One hundred sixty-eight years ago this Advent season, the priest and the organist of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church combined their talents to create a carol which is perfect in its simplicity and wonder. For Phillip Brooks, the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were inspired by the profound memory of his 1865 visit to the Holy Land.
In the summer and fall of 1865, Brooks had the great joy of traveling in Europe.
By December, his travels took him to the holy places in Israel and Palestine. On Christmas Eve, he arrived in the little town across the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem. For those who have travelled to the Holy Land in recent years, Bethlehem is anything but a small quaint village. But in 1865, Bethlehem was a quaint small town. That night, Brooks visited the old Church of the Nativity where tradition indicates the birth of Jesus occurred. Brooks wrote: “I stood close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole Church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”
If life allows it, how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity! Here’s the truth of the Advent journey: every Advent we are invited to go to Bethlehem. It is the culmination of our spiritual pilgrimage every Advent.
I contend that we need this Advent journey this year as desperately as we have needed it in my lifetime. As I write this, 300,000 persons have died from Covid-19. I dare say not one of us is untouched by some friend or family member who has been infected. We know what it is to sing, “where in thy dark streets shineth” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
The beauty of this simple yet profound hymn is that God comes. God comes to the small, the insignificant. God came at Christmas through the lowly—a baby, a manger, a place called Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, shepherds far from the seat of power in Rome. To make this journey is to discover that truth.
Not only does God come to the small and insignificant, God comes in the silence. The hymn, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. No ear can hear his coming.” It strikes me, when I read the Bible, that the world was created in silence. In the beginning. In creation…silence.
When I was a young adult, I did a little duck hunting. I remember going out before daylight in a boat to a duck blind and waiting in silence until the first light of day came through the trees. I can still hear the sound of ducks landing or taking off, breaking the silence of the morning. I gladly would go again and sit in the cold just to hear the profound sound of hundreds of ducks landing or taking flight.
I’m quite sure the first Christmas was not silent. Most certainly the baby Jesus cried. The barnyard animals made their noises. Mary and Joseph, no doubt, discussed this moment. Here’s the truth of it: God makes and remakes a world out of silence and saves it. The final word of truth from the hymn is this: God comes to bring salvation. Brooks penned these powerful words: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
Theologically, Brooks makes a move here few of us do in Advent and Christmas. He links the child to the savior who will cast out our sin. We are drawn, if we are paying any attention at all this Christmas, to the brokenness of our world. You know too well the brokenness of our country, the death of thousands, the suffering of many more. People are dying alone. Socially distanced funerals are the norm. We do not live in peace. Food lines are lengthening while our leaders in Washington debate a relief package for US citizens. Many have been unemployed for far too long. Others fear unemployment will soon come. Evictions from homes are dreaded. How we need the hope and confidence of these words today.
1. O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
2. For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the king,
and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
In the spirit of Lectio Divina, I invite you to write down the word or phrase that speaks to you this day. Meditate on that phrase. Write it on your heart. Write as many word associations as you can think of to this phrase. Think deeply about your life. Offer your thoughts as a prayer. And trust that God will hear and shape your responding in ways you could never imagine.
For me this day, I pray “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” My longings for normalcy in this season are growing stronger every day. Too much of my time is lost in fretting over what I cannot control. So again, this Advent, I invite the Holy child of Bethlehem to come, to abide, to be little, Emmanuel.
This morning, in Sunday School, we reflected on memorable Christmas Eve Services. From the time I was 13 years old, my church home was First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS. It remains to this day the place of meeting our Lord. It is my Bethel. From 13 until I was 28 years old, we celebrated Christmas Eve in the sanctuary there. In the years beyond college, I was often the liturgist in the service. Always, Phillip Brooks was with us in spirit as we sang this hymn.
As you journey to Bethlehem this year, reach back and touch your Bethel. Remember where Jesus entered in and sin no longer had power over you. Pray that God will impart God’s richest blessings on you and your family.
Until we can be together singing hymns and lifting candles, let God’s presence surround you with great grace and peace and hope.
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The lectionary Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent always centers on John the Baptist, “the voice crying in the wilderness.” In just a few verses, Mark will send Jesus out into the wilderness where he experiences temptation.
Mark was well acquainted with the wilderness, as was Jesus. In terms of the geography of the Holy Land, there is Galilee where things are lush and green and water is plentiful. Less than 100 miles to the south, there is the stark contrast of the wilderness where the land is barren and dry and dusty.
John the Baptizer was well acquainted with the wilderness.
So here he is, “A voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare. Make straight.” Get your affairs in order. There is One coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
The wilderness isn’t a Condo at the beach.
The wilderness is not just somewhere out there.
For some of us, the wilderness is a place inside our hearts. It is an emptiness. It is longing.
It is an absence of the presence of God. It is a place where no grace is found.
In the Biblical sense, wilderness was a place where Israel lost its way. It was a place where there was no home. It was a place where the children of Israel bowed before other gods.
Wilderness, we will remember in just a few weeks, was the place where Jesus was tempted to abandon God’s will.
To be clear, wilderness is not so much a place as it is a terrifying experience. There are no clear paths. Much chaos, plenty of temptation and bewilderment sets in.
And yet, the music this text sings is that out in the wilderness God comes. In a wild place where the screams of wild animals are heard, there is a different song being sung.
“Prepare Ye the way of Lord.”
I can still hear in my mind the pure, steady voices from the musical Godspell (https://youtu.be/qzLrs3eKbXk ) that many church youth choirs sang in my years as a youth.
Maybe the reason John comes pointing the way to Jesus is that we can’t find our way to him on our own, so God has to come to us.
And this voice crying out is calling us to a different way of living—a call to listen to a different kind of voice. Not the voices that demand you to do something or go somewhere but rather a voice that calls for a change in direction. A chance to come clean. An opportunity to stop pretending. To start over. To get washed clean. This is the Lord’s voice, spoken through one of his very own.
This call is more than a mild adjustment to our attitude or practices. It is an invitation to rewrite the script of our lives. It is an invitation to encounter the past we have lived through but have not fully experienced. It is to remember. Before we can more forward, we remember.
Eudora Welty comes close to this when she writes in her small volume, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” about what deep insight can come when people explore memories of experiences they thought they already fully understood. She writes, “connections slowly emerge…cause and effect begin to align themselves…and suddenly a light is thrown back, like when a train rounds a curve showing there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you have come…and is rising still.”
This is the terrain about which John is preaching. This is the territory of repentance.
Sometimes, if we are not careful, because of our familiarity with a particular passage of scripture, we will gloss over a text or will try to make it say something it does not mean.
There are other times when because of the circumstances of life or what we are enduring in a season we pause in a different way and hear the scripture anew. When we allow the Holy Spirit to speak in that way, the Bible will encounter us anew. The demanding possibilities will come front and center, and we will receive that new word for our lives. That is when, I contend, we are in a posture of repentance. We rise and go in a different direction, follow Christ into new places, in new ways.
