“God will always love you.” “God will never leave you.” These are the words whispered into the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis’ ear by her mother as Jacqui was taking Communion at age 7. Jacqui will be the featured guest at the PDC-BWC Next Level Speaker Series on Wednesday when she talks about Fierce Love. God’s fierce and eternal love for us, and God’s promise to never forsake us, have provided untold comfort and courage across millennia. They certainly imparted meaning and a connection to God for Dr. Lewis as she received the bread and cup. To know that we cannot do anything to cause God to stop loving us or leave us is, quite frankly, astounding. I do not believe we really grasp the full breadth and depth of its meaning, perhaps because we too often experience loves and loyalties that are far more conditional.
If you would, take a moment and repeat that promise to yourself even as you are reading this letter: “God will never stop loving me or leave me.”
Feel your body relax and your breathing calm as you allow that promise to permeate your being.
This promise is contained in both the Old and New Testaments. This promise is to be found in the books of the major and the minor prophets. Whether you read the Gospels or the epistles, the promise of God’s unfailing love and presence is there. Even when we have been disobedient or wayward, God promises that God will be with us to restore and rebuild. This promise comes to a melodic crescendo in Romans 8:38–39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That, beloved, is good news!
What do these promises mean to us as we experience the schism taking place within The United Methodist Church? How can they remain true amongst us when some argue that there are sides that inherently purport a wrong or right choice? How can it be possible that God loves those who are leaving and those who are remaining? Is it fathomable that God will never leave those who remain and those who depart?
I am reminded of the words of Anne Lamott, the author and public theologian who wrote in her book, Traveling Mercies, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Too often, we espouse a belief or position and insinuate that any disagreement with our posture is tantamount to apostasy. We’re fighting and we need for those who claim allegiance with us to pick sides.
During my childhood, I certainly remember expecting my parents to align themselves with me whenever I had a disagreement with a sibling. How could they not? Of course, I was right and my perception of the facts was completely without error. And I recall the looks on my children’s faces when they stood before me, both emboldened with the belief that they were the embodiment of truth -- the truth. I thank God that my parents understood that it wasn’t about who was right or wrong in those moments that really mattered; rather, there was always a larger lesson and a deeper truth to be examined and taught. To have chosen a side in those critical moments would have pandered to our self-serving notions of superiority and exclusivity, not just of being right, but that we had to be right to maintain our parents’ unfailing love and affirmation. Affirming that misshapen belief would have been far more devastating than merely losing an argument.
God sees beyond our differences to a truth that we cannot fully understand. 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us that we see dimly, partially and without clarity in this realm. We do not have the full story, nor a complete understanding, but God does. Disabusing ourselves of the need to be right, to be superior, and therefore worthy of God’s love, is a lesson we all need to learn. God’s love is a gift to us. To all of us.
As we live into our principles and diverse theological convictions, we do not have to judge one another or purport that we are singularly correct. We can respect one another and accept our differences as authentic and faithful. God does not require us to choose sides to demonstrate our zeal or passion. Barring wanting to ostracize or harm those who disagree with us, there is nothing inherently onerous in holding differing beliefs. I fully support the theologian bell hooks’ statement that love and abuse cannot coexist. But holding divergent views is not tantamount to abuse.
There are many aspects of theology that we do not agree upon. There are differing beliefs about atonement theology, about the precise moment when Jesus became the Messiah, about what literally occurs during Holy Communion, and so much more. I’m not sure we ever have, or ever will, completely agree upon everything, nor do I believe that would necessarily be a good thing. Whether discussing theology or politics, being in conversation with those who hold differing understandings and beliefs is healthy and can broaden our perspective. It can increase our empathy and enhance our shared humanity.
As we continue our Lenten journey and examine our hearts, may we reflect upon whether or not we have contributed to the rancor, believing that we must take “sides” in this debate, and if we have, may we commit to leaving our self-righteous certitude behind as we emerge into the celebration of Easter. The journey will be sweeter and lighter if we leave that baggage behind. Especially as we prepare to reclaim, renew and revive who we are as United Methodists, may we do so with the assurance that God’s love and presence are a gift to us all. Today and every day, let us claim and celebrate the life-giving power of God’s unfailing love.
Blessings and Peace,
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore Washington Conferences
The United Methodist Church