Jenna DeWitt (she/her) is an aromantic asexual Methodist. She lives in sunny Southern California. Jenna earned a bachelor of arts in news-editorial journalism from Baylor University and has over a decade of experience working on Christian magazines.
This Lenten season, I’m having trouble getting the smell of institutional death out of my nose.
I grew up in a United Methodist church outside of Youngstown, Ohio, where the sanctuary was light wood paneled and blue carpeted and the air in the parlor hinted of water damage. That very same congregation has just voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. COVID has laid bare countless institutional failures in nearly every corner of society. U.S. state and local legislatures seem committed to killing as many queer and trans folks as possible. Norfolk Southern recently dumped inconceivable amounts of toxic chemicals 30 miles from where I was raised.
Weirdly enough, I’ve been here before. During Lent in 2019, I was a public policy grad student in Pittsburgh. I was stubbornly running from a call to ordained ministry in the UMC. Even before Ash Wednesday hit with its full weight, I was feeling the pressure. My hometown in Ohio was scrambling to cope with the closing of the General Motors Lordstown plant, which was taking over 1,000 jobs and hundreds of families with it. As a queer United Methodist, the 2019 General Conference had awakened something I tried hard to ignore, bringing a renewed but painful urgency to following God’s call. Laboring under the weight of homework and all of those searing disappointments, everything in my life stunk.
At first, I cried. I raged. I felt like I might explode. In a fit of frustration, I created a playlist entitled Called OUT and filled it with the queerest, angstiest, most Christian-esque music I could find. At that point in time, it was mostly Vampire Weekend. I left my headphones in for days as I wandered around campus. When I took them out to shower or sleep, the things that God wanted to say buzzed in my head: “Why aren’t you listening to me?”God asked. “Why aren’t you serving the church?” Terrified, I put the headphones back in.
One afternoon, sobbing to Hozier’s “Foreigner’s God” in the policy school’s computer lab, I found the contact page for the only campus ministry with a rainbow banner on their website. The next thing I knew, I was eating dinner with a small but mighty group of Evangelical Lutherans. The headphones had to come out when I got to the table.
People worth listening to filled the void. The undergrads, excited to have a haggard grad student among them, took me on tours of the campus. Once a week, I met the Lutheran chaplain for coffee and poured my hopelessness out to him. “I don’t know how to be Christian,” I told him, and “I have no future in the church.”
In response, he loaned me a series of picture books intended for children in confirmation classes. I read them in an hour at the library when I should have been studying for finals. I don’t remember much from the books except a sense of aching wonder. As my classmate eeked out data analysis and study guides, I was introduced to Jubilee for the first time. Tiny drawings showed the enslaved freed from bondage, debts forgiven, a world made new.
Imagine: a world made new.
As I write this, we are barreling towards Holy Week. I am once more exhausted by wandering in the wilderness. Vampire Weekend and Hozier are creeping back into my Spotify listening. They’re joined now by more substantially queer Christian music: Semler, Jake Wesley Rogers, and Joy Oladokun.
This year, I am being deeply held by the clergy and congregation at my United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. I am getting paid to work with young people in the church. Despite being only two classes deep into a seminary degree, my senior pastor sometimes entrusts me with the pulpit. In my disaffiliating hometown church, allies have emerged in places I never expected. They’ve assured me that I can go to church with them, somewhere new, whenever I’m back in town. It’s not all rainbows and sunny days, but it’s the kind of future I never imagined in 2019.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by institutional failures, this is an invitation to let your senses guide you toward something new. That might require listening to Paramore or “The Canticle of the Turning” on an endless loop (I’ve been there). It might be sitting outside and staring at the sky. It might be petting a bunny. It might be bread and grape juice on your tongue. It might be seeking out your nearest wise Lutheran for some coffee and venting sessions.
Lent is all about living in a liminal place, walking in the uncomfortable space between death and life, between an untenable old way and the evergreen way of Christ. It’s hard to recognize life when all you can smell is death. But thank God, we have other senses.
As the Lenten season comes to a close and we bear witness to the crucifixion, I can’t help but think of those closest to Jesus at his time of death. In the in-between moments, when it seemed death had won, what dismal hope must have been left. I wonder if Jesus’ words rang in their ears: if you are my disciple, you will surely also have a cross to bear. This is terrible news. The life promised by the miracle-healing God-with-us Messiah will hold suffering. To be of God is to be among the suffering—not because it is destined or must happen, but because it simply will. To be a prophet, to call for God’s justice, to liberate the captive, to protect the vulnerable—these are not the ways of the world but the ways of God. They won’t get you earthly rewards. They’ll risk you getting cornered by mobs, becoming the center of religious jealousy, or being harmed as the object of state-sanctioned violence. Jesus is calling the disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God, which means walking the path of suffering. Faithful discipleship is the way of the cross.
And this tracks with Luke, the Gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ passion over his resurrection. Luke situates salvation within the humiliation of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. This Gospel emphasizes taking up your cross daily. And tradition exalts a man from Scripture named Simon of Cyrene as an exemplar of this cross-bearing discipleship.
Simon was one of the many bystanders on the busy streets of Jerusalem. A guard picked Simon out of the crowd to help carry Jesus’ cross up to Golgotha where Jesus would be crucified. There’s not a lot known about who Simon was. We know he was from an African country because he was called the Cyrene. We know he probably wasn’t a Roman citizen because Romans weren’t usually referred to by places they were from. We also know that the Gospel writers wrote about Simon in a way that assumed the audience would know who he was, that he was a man who needed no explanation. This was a person who, at some point, became recognizable to the early church.
But other than that, we really don’t know much. It’s very possible he was an ordinary person on an ordinary road watching a seemingly ordinary execution. Some scholars think he was sympathetic to Jesus; others think he may have been a reluctant bystander, another foreigner selected to carry a death-row torture and execution tool.
Far more important than his demographics, I can’t shake what Simon must have been feeling. Jesus, probably staggering on the cobblestone road in Jerusalem, is faltering under the weight of the cross. I think it’s fair for us to imagine for a moment that Simon felt sympathy for Jesus. Simon couldn’t take away Jesus’ suffering. Imagine the eye contact he made with Jesus, how he felt as he picked up the cross beam and bore it through the winding streets. Imagine his devastation when he had to put the cross down. I wonder if he handed it to the Roman soldiers or laid it next to the nails and hammer. I imagine Simon moved slowly.
I imagine he stepped heavy in hopes that somehow prolonging the path to Golgotha may delay the death of Jesus long enough for the angels to intervene, for God to step in, for the divine to finally show up. God, where are you? O God, will you also forsake this one? What kind of a Gospel is this? Where is the Good News?
I think Simon of Cyrene probably was like any one of us with his fair share of hardships, any one of us who felt the sting of injustice and death. I imagine he was human. So I imagine he took Jesus’ cross and hoped for a miracle, assuming it wouldn’t come.
And maybe, in some ways, that’s salvific. Maybe there’s something about walking with someone to the cross, knowing this is, in some sense, inevitable, and choosing to walk beside them anyway. There’s power in bearing one another’s cross. There’s power in lifting up that which is meant to slaughter someone and carrying it to make their load a little bit easier. There’s power in looking death in the face on behalf of someone else, in linking arms with another in their suffering because no one walks alone.
There’s something shockingly beautiful and sanctifying about this, that even God incarnate did not suffer alone. That Jesus did not bear his cross alone. I have two queer friends who faced medical challenges right after they had their first baby. When the mother who gave birth was hospitalized for the second week of the baby’s life, her wife had to navigate caring for her newborn son with no familial support nearby in a city that still felt new. People offered money and a meal train, but that’s not what she really needed—she needed someone to love her baby so that she could sleep, someone to rock him while she went to the grocery store. Their queer community group showed up. These people, some of whom she had never met, chose to make her nightmare their call to action. They chose to suffer alongside her, lose sleep with her, and help her as much as they could all in the name of a radical, cross-bearing kind of friendship.
Paul talks a lot about bearing one another’s burdens like this. This is the beauty of the church. We are with one another in solidarity, in the thick of it. Just as God is there for us, just as Simon was there for Jesus, just as Jesus is there for us, so are we there for one another. We all have our crosses to bear, but we don’t need to bear them alone.
And yes we know we can’t undo injustice. We can’t wish away anti-LGBTQIA+ hate, and we can’t snap our fingers and make all the anti-trans bills disappear from state legislatures. But we do know that it matters when we show up for one another anyway.
Simon was caught in the middle of events, compelled with little to no choice to carry a cross—and in doing so, he made Jesus’ load a little bit easier. We can’t always take someone’s suffering away. But when you reorient yourself to the cross, you find yourself carrying someone else’s burden, however long you can, even if for just a little while.
It’s about meeting another person as they are and bearing the cross alongside them. Struggling in solidarity with them. Being with them and near them in their struggle, stepping when they step, stopping when they do, until you get to the bitter end. And then you hand their cross back and bear witness. Theologian James Cone teaches that salvation is when we become so deeply in solidarity with the most oppressed person that we are, in essence, the same.
Simon of Cyrene did this. He did not bear the ultimate punishment of Christ, but on that long walk up to Golgotha, he and Christ were one in suffering, in solidarity.
God suffers alongside us like this. And because God does this for us, we too can do that for one another. We are all called to bear a cross, to be bound up in one another’s suffering. No one, not me, not you, not even Jesus Christ, walks alone.
By doing the work as disciples of Christ, we will all have crosses to bear. But remember that Simon of Cyrene walked with Christ as long as he could. Remember that we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to walk as long as we can alongside each other. Pray without ceasing, stack hope upon hope, and believe in miracles. And remember that there is something salvific and holy about bearing the sufferings of another simply to take the load off for a while. May the LGBTQIA+ community continue carrying the legacy of showing up for one another in mighty ways, carrying crosses for one another—not knowing what the end will be and doing it anyway. God is with all of us, especially in all of our sufferings.
Abby was born and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, where she fell in love with Southern food and the outdoors. She is currently an elder candidate in the United Methodist Church and second-year Master of Divinity student at Garrett Seminary. Thus far, she has discerned that her call is to be a community and bridge builder, particularly in spaces of tension.
The first time I ever heard the hymn “Called Unto Holiness” I was at the Midsouth Nazarene District Assembly in Dickson, Tennessee. I was 26 years old. By then, I was closely acquainted with Wesleyan Holiness as a doctrinal concept, having studied in the school of theology at a Nazarene university, but I was still getting my sea legs as an actual church person. As it turned out, the theology I had learned about in class takes on a life of its own in the pews.
Instead of singing it, shouting it loud and long, it seemed most people were hesitant to even whisper “holiness.” I found that, in a real sense, it was actually considered something of a dirty word outside the Holiness traditions–even in other church spaces. It makes people visibly uncomfortable. And don’t even try to bring up “Christian perfection.” Even the most seasoned church folk start looking for the door. Most surprising was when United Methodists would balk at my easy allusion to what I thought was our shared ethos. Surely these people called Methodists were down with holiness, if nothing else! But more and more I encountered Methodists who had drunk the mainline Kool-Aid of white liberal niceness, who, true to evangelical caricatures of them, cringed at any talk of sin or holiness.
As I began to move through various church, seminary, and academic spaces, being my unabashedly Nazarene-influenced self, I made it a kind of personal goal to bring holiness back into conversations about the Christian life, particularly in Wesleyan contexts. After all, to claim Wesley as forebear without arguably the most central identifying marker of his theology is not only a shame but a sham. Wesley without holiness is like Calvin without predestination.
What we need is a reworking, relearning, resourcement. A rehabilitation of holiness and a reincorporation of it into the larger church’s imagination.
In my opinion, the best work on Wesleyan holiness is Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s A Theology of Love. Wynkoop was a Nazarene theologian who, through the cultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s, challenged the traditional understanding of American Holiness as evangelical pietism, going back to John Wesley as source material and rethinking his work for her present day. Whereas previously holiness was understood as a single moment of the eradication of sin, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and entire sanctification, these new interpretations focused primarily on love and relationality with God and neighbor as the core of holiness. Wynkoop made the case that over and above holiness, a more fitting characterization of Wesley’s theology would be a theology of love. Her assertion is that, for Wesley, holiness is nothing else than perfect love of God and neighbor.
Traditionalists feared that changing the terminology or interpretation of holiness would result in a complete crumbling of the doctrine that elevated human work and will and rendered God only marginally engaged in sanctification. But the rise of these new readings of holiness and the challenges to them put on display the fact that, while there had been something of an agreement on the doctrine of holiness, in truth there had always been a diversity of understandings at play in the tradition. The preexisting variety of Wesleyan conceptions of holiness was an invitation to additional creativity in reading the doctrine in light of tradition, culture, and the works of John Wesley himself.
Rethinking holiness for today and reinvigorating a doctrine of holiness for the Wesleyan tradition is sure to have generative consequences for our churches and our lives. When we begin to rightly equate holiness with love, the idea of holiness as a discipline and practice becomes much more concrete. When we realize that Wesleyan holiness is not in fact an impossible moral purity, whose rules and regulations seem suspiciously more like 1950s bourgeois white American virtue than anything approaching true Christlikeness, we can begin to think about holiness in terms that make it realistic and achievable for all Christians, which is exactly where Wesley was always pointing us.
Where this becomes useful, particularly in our complex postmodern society, is the insistence of love to be contextual. Love is singular. It’s individual. It changes from year to year, moment to moment. It changes person to person, place to place. As Wynkoop says, “Love can exist only in freedom. It cannot be coerced.” It takes seriously the idiosyncrasies of person, place, time, and need.
To be holy in a given situation is to act out of love in the appropriate measure for that situation. Holiness is not a timeless state of moral being, detached from our bodies and desires and relationships, but rather it is the proof of love in the action of our real, lived lives. As Wesley says, there is no holiness but social holiness. It’s always worked out in community.
The difficult messiness of caring for others in our families, neighborhoods, and societies is precisely where we see holiness come to bear. Loving others well requires contextual, thoughtful care, not one-size-fits-all universal rules. And the diversity of reality, the diversity of actual loves lived out in the real world, reflects the diversity of holiness at play in the kingdom of God.
It’s time for mainline Wesleyans to have a bit of an altar call. We could all do with an infusion of evangelical holiness preaching. After all, to be called unto holiness is to be called into love. And love is as varied and wild as anything–asking for our attention and intention, our honest confrontation with our neighbors, and our openness to the surprise of real connection and engagement, with all its beauty and challenge. A return to Wesleyan holiness is a return to love, which is something we can agree is sorely needed today in the church and the world.
Keegan Osinski is the librarian for theology and ethics at Vanderbilt University and author of Queering Wesley, Queering the Church. You can find her on Twitter @keegzzz.
I was in my third and final year of divinity school for the 2019 special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC). General Conference, as you might imagine, was the main thing on everyone’s mind at Duke Divinity in the run-up to that February meeting. This was going to be the big one: finally, many thought, the big-tent One Church Plan would be passed, and we’d begin to resolve the sexuality stalemate that had bogged down the UMC for decades. As it turned out, that’s not what happened. In between classes, United Methodist (UM) students gathered in an unused lecture hall to watch the livestream and saw as the Traditional Plan came out on top, maintaining the prohibition against gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy and adding a mandatory punishment for clergy performing same-sex weddings. The despair was palpable.
Months before General Conference, though, an influential bishop came to speak to Duke Divinity’s UM students, to provide background on the ongoing schism and open the floor to discuss what was to come. After a PowerPoint presentation and some discussion about how we ended up where we are, he assigned us a small group activity: imagine the year is 2050. You are on a committee tasked with reunifying the traditionalist and progressive successors of 2019’s United Methodist Church, not unlike the 1939 (re-)Uniting Conference between the Methodist Episcopal Church’s northern and southern branches that broke up before the Civil War over slavery. Write up the articles of reunification that will bring these separated bodies back together. General Conference had not happened yet. Schism had not even begun in earnest, and in fact wouldn’t for a number of years, until it became clear by 2020-2021 that there would be no durable conservative victory since some American annual conferences would refuse to abide by the Traditional Plan. And yet here we were, already asked to envision reconciliation. Which “position” on LGBTQIA+ affirmation would—or should!—win out in this hypothetical 2050 wasn’t really even part of the question at hand; the important part was figuring out how to restore unity.
This particular bishop seems to have come a long way in the years since. I have a lot of respect for him, as one who has taken some bold stances in solidarity with LGBTQIA+ United Methodists of late. What concerns me is that the underlying principle lingers in the UMC: unity over and above holiness, the “big tent” over the narrow way that will, of course, alienate some. I suspect traditionalists agree, albeit from an utterly different angle. In this issue of Yet Alive, we are thrilled to publish a piece by Queering Wesley, Queering the Church author Keegan Osinski, beckoning mainline Methodists to fight through our squeamishness and niceness to reclaim our roots as a movement pursuing holiness, which she describes as “the perfect love of God and neighbor.” Holiness requires us, as Osinski insists, to figure out how to love contextually. Holiness—in our current context in the United Methodist Church—requires us to take a stance on the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. Lukewarmness in the hope of ensuring the center will hold is not holiness. It is not holy, because it is not rooted in love of God and neighbor, but in institutional self-preservation. And, frankly, its pragmatic viability is long past anyway.
Lukewarmness in the hope of ensuring the center will hold is not holiness.
A new moment is here. The die is cast: schism is in full swing, and it will be significant and traumatic in many regions across the connection. It is time that the United Methodist Church decide to stand on a vision of holiness, without hesitating out of the fear of losing people and congregations on the fence. If we’re breaking up, let it be for something; let us welcome this window of opportunity to allow Methodists with incompatible visions of holiness to go our separate ways. What is unsustainable is the status quo for the post-separation United Methodist Church, even in the very near term.
For instance, we are about to have large swaths of the country, for the first time in a century and a half, without any United Methodist presence due to mass disaffiliation. We should undoubtedly seek to replant new faith communities in those areas, but our new faith communities must differ from the Global Methodist congregations that remain in more than affect. We can plaster “open minds, open hearts, open doors” on our signs and actively seek to welcome both LGBTQIA+ people and other United Methodists whose churches voted to disaffiliate and leave them behind. But what does that “welcome” really mean, if a United Methodist pastor appointed to a setting like this is still prevented from marrying a queer couple under the punitive terms of the Traditional Plan, facing a year of suspension without pay if they choose to do so? What does that “welcome” mean, if a queer youth who met Jesus Christ in that new faith community and hears God’s call to ordained ministry is still forbidden from obeying that call in the UMC? It’s ultimately no different from the Global Methodist congregation down the road.
It is not inevitable—or altogether likely—that the Discipline’s restrictions will be removed in 2024. Waiting another five years is not an option. Thanks be to God for those annual conferences, boards of ordained ministry, and bishops who have decided to live into the “contextual love” of full inclusion ahead of the Discipline, like those in the past (including my own Western Pennsylvania Conference) who chose to ordain women ahead of the Discipline, choosing holiness over unity. There are queer couples seeking to be married now, by their pastor in their church. There are LGBTQIA+ youth and clergy candidates who need the full support of their denomination now, especially in the midst of a deadly tsunami of transphobia. There are queer people and allies in our communities for whom our witness as the body of Christ is simply not credible so long as the status quo remains. We have asked LGBTQIA+ United Methodists to wait long enough. Holiness and perfection in love require us to decide what is right and pursue it with our whole hearts. Now is the time, recalling the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippian church, to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on to the goal: toward the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.
Dylan is a provisional elder in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC, currently serving as senior pastor of a four-church charge in Pittsburgh. As an undergraduate religion student at Denison University, he became interested in theologies of liberation, particularly as they might be applied in postindustrial, postextractive communities like those that make up Western Pennslyvania and the greater Appalachian region. He received his M.Div. at Duke Divinity School, where he learned to love John Wesley and the Methodist tradition and to synthesize Wesley and liberation theology. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, Stormie, and their puppy, Beans.
As we approach the church’s celebration of Christmas, I can’t help but think about how we acknowledge the sacredness of unlikely dwelling places. The story of the birth of Jesus is far from a typical birth story (if there is such a thing). The young couple is in transit as Jesus is being born, far from their home. When it comes time to give birth, the young mother experienced what so many unhoused people do: a community with not enough room for them. The birth of Jesus takes place in an unlikely, unsanitary place. And after the birth, through the news that is brought by the Magi, the new family realizes that they will not be able to return home if they are to be safe. They begin as travelers, find themselves unhoused, and end the story as political refugees: all while being entrusted with the very child of God.
One of the most popular decorations and displays in this season is a nativity scene. Now, I love a good nativity scene. There’s just something beautiful and holy about it: the young parents, a serene baby Jesus who magically isn’t crying or screaming or vomiting or jaundiced, angels overhead, a random bunch of animals, Magi offering confusing gifts. (Thanks for the gold, some of the heaviest stuff on earth, guess we’ll just carry this all the way to Egypt?) I also love the trend on social media where people will sneak other figurines into their parents’ and grandparents’ nativities and see how long it takes them to notice. Nativities are just the best.
I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working with people experiencing homelessness, and many Christians rightfully connect their living situation to Jesus, who Scripture tells us “had no place to lay his head” during his ministry. But Jesus’ experience of housing insecurity and transience began while he was still in his mother’s womb and is a central part of the Christmas narrative.
For me, this is the biggest reminder of the Nativity: that nontraditional places and spaces—where forgotten people are forced to live, lay their heads, and experience significant moments in their life—are sacred. They are holy.
When we see encampments on the side of the road or under the overpass, we are not usually filled with the same warm feelings as when we see a nativity. They may cause fear, resentment, or even pity. Over the years, I’ve seen encampments become more and more vilified and politicized. In major cities, politicians will run on what specifically they are going to do about them, whether to sweep them up and drive people out or offer a more compassionate, holistic approach that includes affordable housing and desired services.
Our own ethic and approach to encampments can and should be shaped by the stories about Jesus. At this moment in the year, it can benefit us to think of encampments as nativity scenes. Not because they are glamorous in a traditional way, but rather, like the Nativity, they contain people who are making the most of a combination of unlikely, unfortunate, and desperate circumstances. And most importantly, they share this in common: they are places where Christ dwells.
If that feels like a stretch, remember the ways Jesus associated himself with the most vulnerable and marginalized in our world. Jesus himself made this association, that whatever we do unto the “least of these,” we have done unto him. In this sense, every encampment contains a child of God; every encampment is a nativity.
This certainly doesn’t answer our every question about the encampment. What do we do about it? How do we acknowledge the sacredness of this dwelling and the people who inhabit it, while also working toward their betterment? These are crucial questions that deserve thoughtfulness and nuance. If we have not started from a place of seeing the encampment as sacred, and the unhoused person within it as a neighbor bearing God’s image, then we have little hope of getting to the right answer. Just as the story of Jesus starts this way, so must our discourse around homelessness.
In this Christmas season, we learn to recognize the image of God imprinted on everyone—not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but because God gives it freely. And we recognize that our world is quick to turn many people away, claiming there is no room for them. And while we seek to undo and counter this narrative, we can celebrate the beauty and sacredness of the unlikely places that mothers and fathers and children lay their heads. We can see nativities wherever they appear: on the fireplaces of warm homes, in front of churches, on bus benches, and under overpasses.
Kevin is a writer and advocate working toward ending homelessness by engaging best practices. He has written on the intersections of homelessness and faith for Religion News Service, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and more. He has presented at national conferences on the topic of homelessness, including the Housing First Partners Conference 2022.
Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t we just worship like the first Christians did?” as if that will solve the worship styles debate. After all, what is “right”? Part of the problem is that there is a lot that we just don’t know. We do know some. The Didache was an early worship manual from the first or second century and gives us some information about baptism and communion. And there are the torture records in which people were asked what they were doing in these meetings. Another good source of information is Luke’s gospel.
Unlike the other three gospels, Luke’s gospel includes hymns that were contemporaneous to the writing of the gospel–approximately the 80s A.D. and probably sung in Christian communities. In addition to the Magnificat, Luke includes the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Simeon, and the Gloria, which is attributed to the angelic choir. The Hallelujah comes much later in the theological drama. The tunes they sang are unknown.
The source of the Magnificat is probably modeled on the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, sung when she gives thanks to God for her son Samuel, “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation” (1 Sam. 2:1). The similarities are apparent.
The song of Mary has been sung throughout the world, wherever the Bible has been read. The first Christians sang the words in everyday Greek from at least the time of the 80s. The church later immortalized those words in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum. Et exultavit spiritus meus; in Deo salutari meo.” “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” according to the Herbert Howells’ setting. My Spanish-speaking staff would probably know this text as “Mi alma glorifica al Señor, y mi espíritu se regocija en Dios mi Salvador,” translated: “My soul gives glory to the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (my translation).
Musically, the Magnificat text has been a fertile ground for vocal and instrumental settings for several hundreds of years. Composers have set the words to different musical scores to paint different musical pictures. For example, J.S. Bach uses the double obbligato flutes in “Esurientes implevit bonis” (“and the rich he hath sent empty away”) to create a “ha ha” sort of effect. Mary and Elizabeth are clearly mocking the powers of this world–a dangerous activity back in the day. Rutter’s opening movement includes what sound like cha-cha effects because he received his inspiration by watching the Festival of the Virgin Mary in Mexico, which includes joyous parades and highly decorated statues of Mary. Arvo Pårt’s setting is pure introspective mysticism sung by an a capella choir. The United Methodist Hymnal has three settings—one being the better known, “Tell out my soul the greatness of God’s name…” Open your hymnal and have a look.
The writer of Luke’s gospel identifies Mary as the downtrodden and definitely lower on the socioeconomic scale. Scholars estimate that in the first century the population consisted of 3 percent ultra-wealthy and 90 percent the very poor.1 Put another way, according to another analysis, about 55 percent of the population at any time did not know if they would have food from day to day.2 Mary was in an arranged marriage situation and, clearly, the pressure in those situations is not to screw up the betrothal arrangement for either her family or herself. Her family’s social standing was on the line. An unwed pregnancy could mean she would be treated as damaged goods for the rest of her life. Then this angel shows up one day with a message that will upset the apple cart for a lot of people.
Mary was probably quite aware of the history of her people’s oppression. For example, the Seleucids 200 years before Christ were despots. The Book of Maccabees contains an illustrative example of a woman who is forced to watch the torture and slow death of each of her sons unless she rejects Judaism by eating pork. (2 Macc. 1:1–42) The very vivid descriptions of the torture would make the Saudi Secret Police, the Nazi S.S., and the Gulags in the Soviet Union in more recent times green with envy. It was into this history that the Christ Child was born.
The Magnificat text is many things: poem, hymn, and prayer. Dr. Eileen Guenther describes the text as the greatest social justice text of all time and would say that its use is not restricted to Advent. Think of the paraphrase in Hal Hopson’s setting, “My heart will sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.”3
If Mary was among the most powerless because of her gender and lack of agency, who do you think are the powerless and poor in our own time? Those who keep the stats of income and wealth, poverty and weakness would probably find the question of who is poor and who is not is a bit along the lines of “it depends.” But building God’s kingdom is not solely about spending money on projects. It is about building a relationship with other people who may not return the favor or give more than a thank you. But we do it anyway. Building the kingdom means living out the words of the Southern hymn “If I Can Help Somebody”: “If I can help somebody as I pass along … If I can cheer somebody with a word or song … If I can bring back beauty to a world … if I can show somebody that they are travelin’ wrong, then my living shall not be in vain.”4
What would happen if our missiological activities in church focused on turning the world upside down in ways the Magnificat speaks of?