And we see more of God’s hand at work than we ever knew or expected.
Then, then, we, too, begin to sing…prepare ye the way of the Lord.
I’m listening. The world needs your voice to join with the voices already singing. Together we can prepare to receive the Christ anew.
Bishop William T. McAlilly
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
In 1744, Charles Wesley penned these familiar words to this powerful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Second only in popularity to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” this hymn ushers the Church into Advent by reminding us of the long awaited return of Jesus. In fact, Advent is a looking forward with expectation of that time when Jesus will return and looking back at a journey to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Both sentiments find voice in this powerful hymn.
Charles Wesley was captured by the words of Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” After reflecting on this text, Wesley began to imagine what the birth of the Christ child might mean to his community, indeed, to the entire world. In England in the mid 1700’s many were suffering in hunger and poverty. Children were abandoned and left as orphans. There were class distinctions, and slavery was on the rise. To Wesley, it seemed little had changed in the 1700 years since Christ was born. In fact, he wondered if humanity had improved at all.
In spite of the bleakness of the conditions around Wesley, a thread of hope began to emerge in his mind as he thought of Jesus’ birth. He found himself hoping for the return of Christ, likening that thought to the expectation of Haggai as he looked forward to the birth of Christ. In that hope, he penned the expectant words of this hymn.
1. Come thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
2. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Wesley understood the power of the Christ to set people free. Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy and the answer to the problems all persons know, as well as to the world. The hymn embraced both the loving nature of Christ and the power of that love to deliver the world from sin. Ultimately, it was the love of Christ that would change us into being more Christ like.
The year 2020 has been a year of waiting. And while we wait expectantly for some semblance of normalcy—in respect to the pandemic of Covid-19, the healing of relationships due to systemic racism, political divisions in the land—we are reminded in the lectionary texts for the Season of Advent that wilderness is a part of the journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah in John 1:23, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
We have felt some sense of wilderness this year. Sometimes our wilderness is of our own making. At other times wilderness visits us and thrusts us into an unfamiliar place emotionally and sometimes physically. In that space, we hold on to one another even when we are distanced. We love each other well by distancing and mask-wearing. We stay connected via Zoom, texts, calls, Face Time, and FaceBook live. We trust that God is with us. We trust that God is calling us to a deeper walk in this wilderness time.
We pray, come thou long expected Jesus. Let our hearts rest in thee. Deliver us. Free us from the chains that bind us. Fill us with love that conquers. Let power and love combine to free us from fear and anxiety. Let us live with holiness of heart and life.
Advent is a season of waiting. It is the metaphor for 2020. We are waiting, Lord.
Make us whole.
Let us live with great expectation for a world that is healing in body, mind and spirit.
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, United Methodist Hymnal No. 196, 1989.
Collins, Ace (2006). “13: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 102. ISBN 0-310-26314-X.
I welcome Reverend Johnny Jeffords as a guest writer for today. Please read and share his excellent post.
Sisters and brothers,
As we enter the holiday season this year, we can’t help but be aware that so much is different. Even in the best of times the season is difficult for many. The irony of “the most wonderful time of the year” being the time most dark and painful is a present reality. Statistically we know that the season amplifies the mental and behavioral health issues with which many struggle, and so many live that struggle in silence or untreated altogether.
And now we have the not yet fully realized impact of a global pandemic in front of us. This year, 2020, it’s all been too much. I’ve heard many say how ready they are for 2020 to go away. It’s an understandable feeling. The number of times I’ve heard the word “unprecedented” in 2020, is, well, unprecedented. The never seen before doesn’t surprise us as it once did. The unprecedented has become common. And you know what? It’s exhausting.
The challenges of this year have made us rethink so much. What does it mean to be the church in a pandemic? What does it mean to live in community at a distance? What is it to school our children? To take care of the least of these? Add the holidays into this mix, what with all that they are that is joyous for many while triggers for anxiety and depression for others, and this season will unquestionably be unlike any we’ve known before. It’s, and there’s that word again, unprecedented.
And then there’s the health implications of coming together within the expectations of family traditions. How does that happen? Does it happen? There was a time earlier on when we thought that these months of inconvenience would give way quickly to the return to the normal we lived in before. But what we knew as normal will always remain in the past. The pandemic has left us indelibly marked, as we have been by the divisions of political and theological tribalism, and by the abuses of power writ large. Brought together, it’s a lot. It’s too much, really. Our need to care for one another has never been greater. Our need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves has never been more important either.
No doubt public health leaders will give their best guidance on how to approach family gatherings during the holidays, and we’d do well to adapt our traditions to best protect those we love most. But each of us is feeling the pressure of the season in different ways. Some of us are finding that this year is more difficult than any before. We know we’re in trouble and scared about what to do next. In the absence of healthy resources, we revert to behaviors to numb our pain to the detriment of own health and to the relationships of those we love. What I’m encouraging each of you to do this season is be aware of your own inner struggles and know there are resources available to help you.
One such resource lives under the umbrella of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. It’s the Dennis H. Jones Living Well Network. The story of how LWN came to be is born out of the tragic death of a United Methodist layperson who lived in the silence of devastating depression. LWN is Dennis’ family’s ongoing gift of hope for those who need not struggle in silence anymore. LWN evaluates need and makes direct connections with resources that helps each person address their struggles. The Jones family’s gift to the community is available for any of us, all of us. The number is 901-762-8558. There is a counselor available to talk with you from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. You can find them on the internet at https://www.methodisthealth.org/the-living-well-network/ .
So, we’re looking for healing. People of faith always are. In the Greek, the word for healing, “sozo,” carries a wide range of resonant meanings among which are healing, wholeness and salvation. It concerns the totality of who we are with focus on our spiritual health, our physical health, and our mental health. If you’re struggling with stress, depression and anxiety, don’t be afraid. If you’re self-medicating to cope and are tired of living in the shadows, there is help. The totality of who you are is how God made you. And God desires restoration of our total selves, mind, body and spirit.
If you’re struggling, there is no shame. There is only care, only hope.
In June, a task force was established for the purpose of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and giving guidance about in person worship. The document they put forth assisted congregations in making wise decisions about proper protocols and protections. You can re-familiarize yourself with it here.
As many congregations have resumed some in-person worship and activity, it has gone reasonably well and great appreciation for being together has been expressed. After all, we are meant to be in fellowship with each other to worship our Lord and to serve our neighbors.
I am mindful that across the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences there have been ministers and laypersons who have contracted the virus. We give thanks for the recovery of many and grieve the loss of life among us that has been experienced in our churches.
As I am sure you know, the virus is spiking in areas across our future Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference. Therefore, I felt it wise to offer further guidance to assist your decision-making based on your context.
Some of our churches are making decisions about in-person worship based on data points such as the positivity rate, which is the percent of people being tested who receive a positive result.
