Several years ago, when I was serving as the pastor for several folks at United Methodist Communications, I was pressed into duty as a pastor on call. It seemed that the umc.org website received many e-mail questions during the day. For the most part, these questions were technical in nature, regarding some point of United Methodist law or practice, and the excellent folks at Infoserv (a great treasure of our church) could formulate an answer. However, every so often a message would come in that needed a pastoral response, and as the pastor on call, they would forward these responses to me to try and offer counsel or information. These questions are usually heartfelt, sometimes personal in nature, but very often ask about how to approach various issues from a United Methodist frame of reference. It was one of these questions that led to an ongoing conversation with a young person I will call Jamie.
Just to get things straight up front, I’ve talked with Jamie about sharing some of our conversation, and have agreed to do all I can to disguise her/his identity, honoring her/his need for privacy. But as I’ve looked over our conversation over time, I think she/he is asking good questions from a particular point of view, and that our conversation may be helpful to others.
I don’t know much about Jamie, other than that he/she is a college student in a conservative region of our country. Jamie grew up United Methodist, and is trying to make sense of the voices around him/her that paint in broad strokes and often focus more on who God is keeping out than God’s invitation of love for all. What I know is that I appreciate his/her willingness to talk.
Our conversation began when I received this note from UMCom:
Would you respond to this question if you have time? We would greatly appreciate it.
Hi my name is Jamie and I am a United Methodist. I am really struggling with my faith and I am doubting God heavily. It seems like that Christianity has more bad traits than good, and that God does not seem very just. I was wondering if you guys could perhaps help me by listening with what I have to say and responding and in turns perhaps putting my doubts to rest.
It seems like Christians are just so judgmental especially the really religious ones. I have even heard a saying that went like, "How could God ever love a Christian?" because we seem so judgmental despite Christ telling us not to judge. How could Christians, good Godly people, be so judgmental and ignore what Christ said by doing this?
Then there is what Christians did to indigenous peoples years ago such as forcing them on to missions and kidnapping their children from their families. They also committed genocide, especially the Puritan Christians in New England and the Spanish. Christians committing genocide! They completely destroyed their cultures.
Then there seems to be that there is corruption in Christianity. It seems like that Christianity pretty much only benefits the wealthy people, especially when it comes to politics, look at how there are Christian churches that are political powerhouses that have taken the sides of affluent political entities such as the Republican party.
Another thing is Christian sparked violence. Look a t the Crusades and Charlemagne killing those who did not convert to Christianity! Please do not get angry with me if I have offended you, it is just that these things have bothered me for a long time, and I really need to talk to another Christian about them. Thanks. Jamie.
It took me a few hours, but here is how I responded to Jamie:
The folks at UMC.org have forwarded your questions to me, thinking I guess that I, as someone who serves as a pastor in a local congregation, might be more able to address the important questions you ask.
Your questions are indeed important . . . in fact they need to be asked more often. All of the issues you raise about the negatives of Christian practice through the ages are the dark secrets that we don’t often talk about. Since the earliest days, those who claim to follow Jesus seem at times to fail to recognize the teachings of the one they claim to follow. It is easy (as some of my friends and colleagues do) to simply write this off as the result of human sinfulness (which it is) and see your concerns as ancient history to be discarded, however the legacy remains, and the scars of past indiscretions continue to travel with us even when we have repented and try to move in new ways. Our history of violence, intolerance, and judgmentalism has led many to walk away from the church and sometimes even God, thinking that any institution that is like this can’t offer much hope for meaning and purpose in our lives.
God, as revealed to the world through Jesus, is the loser in all this for the stupidity of so called "Christians" gets in the way of folks like yourself encountering the one who created the world and has been working throughout history to redeem a world in need of love and grace. For me (and many others) Jesus offers a radical vision of another way of life, of a "kingdom" in which love and justice reign supreme. The original call of the church was to be an example of this new Kingdom, but we dropped the ball in our desire for power and control. Yet even though we have missed the boat at times, Jesus and his teachings have remained consistent focused on God’s desire for love and justice to be the guiding principles for the world. Don’t base your image of God and Jesus based on the way the church has functioned throughout history. Work to encounter God directly — through the scriptures, through nature, and through the gathering of other persons seeking after God to share your experiences.
You see, having said all that I have about the limitations and frailties of the church, I am still a part of it. Why? Because I have experienced in my own life God working through faithful communities trying to walk in the way of Jesus. For all of the bad things done wrongly in the name of God, the church has also been an amazing institution for good in the world. For all of the hatred falsely attributed to God, the church has offered even more love in alleviating the suffering of others. In the face of human tragedy, in places like Haiti, Indonesia, Africa, and even Nashville, TN, church people representing the love of God were the first to arrive to provide assistance, and usually the last to leave as well. While some church people use the church as a crutch to justify their racism and lack of support for public schools, there are just as many who are deeply engaged in visiting those in prison, feeding and housing the homeless, teaching and mentoring at-risk kids, and offering love through all sorts of other means. These are, I believe, manifestations of the divine . . . ways that God speaks and loves the world. The church, when it’s truly being the church, is much more of a force for good than not.
One of the reasons that I am a pastor in a United Methodist Church is that we (I think and pray) have been willing to acknowledge our faults and recognize our calling to love the world unconditionally. Yes, we as a church fell prey to the racism that infected the American experiment throughout much of our history, but we as a church also publicly repented of that sin and have attempted to become more inclusive. We still have many failings, but we as a people are trying to address them in ways that are, we believe, faithful to God’s desires for us. I have little doubt that a hundred years from now (if we still exist) we will look back on our attempts in 2010 and bemoan all the ways that we fell short of God’s intentions for us. Yet, we are trying to offer God’s love to the best of our abilities.
I can’t (nor will I) justify any of the failings of the church you mentioned. All I can do is offer the hope that there are people of faith who gather in the attempt to not repeat the mistakes of our forebears, seeking as best we can after a God who we believe deeply loves us and wants the best for all. It is my hope and prayer that you might be able to find a community of God seekers who are able to represent the love and grace of God to you as well.
Feel free to write back if you have other questions.
Thus began a relationship that has persisted, and I hope will continue. And I hope that our conversation may be helpful for someone else who has questions like Jamie’s.