A tour provided by the General Board of Church and Society, Bishop Robert Schnase and support personnel from the Rio Texas Annual Conference – August 22-24, 2018
By Bishop Peggy Johnson*
McAllen, Texas, is located in the Rio Grande Valley and it borders the country of Mexico. It is one of the poorest areas in the United States. The average income is $34,000 and 29 percent of the people have no health care services. This is a place where many people cross the border into the United States, and the dynamics of this are highly complex. United Methodists are found in this area, serving and ministering with the poor.
Bishop Robert Schnase, who serves in the Rio Texas Annual Conference, explained that the church strives to find safe places and spaces for migrating people to be processed and engaged, to offer compassion and civility, to build relationships, to teach people about the border experience and to be constantly in prayer. Radical hospitality is the always the goal.
The Border Patrol agents explained that their role is first to protect the country from terrorists and their weapons. Mostly they see people from Mexico and Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) seeking work and asylum from the dangerous gangs and violence in their home countries. Smuggling people into the United States is a huge for-profit business that surpasses the illegal drug trade. They apprehended 140,000 people this year, 50,000 of whom were in family units. Some were unaccompanied minors.
The Border Patrol workers save many lives as some people have been traveling for months in harsh conditions. They use vehicles, boats, horses, helicopters, and various forms of technology to find people who are coming over the border. Mexican people typically are sent right back over to Mexico. The Central American people are mostly asking for asylum and they surrender to the patrol officers to be processed. At least 80 percent of them are sent back home after being processed.
Ursula Central Processing Center is where about 500 people stay while they are being processed. It is the first step. We were not allowed to take pictures, but we saw first-hand women, men and children of all ages in something like cages with sleeping bags and Millar (silver) blankets. After they are processed they are moved to shelters and eventually to places around the country where family and friends will keep them while they await asylum hearings. They are given food, clothing, health care, laundry and showers. The guard told me that they also have begun offering behavioral services for those with emotional issues. The people we saw seemed very subdued. Some were resting after long journeys. A few of our group reached out and touched the hands of the people within and gave them a few words of encouragement. This center was built in 2014 when the flood of unaccompanied minors came across the border. One guard said, “It is what it is, and you do the best you can.”
Rev. Amelia Beasley is a young adult United Methodist Elder in the Rio Texas Annual Conference. She serves a Hispanic congregation that consists of citizens, undocumented people, border patrol officers, and homeland security personnel. She led worship for our group one morning and said that Christ is found in the “in-between places” or “nepantla” in Spanish.
We as the church are to be bridge builders, fixing broken hearts, assisting people as they go to court, and building relationships. It is how her very diverse church is able to worship and live together as the Body of Christ. Bishop Schnase also read to the group a series of thoughtful, personal experiences as a minister who served near the border during the years he was a local pastor in this area.
Shelter and transfer ministries are an important part of the Christian witness in McAllen. La Posada Providencia (upper left) and Catholic Charities (upper right and lower two pictures) provide short term help for people as they leave the processing center, contact family in various places around the country and prepare to take a bus or a plane out of Texas while they await their immigration hearings. Among the things they provide are some basic health care, English classes, food and clothing.
The goal is to restore human dignity and be a welcome presence. When new people arrive each day at the Catholic Charities Center everyone claps to welcome them. These programs are run on the barest of means and are in constant need of funds.
The response of the church is not only humanitarian. There are also legal avenues of service. Ephraim Guerrero (left) works as an immigration lawyer for the Methodist Church of Mexico. He assists people getting visas and conducts training for the law enforcement officers. His work in Monterrey is very dangerous as the cartels make money from smuggling people. Violence and kidnapping is a constant way of life.
Azalea Aleman-Bendix (right), a United Methodist laywoman, is the Assistant Public Defender in the Federal Courthouse in Bentsen Tower, McAllen. She has to process hundreds of people through the courts each week. She continually advocates for their civil and human rights. She told us that at least 565 children are not back with their families after they were ordered to be reunited. She says that the church must continue to speak out for the suffering that is happening and to address the policies that dehumanize people.