Across Tennessee and Kentucky, we are seeing average positivity rates of over 13%. In Tennessee, 84% of our ICU beds are in use. These increases warrant consideration of suspending in-person worship for a season.
The wisdom of Dr. Scott Morris of our Church Health Center is that in-person worship should be suspended in favor of virtual worship for those communities with a positivity rate of 5% or higher.
You may find the rates for Tennessee and Kentucky from local media. You may also visit https://covidactnow.org/ where data points at the state and county level including positivity rate, transmission rate, ICU usage and more are available.
As the numbers increase in each community, more precaution is necessary. It is wise to await a 7- to 14-day trend of significant decrease in new cases before we relax safeguards.
If both clergy and lay leadership agree that it is safe to continue in person worship, it is important that each person in worship wears a mask. This is because we know that not all people who have contracted the virus show symptoms, which increases unknown spread.
All of these actions, virtual worship, mask wearing, social distancing, additional surface cleaning and frequent hand washing help to reduce the strain on our healthcare systems, and by so doing we are loving our neighbor well – in a tangible way.
I acknowledge that there are some who dismiss the threat of COVID-19, and that there are more still who are very anxious in this time. What we know to be true is this: 12 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 – almost 4% of the US population. There have been 256,000 deaths due to COVID – about .08% of the US population. On average, you have a 99.92% chance of not dying from COVID-19. You don’t need to be paralyzed in fear. However, most experts believe that these numbers can be decreased based upon the precautions we can take to reduce the spread of the virus.
Also, please take precautions during the Thanksgiving season to protect your family and friends. Our family has determined it is best not to gather in person.
As I reflect on the hardships of so many during 2020, I pray for those among us who have suffered diminished health, economic hardships, loss of employment, and loss of life of family and friends. I pray for our children, youth, and young adults who are struggling with their education as well as for those teachers and professors who are providing instruction in this environment. I pray for parents who are strained with childcare concerns and workloads. I pray for our healthcare workers as they provide care for those in their communities under stressful conditions. I pray for our pastors as they shepherd their congregations through these difficult days while in search of the green pastures and still waters that will surely come.
I pray for all of us to live with a spirit of gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving, knowing that, for many of us, Thanksgiving will look very different this year. I am grateful for the many ways you have continued to reach out in your neighborhoods to meet the needs of your friends and neighbors.
In 1974 I celebrated my eighteenth birthday. As I recall, there was no fanfare, no big celebration. I think my mother probably made her famous strawberry cake that was divine. However, this was a monumental milestone for I was now (legally) an adult.
The Draft for military service was winding down, as was the Vietnam War. In fact, the 1967 Selective Service Act expired in 1973 ending the authority to induct draft registrants. However, those of us turning 18 in 1974 were still required to register. I was grateful the war was coming to a close.
The second marker of 1974 was that I was now eligible to vote in United States elections so I was eager to register. I did so and since 1974 have exercised my privilege to vote. It is a sacred honor of our democracy.
Over the years I have cast my ballot most often for the person, regardless of the party, who I believed could best serve our country, state, city and county governments.
I have already exercised that privilege this year by voting with a mail-in ballot in the State of Tennessee.
As I consider this election season, at the heart are two significant concerns:
The first one is civil—that is, the preservation of democratic norms and institutions. In Abraham Lincoln’s powerful address at Gettysburg, these now famous words come to mind: “that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This is the beauty of being an American and the privilege of being a United States citizen. We participate in sharing in the preservation of democracy every time we cast our vote. If our preferred candidate is defeated in an election, we accept it and move on until the next opportunity to support our preferred candidate.
The second one is ecclesial—that is, our ability and willingness to love one another through this civil process. It is the heart of our Christian faith. Neighbor love is how our dear friend Dr. Doug Meeks speaks of Jesus’ instruction to love God and love neighbor. When we love our neighbor we are concerned for all the dimensions of a person’s life.
Perhaps you are familiar with John Wesley’s instructions about an upcoming election in Parliament. He wrote in his 1774 Journal:
“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
- To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy.
- To speak no evil of the person they voted against,
- And, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.“
My sense is this: these two concerns are at stake in the November election: 1) Civil—the preservation of our democracy and 2) Ecclesial—the exercising of the call of Christ on our lives to neighbor love.
A lot has changed in our country since 1974. I have travelled many roads. I still remember in one of my early appointments two members of the same church. In the home of one hung a picture of President Ronald Reagan, in the other, a picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
That’s who we United Methodist’s are—those with the ability to disagree and hold hands at the same time. Love God and love our neighbor.
It’s not 1974 anymore, not that I wish it were. I simply acknowledge that the landscape has shifted and continues to shift. It often feels as if we are in the wilderness, and it is yet unclear when we will come to the Promised Land. The cultural shifting of partisanship politics bleeds into the Church. The margin for misunderstanding grows wider and wider in this politically polarizing season. Contrary to what some might like to believe, Jesus is not a Republican, nor a Democrat.
Voter suppression is real and has been for 150 years in this country. Historically, voters of color and low-income voters have had their right to vote suppressed by those in power. What does voter suppression look like today? State and local governments making it harder for people to register to vote; purging voter rolls; disenfranchising criminal justice populations; reducing the number of polling places; restricting early voting; enforcing rigid voter ID requirements; restricting alternatives to physical voting and registration.
All those who seek to cast votes need to have the privilege granted to every American citizen. Those votes need to be cast with integrity and honesty.
It is my prayer that regardless of your political preferences, you will participate in helping make our country more loving and just.
It is in that spirit that I offer this prayer from the Moravian Daily Text, November 4, 2018:
God of love, may our love for you mirror your love for us. May others know us to be your disciples—through our love for our enemies and those with whom we differ—as well as those with whom we have affinity. Amen.
O God, give us clarity of mind and spirit. Bring us to a place of deep understanding and peace within our land. Keep us from harming one another. Give us courage to speak our truth in love as we exercise the privilege given to us to vote in this country. These and all things we pray in the name of the one who taught us to love You and love those you love. Amen.
I encourage each of you to VOTE in the upcoming election. And then, no matter the outcome, let’s come together to be the people of God in our land, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our families.
We have work to do…offering Christ to a hurting world one neighborhood at a time.
Perhaps you have seen in United Methodist News Service or other sources the news of the tragedy that occurred September 27 in Eastern Congo.
Six United Methodists were among 19 civilians killed in a massacre in Mamove that has been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, an armed rebel group that operates in Eastern Congo and Uganda. ADF, a radical Islamist group, is believed to be responsible for the Sept. 27 attack as well as a series of massacres in Eastern Congo since January that involved some other rebel groups.
Many of those who lost their lives were among our United Methodist brothers and sisters. On Oct. 6 those who died were memorialized at the Kivu Annual Conference . The Rev. Dumas Balaganire, District Superintendent of the Beni District, reports that there are four local United Methodist Churches in the Mamove area.
