An Unfolding JourneyPosted: March 2, 2019
Over the course of the past several days and weeks I have heard a common refrain from my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who call themselves Methodists. Statements such as “I do not know who I am apart from the United Methodist Church” or “I do not know who I am apart from the Church” and I find myself reflecting on those same sentiments.
I do not know who I am apart from the United Methodist Church.
In 1968 I was confirmed in the Fulton Methodist Church which later that the same year became Fulton United Methodist Church. Along with some of the finest people I have ever known, we offered our lives as living sacrifices to Christ and his Church and promised to live in covenant with our sisters and brothers everywhere who were living out their baptism as United Methodists.
When I graduated from high school and chose to attend Millsaps College, one of our United Methodist Colleges, little did I know that I was entering a line of splendor that 40 years later would count me among 9 graduates who have been elected bishop in the United Methodist Church. The journey between Millsaps College and the Nashville Episcopal Area has been deeply rich and amazingly rewarding. That the providential hand of God has guided my steps throughout these years is without question. Navigating my way among the people called Methodists, has taught me that God is always going before, always surprising, new every morning.
I shall never forget the opening worship of my first General Conference in 2000.
I witnessed the most stirring worship as the processional featured persons from the Global Church. It stirred my deepest sense of praise to God and it opened my eyes to a wider circle than I had known. Since then, I have travelled across the globe and witnessed the power of God’s movement in multiple contexts and cultures. As I wrote recently, my experience in the Holy Land also deepened my love for the many people who have come to know Christ because the Church took seriously John 3:16 and Matthew 28.
It appears now that this church of ours is fractured deeply. Some believe it is fractured beyond healing. We may discover in the days to come this is our reality. Until then, however, I urge each pastor and congregation across our area to take a deep breath. Just as our counselors advise us in the recovery of grief, no decisions need to be made with haste. Let us be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Let us hold steady until we can better determine our future.
I do not know who I am apart from this great Church of ours.
My father was a part of a generation that experienced great personal and social transition. Soon after his death in December, I said to my sister and brother, “that our father heard a call to ministry and left the family farm and went to college and later to seminary accounts for the many ways we have been blessed beyond measure.”
Prevenient grace poured over my life the day I was born. The four churches my father served when I was a child poured into my siblings and me so that we would claim the faith of our fathers and mothers. Sunday School teachers, Boy Scout Masters, MYF leaders, Choir directors, Counselors at Camp, Conference Youth Ministry all contributed to my faith formation and for this reason I don’t know who I am apart from this great Church of ours.
Maybe, you too, do not know who you are apart from the United Methodist Church.
For generations, the people called Methodists in Middle and West Tennessee and Western Kentucky have been writing God’s story. We are a diverse family—conservative-centrist-progressive. We often disagree, yet we hold firm to the primacy of scripture and the centrality of grace.
These same ideals were things I saw practiced by my mother and father in our home, things I learned in congregations across North Mississippi, and are things I see across the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences.
The work now before us is to continue to walk with our brothers and sisters across the Church. It is often messy, hard and challenging work. We now need a deep healing. How might we be a part of healing our Church in this very divided moment? Holding onto each other is more difficult than letting go, loving in the midst of difficulty, finding hope in the midst of struggle and suffering.
I do not know the United Methodist Church without the Young People who are committed to Christ and this Church.
Over the course of the last few days, my son, a young pastor committed deeply to the United Methodist Church and to mentoring young adults who are discerning a call to ministry, shared this note with me from a candidate for ministry and a college student attending Birmingham Southern College. The student was willing for me to share his witness with you:
“Just got back to my apartment from General Conference and I want to share my thoughts with you. This was a difficult yet fruitful experience. My heart broke as I saw both sides attack each other. Yesterday, I could not fight back my tears as I saw a physical divide on the floor when two groups attempted to sing and chant over one another. I truly saw the ugliest part of our church. I was filled with disgust at the church as a whole. Despite this, I saw some of the most beautiful parts of our church. I witnessed people come together and proclaim unity even though the plan that they supported did not pass. I saw young, devout Methodists say that they have too much love for the church to give up on the denomination as a whole. I wanted to see our church agree that we might not all think alike but that we could still give hope for others who want to pursue ministry in our beautiful church (I was one of the 15,000 young Methodists under the age of 35 to sign that petition that made it to the floor yesterday). This has made me extremely ready to start ministry and to get as involved as possible in our annual conference.”
We in the Nashville Episcopal Area are deeply blessed to have young clergy and young leaders who deeply love the United Methodist Church. Our ministry with young people is profound and many are hearing a call to ministry. I am encouraged by their faithfulness and desire to follow God’s call upon their lives. When 2,500 young people gather in one place to worship and praise God, I am certain God is at work among us.
But what I do know is…God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church.
Unlike some of the clergy who left Mississippi during the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s, my father stayed, rolled up his sleeves and worked to bridge the gap between where we were and where God was leading us. Through the leadership of many faithful lay and clergy men and women in small, medium and large congregations, bridges were built and huge strides were made in our congregations and our communities with regard to race relations. My father taught my siblings and me how to build bridges across divides as God shows us a way through.
I want to say to our LGBTQ members and friends, you are beloved children of God. Many of you were baptized as infants in our churches, nurtured in Sunday school, and participated in our Youth Ministry. You were confirmed in our Churches. You are living out the tenets of your faith—in new and transformative ways that have never existed. You have given your life to Christ and His Church. Communities in the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences celebrate the gifts God has given you. I am looking for the churches who will be sanctuary for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We are the Church—and it is up us to demonstrate our love for God and our love for those God loves.
The unfolding journey as United Methodists is ever before us, not behind us.
As we continue processing the next steps for our denomination, I will be praying for the God who formed us in our baptism to lead us in discovering our future together in the United Methodist Church.
God is writing a better story in us and through us.
Let us be attentive to one another, to the Holy Spirit, and to the places where God is already on the move.
This Sunday, the Table of our Lord will be spread.
It is God’s Table and all are welcome.