UMC Believes In Welcoming, Not Exiting

UMC Believes In Welcoming, Not Exiting


When I was a boy my eyes would always light up when my Mom let me buy a “connect the dots” book from the store.  The books would usually start off with easy puzzles, ones where you could almost see the final product before you ever got started.  But with each passing page, the dots would get more in number and the pictures didn’t reveal themselves until the very end.  With every number identified and every line drawn, the picture would get clearer and more recognizable. I really enjoyed “connecting the dots.”

The fact is, I still do.  I have come to believe that the role of leadership is to cast a vision, a picture of what is connected to what can be.  I believe that leadership is all about taking a jumbled series of dots and connecting the lines between them in just the right way so that a picture emerges.  The real beauty comes when you are able to “connect the dots” between God and us.  We call those connections theology.

Theology is defined as “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.”  Given that definition, it’s pretty important that we do some good “theology” today.  The events of the world, both outside and inside the church, are really not making a lot of sense these days.  Fears and angers are rising.  Civility and mutual respect are declining.  Simple questions like, “Why is this happening?” and “Where is God in all of this?” are becoming harder and harder to answer.  Leaders who are able to connect the dots between the events of the world and God’s relation to the world become persons who transmit hope and possibility in the midst of brokenness and confusion. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  It’s one thing to say what you believe and interpret how God is involved in the world.  It’s another to live life with actions that demonstrate our belief.  It’s one thing to believe in theology.  It’s another to do theology by backing up what you say you believe.

The other day I read a statement from a group who is currently professing to be concerned about preserving the integrity of our denomination.  In that statement this group said, “We further call upon those who feel they cannot in good conscience abide by the doctrines and discipline of the church to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.” 

My first reaction to this sentence was a resounding, “What?”  I read the sentence over and over again looking for a connecting dot between God and the world or a connecting dot between what we say we believe and what we do to demonstrate that belief.  The connection between that statement and my understanding of God grew less and less each time I read the sentence.  The dots were not lining up and the picture became less and less clear.

This church work “thing” has been something that I have done all my life.  The “theology” attached to my church is the main thing that brought clarity when I was confused, joy when I was sad, and peace when I felt out of control.  The more I studied the basic tenets of what it meant to be a Methodist, the more I came to understand that I could not be a Methodist if I did not embrace key words like grace, joy, peace, justice, and love.  When I encountered this “God talk,” on the surface it said to me, “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in Love with God.”  When I dug deeper into what we believe it spoke to me words about unconditional love, a grace that existed before I even recognized it, a claim on my life from a God who would not let me go, and an open table that welcomed members, friends, guests, and even enemies to the table of the Lord.

When I looked around and saw other United Methodist’s living out their faith, I began to understand about things like ministry to the poor, spreading the gospel to everyone with no exception, advocating for those who have suffered injustices, and setting no boundaries on how far God might go to welcome someone into heart of God’s love. 

Nowhere in my connecting the dots between us and this loving God we serve did I find anything that talked about seeking an honorable exit.  Every time I look at this messed up world and connect it with this amazing grace of God, I find words like come, enter, and you are welcome.  When I bring scripture into the conversation, I read stories about Jesus welcoming the children, inviting a tax collector to join him for lunch, talking with church leaders in the middle of the night about being born anew, and forgiving companions who had betrayed him.  None of it talks about exiting.  All of it talks about welcoming.

I know how hard it is to understand and appreciate the viewpoints of others when those opinions are different from our own.  But I believe that we serve a God who loves and welcomes us all no matter our theological viewpoint.  I believe in a God that wants to welcome us all into the heart of God and loves us enough to forgive us over and over and over again when can’t just seem to get it right.  Nowhere does it talk about exiting.  Everywhere it describes a love that just will not let us go.

I believe in a God that allows us to say with confidence and joy, “If you don’t believe as I do, let’s build a relationship together so that we might understand one another more deeply and appreciate the vastness of our God more completely.”

I believe in a God that allows us to say with no hesitation, “There may be days when I don’t agree with you but there is never a day that I do not love you.”

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) The last time I checked, I think all meant all

That’s connecting the dots.  That’s theology.  That’s the God we serve.
The Journey Continues, . . .

Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop