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GC2: Leave?

A clergy colleague said to me, "I'm not staying in a church that is harming my daughter.  I'm not giving it my money, either." A former parishioner told me, "I'll give it one more year. After that, I'm gone."

 

I look at the baptismal collage hanging in my office beside the photo of the water well our congregation helped dig in Liberia. The collage contains my baptism certificate, a print of a dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the words of John Wesley, "Do all the good you can…" The well photo is captioned with my favorite Bible verse, Hebrews 12:1-2: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

I was baptized as an infant on November 20, 1955, in the church where my father grew up, Hayes Methodist Episcopal, a small church in farm country in the Thumb of Michigan. My father was baptized there as a youth on October 1, 1944, an event recorded in my grandmother's diary: "We all had to go up to the front and stand while the boys were baptized. A Solemn Service." Her aspiration that her third son be a preacher was coded in his name: "John Wesley Smith." I think of all of the generations of parents and preachers and Sunday School teachers at Hayes Church, and so many churches like it, a great cloud of witnesses.

 

Should I leave the church in which I was baptized, raised, married, and ordained?  Should I leave the church I served as a pastor for more than 35 years?

Nostalgia exerts a powerful pull, but nostalgia isn't enough. I care about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our two daughters are still Methodists, though its official stance on LGBTQIA+ persons judges one and offends the other. Their young clergy friends worry about their careers in a church that will punish them for ministering to all of their congregants. With my daughters and their friends, I long for a church in which all are fully welcome. I long for a church in which one of my preaching students, the descendant of circuit riders, could be ordained, too.

The new punitive clauses in the Discipline to enforce the UMC's forty-year stance declaring homosexual practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching puts me at a crossroads. Is it time to leave? If I perform one more gay wedding, they will kick me out anyway. Should I leave before they do?

 

Stay or go?

 

Here's what I say: I'm not going anywhere. This is my church, too. It takes more than General Conference legislation passed by a slim margin to make a church.

The blood of Methodists flows in my veins. Another piece of memorabilia that survived multiple moves is my copy of a Methodist class meeting ticket from Newcastle, England, dated 1843. It belonged to one of my father's great-great-greats, Mary Smith, and was passed from my grandmother to my father to me.

It's more than a piece of paper. It represents my connection with the pragmatic and indomitable spirit of John Wesley, who witnessed to the transforming love of God in the face of persecution, whose spiritual and organizational genius created small groups to help Methodists grow in faith and keep them accountable to each other. I am accountable to those with whom I disagree. And they are accountable to me. The mean-spirited legislation of GC2019 needs to be changed. I'm going to stay to help change it. Stay and disobey.  

 

How, then, do I remain in covenant relationship with those who want me gone, particularly some Liberian colleagues? That's a question for my next blog.

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GC1: Lament

To my fellow United Methodists,

 

General Conference was more than two months ago, and I've been struggling with what to say about it. I didn't want to write out of hurt or anger. I didn't want to say something I'd regret, which can happen in family arguments. I hoped I'd have a clearer perspective as time passed.

But I'm still hurt and angry – and bewildered. Because some in my church have targeted people I love. And they've targeted me.

 

I performed the wedding for my youngest daughter in 2016. I disobeyed the Discipline on this one matter because she's my daughter, and she's a United Methodist. Before performing the ceremony, I informed the bishop and the leaders of my congregation. While everyone did not agree with my decision, we continued to do ministry together. When I was brought up on charges, and went through a just resolution, I kept the contents of the resolution confidential, as I'd promised.    

Now, some of my colleagues, with whom I've done ministry for more than 35 years, want me to leave. If I perform another gay wedding, they will strip me of my orders.  They will take down from the wall of my office the ordination certificate signed by Bishop Edsel A. Ammons that has hung there since 1984.

 

It doesn't seem to matter to these colleagues that I've honored their work, praised their successes, and refused to speak evil of them, as John Wesley commanded. It doesn't seem to matter to my colleagues in Liberia, whose photo sat beside my desk every day, for whom I prayed during worship every week, for whom I raised money to dig wells, start clinics, and support schools.  


They want me to leave. Because, on this one thing, I disagree.

 

It seems to me that across the spectrum of belief, United Methodists are doing what the apostle Paul said the body of Christ should not do: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" (1 Corinthians 12:21)

 

We are dishonoring each other. And it is breaking my heart.

 

The prouder you are to be a United Methodist, the deeper it cuts. The more you believe in our shared mission, the more you value the genius of our founder who combined vital piety and social holiness, the more it hurts.