Other advocacy work includes the ministry of Tracy Hughes (left), the founder of “Tamar’s Tapestry.” She explained how this climate of immigration is the perfect storm for human trafficking and the sex trade. Families pay smugglers $5,000-$7,000 to bring loved ones to the United States; and many are trapped in prostitution rings. They start with children as young as 11 and 12 years old. Her program teaches about the need to address pornography in this country; and she also runs a shelter for women who have escaped the system.
Ann Cass (right) from Proyecto Azteca spoke to us about the proposed border wall. There are already many walls along the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposed, extensive 15-foot wall would cost $16.2 million dollars per square mile. It would endanger protected lands and wildlife refuges.
She advocates for a comprehensive immigration reform that is not amnesty instead. Ann wishes that the wall money could be used to build a hospital in the area, where there is currently no public medical center, and to help the 4,000 people who are in need of housing.
From left to right: Susan Henry Crowe, Peggy Johnson, Nora Pimentel, Sally Dyck, Hope Morgan, Ward)
Rebecca Cole and Cindy Johnson
From left to right: Trish Bruckbauer, Hope Morgan Ward, Maribel Vasquez, Rebecca Cole, Cindy Johnson, Susan Henry Crowe, Peggy Johnson, Sally Dyck, Amelia Beasley, Robert Lopez, Laura Merrill and Robert Schnase (not in the picture: Susan Hellums)
What a rich experience to be at the border and to learn about what the church is doing and how all of us can engage in ministries that promote justice and peace in this world.
My thanks to the General Board of Church and Society and the Rio Texas Conference who arranged for this immersion experience.
*Bishop Peggy Johnson serves on the General Board of Church and Society.
The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities met at Gallaudet University for a three-day conference for the purpose of education, advocacy and support (August 1-3, 2018). The theme was “Taking Our Place at the Table: DisABILITY Leadership Academy.”
The event included a number of speakers: the Rev. Stephanie Remington from Wesley Theological Seminary’s Lewis Leadership Center; the Rev. E. Michelle Ledder from the General Commission on Religion and Race; the Rev. Jackson Day from the General Board of Church and Society; and the Rev. Anthony Hunt from the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.
Leadership development was the key component of this event; and the group strategized about how to promote more opportunities to be in leadership and inclusion in the UMC. People with disabilities, even those who are ordained or commissioned, often find themselves talked about but not present at the table.
Jesus understood the importance of table ministry. Much of his ministry included gatherings around meals and tables. It seemed like he was always doing radical acts of inclusion at the tables where he sat.
Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and got into trouble with the Pharisees for that (Matthew 9:11). He allowed a woman with a questionable past to wash his feet at a table in the home of a Pharisee, and he gets grief for that too (Luke 7:36-50). We see him including Mary of Bethany around the teaching table instead of sending her to the kitchen to cook with her sister Martha (Luke 10:38-42).
Jesus gives us a parable about the great banquet that includes all those whom the world excludes (Luke 14:15-24), especially those with disabilities. In addition, he didn’t shy away from literally turning over tables of greed and extortion when the place of prayer for the Gentiles was being defiled by the sale of sacrificial animals and the changing of coins. (John 2:11-12).
In each case the Lord was widening the circle at each table, teaching the world the unimaginably grace-filled, inclusive love of God.
Jesus’ most radical act of table turning would be the Last Supper. At that table Jesus himself becomes love incarnate. The Lamb of God becomes the sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. The bread and the wine are his very body and blood. His death on the cross seals forever the opportunity for everyone, everywhere, throughout all of history to be a part of the family of God and seated at Christ’s table.
At this disability conference at Gallaudet we once again committed ourselves to sharing the good news that God unconditionally includes and loves people with disabilities. I ask you, the church, to think of ways that your church, your ministries, your worship and outreach programs can include this amazingly gifted community. Then widen your table to welcome all.
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
In 1848, Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797-1882) a member of a sect known as the Shakers, located in Alfred, Maine, wrote the words and the tune to “Simple Gifts.”
