To Be United Methodist ...
The Rev. Larry Hollon
... in the Wesleyan tradition faith is about my relationship both with God and with others. It is not limited to individual salvation, but to growing in understanding within a community that is concerned for the people nearby, and for those far beyond the walls of the church building.
When I was a child, my family moved from Stroud to Elmore City in Oklahoma to Odessa, Andrews, Crane and Brownfield in Texas, then Newcastle, Wyo., then Lovington, N.M., and back to Stroud. Plus, we were in a few towns along the way that I recall only vaguely because we didn't stay long enough for me to enroll in school.
We followed the oil derricks to new locations, and as wells were drilled and completed, we moved on to the next.
It was a nomadic existence. I learned not to become too attached to friends or locations. It was, obviously, an episodic existence.
As I reflect on the question of what it means to be United Methodist today, these personal experiences are indelibly embedded in my memories of my early formation in the faith.
I dreaded enrolling in a new school midyear because I knew I would be an outsider. Relationships among town kids had been formed by life-long interaction and a new kid was an unknown. We would be moving in a matter of months anyway, so friendships were fleeting.
I don't remember dreading going to a new church. With experience, I had found that the local Methodist churches (this was before the union of Evangelical United Brethren and Methodists that created The United Methodist Church) were places of relatively easy acceptance and integration.
Worship was similar from place to place, giving a sense of order to our chaotic and dysfunctional existence. The Methodists usually followed a liturgy that included the Apostles' Creed and The Lord's Prayer, as well as other elements that made worship consistent. Consistency was both comforting and meaningful.
These experiences rooted me in a tradition that has spanned centuries and that has endured the ups and downs of history. I was reassured of wisdom more lasting and durable than my daily life offered.
As I matured and grew in my understanding of the church and faith, I learned I was being nurtured in the Wesleyan tradition, which emphasized the primary importance of Scripture but also recognized the close relationship of tradition, experience and reason. I learned that these work together, not in opposition to each other.
This was liberating to me. It raised my sights and opened my mind to go beyond the perspectives of faith that I heard repeated by friends who attended congregations that were freestanding. They emphasized varied flavors of dogma from speaking in tongues to biblical literalism that were inconsistent with what I was hearing in Methodist Sunday schools.
There I heard the value of learning Scripture and praying in community. I heard a message of being connected to others in a way that my nomadic life didn't offer. Together, I learned, we can do more and be more than any one of us can do or be individually.
We filled our cardboard coin holders during Lent for One Great Hour of Sharing, which connected us to good works around the world. From childhood, the Methodists were fostering in me an awareness of the world beyond the horizon that I could see with my own eyes.
I heard of a gracious and loving God. I heard this love came in human form in Jesus and was accessible to people like me.
I learned that in the Wesleyan tradition faith is about my relationship, both with God and with others. It is not limited to individual salvation, but also to growing in understanding within a community that is concerned for the people nearby, and for those far beyond the walls of the church building.
I learned that God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ could transform my life, but that it doesn't stop with me. God is continuing to transform the world through a Holy Spirit.
I experienced the realities of God's grace, attested to in Scripture, in the grittiness of our lives in those oilfield towns, and elsewhere. This grace transforms me and it transforms my relationship to others. It is redemptive.
Everyday experiences, which can be bleak and mundane as well as inspiring and hope-filled, are the stuff of theological reflection. Birth and death, fairness and injustice, acceptance and rejection, terror and joy — in these, God is at work. The task is to understand the biblical message that God's gift of liberating love embraces the whole of creation.
This is not the whole of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian, but it is a significant part of the core of the Wesleyan tradition. And for all those who nurtured me in it, I'm grateful.
The Rev. Larry Hollon is publisher of Interpreter and general secretary of United Methodist Communications. Read his FAITH MEDIA+CULTURE blog at www.larryhollon.com.