 1972. It was a year evokes deep personal feelings for me. You see, I was fourteen years old and was immersed in a major recovery effort from what was a deeply traumatic period of peer pressure and coercion.
You see, just a year before I could best be described as a little short fat kid. Between my 8th & 9th grade year I went from 5 foot 5 and 185 pounds to 6 feet tall and 145 pounds. Before that explosion of growth took place, I faced a daily barrage of abuse and ridicule that nearly evaporated every ounce of spirit I had within me. I literally had no confidence. I didn’t believe that anyone in my age bracket was capable of doing anything more than completely dismantle my self-confidence and my will to live.
In 1972, my parents made the bold move to send me to church camp. I will never forget being dropped off at a place where I literally knew no one and I remember watching my parents’ car disappear on the horizon believing that I would never see them again.
But a miraculous thing took place that week. Over the course of just a few days I began to experience something that was, in my context, completely unbelievable. I was surrounded by people my age who valued me, uplifted my spirit, and gave me a sense of hope that I could not only believe in myself, but also be in relationship with others. And on a Thursday night, at the close of a sermon by a man named Cornelius Henderson, later Bishop Cornelius Henderson, I found myself kneeling at an altar and offering my life to Jesus Christ because, at that moment, I became convinced that the pathway of Christianity offered me the best chance ever to become what God had intended for me to be. In good old traditional language, it was a conversion, a change of course, a broadened outlook based on a new conversation, one not based on what was tearing me down, but on what, through Christ, could build me up.
I believe it’s time for us in The United Methodist Church to have a new conversation.
You see, in the hallways of our church we have allowed ourselves to be bullied by a narrative that has become a daily barrage of coercion, abuse, and ridicule that has evaporated a significant amount of spirit within us. It’s created a significant amount of fatigue in us. And it has clearly diverted our attention away from the real reason we have this church in the first place – to fulfill the mandate of loving God and loving neighbor through a mission to make disciples in order to literally change the world.
You see, we’ve been told that we’re the enemy, that we’re out to change the doctrine of the church, that we have not followed the gospel mandate, that we don’t believe in Jesus, and that it’s only a matter of time before we become a distant memory in the annals of time.
And, as a result, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep missionally because of conversations and sentences, that lead to paragraphs, that turn into chapters of a book that’s filled with words like ‘disaffiliation’ and ‘separation’. Test it. Recall it. Judge it. How long does it take anyone in any conversation before you have the word ‘disaffiliation’ used?
Like a young boy being dropped off at the doorstep of a church camp, it’s time for a new conversation. Time to be immersed in what it means to value one another. Time to come to our senses that in the midst of a culture around us and within us that is tired, worn out, skeptical, angry, and confused, we, in the midst of our own fatigue, have a story – a story that demonstrates that there’s something more that God is calling us to do and be.
It is time, no dare I say, long overdue for us to go back to the heart of who we are, to use words once again like reclamation, revival, and renewal because we believe that those words lead to nothing less than a conversion of the heart.
I believe at the heart of that reclaimed, revived, and renewed conversation is a need for us to discover once again what it means to be a beloved community.
Webster’s offers a very simple definition. Beloved means, “Dearly loved” or “dear to the heart.” I invite you to keep yourself focused for a few minutes on that simple, yet very profound definition “dearly loved” or “dear to the heart.”
The phrase or idea of, “Beloved Community” was first used in the late 19th and early 20th century by the philosopher-theologian, Josiah Royce, as a part of his founding of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
It was then popularized by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
As I researched this term further, I discovered that there were five defining characteristics of a “beloved community.”
One, a shared desire to be peaceful, happy, and safe.
Two, a recognition that while conflict still exists, it is resolved peacefully, nonviolently, and without hostility, ill will, or resentment.
Three, in the beloved community, there is a recognition of the inherent worth and value of all people, animals, and ecosystems.
Four, a beloved community is motivated by unconditional and all-inclusive kindness, compassion, and love for all life. To that end, a beloved community works cooperatively to peacefully end hunger, prejudice, poverty, homelessness, environmental destruction, and violence and injustice of all kinds.
And fifthly, in a beloved community, the means we use to create change are just as kind and compassionate as the ends we seek.
And after I did my research on this concept of “beloved community,” I began to overlay these concepts over the current landscape of our country and our church, environments where debates are angry, words are toxic, and the future seems so uncertain.
But rather than bemoan our current condition, my sensibilities kicked in and I began to sense the opportunity to seriously reflect on how we create such a posture for living, even in the midst of our current context, not waiting for the conditions to be optimal to do so, but seizing control of the narrative that has spun out of control and beginning once more to inject hopefulness, vision, and faith into the sentences of our conversations.