It could mean walking in the Pride parade to show the hundreds of thousands of people on the route that God loves them—full stop. A turn-the-world-upside-down missiology could include partnering with community activists to reduce gun violence prevention and writing letters to elected representatives. It could mean developing a food preparation ministry that gathers wasted food from places like grocery stores and then turns it into free meals. Spending some time chopping vegetables in a kitchen or picking up prepared food in the van and delivering the meals may be the best part of your week. A turn-the-world-upside-down activity might look like providing after-school tutoring for students or parenting classes for new parents.
Listen to the various settings of the Magnificat text from Gregorian chant to the present. Embrace the fire of God’s justice. Find a way to help bring God’s justice to the Earth every week. It is the work that God would have us do.
1. Mark Allen Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary and Theological Survey. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 41.
2. Carla Swafford Works, The Least of These: Paul and the Marginalized. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmanns, Publishing Company, 2020), 18–19. She summarizes the work of Steven J. Friesen and Bruce Longenecker’s attempts to quantify poverty in the first-century Roman Empire.
3. Gary Daigle, Rory Coony, Theresa Donohoo, “Canticle of the Turning” Tune: Star of County Down, setting by Hal H. Hopson (Fenton: MorningStar Music Publishers).
Kerm Towler is a master of divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He thanks Dr. Carla Works for the historical information from her books and lectures and Dr. Eileen Guenther who taught the Magnificat in every sacred music class. His other great interests are music and South Africa—together and separately.
When I found out I was pregnant in mid-November, my very first thoughts were of terror. It wore off, but not nearly as fast as I would have expected. I have always been excited about becoming a parent, but the reality of it was far more terrifying than I had ever imagined. While my soon-to-be baby was still barely the size of a mustard seed, the realization that my body was no longer only my own hit hard.
So when Advent rolled around this year, I connected to Mary in a new way. I admit I have some safeguards in place that Mary did not have. I am married, and I live in a culture where if my husband decides to bounce, I can expect to recover and support myself and my child through a reasonably rewarding career. Mary, a young woman just getting ready to start a marriage, did not have those safeguards. But ultimately, there’s no talking yourself out of the terror of pregnancy. One constant across all human cultures is that when you become a parent, your life changes in ways that shake you, no matter how intellectually prepared you think you are. So I think she must have felt even more like I did—like her life had been pulled out from under her, and her self would have to make way for a new person and that new person’s new reality. Nothing has ever scared me as much as the destabilization that crashed onto me when I realized I was sharing my body with a being of whom I had no real knowledge.
Though only some of us become parents, and perhaps not all of us react with terror (though I suspect we do), I think all of us can relate to the terror of realizing we are not the main character in our lives, because that is what it is like to be in relationship with God. God invites us into relationship, into the new world that God is building, with our help and with our sacrifice. And we are continually warned that it is going to cost us. But it’s also going to be worth it, we are promised, because we will spend our lives willing into existence a better, more whole, and more holy future. Sometimes we resist because we miss being the main character in our own lives. But the promise that is made is that it’s going to be worth it, because the new reality has a life of its own, and that life is of God.
The angel Gabriel’s opening line to Mary is, futilely, “Do not be afraid!” Though this seems to be the standard angelic greeting to mortals, I imagine that Mary laughed about this line to herself when she remembered this moment, years later in a small room in Egypt, to which she had fled out of fear for this child. It is easy for the angel to say.
But, through the angel, God gives Mary everything she needs to say yes to this pregnancy. “You are being honored!” says the angel, “because you will conceive a child!” Helpfully, Gabriel takes a bit of the guesswork out. It’s going to be a boy, and his name is going to be Jesus. The-one-who-heals, the-one-who-saves. And he will be a great leader, he will be greatly honored, and his life will be of great and obvious significance to the world. By saying yes to this child, you will make the world a better place.
Mary, the first person to say yes to this new way of intimacy with God, modeled for us what it would look like. She sees the promise being offered to her and understands that she will have to co-create this new future with God. But that’s precisely the beauty of it: God comes to us as a baby, meaning God comes to us as someone whose identity is bound up with ours. And meaning that God’s work takes on its own form and meaning because it is a continuation of our work and our love for God. God asks us to allow our identities to be destabilized for the sake of God’s new work in the world, like a parent is destabilized for the sake of their child.
Like God does for Mary, God gives us everything we need to say yes to the new reality of God’s kingdom, where we are vitally important but not, ultimately, the main character. God tells us that participating in that new reality will show us richer and deeper love than we could have ever imagined. God gives us witnesses to attest that this way does, indeed, lead to God. And God gives us a vision of a bright future in which we see the fruits of our labor. In this way, God comes to us like a child.
I am still terrified, and I wonder if I’ll ever stop, but I am also excited and proud. Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I’ve started to hone my skill of managing this project that is my body, my new life. I know what I can’t eat, and how much I have to sleep. Christianity is like that, too. Once we really understand what is being asked of us—allowing God to be the main character in our lives—the mundane realities of taking on this project start to come into focus. We have to stretch ourselves to be a bit kinder, to imagine a bit further outside of the lines about justice. But alongside the destabilization of being asked to reorient our lives, there comes to be a growing intimacy with that which is yet to come. Our relationship with the yet-to-come kingdom starts to grow and starts to be a source of pride and joy. And this is how God gives us our new identity through Jesus Christ, the newborn king.
Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.
Every autumn, the shift from daylight to standard time hits me like a ton of bricks. Here in Maryland, the sun has set before 5:00 p.m. since November 6 and will continue to do so until January 10. Through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, many of us in the global north are forced to beat a tactical retreat from the outside world. We have fewer precious hours of daylight, the weather is often too cold or dreary to spend as many of those hours outside, and in this third year of the pandemic, we still find ourselves quarantining and avoiding unnecessary trips.
I feel a paradoxical mixture of anxious excitement and drowsy boredom this time of the year. On the one hand, it’s one of the busiest months for folks who work in churches. There are book studies to lead, cantatas and pageants to plan, Christmas Eve services to prepare, and charitable work to do. For churches, this is the big show, one of a few times each year when we might see some new faces. And of course, that’s coupled with the general excitement of Christmas, a complicated time but one in which we feel like we should be happy even if we aren’t.
On the other hand, the lengthening nights of the season seem unreceptive to so much activity. Every evening, it feels later a little earlier, if that makes any sense. As we’re forced to rely more on the harsh glow of electric lights to navigate our surroundings, it feels like we should be doing less, not more. It feels like the weight of the night all around us should be slowing us down, not pushing us to work even harder emotionally and physically.
Several of the poems Charles Wesley penned in Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord (1745) capture the emotional complexities of this time of year. Hymn XI in particular leans into the darkness and anticipation that mark Advent and Christmas. We live, as Wesley wrote, in a “deary dwelling [that] Borders on the shades of death.” We wait, as he waited, for “love’s revealing [to] Dissipate the clouds beneath.”
But for us, disquiet and dreariness are not limited to the weeks leading up to and following Christmas, as they are in Wesley’s poems. The combination of excitement and drowsiness, of eagerness and anxiety, flows through so much in our present world. It can feel as though we’re living in a perpetual Advent. Sure, we see glimmers of hope for a more just and equitable future. As I write this, Congress is working out the details of the Respect for Marriage Act, a small but significant step toward legal protections for marginalized people in the United States, including many within the church. But we are also weighed down by astronomical challenges. More than half of Gen Zsurveyed by The Lancet say that they believe humanity’s inaction on climate change has doomed us. Forty percent have said that their distress about the future has impacted their choice about having children.
For those of us for whom the early nightfall quickly gets old, or who are exhausted by the dim prospects that we see in our world’s futures, Advent offers us a kindred spirit. This is the season for those who struggle to remain hopeful. It’s a season for dogged resistance, for naming the evil of the world as it is and stubbornly insisting that its victory is not our fate. If there were ever a time to embrace our fears and anxieties, Advent is that time. And we are able to do this because we sit within a Christmas story that speaks a better word about who we are and what the world is.
In the apocalyptic language of our scripture readings and hymnody, we are reminded that we do not live in the world that God intends for us. We live in the space between the first and second Advents, where promises are true even as they are unseen. A space where death and decay still rule, where our sins against one another and against the world entrusted to us have not yet been visibly redeemed in Christ. We are reminded that even as we know the Spirit of God is among us, “Still we wait for thy appearing /…Chasing all our fears, and cheering / Every poor benighted heart.” And in the midst of all of that, of all of this, our only choice is to sing, as Wesley did, “Guide [us] into thy perfect peace.”
Ryan (he/him) is an MDiv student at Wesley Theological Seminary. A lifelong Marylander, he has a BA in history from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a focus on early American Christianity. He is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church and local pastor in the Mission Central Parish, a United Methodist community north of Baltimore. In his spare time, Ryan can be found cleaning up after children or catching up on the Star Trek franchise.
The groups against LGBTQIA+ people in the United Methodist Church call themselves “traditional.” To start out with, tradition is not a monolith. Tradition is not a singular or consistent concept. Traditions evolve and develop and are not static. Likewise, there is ample evidence for a queer-affirming Methodist tradition—that even originates with Methodism’s founder, John Wesley himself.
Tradition is one of the four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Along with scripture, reason, and experience, tradition helps shape Wesleyan thought and theology. The importance of tradition in Methodist movements is highlighted by UMAction, (distinguished from U.M.A.C.T.I.O.N.) an anti-LGBTQIA+ group in the UMC that “defends traditional Christian beliefs and practices in the spirit of the father of Methodism, John Wesley.” Another example of tradition’s importance is the legislation titled The Traditional Plan which passed at the 2019 General Conference that further restricted LGBTQIA+ persons in the church. But I too defend a tradition of Christian beliefs in the spirit of John Wesley. Because Methodist tradition and queer affirmation are not mutually exclusive.
John Wesley ministered to Thomas Blair; a man accused of sodomy. I think the best rendition of this story is found in a 1976 edition of Blair Blurbs, the newsletter for the Gay United Methodist Caucus, “Blair Blurbs is named after a young man whom John Wesley counseled, against the wishes of the townspeople. The young man, Blair, was accused of homosexuality.” The following edition of Blair Blurbs expanded this story with an edit by activists Rick Huskey and Peggy Harmon, reading:
A correction on our first edition of Blair Blurbs has been offered by the Task Force on Theologizing as to the nature of Blair’s homosexual notoriety in Wesley’s ministry. Young Blair (V.A. [sic] H. Green, John Wesley, P. 32) is important to the two century struggle for complete inclusion of Gay people in our fellowship, because Wesley ministered to him in SPITE OF THE VERBAL OBJECTIONS OF OTHER HOLY CLUB MEMBERS. Again, pietists were divided on this issue, BUT Wesley was there lovin’ and carin’ for that early brother of ours.
John Wesley’s ministry to Thomas Blair is described in Wesley’s Oxford Diaries. In 1732, Wesley and the Methodists ran a ministry at the Borcardo prison, which is where Wesley met Blair. John Wesley and other members of the Holy Club were first called Methodists at the same time as Wesley’s controversial ministry to Blair. This public support of Blair, a man accused of sodomy, was unpopular among the townspeople and Blair was even persecuted within the prison with some prisoners refusing to even look at him. The Methodist’s support of Blair may have been the difference between the Methodists being tolerated by others versus being disapproved.
Beyond simply telling this story in Blair Blurbs, Rick Huskey, who was a gay minister in the Minnesota Annual Conference, believed that his ministry with gay and lesbian Christians followed in the footsteps of Wesley’s ministry to Blair.
With a more clearly defined beginning, The United Methodist Church formed as a merger between The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. As Wesley’s ministry to Blair was present in the beginnings of Methodism, so were ministries for LGBTQIA+ persons present at the beginning of the United Methodist Church. A founder of the United Methodist Gay Caucus, Gene Leggett, lead a ministry called House of the Covenant for those he felt that the church had not reached. This ministry was a loosely organized space for young gay and straight people to be themselves.
The stories we tell matter as we discern tradition. Telling the story of John Wesley and Thomas Blair empowered gay people in the ’70s and can empower us today. These stories show that what is historical and traditional in Methodism is not inherently queerphobic.
From the inception of Methodism with Thomas Blair to the formation of The United Methodist Church with folks like Rick Huskey and Gene Leggett, LGBTQIA+ people have always existed and participated in Methodism. Today, as we imagine what expressions of Methodism can form, we can remember Wesley’s care for Thomas Blair and continue to walk in the precedent set by early gay United Methodists. We can participate in caring for people others disapprove of and working to reach those the church has not reached. A queer-affirming Methodist tradition does exist, and we can continue this practice.
 Udis-Kessler, Amanda. Queer Inclusion in the United Methodist Church Taylor & Francis, 2008. 29
The bliss of summer and ease of demand has come and gone along with ordinary time. Because of its length and placement in the year, ordinary time stretches on just as simply as its name implies: ordinarily. The sun beats down on the long days as the summer drags on and on. Pastors preach to congregations splitting their time between vacation and church. Students bask in the rest that comes with the long break. And for a moment, the world slows into Sabbath.
The demands of the holiday seasons are deeply felt among marginalized groups. Traditional and well-known prayers are demanded for the ritual of high holy days, particularly Advent and Eastertide Seasons. Whether we are deconstructing, reconstructing, or simply being, we must mentally distance ourselves from gendered liturgy; historic prayers that historically harmed; images of the straightlaced, canonized whiteness; firm and binary boundaries; and inaccessible altars and pulpits. Ordinary time is an opportunity for Sabbath subversiveness.
For those marginalized, particularly by the church, ordinary time can be an opportunity as great as Advent or Eastertide. With emptier pews and lower risks, churches open up their spaces for people on the margins to craft their own prayers and sermons, to speak truth to power. Ordinary time as a Sabbath is dynamic and subversive. It is a time to cast fresh visions, prepare for new busy seasons, and reflect on the previous year. It is the kind of radical Sabbath talked about in Hebrews 4:1-7 (NRSVUE):
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened.
For we who have believed are entering that rest, just as God has said, “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” though his works were finished since the foundation of the world. For somewhere it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”
And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.”Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
In his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Walter Brueggemann writes that the Sabbath was and is a subversive teaching, an act of defiance against empires of productivity. A Sabbath rest is an alternative activity that resists “the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence” of whatever steals our limited leisure time. With Sabbath rest as a salvific, divine activity, the author of Hebrews empowered their audience to push back against the empire. In refusing to partake in societal norms and activities, Sabbath participants may enter a holy protest and regain their voice against those who persecute them.
Delving into Hebrews 4:17, it seems that the author knew their intended audience would be among those who were persecuted—those in need of hope, a reason to hang onto their faith, and in need of rest (Heb. 10:10; 12:12). Based on the author’s likely location and time frame, New Testament scholar K.K. Yeo concludes that the audience members were first- or second-generation Christians. This audience, a people who faced rising persecution and were in danger of abandoning their faith, needed to be reminded of what it meant to be children of God despite imperial oppression. The promise does not always result in prosperity but, like that of the Israelites, a nomadic life in the wilderness: “[T]he joyful life in Christ turns out to be full of resistance and saturated with suffering.” This passage from Hebrews is a promise of resistance and redemption for both the first Christians and for marginalized groups today.
The author of Hebrews quoted Genesis 2 at the end of this passage, calling the reader back to a familiar story about God’s Sabbath rest after creation. Sabbath rest is a divine activity, a communion with God, a time of restoration after a time of birthing new life. Humanity is invited to partake in the divine rest of God, but only after participating in the faithful, sanctifying, restorative act of creation. Christians are called to breathe life into the world, to work with the chaos to usher in creation, just as the Spirit did (Gen. 1).
Some have retranslated Hebrews 4:3 as people who “are entering” rest rather than those who enter it at one point. In other words, Sabbath is a pilgrimage. The message is not that people of faith are guaranteed that rest, but that they are in a constant process of entering into rest. Just like the Israelites, those marginalized into the wilderness are promised that their wanderings are not aimless, random, or chaotic; we are continually entering rest. Notice that the author of Hebrews changed the tense of God’s testing of the Israelites in the wilderness depicted in Psalm 95. This deliberate shift was intended to contextualize the story for the audience, a weary and long-suffering people in the midst of persecution. Just as the Israelites wandered, so also do people in the present journey onward toward rest. Those who are faithful do not enter at a particular moment but are in the sanctifying process of constantly entering the Sabbath.
What if we viewed the restfulness of Ordinary Time as a time of regenerative celebration? In the season that eases us with rhythmic ebbs and flows can be transformed into a period of radical creativity that breathes new life into the world. This is how biblical scholar Susan Docherty translates rest to an activity of heavenly worship. The word rest in this passage is better translated as a “Sabbath celebration” or a time of jubilee. To celebrate amid a wandering, a struggle requires an active posture oriented toward celebration. It requires a holy work that is not of the empire but of creation. In the same way, ordinary time requires an attentiveness in its rhythms and rites. Used as a Sabbath, it becomes a beacon of hope, of respite, of busy and holy protest.
Just as Brueggemann asserts, Sabbath rest “is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath rest is actively not partaking of the competitive, compulsory activity of hustle-based culture; rather, we are called to pick up that which was discarded and give it new life. We create new things out of the seemingly ordinary—a renewed wandering people, new wineskins, the garden that stems from a mustard seed. Harkening back to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, restorative practices move alongside the chaos, the vast voids waiting for creation and new life (Gen. 1). Celebration amid the struggle is liberation from systemic oppressive practices. It looks like queer folks serving Communion on Sunday mornings, people of color standing behind the pulpit of white congregations, children being centered in liturgies, churches tearing down altars to make God more accessible. These are the types of restorative practices that provide salvific moments of celebration amid and despite the struggle—the kind of practices that save.
We enter sanctuaries in this underemphasized moment, feeling a peace that surpasses all understanding, a rest that can only come after organizing the chaos, discovering a hope that is born out of the ordinary. During ordinary time, the stakes are lower. There are fewer volunteers to read prayers and Scripture on Sunday mornings, less prominent holy days. These are the days when the marginalized can approach the pulpit boldly, using this Sabbath season as a means of flipping the liturgy and building something new from the ashes of the old. The refreshing repetition and slowness give space for us to use ordinary time as a subversive Sabbath. We partake with God and create once more. And now, as Ordinary Time dwindles to an end, we walk into the busyness of the liturgical calendar. And we rest, waiting for ordinary time to come again so that we can create once more. In the Sabbath of Ordinary Time, we simultaneously subvert empiric, demanding powers and partake in rest with God—a radicalized ordinary time.
 Thomas Long, Interpretation (Hebrews), 3.
 K.K. Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 81.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Scriptural World of Hebrews,” 239; Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 697; Long. Interpretation (Hebrews), 54.
 Long, Interpretation (Hebrews), 54.
 Judith Hoch Wray, Rest As a Theological Metaphor, 83; Yeo. What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 100-101.
 Erhard H. Gallos, “Katapausis and Sabbatismos in Hebrews 4,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (2011): 133.
 Dmitri Royster, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 2003), 59.
 Sean Winter, “Journey and Rest: Hebrews, Pilgrimage, and the Work of Theological
 Henry Chadwick, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 83.
 Chadwick, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 83.
 Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 85.
 Susan Docherty, “Recent Interpretations,” 181; Gerhard Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 992.
 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 45.
 Dorsey, “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” March 30, 2022.
Abby was born and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. She is an elder candidate in the United Methodist Church and a second year Master of Divinity student at Garrett Seminary. Her call is to be a bridge builder, particularly in spaces of tension, and she is passionate about using liberative theologies for the cause of justice.
Masses gathered around the charred Notre Dame Cathedral on Easter Sunday 2019 to proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Their collective hope for the sanctuary’s future reconstruction hung as heavy as the smell of ashes. Across the Pond, another French resurrection was taking place in the least likely of places.
I was leading the contemporary service at a large United Methodist Church in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. I’d been there a couple years and things were really moving in the right direction. Attendance was up and we’d hired an incredible worship leader, Noel Johnson. Noel lived the kind of adventure in his 20s that many of us only dream of—traveling to Peru and deciding to stay, unheard of for a former Baptist kid from Alabama. There, Noel met his wife, Fanny, who’d moved to Peru from France. They got married and returned to the States to raise a family and answer God’s call to lead worship in our humble gymnasium.
I had said au revoir to a wonderful Palm Sunday service the weekend before, examining the backs of my eyelids, when Noel texted me that Fanny’s younger sister, Salomé, wanted to be baptized. This, of course, would be no big deal were it anyone else, but Salomé didn’t speak English.
I should rephrase: Baptism is always a big deal. This felt like a bigger deal.
Salomé was in born and raised in Belgium, spoke only French, and until visiting Alabama that spring, had never attended Christian worship. Previously, she wouldn’t even talk about faith with her sister or brother-in-law. Later, she told me she thought Christians were science-deniers and lunatics. But during her visit, probably out of respect, she came to church with them, quietly sitting in the back not understanding a word of the songs or sermons. Over the course of several weeks, God showed up anyway.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was just like something God would do. A few weeks later, we would celebrate Pentecost, and preachers across the world would have the audacity to suggest that 2,000 years ago the Holy Spirit enabled folks to hear and understand the Good News in their own diverse and cosmopolitan languages from a bunch of backwoods bumpkins who spoke with a thick Galilean accent. They probably said things like “y’all.”
Turns out the language of love is universal.
I remember the first time I went on a mission trip to a non-English speaking country. I asked the director about what kinds of communication are universal. Laughter? Crying? Music? What else? It turns out there are a lot. You don’t have to speak the language to understand the joy of a proud parent, the sorrow of a love lost, or the pain of a hungry belly. Often our emotions are written on our faces for the world to see. In fact, I might even wager that we spend more time trying to keep our true emotions hidden than we do expressing them.
Call it an evolutionary adaptation or the Holy Spirit or both. Salomé heard a word of grace. Through the music or the smiles or God speaking directly to her spirit, she received the good news for in a language her soul understood.
That week we shared a meal together. Alabama pork barbecue is also a universal language. We talked about repentance and salvation and grace and baptism and finding a church in Belgium and even planting a church in Belgium … all, of course, through her sister’s translation with all the obvious awkward delays. But awkwardness melts away in the presence of good food and good friends.
With help from Fanny and the United Methodist Office of Discipleship Ministries, we found the baptismal liturgy in French and quickly agreed Fanny would read it. Even if you don’t speak any French, I suspect you’ll recognize the historic questions:
Te repens-tu de tes péchés?
Veux-tu renoncer à tout mal,
et ne mettre ta confiance que dans la grâce de Dieu?
Es-tu prêt à confesser ta foi en Jésus-Christ,
ton Seigneur et Sauveur,
et à te soumettre à sa souveraineté?
Acceptes-tu les Saintes Ecritures de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament comme règle de conduite divine pour ta foi et ta vie en Jésus-Christ?
Veux-tu être baptisé dans cette foi,
être accepté dans l’Eglise de Jésus-Christ,
lui rester fidèle toute ta vie?
Es-tu prêt à mener une vie chrétienne selon la grâce que Dieu t’a accordée?
I didn’t even translate. And no one thought I needed to.
This is the place where I say something about the importance of crosscultural discipleship or diversity. But the truth is, you already know that. You already know that Jesus included tax collectors and zealots, institutional leaders and enemies of the state, sex workers, fishermen, and children. You know that Phillip didn’t hesitate to include an Ethiopian eunuch and that Peter and Paul practically rewrote their Scriptures to include Gentiles. These are things we all already know. The New Testament is full of these examples.
We just need to live it.
Easter in the South is always magnificent, with azaleas in full bloom and trees budding in that neon green new-growth color so bright it glows. The ladies wore colorful dresses. The men wore seer-sucker. And we all had the naiveté of prepandemic church. The house was full. The music woke your soul. The story of the resurrection practically preached itself.
After the sermon, Salomé joined me in the waters. She chose full immersion, not for theological reasons but for the pure tactile experiential nature of the sacrament. The family gathered around. The music swelled. And an older sister recited a liturgy that no one but God and her younger sister understood.
Yet everyone understood.
Salomé, je te baptise au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit.
She went down into the waters of baptism and arose a new sister of the church, and a symbol that beauty springs from ashes, that the Holy Spirit still speaks in unlikely tongues, and that God is still in the business of resurrection.
And so, on Resurrection Sunday morning in the heart of Alabama, following fire that destroyed the iconic the Notre Dame cathedral, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism in the other language of love. It was beautiful. It was extraordinary and at the same time, strangely normal. It was a reminder that God is still in the business of resurrection.
Le Christ est ressuscité!
He is risen indeed.
Clay Farrington is the lead pastor at Irondale United Methodist Church on the east side of Birmingham, Alabama. He’s written curriculum and articles for several ministry publications and cohosts Armchair Theology, a tastefully irreverent podcast and online ministry breaking down Scripture cover-to-cover. Clay loves Bible hot-takes, finding God in nature, and seeing folks grow on toward perfection in love. He lives with his awesome wife and family in Birmingham, Alabama, and hopes you’ll give him a shout if you’re ever in town. You can find him at armchairtheo.com or wherever there are great tacos.
I just booked tickets to a concert for my family and me. The last time I went, it was with my then-six-month-old daughter in June 2019, the week after her baptism into the community of faith.
Something about this particular concert, the Indigo Girls at the Zoo, which so frequently overlaps with our UMC annual conference session, makes it part of the liturgical year for a certain collection of Pacific Northwest United Methodists. This year at least attending both doesn’t mean rushing from one to the other. Not that it would, since who knows what conference will be like, what the world will be like, in June.
Last time I went to this concert, it was the day her babbling first resolved into something like “Da-da” and now she’s at the age where she’ll correct me if I get the words wrong in a picture book she’s had read to her only once or twice before.
Our community of faith has been very cautious in our approach to COVID-19 with lots of prerecorded services and periods of masked, no-singing hybrid worship. We’ve been back on Zoom now for a while. One magical, perfect outdoor Christmas Eve carols service before the Omicron variant hit was the first time it felt like we were really singing together like we used to, even though we were freezing and acapella.
More than I ever could have anticipated, the early music education of this little one is disconnected from the experience of congregational singing. She hears single voices, the pianist singing to his own playing, leading us on video. She hears professionally produced music. And she hears me and her other family, mostly one-on-one, except in those rare low-case-count in-person gatherings where we sing someone “Happy Birthday.”
What will it be like, I wonder, to reenter the community of music? How will she hear the first transcendent movement from unison to harmony, when that confident alto or baritone resonates through the space? How will she hear the beloved older singer whose words are always a half beat behind the rest? Will she be surprised when most of us stand up to sing?
Will she learn to love these hymnals the way her mother does? Will she learn follow along, to read music and lyrics carried on the rise and fall of the community’s voice, tracing her fingers along the ups and downs of the notes, deciphering words as they ring in her ears?
Will she loudly proclaim, someday when we attend church with her Anglican grandparents, “Wait, this isn’t the right tune!” or barrel through with the words from the United Methodist Hymnal while they sing the British version? Will she notice which pages I flip past in the red hymnal or the places where I change the words or go silent when the congregation continues the verse, those places where the tradition doesn’t speak to the truth of the faith we are teaching her?
