When I first moved to Florida from NC in the spring of 1994, one of the most common questions I was asked concerned my allegiance to college football teams. To many of my new friends my faith, my youth ministry experiences and my plans for the future of the student ministry were all well and good, but what they really wanted to know was this- Florida, Miami or Florida State? These were 3 of the best programs in the country, and I needed to choose. I explained to them that while I had a long love affair with college football (even though in NC it's just a time killer until basketball season starts!), I really didn't cheer for any of those teams. I might as well have claimed to be an atheist. For so many people, it's not about the sport. It's about THEIR team. And that's true everywhere, not just in Florida.
Lately I have begun to wonder if the same is not true of many of us who call ourselves Christians. We have a hard time heeding the advice of the sign above- we constantly seem to be majoring in the minors. For those of you who don't know my history in the church, let me recap. I was a "birthright Friend"- born into the Quaker church. When I was 5 we moved and my family became very active at a United Methodist Church, where we stayed until a pastor left and took people with him- splitting the church, devastating my parents and leaving us at home on Sundays until I was 13. My parents never really went back to church. I went to a Quaker youth group in 8th grade (1972) because my best friend kept inviting me (and there was this girl...), and from then until 1994 my identity was very wrapped up in the Society of Friends. I attended Meeting for Worship and youth group. I worked at a Quaker summer camp and attended a Quaker college. I worked as a youth pastor in 4 different churches and was even a the regional director of Youth & Religious Education for New England Yearly Meeting for a short time. I served on national boards, spoke at national and regional conferences, and was the music leader (in the days before music and worship started being the same word) at a couple of national youth events. I was Mister Quaker. And for most of those years I was much more likely to answer questions about faith and theology by attempting to give a Quaker perspective than I was to tell you what Jesus said. I knew more about MY denomination than I did about my faith. And that seemed normal to me.
When I went to work for a UMC in 1994 it seemed logical to me that I would throw the weight of my support behind my new "home team." But there were several issues with that. First of all, I wasn't "certified" by any of the right people or organizations to take any leadership roles outside of the local church. I also found myself running into different perspectives on faith and theology than I had encountered in my Quaker years. As frustrating as that was at times, it forced me to take a hard look at what I believed and why I believed it. More and more I began to realize that no matter the question in Christianity, the answer is Jesus! My belief system became less about the Quaker Faith & Practice or the UMC Book of Discipline and more about the gospels. When I went to work for a UCC church in 2000, I morphed a little more before heading back to spend another 7 years with the Methodists. For the past 7 years my family has attended a UMC church- although it is somewhat free of many traditional UMC trappings. And yet I still have very strong ties to my Quaker roots- including my official church membership. Not unlike the college football scenario at the beginning of this post, there are people who just didn't get it. If I can't identify myself by my denomination, what AM I really? Calling myself a Jesus Follower just doesn't seem to cut it with way too many people. Just loving the game isn't enough. They feel like I need a team.
Lately there has been a lot of hand-wringing and consternation about the future survival of both of the denominations I have served at great length. Both are struggling with issues that divide the church, and having a hard time focusing on the ONE who brings us together. I have avoided discussions of denominational politics, because quite frankly I see no positive value in them. The church is not in the business of fixing institutions- we are in the business of loving people. While I believe that the long histories, great works and proud traditions of both groups still have much to offer the world, I have to wonder if perhaps we have become so entrenched as "fans" that we are asking the wrong questions. Should we really be focused on whether or not we can continue to create new Quakers or new Methodists? Should we spend so much time and energy trying to show the world that we have some sort of unique insight into the greater work of God? There is much work to be done in our society, and we do that work not in the name of John Wesley, George Fox, John Calvin, Martin Luther or even the Apostle Paul. We do it in the name of Jesus. And all of our theological infighting over how to do communion and baptisms, over gay marriage, over political issues and over who is qualified to lead God's people are not the things our Savior spent his time preaching about, and often distract us from loving others in Jesus' name. Maybe I am being too simplistic. But perhaps simplistic is exactly what we need. Denominations give us rules, hierarchies and 'proper" ways of doing things. Jesus taught us to love, go and tell. WE have made it complicated.
I am a pacifist and I love silence, prayer and other spiritual disciplines because of my Quaker roots, but also because I believe it is what Jesus taught. I believe in the Holy Trinity and the power of corporate worship and symbolism because the UMC taught me the Apostle's Creed when I was a child and because I have experienced those things. My brief time with the UCC helped me to understand the need for the Church to be open and affirming to all who seek the love of God whose name is Jesus. And my favorite church leader in the world today may well be Pope Francis, not because of Catholic theology but because of his willingness to be bold with the actual words and teachings of the Christ. In short, I am a potpourri of denominational influences. And I am so thankful that I am.
So if you ask me these days what team I cheer for, it's an easy answer. I'm Team Jesus. And that's all you really need to know.
Because of Jesus,