When Following the Rules Denies the Hope of Grace

When Following the Rules Denies the Hope of Grace October 15, 2015

By Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Most of us know the story of the moving moment just after Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia when he told the driver to stop his car. Francis opened the car door, walked over to a barrier and kissed a 10-year-old wheelchair bound boy. The boy, Michael Keating, has a twin brother, Chris, and a sister, Katie, two years older.

This link goes to the larger story of Michael’s family and his adoptive parents, Kristin and Chuck, life-long and loyal Catholics. I hope you will read the whole story, but the portion that particularly struck me was this:

When Chris was ready for his first Holy Communion, in second grade, Kristin and Chuck assumed the twins would receive their first Communion side by side. Their parish priest said no: Because Michael could not recite his first confession and could not swallow the wafer on his own, the priest said he was not allowed to receive the sacrament.

And there we have it: the loyal rule follower, the one so focused on keeping the rules that grace cannot break in. The Keatings properly left that parish, never to return, but found another where the priest had done everything possible to make the church accessible to all, including the sacrament.

The Parallels to Jesus’s Healings

When I read about the Keatings’ situation with the priest and the denial of the sacrament, I immediately thought of this story:

Again he [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”

Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-6, NRSV)

I have never failed to be fascinated by the fact that the rule followers of Jesus’s day were utterly uninterested in whether a healing would take place. They just wanted to make sure the rules were followed.

They set out to destroy anyone who would dare break them.

The sacrament-denying priest and those given the responsibility to make sure the Israelites stayed faithful to the one true God were both right. And they were both tragically wrong.

The Rule Rules

We have today a vocal and powerful segment of Christianity, and particularly a segment in The United Methodist Church my own beloved denomination, that works from the same mission: make sure the rules are followed.

Our “rule book,” the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, indeed has its rules.

One set of those rules concern the affirmation of the sacred worth of every human being with one tiny, little exception. Should one not fit the sexual mainstream (perhaps as young Michael Keating does not fit the physical mainstream?), then such a one is deemed unacceptable.

These words appear to put to lie the many other words we say about being a welcoming church. Nonetheless, they are in the rule book that we must adhere to if we are to stay connected and accountable to one another.

It also appears that the rule followers in the UMC follow the pattern of the sacrament-denying priest of 21st century Philadelphia and the healing-denying Pharisees of first-century Israel. The rule rules rather than a larger truth that might mean acknowledging the the rule might itself be wrong.

It’s such an easy fix. Remove the language in the rule book that denies the fullness of human dignity to a beleaguered and long-excluded minority. Quit singling out one group as irreparably broken. Recognize that all of humankind depends upon grace rather than upon our individual abilities to follow the rules in order to find welcome at the wedding feast.

Call upon all to live lives of holy integrity based upon the basic rule of treating others in the way we ourselves wish to be treated. We need change no doctrines nor foundational organizational principles to do this. We don’t have to put more rules in. Just take one out. The whole edifice will not crumble.

But it won’t happen.

My Prediction

The rule followers of the first-century were so sure of their righteousness that they fought to the death of Jesus to keep their version of holiness alive.

The rule followers of today are so sure of their righteousness that they will fight to the death of the United Methodist Church to keep their version of holiness alive.

That’s my prediction of what will happen at General Conference 2016.

It is my guess that the rule-followers, when it comes to a vote, will win. “Winning” comes with a horrific price because it inevitably means some are “losers.” Surely, surely, this is not what should happen in the church founded upon the words of the man who said, “the kingdom of heaven is all about you.”

I’ve said this before and will reiterate it here. It is my opinion that those who can no longer abide by the destructive words contained in the BOD should graciously pack up and leave.

I also know it’s easy for me to say this: I’m retired. I’ll not lose my church, my work, my livelihood.

So again, it’s easy for me to say.

The personal, spiritual, professional, economic and emotional costs that many will have to pay boggle my mind. But somebody, somewhere is going to have to say, “I will indeed follow Jesus to the cross and face my death for the sake of another, no matter what it looks like or how much pain I will have to endure.”

In effect, I’m asking the segment in the UMC, those who push for welcome for all to lay down their collective lives for those who can’t see their way theologically to offer that welcome.

This will be a massive death experience. Fortunately, there is a resurrection after death

While the church that has taught grace and given hope to so many for so long will probably die, grace will not. I suspect this resurrection will be as startling to us as was the shocking news of Jesus’s resurrection to the first century disciples.

Let us take comfort in the Psalmist who wrote,

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12, NRSV).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Carl S.

    I tend to agree with you about removing the rule but I continue to hope we’re wrong. As a gay man, And a Methodist, I have never been in a church where I felt abused because I am gay. I have been asked by some why I stay in a church that doesn’t approve of me. I choose to stay because I feel that if everyone who dislikes the rule leaves, the UMC will never change. If anyone feels abused or seperated by a church who rigidly conforms to the rules, seek out another UMC church by going to the Reconciling Church Network web page and searching for a church there. Unfortunately, while there are not reconciling churches everywhere (the list continues to grow) a person may have to leave the denomination. You are right in that it is an easy fix. I pray that it happens.

