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We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

Pastor Paul's Blog

Following the Rules

 

Not long ago I was at an event, a public event. The next thing I know the room empties, except this one man. He is aware of my role as Pastor of a United Methodist Church. He doesn’t know me, but he takes the opportunity to “correct” me regarding what I can only guess is his issue with what he perceives United Methodist Pastors preach. In so many words he challenges me, “You guys talk about grace, but you know, there’s no forgiveness without repentance!” I just kind of stood there, dumbfounded. My perception was that I was being admonished for being “soft” and he was setting me straight on the true nature of how God really works in the area of grace, forgiveness, and salvation. I didn’t respond to him at the time. I have pondered this interaction since.

 

I grew up being taught that following the rules was important. I am a rule follower (for the most part!). Following the rules is important because it provides stability, consistency, and order to an otherwise chaotic world. Not only in the “real world” of laws and legislation, but more so in the faith community, we are bound by covenant commitments of rules established for the good of the whole. Much of my upbringing was shaped by good people who were firmly convinced that being good rule-followers was the most important aspect of their response to God. What you put into your body, what you watched or read, and who you spent your time with was a defining word about your relationship with God. Good people who genuinely wanted to please God acted in such honorable ways.

 

The older I get and the experiences I have re-shape some of my thinking in this area. When I read the Gospels and learn more about the teachings of Jesus and study them with a more discerning eye, I discover not a religion of “don’ts” but of “dos”. While I am still absolutely convinced that the whole of the Bible’s teaching is inspired and relevant for the world today, I do find an important nuanced thread that runs from beginning to end. That nuanced thread is that people are more important than policy to God. It is a fine line that I struggle with.

 

Do you remember the story of David and the “shewbread” or priestly bread he eats which violates the rules of the faith community? Jesus uses this example from I Samuel 21 in confronting their hypocrisy when the Pharisees complain about Jesus’s disciples plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. In the following discussion as found in Matthew 12:4 we hear Jesus quote, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and elsewhere, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (NRSV) While there is much to be debated and discussed about the nature of the Law and God’s expectations for following it, the over-arching sense I receive from Jesus and his teachings is this: people matter to God and the rules we follow must begin with that understanding. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NRSV) Later in Galatians, Paul talks about confronting those who offend when they break the rules but doing so “in a spirit of gentleness.” Again, the strong sense I get is that while the rules remain important to the life of the community, relationships matter most to God. As expressed in Matthew 18, the plan for working through the differences and the offenses we find in each other is formed around the idea that relationships are important to God and the good of the community, not finding a way to cast people aside who offend the rules.

 

All of this weighs on my heart and mind these days especially. With General Conference coming up we United Methodists will engage in rigorous debate about the subjects of human sexuality, homosexual marriage, and the place of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people in the church. The tension and the rancor are evident even weeks before the event. It almost feels like a “showdown” is looming.

My perception is that people on one side of the debate believe that the other side cares only about the rules. They try and cast them as dogmatic, fundamentalists who are “Pharisees” at heart. I don’t believe that is the case, no, not at all.

The other side insists that people who advocate for the rules to change regarding our LGBT community are lacking in scriptural foundation and simply not listening to God’s Word. I don’t find that to be the case either.

 

As someone who often finds myself in the “center” of such debates, I believe there is a better way to engage in this debate and focus on relationship strengthening rather than tearing each other down and our denomination apart.

As it turns out, repentance is really necessary in this equation of forgiveness and grace. It is necessary for me to respond in repenting to God for me to be able to engage in right relationships with others. I must repent of my insistence on being right and allow God to work through me. I don’t need to defend God’s honor or God’s rules. I simply need to love people and be willing to humbly engage in the hard, difficult, often painful work of living in the community of faith to which I have been given. God must surely desire our show of mercy for each other rather than our tearing each other apart.

 

I would ask that you join me in prayer, in an act of repentance, in which we turn to God and make sure our hearts are in the right place leading up to this critical meeting for the future of our church.