Posted in Culture, Faith, Grace, Politics, United Methodist Church

Am I the only one?

Am I the only one who is a little miffed at Jon Stewart’s portrayal of Methodists in last week’s coverage of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding?  I know I was on vacation and out of the loop and I didn’t care nor watch any of the Clinton wedding coverage.  I also know that United Methodist Communications folks probably have bigger fish to fry, but there’s a whole lot of people that watch Jon Stewart and although he’s a little whatever at times, he does usually speak some semblance of the truth.  For the 18-35 year olds among us, many of us would choose to watch him, Colbert, or George Lopez than the news.

To see a clip from the episode I’m talking about check out this blog post from another United Methodist pastor.  He even tells you exactly when to start watching.

If you don’t want to go to the site and see it for yourself here’s the gist – Jon Stewart says, “Being a Methodist is easy. It’s like the The University of Phoenix of religions: you just send them 50 bucks and click “I agree” and you are saved.”  Again, I know this is Jon Stewart and taken with a grain of salt.  Hello, I’m from the state of South Carolina.  We’ve been giving him great material for years.  But I still think this comment is bothersome.

Being a Methodist is easy. 

I’m a campus minister and every summer and during preview days during the school year we as a collective group of campus ministries (WCCM – Winthrop Cooperative Campus Ministries) host a table with the other student activity groups and we sign up students for more information about the various ministries.  It’s always hilarious to me how many students we get from particular denominations that actually emphasize this connection, how many students are looking nicely around and smiling and then they see our sign that says Campus Ministries and they don’t make eye contact, how many times we never see the student if the parent is the one who signed them up, and those that have already heard about our ministries from their home churches even before they got there.  Now that is a study in and of itself.  Inevitably when I leave these exchanges, I think boy, this grace thing that we United Methodists talk about all the time – that’s a tricky thing.  I don’t know if it’s helping us or hurting us in the arena of discipleship.

Don’t get me wrong – I love grace.  Heck my daughter Evy is Evy Grace.  Without grace humanity would be up the creek with no paddle and not even a boat or creek to begin with.  I LOVE the Wesleyan understanding of grace.  Prevenient grace – God draws us to God’s self even before we know it; Justifying grace – We realize that God’s grace is not only abundant but sufficient for us – even on our most sinful and lost day; Sanctifying grace – God doesn’t leave us where we are in sin but walks with us on this journey of faith drawing us forth to living more and more like Christ.  I get it.  I love it.  Seriously.

But dude, I think half of our people think because they have this grace thing down pat, than they’re all good to go and they forget that sanctifying part where we’re supposed to be growing more and more in the ways of Jesus.  You’ve heard of cheap grace.  I’ve never really liked that phrase because I don’t think grace is cheap – it came at a cost and one we didn’t have to pay.  I may not like the phrase but I think we see the sentiment all around us and contrary to what Mr. Stewart may believe, living out a life of faith is not easy.

Maybe if we really believed the theology we say we do, the things that the Wesleys’ lifted up in their teaching, their music, their lives – maybe then it wouldn’t look so easy or watered down.  I also argue that there are plenty of United Methodists and I know other Christians all over the world that are living out the Gospel with all of its radical, counter-cultural, transformational, and tenacious glory all over the place in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as ever as long they can.

You don’t press the easy button and then suddenly become a Methodist.  Now that would make a funny new UMC commercial – true.  But it’s a balance.  Grace comes to us freely and without merit.  That in some ways is really easy.  You just call on the name of Jesus and viola – it is that easy.  A free gift – not earned, not based on gold stars we’re collecting on a sticker board in the sky.  How many people do we see in the gospel accounts as they encounter Jesus and suddenly their eyes are opened and they realize he is Lord?  That part – the ah hah – when we get it – is as easy as accepting it and knowing it.  But the living it and breathing it and trusting it and stepping out in faith – that’s a process.  That’s a lifetime.  That’s a step by step, day by day. 

So yes, Jon Stewart I think you are hilarious.  Yes, you are right that there was way too much news coverage of the Clinton wedding.  But yes you bothered me in your comments about our denomination.  Then again, maybe we should be bothered.  Maybe we should think about what we stand for.  Maybe we should think about how we’re living out our faith and how we’re living out such a radical Gospel.  Seriously, maybe that should be our new ad campaign.  Ready or not?  Easy or not?  What does it mean to follow Jesus?  What does it mean to be a United Methodist?  What do we actually stand for?  Not just what we stand against a la Anne Rice’s rant, but what do we clear as a bell, beyond a shadow of a doubt, stand for?

I’m not going to go there with the Anne Rice thing at this point but for a response I really liked and thatresonated with me, here’s one by Karen Spears Zacharias.