It’s not so very hard to realize that this coercive dynamic in our church is one that’s driven, in part, by the very same attitude in our culture.
A few months ago, I was really blessed to share a meal with a dear friend. In that conversation that took place around breaking bread together, my friend said, “I would like your opinion on what you think we should be doing to correct the imbalance in our world today. You see,” he said, “the real problem is that we have stopped talking with one another and instead, are only talking at one another.”
I couldn’t agree more. We’ve digressed into the “My way or the highway” mentality where if you don’t agree with my opinion or my position, you’re just wrong.
These very same polarizing attitudes and cultural shifts have found their way right in the midst of our beloved church. Sadly, the decline of our church has been a result of a de-emphasis on our evangelistic mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and an over emphasis on the inevitable polarization caused by trying to determine whether you are a traditionalist, a centrist or a progressive. Rather than celebrating diversity as a gift, we have placed one another in silos of prejudged categories - categories that set us all up to fail, instead of embracing the time-honored spirit of connectionalism; a spirit that once proudly said, “We are stronger together than we are apart.”
And so, before we’ve known what has happened to us, our church looks more like the culture, than the culture looks like the church. And as a result, we look like anything but a “beloved community.”
Our church is immersed in a period that is not unprecedented in our church’s history, but it is a period of time that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Our work is consumed with disaffiliation, separation, Covid-fallout, declining sustainability, and growing irrelevance. The entrepreneurial spirit that led the early Methodist circuit riders to the edge of the frontier has been replaced with a preservationist mentality that worships the padded pews and the stained-glass windows of our churches more than the God for whom those things were created.
Our church is splintering with certain congregations and leaders choosing to exercise a temporary disciplinary provision to disaffiliate and go either independent or to a newly emerging organization that values separation more than connection.
The spirit is toxic. The attitude is confrontational. The method of invitation is filled with coercion and accusation. Words being spoken are vitriolic, mean-spirited, and often filled with falsehoods designed to make the other side appear to be the enemy, the problem, and reason behind the everything that is wrong with the church today. All of this has led me to ask at times, “Why would anyone want to associate with this kind of behavior?”
And yet, people do, because for some very odd reason, it feels comfortable, even good because it’s reflective of the culture that’s emerged around us. And like an impressionable young child, even a 14-year-old boy, we have come to believe that this is the norm rather than the gospel message of love of God and neighbor, or the theology that we’ve professed that calls us to embraced core beliefs of grace, peace, and forgiveness. And, as a result, this is anything but the values embraced when one becomes a “beloved community.”
I am a collector of old Books of Discipline. Some would call this a sick behavior especially given the recent ineffectiveness of the gatherings that create that book. Still, In my work as a bishop, other than the Bible, it is the book that I am expected to know the most about and this is what it looks like.
I jokingly say to my pastors that I know that they keep a copy of this Discipline on their bedside table and engage in reading it each night before they go to bed.
This is a copy of the 1850 Book of Discipline. This particular copy was owned by a man by the name of H.J. Taylor. Every Book of Discipline I have in my collection is signed by someone and I have found that often the person signing it was a layperson. I have discovered that these little Books of Discipline were signed by laity because, in fact, they did keep this next to their bedside table and these books were indeed read with regularity.
The reason? This Book of Discipline is a book of rules. This Book of Discipline is a book of conduct. This Book of Discipline is a result of legislation, but this Book of Discipline called Methodists to a lifestyle.
On Page 67 of the 1850 Book of Discipline there is a Section, number four. It’s entitled, “The Necessity of Union Among Ourselves.” This section remained intact in the Book of Discipline from 1784 until merger in 1939 and was, interestingly enough, removed from the Methodist Episcopal South Church at its first General Conference following the war.
Now, keep in mind that this is the midst of the Civil War and right in the middle of a major church split. Also keep in mind that at some point, the disciplines found in this book were removed because they were either deemed to be unnecessary, irrelevant, or incompatible with a book that, beginning in 1939, has become filled with rules and legislation.
But right in the middle of chaos, uncertainty, and conflict, the Methodist Book of Discipline has a section entitled, “The Necessity of Union Among Ourselves.”
Listen to what it says:
“Let us be deeply sensible, from what we have known, of the evil of a division in principle, spirit, or practice, and the dreadful consequences to ourselves and others. If we are united, what can stand before us? If we divide, we shall destroy ourselves, the work of God, and the souls of our people.”
Question: What can be done in order to achieve a closer union with each another?