My own faith has been so deeply shaped by these experiences that I cannot imagine church without them, except that somehow it’s been nearly two years without them. I hold on to those moments that sustain, though. And something in that sustenance, something in this time, has led to drawing the circle wider. My child is perhaps equally exposed to Disney, the United Methodist Hymnal, and the popular music that settles her parents’ hearts. Her lullabies are the vespers hymns like my mother sang to me, the lullaby from Frozen 2, and “Roll On, Columbia.”
Without the grounding and centering musical influence of weekly corporate worship, the sacred and the secular are intertwining in our family culture. My role as a parent includes teaching this child the music and the stories of her community, to know and to love those who surround and support her. And for this kid, growing up near Seattle in a family of Methodists, therapists, pastors, and software engineers, that community extends far beyond the church.
Her community will be present at that concert in June. Maybe by then we’ll have been singing in worship again or at least in person outdoors. We’ll sit with Grandma or with my Buddhist friend from high school who was my first peer who loved the Indigo Girls, too. We’ll tromp through the field to visit with UMC pastors’ kids, friends from camp and Chrysalis, clergy, and nonprofit executives and make small talk with complete strangers bound together just by this music. She’ll be surrounded by hundreds of adults dancing to music like she dances to music.
This joyful chaos, will, of course, also be colored by our grief.
For those who have died since the concert in 2019. For the lost time, the lost relationships. Echoes of those weeks of lockdown when I put on the band’s livestream to distract the toddler and cried at the loss of the communal experience. Back when that grief was so fresh it could catch me in any moment of the day.
Grief can be so isolating, especially when combined with forces like a pandemic, depression, or exclusion from communities of faith. And when we are at our best and most resourceful, we find meaning in community, and we take part in ritual and tradition that connects us through time to generations before us and to people thousands of miles away.
“Do you dream of a beloved community? / So, sing songs of freedom… / Look at the kids unsure of the future, / Leading the marches, Waking the culture / Up from the opiate of slumber. / Don’t you wanna be in that number?” (Indigo Girls, “Long Ride”)
Y’all. She dances. We’ve been singing in worship, masked with the windows open, for months. And this child cannot be stopped. The moment she hears the swell of the piano, those first few notes of voices rising together in song, she drops her toys in the nursery and runs back to the sanctuary. She takes the place she has chosen for herself in the chancel, next to the altar, which happens to be on-camera for those joining us on Zoom. And she dances, twirling her dress, and lately, attempting to incorporate jumps that she picked up watching Newsies.
We went to the concert in June. She’s now fully inoculated against COVID-19, along with most of the other babies and toddlers in the church. Somehow, we are breathing a bit easier.
And this child, who learned to dance to church music on the livestream, in the safety of her living room, has carried that confidence with her into the space of corporate worship.
These years have changed us in ways we can see and in ways we won’t recognize for ages. In my community, this tiny liturgical dancer may be an indication of one of those changes,
She never knew that she was supposed to sit still in church, to stand in place in the pew during hymns. Her body caught the music and danced with it, moving to the rhythm and the rise and fall of the notes. She will probably learn, eventually, how she is “supposed to” behave in worship, like it or not. Maybe she will simply learn that it’s harder to read the words and notes while spinning.
But I hope she never stops dancing, and I hope her dancing is a revolution.
In June 2022, the clergy session of the annual meeting of The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church rejected 16 ministry candidates for provisional membership on the basis of two of the candidates being openly LGBTQIA+. Another added her name to the list voluntarily. They had been previously recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry (BoOM) for provisional membership, but they were 3% of the vote short of final approval by the voting members of the conference. In an article on the Florida Conference website, Bishop Kenneth Carter added, “The great majority of the voices of those who spoke against their candidacy, or the processes leading to their candidacy, were those of pastors who are in formal processes of departing from the United Methodist Church.” Three of the rejected candidates—Shawn Klein, Erin Wagner, and Anna Swygert—sat down with Yet Alive’s Dylan Parson and Trevor Warren for an exclusive interview about the process, their futures, and their hopes for a fully inclusive United Methodist Church.
DP: Tell me a little bit about your background.
AS: I like to make the joke that Methodism runs in my veins because it’s always been a part of who I am. I was baptized and I grew up in the same church that my parents were married in. When I went to undergraduate at the University of Florida, I got involved in the Wesley Foundation and worked there for the majority of my undergraduate career. But during the fall of my freshman year, my father died and it transformed me in a lot of ways, but really brought kind of this Methodist identity to the forefront where I found solace in God and in community and became more involved in student ministry but also became involved in hospital work and started volunteering in the program that now I’m the assistant director of.
During that time, I found a call to accompany young people through chronic illness and decided that was the motivation that brought me to seminary, because I wanted to study spiritual care in the end-of-life setting. While in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in a prison facility offering long-term medical care to inmates in the state of Georgia. I worked as a pediatric hospital chaplain and as a chaplain for Emory University and felt this deep call to chaplaincy but also a deep call to work with young people who were really skeptical of authority. And so I now work in a kind of psycho-social care where I like to call it “chaplaincy adjacent” because as a chaplain, you can’t really walk into a teenager’s room and have them trust you, but as a person who plays video games and can talk TikToks, I earn a lot of trust. So that’s the spiritual care that I feel called to now. I work with a lot of people with sickle cell, cancer, fibrosis, and different autoimmune illnesses and help them kind of navigate their identity while also living with chronic and or terminal illness. So I see patients from diagnosis to cure or end of life.
EW: I think mine is almost the inverse, where I think of Methodism in terms of adoption. I was born in New Orleans and grew up Catholic. Even as a kid, I was really interested in God and in that type of community and faith and found a lot of solace in it. And after the hurricane, my family and I moved to Florida where almost immediately, I was integrated into the local United Methodist Church there. This church saw and named worth in me and my brother at a time when that would have been so easily lost. My parents have always tried their best and done their best but struggled with mental illness and substance use, and so church became a true living home for both of us and a place where our leadership skills and our community skills could thrive. [At the University of Florida,] I came out as gay and was trying to figure out what that meant in my faith and also in my professional world. I had never really seen a gay person that was happy or successful or managed a type of presence that was respected in public life, and so that kind of became my mission, to integrate those pieces. In college, I started a small group for folks to start to do the work of piecing together their faith and their sexuality. I went to pursue my Master’s of Divinity and Master’s of Social Work. I worked with populations that are very close to my life experience, so folks entering homelessness or major mental illness in different capacities, and now I work in a community mental health center, which spans the gambit of needs, and equip the church communities with the tools to engage with these types of people.
SK: I was born and baptized into the Catholic church in south New Jersey, in a relatively poor community that was becoming more violent. When we moved to Florida, the Catholic churches were few and far between. And so it just wasn’t feasible for my mom, who was a single mom, to take us there. One Christmas, my grandmother invited me to her United Methodist church. I saw a guitar on the stage and I’ve been a United Methodist ever since. That was really all it took for me at like 10. That church kind of became a spiritual home for me. But I also knew that my Muslim friends, my gay friends, the people whom I loved who were illegal immigrants, who came over as refugees… While I’d be welcomed into any church space as a straight white dude, they wouldn’t be. And so I kind of became disillusioned with the church as a whole. I didn’t really want anything to do with it. I still kept going to camp. For some reason, camp felt like a thin place to me where I could still feel God’s presence. [As a camp counselor at a prayer station,] I remember writing, “I wish the church loved people like Jesus loved people,” and I went through a hall of mirrors. On the very last mirror, written above me was “You are the church,” and I felt like I was punched in the stomach by God and realized that if I wanted to see that change, I had to be a part of it. I couldn’t throw stones from the outside. I started the process of candidacy to be an elder in the United Methodist Church, and since then, I’ve served in church settings.
“I … realized that if I wanted to see that change, I had to be a part of it. I couldn’t throw stones from the outside.”
DP: It’s amazing how you feel this place of total inclusion, of total understanding, to some degree, of a place that’s really your home, and now there’s a wall, like “Whoa, you took us a little too literally.” So I’m curious as to what your relationship has been with the church as you’ve pursued ministry. If that’s changed, how has that played into the sense of inclusion and affirmation that you felt at the beginning?
AS: When I am asked this question, I always think how blessed I am where I’ve only ever been in affirming communities. And so it has always just been very integrated in me. This church taught me how to love and taught me to love with no boundaries. I have identified as queer for a while. I went to Candler School of Theology and I was … trying to create inclusive environments. I dated one of my classmates while I was there. I was very out. And then [I] came to work at the hospital where I wear a Pride pin every day. And then I work at the United Methodist campus ministry, [which] has become a haven for queer folks. It’s the only affirming campus ministry at the University of Florida, and so we see a lot of queer students who have escaped homophobic campus ministries. I’ve only ever been in inclusive communities that affirmed me, seen all of me, have really taken in my loved ones, and shown a real dedication to the queer community. And so it’s been such a culture shift, then, to be like, “Oh, this is not the entire United Methodist Church. This is not the entire Florida Conference.” Where my experience is not the norm unfortunately, where I wish more people felt so affirmed in their context from a young age to them entering into ministry. I can go back to these communities where I’m so clearly affirmed, where I know who I am and I am clearly called to this work. I am called to leadership in the church. And it is affirmed by these fruits in my ministry. It is really heartbreaking for that not to be recognized at an institutional level.
EW: There has never really been a time in any of this that I’ve stepped away from the church. Maybe because of my background or maybe because of figuring out how to find safety, I feel like part of this call, at least on the church side, has been to create [a] sense of spiritual safety for myself and others. When you have people that feel loved and respected and included, they’re going to offer their gifts and their talents and be a part of something that’s bigger than them. And even though most of my practical work does not happen in the church, it happens in community mental healthcare. I work with a lot of queer kids. And I’m out at work, so when you name something about yourself, at least where I am, they tend to just give you folks that identify in the same way. Sometimes it feels exhausting, to bear so many stories of the queer community. But for the most part, it’s such a blessing to be part of people seeking that sense of inclusion and safety across realms. And these kids especially are some of the most spiritually oriented thinkers, and they’re so attentive and aware of who does and does not want them. So to be an adult that gets to offer that is a real gift. I’m hurting a little bit, but I’ve never stepped away from the church because I feel called to be a part of it and equip it and to create a spiritual home for myself and for others. Using all the principles and tenets that we did learn at a really young age, we get to love people, we call them worthy when other places don’t. And continue that arc even to the places that the church doesn’t exactly deem worth yet. I think some of that double-dealing has always been part of my life in the church but has also given me the tools to figure out how to navigate it and still remain committed to something that I love a lot.
SK: When the vote happened, they made it very clear that it was not about my call. They didn’t actually really care about that. What they cared about was one thing that they knew about two people. They didn’t look at anything else. You know, there are probably very few churches that I couldn’t get ordained in just because of my own identity and those things. And that makes me sad that that’s a part of that reality.
DP: What I have seen is that it was because of two members of your class that you were declined. Is that you, Anna and Erin, or is that Kipp [Nelson, another LGBTQIA+ candidate]? Who was that?
EW: Initially, it was me and Kipp … but also Anna.
AS: Two weeks after the Board of Ordained Ministry made their decisions, there were complaints filed against Erin and Kipp for being “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And because Erin and I are great friends, I knew this and was like “I’m not included?” And there has been such a privilege and heartache in that. If you did any research about me, you would know that I’m queer. It’s not hidden. I’m out everywhere. We live in a very heteronormative society where you are straight until proven otherwise. So there was this option to come out publicly, and doing so would release my voice and my control over the story. But there also was [talk like], “There’s another candidate not comfortable being out.” And I was like, “That’s not true. I’m comfortable being out!” But there was this double standard on what being out meant.
DP: I wondered about that. They said there were two, but that’s not what everybody’s writing.
AS: Yes, it’s not something we’re asked by the Board of Ordained Ministry. I think if you’re married, you’re asked about your sexual behaviors, but the rest of us candidates aren’t. And so we’re not asked about what celibacy in singleness means, who our partners are. We all sign off on a social media release, but it’s not a part of the process. So we were just never asked and there were assumptions. Erin is engaged to a woman, and Kipp has been pretty out on social media, but I don’t use social media. So I made the decision that if Erin and Kipp are not getting commissioned based off their sexual identities, then I’m not going to either. So I had prepared speeches to make on the floor essentially coming out publicly to the clergy session as a naming of “This is me too, and if you’re looking for the homosexuals, you can throw me in there too.”
I didn’t want to go through with it and come back to my communities and say, “I’m ordained because I wasn’t out fully myself.” I work with so many queer people. I couldn’t hold that dissonance in myself. And Erin has been one of my best friends for so long, and I can’t imagine getting commissioned without Erin. It wouldn’t feel right to me. Yes, there are some benefits of being in the system and being able to change it, but I made the decision on my own. I also was a buffer in a lot of situations because a lot of people didn’t know I was queer. I’m able to have certain conversations that maybe Kipp and Erin aren’t able to. But people also felt that they had more permission to say really homophobic things to me because there’s an assumption that I don’t share those identities.
DP: So Erin and Kipp are still under complaint, is that correct? Was it a formal complaint?
EW: There were two formal complaints written [and] formally given to the bishop for him to deal with.
DP: It is profoundly unusual to file charges against a layperson, especially for that. That’s really unique. That never ever happens.
TW: It [virtually] only happens in situations of child abuse.
EW: I mean “homosexuality” [air quotes] is put next to child abuse and child sexual abuse and so many things, so that actually doesn’t surprise me. But I feel a little bit famous that my first complaint was written by [now-president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association] Jay Therrell. I was like “How do you even know?”
SK: I sort of had to decide what I was going to do after the clergy session. Am I going to stay at annual conference? Am I not? I made the decision the next morning that I was going to go, which was kind of surprising to me, but I’m glad I stayed. I ended up having a brief conversation with someone who I now know voted no on all of us, who did not recognize me. Which further points to the fact that they knew one thing about two people. There was no discernment further than that. Which is incredibly frustrating.
DP: The clergy session is genuinely not equipped to make decisions about candidates. Ideally, it is, but it’s not. And I think it’s helpful to understand that they really didn’t know anything at all.
AS: And I’ll also add, I’m not sure how much of this is well-known, about how clergy session went. There was first a vote to keep us on a slate to vote on all of us together, and that vote passed, but it was like 56 percent. There was a considerable amount of people that wanted to vote on us individually because they trust the Board of Ordained Ministry [BoOM] for people who are straight or straight-passing. Prior to conference, there were conversations like, “But we have the Book of Discipline. And we have candidates who are knowingly breaking the Discipline.” And I think people do trust BoOM when it comes to fitness of call, and they were upset that BoOM did not ask these questions. And so they felt like it was their moral duty to prevent queer people from being commissioned. There were a lot of people who wanted to vote on us individually so that self-avowed practicing homosexuals could not be commissioned.
DP: Would you say it was not a surprise that you were all voted down?
AS: I have gone through every single possibility of what would happen. I never dreamed they would shoot us all down. I had no concept of it. I think most of the people who were organizing also had not thought of that possibility. I mean, you just struck down an entire cohort of leaders.
EW: And looking at other annual conferences, they’re like, “Oh, we ordained two people and commissioned one.” We were about to commission 16 people! That is tremendous in terms of annual conferences. I don’t think the move would have been made to keep us together if anyone thought that they would vote everybody down. There was anger towards the Board of Ordained Ministry for putting the conservatives in a position in which they could not maintain their covenant to the Book of Discipline. Which is so interesting, because I’m not sure we have a covenant to the Book of Discipline! We have a covenant to God and each other, and that’s listed in the Book of Discipline. There was a resolution up for vote on Saturday, and one of the motions against the resolution was that the conservative voters felt that they had to choose between grace and the Book of Discipline. And I was like “Are you listening to yourself?” In what world am I choosing the Book of Discipline over grace? It felt like such a foundational difference in the approach to what ordination is, what life in the church is, and maybe it’s part of why we did not expect the vote to go the way that it did.
“In what world am I choosing the Book of Discipline over grace? It felt like such a foundational difference in the approach to what ordination is, what life in the church is.”
AS: I actually thought you were going to mention a different part of one of the speeches where there was a member that was really well known in the WCA, and how I interpreted this speech [is] they were quoting the disaffiliation clauses within the Book of Discipline, and it really felt like they want to go for free and are upset that they are being held to the Book of Discipline, and if they could just leave, then we could do whatever we want. And so it felt like, “Oh, you’re not giving us what we want, so we’re going to strike down all of your clergy.” You don’t intend to stay! You don’t intend to help repair this church. You don’t care. And, like people have been saying, you just want to burn the house down before you go. That’s what it felt like as someone who is trying to build the church, who has been formed by it. It felt like you don’t care about the destruction you’ve caused. And it is more complicated than that I’m sure, but that’s how it felt in my heart—you don’t care about the future of this denomination and so you don’t feel any sense of responsibility for this pain that you’re causing.
SK: And I didn’t think about this until somebody mentioned it to me, but a super minority was able to vote us down. And we talk about supermajorities a lot, 2/3 is a supermajority, but this is a superminority was able to say no to commissioning an entire slate of candidates.
DP: So I don’t want to ask you to speak for the rest of your class by any means, but was there a broader collective sense outside the four of you that you were going into something together?
EW: I don’t think that was the case.
AS: We had a group debrief [with] as many candidates as possible—I think like 14 out of the 16 of us were able to join—just to kind of talk through logistics, but also to give us a space to express how we were feeling. There was overwhelming support from all of the candidates. There was a huge gratitude for the ability to stand in solidarity because I think in the aftermath we realized that this is so much bigger than just us. This is a denominational issue, and they got to know us and to hear our stories, and several people said that it was such a privilege to stand in solidarity, and none of us want to be commissioned if all of us can’t.
TW: When you think about how the church talks about young people, how does that intersect with what happened to you here?
SK: I know that not everyone who is in that session or in our particular clergy cohorts is in their first careers. But for me, this is it. I don’t have the skills or the training to do anything else. The church needs young clergy, and we’re really, as far as I can tell, not going anywhere. Everyone went back to their jobs and said, “We’re ready to stick this out until it happens for us.” Which is saying something. Because I’m not sure I was really willing to do that, especially the night after the clergy session. There’s obviously a lot of pain, and yet I still feel called to this even if it sucks sometimes. And that Thursday sucked. And yet I still feel called. And so there is this sort of dichotomy of “We really need young clergy and yet we’re going to vote down this entire class.” But even with that, it doesn’t seem like our class is going anywhere. At least not me.
DP: What have you been feeling about how you’ve become a national proxy war lightning rod, including what’s correct and what’s not? And what is your vision of where United Methodism is leading?
SK: People have coined the term “Florida 16,” which I have really mixed feelings about personally. This group of people knew one thing about two people and made that the entirety of their reason for voting no. They stripped every single person of their stories, of their individuality, of their ability to proclaim God’s work in their lives. And while I recognize that that kind of simplification of calling us the Florida 16 is well-meaning, and I recognize that there is a necessity around sort of simplifying things for movements, it still does feel like an extension of stripping that individuality, how we’re being boiled down to a state and a number.
DP: And you’ve got a future Global Methodist Church ordinand included in that 16. So there’s a whole lot more going on than a movement of 16 people. That’s not at all what’s happened.
SK: That’s the problem of the language, the facelessness of it.
AS: I am very grateful for the support that’s come mostly nationally. I have people from CalPac reaching out to me. I knew Bishop [Karen] Oliveto from Candler, and she sent me pictures from all over. CalPac made T-shirts of solidarity. So there’s just been so much support. Having other queer clergy from across the conference reach out to check in and lay people from all around Florida, just their gratitude, and people sharing their stories.
I’m filled with a lot of gratitude. I’m also at capacity. There’s a lot of people sharing their spiritual trauma with us, and it’s really heartbreaking to both hold my grief and the grief of so many generations of queer people fighting for a seat at the table, and I think my grief has been compounded by others. And the wheels don’t stop. I mean, it’s not like this decision happened and then I’ve gotten the ability to just hibernate for months. I had to come back to work; I had to face my students. And they have been so kind. So many of them text me apologizing. You talk about young people in the church, I mean the students I work with are just so incredible. And the first thing they were like, “We have to repair this.” They’re not leaving, they want justice too, and being surrounded by their desire to achieve justice has been really inspiring. They’re like “No, we’re still here, and we’re gonna fight for you and for everyone.” Because they want the vision of a more inclusive church.
“I believe that at the end of this there will be a bountiful table for all of us to sit at.”
It’s just been such a layered experience for me because as I was reflecting on this gratitude I have, there’s also been this pain of translation. I work in a hospital and a lot of my patients, a lot of the students, aren’t Christian. So having to explain over and over again what happened to people has been really exhausting for me. Having to relive it over and over again. The Methodist jargon is so difficult even as someone who has been in the process for seven years. And so having to explain this over and over again, and people just being like, “Why don’t you just find a new church? Why are you staying?” and [asking] what’s going to happen next and me saying, “It could be a year or two” and them being like, “Oh, this is a long-term thing.” This is a political system in which we operate. It’s a human system. And I trust that grace is within it, and that transformation can happen. And it’s exhausting to exist in sometimes. And I’m actively choosing to stay in it, to suffer the pain, because I believe that at the end of this there will be a bountiful table for all of us to sit at. Grief is the best way to describe this experience. There is this gratitude for all of the love in my life, there is this hope that there will be promises of happiness and beauty in the future, but there’s also this anger that this happened. There’s disappointment; there’s a deep sadness. So my body is pretty tired of holding them, and it’s going to keep going. There’s still a fight to fight. And so I am just prepared for what’s happening next and trying to care for myself as best as I can in the meantime.
SK: I really felt like conference leadership rallied around us in a pretty major way. So I was grateful for that. Sitting down with folks from the Board of Ordained Ministry, from the Office of Clergy Excellence, and them saying, “We express support for you. We’re going to work this out until it happens for you.” For the bishop to say out loud at the ceremony where we would have been commissioned, “I would have gladly commissioned every single one of you,” it felt powerful to me.
I went to the commissioning ceremony. It was a painful experience for me to be there, but I went and we were singing, “You have called me higher, you have called me deeper, but I will go where you will lead me, Lord.” So I was half-singing those words, hardly believing them, in the middle of this worship service, right before I would have been commissioned. And a pastor that I just met that morning—the pastor of the church that I grew up at, but I’d yet to meet, who is still my grandmother’s pastor—walked over from where she was sitting and draped her stole around my neck in the middle of that song. And I lost it, I was sobbing. It was a really powerful thing for me to have that. When I went to go and leave, to walk out of that space, and hand back this pastor her stole, she said, “No, it was feeling a little heavy around my neck. I want you to have it until you get your own.” And I think that sort of speaks to the amount of support that we have received in the midst of this. That was something that was powerful for me, and the first Sunday that I’m preaching, it’s not the liturgical color, but I’m wearing that stole. Because I needed that to still be assured that I’m called to this. And so I’ve just been grateful for the support that we’ve received.
Anna Swygert is a deacon candidate for commissioning in the Florida Conference. She is an associate director in adolescent palliative care at a Gainesville hospital and works with the Gator Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida.
Erin Wagner is a deacon candidate in the Florida Conference. She lives in Boston, where she is a social worker and outpatient therapist in mental health.
Shawn Klein is an elder candidate in the Florida Conference and is serving as a pastoral resident at a retirement community in North Carolina.
I often struggle to answer questions about my “call to ministry,” and often about my past in general. As a closeted kid in a so-called “complementarian” church, I believed I couldn’t be a pastor. My life plan at age 20 was to leave the United States forever and dedicate myself to Jesus in anonymity somewhere on the other side of the world, somewhere my gender and sexuality might not find me. Now as an adult trans man, finally at peace with both God and myself, my sense of calling to the Christian pastorate—to preach the gospel, teach discipleship, administer the sacraments, care for the community gathered around Christ, and foster works of justice and mercy in the world—is stronger than ever. Yet even though it was UMC churches who welcomed me in and supported my healing from my community of origin’s rejection, the UMC as a whole is not a social world I can safely navigate as a trans person. Whether I belong in the church at all is constantly up for debate, though it is usually sloppily lumped in with tired arguments about sexuality. This means that the traditional route to pursuing my vocation, namely by seeking ordination in the denomination to which I belong, is fraught with danger and uncertainty. But, none of this is easy to summarize at coffee hour when asked if I’m “pursuing a call to ministry.”
I’m white, straight, fluent in Christian-speak, married to a cis woman, and can pass as cis most of the time. In fact, I stand out in church spaces far less now than I did before my medical transition, when my appearance tended to disturb people’s gender-binary expectations more noticeably. Trans feminine people and gender-nonconforming people face more danger merely walking into Methodist churches than I do, much less pursuing ordination in them—and those who are non-white, even more so. On top of questioning whether I can navigate the UMC in light of my gender history and identity, I also question whether I can do so in good conscience, knowing that so many of my trans siblings would be denied even the opportunities I might receive. Is the table of UMC ordination one I want a seat at?
The early 2020s are proving to be a time of increased reaction and animosity against trans people of all kinds, and my own journey of discernment takes place within this wider social context. Drawing on a tradition of disgust and fear towards gender nonconformity, the resurgent movement for white Christian nationalism has identified trans existence as a primary target for its grievance politics. Republican politicians across the country have attempted to pass hundreds of state laws targeting trans youth, their parents, and their doctors; rightwing pundits viciously depict trans adults as malevolent influences on children and trans women as perverts in disguise; conservative parent activists equate acknowledgments of gender diversity with pornography. Meanwhile, moderates often see both trans existence and the onslaughts against us as “controversial subjects” they prefer to ignore, both in the public square and within churches. In this context, pursuing ordination—and more bluntly, considering whether I can publicly represent an institution in which most of its members either cheer on these inhumane attacks or else are insufficiently bothered by them to protest—takes on a challenging valence.
My Bible-shaped imagination jumps to thoughts of prophets, visionaries, and dissidents who suffered persecution for their courage and faithfulness. I think of so many of the best Christians throughout history, many of whom were slandered as heretics (and “youth perverters”) in their lifetimes for daring to challenge established powers and call the church back to its true vocation, John Wesley included. These traditions inform me that a prerequisite for meaningful leadership is a readiness to do what is right regardless of opposition. Yet, I’m no individualist, and neither were these exemplars of the faith. The body of Christ is, intrinsically, a social body. “Pastor” is not a role that can exist apart from a community that affirms it, in traceable continuity with broader Christian history and tradition. Every prophet and reformer we now honor wrestled with this same tension: love for and commitment to the Church combined with discontent and outrage against its abuses and sins.
The process of the individual and the community co-creating the pastoral identity is not unlike my own experience of gender: first an inward experience, then expressed and affirmed through my public transition. Likewise, my experience of transness is its own kind of vocation, one that identifies me with and commits me to solidarity with the gender deviants currently under threat of persecution by the state. My experience of Christian discipleship and this “fire in my bones” to preach the gospel is another vocation, one that—for now—leads me to pursue ordination within the United Methodist Church. I know I cannot compromise one for the sake of the other, if I seek to live up to the calling(s) I have received (Ephesians 4:1). Yet whether these two vocations will ultimately coalesce within the UMC remains unclear, depending primarily on the choices of human beings endowed with institutional authority. Either way, “God’s gifts and God’s calling are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). I trust that God’s Spirit will lead me in the footsteps of Jesus—whether in confrontation with oppressive religious authorities in the centers of power or outside the city walls where the non-conforming bodies make their own home together.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.
