God’s Great Grace

Lynn and I returned last week in the wee hours of Thursday morning after a wonderful pilgrimage in the Holy Land. We traveled by bus with some of our recent Ordinands and several Laity from across Tennessee and Alabama.

Every time I walk in Galilee, stand on the banks of the Jordan River, or walk the trail from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, I am reminded of how wide and vast is the influence of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and his tribe called Christians. On pilgrimage alongside our group were Asians, Africans, Germans, Italians, among others!

Every time I walk the Via Dolorosa, I reflect on the worldwide nature of the Church–not just United Methodists—but persons from every nation, language, people and race. 

Such a journey gives one perspective. 

As we approach February 23 and the beginning of the called session of General Conference, we all could use a little perspective. Sometimes it is helpful to take the long view. The work of Christ’s Holy Church began long before we came along and will go on long after this moment. 

There is no doubt that this is an important moment. The debates about human sexuality and who can be ordained and who can be married are important for the United Methodist Church. The Commission on the Way Forward has presented the 2019 General Conference with three plans to consider. Across every Conference, there have been sincere listening, courageous conversations, and meaningful discourse. There have also been hurtful attacks, fear-mongering, and misinformation. It is impossible to know what will happen among the people called United Methodists in three brief days in St. Louis later this month.

It’s easy to get discouraged because we have no idea how it is going to turn out.

The uncertainty we are all feeling can turn us inward into the places in our souls that are most afraid, that long to control outcomes.

It can turn us inward to the worst spirits in our culture: the spirit of competitiveness, the spirit of power.

We must turn outward beyond ourselves.

We must turn outward

towards one another in love and mutual respect,

towards God in prayer. 

We must turn outwards

watching for Jesus, the man from Galilee to go ahead of us

listening for the Holy Spirit to speak to the Church.

I confess that there have been moments over the past two years when I have been discouraged by the tone of conversation in our beloved Church. 

There have been times when I have doubted and when I have been afraid. 

But, God continues to remind me that the work of Christ’s Holy Church began long before we came along and will go on long after this moment. 

And so I invite you to pray with me. 

I am praying for humility, wisdom, for kindness, for generosity and self-control.

I am praying that the witness of those gathered in St. Louis February 23-26 will bear witness to the love of God in Christ. 

I am praying that the Church will cease its mission drift and will continue to bless those who are discerning a call to ministry. 

I am praying that we will do no harm. 

I am praying that when the history books are written, this era of Church history will be judged not by the lens of short-sightedness but through the lens of God’s great grace guiding us through challenging waters. 

One of the last things we did in Jerusalem was to walk the Via Dolorosa and go the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I was reminded as I walked that lonesome road of something Dr. Davis Chappell said to me the day before we departed. He said:

“The truth is – all 4 strands of Judaism were disappointed in Jesus. The Sadducees said – he’s too radical. The Pharisees said – he’s too liberal. The Zealots said – he’s too conservative. The Essenes said – he’s too inclusive. Jesus didn’t line up with these groups! And consequently, they were all disappointed in Jesus. And so, they found a way to get rid of him! But God raised him up.”

I can’t help but wonder with which strand Jesus would align. Or if he were to come, and he didn’t align with our particular strand, if we, too, would reject him.

Beware of assuming that Jesus lines up perfectly with your group.

Remember that Jesus is always going ahead of us 

sometimes surprising us 

because his thoughts are not our thoughts 

and his way is not our way.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ here by God’s great grace alone. 

Be humble.  

I don’t know what will happen at General Conference. 

I don’t know which plan will be adopted.

Here’s what I do know—my role as a bishop in the United Methodist Church is to lead all of God’s people—not just those with whom I agree. When I was elected and consecrated a bishop, the values and beliefs that have guided my life did not change. From the time I was a college student serving as a youth director until this day, my desire has been to be in ministry with all persons. I have sought in this office to abide with Christ and to abide with the Church even when the Church didn’t seem to desire to abide with itself. 

The trip to the Holy Land gave me new perspective. 

God has not abandoned our Church. 

God was at work in the people called Methodists long before we came along

and I believe that God’s work among us will continue. 

This weekend four of our five grandchildren have been in Nashville.

It is for them that I hold out hope for this church of ours.

It also is for those who Saturday attended the Orientation to Ministry, discerning their call to ministry.

It is for the young clergy who have gone to great lengths to acquire the necessary educational requirements to serve our churches.

It is for those who have yet to hear the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that it is critical that we allow the Holy Spirit to move among us and that we live with hearts of peace.

Our Lord God, we have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us.  We cannot know for certain where it will end. We do not always know ourselves as well as we think we do, and even though we often believe we are following your will that does not mean we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And we pray for that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. We know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road. Amen.   (adapted from a prayer by Thomas Merton)