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, t’will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.” 1
This was originally one of the dance songs of the Shaker sect, whose full name was the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.” Their founder was a prophetic figure known as Mother Ann Lee.
The group began in Europe (first France and then England) and eventually moved to the New York in the 1700’s. The Shakers were basically Christian in their beliefs, following the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. They lived together in communities with a strict rule about celibacy, and they held all property in common. The movement swelled to 19 communities across northeastern parts of the United States in the 1800’s; and at its heyday they had more than 6,000 community members.
An important part of their communal worship was dancing; so the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” were as much poetry as instruction, since the song was actually being danced. I can imagine them turning and turning in some fashion that eventually circled them back to their original place in the line. The concept of turning as “delight” seems to be a call for a willingness to be open to change. That involves bowing and bending that chaffs against our human pride many times.
Change, and the humbling turning and turning that comes with it is often a threat to us “feet-stuck-in-the-ground” humans. Yet only as we are open to change, take risks and are flexible enough to embrace it without “shame” can we grow and mature as Christians. The basic fundamental core of beliefs and ways of being in God’s eyes stays the same but in the turning we experience personal and spiritual growth that cannot come in any other way.
In her fascinating book Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village (Vintage Books, 1999), June Sprigg writes about her experiences working as a summer-intern tour guide in one of the last remaining Shaker settlements in Canterbury, New Hampshire, in the early 1970’s. The remnant of women there, all in their elder years, taught the writer their basic rules of simple living (without the “scrambling and yearning for wealth”), hard work, making and doing things with excellence, and staying the course despite criticism and scorn. Mother Ann Lee, the foundress declared their motto to be “hands to work, hearts to God,” and it was lived out there even after two centuries.
The Shakers achieved these goals of simplicity and personal piety by strong bonds of accountability to one another, much like the early Wesley Movement with its class meetings and bands. Shakers had a leadership design that built into the community much mentorship and spiritual guidance. Each member was assigned the task of confessing their sins on a regular basis to their superior, including those in the highest ranks. In this way they continued to “turn and turn” and polish the diamond of their souls into a more clear image of Jesus.
I met my future husband, Michael at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky in 1977. We were aspiring to become United Methodist ministers. We were married at the Free Methodist Church in Wilmore in August of 1978 and spent our honeymoon at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (just 20 miles from Wilmore).
The Shaker community there was founded in 1805 and thrived for about 100 years. After it disbanded because of dwindling numbers, it eventually became a historical center with tours and various exhibits of the Shakers’ handiwork and farms. They also had exceptionally good food, and people could sleep in the restored Shaker quarters, which had handmade Shaker furniture and the simplest of amenities. We were charmed by the stories of their way of life (except for the celibacy rule), and we felt that our beginnings as a couple could take a page out of their commitment to Christ above all else.
The world continued to turn, and off we went into ministry after graduation from Asbury Seminary in 1980. We accepted appointments in the Baltimore Washington Conference and served there for 25 years, all the while turning and turning as we grew as a family and in the love of God.
In 2003, the year of our 25th wedding anniversary, we took a pilgrimage to Pleasant Hill, Ky., to once again renew our vows to each other and recommit ourselves to simplicity. On that visit, we were surprised to see that the Free Methodist Church where we were married in Wilmore had become a Cokesbury bookstore. We went into the store and renewed our vows in the reference section with a curious store manager looking on.
Things had turned in those 25 years. The Free Methodists had built a larger church outside of Wilmore, and the seminary had expanded. The town had two traffic lights! Our family had also increased by two sons; and our ministries turned from each serving two multiple-church charges to serving single churches in Baltimore. And I welcomed the joy of my life: a full-time pastoral ministry at the historic Christ UMC of the Deaf. Through it all, we learned about patience, endurance, God’s faithful providing in lean times and “laughter’s healing art.” (UM Book of Hymns, 560)
The world continued to turn, and this year we celebrated 40 years of marriage. Off we went to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, once again to stay in the Shaker living quarters, to eat their humble but delicious food and to renew our commitments. The Free Methodist Church that had become a bookstore by our last visit was now a church again. This time it was the “GCF: Vineyard Church.”