14 thoughts on “Am I the only one?

  1. Great response to a timely issue. Many excellent points in the article that I won’t revisit, but I would likewise argue that one reason Methodism might come across as “easy” compared to some denominations is indeed because the UMC does not put much effort into articulating a unform, uncompromising position when it comes to doctrine, social policy, etc, especially if it concerns a controversial topic. Sometimes a church has to be willing to bite the bullet and take a black-and-white stand, which is something our denomination is generally loathe to do. The Wesleyan heritage, with its heavy emphasis on unity despite potentially divisive idealogical positions, has often been used as an excuse not to take a definitive stand or outline a clear-cut position, even when what Wesley himself would have called “the Essentials” are endangered. That sort of attitude can certainly create the impression of a lax church, even if it is not altogether an accurate impression. Still, a fine article with many good insights. Keep up the good work and God bless.

  2. Do you think that the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign has anything to do with the perceptions of Stewart (et al) about the UMC? Many UMs (myself included) feared that many of the ads made us appear too “wishy washy” and compromised.

    1. Sean and Keith – I agree with you and I hear your concerns. Working with college students part of me loves that we have this umbrella that encompasses so many different view points and theologies. But I do wish we didn’t just keep the umbrella but actually had dialogue or holy conferencing, not just on certain issues but on the essentials of our faith. When I was a college student, our campus ministry was United Methodist, PC USA, and Catholic. It was a great ministry that I miss dearly! My one frustration with it was that I felt like we never really talked about our differences. We met in the middle and all blended which was great and a nice ecumenical spirit in a lot of ways, but we do have definite theological differences and it would have been nice to have dialogue about those in the safe space of the body of Christ. Now when I say dialogue I’m not talking about people arguing their point over and over and trying to convince each other without listening. That is definitely not dialogue. It would just be nice if we could be honest about where we are and we could talk about what that means in the larger realm of society, the Christian church, the world.

      I know that there are avenues where that is supposed to be happening – General Conference, Annual Conferences, etc. but I still think often our bureacracy gets in the way of that. So much of dialogue and even defining who we are is about relationship. And it’s sometimes hard for the person in the pew to see their relationship with people from other jurisdictions much less our beautiful global community. I am proud that we are open. I am proud that we are welcoming. I love that our table is open and to me that is essential to who we are. But you can’t argue with all the statistics of young people choosing to go to higher church structures and the numbers that are flocking to the Episcopal church. To join a church you want to know what the church believes in and what they stand for – not just in books, but in real life.

      We did a program about the Social Principles last year and none of the students had ever heard of them. I gave them each one of the books and they loved it! I was invited to a religion class at the university that was studying Peace Studies and they wanted each of us to talk about social principles. Again, I brought our book of Social Principles and they were shocked that a mainline denomination had so much to say on so many issues. I was proud to show it to them….until one of them asked if we as United Methodists actually live by it or know that it exists. It doesn’t matter what’s written in our Social Principles or our Discipline or what we name as our Quadrennial foci, if people don’t know about them. I loved the 10thousanddoors material but when I would talk about it at District meetings and with other clergy colleagues, they had no idea what I was talking about. Why spend millions of dollars on something if it’s not getting out there? Why put commercials out there drawing people in and then when they get there, it’s the same church they left? The church hasn’t gotten the memo. It was a great campaign – church is not just for Sunday mornings. That is a powerful message that the world wants to here and it’s making a firm statement. I just wish we would live it.

      I’m sorry for the long response – I just want our church to be as vibrant and as Spirit-filled as possible. If we tap into that Wesleyan movement and that transformation and if we’re not constantly shying away from issues or beating other issues to death, we may actually start to understand and love each other and be able to act on our essentials instead of just waxing philosophical about them.

  3. Seems to me as a pastor serving in the Methodist church that often, members would rather accept tolerance, low expectations and indifference rather than do the hard work towards sanctification. You are right, grace should not be cheap, but that is exactly what it is when we, as Christians, are not willing to work together seeking repentance, holding one another to accountability and living with consequences.

    1. Amen, Angela. It’s a heck of a lot easier to sit back and it’s a lot of work on the part of the pastor and the congregation to really seek transformation/sanctification. How do we live that out?

    2. As a Catholic who works for the Methodist Church (and loves it!) I agree with your comment about accepting tolerance, etc. I attend both churches and consider myself “fed” spiritually at the Methodist church on a regular basis, however, it seems that there are not a lot of hard lines drawn about we as Christians vs. the worldly view. Too often I see people turning a blind eye to things like immoral choices when it would be a good time to have a conversation about God’s plan for us and our free will and God’s forgiveness when we turn from the worldly ways we see in the movies and on TV – i.e. hold one another accountable. Too often people are worried about hurting someone’s feelings instead of saying, “I love you, but what you are doing is wrong.”
      How lucky are we to have a God who loves us enough to forgive us when we go to Him and admit we have done wrong.

