By Christian N. Kraus
So, Elizabeth and I went to church this morning.
And now, I’ve been sitting here on the couch staring at this blank word document for a good fifteen minutes now.
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
I’ve put the computer down and gone to make tea. I’ve taken the dog to the bathroom. I’ve tried to talk the kitchen Alexa speaker into playing an album I want to hear that she insists doesn’t exist. I’ve answered emails. I’ve done just about anything except start this column. Even now, though I’m finally getting words on the page, I’m still avoiding the subject.
This is a column that I need to write. My conscience has been nagging at me for weeks about it. But, I don’t want to.
Because it deals with one of the most personal and intimate things that anyone ever talks about. I’m going to be saying some things that are probably pretty unpopular around here. I’m going to be saying some things that will likely make some people, maybe a lot of people, uncomfortable.
And I want to be very careful here—I am not out to hurt anyone’s feelings.
But, I didn’t get into this whole writing thing to win any popularity contests, so…here goes:
I was raised Southern Baptist. I can look back on my formative years now with an appropriate perspective, so I remember a lot of good times, and I take much comfort in recalling many warm and loving relationships with people from that church. But, the Southern Baptist church itself was a scary place, and the Southern Baptist God was a scary dude. All the hellfire and brimstone and punishment and fire and burning and the fear because he knows all and sees all, even into the deepest parts of your heart and soul, and you had to be constantly vigilant of your thoughts and deeds, those awful, sinful thoughts and deeds, and you best just confess it all to be saved before you die and go to hell.
“But,” my favourite comedian, George Carlin quips, “he loves you.”
It was all a bit much to take in. (I bet I just made a bunch of churches’ prayer lists with that one.)
So, a big part of me, probably the majority, never really felt at home or at peace or at ease in the Southern Baptist church.
I did, however, feel at home and at peace and at ease in the Twin City United Methodist church. Several of my friends from school and their parents went there, and, though I did not attend Sunday morning services unless I had spent the night with one of my buddies, they had Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) Sunday evenings, and I would go as often as possible.
I would be hard-pressed to explain just exactly what the difference was in the church environment between the Methodist church and the Baptist church. But, if I am pressed, and I guess I am, the feelings that come to mind are of being accepted, wanted, and loved…not judged. I admit I was a pretty sensitive kid—I liked non-country music and reading and art and the theatre, and I absolutely sucked at sports. Being a boy in a rural public school with that kind of resume did not endear me to any of the “cool” crowds. I got called names…ones I won’t repeat here, but I doubt I need to…and, quite honestly, school was mostly awful. Between that and being told on Sunday mornings that I was going to hell for listening to Poison and Def Leppard, the MYF refuge was an existential oasis.
I just remember never feeling like the God of the Methodist church was judging me…and certainly never felt like the people there were doing so. It felt like the kind of place that anyone, literally anyone, would be welcome in, regardless of who they were, what they did, or what their “sins” may or may not be.
When I went to college, I found a whole buffet of religious denominations to explore. It was wonderful! I sampled almost everything and, eventually, settled into a conversion to Episcopalianism, attending the Athens Episcopal church on Prince Avenue. It, too, was a place where it felt like being almost bathed in love during services.
When my wife, Elizabeth, and our girls moved back here in 2005, we tried a few different churches, but nothing really clicked and we settled into a life of quiet non-denominational worship at home.
Some years back, though, the Twin City United Methodist Church had a new pastor—Reverend David Donnan. For whatever reason, something about him just clicked with me. He reminded me a great deal of the man who was minister at Twin City Methodist back when I was a kid—Reverend Dick Hoard (whose church Elizabeth and the girls and I had attended often in Watkinsville). Again, the ineffable feelings of acceptance and non-judgement came bubbling up. We started attending services there with Reverend Donnan and it wasn’t very long before we all realized we had found the church we, as a family, wanted to call home.
But now that church home is being divided.
See, the United Methodist Church is in the midst of a schism of sorts, and individual churches around the United States are deciding whether or not to remain member churches of the UMC, or to disaffiliate, which is a fancy word for “leave.” What is the source of this division, you ask? To be blunt, it seems that individual church congregations are upset and angry at the UMC because the church’s governing body isn’t enforcing Book of Doctrine rules against openly homosexual church officials and/or individual church pastors performing homosexual wedding ceremonies.
Now, I don’t want to oversimplify this, or over-generalize. I understand that feelings about this are complicated and often conflicted. Individual consciences dictate individual ways of feeling about the LGBTQ+ community, and what members of that community should and shouldn’t be allowed to do. And that is fine. Individuals should be allowed to feel however they feel about whatever they want to feel something about. But, to begin a discussion about a community of other human beings which questions whether they should or should not have a “right” to do something is to immediately make the members of that community somehow less human than the rest of us. And the Twin City United Methodist Church that I knew as a kid was not a place that I ever thought that discussion would go on. But, it has and is. And in a few weeks, the congregation will hold a disaffiliation vote. From what I gather, it is a foregone conclusion. I guess we will see.
But, it saddens me. It saddens me because I just didn’t think it would happen there. It saddens me because, while I was called all manner of names as a kid and teenager synonymous with “homosexual,” so often that I even questioned whether it might be true, that church was never a place that I felt I would not be accepted even if it was. It saddens me because these individual churches are allowing what some people in other individual churches are doing to become matters of universal church business. Since when did it matter in Twin City, Georgia what a church congregation in San Francisco, California was doing? Why have we allowed religious worship to become entangled with the culture wars?
The Founding Fathers of these United States believed a couple of basic principles about religion and religious worship. They engraved those beliefs into the documents that formed the cornerstone of American governance. One of those beliefs was in the simple freedom to worship according to one’s conscience. It is a belief that I think most Americans agree with, at least in principle, as it pertains to them and how they worship. But, I wonder if people ever ask themselves whether they really believe that all people should have the right to worship as they choose to. After all, what impact does it have on an individual worshiper, or an individual church, if the churches on the other side of the country do things according to their conscience?
The other belief was in the separation of church and state. There are rules against state sanctioned prayer in schools, for instance, that many people disagree with, but that’s a different matter. However, that separation works both ways…and it seems that politics has become entangled with religious belief and worship, to the church’s detriment, I fear. Why should individual churches allow the fear of a rising tide of progressive political affiliation affect the way they commune with their Lord?
Government and religion simply do not mix.
You know, I didn’t even really want to start this piece, and now I can’t find a good place to stop.
And I don’t expect what I’ve written to sway anyone’s heart about the subject. I just hope that the people at Twin City United Methodist Church know that the same love I always felt as a kid was felt this morning. And it was needed…and always is…by everyone.
It’s just really been bothering me, and my own conscience wouldn’t let me just drop it.