The town of Wilmore had “turned” a great deal as well: Asbury College was now Asbury University; and our beloved seminary had numerous new buildings and centers for evangelism, mission and technology. There were many new expanded apartments for student housing. The seminary chapel had been renovated; and because the GCF Church was not open the morning of our visit, we renewed our vows at Estes Chapel.
Once again, we thanked God for the years of marriage and ministry, and we pledged ourselves to continuing the journey of “turning.” Since our 25th anniversary visit there had been much turning in our lives. I became a bishop; there has been great expansion of our global church; there is a new way of being the church in the world with advancements in technology and communication; and the out-in-the-world approach to missions has made our heads turn!
Turning and growing and pruning and continuing on the journey of ministry is our goal for the next however many years we have left. The song promises when we turn and turn enough we will “come ‘round right.” May it be so! The Shakers will always bring me back to what is really important in life and ministry: the simple gifts are the best!
Enjoy photos of Bishop Peggy and the Rev. Michael Johnson, then and now.
Learn more about the Shakers from History of the Shakers and Ken Burns’ PBS American Stories and other sources. View the short video (2:24) Utopian Communities included Brook Farm, Mormons, Shakers by S. Anthony Hill. Also, watch and listen to children sing and dance to the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” [with lyrics].
1John M. Anderson (1950) “Force and Form: The Shaker Intuition of Simplicity,” The Journal of Religion, University of Chicago)
By John W. Coleman
Adapted from a sermon on Mark 5:1-20, preached July 1, 2018, at Servants of Christ UMC Philadelphia.
The demon-possessed man languishing among the dark tombs in Gerasenes ran to Jesus seeking deliverance from his pitiful plight. His from-bondage-to-freedom story reminds me of a wonderful, upbeat song written by jazz-great Billy Taylor in the 1950s and recorded by the incomparable Nina Simone a decade later.
“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” is the title and first line. It continues, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me. I wish I could say all the things that I should say. Say ’em loud, say ’em clear for the whole round world to hear.”
I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart,
Remove all the bars that keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me.
Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.
Emancipation from the chains and tombs—real or imagined—that hold anyone captive can be a wonderful thing. Opening hearts, minds and even doors can remove barriers, set love free and enable us to see one another up close, as we really are, warts and all. Then healing can begin.
Imagine that poor, desperate man, haunted and howling in anguish, bearing self-inflicted bruises, alienated from society, just wanting to know how it would feel to be free. Then, imagine him as he comes running out of the tomb and falls at the feet of this holy man who arrives in a boat. Jesus, the Great Physician, is making a house call, bringing a remedy of mercy, deliverance and healing.
It may be a bit ironic that this miracle-worker, on a morning not far in the future, would himself emerge from a dark tomb in a miraculous resurrection that would free from demons, sin and death all those who believe in him.
But why does Jesus come here? Even the demons torturing this sick man want to know. Why does this soul-liberator from Nazareth, this devout Jew leave his home base, his own people, and come now “to the other side of the sea”? Why? Because he’s here to keep an appointment with destiny. He’s here to bring his message and ministry of God’s judgment and grace to the Gentiles.
When Jesus frees him of the ravenous legion of demons, the once insane, tormented man becomes normal, relaxed and clothed in his right mind. The townspeople marvel at this miracle, this beneficiary of Christ’s amazing grace, whose mind once was lost but now is found. The grateful man now wants to join Jesus and his disciples on their journey from there, as they hasten to leave.
But Jesus says no. He tells the man, “Go back and share the news of this life-saving miracle around the Decapolis”—the 10 large cities located in that area. And so, this man does as Jesus asks. Enthusiastically, he tells everyone who will listen about how Jesus set him free. He becomes a living megaphone, and his miraculous new freedom becomes a means to spread Jesus’ message of hope and ministry of deliverance to Gentiles all around.
