Order of the Flame

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

What makes something anointed (that most favored of Christian words)? How do you know when a place or time or person or group is anointed? What are the qualities, the indicators, the symptoms, the signs?

However you answer these questions, there is now a place and time reverberating with the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit that I will forever associate with the word anointing. I didn’t know what kind of gathering it would be; for so many people, conferences have come to create low expectations. Repeatedly, I encountered people around the salad bar or dinner table who said the same thing: “We didn’t really know what to expect. We hadn’t expected…this.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.06.58 PMAfter less than 24 hours, I texted a good friend of Irish descent on St. Patrick’s Day: “I don’t care if you were in Ireland kissing the Blarney Stone itself, I think you would want to be here, seeing this.”

And it wasn’t just the refreshing beauty of Epworth by the Sea, located on historic St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where John and Charles Wesley had attempted their disastrous missionary tenure; it wasn’t just the poignant history of an island covered in gigantic oak trees, Spanish moss drifting mysteriously in invisible breezes like seaweed caught in treetops eons ago. It wasn’t just the mournful reminders of a broken past in the shape of 200-year-old slave cabins. It wasn’t even the idyllic porpoises swimming by.

Such was the anointed gathering of the Order of the Flame (“Faithful Leaders As Mission Evangelists”). Launched in 1996 by World Methodist Evangelism (WME), a branch of the World Methodist Council, the Order of the Flame gatherings have spread to east and west Africa and Ireland.

So what set this gathering apart and made it an utterly unique experience for so many participants?

• How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! Sometimes when you live in dysfunction long enough, you become so accustomed to it, you forget how good something can be. The Order of the Flame includes participants from across Methodist traditions — United Methodist, Wesleyan, Free Methodist, AME Zion, and many more. When you know you come together in unity across traditions that hold core doctrine and practice in unity, it seems that the Spirit shows up.

There was another element present. Shortly before the conference, news coverage had been inundated with heartbreaking coverage of racial hurt in North America. During opening worship, I looked around. More than half of the people around me were African American. We were worshipping God together, singing the same words, standing intermingled, side by side, hearing the same bone-rattling sermon on the challenges of living in the reality of a Holy Saturday in-between state, the liminal, the not-yet, and the civil rights and race struggles that so poignantly illustrate that truth.

Throughout the week, as we got to know new friends and heard each other’s stories, the worship together became ever sweeter. When we worship together, we make ourselves vulnerable to the Holy Spirit in front of each other. And boy, does the Holy Spirit show up.

Interestingly enough, the makeup of a particular gathering is very much in flux right until the last minute. All the participants are pastors and spouses: events change, crises come up, plans shift, and organizers seemed somehow to have blended a great deal of hard work and preparation with a flexible reliability on the Holy Spirit to bring together a providentially formed group.

This unified flexibility, or flexible unity, embodied itself in one particular expression: two music leaders led worship. They invited the Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.07.21 PMmusically gifted or inclined to join in a worship team. By the second day one was forming. By the third day they had an extra musician and several singers. By the end of the week it was like they’d been doing this together for years.

• For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God … Pastors need spiritual retreats — with their ministry spouses. “This conference actually does what so many try to do — and fail,” I told someone appreciatively. With attendance capped at about 120 participants, there is a sense of intimate fellowship. Each minister there was nominated to be there by a church leader, superintendent or bishop.

How often do ministers get to hear powerful sermons by extraordinarily gifted speakers, Bible studies led by scholars, evangelism breakout workshops led by professors, bishops, and retired denominational leaders, while experiencing healing fellowship in small groups that pray for the burdens of each other’s ministries and basking in refreshing worship that, for once, they don’t have to lead?!

Through generous gifts to World Methodist Evangelism, the entire cost of the conference is underwritten — participants only pay a small registration fee and for travel to and from the gathering. The practicality of this gift for those in ministry (not a lucrative career field) is vital.