Balaganire said the United Methodists who were killed are:
— Kakule Olenga, who led the choir at Mamove United Methodist Church.
— Okenge Junior, a member of the Mutuei church and the district evangelist.
— Abibu Chantal, president of United Methodist Women at the Samboko church.
— Mwayuma Shabani, secretary of the women’s group at Mutuei United Methodist Church.
— Augustin Omeno, president of the United Methodist Men at the Mamove church.
— Muyisa Kambale, the treasurer of the Mamove church.
This is a devastating loss to these communities and to the United Methodist family. As you might imagine, several children lost a parent.
We would like to support these communities with a financial gift. If you or your congregation wishes to make a love offering to the Bini District, please do so through the Memphis Conference or the Tennessee Conference Office of Administrative Services.
Our prayers continue to surround these brothers and sisters in Christ during this tragic and devasting loss.
Below is the text from the sermon I gave for the Services of Licensing, Commissioning and Ordination in both the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences in recent weeks. Video from these services are available on the conference websites.
Will you pray with me and for me now?
Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter in the storm of life, and our eternal home. Teach us, lead us, help us order our steps in your word as we live into the call that you have placed upon our lives. Grant it in these moments that those who are gathered here will hear you and not me, will see you and not me, and when we leave this place that we give you all the praise. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Church said, Amen.
Well, you have been on my mind this summer. I’ve thought a lot about you. I’ve thought a lot about this service, you who are being licensed and commissioned and ordained this morning. You’re stepping into leadership in the church at a most unusual time. You are aware of the unusual time into which you are moving, right?
You’re stepping into this chapter of your journey when your colleagues and friends must support you at quite a distance. Amen? You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the future of the United Methodist Church is at best, a little shaky. You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism have controlled the news cycle constantly for the last five to six months and, oh yes, did you notice that there is a Presidential election during this season? I’ve prayed for you. I have worried about how we would be able to offer an in-person service of commissioning, licensing, and ordination in a protected way.
As a thought about that, I remembered this beautiful Black gospel hymn, Order My Steps. It began to echo in my mind, and I began to just sing it over to myself, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word. When I was down on the Mississippi Gulf coast, I went to this rural church and there was this beautiful rendition of a particular gospel song that day. And after the service, the choir director came up to me and said, if that don’t warm your heart, your wood’s wet.
So, you’ve been on my mind. Did I mention that you’d been on my mind? I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t recommend doing life as I do it, but I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t want to peak too soon. I want to be pumped up right when it’s game time, this is game time for a Bishop. Ordination day, commissioning, licensing. It’s game day. And so, I was just getting myself really revved up last night and I spilled my big drink on my keyboard of my computer in the midst of my rewrite, the 14th rewrite, of this sermon. Has that ever happened to anybody else? I need somebody to order my life. Amen? But in this anticipation of this service, I even left my script for the service in my wife’s car, and she’s gone to Hermitage this morning. Has this ever happened to anybody else? Lord have mercy on a Bishop!
In my anticipation, this disrupted out of sync season of annual conference in September and moving day in July. It’s just been a strange season for the church, for our conferences. It’s just been weird. I mean, my life has been patterned. My steps have been patterned for 40 years with annual conference in June, moving day the end of June, and then I’m free. We got a little respite. But, we’re ramping up in August/September towards the big event. My life is out of step. What do you do when you’re out of step?
I usually need to go back to the source. When I find myself walking out of step, I have to go back to the source of my call, the source of my strength, the source of my very being. So, I started thinking about my call to ministry, about the place scripture and the Holy Spirit in my life, in your life. I don’t know if you’re a follower of the great preacher, Fred Craddock. Some of us were blessed enough to have Fred teach us a little bit about preaching. He said, “no one is ever called loud enough for everyone in the family to hear. No one is ever called loud enough for everybody in the family to hear the call.“
And so as I lean in, and I tried to listen to the still small voice of God and reflected on all that’s gone on in this summer, I started thinking about my why. My call. Why? Why I’m in this work?
It’s a simple question. Simon Sinek wrote an entire book about knowing your why. Why are you here? Really? Why are you sitting here preparing to be licensed, commissioned or ordained? Do you know why? Why did you answer your call? In 1989, Steven Covey published his bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Sometime around 1982, I took the now famous course, Franklin Covey’s Seven Habits. Maybe you did that as well, somewhere along the way. You may ask me, why did you take such a course? I took the course because I wanted to be effective in my steps. I took the course because I wanted to know my why, I wanted to write a mission statement, I wanted to live into who God had called me to be. I wanted to get clarity about that. I wanted to get my steps ordered in those seven habits. One of them was remember to begin with the end in mind. We’re going somewhere, brothers and sisters. We’re not there yet. Well, God has us on a mission and we’re going toward what God’s calling us to. We’re not there. I think Martin said that, didn’t he?
Hold on. I’m just stepping into mine. I wish I’d of had a Fitbit when I started my stepping into the ministry. I’d love to know how many steps I walked in the name of Jesus in the last 40 years.
I started stepping into this call when I was in high school. I was very active in conference youth work in my local church. I spent a lot of weekend retreats in summers at our conference camp. We had this beautiful hillside with these three crosses on the hill and you could look out over the valley and I would pray fervently, God I’m listening. Show me, show me what to do with my life.
Show me. I found myself stepping into the call one Sunday morning at Grenada First United Methodist Church, Grenada, Mississippi. The preacher happened to be my father, who offered the invitation and the closing invitational hymn was Oh, Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee. I wanted to be that prophet who would not be afraid. And I stepped in and made a public confession of my call to ministry. I stepped into my call again when I walked onto the steps of Candler School of Theology, walked into the halls of Bishop Hall and sat at the feet of Fred Craddock and Leander Keck who taught New Testament. I remember clearly the night I stepped to the alter at First United Methodist Church, Columbus, Mississippi, and Bishop C.P. Minnick put his big hands on my head and said “take thou authority to preach the word and administer the sacraments.” I can still feel the weight of his hands on my head.
Fast forward to 25 years later, August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. The Friday after Katrina hit, I was on my way to Guadalajara, Mexico on a medical and work mission trip and our work team had to make a decision. Were we going to go on and go to Mexico? Are we going to hang out and worry about our home state that had been ravaged by a hurricane? We finally concluded that we couldn’t do anything in that moment on the Gulf Coast. So, we went to Mexico because we knew nobody else will be going to Mexico that week to do what God had called us to do. So we went. As soon as I returned from Mexico, I loaded up my car with all the supplies I could muster. And I drove to Bay St. Louis, where Rick Brooks was the pastor of Bay St. Louis United Methodist Church. Rick’s home had eight feet of flood water. It was the parsonage. I got there in time to take that big wide scooping shovel and scoop out the mud and the muck, and the smell was wretched.