Micah Renner (he/him) is the communications director for a United Methodist Church in San Diego, California. He volunteers with an affirming, multicongregational youth group and is currently working on a collaborative trauma-responsive grant with his home congregation and Boston University. In his free time, Micah will host showings of both LEGO movies to anyone who wants to watch.
While depressed millennials found themselves falling down the Bo Burnham Inside rabbit hole of solidarity last year, I jumped head-first into AJR’s album OK Orchestra. I love good social commentary music, especially when it’s flavored with a touch of shared distress and trauma. And after the past several years, we deserve to allow ourselves the vulnerability to let music like Inside and OK Orchestra speak for us when we are exhausted, gaslit, and have no more words to offer to describe the chaos of our lives in this world.
One song, in particular, on that album has me in a vice grip. “3 o’clock Things” has a bit toward the end that I can’t get out of my head:
Stay out of politics, stay on the fence
Stay out of all of it to keep half your fans
Isn’t this obvious? Am I insane?
There might be two sides to everything that you say
It’s all a bit cloudy but there’s one thing I know
That if you’re fucking racist then don’t come to my show
As a small, rural, church pastor, this bit really tickled me because last year we put up a sign outside our building. Even though we weren’t using the space because of COVID, our building was still there and it still had a voice, a presence. So, we put an antiracism sign up: “Racism is a Sin.” Short. Sweet. Simple. And, not surprisingly, we lost some people who found it a bit much. Only one family was bold enough to share their displeasure with me to my face though. To which I laughed and asked if they ever actually took in the words and message of Christ; being antiracist isn’t a foreign concept to the gospel. They accused us of calling them racist and left. I haven’t seen them since. Part of me hopes they are well. Part of me hopes they found ways to continue being challenged in their faith, held accountable for how their actions and beliefs affect others.
I never understood the politics of being a pastor. Staying on the fence to keep everyone happy, keep your donors and high pledging members sated. Shrugging away accountability and hard lessons out of fear that more people are leaving the church. Frankly, I find it a bit pathetic.
You see, I joined The United Methodist Church in 2012 as the argument over homosexuality reared its ugly head to the point of schism being spoken about like a reality.1 I was 19 and not yet quite out as a queer woman. What I found at my campus’s Wesley Foundation was a faith expression that gave words, direction, and resources for things I felt but couldn’t find anywhere else around me. I found ritual and grounding. I found a challenging respect of history and a community that incorporated beautiful traditions. I discovered what critically sitting with Scripture can look like through a lens of grace rather than guilt and shame. It was an expression of faith that felt familiar. That familiarity grew the more I allowed myself to get involved, and the more others let me get involved. It was a dream.
Surely, yes. It was a dream. One that quickly shattered when I left for seminary in 2015 and realized that we were imploding. Finally, it all made sense–my mentors knew before I did, encouraging me to switch conferences, to leave and be cautious as I continued to follow my call. What surprised me most were the leaders and lay Methodists who affirmed my call with fervor, not knowing I’m queer, still encouraging me in the faith and in my call.
It was amazing to watch the change as I slowly started coming out. Suddenly, instead of a bright and beautifully called child of God, I was an unrepentant sinner leading others to sin and death…simply because I decided I wasn’t going to live inauthentically. In my first semester of seminary, I met my wife, and the stakes got so much higher.
Around this time in 2015, I started hearing our bishops and leaders using “big tent” and “umbrella” language in an attempt to keep the warring sides together. I think it was well-intentioned. We are one body in Christ, and the infighting keeps us distracted from doing the work of Christ in the world–to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and needy. But there is a fundamental problem with this “umbrella” language. For us to share a space like that, together, there has to be a unifying factor. I have no doubt that the grace of God is enough to hold us together, but I do have doubts in our ability to stay civil and united together under this umbrella of grace.
I can be under an umbrella with a colleague who thinks that a rock band is praise and worship. I can be under an umbrella with a fellow Methodist who practices outside of the liturgical seasons and calendar for a pop-culture sermon series to be cool and relatable. I cannot, however, be under an umbrella with others who fundamentally believe that I and people like me are, by nature of our God-given existence, the biggest threat to the faith and to our practice. What floors me, in conversations with people aligned with the Global Methodist Church, is the deafening silence that follows when I bring up the Scripture passages that speak about fruit in our faith and work, that the sin of Sodom was their individuality and lack of hospitality, and so on. It seems to always give way to an astonishingly quick change of topic.
“Isn’t this obvious?” I wonder. I really feel insane more and more nowadays when I’m guided and directed to continue seeking peace and covenantal union with others who draw such rigid lines in the sand where even compromise isn’t an option. I get it, you’re convicted. But we are not the same. And I can’t share a space where I will absolutely be harmed. I can’t share space where I would be complicit in aiding in unnecessary harm toward others.
I love the idea of this big tent/umbrella. But it’s unrealistic and will only continue to lead to harm. And I wish our bishops and leaders would stop clinging to a mission of unity; this “peace” is a vision only of bishops and has not touched the hearts of the schismatics. I’m tired. I’m not yet 30; I’m not yet ordained. And I’m so tired. But I refuse to stay on the fence. I refuse to perpetuate harm and oppression in whatever forms they take, even in the forms of my neighbors and colleagues. Jesus took sides. The Triune God takes sides.
None of our mess will magically go away once the separation plan(s) go through when we can finally gather for General Conference safely. We still have quite the journey ahead of us. But I do think it will be a slightly less harrowing journey if we can stop trying to cling to others and beliefs that cause harm for the sake of unity or because it’s what we know and are used to.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a chapter for a book on the sacredness of liminal spaces and how we should nurture those willing to learn and grow out of the toxic theologies they’ve known. Especially those who haven’t had someone to guide them. I stand by that. For those so steadfast in cultivating harm and division though, under the premise that God wills the harm or that harmful gatekeeping is justified as “Christian love” to “save” you? Bye.
So if there’s one thing I know: Those who are racist, homophobic, or ableist must do their work before we can share unity with them. Marginalized people are exhausted from doing the work of awareness, education, and resource-proving for them to only respond with out-of-context Bible verses and oppressive social norms. Especially in worship and faith spaces, we must build sanctuaries of grace and peace but prioritize mercy and justice for the marginalized.
The language “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the UM Book of Discipline in 1972. It has been hotly debated since that time.
Amber Mitts (she/her) is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the Mountain Sky Annual Conference. She lives for some controlled chaos and challenging conversations. She’s a founding member of #WMT as the patron Saint of snacks.
As it has for many marginalized people, the Bible has acted more as a weapon than a life raft for transgender and nonbinary youth. They have struggled to find representation within their own homes, let alone within the walls of the church or the pages of Scripture. However, there is one story in the Bible that has particularly resonated with this community, and it has caused many transgender, nonbinary, and ally scholars to do the work of reclaiming a spot in the gospel of Jesus Christ for these individuals. The conversion story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 serves as a tool to address the lack of compassion and respect among many church leaders and pastoral caregivers for transgender and nonbinary youth.
Luke, traditionally regarded as the author of Acts, outlines his motive for the book in 1:8, quoting Jesus as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts is the sequel to Luke’s gospel, interrupted by John in the canonical sequence of the New Testament. Readers are meant to read one informed by the other. After the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Acts chronicles the work of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. Acts 1:8 offers its readers a lens through which to read the rest of the book: the gospel spreads outward from Jerusalem to Judea, from Judea to Samaria, and from Samaria to the ends of the earth. The work of the Holy Spirit is mighty and swift to bring the news of Jesus Christ to people everywhere. The beginning of chapter 8 signals this geographical expansion, stating that the apostles were scattered throughout “Judea and Samaria.”
Whereas initially there was no “special divine guidance leading to the evangelistic venture,” beginning in verse 26 an angel of the Lord directs Philip to this single person. Dr. Howard Marshall writes, “Philip’s journey and the subsequent actions are seen to have been instigated by God and thus to have been part of his intention. The church did not simply ‘stumble upon’ the idea of evangelizing the Gentiles; it did so in accordance with God’s deliberate purpose.” This is the attitude the author of Acts intends for his readers to approach the rest of the story—this interaction is completely and divinely orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. Continuing with the geographical outline of the book, the Ethiopian eunuch moves the spread of the gospel further. Dr. Carl Holladay writes that Ethiopia was a “somewhat fluid geographical designation […] used by ancient writers for the region south of Egypt ….” The fact that this area was so remote and unknown contributed to “its romantic, mythical status.” The person to whom Philip approached was not someone with which he would have been accustomed to entertaining in conversation.
As if the Ethiopian identifier was not foreign enough, the person was a eunuch. A eunuch—literally “bed-haver” (eune, “bed” and echo, “have”)—was typically a castrated male used as an advisor to a female ruler. This is consistent with the text, which identifies the eunuch as the treasurer of “Kandake, the Queen Mother and ruling monarch of the ancient kingdom of Meroe.” This was a powerful kingdom that would explain the eunuch’s wealth, literacy, and fluency. However, this power and affluence would not have been enough to deem the eunuch honorable by Greco-Roman standards. In fact, eunuchs were consistently ostracized for their inability to perfectly fit into either the male or female category. Dr. Allison Trites notes that “under God’s providence and at that time and place, [Philip] encountered an Ethiopian eunuch, who was simultaneously exotic and disgraceful, powerful and pious.” The author of Acts depicts the Ethiopian eunuch as the “ends of the earth,” the culmination of 1:8. If the gospel can reach this sort of person, the possibilities are infinite.
As Philip approaches the chariot, the eunuch is reading the words of the prophet Isaiah aloud. Philip asks if the eunuch understands, and the eunuch responds: “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (v. 31) The author of Acts then reveals that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, a suffering servant passage. Marshall writes, “It was […] no accident that at the precise moment when Philip heard him, he was reading from a passage which was ideally suited as a starting-point for the Christian message.” It is all the more moving when the reader considers the ways in which the eunuch may have related to the suffering servant—through the mutilation of the body, the shared humiliation, and lack of descendants. Dr. Aaron Perry writes, “It may be the case that in suffering the physical violence of castrationat the hands of others for their purposes, the eunuch may understand the lamb who was led silently to slaughter and suffered humiliation.” The Holy Spirit allows Philip to show the eunuch that the person with which he identifies is not just a distant prophet from hundreds of years ago, but he is the Messiah of the world. Trites notes that “God in his mercy had provided not only the text but also the interpreter,” further emphasizing the spirit-filled nature of this conversation. After hearing the good news, the eunuch insists on getting baptized. Despite their marginalized status and shameful role, the Ethiopian eunuch is welcomed into the community of believers. The author of Acts concludes the passage by writing that the eunuch went away rejoicing. According to Trites, “the presence of the Spirit was all the greater because [the eunuch] had not only been introduced to a saving understanding of Scripture; [they] had also experienced full acceptance among the people of god. God’s plan for inclusive salvation overcomes physical defect, ethnic/racial barriers, and geographical remoteness.”
The work of the Holy Spirit is mighty and swift to bring the news of Jesus Christ to people everywhere.
The gender identity of the Ethiopian eunuch is fascinating when interpreted through the proper socio-historical lens. Dr. Brittany Wilson, in her article “’Neither Male nor Female’: The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40,” argues that to overlook the “inextricable connection between status, gender, and ethnicity in the Greco-Roman culture” would be to miss a fundamental element to interpreting the status of the eunuch. She writes, “Throughout Greek and Roman texts, eunuchs emerge as gender-liminal figures with one foot in the realm of ‘women’ and one foot in the realm of ‘men’. As ‘un-manned’ men, or ‘non-men,’ eunuchs embodied all the characteristics of effeminate men, but they were also portrayed as ambiguous figures who upset the male/female gender binary.” As an example, Wilson cites a quote from Philo that eunuchs were “neither male nor female.” She also offers the example of the second-century satirist, Lucian, who stated that eunuchs were “neither man nor woman but something composite, hybrid and monstrous, outside of human nature.” Eunuchs were both regarded as “lacking libido” while also frequently depicted as “licentious lovers of both women and men.” The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts would not have been exempt from this sort of scrutiny. In fact, Wilson argues that the reason the eunuch remains unnamed is because Luke wishes for the person’s designation as a eunuch to be the “guiding principle in our interpretation.” This treatment of eunuchs was not limited to Roman writings. The Bible itself condemns and excludes eunuchs. In Leviticus 21:17-23, the Lord’s altar was not approachable by priests who were “blind, lame, mutilated, or a eunuch.” According to Jewish law, eunuchs were “living violations of Israelite purity codes…, ritually unclean because they mixed boundaries, and their genitals did not meet the standards of bodily wholeness.” The eunuch did not fit into Jewish and Gentile standards.
Wilson also adds that gender identity is connected to ethnic identity. She writes that due to the distant and exotic nature of Ethiopia, Greco-Roman authors “also depicted Ethiopians as people who transgressed gender norms. Greek and Roman authors often portrayed ‘barbarians’ in general as gender transgressors, typically expressed in terms of male effeminacy or female masculinity.” This even further feminizes the eunuch of Acts 8 as they are a direct subordinate to a “manly” queen—a woman with a traditionally masculine role.
According to Greco-Roman and Jewish standards, there is nothing masculine nor feminine about a eunuch. They are neither and both; in the middle and in between. Wilson’s historical context of the eunuch in Greco-Roman culture offers special insight as to why this biblical character holds a special place in the hearts of transgender and nonbinary individuals. Scott Shauf argues that eunuchs were comparable to “those born intersex, those who are transgender in the broadest sense of this word and, third, those who are gender different, or gender queer, that is not conforming to normative definitions of gender roles or identities.” In an article on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website, Austen Hartke and Myles Markham elaborate on this subject: “Trans scholars today aren’t interested in these individuals because they believe eunuchs identified as transgender, but rather because some of the things eunuchs in scripture experienced are similar to what trans people—and intersex people—experience today, particularly in terms of discrimination, oppression and dehumanization.” Scholars are careful to make this distinction and avoid anachronistic fallacies—there was simply not the vocabulary among ancient Greco-Roman culture to identify someone as transgender, intersex, or nonbinary. However, as Hartke and Markham point out, there are significant similarities between the reception and treatment of eunuchs and modern genderqueer individuals. Kittredge Cherry, on her QSpirit website, synthesizes the attitude towards this passage: “Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society, much like LGBTQ people in the church today.” The shared pain of being among the minority, the scorned, and the rejected allows this passage to act as scriptural representation for this community.
In another passage of significance for the transgender, nonbinary, and intersex believer, Jesus himself addresses the topic of the eunuch’s sexuality. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus tells the disciples that there are three types of eunuchs: the ones who were born that way, the ones who were made eunuchs by others, and those who chose to be eunuchs. While many scholars have debated who falls into these categories (for example, the first type may include intersex and gender dysphoric people), the most important thing is to realize the way Jesus treats eunuchs. He does not shame them, ridicule them, or even condemn their behavior. Hartke and Markham write that “the fact that Jesus positively mentions people who are gender-expansive in his own time and place gives hope to many gender-expansive people today.” If Christ himself extends grace and compassion to the people who occupy this space, who are his believers to do the direct opposite in his name?
A couple of months ago, yet another film adaptation of Cinderella was released. Despite the harsh critical reception of the film, however, one character managed to deeply resonate with my youngest brother. The fairy godmother—played by Billy Porter—was a Black man in a dazzling hot pink gown. My brother latched onto this character as an effeminate black boy. For weeks, the “Fabulous Godmother” was all he talked about. For once, he saw himself represented on the television screen.
As I reflect on the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and its importance to the transgender, intersex, and nonbinary communities, I can’t help but think of the light in the eyes of my little brother as he watched Billy Porter dance in fairy wings. The importance of representation has been a long-respected truth. According to the author of Acts, the first-ever Gentile convert was a dark-skinned, gender-ambiguous individual who was scorned and rejected by society. This sort of representation is extremely moving.
Unfortunately, misguided exegesis, political motives, ignorance, and insensitivity cause many pastors to turn away from transgender, intersex, and nonbinary persons. Unfortunately, I have heard believers express similar attitudes toward people in this community as the quotes from Philo and Lucian—far too often are genderqueer people treated as “hybrid and monstrous, outside of human nature.” The author of Acts records the history of the very church that is now actively discriminating against the people whom the Holy Spirit called them to love and welcome. According to the Trevor Project, “affirming transgender and nonbinary youth by respecting their pronouns and allowing them to change legal documents is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide.” Yet believers continue to refuse this grace to their transgender, intersex, and nonbinary siblings.
Yet, there is representation and hope present within the gospel for those who need it.
One day, I hope to occupy a pastoral role. In this role, it is vital to extend the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth—to every single person I meet regardless of status, gender, or sexuality. When Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if the passage in Isaiah is properly understood, the eunuch responds, “How can I [understand] unless someone explains it to me?” As I meditate on this passage as a tool for ministry, this verse strikes me. The church has caused insurmountable pain to those in the transgender, intersex, and nonbinary communities. This has no doubt turned countless people away from Scripture. Yet, there is representation and hope present within the gospel for those who need it. As I prepare my heart for ministry in a world burdened by the suffering of those who struggle with sexuality and/or gender, I hear this question ringing throughout the LGBTQIA+ community: how can they see the representation and hope in Scripture unless they are allowed to participate in its freedom? I hope to empower the church to become a more thoughtful and loving place for all peoples—whether a first-century Ethiopian eunuch, a 21st-century trans black woman, or anyone in between.
Apostolacus, Katherine. “The Bible and The Transgender Christian: Mapping Transgender Hermeneutics in the 21st Century,” Journal of the Bible and Its Reception, 5(1), 2018, pp. 1–29.
Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, 2nd ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2021.
Cherry, Kittredge. “Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: Early church welcomed queers in Bible story.” QSpirit, 2021.
Cinderella. Directed by Kay Cannon. Fulwell 73: 2021.
Holladay, Carl R. Acts: A Commentary, 1st ed. The New Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
Marshall, Howard I. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
Perry, Aaron. “Lift up the Lowly and Bring down the Exalted: Gender Studies, Organizations, and the Ethiopian Eunuch.” Journal of Religious Leadership 14, no. 1, 2015.
Trites, Allison A. and William J. Larkin, The Gospel of Luke and Acts, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 12. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
Wilson, Brittany E. “‘Neither Male nor Female’: The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8.26–40,” New Testament Studies, 60(3), 2014, pp. 403-422.
Mattie Mae Motl (she/her) is a master of divinity student at Denver Seminary. When she’s not studying, she’s reading poetry, drinking matcha lattes, and spending time with her family. She lives in Denver with her middle school sweetheart, Ryan, and her one year old, Miriam.
If you haven’t heard, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is currently in a process of splitting, due to an inability to come to one decision on whether to affirm and ordain LGBTQIA+ people. On its face, the issue that is at stake is “practicing” homosexuality, and United Methodists are divided into pro-, anti-, or undecided camps. But for a long time, there has also been a significant faction of United Methodists who have put this issue in the background and put at the forefront their hope that the UMC will not split. What this shows is that there are differing ideas at play in the UMC about what the church is. But this is untenable in the face of a split; the church will have to reimagine itself, and it cannot do so without understanding its own goal. I believe that process theology, by virtue of its emphasis on how God guides us to transform, can provide the framework for a Methodist ecclesiology in light of this reality.
Ecclesiology in Methodist Thought
The UM Book of Discipline defines the church as the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ, which is redeemed and redeeming.Its mission is to provide for worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world. Also included in the constitution of the UMC is a commitment to theological inclusiveness rooted in an understanding that the Methodist church is part of the universal church, which is made one body in Christ. This is the beginning of the constitution of the UMC. After establishing this, the constitution goes on to list its doctrinal standards and make provisions for its polity.
The ecclesiology of the Methodist church is practical. That is, the church is defined more by what it does than what it is. It is the place where Christian doctrine is learned and grown in its members. It is a place of organizing for mission. It is the place where Christians hold and challenge each other to grow in love. At its root, the Methodist church is distinctive in holding mission, and not a theological doctrine of the church, at the center of its identity.
A rejection of the necessity of apostolic succession is another major factor in our ecclesiology. To make sense of our lack of apostolic succession, we turn instead to our emphasis on democracy; we are apostolic in the sense that we are all called to continue the witness that our ancestors in the faith bore. In the Methodist church, mission gives us our reason for being, and a democratic process is how we know that we are doing things in a way that resembles how a church should operate.
Breakdown of Ecclesiology in the UMC
Conservative Methodists of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) express, in their outward-facing documentation, a strong emphasis on the doctrines of the church and the institution of General Conference. They express a commitment to diversity; democracy, however, falls by the wayside. Though I could be generous and assume that they believe mission will be more effective if it comes from a place of doctrinal orthodoxy, the point here is that the conservative vision for a post-fracture GMC is a departure from the mission-focused definition of the UMC.
As schism has gotten more impending, unity has become more and more important for many established leaders, who lament the fact that this issue has risen to the level of schism. The calls for unity from UM bishops have been constant. Recent think pieces found on the UMC site frame the remaining church as “not a church,” and the debate as something as lamentable as the war in Ukraine. If there is an issue that rises to a level that we cannot agree to disagree, many bishops present this as in and of itself a moral failing in the church. This is ridiculous, as we are Protestants, and furthermore, we have split before due to racism, and neither the Reformation nor the question of full humanity of people of color are frivolous issues. But as to ecclesiology, if debate rising to the level of schism violates the definition of the church, then church is defined as a group in which there is no social issue that matters more than evangelism.
There is, then, a gap between what Methodist theologians say is true about our church, and what Methodist pastors and leaders have internalized as our ecclesiology. In various contexts, unity or purity or the Bible have risen above mission as defining characteristics of what gives the Methodist church its identity.
I do not believe that the way forward for the Methodist church is, or ought to be, unity at all costs. Indeed, if I am right that these various definitions of the church are at play, then there can be no unity because there would be no agreement that what was united was a church. Therefore, I suggest that a process-based ecclesiology could give the UMC a useful framework to make sense of itself in its time of division as one, holy, and apostolic.
Ecclesiology in Process Thought
Process theology places a strong emphasis on incompleteness and the constant process by which we are becoming. Fixed entities, in process thought, are really processes of becoming that tend to be continuous by their past but are also free not to be. It is in this sense that the church is the incompleteness of Jesus Christ.That is, Christ’s mission is incomplete, but its extension is the church, which is also incomplete.
The Nicene Creed holds that the church is one, holy, and apostolic. In other words, the church is united, defined by the will of God, and defined by a continual witness to the gospel of Christ. These things are accomplished by the will and the actions of God. In process thought, this is described as God holding out these possibilities for the church in God’s mind and willing the church to conform to God’s aim for the church.
As to unity, the church is that group of people who find their identity in their acceptance of the transformation begun in them by Jesus. Of all people for whom this is true, God incorporates them into the body of the church. Transformation is a divine process, by which God moves people from reality toward a new reality, by incorporating the changed reality into God’s self. This is also true for the church. In process thought, an individual presupposes a community; a Christian presupposes a church. Each moment offers the possibility for the church to be changed, and one possibility is that the church may be changed toward God’s aims. Faith is essential in this process, because God definitionally does not, indeed essentially, coerce anyone or the church toward God’s own aims.
Instead of coercing people (individually or as groups) to follow God’s will, God holds open the possibility that we will become as God wills us to be. God’s will for us is our initial aim, and our will for ourselves is our subjective aim. Both these things are dynamic; the initial aim can change if we limit the range of possibilities for ourselves. If, for example, the church uses its institutional power to commit sins against its neighbors, that becomes forever part of what the church is. The real possibilities of what the church can be have become limited; they must now include this fact forever. But because it is God who holds the possibilities of the church, God continually calls the church toward God’s aim for it and calls the church to align its vision with God’s aims for what the church can be.
As to holiness, the process of being transformed by God’s holding and shaping our possibilities is a truth for all people and all groups. But the church, specifically, is called not just to goodness generally but to be holy in ways that align with the gospel. Holiness has a communal dimension and a personal dimension; I cannot create conditions of justice for my church community alone. Holiness is not limited to creating conditions for justice but also includes the creativity that defines us as living beings. By contributing their vision for a more holy world, an individual contributes the creative energy that marks the church as being alive. Holiness is a process that is always incomplete, where communal forces and individual forces are both drawn on to create the container and the content for justice. Defining holiness in this way allows us to move away from measuring holiness as a thing we will achieve if any number of conditions are met.
As to apostolicity, for the same reasons that individuals are defined by their past but yet essentially open toward transforming in the future, the same is true of the church. The church is in continuity with the past church, where witnesses to the resurrection worked to distill relational truth into propositions and record for posterity what it looked like to do ministry in knowledge of this truth. Yet, this being true does not free us from having to transform ourselves, both individually and as a group.
Fundamentally, to be Christian is not just to be caught up with the gospel but with the person of Jesus. This means that truth is like Jesus—relational and personal, not propositional. There is a sense in which propositions are useful in grounding the church in its past. But what makes the church one, holy, and apostolic is that it is grounded in the mind of God, defined by its past but also, in the mind of God, defined by its future. And so the church is, definitionally, that which participates as faithfully as it can into the aims God has set for it.
Proposal: A Methodist Process Ecclesiology
Already there are deep resonances between the process definition of the church and that of Methodist theologians. Both define the church in terms of what God wants to do with it in relation to the world. The Methodist throughline that personal piety and social holiness are inseparable resonates with the process idea that the individual, the church, and the society are co-constitutive. Methodist ecclesiology has long come behind other matters of Methodist identity, such as mission and polity; the same is true of process theologians. One could construe this as a failure of Methodist theologians, but one could also construe it as an example of being constituted in relationships. The Methodist church defines itself first by its relationship to Christ, and then by its mission, and then by its commitment to repent of historic sins. This aligns with the understanding that we are rooted in God, constituted by our past, and also in the mind of God constituted by a vision for our future.
What I believe is most helpful for the Methodist church as it comes to its current crossroads is the ability to demote the definition of the church as a continuity with its past, and instead favor a definition by which the church is conforming to the vision God has for it. I believe that this understanding can be viably and truthfully drawn from the language of process theology. The path onto which the Methodist church is being pulled is, in the grand scheme of things, a new one; if we are to walk it faithfully, we must learn to believe that God’s call to our possibilities has as strong a hold on us as does our history.
Because we have lived through a time of increasing fracture in the church, Methodist leaders have stressed oneness as part of the definition of the church’s mission. I propose that instead of defining oneness as the church’s ability to be governed by one body, the Methodist church can define oneness by holding that all Christians are incorporated, by the mind of God, into part of the body of Christ. Furthermore, God is consistently willing all people toward becoming more holy.
Defined in this way, if we hold our convictions that God has called us to love and affirm and welcome the ministry of LGBTQIA+ people, this is not in contention with the claim that God calls us to unity. God calls all Christians to be shaped toward Their vision for our holiness, and it is in the mind of God that we are to move ever closer to this unity. That is, if our belief that affirmation is a true word from God is, indeed, true, then it would follow that God calls all people to the same truth. We are united in the mind of God by being called to holiness.
One thing that I believe the Methodist church can draw on in this work is our heritage of making social mission a focus of our identity. Defining ourselves by our mission and our actions is an illustration of the principle in process thought that identity is constituted by our relationships with others, and with the world, which is incomplete without God.
