I did it again last week during the 2019 General Conference. In a draft of one of my communications with the Iowa Annual Conference, I mistakenly typed “Untied” instead of “United” Methodist. It’s easy to do, especially if you aren’t the best typist, which I am not.
When I was growing up, I never learned how to type. I always wrote longhand because, inexplicably, typing classes in my high school were not encouraged for students who aspired to go to college. I wrote all of my papers in longhand. Finally, in the summer before I graduated from high school, I and another friend took private typing lessons. It was a godsend, but it wasn’t enough.
For my whole adult life, I have continued to “hunt and peck” on the keyboard, and one thing I discovered after I became a United Methodist is that it’s really easy to type “untied” rather than “United.” I’ve done it literally hundreds of times!
As I was prayerfully pondering the results of the General Conference over this past week and wondering how we had become so untied as a denomination, I pulled out a book that changed my life more than forty years ago. At the time, I was definitely untied. I had just come back home to the U.S. after studying sacred music in West Berlin, Germany, for thirteen months as a junior in college.
I grew up in the General Conference Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, was very active in our congregation, and had a deep faith in Christ. I attended a Lutheran College to study music and also participated in chapel activities. When I arrived in Germany, however, I had no spiritual support system, and my faith lagged. It seemed that no one went to church except for the elderly. In many ways, my time in Berlin was the best year of my life, except for my faith.
Perhaps you’ve had the same experience. You know what faith is intellectually, but that faith hasn’t moved from head to heart. In the summer of 1975, I was trying to adjust back to life in the U.S. and also come to grips with who I was as a person of faith who “wasn’t feeling it.” Then I came across a book called Communicating Good News, published in 1972 by David W. Augsburger, a Mennonite writer.
As I read these words, my heart was tied in knots. “The gospel is a word of forgiveness. “The gospel is a word of forgiveness. The gospel is a word of power. The gospel is a word of new life. The gospel is a word of loving relationships.”[i]
“All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) None of us has a perfect faith, including me. I yearned to reconnect with the Jesus who has forgiven me and wants to accompany me throughout my life, although I could not always see it.
“I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) I remembered my baptism at age fifteen, knowing that I needed to reclaim the Holy Spirit power that surged through me as my pastor laid hands on me.
“Nicodemus asked, ‘How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?’ Jesus answered, ‘I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.’” (John 3:4-5) I recognized my need to reattach myself to the vine of faith from which I had become untied.
“Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him.” (1 John 4:7-9) I realized that if I am a disciple of Jesus, I am required to love everyone, not just those who love me or those who are easy to love.
I continued to wrestle with these words of David Augsburger that cut me to the core. A month after I returned home from Germany, my family drove to a fishing camp in Canada. I was so untied one night that I could not sleep. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, I wrestled with my faith, my life, and my future. Finally, in the middle of the night, I could do no other than to say, “Here I am, Lord. I am completely untied. I have nothing but you. I offer you my life. Do with me what you will.” Accompanied by this conversion experience was a physical healing that I have never experienced before or since.
I’ve never been the same after that night many years ago, despite moments of uncertainty about vocation; despite being told that women cannot be pastors; despite hearing others being told that because they are LGBTQIA, they cannot be pastors; despite my sadness when Christians do not exhibit the same grace and compassion that Jesus modeled for us; and even despite the divisions in our beloved United Methodist Church.
At the same time, I confess that I still become untied today. I become untied and disconnected from Christ and the church when my own unwillingness to live with differences and consequent judgmentalism becomes holy arrogance. I become untied when I am exclusive, lacking in grace, inwardly focused, and believe that following rules is more important than being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. I become untied when I despair that The United Methodist Church will ever be able to live out the words of John Wesley, who quoted his own sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart” (January 1, 1733) in the work A Plain Account Of Christian Perfection (Edition of 1777).
“‘Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.’ It is not only ‘the first and great’ command, but all the commandments in one. ‘Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise’, they are all comprised in this one word, love. In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness. The royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength’. The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end.”
Yes, The United Methodist Church is untied right now. We are adrift, unmoored from our Wesleyan heritage, unable to come together as disciples of Jesus Christ committed to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Can anything bring us back together? Could the untying be a prelude for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in our midst? Could it be that God is not done with us yet? I pray so. All I know is that in order to go from untied to united, we have to untie ourselves from everything (and I sincerely mean everything) that prevents us from seeing Christ in each other and welcoming the gifts and faith of every person who claims Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Because all things are possible, I will continue to serve humbly, lead passionately, communicate good news, and encourage us to move from untied to united. The world needs The United Methodist Church. The world needs our witness and our passion. The world needs our personal and social holiness. It’s not too late to recover the tie that binds.
[i]Communicating Good News, David W. Augsburger, Herald Press, Scottsdale, PA, 1972, p. 13.