I began to take trip after trip, after trip. Our church decided to take on the task of rebuilding the parsonage. And I began to feel God doing something in me in that moment. And I said to my Bishop. (Be careful what you say to your Bishop, by the way.). I said to my Bishop, “if you need me to go to the Gulf Coast, I feel that might be what God is calling me to do.” And Lynn and I spent six years helping the people of the Seashore District recover after that devastating storm. All of those steps, every one of them is rooted in my why.
So the question that I want to put before you this morning is, are your steps being ordered in the word? In God’s word? Do you remember when God first called you? Do you remember when the phone rang and God said, I want you? Do you remember when it was?
Do you remember the last time God called you?
God doesn’t just call you one time. Hear me now. That call has to be heard over and over and over again. I can’t tell you a hundred percent the first time I got that call, but I can tell you the last time.
Last week I received a text message from Embra Jackson. Embra is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, Mississippi, and Embra sent me a text that said, “can you do a grave site service in Nashville Thursday?” Dr. Swan Burrus has passed away.
Swan was an OB/GYN. He was 90 years old. He was a beloved member of the church. He was the permanent president of his Sunday school class. He had four children who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. I had known two of his children since camp days when we went to Camp Lake Stephens together and later two of them, his oldest two daughters, were at Millsaps College with me. I had not seen these friends for 40 years, these two sisters. Last week I learned this is just how God works these things out. This is the beauty of our United Methodist connection. Swan grew up at Inglewood United Methodist Church, then Methodist Church.
It’s now Home Church. His family grew up in that community. Marianne, his wife’s, father, get this, was the Reverend Frank Calhoun, an Elder in the Tennessee Conference. He met Marianne when her father was appointed to Inglewood and they started carpooling to Vanderbilt together at the request of her father and the rest, as they say, is history.
Did I mention, did I say I’m wondering why I was asked to step in to this season of life and death with these long time friends? While I was giving the message at the Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison on the hottest day of last week, Thursday two o’clock in the afternoon. Think about that.
I remembered my why. In the midst of all the conversations, all the prayers, all the sacred words. I found myself remembering my why. I remember that in my heart of hearts, at the very core of who Bill McAlilly was created to be, and who God called, is that I’m called to be a pastor.
I wasn’t called first to be a Bishop. My first call was to be a pastor. To bring good news to all God’s children, to care for the broken, the wounded, to offer Christ to those who are lost, and confused, and alone, who need a second chance? Do you know anybody right now who needs another chance? Our God is a God of second chances, friends, and you’re there to help them hear that message of hope and promise and possibility.
Do you know your why? If you are not crystal clear about your call, when the challenges get big, grow large, mount, you will want to quit.
You’ll want to quit. If you haven’t already had that experience, stay tuned. Bishop Bob Tullis told us many years ago, in an ordination sermon, “if you are not spending time daily in scripture, reading, and prayer five years from now, you will not be in ministry.”
If you are not aligning your why with scripture, you will wake up five years from now and wonder where you are and how you arrived at this unfamiliar place. Luke 4, what a great text for an ordination sermon. Luke 3 and 4, remind us that it was at Jesus’ baptism that he got clarity about his call. Jesus heard the words, “Thou art my beloved son with whom I’m well pleased.” It was in the wilderness, “immediately,” the text says. He went into the wilderness immediately.
The Spirit led him into the wilderness and he worked it out. He had to figure out what kind of leader he was going to be.
What did God really need from him? It wasn’t power. It wasn’t sitting up high and holy on a throne lifted up. No, it was down in the valley. It was down where the people were, where the pain was, where the suffering is. That’s where Jesus heard his call.
Have you been tested this week? Last week? When was the last test? Oh, some of you say, well, I got tested by the Board of Ordained Ministry. That’s not the worst test you’ll ever have friends. Trust me. There will be more difficult and challenging tests. Stay tuned.
I remember Craddock, in his Preaching 101 class, say “what you want to do and what you have to do will occasionally line up. What you want to do and what you have to do will from time to time be in sync.“ So, follow this Luke 3 & 4 text. He’s led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is this guiding staff. Luke wants to make clear that we understand the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of Jesus. These three things occur: his baptism, the wilderness, and then in our text today, he goes home. Anybody ever go back to their home church to preach?
They remember you when you do and they will tell you what they remember about you. And it’s not all good. Trust me. I served my home church in my first appointment out of seminary. And my mother-in-law was the choir director.
Lord have mercy.
When Jesus came back home, he stood up and he read from the prophet Isaiah. I want to suggest to you this day that the prophet Isaiah, the text from which Jesus read, was Jesus’ why. It helped him know what his why was. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to preach release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.“ Listen again to what it means to order your steps in the word.
I want to walk worthy, walk worthy Lord, My calling to fulfill. Please order my steps Lord, Order my steps and I’ll do your blessed will. The world is ever changing, it’s changing Lord, But you are still the same; If you’ll order my steps, I’ll praise your name. Order my steps in your word. Order my tongue in your word. Guide my feet in your word. Wash my heart in your word. Show me how to walk in your word. Show me how to talk in your word. If I need a brand new song to sing, Show me how to let your praises ring, In your word, your word. In your word, your word. Please order my steps in your word.
How are your steps ordered today? As you step forward into this covenant life? Earlier, I mentioned Katrina recovery. That experience reframed my life. It did not change my why, but it did reorder where I walked. Last week, the simple act of offering grace to a family broken by the loss of a dear loved one reminded me of my why, of my call. It wasn’t dramatic. Lightening didn’t flash and I didn’t hear a voice from heaven, but it was a reordering of what mattered most. So to each of you, I invite you this very day, this day— go home tonight and take your Bible and in the front of your Bible on a page write the story of your call. Just write it out.
And go to the internet and copy the words of Order my Steps and paste that beside your call story. And when the storms come, when the seas are raging, when the negative voices are biting at your feet, and they will, go pick up your Bible and read your story, read the text of the hymn, listen to it, hear the words, pass them into your heart in such a way that you will never forget them. Find that one verse that you hang your whole life on, find it and write it there.
Then remember, if you’re ordering your steps in the Word, here’s what I know:
I know because of what Jesus taught me that racism is real right now in our country. And if you don’t find a way to speak a word of grace and hope to dismantle racism, then you’ve got to go back and read it again. The COVID-19 pandemic is real and people are dying every day and they’re dying alone and families are broken because of the loneliness, and frustration, and horror of what it means to lose a loved one, separated by a hospital wall. If you don’t know that’s real, go read Luke chapter 4 because Jesus came to speak into that moment.
And if you hadn’t noticed this whole world of ours is fractured and it grieves my heart more than I can say in words, that some of the fracturing comes out of the mouths of Christians.
The rhetoric coming out of Christians in this moment needs a word of Gospel spoken into it and a Word of peace, so that those who are oppressed can be set free.