We discover ourselves to be a church that has a continuity with the entirety of Christian history, and yet is being invited by God to continue transforming toward its mission, which is God’s vision for its best future. Specifically, I believe this means full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people into the ministries and offices of the church. Our past has been defined by sins, as well as by continual attempts to be holy, and apostolic, and one; our future is held by God, and is free to be shaped into the future God has called for us.
In this sense, we are able to be the church God wills precisely because God calls us to be so. But this does not guarantee that the real church is being the church God calls. We are defined by the limitations put on us by our past, but by God’s grace, we are free to be anything else. If the future UMC can hold that full affirmation is God’s will, and trust that this is the truth God gave us to be apostolic to, then we can trust that unity will be achieved in God’s mind in God’s time.
Postscript: Most of the description of process theology here is drawn from Marjorie Suchocki’s book God, Christ, Church. Much of the description of the UMC’s ecclesiology is drawn from Laycee Warner’s book The Method of Our Mission.
Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.
She was called Eve, the mother of all the living. Our mother was handcrafted by God, set in the center of paradise. In the mornings, she tended the garden and ate of its fruit. When the sun sighed, sinking below the tree line, and when the day grew cool and welcomed night’s rest, our mother walked with God.
Last week we celebrated your second birthday. When I arrived, you said “Hi, Auntie Amy!” with a smile. We sang to you and you sat, pleased and unsure, your big blue eyes surveying the collection of people that had come to celebrate you.
Later, I lifted you out of your chair and followed you across the lawn. You gathered fallen leaves, brittle and brown and barely intact. They were beautiful to you, and you made a pile for your mother, wondering at each one. We walked together to the bonfire, and you stood cautious and transfixed in the presence of the flames. You directed our play with all the unconscious confidence of a baby girl who knows her mind. You wanted to see what would happen when we threw in a handful of stones, and another, and another. Your little hands scooped pebbles and sand. It escaped through your fingers so that you never even tossed most of it, but you were satisfied.
And then, “Did God really say?” That voice in the garden, the deceiving words. “Did God really say you must not eat of the fruit of the tree? You surely will not die if you do…”
So Eve took some of the forbidden fruit and gave some to her husband. That night, she did not walk in the cool evening air, but rather hid from God, ashamed. And the process of death began. Eve the tempted. Eve the shamed. Eve the cursed.
They say the curse signifies loss of relationship—the brokenness those primordial parents felt in their relatedness toward God, one another, the land, and their very own selves. But no matter how you tell the story, that curse falls hardest on our mother.
Cursed in childbirth, cursed to yearn for a husband who cast all the blame on her, cursed to walk a cursed ground outside of the garden and away from the God she once knew, bruising her feet on this rocky soil that now fights back.
The youth pastor sported a polo tucked into pleated khakis. His graying hair was parted to the side. He had somehow been appointed the leader of the middle school youth group, a collective of 12 or so adolescent girls. God’s ways are mysterious, it seems.
“I did an awesome activity with the youth the other day,” he explained to me. “They really need activities and games that help them understand God’s love.”
He recounted how he took all the girls outside, giving them each a stone and a lollipop. “Put the stone in your shoe,” he instructed, “and the lollipop in your mouth.”
The girls were to walk around the building and report back about what their short journey was like. Each girl, predictably, came back complaining of the pain the rock had caused—how hard it was to walk with such an impairment.
“Here’s the thing,” he said to me, his tone hinting at a theological gotcha moment. “Not one of them mentioned the lollipop. Nobody thanked me for the treat or talked about enjoying it. So I sat them all down right there on the grass and reminded them that I’d given the candy as well as the stone. I explained to them that God always gives us good gifts, and it’s our duty as Christians to be thankful, no matter how much pain we’re in. When God looks at you, I told them, make sure he always sees a smile.”
I imagined those girls with lollipops in their mouths and bruises on their feet, receiving their primer on Christian womanhood from a man who doled out pleasure and pain as if he were God. I imagine them steeling themselves for a lifetime of measured, cheerful words.
Our mother, wandering the rocky soil of this world. And we, her children, with bruised feet of our own, believing this is what we deserve.
The principal’s office had a bowl of smooth stones, the kind Lara used to collect when she was little. Each stone had a fruit of the spirit painted on it in colorful letters: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience. She read softly to herself. The distraction calmed her breath, and she swallowed against the knot in her throat.
She hadn’t been back to school since before the incident, which was the previous Friday night. The spaces within these walls were the same—of course they were—but it was a mild shock. These thick cinder block walls bore no mark of the way her life had changed. She strained to remember the days when focus came easily, and she had control of her own memories. These days, her thoughts tended to implode in on her, unbidden.
She did not want to be here, but she had to be. The SATs were coming up, and she needed to get her mind focused more on studies. Her whole future was at stake. Lara steeled herself as she began to tell the story she never imagined having to tell, in every humiliating detail:
A date gone wrong with the boy from her class. Yes, she was sure she wanted to use the word assault. Yes, she’d agreed to kiss him. No, she hadn’t welcomed anything more. She studied the face of the man before her, searching for traces of empathy or shock. Nonplussed. An SAT word, meaning unfazed or unaffected.
It was almost as if he’d heard these complaints before.
Was she sure she hadn’t welcomed anything? Could there have been a look, or a phrase, or a clothing choice? Could it possibly be her fault—something she unintentionally communicated, rather than something he intentionally chose?
Forgiveness. It wasn’t even a fruit of the Spirit, but the principal fished through that bowl of stones anyway, painted in cheerful script. He gave it to her, laying it cold and weighty in her hand.
“You have to understand,” he told her, “we are a Christian school. We believe in grace.”
He dismissed her with the suggestion that Lara agree to a conversation with the boy, alone, in a room of the school. They would talk until they had “aired their differences,” and then she would extend forgiveness. His punishment would be that conversation. More than that would be unfair, the principal said. After all, the SATs were coming up. His whole future was at stake. Lara realized with a wave of nausea that he was seated in front of her in homeroom. They would be taking that test two feet apart, while she stared at the back of his head.
Nonplussed. Secondary meaning: bewildered or unsure.
She wrapped her hand around that stone and squeezed until she could feel her own pulse against its smooth surface. The walls were closing in around her like her hand around that stone. She took a breath; the air was thick and sweet. The grace in that place was suffocating.
Olympia, a few months ago, your mama and I went with a few other friends to a girls’ weekend in the mountains. We’ve been friends for years, having crafted our bonds through the common work of being women in this world. We held vigil for one another during the years of early adulthood, midwifing one another as we moved through the rushed waters of becoming. Together, we emerged pastors and teachers and farmers and doctors and mothers.
You were new to our number then, just over a year old. At breakfast, over steaming cups of coffee, we wondered aloud how to raise a little girl. We had you in mind, with your inquisitive gaze and your eyes like blue porcelain. It’s not easy to be a girl in this world, we all know.
“Shame sells,” Nikki Raye said simply. We did not respond—we knew it to be true. We all knew the voices that have come after women for decades. They suggest that perhaps you are too much, and somehow also not enough. Their story would have you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. Did anyone really say that I was beautiful? That I was smart? That I was good? And then, when you’re trying to get your bearings, the same voices will turn around with that thing that could be your salvation. They would have you erase yourself away, just to purchase a self back again. Shame sells, and it’s meant to sell to us. It’s marketed masterfully.
Olympia, each of us found our own ways to respond to these voices. I myself spent years of my life trying to mold to the correct form. I denied myself, confusing restriction with righteousness. I took up less space on purpose and called it improvement. I was just opening back up to the world when I met your mama and our friends. They shepherded me toward a fullness I hadn’t experienced in many years. We shepherded one another—they all had their own fullnesses to remember.
It breaks my heart to know that one day you will face those voices. You will face them alone, the way we all do. My hope is that when you turn to the church to help you navigate your life, we will have come up with some helpful things to say to you. But the truth is, Olympia, that the church’s story of Eve’s shame too often commingles with those other voices in our world that make us question ourselves. Our church wants what is best for you—I believe that—but often it doesn’t know how to help its women walk through the story about ourselves that we receive from all angles, because its most overarching story about women is itself based in shame. I fear that, if you ever need consolation from the church in the form of empowerment, you may not find it.
Some suppose the story of Eve is the exact retelling of events that happened at the beginning—the story of her sin and of her curse is documented historical fact. Others suggest that, in accordance with other faiths at the time, the people of God wrote a myth—an allegory that points to a deeper truth about who God is and who we are. If our guiding story is written as a myth, why add Eve’s curse? Is it possible that the story of Eve was written as an attempt to explain a pre-existing pattern? Did the treatment of women during the beginning of Abrahamic tradition require that severe an explanation?
Whether myth or historical nonfiction, what we know for sure is that the story of Eve and her shame have often been prescriptive rather than descriptive for the women of God. It is not a story that tells us how we got here. It is a story that determines what our own stories can become. We have known the story of Eve in our bodies and in our lives for centuries. Our mother and her children, with bruises from walking this stony ground.
It is spring now, Olympia. The sun sighs, sinking below the tree line, a bit later every day. We, the people of God, look for traces of light after the long darkness of winter. We hope for God to be made known among us. If we listen to the stillness of these dark nights, we might hear the faint echoes of an ancient song:
My soul magnifies the LORD
My spirit rejoices in God my savior
A young girl, walking the road to her cousin Elizabeth’s. Her steps soon to be weighed down by the One growing within her. This is a story we often only think about during Advent, but I always think of Mary in the spring. This is the time of year that angel’s visit would have happened–nine months from now, we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus.
“May it be to me as you have said,” she told the angel. This is how a young Jewish girl living under Roman rule came to nurture a revolution. Had anyone been paying attention, they would have noticed the careful, satisfied step of a woman with purpose. Had they listened closely, they may have heard the song of her heart:
From now on all generations will call me blessed
The Almighty has done great things for me
In her body, she sheltered the growing hope of the world. Even as she walked, her self expanded, making room to give birth to the kingdom of God on Earth. God-with-us was first God-within-her. Did she move with the weightiness of that burden?
My God takes down the mighty from their thrones,
but lifts up the lowly
My God satisfies the hungry with good things,
but the rich are sent away empty
Mary pondered these great mysteries and treasured them in her heart, we are told. What mysteries to ponder—a virgin birth of a timeless God to an impoverished girl. How did Mary know that the One who was to be called Jesus would upend the powers of the world, turning weakness into strength and prioritizing the ones who had been forgotten?
Maybe she just knew, the way a mother always knows. But maybe the angel’s first visit was a cue that this God was doing things differently.
May it be to me as you have said, our Mother said to the angel. A wonder in itself. God had consulted with her—had let her choose this path. Mary was obedient; she was also empowered. In a culture and a time when women had no voice, Mary encountered a God who gave her a say and a song.
God has remembered the lowly estate of this servant
This God, the God of Israel, came to save the world. And this saving God first enlisted the women.
Mary, mother of God, welcomed a new life into her own life—she made space for the Lord to be formed within her. She journeyed along this rocky path while hope was given flesh and bone in her body, and she wondered at the mystery of it all. Then, when the time came, she birthed this New Life into the world, offering the body and blood of Jesus to the earth for the first time.
Mary—the mother of our Lord—a pilgrim and a priestess to the world.
Olympia, if I’m honest, I struggle with the church that you and I call home. I don’t know what to do with a church that allows the stories of its women to play out with such alarming disregard for the women themselves. Sometimes I want to walk away from all of it, fearful that the church has so emphasized meekness and sacrifice, forgiveness and shame for women that we will not recover an understanding of how to be Christian outside of that. In those times, the church’s tradition looks to me like a means for the powerful to remain in power, and that will always put women at a disadvantage.
But then I remember the song of our mother Mary. It is the song of a woman who knows everything has changed. It is a song of revolution.
My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
From now on all generations will call me blessed
The Almighty One has done great things for me
Before the angel’s visit on that favored day, there was nothing particularly blessed about Mary’s young life. She did not have the security money or status could buy, nor the power within her culture that was offered to young men. Her people had been subjugated by the Romans. In every way, Mary was intended to play the part of the reactor—the acted upon. Others made decisions for her life and she was meant to respond.
My God brings down the mighty from their thrones
But lifts up the lowly
My God satisfies the hungry with good things
But the rich are sent away empty
Mary is harboring a secret. The world is being made new within her. The birth of her child will mean the rebirth of the world. “May it be to me as you have said”—her words to the angel are also our first indication that Mary’s God is doing something very different. This is a God who cares about those who are at the bottom. This God is re-creating an upended kingdom in which the last are first and those who have been disregarded are honored.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.
With the birth of that baby, we know, the world was changed. With his birth, the world was reborn; we, too, have been reborn. We have a new mother, and her life is ringing not with curse, but with blessing. We no longer walk that rocky soil filled with the curse of sin. That is not our heritage as women of God. Rather, we have been born into the lineage of New Creation. We are part of the line of women who have made space within ourselves to nurture God, and then birthed God into the world. We are like Elizabeth, the woman whose miraculous child allowed her to be a safe haven for Mary. She sang the harmony to Mary’s song. We are like Mary and Martha, disciples of Jesus who followed and supported his ministry. We are like the woman who anointed Jesus as King, pouring perfume on his feet and wiping it with her hair. We are like the women who kept watch over him in his dying moments, present to the tragedy before them when all the men had fled. We are like Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, the first person Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. We, the daughters of Mary, have become ourselves mothers and midwives and prophets and priestesses.
To focus on Eve, to retell that tired story of curse and shame, is to literally deny the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is to deny his ministry and the New Kingdom he came to proclaim. It is to deny our mother Mary, blessed among women.
My soul magnifies the Lord
Olympia, I don’t think the church will change its ways tomorrow. It might not even change its approach to womanhood before you are old enough to read this. But I do have hope in the women themselves. They have the courage to make room for the kingdom of God to be born again within them and have the wisdom to midwife one another through the process.
We know the secret that has always been hiding in plain sight in Mary’s song—the true kingdom of God rests in the upending of powers. It gives voice to the voiceless and strength to the weary. It transforms curse into blessing through the power of God.
Olympia, I pray that you would know the beauty and power that lives in you. I pray that you would find your Elizabeths—the ones who will see the way you have been called to bring the kingdom of God to the world and will midwife you through those rushed waters. I pray that you will become a young woman who knows herself, not as shamed and cursed, but as empowered and blessed. And I pray that, if ever the church tells you that your burden to bear is rocky soil and bruised feet, you will resist.
Remember who you were at two years old—possessing an unconscious confidence and a willingness to throw those stones right in the fire, just to see what will happen.
Amy is a graduate of Duke Divinity School who now manages a community garden for a Durham nonprofit. In her free time, she enjoys writing, going for long walks, and playing on her banjo (albeit rather badly).
Commodified gods—forms of religion dependent on and subject to the dictatorship of the market—are no gods at all. They are mere projections, incurvatus in se writ large. When we create our gods in our own image and then put them up for sale, we lose the gracious reality of being creatures, the beautiful truth that we human beings are closer to the soil than to the heavens. We also lose what I might humbly posit as the spiritual genius of Christianity: that the transcendent and irreducible mystery of the divine nevertheless inhabits fleshy, human existence, joining us here in the soil.
Reading the Book of Acts transports modern Western Christians back into a world before the existence of Christian empires or state churches, before Christendom or Christofascism, before a cross was ever placed on a shield or gun. Acts opens up a world where Christian is still a slur for some heretical Jews who worship an apparently failed messiah and whose unwillingness to participate in civic religion is dangerously unpatriotic. In this world, Christianity as a powerful or even recognizable world religion does not yet exist. Instead, a scrappy group of apostles and other disciples are running around the eastern Mediterranean trying not to get killed by angry mobs or governing authorities, with a word supposedly from God about the resurrection of the dead and the beginning of a new epoch for humanity. In response, people ranging from court officials to beggars and slaves are abandoning the dominant religious system and forming new families with each other, all in the name of that crucified Jew from an unknown village on the imperial periphery.
For liberation-minded Christians today, weary with the weight of our own history, reading Acts stirs the soul with longing for a Christianity worth claiming, for the kind of spirit-driven countercultural movement that is beloved by the disinherited and disdained by the powerful, as Jesus intended. On this side of Christendom, reading Acts, I again feel the devastating irony of belonging to a religion founded by a lynched prophet from a colonized people that nevertheless achieved global supremacy and now bears responsibility for many of the systems and ideologies afflicting the modern world.
What do stories of persecuted prophets mean for citizens of the imperial core? Who are Peter and Paul in the shadow of Donald and Joe? How can we follow “the Way of Jesus” when the “powers and principalities” around us pray in the name of the very same guy? An initial step to answering these questions may be to reread Acts with our (post)Christendom context in mind: not automatically identifying ourselves with the disciples but asking what the persecuting mobs may have to tell us about our religious formation, too.
Acts 19:23-41 is one of several episodes in Acts in which a crowd gets stirred up into a fervor against the disciples of the Way in defense of that epicenter of religious economy, both spiritual and material: the Ephesian temples. Zeal for temples is bad news for Christians in Acts, who annoyingly preach the worship of a God beyond either statues or buildings “made by human hands” (7:48, 19:26). Meanwhile, worship of a God beyond statues and buildings is bad news for those major sectors of the Ephesian economy that depend on the production and consumption of gods. Demetrius, the silversmith-playing-demagogue who gets the riot going, draws on local patriotism, religious pride, and some implied, pre-existing anti-Judaism in his accusations against Paul and the Way. Yet the author of Acts uses his speech as a device to clarify the underlying reality of the situation: the driving force behind the anti-“Way” riot here is economic anxiety. Wealth-protecting, nation-defending, temple-and-priest-dependent gods are good for the economy! The comparably wild and unaffiliated Holy Spirit who Paul claims to follow is, contrastingly, not. The God of these Christians is dramatically uninterested in the religious economy that otherwise manages the mutual dependence of human and divine. Demetrius asks a question that reverberates through the centuries all the way until it reaches us: What good is decommodified religion? What would that even mean?
Importantly, Christians invented neither monotheism nor the anti-idolatry critique of which they are accused here. They inherited both from ancient Israel’s understanding of idol production, a familiar theme from the Hebrew scriptures. Of this theme, Willie Jennings writes:
The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope. The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods, that is, to draw the gods into common cause with me for sustaining my life. The production of the idol is the production of the human, because through its creation a self is also created and through its worship and devotion that same fabricated self is sustained. Idol production is the folly of the Gentiles who know not God or themselves. It is complete ignorance of the God of Israel, the creator, and the gracious reality of being creatures.1
Colonizing Christians of later centuries lazily deployed the Israelite critique of idolatry to denigrate indigenous cultures around the world, a legacy of chauvinism and outright imperialism against which we must now labor. Yet at the heart of this theological critique lies the spiritual genius of Judaism: gods created in imitation of human beings cannot rightly be called “God.” Only that which transcends human imagination, and human control, is truly divine. The God beyond human imagination nevertheless reveals Godself in humanity’s image. This is the incarnational paradox, against which our idols and projections fall flat, plastic and lifeless.
The text’s portrayal of the Ephesian crowd, driven by economic anxiety and paranoid patriotism to persecute dissenters, asks us to look inward. Two hours spent chanting in Artemis’s defense and a near lynching to go along with it, reminding Bible readers of other needy gods like Dagon (1 Samuel 5) and Baal (1 Kings 18) and evoking historical memories of Christian antisemitism, anti-Black racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. In each case, the frantic and aggressive defensiveness of the worshipers reveals the fragility of the “god.”
Meanwhile, Jesus stands silent before the false accusations of a corrupt court, offering nothing but “truth” (John 18:37) and urging his followers not to prepare their apologetics in advance (Luke 12:11-12). Jesus demands no zealous defense and recommends no religious competition. When we Christians persecute our critics or anxiously protect our corners of the spiritual (and literal) market; when we trap God in buildings while chasing away the homeless; when we prove ourselves as ready to form a Christian mob in Jesus’s name as any other forgotten sect devoted to any other invented god; whenever we rage against others in defense of our fragile, commodified gods, we reveal our absent faith in that Holy Spirit in whom we live and move, the divine breath that will blow wherever it chooses.
(Post)Christendom Christianity shares little in common with the ragtag crew of Jesus preachers presented to us in the pages of Acts. The temples of our day and time, both religious and civic, have the Christian God’s name on them, all while the targets of our collective anxiety and chauvinism often come in non-Christian attire. To seek out the non-violent, non-defensive way of the crucified Christ in the era of Christian empires is a path of humility bordering on humiliation, a path of self-critique against which our egos bristle. Yet these criminalized apostles, and the mysterious messiah standing behind them, still speak, if we will hear them. They beckon us off the wide highway of the market, the border, and the gods we create in our image, calling us back to the gift, the table, the soil, and the incarnate nearness of God.
 Willie James Jennings, Acts : A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017), 134.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.
In a previous Yet Alive article, I explored the connection between antiracist work and conversion, especially for white Christians. Regardless of our personal morality, white people, myself included, are born into a world that distorts our understanding, giving us what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called a “false sense of superiority.” Similarly, systems of white supremacy attempt to instill a false sense of inferiority of everyone else. Systems of white supremacy have distorted our ability to make sense of reality and even threatened our ability survive as a species. King often said that humans needed to either “learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” and current events seem to prove his point, ranging from the climate crisis to the ever-present threat of nuclear or biological warfare to the potential collapse of democratic societies across the world.
From a Wesleyan perspective, addressing the distortion of white supremacy is crucial, because of the importance of experience in understanding how we ought to understand Scripture, live our lives, and build our communities. Additionally, this also diminishes our ability to trust our conscience as a tool to discern the Holy Spirit. According to Wesleyan theologian Michael Lodahl, “Often [John] Wesley spoke of [the] universal yet particular presence of God’s Spirit as being experienced in human life as conscience.” Though Wesley—like King—believed that God never gave up on people, he did recognize that our ability to hear the call of the Holy Spirit via our conscience can be distorted or muted by our personal or cultural failings.
Rev. Dr. King was not a champion of colorblind conservatism. Rather, King called for a radical restructuring of our internal lives, interpersonal relationships, and the fundamental value structures of this world. Thus, Cornel West’s description of him as a “revolutionary Christian” and “intellectual genius” who “authorized an alternative reality” is on the mark.1 One of the main obstacles that King faced in attempting to create this alternative reality—which he described as the Beloved Community—was white supremacy. He recognized that, from the founding of this nation, white supremacy had infected the stated ideals of freedom, justice, and equality—and that the horrors of colonialism had spread the sin of white supremacy across the globe.
Perhaps surprisingly, King further argued that, while white supremacy had undoubtedly done serious harm to Black people and other people of color, white people suffered the most severe psychological and spiritual deficits due to white supremacy. In his speech “The Negro and the American Dream,” King even goes so far as to say “the system of segregation puts [the white man] in more slavery than it puts the Negro.” What justifies this claim?
In King’s theology, we are called to be in community with both God and neighbor, and to fail to be in relationship with one is to fail to be in relationship with the other. This is a principle King gleaned from his spiritual mentor Howard Thurman, who was a Black mystical theologian whose teachings greatly impacted King. Thurman stated, “To be in unity with the Spirit is to be in unity with one’s fellows,” and conversely it is true that “alienation from other people is alienation from God’s Spirit.”2 Thus, in this way, King argued that white Christians had alienated themselves from God.
Additionally, King saw that white Christians had failed to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to them through their conscience and that this had damaged white people. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?, King notes that each person has God’s law etched on their hearts and that through our conscience God is continually attempting to remind us of this law. White people, however, have long ignored the calls of their conscience in regard to Black people, and this has caused them serious damage. In his speech “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King argues that “the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred.” From the beginning of America, he argued, “logic was manipulated”3 to justify the immoral practices of enslavement and racism. King notes that the founding fathers recognized the hypocrisy of enslavement in a nation founded on freedom, yet they chose to proceed with their great experiment leaving this incoherence in place. In Where Do We Go From Here, he states:
Thus through two centuries, a continuous indoctrination of Americans has separated people according to mythically superior and inferior qualities, while a democratic spirit of equality was evoked as the national ideal. These concepts of racism, and this schizophrenic duality of conduct, remain deeply rooted in American thought today … [and] have poisoned the American mind.4
This poisoning of the American mind named by King is due to the fact that white Americans have allowed systems of racism and segregation to exist and become ingrained in their collective psyche, which has in turn reified the incoherence present at America’s inception.
One of King’s primary opponents in the fight for change was what he referred to as “the white moderate.” The white moderate is one who is so ensconced in the status quo that even if you convince them that white supremacy exists and change is required, they will be unable or unwilling to imagine a different reality. King’s frustration with the white moderate Christian leads him to cry out in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” King could clearly see that following Christ involved tearing down systems of oppression, but the vast majority of white Christians either denied the existence of oppression altogether or counseled King to be patient and allow the situation to resolve of its own accord.
According to Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, who studied human cognition and how bias can inhibit our ability to access reality, group bias is a group’s tendency to elevate its own concerns and well-being above that of other groups. According to Lonergan in his book Method in Theology, humans naturally have a sense of what he calls the “prior we,” which is a fundamental sense of communion with others built into our psyche.5 For Lonergan and King, we are not fundamentally individuals, but rather persons in community.
However, group bias distorts our spontaneous intersubjectivity–our ability to see others as part of our world and, therefore, part of ourselves. Instead of seeing ourselves in others, group bias leads us to exclude others who we don’t consider part of our group. Once group bias sets in, we start to think that only those in our own group are worthy of respect. When left unchecked, group bias leads to a distortion of common sense—common sense in this case referring to what is considered to be true in any given group. As Lonergan states in chapter 7 of his book Insight, “The sins of group bias may be secret and almost unconscious. But what originally was a neglected possibility, in time becomes a grotesquely distorted reality.” Essentially, what Lonergan is pointing out is that, when group bias becomes entrenched, it isn’t noticed anymore. We can see this in our own society in various ways, for example, the fact that medical personnel regularly falsely believe that Black people have thicker skin and higher pain tolerances than white people.
All of this is bad enough, but it is only the beginning of the problem. In addition, Lonergan argues that once our common sense has been distorted, it affects our ability to plan for the future. Essentially, once bias creeps into our short-term thinking, it also affects our long-term planning as well. Paradoxically, once our “common sense” has become distorted, we begin to rely on it more and more, because it is how we make sense of the world. We tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t align with our worldview—often referred to as confirmation bias—and rely on our mistaken beliefs because we don’t want to be wrong or have been wrong in the past. Loergan refers to this longer term effect of relying more and more on flawed common sense to plan for the future the general bias of common sense.
At later stages of the general bias of common sense, we can once again become numb to its effects. Lonergan argues that, under the influence of the general bias of common sense, we fail to ask certain questions and halt the process of our intellect growing or changing. Naturally, our brains seek out new information about the world, but we can train ourselves to stop seeking, to stop asking questions and seeking insights about the world. This refusal can then become a habit.
These two types of bias—group bias and the general bias of common sense—allow us to flesh out King’s account of white supremacy. King recognized that the original incoherence baked into the American experiment by the founding fathers had metastasized—spreading incoherence into other aspects of society. In an effort to maintain our own interests, white people have historically allowed group bias to infect our common sense such that we often are no longer aware of the distortions of reality that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. These distortions have led white America to develop what Lonergan refers to as a scotoma, which is a collective blindspot that blocks part of one’s field of vision. Despite Lonergan’s ableist language, we can see that he is right inasmuch as much of white America is unable or unwilling to perceive the devastating effects of white supremacy that are all around us.