  4. Start at 4:00 not 4:20 and you get the context of the joke. The interfaith ceremony had “traditional” aspects of a Jewish wedding. There really aren’t any traditional Methodist wedding features, so all the reporter could come up with was that a Methodist pastor was in attendance. It’s funny.

  5. I love the Methodist Church. If it’s members become arrogant, dictatorial, and starts telling God what they want done instead of asking for guidance, and basically fundamentalist, I will leave. I have had enough of people assuming they can approach someone and confront them about their sins, real or perceived. You may make a hit once in a while, but it is one sure way to drive people from God. The Methodist church’s social principles makes it a helpful, Christian, loving Church. I want it to remain the same.

    Jon Stewart was making fun of religious people who don’t practice what they preach and he was trying to hit every church. I don’t think he did the Methodist’s any harm. It may cause a few timid people to say “Say, I am going to see what the Methodists’s actually believe”. That is what I did a long time ago. I have read John Wesley’s sermons and I don’t see any divergance in his basic belief’s. I think Prevenient Grace is a gentle, persistent calling by God, not hitting you over the head with a ball bat.

    1. I appreciate your honesty Louise. I don’t think anyone really appreciates a baseball bat approach. I don’t know if I would say that prevenient grace is always entirely gentle but I understand what you’re getting at. “Fundamentalist” is such a loaded word that is defined by so many people in so many different ways – much like “evangelism” at times. Again, to me it’s a balance. What I read of Wesley is balance but I don’t think Wesley would ever have been considered a cream puff by any means. I’m not one that’s going to walk up to someone and give them what for without any real relationship there ie. plank in own eye vs. speck in the other…but I’m also not someone that believes simply in an I’m okay and you’re okay philosophy. The Social Principles do help to make us that “helpful, Christian, loving Church” and I more than want it to remain the same, I want people to actually know them, believe them, and back them up in their lives not just in hitting people over the head with baseball bats.

      I definitely don’t think Stewart did any harm. And I think our society is very well aware of the openness and moderate views of stereotypical methodism, I just think it’s ironic how often we’re put in that role and if our churches and our people actually back that up. Heck any time a movie uses the name “Methodist” for the middle of the road place the couple gets married in your random romantic comedy – we’re getting some sort of chance for people to check out what we believe…hello Runaway Bride among many others… I just hope that when they do check it out they see a group loving God, following Jesus, seeking the Spirit and trying to really live out and be church with one another.

    2. Louise, I agree with you about everything! I am shocked that so few of our members are defending our Church, and are instead half agreeing with what Jon Stewart said!! From the time I was a child (I am now in my 50’s) one of the things I loved most about our Church was its tolerance for other people’s Christian faiths. I had been to other friends’ churches where most of the sermons were spent knocking other Christian denominations, one by one. I was so offended by this practice that I once walked out of a service (at the age of 10!). Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be concentrating more on what we all have in common, than the few things that we don’t? Isn’t that what Jesus would want us to do, and isn’t that what Paul stressed in his letters to the different churches? And, hey, I think it’s GREAT that the United Methodist Church provides a middle-ground where a married couple from two denominations that will not tolerate each other, can worship together peacefully and lovingly. Otherwise BOTH might fall away from their faith!! Would that be BETTER?! I don’t think that when we are standing before God on Judgement Day that being too tolerate of another Christian faith, or not being judgemental enough towards them, will be looked upon too harshly. Remember Jesus’ attitude towards Temple leaders who wanted to exclude people who followed different practices than their own (eating or not eating certain foods or being circumcised or not, etc.). If the United Methodist Church was to become more “fundamental” or more rigid in her view of who has a right to be in God’s family or who doesn’t, THEN I might be looking for a new church. I think it takes a STRONGER church (not wishy-washy, far from it) to keep practicing the “Open door-Open heart-Open mind” policy than to be close-minded and egotistical, taking on the right that is God’s ALONE, to judge others. There are far too many people in this world who are doing that already. I am ashamed today, not of the United Methodist Church, but of some of her members, who can’t seem to grasp the beauty in who and what we are, or to even have the courage to defend what we believe (if, indeed, you do believe it).

  6. I saw the Jon Stewart show, and was offended as a Methodist. I often feel if your going to bad mouth any church, at least know what you are talking about. I would have laughed if he said the Methodist Minister brought a casserole!

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