Let me Close in this way:
The spirit of the Lord is upon you because he is anointing you to preach the gospel to the poor. He is sending you to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind and to set at liberty those who are bruised. So let your steps be ordered one more time. Not just today, but every day you wake up and call yourself pastor.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As you may know, Martin Methodist College has entered into an agreement with the University of Tennessee to pursue a partnership with UT whereby Martin becomes a satellite campus of the University.
While there is a great deal of work that must be accomplished for this to occur, it does appear to be a very real possibility.
Below, please read Allen Stanton’s guest blog post about what this will mean for our United Methodist presence on Martin’s Campus. Allen is the Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist and illuminates what is hoped for with regard to our Wesley Foundation and the Turner Center going forward.
Guest Post by Rev. Allen Stanton
When Martin Methodist College announced our intention to become part of the University of Tennessee System, I knew that I would get a fair amount of questions from colleagues and friends. As the director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, I knew that most of those questions would be asking about my thoughts as the leader of a faith-based initiative. How was I feeling about this transition? What does this mean for Methodist higher education? What does this mean for the mission of Martin Methodist?
Martin Methodist College is a special institution in the Nashville Episcopal Area, and I know that a number of people share those questions. To answer them, I think it’s important to remember a few points.
First, Martin Methodist College was founded in a deep Wesleyan tradition of expanding access to education. For those early Methodists, access to social goods like education was about inviting participation into the Kingdom of God. By opening up this access, the college could be a place that offered transformation for the students and the community.
That mission is still deep in our DNA. Today, we pride ourselves on serving rural students, first-generation college students, and Pell-eligible students. It was a mark of pride when US News and World Report ranked us among the top colleges for social mobility.
It’s important to know that Martin Methodist College is still a strong institution. Unlike a lot of colleges of our size, we have a strong and stable enrollment. We have low debt, and we are constantly seeking new ways to live out our mission.
That strength does not make us immune from changes facing every small college, though. For instance, there are fewer high-school students than in decades past, which means colleges are competing for a smaller pool of students. And, COVID-19 is forcing change in every college, from the wealthiest to the smallest.
All of this leaves us with an important question: What is best for our mission?
The truth is that by becoming part of the University of Tennessee System, we will be able to improve the ways in which we carry out that foundational calling. We will have more resources to continue to provide quality education for our under-served area. We will be able to improve the economy of South-Central Tennessee. We will be able to help every member of our community unlock their potential and realize their vocation.
The second point that I want to emphasize is that we will still retain a connection to our Methodist tradition, and the people of the new Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. For our students, we will have a robust Wesley Foundation, where they will experience the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. The Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, meanwhile, will continue to work with faith-based communities, including United Methodist Congregations, to cultivate thriving rural communities.
The truth is this: Just because we lose our Methodist name does not mean that we lose our connection. In my first job out of seminary, I managed an initiative at a public university that supported United Methodist congregations in ways that mirror much of the current work of the Turner Center at MMC. There is no doubt that we will continue in our work. Even as we prepare for this transition, we will soon be announcing new initiatives, including a partnership with Duke Divinity School to expand access to theological education in our area.
All of this brings me to the question I am most often asked: How do I, as an ordained elder who came to Tennessee to work at Martin Methodist College, feel about this new development?
Simply put, I am hopeful. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to embrace transformation. Just as our episcopal area is becoming recreated into a new Conference, and just as our denomination is in a state of change, Martin Methodist College will enter into this transformation sure and confident in our ability to “do all the good we can.”
What I love about Martin Methodist College is that we are a people on a mission. Our mission permeates our campus culture. It is at the heart of all that we do. In staff meetings, when working with students, and in conversations with faculty, we are constantly reminding ourselves of the work to which we are called.
We are a people on mission, and we will go where the mission demands.
We are a people on mission, and we are always confident in the grace that makes all things new.
We are a people on mission, and our mission deserves nothing less.
Rev. Allen Stanton is the Executive Director of Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, working with rural congregations, non-profits, businesses, and community leaders to cultivate thriving rural communities.
This Sunday, June 21, churches in the Nashville Episcopal Area, the future Tennessee Western Kentucky Annual Conference, are invited to return to in-person worship. With the necessary safety measures in place, worship will not look like it did before the pandemic.
While you are invited to resume in-person worship, you are certainly not required to do so. We also recommend that you do not resume in-person worship until your local health officials deem that it is safe for you to gather.
With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) still moving through our communities, some of our churches have discerned that it is best to suspend services until July or even August. I affirm these decisions reached through the cooperative efforts of our lay and clergy leaders.
I hope that you have reviewed the provided guidelines and have taken this time to carefully prepare safe in-person worship. I also hope that you have prepared to continue reaching those with whom you have connected digitally during this time of suspended in-person worship. This includes those you have reached for the first time, as well as those who choose to continue worshipping virtually from home.
Our Guidelines for In-Person Worship during COVID-19 were developed and distributed a few weeks ago to support you as you prepare for in-person worship. You may notice that our final version of these guidelines also bears the new logo designed to represent our future conference. We all are in this together as we move into our mission as the Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference.
It is also my pleasure to announce grants to support churches in providing a safer in-person worship experience. These are supported by the generosity of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, and the Tennessee Conference Golden Cross Foundation.
These funds will be used to help reimburse local churches for expenses related to the purchase of appropriate masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. Please take advantage of this support, if you need it, so your church can provide a safer worship experience for those who return to an in-person service.
Please go to twkumc.org/covid-19-guidelines-grants/ for more information about the Safer Worship Grants as well as for the latest version of the Guidelines for In-Person Worship during COVID-19.
May God bless and keep safe our clergy and laity as they discern the right time to return to in-person worship, and be with them as they make that return.
June 8, 2020
Council of Bishops statement on the Scourge of Racism
The past few weeks have left many hurt, angry and outraged as we have witnessed the deaths of unarmed Black persons at the hands of police and racism; Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the countless others whose names are known only to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends.
Many bishops have worked to amplify and magnify one another’s voices. The words of Bishop Bruce Ough, resident Bishop of Minneapolis area, were a clarion call to the crisis before us, “There is more than one pandemic ravaging Minnesota and our country at this time. In addition to fighting COVID-19, we are besieged by a pandemic of racism, white supremacy, and white on black or brownviolence.”
The voice of Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, resident Bishop of the Baltimore- Washington area, gave power to the realities, “Being Black is not a pre-existing condition; being Black is not justification for probable cause; being Black is not to be inherently suspicious nor suspect. Being Black is a gift from Almighty God and a manifestation of an aspect of God.”
These prophetic voices and those of others have provided words when we had none.
As bishops of the United Methodist Church, we ask every United Methodist to reclaim their baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
We ask every United Methodist to name the egregious sin of racism and white supremacy and join together to take a stand against the oppression and injustice that is killing persons of color.
As bishops of the whole church we affirm the peaceful protests as a means of giving voice where it is needed most.