- Number one, let us be deeply convinced of the absolute necessity of it.
- Two, pray earnestly for and speak freely to each other.
- Three, when we meet, let us never depart without prayer. Four, take great care not to despise each other’s gifts.
- Five, never speak lightly of each other.
- Six, let us defend each other’s character in everything so far as is consistent with the truth.
- Seven, labor in honor each to prefer the other before himself.
- And number eight, we recommend a serious perusal of the book, “The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Division,” written by Francis Asbury.
There it is, right in the middle of a Book of Discipline! The essence of what it means to be in love and charity with one another. The call is to be sensible, aware of the evil around us and the consequences of it.
The reality stated is simple, yet profound: If we are united, we are strong. But if we’re divided, we will destroy ourselves, kill the work of God we have been called to, and do irreparable harm to vulnerable souls.
This little Book of Discipline, in very simple form, gives some very strong words of direction:
- Convince yourself of the absolute need for unity.
- Pray for one another.
- Talk to, not at one another.
- Pray before you leave.
- Don’t despise one another.
- Don’t speak lightly of one another.
- Defend one another’s character.
- Work hard so that you value someone else before yourself.
The theme around how to find unity among ourselves is simple: You’ve got to love your neighbor. It’s all about honoring gifts, valuing relationship, seeing the good in one another, and seeking God’s presence to remind you of it when you stray away. It’s why this same little book admonishes preachers in a section about how they are to conduct themselves, that the primary function of a preacher is do nothing but save souls. It’s about someone else – it’s always about someone else.
Doesn’t that sound like the components of the “beloved community?” A shared desire to be peaceful, happy, and safe. Conflict is resolved peacefully without ill will or resentment. We are motivated by kindness, compassion, and love for all.
Are these not the foundations upon which reclamation, renewal, and revival of our church must take place? Is this not the basis of a conversion of word, emphasis, and passion that is so desperately needed within our beloved United Methodist Church?
And could it be, could it be we, the leaders of this thing that was once joyfully described as a “movement,” could it be that we’re being called to lead the way into this reclaimed posture of beloved community?
Peace isn’t something that just appears. It has to be a desire. Happiness seems so far gone. But it only can be revived when we find joy in one another
You see, as United Methodists our Book of Discipline, the current one, has become a rule book of laws and legislation rather than a book about the discipline needed to maintain the spirit of Christ within and the mission to serve Christ throughout.
You cannot legislate kindness or gentleness or love. But you can strive for it, you can hold one another accountable to it, and you can work hard not to be detracted from it. You see, relationship is not dependent upon agreement. But it is dependent upon the “want to” inside, a “want to” that clearly identifies that I’m stronger with you, that I’m more of the face of Jesus with you, than I am without you.
The question is: Do you want to?
So, how do we begin to focus once again on, “Building a Beloved Community?” My answer is not unlike what Cornelius Henderson said to a battered 14-year-old longing for a sense of purpose and belonging: It begins right here in your heart. If we want a beloved community, we won’t just pray and see it magically appear in our midst. What we will see in the midst of our earnest prayer is that an earnest desire for it will appear within.
Friends, we need each other now more than ever if we’re to reclaim our passion for the beloved community. We need each more than ever if we’re going to reunite a broken United Methodist Church.
I have been greatly moved the last couple of weeks by the story of Rev. Shuler Sitsch from the Texas Annual Conference who is pulling together former members of area congregations that have disaffiliated. They are building a spirit of community out of their brokenness and they’re feeling like a new United Methodist family. Shuler is having conversations with these people looking for common threads that will bind them together with a sense of renewed purpose and hope. He says, quote, “I wanted to have an opportunity for United Methodists without a church to come together and form something new.” I think that’s how beloved community is formed. This is what it means to reclaim, revive, and renew.
If the goal is to create a beloved community with more love, more peace, more compassion, and more joy, if we believe that it is time for a new narrative, then we must be the ones to help architect it.
Maybe it starts right here and maybe it starts right now.
Back in 1972 when I was experiencing this transformation of my life, there was a song that was sung quite frequently. It was sung often, probably so much so that you don’t find it sung much anymore.
But the words of this song summarize where we are and where we need to be, what we need to recognize and what we need to, by faith, anticipate. The song?
It only takes a spark, to get a fire going. And soon, all those around, can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you experience it. You want to sing, it’s fresh like spring, you want to pass it on. You want to pass it on.
There you have it. A simple statement of faith and a firm belief that God’s not through with us yet and that we can be the architects of a renewed, revived, and reclaimed United Methodist Church.
It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.
May it be so. May it be so. Amen.