A distortion of reality is clearly a problem; however, it does not only negatively affect Black people. Lonergan notes that we cannot partition off the incoherent parts of our common sense. The inconsistencies and distortions inevitably spread, such that truths are ignored that would lead to social, political, and economic changes that challenge white supremacy. White supremacy, thus, is baked into the American psyche—contributing to cultural decline. As Lonergan states, “If the sins of dominant groups are bad enough, still the erection of their sinning into universal principles is indefinitely worse; it is the universalization of the sin by rationalization that contributes to the longer cycle of decline.” Thus, what started in America as the sins of the founding fathers has been carried through the generations and affected white America’s ability to make sense of the world.
The repression of insights that challenge white supremacy is damaging in its own right, but, as philosopher David Nordquest notes, it also leads to the suppression of other insights that would benefit society. Material advances may still occur in the areas of technology and industry when insights are suppressed, but larger cultural issues remain unaddressed. This failure to attend to the health of culture is exactly what King names in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” wherein King imagines what Paul would write to America. In this sermon, King channels Paul and rebukes America stating, “You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. … Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.” Thus, white people in America are subject to a degraded moral heritage and shaped by a warped dialectic of community, and we contribute to these distortions and reify the sins of the past when we allow them to continue into the present.
We can see the effects that white supremacy continues to have today. Mass incarceration, disproportionately of Black and brown persons, has yet to be seriously challenged and is assumed to be the norm. Racial wealth inequality—where the median Black family has one-eighth the wealth of the median white family—has grown worse since the end of the Civil Rights Era. And, to name just one more issue among many, global racial capitalism has created a climate crisis for which we as humans are woefully unprepared.
We live in a society that is deeply irrational, and thus our natural intelligence has difficulty engaging with our society due to the increasing incoherence of our worldview. Lonergan refers to this incoherence as the “social surd,” which is the cumulative effect of allowing irrationality and incoherence to fester and shape our perspective.6
Though we’ve primarily been focused on the negative, there is some good news. Once we start to recognize the social surd—the ways that we have denied reality and hampered human flourishing—we are able to begin to correct it. This is not an easy process, and it will involve giving up notions that many of us hold dear, but it can be done. I talk about that process in more depth in my previous article.
The other piece of good news is that we were made to be in community with God and each other. The Christian story is one where creation begins as good, created by a good God. We have long inhabited a world choked with sin and death, but that’s not where we come from or ultimately where we are headed. God is at work in the world, redeeming and renewing. The New Jerusalem is on its way, and we are called to participate with God in the process of making all things new.
 Introduction to The Radical King xv-xvi
 Gary Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 77.
 Ibid, 85.
 Chapter 3, Method in Theology
 Chris S Friel, The Social Ontology of Christian Smith and Bernard Lonergan: Challenge and Response
David Justice is a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University writing his dissertation on the political theology of Martin Luther King Jr. He is also concurrently enrolled as an MA student in the religion department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Starchild is a poet, artist, and pastor. Their work focuses on the intersection of the prophetic Christian tradition and the expansiveness and queering of love. Stream their new spoken-word album,Bloom!
And Can It Be That I Should Gain?, also known as And Can It Be?, is a hymn of astonishment. In light of his powerful religious experience in May 1738, Charles Wesley wrote this hymn from the perspective of someone who is utterly bewildered by the power of God’s love and the shocking events of the crucifixion. Wesley’s reaction to this is demonstrated in the first two verses:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, should die for me?
‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Highlighted in bold are just a few of the expressions Wesley uses to convey his excitement and surprise—“can it be … how can it be? Who can explore his strange design?” Wesley’s focus on the unlikely nature of the crucifixion is familiar to Christians who sometimes struggle with doubt. His disbelief that God himself died for humanity on the cross is a doubt that I have struggled with too. How could God possibly do this? And yet, God did. The last three verses of the hymn move from Wesley’s astonishment to the new life that Wesley finds in the risen Christ:
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Again, some of the expressions Wesley uses are highlighted for their importance. He writes that we are first “helpless … imprisoned” and later “woke”, “free,” and unafraid of “condemnation.” How did Wesley, and how do we, move from an imprisoned, shadow life to a fulfilled life in Jesus Christ? How on earth is this possible?
In this context, some people may turn to apologetics and logical arguments to explain the crucifixion, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Indeed, I am certain that Charles Wesley would have, to some extent. But what strikes me about And Can It Be? is the combination of belief and amazement. Wesley is utterly convinced of the truth of the crucifixion and all that follows, but this does not dampen his sense of astonishment. In this sense, the hymn is helpful for all of us who believe while recognizing the bewildering events at the center of our Christian faith. Yet, if we turn away from apologetics, how can all of this be explained? Does it even need to be explained?
Born just over a century later than Charles Wesley, the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard offers some ideas as to how we embrace the unbelievable nature of our beliefs. Kierkegaard is often called the father of Christian existentialism, a Christian variation on the school of thought focused on the search for meaning in human existence. Kierkegaard argues that Christians need not try to prove Christianity is correct but rather they should encourage nonbelievers to make the leap of faith. This concept refers to the leap of faith Kierkegaard believes every Christian makes when choosing to believe in the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He says that belief is not based on evidence of God but on the commitment to believe in God no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary.
I think this helps us to understand what Charles Wesley was writing about. Wesley speaks of “mystery” and “strange design” and asks “how can it be?” twice; this is clearly someone who is baffled by the extent of God’s love. And yet, Wesley believes so fervently, particularly after his religious experience in May 1738. In Kierkegaard’s words, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” Wesley reflects this relationship between faith and doubt in the two halves of And Can It Be?, first questioning how God can love us this much, then embracing God’s love. Another Christian existentialist, Paul Tillich, explains this relationship in a more straightforward manner: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”
And Can It Be? is a testament to the power of faith and experience. I recognize that apologetics—or reason, in other words—is part of our Wesleyan faith tradition. But we must not forget that experience is too. When all of the rationales and logical explanations fade away, our relationship with God is still one where we are pushed into trust and invited into love.
Nathan Olsen is a Methodist based in London, England. He is currently working as a copywriter for USPG, an Anglican mission agency. Nathan is a former editor of Movement magazine, the bi-annual publication of the Student Christian Movement, and has written various blogs on Christian existentialism (particularly on the works of Paul Tillich and Søren Kierkegaard). In his spare time, he enjoys cricket, fantasy football and hanging out at the Tate Britain.
O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by thy justice here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
—O Come, O Come Emmanuel, originally in Latin, 8th or 9th century
I have always said that I have an Advent soul. It is the liturgical season that resonates most within me. I have joked that it’s because I was baptized during Advent, as if the season we are baptized in was some kind of Zodiac calendar that dictates our spiritual personalities. (No, no. Unless??? Nah.) Still, there is something about the season that stirs my soul in a way that none of the other church seasons, not even Christmas or Easter, begins to touch.
My Advent playlist has seven versions of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on it. Other people may start Christmas carols as soon as the weather starts to change, while I patiently wait for Christ the King Sunday to pass so I can listen over and over again to those dulcet, somber, haunting tones singing out “rejoice” while praying for Christ to come again.
If my soul had a song to sing to God, it might just be “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Come, Lord Jesus, come. It’s likely why I get a little bleary-eyed during The Great Thanksgiving when reciting the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Yes. Christ will come again.
This is the faith of my soul, that directs my life: Christ will come again. Emmanuel, God-with-us, will be with us again. And, joyously, this is not my faith alone. I do not cry out this prayer by myself. For generations, Christians have looked toward that day when Christ the Lord will reign over a new heaven and new earth where all wrongs are made right; where justice will roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; where the wolf will lie with the lamb.
In Advent all the church sings with my soul: Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Advent looks toward that day when every relationship is made right, made whole. Between Creator and created and between all of creation. When Christ reigns again, enemies will lay down arms that in turn will become instruments of new life, of the harvest. Families restored. Borders erased. People from every corner of the earth become kin on God’s holy mountain.
Humans, however, are not all there is to God’s creation. As much as we can know of the heart of God, I believe that God must truly want to see all of God’s handiwork redeemed. Where I live, the weather turns cold and gray for months on end. “In the Bleak Midwinter” seems like an apt description of Ohio winters, if not so much Israel-Palestine. Advent reminds me, however, that creation is not dead. It is just lying in wait, still. If I quiet my mind, focus my heart, and turn my attention to God, I can almost sense creation singing, praying, groaning with me.
In Advent, all of creation sings along with all the church and my soul: Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Romans 8 tells us as much: “The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. … We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”
Indeed, we do not cry out this prayer alone. All of creation prays it with us. Listen, do you hear it? That breathless anticipation that all God’s handiwork shares. All of creation saying together: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Come, Lord, Jesus, Come. Christ will come again.
The vision given to us in Isaiah 11 portrays not just humans but wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions, cows and bears, snakes and serpents. Given the Biblical evidence, it is not too wild of a speculation to say that one of the wrongs that will be made right at Christ’s return is the hierarchy and status of non-human animals within creation, their relationships with each other, and humankind’s relationship with them.
Indeed, Romans 8 also says: Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.
We can find evidence for the redemption of all creation not only in scripture but in our Wesleyan theological heritage. In his sermon, “The General Deliverance,” John Wesley affirms that God hears the groans and cries of all creation and that brute creatures will have deliverance, not annihilation. We all await with bated breath for the day of Isaiah 11 when all creatures will live peaceably together and be redeemed. Many Christians have surmised that creatures would be released from their carnal desires, carnivores turned into herbivores, violent wildness turned tame. Wesley, however, speculates that God may take it a step further so that all creation may be made what we are now. Wesley writes with hopeful conjecture in his sermon:
May I be permitted to mention here a conjecture concerning the brute creation? What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us “equal to angels,” to make them what we are now—creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so, ought our eye to be evil because he is good? However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory.
In essence, in the New Creation, all the animals will be redeemed, restored, raised up to the capacity of knowing, worshiping, and loving the One who created them. The answer isn’t just “all dogs go to heaven”—it’s all dogs (and cats and birds and cows and snakes and sharks and pigs and platypuses and horses and squid and, and, and…) will have the human capacity of reason and be able to consciously love their Creator alongside humans.
To take this one awesome step further: at the day of the general resurrection, in the hopeful knowledge that Christ plans to release all God’s lesser creation from their bonds and elevate them, why would they then be excluded from the resurrection? Indeed on that day it will not just be the beasts of the wild, the farm, and tamed household pets that worship the Lord alongside us, but all that which has become extinct: the mammoth, the megalodon, the tyrannosaurus rex, the black rhinoceros, the dodo, the brachiosaurus, the Rocky Mountain locust, and, and, and… From dinosaurs to beetles, every creature God has ever created is precious and loved in God’s sight and if it should so please the Divine Creator of the universe, God will resurrect and elevate all creation to know, worship, and love God.
In this already-but-not-yet season of Advent, if we pay close attention to the planet and all its animal inhabitants, we can catch glimpses of what is to come, of what will be when Christ returns, of all relationships between God, human, and animal restored.
Glimpses in listening to the pulses of the earth praying with us: Come, Lord Jesus, come!
The realization that this is not just my prayer, not just the prayer of the church, but the prayer of all creation gives me pause this Advent season. I am far from treating all creation like the precious handiwork of God that it is. I confess that, yes, I do eat meat. No, I don’t always recycle every piece of plastic. I try not to think about where those disposable diapers from my little one end up. When I reflect on the general deliverance, my aim isn’t shame or guilt—there is more than enough of that to go around in our broken world.
Instead, my goal is to marvel with reverent wonder at the glory, power, compassion, and love of our God. To be lost in awe at how all-encompassing and complete God’s redemption will be. To live my whole life in anticipation of the New Creation to come and sing with all the more breathless conviction: O come, o come, Emmanuel! Come, Lord Jesus, come! Christ will come again.
And also, I hope to challenge myself and others in Christian community to be better stewards of the earth and all within it. To live into the promises of Advent, that Emmanuel, God-with-us, will come and be with us again, means that we are called to live into the “already” of the already but not yet. How can I already treat all created things in a way that gives honor and glory to their Maker? In a manner that reflects God’s love? That looks toward that day when they too shall be capable of loving God as we do?
This will look different for everyone. I am starting with the realization that it is not just my voice and the voices of church choirs singing for Christ’s return, but the music and song of all creation. This Advent, I am practicing listening more to the world around me: the winter song of the birds, the deer sprinting across empty fields, the cats meowing at the bedroom door to be fed, the fish deep under frozen lakes, the ground still and frozen—not dead, just waiting. Waiting for spring, waiting for Jesus, waiting for redemption, waiting to be made whole. I aim to listen so that I may hear their song, their groans, their labor pains, that together, we await Christ’s return.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. May it be so, sings my soul, the church, and all of God’s creation.
Allison LeBrun (she/her) is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. An alum of Vanderbilt Divinity, she is back to serving in her home state of Ohio. She spends her days pastoring a congregation, wrangling a toddler, and drinking copious amounts of tea.
“’Tis the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild; if Mary’d been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.”
Twenty-seven years ago, I entered the season of Advent nine months pregnant.
That year, 1994, as this, 2021, the lectionary texts that I preached beat a tattoo under my ribs with every kick of my soon-to-be-born daughter. “The time is coming, declares the Lord!” It was easy to read and hear those words from Jeremiah applying specifically to me as my due date crept ever closer. “Stay alert at all times” was biblically granted permission to consult my What to Expect When You’re Expecting book with each Braxton-Hicks twinge. Malachi’s refrain, “Who can endure the day of his coming?,” was not only the reading for the second week of Advent, but my refrain after every Lamaze class, as I reckoned with the inevitability of the pain of labor.
As the Advent season wore on, the texts were less about enduring the day of the Lord and more about the wonder of bringing new life into the world. I happily lingered there, as those words perfectly described the soul journey I was taking. That my body was capable of growing new life was a wonderment to me. That this baby was being knit together inside me, miracle and mystery both, never ceased (or ceases) to amaze me. As the weekly psalm reading gave way to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, I understood in new ways the place of deep strength that anchored that song: “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next.” This had been my daily prayer for over ten years: May I be granted the opportunity to tell of God to the next generation. Mary would soon be bearing down with all her strength so that she could bring this child into the world. Bring? Or send? Even in my ninth month of pregnancy, I was not so uncomfortable that I was ready to release my baby away from me into the world. Stay here, I secretly hoped, where I can protect you, keep you warm and safe and fed. How could Mary’s words give me encouragement to bring forth my own child into a world both beautiful and cruel?
Each day of Advent brought me closer to meeting my child. I had formed my own opinion of her as the months went by, of course, based partly on my hopes that she would get the best of both her parents and my fears that she would get the worst. Though I knew that personality is nurture as well as nature, I also knew there would be things about her that were and are simply her way of being alive, of life living itself in her.
Christmas came on a Sunday that year. I preached the morning service (one instead of the usual three), came home, and began my maternity leave. Jesus was born! Now to get my own baby here. Eight weeks to focus not on preaching, pastoral care, administrative duties, but to bond with my baby, soon to join us. I put myself on the couch, opened the What to Expect book, and counted the number of kicks to reassure myself that all was well.
When the time eventually came, her birth did not go according to my plan. Three days of labor and an emergency C-section were not on the birth plan I had worked out with my midwife. But when she took her first breath and cried her first cry, sounding for all the world like a little lamb, the process of getting her here paled in importance. Later that night, after everyone else had left and I could hold my newborn baby, I counted fingers and toes. I traced the double whorl of her hair and began to memorize the way her features were arranged. I marveled at each breath, rejoiced in each sound she made (Is that a hungry cry? They said I’d be able to tell the difference).
Advent is about giving us time and space to prepare for a future we cannot ultimately plan or control. We are told to practice waiting, to look for signs and wonders. We’re told at the beginning of the season to prepare for the worst, for the sign that all normal things are disappearing. Certainly, everyone preparing to welcome a baby into their lives knows something of the fear and panic that accompanies the news that someone new is on the way. By the end of the Advent season, we’re joining Elizabeth and Mary in their songs of joy for the children about to be born. Elizabeth rejoices in becoming pregnant after waiting such a long time (like Hannah before her, her culture taught her to feel shame at her condition), and Mary rejoices that she of low status will nevertheless be one through whom God will do something amazing. That is the future none of us can plan—the thing God will do through us, even us, we who cannot imagine being a Theotokos (God-bearer), who often cannot imagine God wanting to do something in us, through us, for us, with us, to be part of the gospel story of scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things.
Advent is about learning to hope that when God comes among us, we too will be caught up in the wonder of being Theotokos with Mary, willing to give thanks and praise for the labor, willing to step out from shame and loudly proclaim that we are the ones through whom God will do a new thing.
The night my baby was born, after adoring family members had left to sleep, I was alone with my newborn daughter for the first time. I did what my arms had been longing to do since I first knew she was on the way: cradle her and sing Away in a Manger to her. I saw the stoplights at the entrance to the hospital through my window. A car was sitting patiently with its blinker on. I wanted to lean out the window and shout, with Mary, “Don’t you see that the world has changed? My baby is born! God has done a new thing!”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Cry Like A Bell: Poems (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2000), p.58.
Claire is an elder in the North Carolina Annual Conference, serving as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Graham. She is a regular contributor and co-creator with the Wild Goose Festival and co-founder of Raleigh Beer and Hymns.
I remain confident of this: I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Psalm 27:13 (NIV)
Happy new year! The season of Advent is upon us, which begins the liturgical year. We light our candles, sing our hymns of preparation, and begin our Advent calendars. We decorate our homes, gather together, and make our favorite treats. We yearn, deeply, for it to be Christmas, to capture the magic of Christmas and pass it on to the next generation.
And yet the season of Advent does not quite match the Christmas side of the holiday season. The readings for Advent are strongly apocalyptic. “Repent!” screams Advent. “The day of the Lord is at hand! Make a straight path for the way of the Lord!” Since we are never sure we know how to repent, we practice by fasting and restricting ourselves.
But why should Advent be associated with apocalypse? After all, it is a season where we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God as Christ—is that not the opposite of the end of the world?
I confess that the past couple of years have, at many times, felt like an apocalypse. And I think most of us are beyond tired and beyond ready to see the end of the apocalypse we have been living through. We are beyond tired of hearing stories of loved ones saying their last goodbyes through a video screen. We are beyond tired of hearing stories of families broken apart, by disease, by the pressures of work, by the trials of migration. We are beyond tired of paying taxes into a system that wields death as a weapon of racism. We are beyond tired of being trapped in a system where boycotting products that harm the ecosystem would simply and literally mean our death.
Scripture tells us, though, that this is not unique to us. People around Jesus thought that his coming meant that everything would soon collapse. Though they did not live to see that collapse, they were right: first Jerusalem was sacked, and then all of Rome fell. But that was not the end of time and it was not the turning point of God’s story in the world. Rather, it was Jesus himself who was that turning point, and not in his death but in his birth and his life. God was not content to stay in heaven, on the other side of death, waiting for us to get it right. God was so desperate to be near us, and for us to know that God was near, that Christ became Jesus, first in the body of Mary. God did not wait for everything to collapse before God reconciled everything to Godself. Even in the midst of ordinary people living through ordinary turmoil, God chose to be part of our lives.
I have sometimes heard that the reason apocalyptic films are so important in our culture is that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” The fact that, even in scriptural times, people sensed that society was fragile and on the verge of great change and even collapse, makes me suspect that apocalyptic imagination is part of the human condition. We seem to feel a collective uneasiness about the fragility of society. And we are right to do so—society really is fragile. Even with our advanced technology, our society is still being undone by distrust, selfishness, and the last-minute nature of resource distribution in today’s capitalistic landscape.
From ancient times, people have imagined that the time of collapse that they lived through would give way to greater collapse. The Book of Daniel attests to this thread in the imaginations of the faithful, and it runs through scripture, into the Book of Revelation. John the Baptist was often taken to have had an apocalyptic message, and the Apostle Paul was said to have spent at least half of his life believing that he would live to see Jesus return from the place to which he ascended. This apocalyptic thread has continued through the ages, and still there are people who calculate the date and the time of the apocalypse.
But if we were to believe everything needed to collapse before we could see the fullness of God, we would be liars in confessing that Jesus Christ was fully God. Because Jesus was not born in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with zombies roaming the Earth. Jesus was not born in a time of total destruction of everything. He was born in a little backwater of Rome, in circumstances of nearly comical poverty, and he continued to live. He was raised by parents who loved him, in a community that knew him. Jesus’s birth was not the beginning of a total unraveling of society. God does not have to wait for an apocalypse to be fully present in our world. And through the grace of the Holy Spirit, God is present in our world even now, just as fully as when Jesus walked on Earth.
We come to Advent with a question we learned to ask from John the Baptist: how can we make a straight path for the Lord? And because we are only human, we struggle to imagine how to change all the things that are wrong in this world, unless there is a total collapse of every sinful system and we get a chance to start over from scratch. We ask, Lord, tell us the signs of the apocalypse. Show us what we must dispose of to fully embrace the apocalypse, to fully prepare ourselves for all the collapse we will live through, so that in the space that remains we can see you clearly.
But instead of answering our prayers with destruction and death, Jesus answers our prayers with birth. We ask, “When will we be done with all this pain and finally be safe enough to hope?” Instead of answering that, Jesus answers why it will be worth it to endure the ravages of this sad old world.
It’s all going to be worth it because we will see God at work in our world. It’s all going to be worth it because we will learn how to love more deeply, more fully, less selfishly. It’s all going to be worth it, because we will see things so beautiful that we had no way to even imagine them. Perhaps all of us and everything we have built will pass away. But the goodness with which God created the world will not pass away. Maybe we will die the old-fashioned way, or maybe I am wrong and we will truly live to see a great unveiling, where the heavens will be opened and all souls will depart from this earth. But it will still have been worth it to follow Jesus through our little lives. Because there will be such great joy, here and now, that when all illusions are stripped away, and we meet God face-to-face, we will already be familiar with God’s great glory, because of the great joy we saw in this life. All of this is already true, because God chose to come to us as Jesus.
The day is coming when The Lord is going to make all things new. If we live through a time when God is showing us what needs to change so that the world can be more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, that’s a gift of greater closeness with God. But change does not have to be death, because God does not just stay in heaven, and neither does our hope. God is not content to simply wait for us beyond death, safe in the future where we don’t have to think about it. God does not wait patiently on the other side of apocalypse, but rushes headlong into the world, vulnerable like a baby, navigating individual relationships with us like a child.
The greatest gift is this. God was so desperate to be one with us, to show us that our lives were meant to be full of hope and joy, that God became Jesus Christ and taught us how to live as if God was present always. Because God is present, always. The telos of our lives is not death, and the telos of the world is not apocalypse, with God on the other side. The telos of our lives is toward God, here in the land of the living; we know this because God became Jesus. And the incarnation of Christ doesn’t live in the past but is ongoing, every day, every hour, every moment. Even here, even now. God lives and moves and works among us, here and now, in our bodies and in our reality. Every bit of this life is Spirit-drenched.
In a time of waiting, in a season such as this, it can feel like we don’t know what we are waiting for, and that the best we can hope for is that on the other side of all this misery, God is waiting. But that is not the best we can hope for, because we serve a God who came to us incarnate. Though we may struggle to imagine a reality in which goodness comes to us without collapse, God promises us that we will see God’s work on this side of death. We serve a God who shared our humanity, so desperate God was for us to know and understand, and sense that God was with us.
If we do not have to wait for an apocalypse, then why a season of waiting? Because we need to learn to imagine that God’s promises are true. We are only human, so we are easily persuaded to imagine the end of the world, rather than simply the end of oppression. God invites us to spend a time training our senses. The season of Advent is a gift that lets us practice imagining that we will see God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s love, here in the land of the living.
God is not waiting for the apocalypse to begin working in the world. God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love is already being born here in the world. In the season of Advent, we are invited to learn to look for it.
Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.
Homesickness is a funny kind of illness. It sort of hurts all over. In your throat when someone asks the wrong question at the wrong time. In your lungs when a reminder of what you’ve lost takes your breath away. In your core when there’s the gut-punch of knowing what you long for may never come to pass. There’s a desperation to it, when hope and grief intertwine into an ache.
Someday, we know, someday, as our seasonal songs tell us: “The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.” Another tells us, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother! And in his name all oppression shall cease!”
Luke 21:25-36 tells us to be on guard, for your redemption is drawing near. But we wait, we long for the time when all shall be made right, when there will be no more tears or death, no more oppression, or haves and have-nots, no more pandemics or natural disasters or injustice… when the upside-down Kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.
We wait. We hope. We long, with the deep groaning of the Spirit within us when words fail. It hurts, God. Life hurts so much.
Sometimes what hurts is that we know we don’t belong here, not forever. We were made for the Garden, for full communion with God, but here on earth? It’s easy to wonder if God is real at all. And if he is, what are we doing down here? Sometimes we look around and we see so much wrong with the world and feel so disconnected from the people in it, we might feel like we’re almost aliens, that we don’t belong here.
I know what it feels like to be deeply rooted in a place that just doesn’t feel like home. I know what it is like to be new in town, to not know a single soul in my city, over and over as I have moved across the country. I know what it’s like to be Too Much or Not Enough, to feel like an outsider. As a queer woman, I know what it’s like to wonder if I’m the only one or if there is someone out there like me, to be different in a room where everyone else fits in, to have people disagree with unchangeable parts of my identity. To be told I don’t belong and never will.
Those places don’t feel like home. Those places can make the world not feel like home.
These old places promise they will feel like home if only we change who we are, if only we turn away from God’s call on our lives to be more palatable, to be their definition of successful or holy or perfect. Drunk on our own power and consumed with the worries of this life.
It is a lie. The harder we try to be something we’re not, the more the ache grows.
And yet! And yet, we’re not idle in our waiting for the coming of our Lord. Our homesickness doesn’t freeze us into inaction. We move forward, serving and befriending, loving and being loved. Creating a makeshift home for the homesick.
We stand as greeters at the exits from those aching places, instead ushering all who long for true belonging out into the wilderness, outside the strict boxes for what constitutes “fitting in.” If you are done contorting yourself to fit in, if your homesickness is eating at you, longing for a better world, come. Come to the tables in the wilderness and join the preparations for the feast of anticipation.
And so we wait, homesick for a place we have always known but never been, filled with the ache of longing, but lonely no longer in the communion of saints before us and with us and to come. We are not alone in our waiting.
Our hearts may break as we look to the empty skies, and we cry “How long, Oh Lord?” but our homesickness, our grief intertwined with hope for a coming day, doesn’t keep us from calling out to our fellow misfit neighbors to wait with us in the wild places, the places we can belong as our true selves, in a hint of the freedom and glory that is to come. We are called into belovedness, into Kingdom-belonging. Take a stand and raise your heads! Our redemption, our King, is drawing near.
Jenna DeWitt (she/her) is an aromantic asexual Methodist. She lives in sunny Southern California. Jenna earned a bachelor of arts in news-editorial journalism from Baylor University and has over a decade of experience working on Christian magazines.
John Wesley’s contribution to Christian history is not primarily located in any particular doctrine or treatise, though he wrote theologically. Rather, John Wesley’s greatest gift to the Christian churches is perhaps the Wesleyan approach to community formation—with its attention to the whole human being and to every human being, however socially marginalized. Methodism began not as a movement of separatists nor as a movement of institutional reformers. Wesley brought about a movement of reformation and renewal by creating new forms of community among “the people” themselves, rather than by lobbying for change from within the Church of England’s hierarchy.