    • I would prefer that those on the reconciling side not leave either, but . . . some of the proposals coming before GC are extraordinarily punitive of those who don’t follow the rules. Any clergy who even dares considering officiating at a same-sex wedding puts himself or herself in considerable jeopardy. All of this so detracts from the main mission of the church, draining us of energy and money. Civil disobedience has been tried, and although it might eventually reach the tipping point, the damage to the larger connection will probably not be repairable.

      • Carl S.

        I wish churches were given more autonomy in deciding these things. Many churches would allow their pastors to preform same sex marriages.

        • I do too but it can’t happen with the discipline written the way it is right now.

  • Carl S.

    I tend to agree with you about removing the rule but I continue to hope we’re wrong. As a gay man, And a Methodist, I have never been in a church where I felt abused because I am gay. I have been asked by some why I stay in a church that doesn’t approve of me. I choose to stay because I feel that if everyone who dislikes the rule leaves, the UMC will never change. If anyone feels abused or seperated by a church who rigidly conforms to the rules, seek out another UMC church by going to the Reconciling Church Network web page and searching for a church there. Unfortunately, while there are not reconciling churches everywhere (the list continues to grow) a person may have to leave the denomination. You are right in that it is an easy fix. I pray that it happens.

    • I would prefer that those on the reconciling side not leave either, but . . . some of the proposals coming before GC are extraordinarily punitive of those who don’t follow the rules. Any clergy who even dares considering officiating at a same-sex wedding puts himself or herself in considerable jeopardy. All of this so detracts from the main mission of the church, draining us of energy and money. Civil disobedience has been tried, and although it might eventually reach the tipping point, the damage to the larger connection will probably not be repairable.

      • Carl S.

        I wish churches were given more autonomy in deciding these things. Many churches would allow their pastors to preform same sex marriages.

        • I do too but it can’t happen with the discipline written the way it is right now.

  • Robin

    I am in awe of this article. No words. Eloquent. Thank you.

    • Thank you. Came to me at around 3:30 am this morning. Couldn’t sleep any longer so just got up and wrote it out.

  • Robin

    I am in awe of this article. No words. Eloquent. Thank you.

    • Thank you. Came to me at around 3:30 am this morning. Couldn’t sleep any longer so just got up and wrote it out.

  • This is so powerful. Really. I am in awe.

  • This is so powerful. Really. I am in awe.

  • Dwight phifer

    My dad was a um minister for over 50 years I have been a Methodist all of my 64 years and heavily involved in the Church. My wife and I are involved in the RM and BTS. I have always resisted leaving the UM or splitting but your article strikes a chord. My wife has completely stopped attending our local east Texas church because of the ouster of our local pastor simply for using the words gay and lesbian from the pulpit. I attend only occasionally now and am still working to change the Disipline. But what more punitive changes are being proposed for 2016?

  • Dwight phifer

    My dad was a um minister for over 50 years I have been a Methodist all of my 64 years and heavily involved in the Church. My wife and I are involved in the RM and BTS. I have always resisted leaving the UM or splitting but your article strikes a chord. My wife has completely stopped attending our local east Texas church because of the ouster of our local pastor simply for using the words gay and lesbian from the pulpit. I attend only occasionally now and am still working to change the Disipline. But what more punitive changes are being proposed for 2016?

  • Gary Atkinson

    I would like to see a Win-Win proposal to pass at GC next year, for I really think that most folks who favor the current disciplinary positions of the UMC are not doing so out of hate of others, but seeing same sex behavior as against the will of God. And, I think a Win-Win might help more to realize that God is really more for full inclusion than holiness that includes all same sex behavior as sinful. Anyway, what I think will happen is that:
    1) Something like the CUPS plan will pass, but
    2) Most of the provisions will be found as unconstitutional by Judicial Council, and
    3) There will be an organized effort by our most conservative wing of the UMC to leave, trying to take their property with them.

    I hope I am wrong.

  • Gary Atkinson

    I would like to see a Win-Win proposal to pass at GC next year, for I really think that most folks who favor the current disciplinary positions of the UMC are not doing so out of hate of others, but seeing same sex behavior as against the will of God. And, I think a Win-Win might help more to realize that God is really more for full inclusion than holiness that includes all same sex behavior as sinful. Anyway, what I think will happen is that:
    1) Something like the CUPS plan will pass, but
    2) Most of the provisions will be found as unconstitutional by Judicial Council, and
    3) There will be an organized effort by our most conservative wing of the UMC to leave, trying to take their property with them.

    I hope I am wrong.

  • Great Article

  • Great Article