It’s like one of my favorite sayings: “When God blesses you, he doesn’t have just you in mind.” He wants you to share that blessing with others—whether it’s healing or hope, or inspiration, or prosperity, or just newfound freedom.
I wish I could give all I’m longin’ to give
I wish I could live like I’m longin’ to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew.
“Man is born free,” wrote French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “and yet everywhere he is in chains.”
Yes, this week, on July 4th, we proudly celebrate America’s Independence Day, when the 13 colonies in 1776 declared their independence from Great Britain.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Juneteenth, another Independence Day, when America’s black slaves down in south Texas finally learned on June 19, 1865, that they were free, as the Civil War officially ended.
Two Independence Days, nearly a century apart, because, well, the first one didn’t really apply to everyone.
“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in jails, prisons and other detention centers. Black people make up 40 percent of those incarcerated persons, even though they are only about 13 percent of the U.S. population. And increasingly, those black people are women.
“Man and woman are born free, yet everywhere they are in chains.”
Young, frightened children from Central America are brutally separated from their parents who cross America’s southwest border requesting asylum, looking for escape from horrific gang violence and domestic violence back home. The children are taken away and then detained, warehoused by the hundreds, the thousands, in huge government-authorized facilities, while their parents apply for asylum as refugees in this country.
Many of those parents don’t know where their children are and if or when they will see them again, especially if they are deported without an asylum hearing, which is what our President wants.
Yes, we are America, the land of hope, of promise, the land of freedom. Here we are born free. And yet, “everywhere we are in chains.”
People everywhere—in Philadelphia and across our region—struggle with their own demons, with terrible, life-stealing drug addiction, domestic violence, street violence, human trafficking, sexual abuse, poverty, abandonment, brokenness, regret, despair. I could go on.
Their demons come in many forms. Yes, indeed, they are Legion. And their victims are living in emotional tombs, bound in shackles, spiritually and otherwise. Some don’t even know, don’t even recognize that they’re wearing shackles.
We are born free! And yet, “everywhere, everywhere we are in chains.”
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord,” King David sings (Psalm 118:5). “The Lord answered me and set me free.”
Nina Simone sang, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” Maybe that’s what that demon-possessed man said when he came stumbling out of the tombs, running to meet Jesus. Maybe that’s what each of us should say, what we should sing, what we should shout: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free! I wish I could break all these chains holding me!”
Do you ever feel that way? Ever?
Because of his demons, the demoniac’s body was unnaturally strong. He could break the chains the townspeople tried to put on him. Yes, he was strong physically; but his soul, his will was abysmally weak. He was possessed, like a zombie. He was a slave to his demons.
Even his voice was no longer his, like in those science fiction movies, when the alien being takes over the mind and voice of its human host. When demons take over your voice, your power of speech, your ability to express your true self—well, then you’ve lost your identity and just about everything else.
That’s when you start sounding not like yourself, but like someone else. When you start saying mean, hateful, crazy stuff to people, even to loved ones—saying words that just don’t sound like you, not to anyone who really knows you. Saying stuff that hurts people, stuff that you know you’ll regret later.
This man, so full of demons, was not himself. He was not clothed in his right mind. He was lost within himself and in bad, hopeless shape.
Until Jesus showed up. Oh yes, no matter how dark and desperate our circumstances may get, there’s always good news in the kingdom of God. There’s always a light at the end of even the darkest tunnel. If you lose yourself or lose your way, Jesus can find you. He proved it then, and he proves it even today: He’ll come looking for you. And he will find you. And he’ll help you find yourself again.
There’s always good news when Jesus comes to the other side, to our side. When Jesus shows up on the scene, he’s a first-responder, coming to our rescue. He does what others can’t do, because he knows what others can’t know. When he asks, “What is your name?” he already knows that and a lot more about you and me.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus just keeps showing up to perform miracles, one after another, after another, after another. He feeds the hungry by the thousands—nourishes their minds, bodies and souls. He heals the sick, makes the lame to walk, the blind to see, even raises the dead to new life. He’s the master of miracles!