For churches in the contemporary United States who trace their heritage back to this 18th-century pastor, Wesley remains relevant because of his courageous willingness to innovate ways of bringing the gospel, the pietist method, and God’s mercy for the suffering and oppressed directly to those people most excluded by the church, notwithstanding the formal and informal barriers erected by existing ecclesial institutions.
Wesley did not emerge on the religious scene of early 18th century England as a fully formed thinker or leader. His approach to ministry, like his theology and interior spirituality, developed gradually over the course of his life. Methodism’s “first rise,” during Wesley’s time at Oxford as a student and fellow, arose as a consequence of his own spiritual seeking, in companionship with his brother Charles and a few of their friends. From the beginning, this group of friends combined a disciplined practice of personal and communal piety with frequent outreach to the suffering poor in their community. They began with visits to the county prison, then the city jail, eventually adding visits to elders and children in the area. Wesley’s journal from 1731 records a daily visitation schedule to these incarcerated and impoverished community members, reflecting the centrality of outreach beyond existing institutions in the origins of the Methodist program.
Another development in Methodism that reflects Wesley’s willingness to move beyond existing institutional norms is his eventual embrace of field preaching in the late 1730s. He was originally skeptical of the practice, due to its association with itinerant dissenters, and he was loyal to the Church of England.
Wesley changed his mind, however, after observing George Whitefield’s effectiveness and noting the preaching practices of Jesus himself as recorded in the Gospels. His acceptance of open-air preaching signified more than flexibility regarding location and format. It also indicated a willingness to, in his words, “become more vile”; in other words, to identify himself more publicly with the lower classes and to open himself up to greater association with the dissenting sects.
Wesley never struck out as a radical, and until his death, he never left the church of his birth. However, as David Hempton describes, “there is a profound ambiguity at the heart of his opinions on religious establishments.” He did not hesitate to lambast the bulk of Anglican clergy for their corruption and worldliness, and he prioritized the growth of Methodism over strict adherence to Anglican sensitivities, to his peers’ consternation. Theologically, he distinguished carefully between ecclesial institutions and the community of believers, with the former existing only to serve and expand the latter. Thus, in his posture toward his church of origin, he was a “reluctant rebel.” His overarching goal of spreading the gospel, piety, and mercy far and wide brought him into sympathetic relation with the lower classes, into conflict with the vested interests of the stagnant state church, and into novel forms of community formation that provided spiritual access for those otherwise excluded, including women, the poor, and the incarcerated.
The contemporary Methodist church neither can nor should attempt to strictly imitate John Wesley nor the 18th-century movement he ignited. However, early Methodism stands out in Christian history because it did not begin with a radical ideological departure, not with a list of theses or a novel creed, but with a radical change in social orientation: away from the upper classes and the existing holders of institutional power and toward the lower classes and those without a secure place in the formal church. As the United Methodist Church looks toward a fractured future, this question of posture and orientation—for whom does this institution exist?—should take central place for leaders seeking to carry forward the Wesleyan legacy.
What would a Methodist Church oriented away from white holders of institutional power and toward the priorities of Black, immigrant, and other communities of color look like? A Methodist Church more committed to fellowship and solidarity with the impoverished and the incarcerated than to the aesthetic norms of its middle-class membership? A Methodist Church willing to “become more vile” by taking the way of Jesus to the spaces where young people are already living and gathering—online? A Methodist Church willing to risk association with dissenters and heretics if that is what it takes to disrupt and renew the ecclesial status quo? A Methodist Church where LGBTQ+ people experience neither avoidance nor mere tolerance, but a genuine haven of safety and belonging? These are Wesleyan questions.
Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 46.
Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 47.
David Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion c. 1750-1900. London: Routledge, 1996), 83.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.
never meant to show signs at a wedding always meant to save until later but oh how it made his mother smile when the clear water overflowed into rich red wine when there was abundance, a renewal of flowing fountains. it was there that celebration came to be it was there, between beloved creations be-loving each other that he saw such love up close in real time he was there, drinking his fill, miracles no longer waiting.
Aromantic Jesus retreats from the crowds, holds fast to faith in solitude refills his cup before greeting the fishermen takes a shaky breath at the speed the crowds find him, hail him, press up against him how fast they will befriend, and then how fast they will go how fast the romance calls, love of the way things are how fast he holds them, regards them, dear people, how quickly it all goes— oh to stop the rivers of time, the drink from emptying to command stillness from the tempest, and sleep in this boat, gently rocking.
Aromantic Jesus walks the straightforward path to the well, sees the beautiful Samaritan woman he knew before she was woman born. how she stares with startled, skeptical eyes, how she puzzles over his proximity. how their voices soon exchange into bridges and gateways and the natural reaches of light, heavenly organic light. through her, he confirms, humans indeed have hope. through her, he finds himself. later, they gawk as if he’d forgotten the rules of their journeying. I have food you know nothing about, he says, not missing a beat. He never forgot the rules. They forgot the goodness.
Aromantic Jesus wonders— not regrets, but wonders— if he had chosen to come formed into flesh that would respond, into a body that felt the pull of the tide into sparking favorites— would he have more time, then? Could he linger, cling to the earth longer with all the trivial hormonal distractions loving one and then another, unfocused on the world? But he so loved the world, and he so loved his kin that here in the fields under the stars, while foxes have their dens and birds their nest, he had nothing but his eternal love nothing but his soul and the world and a cup not taken from him.
Aromantic Jesus looked at them and loved them— the late night whispering against midnight chill with questions of old, the earth-smudged souls resting, alive, in flowering fields, their created splendor the men who dared drop their nets to follow, the women who dared against all question to touch him, the wilderness, garden, and city as one.
He breaks the bread, sobering:
I have food you know nothing about feeling the chill in his throat This is my body, broken for you he cannot himself heal— This is my blood, spilled anticipates the solitude—take it— the piercing, tumultuous, passionate starvation of —remember me— Love to come. This is my body.
He tries to ground this moment, to nail it into the history of the world.
Ellen Huang (she/her) is an aroace queer christian. She writes fairy tales, spec fic, ace horror, and lowkey spiritual blog posts about how she sees God in the movies. She reads for Whale Road Review and has work published in miniskirt magazine, The Oikonomist, Lucent Dreaming, Resurrection Mag, Sword & Kettle Press, From the Farther Trees, Quail Bell Magazine, Amethyst Review, Diverging Magazine, Wrongdoing Magazine, and more. Follow if you wanna: worrydollsandfloatinglights.wordpress.com
Starchild is a poet, artist, and pastor. Their work focuses on the intersection of the prophetic Christian tradition and the expansiveness and queering of love. Stream their new spoken-word album,Bloom!
People are often uncomfortable considering the reality they might become disabled at some point in their lives. As we navigate living through the pandemic, we have yet to know and grasp the long-term consequences this will have for our world. I anticipate the rise in numbers of disabled and chronically ill people after surviving COVID-19. The Biden Administration is already recognizing people living with long COVID as a group within the disabled community. As people of faith, we lack the ability to talk constructively about the reality of our mortality and finite bodies. We are uncomfortable confronting the limitations of our embodied experience.
Regardless of ability, we all confront the reality of embodied limitation. There are things that our bodies cannot do or once could but now cannot. We are constantly renegotiating what our bodies are able to do. Second, we all face the reality that someday we will die. Our finitude can be uncomfortable to grapple with as we make sense of what it means to be human. The embodied realities of disability and chronic illness are othered rather than perceived as a part of the normative spectrum of human experience. Often the embodied, lived experiences of disabled persons, whether in antiquity or the modern era, have been set aside as tragic or rare. During the pandemic, many people grappled with their own embodied limitation and finitude. Fear of the unknown consequences of long COVID on health and body is valid. Finally, the experiences of disabled persons—which may include wearing a mask, social isolation, and an awareness of bodily limitation—were a part of life before and will be long after the pandemic.
The word disability is an umbrella term that encompasses various physical, mental, cognitive, or neurodevelopmental conditions. People are born disabled. People may become disabled because of an illness or accident. People may lose the ability to do tasks and skills they once did because of aging. The lived experiences of disabled people include a variety of symptoms, conditions, and experiences. Disabled people and their bodies represent the spectrum of what it means to be human. Through the lens of disability theology, we are invited to rethink how we understand our bodies, limitation, and human experience. Disability theology allows us to challenge normative constructs of how bodies look and the perception of disabled persons. We must consider the embodied experience of disabled persons past and present. In Disability and the Christian Tradition: A Reader, John Swinton offers this definition: “Disability theology is the attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experiences of people with disabilities.” Some theologies do not celebrate, recognize, affirm, and empower the bodies of indigenous, black, female, poor, queer, and disabled persons and their personhood. The embodiment lens of theology challenges the Greek dualistic understanding that bodies, minds, and souls are separate. To carefully unravel how we talk about bodies, we have to become aware of how bodies are perceived.
Nancy Eiesland in The Disabled God: Towards A Liberatory Theology of Disability provides a constructive way to develop a liberatory approach to talking about Christ’s body after the resurrection. Jesus models for us a ministry of embodied solidarity in which his very body and self become like that of the “other.” He transfigures his body to mirror what is perceived as undesirable, “other,” beyond binary or norm. Eiesland writes, “The disabled God repudiates the concept of disability as a consequence of individual sin. Injustice against persons with disabilities is surely sin; our bodies are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not despite our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus newly risen appears before Thomas and the disciples to show them his disabled, wounded body. Jesus’ woundedness is a reminder that he has died, yes, as the scars of the crucifixion still on his body show. The body remembers trauma, and what Jesus has been through is traumatic. His body is not the same as before. His wounded body is imperfect, disabled, injured. It is neither a sign of divine punishment nor requiring healing. His injury is a part of who he has become, the wounded one. His brokenness is an essential part of this story. He shows the disciples the wounds: marks of nails in his hands and feet, a hole in his side.
Here is the good news: We are created undivided, whole beings in which we are both bodies and minds. We are bodies, and perhaps that phrase makes you unsettled to think about its implication both bodily and theologically. In the Creation narrative, God created all living things and called them good. Our bodies are inherently good, even bodies that are broken, scarred, and imperfect. Disabled bodies are good bodies. Disability is not the result of sin or divine punishment but a part of the human experience. Jesus as disabled shatters social expectations of what bodies look like. We are our bodies, and God cares about what happens to our bodies. And Jesus’ disabled body might even look like your body.
 Nancy L. Eiesland, “The Disabled God,” in The Disabled God toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 101.
Sara Martin is a seminary student at Saint Paul School of Theology and a local licensed pastor serving in the Oklahoma Annual Conference. She frequently writes from her perspective as a disabled person, pastor, and aspiring theologian. You can find more of her informal work on disability advocacy on Twitter under the username @GenZPastor.
In this interview with Yet Alive, Alfredo Santiago—a social worker, 2021 graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, and active participant in Latinx ministries in the Baltimore Washington Conference—discuss the unique gifts the Methodist church brings and challenges it faces in offering a welcoming table to all. The interview covered many topics, but Alfredo’s commitment to honoring the richness of Latinidad and his love of Methodism were clear dominant themes. We have tried to capture those loves in these excerpts from our interview.
Yet Alive: Can you talk about your background and religious history and tell me how you ended up in the Methodist church?
Alfredo Santiago: Interesting enough, it was connectional. I have a friend who’s a Methodist pastor, and he was doing community work in the Highlandtown area, a neighborhood of Baltimore, and we met through a mutual friend that he knew as a social worker. So we went into this community event that they were doing for Christmas. And I was impressed to see all the people volunteering. An all-white church, mostly elderly, and they were serving all these Latino immigrants.
Then he invited me to come back to his church to visit, so I visited. I would go to Catholic mass in the morning, and then I would go to his church to visit in the evening. So that’s how I started going to a Methodist church. I liked both experiences.
Then I remember when I went to a United Methodist communion Sunday. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Giovanni Arroyo, proclaimed that everyone was welcome to the table. And he said it one more time, very firmly, “Everyone is welcome to the table.” And when he said it, I believed it. And it spoke to my spirit. So after that, I received communion. I walked back to my seat in tears. I was a little bit embarrassed to be that person. Because I believed it, that there was nothing keeping me away from the Lord, from his table. And that all of me was welcome.
YA: Was that different from what you had experienced previously?
AS: You know, I was born Roman Catholic, and I’m not gonna complain about Roman Catholicism, but if we haven’t confessed to a priest, we’re not able to receive communion. And we have mortal sin and we have venial sin, so it’s like, am I in mortal sin today, venial sin today, do I have to go to confession before I can receive communion? So sometimes it wasn’t so clear whether I was worthy. That causes conflict with an image of a loving, merciful God—am I worthy to receive communion today?
YA: After you found the Methodist church, why did you decide to stay?
AS: [laughs] I think I liked the fact that it’s not just worship on Sunday, but it’s also doing love in action. I’m a service-centered person; that’s why I’m a social worker. I hope to become an ordained deacon, to be a servant leader. What I like about the Methodist church is that it really is community-centered. At least the way I perceive it, the way I want it to be, the way I try to live it. I like the connectional aspect to it, and they have that also in the Catholic church by the way, but it’s just different.
What I came to understand about why I became a Methodist is I need community. When I moved to Baltimore, I did find a Spanish-speaking Catholic church. And I would go to Mass, but when I would leave Mass, that was it. Nobody would invite me over for dinner or out for coffee. It was just like, “Okay, I guess I’m going home now.” I did go to a young adult group and it was nice, that hour that we had before Mass, but I always felt lonely, and meanwhile I was part of this congregation that had hundreds of people.
I’m in a different space now, but it’s also, I’m very intentional about spending time with people. Joining people for meals, sitting down and trying to get to know one another. It has a lot of value to me, beyond the church walls.
YA: How would you say your faith has changed over the decade or so that you’ve been part of the Methodist church?
AS: I felt a calling years ago, since I was young, to be in ministry. To be a priest, or maybe a friar. And [in Methodism] it’s obtainable, because there’s support around that, from men and women, from ordained ministers and from laypeople. I definitely want to continue that spirit of service, and I know that if I pursue that, other people will join me. And it won’t be like, “Oh, this is a great idea.” It’ll be like, “Let’s sit down and talk about that. Let’s make it happen. Let’s see who we have to connect with to make it happen.” That always brings me a lot of joy.
My Christian walk is very service-based. If I’m in church too much on Sundays, I start getting uncomfortable. You know, why aren’t we going outside? What are we doing wrong?
YA: So it sounds like it wasn’t really about your faith changing; it was more about finding a community that supported you in the things you were already passionate about?
AS: Yes. And already bought into. I came and [it wasn’t like] “Alfredo Santiago brings all this energy.” No, the energy is already there; I just join it. And when I say energy, again, the need to serve under-served community members.
YA: American United Methodism is overwhelmingly white. What unique things do you see people of Latine descent bringing to the dominant church culture?
AS: What we bring is that we come with faith already. We’re not being evangelized. Actually, we’re doing a lot of evangelizing to people, in the way that we live, in the way that we want to have a worship experience. I think that most Latino worship services are livelier. It doesn’t mean we have more Spirit, by the way, because you can be a conservative liturgist and the Holy Spirit can move in that way also, very quiet and peaceful. But I think we bring a liveliness, and we are not ashamed of that. We don’t tone it down. And because a lot of our folks are marginalized, we pay attention to the poor and marginalized. Because for some people it’s their lived experience right now, but they don’t want to just focus on themselves; they want to focus on others.
I think that there is a paradigm shift. A lot of times Latinos and other immigrants were seen as people that had to be ministered to, evangelized to, and the dichotomy is changing in that we are now in co-ministry together. There is a challenge in that. It’s nice to see that our church is universal, connectional, but when that starts to become a reality, sometimes there’s a little bit of pushback in that. Because you start getting into that conversation about “Oh, this is the way that we do it. This is the way that we’ve traditionally done it. This is how our church does it.” And I’ve sensed that in my church, but I’ve heard that same kind of theme in other churches also. It’s like, let’s try something different. We don’t want to erase that, but add something else to it or something new. And the Spirit keeps moving. It’s the same Spirit, but it gives us creativity. Let people use their gifts. But it’s almost like the added flavor is not always welcomed.
YA: That leads me to my next question. What do you think people, and congregations in the UMC in general, need to be doing better to allow the Spirit to work in our communities in a way that integrates Latine people?
A: English curriculum and English liturgies get translated to Spanish, but why don’t we find liturgies that were in Spanish and then get translated to English? Or find theologians who are Spanish speaking, Latino, and quote from them? There’s a richness in Methodism, by the way, and there’s a richness in a lot of theologians beyond our denomination who are south of our border, you know, Central and South America, [and] here within the United States. So giving them a voice…
A lot of times when we lead worship and say “Let’s have a bilingual service,” it’s always English, and Spanish echoes the English after it. It’s always the echo, like the afterthought. And the cultural sensitivity there would be “Let’s follow the Spanish speaking. Let’s respond to the liturgy in Spanish with English. So that we’re the echo versus that they’re the respondents.” We’re not always the ones that are on the receiving end of it. We’re not leading worship; we’re following worship, responding to worship, but we’re not leading worship.
I know some people actually get bothered by having bilingual services. It makes them uncomfortable; they don’t understand; they lose something. But I never hear a Latino person say that. I never hear them say that. And I hear that often from my English-speaking brothers and sisters. I appreciate that they come. But they always say that there’s something about it that doesn’t sit well with them. I think that has a lot to do with White privilege. That everything has to be smooth. Well, you know, people are uncomfortable. How about when people come from another country and they want to be part of your worship service, and they don’t understand the language, but they know that there’s something good happening so they keep coming back?
YA: It sounds like what you’re saying is it’s not enough to just welcome somebody in; you have to be willing to de-center yourself.
AS: That’s a wonderful way to show humility. And it takes discipline and humility to do that, to say, “I don’t have to be the center of worship. I don’t have to be the worship leader. It can be someone else, and I have an experience. Maybe they can provide a message.” Or even for our folks who are undocumented, who can’t go to seminary or there might be some polity in place that will block them from going into leadership, to become a full elder. Maybe they can become a local pastor. But how about letting some of your lay people be the worship leader because he or she has gifts. They might not have a theological education, but you can tell they have a strong Christian base. Give them some space for them to give a message.
If you need to get an interpreter because you don’t understand them, then invest in one. Get some interpretation machines or have somebody come and [interpret]. People make those adjustments all the time.
YA: If a church is looking to take a first step to being less Anglo-centric, what do you think that should be?
AS: First of all, I wouldn’t say “less Anglo-centric,” just be inclusive. If White Americans are the majority in the church, it’s going to have a certain kind of culture. If it has more African Americans, it’s going to have a certain culture. We’re not saying to mute that, just let us complement it. And not just Hispanic Heritage Month. Give us space throughout the course of the year.
YA: Yeah, that makes sense. The thing that we have not talked about is that being a person of Latino descent is only part of your identity, and there’s a whole lot else going on in the Methodist church in terms of inclusion and hospitality. I’d be interested to know, specifically coming from the intersection of an LGBTQ+ Latino background, how does that shape your faith, and how has that impacted your experience of Methodism?
AS: I’ll go back to the start of the conversation. When I heard everyone was welcome to the table, really, the whole person without exception, regardless of my sexual orientation, besides the fact that I’m a social worker, besides the fact that I’m bilingual, like all of me can come to the table, with no shame and just pride—I say pride as in dignity, as in human, right.
It’s interesting, politically speaking I’ve never had to “act up.” And that’s no disrespect to that group that was [acting up] in the ’80s and the ’90s. But I never felt like I had to come to church to be militant about being a gay man. But it seems to be a hot topic in our church right now and will cause unfortunate division. And it saddens me as a person who just joined this denomination that sexuality will separate the denomination.
I stay because I’ve been welcomed, and I’ve had positive experiences. I’ve heard a few people who [say things like], “it’s sin” and where would they stand with that, but for the most part, I feel very welcomed. I hear more straight allies talking about LGBTQ situations and they’re up in arms and angry for us and I’m like “wow.” So that’s love in action. Thanks for being an ally, and not just being an ally but being an advocate. That’s different from being raised Catholic. We went to confession for homosexuality; we felt guilty about it. Again, can I receive communion today or not? You know, those kinds of questions. So I don’t come in and try to be like a militant gay man who’s Methodist. I come in as a man who’s gay, social worker, bilingual. Like, it’s a part of my identity, not all of my identity.
Yeah, it’s just interesting. Are we going to be allies or not? Are we going to be able to sit next to each other in the pews or not? And for the most part, I think that people for years already have [been allies], so I’m like, so what, because they want to change a few words in our denomination, you know, that might split the whole denomination? But I’ve had a good experience, to be honest with you. It pains me, though, to hear about the split. To tears, it pains me. Because I like unity. I’m family-oriented, so anytime there’s a divorce, separation, I internalize that. But again, personal experience, I want to be a good Christian man, but there’s a lot more involved in this description of me. It’s multifaceted, my personality, and I don’t want some of my personality to be frowned upon and some of it to be celebrated. I think we’re all created by God, so we all need to be celebrated.
Q: What do you think the church needs to do, specifically for LGBTQ+ Latine people, to be more welcoming?
A: Welcoming [should] be intentional, [and intentionally state] that everyone is welcome here. Whether you’re White or Latino, whether you’re a citizen or undocumented, or you’re straight or you’re gay, whether you’re single, married, divorced, living together, like, everyone is welcome here. Be very intentional about saying it out loud: “This is a welcoming table.” Be very specific about what that means. That you over there, a gay man or lesbian woman or transgender person, you are welcome here to be in co-ministry with us. Not just to sit quietly. You have to be very intentional about that and let people know that.
I see people that have, like, rainbow flags outside the church. That’s nice. My church doesn’t, doesn’t mean it’s less inclusive. I don’t need that. I need to hear it. That you’re welcomed.
Q: Coming from your position as a social worker and someone who cares about immigrant rights and undocumented folks, are there other things Wesleyan Christians can be doing in the world?
A: You know, it might be wise for people who don’t have the experience of being from El Salvador, or from Honduras, or from Ecuador, where our folks are coming from, go and visit if we can. Do a mission trip. Evangelization can be just that, evangelizing, a revival and Sunday we finish with a big bang, or it could be that we go and help build a local hospital or a local school, that kind of mission work. We dig in the trenches and build a well. Know their experiences. Where are they coming from? People are saying they’re leaving their country because of violence; their lives are being threatened; their family members are being killed. Do I want to do a mission trip to those places? No! No. Would I, if I lived in that type of environment, want to leave? Yes! So show some compassion to people who are coming here. You’re saying “Why are those people here?” Well, sit down and talk to them and ask them. Individually, and not so hostile. Or go to their countries and find out. From a place of Christian love. Let’s go find out. And hopefully support, on that side of the border, and on this side of the border. A lot of us have the resources to do that. If not, we can find the resources. The Methodists are very resourceful. We support one another. That’s where the connectional part comes out.
And we talk about Latinos, but I would love to do a mission trip to Kenya. There’s a school there where the girls are orphans whose parents died of HIV/AIDS. That connection where we Latinos can be global also, not just thinking south of the border, but that we’re thinking on a global level because we have the social media that allows us to do that. We can join in ministry beyond south of the border.
Specifically about being welcoming, understand. Understand, and let’s have conversation; let’s go visit. And not just Taco Tuesday.
Alfredo Santiago (he/him) is a licensed clinical social worker and candidate for deacon’s orders in the United Methodist Church. After being raised in a charismatic Roman Catholic tradition in New Jersey, he moved to Baltimore where he is a member of Salem-Baltimore Hispanic United Methodist Church. He is a recent graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary and a passionate pursuer of justice for all people. He lives in Baltimore with his foster sons and their beloved dog, Chuck.
Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
What is the goal of Christian antiracism? Specifically from my own context, I ask: What is the responsibility of churches that contain white people to shape those white people toward real Christian antiracism? It is important to address this question at least in part because in some circles, people tend to think that antiracism is only interested in critiquing or tearing down the negative aspects of our current world. While this is an important aspect of antiracist work, the goal is the creation of a new society, and ultimately a new world, where the human dignity of each person is recognized and respected. The problem that we encounter in striving for this new world is that certain systems and structures—anti-Black racism and white supremacy, for example—are incompatible with a world that allows for the human flourishing of all people. So, in constructing the new, some of the old must be done away with.
This vision of a renewed world was called the Beloved Community by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who dedicated his life to making it a reality. I draw on King because I believe that he exemplified the need for simultaneous construction and destruction, as well as understanding the need for both theological complexity and theology put into practice.
Antiracism is more holistic and comprehensive than simple colorblindness. The idea of colorblindness is, in essence, that the best way to address racism and inequality is by attempting to treat everyone the same, regardless of their race. While this approach may sound appealing initially—and is supported by some well-meaning individuals—it ultimately serves to entrench racism and inequality rather than addressing them. As Montague Williams, professor of Church, Culture, and Society at Point Loma Nazarene University, states, “To be clear, color-blindness is not a Christian virtue… [it] maintain[s] racial injustice by claiming the recognition of race to be unconstitutional, anti-American, and immoral.”
Rather than ignoring the problem of racial injustice, King called for a radical restructuring of our internal lives, interpersonal relationships, and the fundamental value structures of this world—what I refer to as radical love and conversion. One of the main obstacles that King faced in attempting to instantiate this alternative reality, the Beloved Community, was what he referred to as “the white moderate.” The white moderate is one who is so ensconced in the status quo that even if you convince them that white supremacy exists and change is required, they will be unable or unwilling to imagine a different reality. King’s frustration with the white moderate Christian leads him to cry out in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” King could clearly see that following Christ involved tearing down systems of oppression and building a humane community together, but the vast majority of white Christians either denied the existence of oppression altogether or counseled King to be patient and allow oppression to resolve on its own.
As Christians who discover ourselves in a world where colorblindness is often assumed to be the definition of antiracism, we must soberly confront the issue in order to form each other in real antiracism. We have to confront the issue so that white siblings in Christ are not misled from the mission of Christ into a false antiracism.
In short, King calls for us to become members of the Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, each member works to recognize and properly value the humanity of each other member, and God’s love reigns as the overarching principle. Though this kind of talk strikes many as naively utopian, King believed that he was being eminently practical, and following in the path of Jesus, who King argued was fundamentally a realist. In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” King states,
Yet far from being the impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. … Instead of being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command [to love our enemies] is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Love is the key to the solution of the world’s problem, yes even love for enemies.
As we see here, King saw that without a community based on the all encompassing love of God, society was doomed to implode, either through conventional means like political infighting or apocalyptic ones like nuclear co-annihilation. King often spoke in prophetic terms about how America and the world were doomed, or were going to be sent to hell, if we humans could not figure out how to love one another with the love of God.
However, it is important to note that, for King, love is not what he derisively called “emotional bosh.” Rather, love is tapping into the power of God to bring about change in the world. Love, in this divine, radical sense, participates in the power of God to reshape and redeem our world. Indeed, King argued that love could not be separated from power, stating,
One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. … Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Given this understanding of the necessary connection between love and power, we can begin to understand what radical love means to King. Radical love is not sentimentality or even feelings of affection for other people; King tried to love everyone but freely admitted he did not like everyone, especially the people oppressing him and upholding the status quo. Love entails wanting what is best for everyone, even if what is best for them is back-breakingly hard. This brings us to the concept of conversion.