We are clear that it is beyond time for all United Methodists to act. It is time to use our voices, our pens, our feet and our heart for change.
We join with other church leaders and boards and agencies of the United Methodist Church to add strength to the message that we will no longer remain silent nor complicit but must act now!
As a next faithful step we ask United Methodists to read all they can on the subject of anti-racism and engage in conversations with children, youth and adults. Have conversations with coworkers and friends. These will not be easy but they will help us gain a greater appreciation for one another. In a recent podcast, “Unlocking Us,” lecturer, author and podcast host, Brene Brown, hosted author, historian and American University professor, Ibram X. Kendi who said, “By not running from the books that pain us, we can allow them to transform us. I ran from antiracist books most of my life. But now I can’t stop running after them – scrutinizing myself and my society, and in the process changing both.” May we listen not only with our ears but with our hearts and run after books, podcasts and conversations that transform entire communities.
For at least the next 30 days, we ask every United Methodist everywhere to join in prayer at 8:46 a.m. and p.m. for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time the officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Do this for at least the next 30 days. Pray for all persons of color who suffer at the hands of injustice and oppression. Pray for our church as we take a stand against racism. Imagine the power of a concert of prayer heard around the world.
And finally, to borrow from Bishop Easterling once again, “The time is now. Dismantle the architecture of whiteness and white supremacy; stop creating, implementing and supporting policies that perpetuate economic injustice; stop the dog-whistle political maneuverings which incite violence against people of color; commit to being an anti-racist; stop over-policing Black and brown bodies; stop using deadly force in ordinary police interactions with Black and brown people. Stop killing us.”
May the God of Grace and Peace be with you.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
President – Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church
I want to share with you this pastoral letter from the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops.
Deep peace to you,
A Pastoral Letter to United Methodists
of the Southeastern Jurisdiction
June 5, 2020
Brothers and Sisters:
As president of the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops my heart rejoices over the bold, courageous, and compassionate offering of confession, lament, and call to action by our white brothers and sisters of the SEJ College and the gracious acceptance of this act of truth telling as we journey toward the Beloved Community. It is our belief that such actions enhance our work and witness to a hurting community seeking moral leadership in this time of racial upheaval.
We see this statement as a reversal of the sentiments of the letter sent to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by a group of clergymen that caused him to write the eloquent and brutally honest “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
We have longed for white voices of power and influence to stand with us. It is an amazing gift to hear and work with colleagues joining voices in solidarity with African Americans who have been both prophet and victim. It is only when the privileged who have benefited from the evils of racism take a stand that real change happens. It is our prayer that the church, the nation, and our world will no longer place the burden on the oppressed to liberate themselves. It is impossible to free yourself when the power of systemic injustice has its knee on your neck.
We pray that what follows will serve as a model for our brothers and sisters who have lived a life of white privilege to speak a gracious yet painful word of truth as we journey together toward real transformation, hope, and love in this racially charged atmosphere. We share this work of solidarity with these words from our fellow White Bishops with thanksgiving and hope that others will join us.
Bishop Leonard Fairley
We, the White Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church, call upon all United Methodists to stand with and see our Black brothers and sisters.
As White American Bishops, we stand up and stand with our Black Bishops in the Church who have consistently named and called out the systemic and sinful practice of discrimination that has been pervasive in the United States since the first slaves walked the shores of this land. For our failure to join our sisters and brothers we ask forgiveness.
As White American Bishops, we stand up and stand with the Black Communities across our Episcopal Areas recognizing that we who have been in positions of power and privilege have been silent. In our silence we have and do sin. We implore all United Methodists across the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church to exercise influence and power to be agents of repentance, reconciliation, reformation, and restoration in a system that has failed to bring hope to all God’s children of color.
As White American Bishops, we stand up and stand with all persons who live in fear of the very systems designed to protect them.
As White American Bishops, we stand up and stand with all persons whose anger has reached the point of intolerance due to failure after failure to change systemic racial injustice which has created the climate where black lives can be snuffed out without consequence.
As White American Bishops, we stand up, stand with, and stand against any systems of injustice that treat people differently because of the color of their skin. We call on the people called Methodist to live fully into our baptismal vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.
We believe that the soul of our nation needs to be examined which means that each person, individually, needs to engage in self-examination. Self-examination includes educating oneself about the roots of racism from slavery to lynching to racial segregation and Jim Crow to contemporary presumptions of guilt, incarceration, and police violence. Self-examination means scrutinizing one’s beliefs, attitudes, and actions. A beginning place is for each of us to read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. [See link above.]
God calls us individually and collectively to take action.
In our Baptism we are called to accept the freedom and power given by God to resist evil, injustice and oppression however, wherever, and whenever they are present.
We, the White American Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction United Methodist Church, cry out to the people of The United Methodist Church to unite our hearts, our minds, our souls and our strength now to step into this present brokenness by seeing those we have chosen not to see. We do so believing that out of the pain of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, and countless others whose names have faded, that these senseless killings will stop and healing can begin.
Let us now, this day, stand up and stand with our Black brothers and sisters so that we will be united as one body in Christ, redeemed by his blood. May we be one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory.
This is our deepest prayer.
The Holy Work Before Us
We now ask you to join us in recommitting ourselves to non-violently exposing and opposing injustice, racism, and violence even when it resides in our own hearts. We must not allow our righteous indignation and prophetic calls for justice to become spiritually hollow with no moral integrity to speak into a world that is in desperate need of the fresh bread of hope.
We hear and see it in the protests. The world grows weary of injustice where the marginalized become voiceless and invisible living at the mercy of power. If we are unwilling to walk the path of Jesus Christ and truly acknowledge white privilege, then all our statements simply become high sounding pontificated documents joining other statements gathering dust on the selves of empty promises.
With your prayers and actions joined with ours we can answer the cries we hear in the midst of protests—cries of injustice, fear, and anger, that when gone unanswered turn violent. If Jesus is indeed the answer let us dare to see one another as beloved children of the living God deserving of love, mercy, and justice.
We offer our example to the church. In the name of Jesus Christ this is our work and we dare not abandon it or the world because we desire privilege and power over what the Lord requires of us.
Please join us in this holy work of dismantling racism in its subtle and overt forms. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Bishop Lawson Bryan
Bishop Kenneth L. Carder
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter
Bishop Ray Chamberlain
Bishop Young Jin Cho
Bishop Charles Crutchfield
Bishop Lindsey Davis
Bishop Leonard Fairley
Bishop Bob Fannin
Bishop David Graves
Bishop Larry Goodpaster
Bishop Al Gwinn
Bishop Jonathan Holston
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson
Bishop Hasbrouck Hughes, Jr.
Bishop Charlene Kammerer
Bishop James King
Bishop Clay Lee
Bishop Paul Leeland
Bishop Sharma Lewis
Bishop Richard Looney
Bishop William T. McAlilly
Bishop Lawrence McCleskey
Bishop Jack Meadors
Bishop C. P. Minnick, Jr.