Theologically diverse congregations, like the one I served in South Lyon, who worked hard to stay together – praying, studying, worshiping, and serving alongside people with whom they disagreed – will be hardest hit.

 

I don't know what to pray for.  

My husband suggested I pray the psalms of lament. In Psalm 3, it says, "O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!" Or Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?" At the end, the psalmist says, "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation."  

Help us, Lord.

 

Should I leave my church? Or stay and disobey? Should I continue to support missions in Africa? Those are questions for another day.

 

All I can do now is grieve. And pray.

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Eulogy for My Mom

Mary Blanche Inwood Smith

In Memory of Mary Blanche Inwood Smith

April 4, 1933 – April 10, 2019

 

There's a brick in the walkway to the remodeled library at Adrian College that's inscribed "John and Mary Smith, 1955."  (Adrian College is where they met.) There's a collection of Native American arrowheads from the Inwood family on display in the Nature Center at Stony Creek Metropark, and sign that says, "Inwood Trail," due in large part to my Mom's efforts. (She picked huckleberries there as a child.) There's a new surface on the parking lot here at Shabbona United Methodist Church repaved with Mom's generosity. She helped her grandkids with the educational and other expenses. She lived simply and gave generously. I learned stewardship from my Mom, watching her give to charities and churches and people all her life.

From my Mom I also learned to love the earth – the scent of freshly-turned soil in the garden, wildflowers blooming in the grasses beyond, birds at the feeder, different kinds of apples, some of which no longer exist. She didn't scold me for roaming the fields and bringing critters into the house – spiders in a glass jar covered with netting, beetles, ant farms. She gave me curtain sheers to make a butterfly net. She actually bought a butterfly collection that I made to display in her classroom at Loon Lake Elementary School.

From my Mom I learned hard work – Lord, Lord. What she accomplished from a wheelchair after polio paralyzed her legs at 21. Cooking, cleaning, canning, laundry, lesson plans, weeding, pushing that wheelchair through the soft dirt of the garden.  Driving the car with hand controls to get her Master's Degree in Education at Oakland University.  She taught school for 22 years, even on days when the parking lot was ice and Dad put nails in the tips of her crutches so she wouldn't slip. She was really smart, too. When I told her recently that she had a beautiful mind, she said, "The devil is that it's in a pain-ridden body." But she was a fighter. She had that Inwood stubbornness, I mean tenacity.

I also learned to love the Bible from my Mom. It was hard to pick just four scriptures for her service because she loved the whole thing. When she went into the hospital, she had four different bookmarks in her Bible – Second Chronicles, Psalms, Acts, and Ephesians. Second Chronicles!!! She taught Bible classes with Dad at Milford and Shabbona United Methodist Churches. She attended Bible studies faithfully at Country Gardens. She was the one who inscribed the Bible my parents gave me for my ninth birthday – her familiar block print, which was a lot better than her handwriting.

So, I also learned about faith from my Mom. "How do you pray, Mom?" I asked her once. "It's like floating," she said. "You let the water hold you up." Some measure of Dad's success in ministry was due to her – she taught confirmation class, listened to parishioners, and climbed those stupid steps at Commerce UMC every Sunday in her long braces. Grab the rail with one hand, lift the inside leg with the other, and swing the outside leg around. Step by step. I stood behind her, holding her purse. Just watching her live her life was an inspiration to so many. "If Mary can do it, so can I," people would say.  

She was amazing, but she wasn't perfect. The constant pain often made her anxious and cranky. She wasn't easy to care for. It drove me crazy when she played the martyr. The same thing I said about Dad in his eulogy I could say about her – she was equal parts inspiring and infuriating. But the two of them – they had a deep love and loyalty to each other. Sometimes I wished she'd stood up to him more.

None of us are perfect. Don't we all know that. We all are mixtures of strengths and weaknesses, faults and virtues. But still God uses us for his work in the world, to love the people around us. She taught me about that, too.

Listen to what she told me in the hospital after she made the brave decision to go into hospice care. "I'm glad I'm a Christian," she said. "God is good. He loves us so much. He weeps when we weep. I'm so proud of all my children. I've had a rich and blessed life. So many good folks – fellow teachers, church people, especially in Wisconsin who cared for my family when I was in the hospital with polio."  I imagine all of those good people lining the streets of heaven to welcome her home.

Thanks, Mom, for what you taught me: generosity, delight in this beautiful world, hard work, tenacity, faith, and love. I hope I can fight half as hard as you did. Now you can rest from your labors, free of pain. May all of your good works follow you. 

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