Speaking at the legendary Highlander Folk School, King stated that the goal of the nonviolent demonstrations he led was to “leave [white people] glutted with [their] own barbarity; you will force [them] to stand before the world and [their] God splattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of [their] Negro brother.” King spoke of the demonstrations he led as dramatizations of the plight of Black Americans, which were intended to wake up white people to the reality of oppression in which we were and are complicit. And by encouraging white people to rid themselves and the world of that which stands in the way of their communion with their fellow humans, King was also attempting to rehabilitate white people’s communion with God, whose love is the source of true community and authenticity. In other words, King was hoping to bring about a conversion in white people.
This conversion is difficult, even painful. Indeed, one way of speaking about it is to say that King hoped that white people would suffer. What I mean by this is that King desired that white people would come to see themselves as intimately connected with their fellows—specifically Black Americans—and would come to experience something of the suffering of Black people. This is similar to what Frederick Douglass desired for white people. Douglass recognized, on the one hand, that no one could fully understand what it was like to be another person, which was especially true when there were significant differences between the people in question. Yet, Douglass believed that the effort to see from another person’s perspective, and feel what they feel, produced an “ethical intersubjectivity,” or, in other words, made a moral community possible. These efforts make community possible because the members of such a community value and try to understand each other’s perspective. King often stated that “what affects one directly affects all indirectly,” which entails that when one person is suffering, all people suffer as a result. All suffer because we are not fundamentally individuals but what King at times called persons-in-community. Our ability to be individuals comes from our human community.
In his final address, which has come to be known as the Mountaintop speech, King speaks to these ideas of community and suffering: “Up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kind of redistribute that pain.”Note King’s use of the word “feeling” here. He does not say that only the garbage men have been affected but that only they are aware of it. In fact, everyone is damaged due to the injustice King names, but some privileged (primarily white) people are unaware that they are being injured because they have neglected their duties to other (primarily Black) people in their midst. Thus, King desires that this pain be felt by all not out of a sense of vengeance or a desire to do harm to others, but rather so that those who are complicit in white supremacy will come to see not only its detrimental effects upon others but also the harms it is causing to society at large and their own ability to lead a flourishing life. This kind of suffering is redemptive because it leads to love of others and love of God, which is the sort of conversion King was interested in.
This willingness to embrace the suffering of others can be understood as part of the eternal call to model our lives on that of Christ. One constructive perspective is provided by AJ Maynard, an author at Conciliar Post, who argues that white supremacy can be understood as a kind of original sin. He states:
Institutional racism is the world we live in; it is our Original Sin. You and I may not personally believe black individuals are, by nature, inferior to white individuals. But we nonetheless live within, and benefit from, a system built and maintained by people who did. Because of this, every white Christian should now consider not if, but rather how we are racist, which will require “… nothing less than renovation from the inside.”
Maynard’s suggestion is helpful because it points out that, while we will likely need to struggle against white supremacy both internally and externally for the foreseeable future, we also can be redeemed by God through conversion, just as we are redeemed by conversion from original sin.
Theologian Matt Jantzen, in conversation with the founder of academic Black Liberation theology James Cone, argues that this conversion “is not a human achievement but a divine gift.” Conversion is something that we cannot do ourselves, but through which we are empowered by God’s grace to participate in the divine plan to bring down all systems of oppression. Jantzen notes,
The destruction of one’s whiteness does not happen in a heroic moment of personal reinvention, but requires the literal destruction of the material manifestations of whiteness in the world. … It is both an individual and communal phenomenon.
So, drawing on Jantzen, conversion from whiteness is both a moment of divine grace and a working out of divine grace in the lives of people socialized as white, to break the power of white supremacy in spiritual and material ways within the context of community. Or, in the terminology of King, it is working to become members of the Beloved Community by radically loving ourselves and others in ways that break down systems of oppression and make way for loving community with God and our fellow humans. This path is not easy. Indeed, by ourselves it is impossible. Yet, Christian hope lies in the impossible, in the lion lying down with the lamb, in the great empires being brought low by a Galilean peasant, and in the resurrection of the dead to new, transformed life. So, in closing, I hope you will join me in praying for and working toward the impossible: the dissolution of white supremacy and all systems of oppression, and the full realization of the Beloved Community.
 It is more accurate to say “people racialized as white,” because whiteness is a historical, social construction. That is to say, it is not natural in a genetic sense nor something that is a part of the essence of a person. However, social constructs like whiteness have very real consequences for both those racialized as white and those excluded from whiteness. And, as I will argue in this article, it takes far more than ignoring race as a social construct to do away with its devastating effects.
 Montague R. Williams, Church in Color : Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr, Baylor University Press: 2020, p. 47-50.
 One of King’s best speeches on this subject was given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” However, the idea of a radical restructuring is found throughout King’s works. If you wish to read King’s address “Where Do We Go From Here?” it can be found here: https://www.crmvet.org/info/67mlkchs.htm.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “A Look to the Future,” in All Labor Has Dignity, Beacon Press: 2012, p. 8.
 This does not mean that King thought that Black people had no work to do. Rather, I mean that the work that white people have to do with throwing off white supremacy, both from our own minds and our society, is different from the work Black people have to do fighting off the negative effects of white supremacy and racism. White and Black people can and should work together to oppose these demonic systems, but the work that they have to do is different because of the different ways that Black and white people are situated in the world.
 Nick Bromell, The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass, Duke University Press: 2021, p. 67.
 Matt Jantzen, “Neither Ally, Nor Accomplice,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 40, no. 2, 2020, p. 286.
 Jantzen, “Neither Ally, Nor Accomplice,” 287.
David Justice is a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University writing his dissertation on the political theology of Martin Luther King Jr. He is also concurrently enrolled as an MA student in the religion department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
You came to me in a dream where we were sitting in an urban garden
before dawn and you were smoking a cigarette and I wanted one just to wake up and you took
yours out of your mouth and put it on the trash can lid in front of me and I don’t have more than
that right now except for a few conversations with homeless men who spoke with words from beyond
them which made me think they were you but all I want is to hear you say my name one
time when I think all hope is lost and the empire has finally all the way won.
Just say my name so I will say Rabboni and find your nail holes with my lips.
Don’t tell me not to cling to you this time; you do not need to go back to your father any longer.
It’s time to make Easter flowers bloom; it’s time to introduce the world to my lover
who cannot be held in the tomb any longer by Bible teachers who locked him in their books.
Starchild is a poet, artist, and pastor. Their work focuses on the intersection of the prophetic Christian tradition and the expansiveness and queering of love. Stream their new spoken-word album,Bloom!
“And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!”
Charles Wesley, 1749
No hymn seems to cut to the core of the Methodist experience in 2021 quite like the very same Charles Wesley hymn that early Methodists used to convene their annual conferences together. Are we yet alive? Feels like we’re just barely hanging on sometimes. We are rocked by tumult and strife. The American church has been in steep numerical decline not only for my entire life, but my parents’ as well. A global pandemic has ravaged every aspect of our personal, social, and ecclesial lives for over a year and a half. Some churches have yet to reopen, while others are contemplating how to respond to COVID infection rates spiking yet again. Because of the pandemic, the United Methodist Church is in a holding pattern for finalizing a schism that’s been rolling in slow motion for decades. The Connection—that fundamental fabric that undergirds Methodist theology and polity—is threadbare.
We (and I suspect this is applicable for all Methodisms and all Wesleyan churches, not just the UMC) are in an interregnum. The old Methodism we know well is visibly passing away; the structures that once buttressed mighty mainline denominations are dinosaurs from the general church to local church levels, chronically failing to adapt to a changing landscape… not always for lack of trying! And yet a new Methodism has not emerged, outside a conservative proto-denomination whose founding ideal—however they try to spin it—is the maintenance and strengthening of the exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people from full participation in the body of Christ. The lopsidedness is jarring, as the nascent Global Methodist Church has had a draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline prepared for nearly two years now while a robust vision for the future has yet to take hold among affirming Wesleyans.
The reason our team—young United Methodists from across the United States, lay, clergy, and almost-clergy—came together to create this publication is our earnest belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in this moment. We saw in one another kindred spirits who believe we are yet alive, by the grace of God, called to do our part in envisioning and strengthening an emerging church that is simultaneously Wesleyan and unabashedly LGBTQIA+ affirming. And we know we’re far from alone, not only in our denomination, but in the broad Wesleyan family that includes Methodists, Holiness churches, and Pentecostals. We believe the pietistic, Spirit-filled, social justice-oriented revival that John Wesley nurtured among the working class in 18th-century England has not been extinguished, and is in fact perfectly suited for where we find ourselves today. Wesley believed God empowers people across gender, race, and class in the pursuit of holiness and sanctification—and we’d simply broaden the intersectional nature of the project he began in preaching to ragged masses at the mouths of coal mines and training his preachers to bring cutting-edge medical care to the poor.
A new Methodism is coming; indeed, it must come. The way we have done things for nearly two centuries is no longer working. Many of the Millennials and Zoomers among us have the paradoxical blessing of starting fresh, having never seen the church we love operating on all cylinders. Our hope is for Yet Alive to offer a forum to envision the new, to hash it out, to engage in a vibrant and productive holy conferencing that official channels are grievously failing to achieve. The Methodist tradition has always had spaces like this. A major instrument in the promulgation of British Methodism was John Wesley’s own publication, The Arminian Magazine, which served to draw a clear doctrinal picture of God’s love as Wesley understood it and stand against Calvinism in the Methodist movement. The magazine motive, centuries later, offered a radical theological, political, and social vision from the Methodist Student Movement from 1941 to 1972, pressing far beyond the pale of acceptable dialogue for the institutional Methodist (and later United Methodist) Church.
Yet Alive seeks to stand in that great line, and amplify voices that too often go unheard, be it in the academy, the blogosphere, or on the floor of Annual and General Conference. Our intent is to publish writing that is accessible to a broad audience. We want to be a resource for the person who’s stumbled into a Methodist church that reopened its doors this spring as much as we are for the PhD or the ordained elder or deacon. After all, this is a project geared above all toward the revitalization—revival?—of the church. Ours is an unusual time to be a Methodist, and what exactly lies beyond the foggy horizon is uncertain. But, best of all, God is with us! We are yet alive, and the Spirit is moving mightily to build a robust Wesleyan movement that is proudly inclusive. We hope you’ll join us, as a reader and maybe even as a writer, as an exciting future unfolds before us.
I haven’t been a Methodist for long; I joined my first United Methodist church in 2015 after spending the first 25 years of my life mostly in evangelical Christian spaces. But I immediately felt at home. One of my favorite things about Methodists is, you know, the methods—the guidelines. I love that we have whole documents and guidelines dedicated to not just theological positions but also things like social principles and justice; I love how concerned the Methodists are with how to live now, in addition to where we’ll live after we die.
One of my favorite examples of this is the experience portion of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. The UMC Book of Discipline says that “Christian experience gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. It confirms the biblical message for our present. It illumines our understanding of God and creation and motivates us to make sensitive moral judgments.” What that means to me is that what we’re doing here matters. Our lives on earth, our embodied experiences, are significant. Whether intentionally or not, the faith traditions I grew up in tended to emphasize the next life as the most important thing, the end goal. As an anxious overthinker, I struggled with getting excited about an eternal afterlife we don’t know anything about. The affirmation that my experiences are meant to illuminate my understanding of God and help me live right feels like the gospel to me.
One way I’ve encountered this since joining the UMC is in small group. I grew up in church and stayed very churchy through college, so I’d always done Sunday school and student ministries, but often felt like those spaces existed in a vacuum; they were about being Christians together, not being people together who also were Christians. I had friends, and then I had “church friends.” When I was part of a pilot small group at the UMC church I joined several years ago, I saw for the first time the potential of real, authentic community based on but not exclusively about Christianity. We were already “church friends,” but as a small group, we gathered once a week over chips and dip and wine to recommend TV shows to each other and read books together and laugh and cry and shake our heads in disbelief about, essentially, everything—about our experiences. It was the first time I felt like I could share all of the mess in my head and in my heart safely in the context of a faith community and make room for others to share their whole lives with me, too.
Not only was this first real small group experience fun, but it was also deeply freeing. Whether explicitly or not, I grew up taking in the lesson that there is a single correct way to interpret the Bible and God’s will, and that I can’t really trust myself to do it. We’re sinful and dirty and constantly under attack from Satan’s forces, and so it is reckless to listen to any voice from within us because who knows whether it’s the Holy Spirit or some supernatural evil or just my own sinful desires? Well-meaning and loving evangelical leaders in my early life emphasized that there is only one truth, and therefore only a narrow set of right theology and right habits and right thinking, and straying too far outside of those parameters is dangerous and even heretical.
But “experience” in the Wesleyan quadrilateral acknowledges that all of us, including those leaders who taught me to fear heresy, bring our own lenses and biases and cultures to our understanding of faith. My childhood evangelical pastor and my current UMC pastor would disagree sharply on many significant points—in fact, the former would take issue with the latter being a pastor at all—but they are both loving people called to ministry and doing their best to point people to God. One of my small group friends has become one of my best friends period, and we’re not the same gender or in the same generation or pursuing the same life goals, and we are at very different points on the political spectrum, but we are both doing our best to work out our faith in our daily lives and love each other and those around us. We come to different conclusions about how to do that, but we respect each other enough to honor each other’s efforts instead of seeing them as wrong for being different.
Ultimately, I think this is key to a way forward: honoring each other’s efforts and trusting that while God works all things for good for those who love him, those who love God can also be given space to do good work. When we strive for a lofty spiritual ideal, disembodied from and deprioritizing our messy humanness, we can too easily dismiss anyone’s lived experience that doesn’t align with our vision of the right way to live a godly life. But, by contrast, if we can learn to trust that our experiences help us understand God instead of pulling us away from God, maybe we can find the grace to trust that that same process is happening in those around us—even when we don’t understand it or it looks different than we might expect.
Long before I found myself in a Methodist church, I was approached by a friend who had just A) become a Christian and B) come out as bisexual. They were receiving messages that these two parts of themself couldn’t exist together, and they wanted to talk to someone who could encourage them. To that point, most of my faith leaders would have agreed that my friend was living in contradiction—in sin. But, by the grace of God, my friend stirred my spirit in a different direction. If they felt themselves in love with Jesus and wanted to follow Him, and also they might sometime feel themself in love with someone not of “the opposite sex,” how could it possibly be my responsibility to tell them they were wrong? I don’t remember the conversation we had, but I hope my friend was encouraged. I certainly was changed. I likely wouldn’t have recognized the name John Wesley, but already the experience portion of his quadrilateral was a key part of my theology.
The legitimacy of our queer Christian brothers and sisters is a hot-button topic in the UMC right now, but this is certainly not the only example of the need to honor experience. If I’ve never been the victim of a hate crime, and I can’t bring myself to see or believe in a Black person’s lived experience or I think it weighs less than my experience (or lack thereof), I put spiritual ideology ahead of real-time justice. If I believe that Jesus alone can heal mental illness, and I try to encourage my friend to pray instead of going to therapy or taking antidepressants (in combination with prayer), my bad advice could have real consequences. If the most important thing about my faith is knowing that I’ve got a ticket to heaven when I die and that everything there will be better than anything here, how tempting is it for me to dismiss the grief of a friend who has lost a loved one or to minimize a neighbor’s chronic pain or financial trouble?
A familiar Christian cliché is about being so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good. I tend to refer to heavenly mindedness as just wait ‘til you die theology. Sorry about the poverty or the depression or the cancer, but, you know, heaven! Well-meaning Christians can and do inflict such harm with this kind of thinking. Besides, if this is all a crappy rehearsal for finally getting to be in glory in the afterlife—not that that’s not wonderful, but if that’s all there is to look forward to—then why are we here? Why do this part? Why would a lonely God put us so far away for a while instead of just populating heaven with us? Why would a creative God make us with our different features and loves and desires and quirks, in our different times and places, if none of this ultimately matters and we’re really just supposed to wait ‘til we die to come alive? To me, the experience part of the quadrilateral isn’t just about believing and validating each other’s experiences, but about having experiences. I don’t know why God put us here, but I know that God put us here. It’s one of the only things I feel like I know for sure.
The theology of experience is tied up with the theology of the body. I don’t believe it’s true that we don’t have souls, that we are souls who only have bodies. I believe we’re both; we’re all of it: soul, body, spirit, joy, despair, personal and corporate, in this life and, God willing, in the life to come. We would do well to think less of this life as prologue or rehearsal and more as act one—a significant part of the story, not to be taken for granted. And when our fellow soulbodies share their stories with us, instead of looking for plot holes, we would do well to listen and learn, to celebrate and mourn with each other, to affirm each other’s realities, to revel in the mystery and the clarity of our experience. In Luke 17, Jesus himself renounces wait ‘til you die theology: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20–21 NRSV). It’s among you. It’s us. What incredible good news, if we let it be.
Catey Miller lives in eastern North Carolina with her husband and their rescue dogs, Lily and Pax. She received her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2015 and is taking classes toward the master of arts in theology and religion at Drew University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Hunger Mountain, YA Review Network, Lunch Ticket, and Ruminate, and she blogs about her faith at cateymiller.com.You can find her tweeting mostly about theology and TV shows at @beingfacetious.
“Pivotal to my relatedness to God, on the one hand, and to my neighbor, on the other, is my relationship to myself. Unless I love and accept myself, I am not free to love and accept my neighbor. Loving myself in this context simply means self-respect, a self-regard born of the realization that I am the object of God’s limitless love and mercy, part of his creation. Self-acceptance does not mean uncritical self-approval, but self-understanding, awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, and the blessed assurance that God-in-Christ is working in me and through me towards the perfection of my life.”
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, The Second Great Commandment
I have a confession: As a person who grew up in church, I learned to hate myself.
To be fair, I do not believe that my parents, my pastors, and many members of my Christian communities wanted me to hate myself outright. In fact, I believe that they loved me, many of them as much as they were able, and that they ultimately did what they thought was best for me. They used the tools and resources that they could access for what they imagined was my benefit, and they made sacrifices with the intentions that I would be safe and well. I really believe all of that, without a doubt.
Ostensibly though, the collective impact of years with Christian people was that I learned to fear, shame, and hate myself. Here is some context of how that happened.
I was assigned male at birth and expressed a lot of femininity early on as a child. While my father and two older brothers provided plenty of familial examples for modeling masculinity, I remember feeling much closer with my mother and feeling social anxiety about playtime with boys, more so than with girls. My innocent interests in makeup, high heels, and the pink and yellow Power Rangers had to have been obvious giveaways that I was not a typical guy’s guy.
Despite expressing these kinds of interests at home, school, and church, I was regularly nurtured away from them, intuiting clearly that I was supposed to be more like my dad than my mom and that I wasn’t really supposed to act like a girl at all. I eventually became afraid of expressing those interests because of other people’s reactions and figured out that people would celebrate me more when I performed gender in ways that they could understand. By age seven, I committed to being a good son and brother, a good student (I was in fourth grade by this point), and a good born-again Christian. I had a strategy of being good in order to fit in and belong, and a major part of that strategy was staying within normal gender bounds of boyhood.
I patrolled myself and told myself it was goodness, patience, and self-control, the fruits of the Spirit.
By the time I made it to adolescence, I had already internalized a lot of the social, cultural, and spiritual formation of my people’s contexts. While I did grow up seeing several Black women preach, lead, and share power in church spaces, the men were still the models who set the standard. Alongside this subtle misogyny and sexism was a surplus of homophobia and transphobia. My communities of origin taught me undoubtedly that marriage was between one man and one woman and that homosexuality was a sin. Even though I believed Jesus loved me, I did not know how to make sense of my burgeoning sexual curiosities in people while maintaining my concept of righteousness. There was no affirming way to be homosexual and holy.
Thus, I was most certainly earning my way into heaven and proving to others and myself that I was better than good, that I was sanctified and set apart. I continued to overachieve academically, to practice Christianity as faithfully as I could, and to repress my sexuality diligently. Any indulgence in the pleasure my body offered me became progressively drenched in ascetic shame.
I avoided myself and told myself I was “denying my flesh” and “bearing my cross.”
As a young adult, I made it through Duke University, volunteering at my church and other Christian organizations, paying my tithes and offerings, and perfecting the practices of “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” I had developed into an altruistic Christian that was undeniably not heterosexual while also espousing beliefs that only made space for people to thrive in heterosexual marriage. My church, at that time, promoted this concept so much that they were arguably against folks remaining single. Despite the dissonance I really did feel, I doubled and tripled down, gave more sacrificially, and even managed to find a sister-in-Christ who reciprocated my romantic interests. I developed a strong sense of moral superiority in order to make up for a profoundly deep-seated inferiority complex.
While I had managed to accept that I was neither straight nor gay, other Christians sadly punished me for naming that truth and attempting to live into it honestly. I watched them withhold love from me because I refused to continue playing by the rules of the cishetero game, one I could never really win. I carried so much shame about who I was (not) and bitterness about God refusing to grant me the acceptance and affirmation I watched other people securing. I knew I deserved better but was uncertain if better would ever become my reality.
I deceived myself and told myself that this was God’s will and design for my life.
Whewwwww, y’all—the amount of quoting and qualifying necessary to recount my complicated upbringing is astounding. Yet I offer this testimony transparently because I really thought I was digesting milk and meat, but some of that spiritual food was poisoned. I was malnourished, being taught that my intrinsic desires and needs were inherently bad and wrong. Despite all the faithful attempts to relate with God and others righteously, I was mistaking false truth after false truth as absolute, and my spirit and psyche bore the impacts of those death-dealing, toxic theologies.
The journey into my 30s has been an ongoing healing process of deconstructing and decolonizing, or reimagining and reclaiming, of expanding and evolving. Thanks to a handful of people, mostly women, who lead and serve at my current church, CityWell UMC, I have come to understand the utility of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This particular Methodist model helped me articulate how the various ways that my parents, my pastors, and many of my fellow Christians stewarded scripture, tradition, reason, and experience had taught me to hate myself. They often knowingly and unknowingly weaponized these primary tools of faith, giving to me what they had received, doing to me what others did to them and what they had done to themselves, for better and for worse.
This finally brings me to self-love and to our beloved Pauli Murray.
In case you don’t know who Pauli is, here’s a quick point of reference for this particular hidden figure, especially for those who live in the United States. There is no Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Thurgood Marshall, two of the country’s most notable Supreme Court justices, without thee reverend, doctor, and saint, Pauli Murray. Pauli was a human rights pioneer who left behind a legacy of revolutionary love and creative energy that we still live in today.
That said, Pauli is clear in their sermon: the practice of loving yourself is fundamentally inseparable from that of loving neighbor and of loving God. She reminds us that we don’t have to like everyone but that we also don’t get to choose who we accept and reject either. Pauli exposes our hypocrisy and humanizes the inevitable obstacles and risks that come with negotiating how to love.
Oftentimes, we learn to live into insidious binaries, like the idea that loving oneself is selfish and loving others is selfless. This weighs more heavily when society teaches some to regard themselves as inferior—again, it’s the self-hatred for me. Consequently, we can feel bad whenever we choose ourselves first, and we practice giving up parts of ourselves, parts meant for us to possess with dignity. This lukewarm way of being subtly dehumanizes, obscuring the nuance of how loving oneself deeply connects to how one loves other people, God, and really all of creation.
Learning this lesson was a challenge for me because I had been accustomed to prioritizing others’ needs and opinions over my own and misinterpreting this practice as holy. I focused almost singularly on giving others love because I believed that would make others love me. I had no real practice or concept for loving myself well. I was abstaining from self-love.
The examples of Pauli Murray, James Baldwin, and many other queer people of color whose names are too many for me to count opened me up to understand self-love as an act of good trouble, a holy practice of resistance. I have stopped trying to earn love and offered myself the unconditional acceptance and affirmation that was always mine. I have changed my focus and set new boundaries. I have committed to protecting my energies. I have retired from prioritizing the conflicting opinions of others, and I refuse to compromise my intrinsic personhood. I love myself even when it makes others uncomfortable.
Little by little, the sum total of bitterness, shame, fear, and hatred have been subsiding—thanks be to God. It is much easier to offer kindness to others when I am already offering it to myself and when I no longer always need others to reciprocate. It also makes a world of difference being with people who know how to love me well and being part of imperfect spiritual communities that use our tools of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to make real peace rather than to keep false peace. And while I still want to be good, goodness now is less about earning and achieving human dignity as a goal and more about practicing human dignity as a given.
I believe now that these tools of faith, when stewarded well, can protect all of us, especially those whom our world makes most vulnerable, and can help us generate processes for restoring and transforming our world, especially when we fall short. We can activate their utility in order to offer ourselves more than just the rigid binaries of absolute pardon or punishment. We can think with sober judgment and give ourselves permission to be imperfect. We can hold each other accountable with the truth in love and without shame and condemnation. We can emancipate ourselves spiritually and heal from the psychic violence we have inherited, suffered, and even caused.
This kind of love can be hard to imagine, let alone offer to ourselves and to others, especially when entangled with all the other toxic, traumatic stuff we have experienced. It can be challenging to lift your gaze beyond the traumas and shift attention to the joy, fortitude, dignity, and wholeness, and I declare it is possible and happening. If, like me, you learned to hate yourself, whether because of your identities or something else, I am here to declare that you are more than that hatred and that you deserve to love yourself just as you are. There is nothing to earn or to prove, no one to make you eligible or qualified. We deserve this kind of love, unconditionally and fundamentally, as part of our communal life together. However you identify, I invite you to love yourself and to love LGBTQ+ people like Jesus taught Pauli. Nationally, Pride Month is in June, but that invitation to love is open year round. It is always the right time to celebrate and commemorate the practices of loving us LGBTQ+ folks well. Join with any and all who choose love and truth, resist abuse and neglect, and use the tools and resources we have collectively for the ongoing work of healing and justice.
Jesse Nathaniel Huddleston (he/she/they/we) grew up in church participating in worship through song and dance and comes from a family full of ministers, artists, and educators. He has lived in North Carolina since 2006 when he enrolled at Duke as an undergraduate student. They finished in 2010 with degrees in sociology and psychology and later completed a master of science in counseling in 2014. Jesse continues to develop her vocational work for equity and community engagement through the arts in Durham, and she has served with CityWell UMC since January 2017. As a Black genderqueer human, we draw significant inspirations of learning, healing, and joy from our Blackqueer ancestors, Pauli Murray and James Baldwin, and we aspire to encourage all people to resist any human development rooted in shame or control and to pursue healthy, humanizing formation grounded in revolutionary love and creative energy. In their spare time, they bake pound cakes from scratch, tend to their indoor plants, and mind their business. He is often spending time with friends and neighbors, be it over food and drink at home, out at a social or political event, or on a dance floor. You can follow Jesse on Instagram at @huddlespeak.
Yet Alive aims to be a church resource that highlights the intersections of pan-Wesleyan heritage with contemporary applications, claiming LGBTQIA+-affirmation, and especially seeking to elevate voices that are historically on the margins of the church for reasons of race, ethnicity, class, nationality, disability, and gender identity. Even among affirming thinkers, Wesleyan theology gives us room for both orthodoxy and exploration, and the publication will lean on this theological diversity to highlight the richness of our tradition.