He just keeps showing up and showing out, speaking brilliant words and doing incredible deeds. Through his mysterious parables, he transforms people’s minds. And through his miraculous powers, he transforms people’s lives.
Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.
I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea.
And I’d sing ’cause I know how it feels to be free.
What’s so special to me about this healing of the demoniac is that it’s all about freedom. Real freedom—not just the dubious freedom we celebrate every year at this time. That’s a freedom for some, but it’s a dream deferred for too many other people who still suffer oppression from racism, sexism and other isms that produce bias and discrimination.
Political freedom can be won or lost, given or taken away. It can even be bought. Many slaves saved up their precious coins and dollars and bought their freedom and family members’ freedom from slavery and servitude.
Freedom can be stolen. Many slaves stole their freedom, singing “Steal away to Jesus” as they plotted their escape from brutal, dehumanizing plantations and the cruel overseer’s stinging whip.
Political freedom is a birthright; or it certainly should be. That’s what the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this week proclaims.
Maybe everyone is not born free; but everyone should be. Men and women of every race, nationality, religion, class and tribe should all have the divine gift and human right of freedom, no matter who they are, or where they live, or who they love.
The caged bird sings, writes Maya Angelou,
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still;
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
We who long for freedom of the soul, we who find ourselves at times trapped in cages with fearful longing—we sing for freedom. Too many of us don’t believe we can fly. Too many of us feel trapped in our cages, our tombs of pain, fear, regret, despair.
We yearn for deliverance; we yearn for freedom. But if we really yearn for freedom, then we must run to Jesus, fall to our knees at his feet, and ask him with every bit of sincerity we can muster: “Oh, Lord, what must I do to be saved?”
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord,” sings the psalmist. “The Lord answered me and set me free.”
Are you free? Are you free? Or are you enslaved to anything? Do any of you have any chains, any shackles you’re carrying around? Any false idols, or false friends? Are you bound by chains of addiction to anything—drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex, pornography, video games, television, anything? It’s a question for honest hearts to ponder.
Are you bound by chains of confusion? Or of low self-esteem? Chains of selfishness, of anger or hatred, of regret or guilt or remorse—chains that you know are hurting you, maybe even killing you? Do you ever find yourself alone in your tomb, crying out in anguish, bruising yourself physically or emotionally, harming yourself through negative thoughts or self-destructive habits?
Are you trying to break your chains? Trying hard to remove your shackles; but they’re too heavy? Are you’re trying hard… maybe too hard?
I’m trying hard. But I’m also learning everyday not so much to try harder, but to try Jesus. I’m learning to run to Jesus like that demon-possessed man. When life gets hard, and trying harder just doesn’t work, I ask Jesus to please set me free.
Jesus tells us, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.” So, I say, “Free me of my will, my wants and my won’ts, Jesus. Free me so I can take your will and your wants, your wisdom and your love, your pure, unconditional love, more deeply into my heart. I want your voice to speak for me, Jesus, as I live for you more each day.
It’s time to try Jesus, friends. We can’t free ourselves. Not from the kinds of demons some of us face. The freedom we seek and yearn for is a freedom of the soul that can take root in us and spread throughout our minds and bodies, our very consciousness.
It’s a freedom that protects us against Satan’s attempts to bind or imprison us, to steal, kill or destroy us. But it has to come from Jesus, from the one who overcame all sin and death and the one who can free us from sin and death forevermore.
Jesus crossed a raging sea in a boat that was tossed about in a storm, a tiny boat that might have capsized, had the disciples not awakened him to calm that storm. That’s the miracle that happened just before he arrived and healed the demoniac in Mark’s Gospel. He came to the other side of a raging sea just to seek and heal a dead man walking, to bring back to life a man living in the tombs, struggling with demon possession.
