Take Me to Church 3/3/19: That Cottage of Darkness

cottage van gogh
Vincent Van Gogh, The Cottage (1885)

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
—Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes”

The United Methodist Church strengthened a ban on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriages last week.  Certainly, in one way, such a move marks a clear defeat for LGBTQ+ Methodists and their allies.  But in another, this move may represent new life even as much as it represents a death, and no one at Judson could be better qualified to speak to this fragile, dark time for Methodists (and indeed the body of Christ as a whole, especially its LGBTQ+ members) than our Ministry Assistant Rev. Roy Atwood, an ordained UMC minister.

In the Ancient Testimony (John 11:1-44), we see Jesus himself wrestle with the death of his friend Lazarus, a death some people think he could have or should have prevented.  Wbether this is true or not, Jesus famously weeps when he hears of Lazarus’s death.  I’ve always imagined the raising of Lazarus as a pivotal point not only in Jesus’s ministry, but in his life: the moment at which Jesus, fully human and fully divine, chooses to answer his human grief with his divine power.  Not today, he might have thought.  He might have wondered if he could, or should, raise Lazarus; he might have wondered if indeed he could have, or should have, cured him before he died.  Regardless, we see what he chose.  In the ultimate foretelling of his own fate, he bodily resurrects Lazarus.  Death is not an ending, or at least not only an ending.  The language in the translation we read uses the language of liberation to describe Lazarus’s resurrection: Jesus instructs the people around him to unbind Lazarus’s hands, to allow him to move and work in the world again.

Roy’s message for us suggested that such a death and resurrection might well be the fate of the United Methodist Church.  If the barring of LGBTQ+ people from marriage and ordained leadership, people like Roy himself, brings about a schismthat is, the death of the old order in the UMC, in which such decisions were made locally—then perhaps such a death would have within it the power to raise up a new generation of leaders and faithful people within the Methodist tradition, ones who refuse to, to paraphrase the words of Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber (another clergyperson whose “Rev.” is at stake, which I’ll discuss in my next blog post eta: done!), only water crops within a tightly prescribed circle, one that leaves a lot of real folks with real lives in the corners.  As they face this death, Methodists might look to Jesus, who with his very body promised that death was not the end, that indeed it is only death that can carry the promise of resurrection.

“What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem (and our Modern Testimony) “When Death Comes” (yup, more Mary Oliver following me around).  Because death is inevitable, she says, she thinks of “each body a lion of courage, and something/precious to the earth.”  Right now, for me, I’m hoping for lions of courage in the UMC, and for a sense of preciousness to come to the bodies of my LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ, and for us to emerge from the cottage of darkness better, more whole, more resurrected.


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