Bishop Bob Spain
Bishop Thomas B. Stockton
Bishop James Swanson
Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
Bishop Joe Pennel
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward
Bishop Mike Watson
Bishop William Willimon
Bishop Dick Wills
The Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction
of The United Methodist Church
In January I was privileged to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. The memorial structure is constructed with over 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.
Among the first names that I saw were Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart, three men who were lynched in Shelby County, Tennessee. As I made my way through the memorial, I found — Davis and Harvey Mayberry who were lynched in Lee County, Mississippi, the county of my birth. Historical records did not include the first name for — Davis, but a child of God, nonetheless.
County after county, state after state, name after name after name. Four thousand and seventy-five lynchings are documented in twelve states between 1877 and 1950.
There was a spiritual and moral crisis in our land.
There IS STILL a spiritual and moral crisis in our land.
As a white man of privilege, I have no idea what it is like for my black brothers and sisters to daily worry about their children, who, simply because of the color of their skin, live in fear that one of their children could die a senseless death. I listen. I seek understanding. But the truth is: I do not have to live with the trauma and fear, the emotional and psychological impacts of racism.
If you are a white person think about what it would be like to have that fear, that stress every day of your life.
Alisha Moreland-Capuia, executive director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Avel Gordly Center for Healing, which focuses on culturally sensitive care for the African American community said: “The emotional and psychological impact of racism means acutely, every day, being reminded that you are not enough, being reminded that you are not seen, being reminded that you are not valued, being reminded that you are not a citizen, being reminded that humanity is not something that applies to you.”
When Covid-19 came on our radar three months ago, we had no idea it would include a racial disparity in those who would become ill and bear the most deaths.
Some have suggested that another pandemic we face is the sin of racism.
On that cold January day, I read name after name of just some of the four thousand and seventy-five lynching victims.
Today, we have our own tragic list.
George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Philado Castile. Trayvon Martin. And so many more. There is grief among us because of the sin of racism.
I ask myself, I ask you, what is the response for people of faith? In particular, what do the people called Methodist, followers of Jesus, do in the face of the rise of the pandemic of racism. My colleague Bishop Bruce Ough suggests that “we are compelled to address this pandemic with the same intensity and intentionality with which we are addressing COVID-19.”
With Bishop Ough, here is one beginning response:
First, we name the sin: racism.
Second, we confess our own participation in perpetuating this sin and our complicity in it.
Third, we stand against any and all expressions of racism and white supremacy, beginning with the racial, cultural, and class disparities in our state and country that are highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fourth, we sound the clarion call for the eradication of racism. We challenge governmental leaders who fan the flames of racial division for political gain.
Fifth, we examine our own attitudes and actions; all change begins with transformed hearts continually yielding to the righteousness and love of God.
Bishop Ough concludes: “Let us not turn away or ignore the disease that has been tearing our country apart and destroying lives for centuries. This disease—the sin of racism and white supremacy—denies the teachings of Jesus and our common, created humanity. Let us renew our efforts to eradicate the disease that truly threatens our ideals and the lives, livelihoods, and dignity of so many of our neighbors.”
We are a long way away from the vision of the Beloved Community about which Martin Luther King taught.
In this particular part of God’s kingdom, may our hearts and minds be united as we seek to create a more just, human and Christ embodied world. If it is to be so, it begins with you and me. Now.
In the midst of this strange season of Covid-19, this is our moral imperative.
May Christ show us the way.
 USA TODAY, Alia E. Dastigar, May 28, 2020
 Bishop Bruce Ough, MinnesotaUMC.org, Bishops Statement on the death of George Floyd, quoted with permission
The Apostle Paul begins his letters to the Philippians by reminding them that, even though they cannot gather, they are still able to “advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).
In a very abrupt way, COVID-19 altered many of the paths we were journeying and inspired us to examine and begin new ways of living and practicing our faith. I use the word inspired because through the creativity and flexibility I have witnessed in the churches and leaders of the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences of The United Methodist Church, I remain inspired.
On April 24, I announced that in-person worship and congregational gatherings would remain suspended until the end of May. After careful observation of the current trends and most recent data surrounding the spread of COVID-19, consultation with medical professionals, conferring with the COVID-19 response task team, and deep prayer, I have discerned that our tentative date for churches to begin coming back together for in-person worship will be June 21, 2020.
This date is not a mandate for which you must return to worship. Many of our churches will not be equipped and ready to safely engage in in-person worship. Rather, June 21 is a tentative date that will allow for in-person worship in an organized, phased manner where it is safe to do so. It is also a tentative date which is subject to revision based on current COVID-19 data at that time.
In this season, I have often been reminded of John Wesley’s General Rules, “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay In Love With God.” As we navigate our cautious and phased return to in-person worship amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been guided by these rules, particularly the first one, “Do no harm.”
Therefore, I ask you to observe the following:
- First, approach this transition with prayer, seeking wisdom and guidance as you move forward.
- Evaluate your local community and church context. What are the local, state, and federal guidelines? Is it safe to begin physically meeting again? Would it do harm?
- Have you assembled a local team to assist in guiding the congregation through the necessary steps to ensure you do no harm in coming back together?
- Do you have on hand, or a plan to obtain, an adequate amount of approved cleaners and disinfecting agents?
- Do you have face coverings available for those who may not have one?
- Do you have volunteers ready, and does your congregation know the protocols and plans your leadership has agreed to follow?
On May 9, I announced that I had named a task team to guide us through reopening in light of Wesley’s General Rules. This team, composed of laypeople, elders, deacons, local pastors, district staff, and current and former healthcare professionals from across our episcopal area, is diligently working to equip our ministries and local churches to come back together while being continually aware of our vow to do no harm.
Today I share the team’s initial guidance for coming back together while continuing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This guidance is compiled from the vetted resources of the CDC, HHS, OSHA, and state health departments.
Many of you have questions. I want to urge you to refrain from seeking out answers from sources that are unverified, unregulated, and unreliable. The task team I assembled was brought together to offer guidance and recommendation to assist me in guiding these Conferences. Please resist the urge to go to social media or other venues to solicit guidance and answers to your questions. Instead, contact your district office who can direct you toward the evidence and fact-based guidance vetted by our task team. I will remain vigilant in communicating this guidance to you with time to react on your local level.
As we anticipate returning to worship, I trust you are engaging in the best wisdom and guidance available. Worshiping our risen Lord is the highlight of our week. Our hope will always be to be together within our sacred places of worship. We can anticipate that our future worship will be unlike our past gatherings. It is likely that for the foreseeable future we will engage in adaptive worship practices that allow us to do no harm. Simply be mindful of those that are most fragile. We do not want one United Methodist to become ill because of our gathering to worship.
I remain grateful for all who have done their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 during this season. Stay calm, stay the course, and stay connected.
May the peace of Christ be with you all.