That story is clear evidence that Jesus, the Great Physician, will make house calls. He did it then, and he’ll do it today. Across a raging ocean of time, he comes to the other side to see us. He has an appointment with us, an appointment with our destiny, an appointment to rid us of our demons, to remove our chains and our shackles, to set us free not just for today…but forevermore. And as John 8:36 assures us, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Jesus is ready to make a house call to your door today, tomorrow, whenever you ask him, with a sincere, prayerful heart, to come and offer you mercy, to offer you freedom. The Great Physician is here now. And I have good news for you: The Doctor will see you now. Amen.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.” Psalm 133
I have always found this tiny psalm to be curious. The image of sacred oil poured on God’s priest in such volume that is runs down his beard and onto the collar of his holy vestments does not exactly sync with my idea of unity. Get the Kleenexes! Dew on Mt. Hermon also is a puzzling analogy, this gentle water that covers an entire mountain! What they both have in common is a sense of pervasiveness. The oil and the dew are in abundance and they both are symbols of the Spirit which hovers consistently over the face of the earth and among all people.
Unity is like that. When people are living in harmony with one another it covers everything that has been divisive, it gets into the crevices of partisan debate and intellectual and ecclesiastical pride. The result of unity is abundance and provision for all. Psalm 133 says it is a blessing and it leads ultimately to everlasting life.
Unity is the oil and the water that is the fuel and sustenance that best drives the church into mission and ministry. Only as we are in unity can we get the job done with all of our varied gifts and graces working together for the good of the whole. Unity is often mistaken for uniformity of thought and heart but it is much deeper than that. It is a passionate commitment to stay in communion with one another despite even huge differences. It is born of the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:7)
Dwelling in unity is my prayer for the United Methodist Church. For years we have been a church divided over many social issues but in particular the practice, ordination and marriage of people who are lesbian and gay has taken center stage at every General Conference. Since 1972 there have been paragraphs in our UM Book of Discipline that forbid homosexual people from being ordained and our churches and pastors cannot perform holy unions or same gender marriages.
At the 2016 General Conference the bishops were charged with the task of leading the way in finding a solution to this impasse once and for all. What resulted was the creation of a 32-member “Commission for the Way Forward” (a group of highly diverse United Methodists from all over the world) who studied and prayed and worked on a plan for the bishops to consider for presentation at a specially called session of General Conference. The work has been done with grace and faithfulness for almost two years.
At the spring (April 29 – May 4, 2018) meeting of the Council of Bishops we voted to recommend the following:
Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commision on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the special session of the GC in 2019 that includes:
All three plans for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council. (“The Traditionalist Plan,” “The One Church Plan” and “The Connectional Conference Plan.”)
The Council’s recommendation is “The One Church Plan.”
An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
According to the bishops the rationale for this response is to invite the church to go deeper into the journey of the Council and Commission. The Council makes all the information considered by the Commission and the COB available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges that there is support for each of the three plans within the Council. The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans. The majority of the COB recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for the UMC.
We will have conversations about this proposal at our sessions of annual conference this year. In addition all of the documents will be available for further reading and study after July 8th. This will give our interpreters time to translate the documents into our ten international languages. In the fall we will be holding town hall meetings on each district to discuss these plans further. Members of our delegations will also be available for additional meetings and conversation in order to receive feedback and answer questions.
The General Conference will ultimately vote on this recommendation at the special session that will be held February 23 – 26, 2019 in St. Louis, MO. There are 12 delegates from the Philadelphia Area (8 from Eastern PA and 4 from Peninsula-Delaware) who will be among the 864 delegates from this world-wide church. What comes out of this General Conference will be the final decision of the church. We will have more conversations and meetings after General Conference to interpret the decisions and to plan further into our future together.
We are still on a journey and as we travel together we will pray, we will have respectful conversation, we will study and seek the Word of God. We will continue to be in ministry and mission to a world that Christ loved and died for. We will engage in justice ministries and works of compassion and healing. We will preach good news of salvation to all.
Through it all my prayer is for the unity of the church; unity that is pervasive and life-giving. Ultimately when we dwell together in unity we will be blessed and it will best enable us to be a blessing to the world out of love for Christ.