“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.