My family lived in Southern Ohio when I was between the ages of five and ten, and after trying the local Presbyterian Church for a while we joined the Methodists because of a vibrant, vital pastor and congregation. Those were good years for my family.
The Methodists were cool. The pastor had a teenage son who came to our house and tried to teach me how to play the guitar. George Harrison I was not. Once when my ancient great-grandfather visited, he decided our pastor was the man to hear his confession. Our pastor came over and spent hours listening to my great-grandfather pour out his sins. I think our pastor left our house after midnight. My great-grandfather had been a traveling salesman and even I knew he was rough around the edges. There was a lot for him to confess. By the end of the night, my 91-year-old great-grandfather had said the sinners’ prayer and was a babe in Christ. It was a remarkable and deft bit of pastoral work. Later, the congregation was rocked when the pastor’s wife slowly died of cancer, and I remember the great faith and humanity our pastor showed during that time. I can still see him standing in front of the congregation the Sunday after the funeral with tears rolling down his cheeks as we sang “Amazing Grace.”
Both my older brothers were in the church’s confirmation class, but we were moving before they’d be able to complete it. A day or so before we moved, our pastor came over with custom-made crosses for my brothers. Each cross had a leather strap so it could be worn around your neck and had your name, your confirmation date, the name of a disciple, and a Bible verse written on it. We were just moving into the Jesus People era, so there actually was a chance a teenager would wear something like that. I looked on in envy as my older brothers were each given a cross and our pastor prayed for them.
About an hour later, our pastor returned to our house with another cross. He said it wasn’t right that I was left out. No one had said a word about me, but our pastor picked up the vibe. My cross didn’t have all the fancy stuff written on it, but hey, it was a cross. He prayed for me. My cross had a leather strap and the name “James” on it, and I thought why not be one of those bad boy Sons of Thunder? I put that cross on and wasn’t about to take it off. I was in. It felt great to be included.
I’m sure my old pastor must have long since died, since he was in his fifties then and I’m remembering things that happened over fifty years ago. If he were alive, he would have voted with the traditionalists at the Methodist conference in St. Louis last week. He was conservative. But I wonder what he would have thought about the strong sense of exclusion around the vote. He knew the power of inclusion intuitively when he brought me my cross.
I don’t know the way forward for the Methodists any more than I know the way forward for Reformed folks. I have no suggestions and zero interest in rehashing the arguments. I simply want to stop and remember the power of my inclusion among the Methodists. That’s all I want to say. It hurts to be on the outside looking in. It feels great on the inside. Is it too much to ask us to remember that when we disagree with each other?