With clergy burnout rates through the roof, this hidden treasure of a gathering has a history of being life-changing and ministry-charging. I have no doubt there are clergy who stayed the course because of this event. That clergy spouses are encouraged to participate fully is one of the kindest and most practical gestures I’ve witnessed in a “conference” setting.

Mealtimes seemed to capture a microcosm of the value of the event: sometimes clergy need to be fed. I watched hunched shoulders relax throughout the week, stress lines melt into smiling faces, subdued spirits bubble up, grief morph into healing.

The dining hall was a raucous din of laughter and chatter. It was as if old friends had reunited, rather than strangers meeting for the first time. Here, it seemed, was safe space: ministry so often edged hard with competitive streaks among colleagues instead was celebrated as a race where all runners cheered each other on, and no one ran alone.

“Many moments during this conference were powerful, but perhaps the most touching moment happened when the entire group prayed for one of our brothers’ infant daughter who is battling a rare form of cancer,” wrote Dr. Kevin Murriel of his participation in the conference for wesleyanaccent.com. “With our hands laid upon him, we prayed that the power that raised Christ would also heal his daughter. It was a request for a miracle.”

The exquisite camaraderie that shaped over the week culminated in a sensitively crafted closing worship service, when each person was called forward to receive an Order of the Flame certificate, then prayed over by bishops and leaders retired and active. Along with the certificate was a beautiful copy of the group photo of the more than 100 participants.

• As iron sharpens iron … My husband and I were astonished at the extraordinary depth and variety of content offered in a mere few days, in morning Bible studies, through featured special speakers, during afternoon breakout sessions, in nightly sermons. Seasoned, humble, winsome experts in evangelism, biblical studies, leadership and ministry poured forth a fire hydrant of content into hearts used to the volume and pressure of old, leaky water fountains. There were no weak links.

Bam! We’re hearing about Spirit-led evangelism through the lenses of the Book of Acts and systematic theology from an AME Zion bishop. Bam! We’re learning about the first church-hosted immigration law clinic in the country from the founding pastor, dedicated to exercising evangelistic hospitality. Bam! We’re looking at the Beatitudes in light of current events and ISIS. Bam! We’re soaking in a sermon from World Methodist Council General Secretary Ivan Abrahams (you may have seen him on television giving a homily at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service). Bam! We’re absorbing leadership principles from a ministry couple whose church plant exploded to the point of people waiting in a line snaking around the building to get in.

It’s not just that the speakers, leaders and scholars were a “who’s who” of global Christianity; they had not consulted with each other on topics. There was no topical guide other than a loosely expressed theme of evangelism and the concept of liminality — yet pieces fell in place, sermons complemented each other, workshops dovetailed beautifully and succinctly.

We left that week with our suitcases bulging with complementary books and workbooks bulging with hastily scribbled notes to be re-digested later. “I feel like my mind is an overstuffed suitcase that doesn’t want to close, like a piece of luggage you have to sit on in order to zip up, only to have it spring open, causing trousers and socks to fly out,” I commented to a new friend.

It wasn’t just minds that were challenged, stretched, filled. Every day, Wesley groups met — clusters of 10 or 12 people from different backgrounds and geographical regions that were able to share their testimonies, ministry struggles, concerns and joys. In these groups, spiritual battles that had weighed heavy on individual hearts or clergy couples’ souls were shared, heard, and prayed over.

I return to the question, What makes something anointed?

For some time to come, I will think of sweet, joyous unity of worship; I will think of learning from other traditions; I will think of biblically inspired teaching and preaching; I will think of servant leaders who generously share of themselves for others; I will think of moments where heaven and earth seem to merge and meet as time and space collide

Elizabeth Glass Turner

Elizabeth Glass Turner

in the intercession of the saints, prayers going up as offerings, as incense; I will think of active, living, vibrating holiness that takes up its cross and follows across the globe.

I will think of the Order of the Flame, and I will give thanks.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is the managing editor of www.wesleyanaccent.com and also serves as campus minister of the Wesley Foundation of Wichita Falls, Texas.

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