St. Louis Here We Come, Pt. 2

My second visit to “The Gateway to the West” was an ecumenical college student gathering. It was a great event but the one thing frustrated most is that when it came time for New Year’s Eve worship with Communion, we had to gather as different branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics gathered in their respective spaces. The Episcopalians and Lutherans gathered in another space. Everyone else–including United Methodists–were herded into the “Reformed” worship service.

Reformed!

Someone didn’t do their homework. We are the spiritual children of Wesley, not Calvin and Zwingli!

So more than of few of us United Methodists crashed the Episcopalian/ Lutheran service–the service that represented better which branch of Protestantism we descend from.

I remember talking with some fellow “crashers” of that service and they talked about how uncomfortable they felt in that worship service. I think that was the first time I ever felt a sense of mourning that we as a tradition were drifting away from our uniqueness and into , as the military calls it, “General Protestant” territory. We have an amazing story, and wonderful tradition, and have added much to the mosaic of Christian strains. Do we mourn the fragmented nature of the church? Of course. At that event where we did everything as an ecumenical body but the brokenness of the humanity meant that we could not gather around the same table to celebrate the Eucharist–the very symbol of our oneness with Christ and each oher.

Reflecting in that event all these years later two thoughts come to mind:

  • We need to remember our roots–we are the spiritual children of the Wesley’s. We are, at our roots, a renewal movement within the broader stream of Anglicanism–the home of the via media, a church both Catholic and Protestant. We will spend the next week as a denomination trying to do what no other denomination has done: maintain a global denominational structure, embrace representative democracy as a valid expression of collective wisdom, and find resolution to questions of unity and ministry with people identifying as gay or lesbian. To successfully navigate this next week, we’ll need to lean into our roots and origins.
  • I still reflect on the yucky feeling of the brokenness we felt as we gathered around our various denominational tables for that closing worship service. How many people would come to a relationship with Christ but because of an impoverished visible witness of unity in Christ, they think the Church is nothing but a room full of hypocrites? How many times do folks leave church because we seem to do too good of a job fighting over things that do not ultimately matter instead of practicing hospitality in Jesus’ name and encouraging one another in practicing our faith?

St. Louis Here We Come, Pt 1

Well, General Conference is drawing nigh. Three years of prayer and hard work (and angst-ridden discussion and let’s not forget the politicking and posturing) all draw to a close… or at least find their next articulation… this next week.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking about the other times I’ve been in St. Louis–a family vacation, a mission trip, and an ecumenical young adult conference. From these, several images come to mind. Here’s one. I’ll reflect upon the other ones, later.

Gateway Arch

Of course, the first time anyone is in St. Louis, they are transfixed by the arch. It. Is. Big. How does it stay there? How does it keep from tipping over or sinking into the banks of the Mighty Mississippi?

Traveling with my family as a 5th grader, I could not fathom how to get to the top… to those windows. Who knew that there was an elevator that could move diagonally! I remember laughing with my mother that I thought I could see the Rockies from that outlook. Of course, I couldn’t. But I remember these childhood images and fragments of conversations. The span of years makes them begin to blur. But a question I had then, I still have:

Why is the Arch of St. Louis the gateway to the west and not a stylized bridge spanning the river? This seems to fit better the story of westward expansion.

A gateway is a break in a fence or wall. Anywhere anyone can cross the Mississippi River could be considered a “gateway to the west”. Why not make the arch across the river–a modern day Pillars of Hercules? If we were trying to tell the story of westward expansion wouldn’t a bridge be a better symbol?

In my mind, I’ve been thinking about church and the metaphors of gate and bridge. Do we think of the church as a gate… a guardian… of faith? Or do we think of the church as a bridge… that which connects a someone to a life with Christ?

Gates can be good–when well marked, they provide clear points of entry for people seeking a way in or through. But they can also be considered control points–keeping people out unless they pass muster. This begs the question–does the Spirit and Christ’s Church need check points and bottlenecks that regulate entry and exit? In some sense it seems the answer is “yes”. We have Scripture and the Creeds that create a well delineated boundary for us. They tell us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Where the metaphor of gate fails the church is when we place ourselves in the position of the gatekeeper. It is powerful temptation to feel it is our ultimate power to decide who is in and who is outside the Body of Christ. Yes, 2,000 years of Spirit-guided tradition has given us what Wesley would say are the “usual” ways God and the Church operate .I find it precarious and not a little bit dangerous to put myself in the role of ultimate arbiter of who is in, who is out; who can pass through the gate and who cannot.

Bridges seem a little bit different. Yes, bridges are located in specific places, thus they are their own point of control. But the metaphor is that of helping someone get across a chasm, not blocking someone from passing. Sure, there will be more than a few trolls under bridges that try to exact a price in order to cross but at its best, bridges are just there silently serving their roll as people pass. If we think of the church as a bridge of faith–helping someone get from where they are to where they need to be in their walk with Christ–then we are not the gatekeeper as much as we are the conduit for the Spirit to move.

Looking forward to this called General Conference, one of the things that has kept surfacing in my prayers has been this–how are we helping to connect people to a life with Jesus and how are we inhibiting it? Yes, I direct that towards questions before the General Conference but I also direct that at all of us and our demeanor, at our motivation, and at the way in which we view one another. In social media, in news accounts, in public and private conversations–can we be the bridge and not the gate? Can we be the conduit of God’s love and grace and let God be God?