By B.J. Funk
There are some decisions we should never make. Like the decision to get in God’s way, especially when it comes to our children. We are sure God did not mean to place our child in that difficult situation. We are sure we must help him or her get out of their misery.
In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) the younger son asked for his inheritance and spent it foolishly. Eventually he had no money to buy food. Hungry enough to eat the pods that the pigs ate, he finally came to his senses. He woke up to his rebellious nature and longed to return to his father.
What if someone had told the prodigal son’s father that his boy was working in a filthy pig pen and had no food except the pods the pigs ate? What if the father stopped at nothing until he located his son and brought him back home to fill his boy’s belly with the richest meats?
What if the pods in the trough never fulfilled their assignment?
He sat down in the pig’s mud, a loud boisterous cry escaping his throat, hot tears covering his face. Why, he was the son of a rich man! Should he have to live like a poor man?
What if this story ended before God’s business ended?
The strong smell of rot moved into his nostrils. He no longer wanted the far country, but he was starving. He determined to eat a pod and dip into the slop, but he couldn’t. Instead, he got nauseous. The prodigal screamed several curse words into the night air and cursed his life.
The rebellious son, looking at his own face reflected in the slop, thought how much better life was for his dad’s hired help. The hired help can eat delicious food, and I can’t!
He was better than this! Sitting among the stench, he became angry. At himself! At his father! At the whole world! His own smell repulsed him. He remembered the warm smells of scrumptious food encircling his kitchen table. Could his father ever forgive him? He wanted to go home.
He got up grumbling that his energy was spent and that he could not get any help from anyone! But he was determined. His torn shoes seemed to talk, the loose straps mocking any effort on his part to get away.
A decision formed in his heart. It could be the most foolish decision he would ever make. Or, it could be the best. He would go home, if indeed his father would have him.
Alone, crying and stinking, he slowly found the long road back home. He rehearsed: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer……” He turned around – and the pig pen called his name.
However, the call of home became stronger with each step. How often did he turn around and head back to the stench of the pig slop? Two, seven, a dozen times? Each time he practiced what he would say: “Father, I have sinned. I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me your hired help.”
Daylight surrounded him with new hope. Then, the most amazing sight he had ever seen came into view. Someone saw him and was moving down the long road toward him. Wait. Not moving. But running. The Prodigal whispered to his heart his well-rehearsed line once more. “I’m not worthy to be called your son” over and over until he recognized the image was his own father running toward him.
No questions asked. No scolding. Just tears and hugs from this father who had waited so long for this moment. The late Reverend Frederick Wilson writes that when the two met, the father embraced his son – stink and all – and welcomed him home as the son began his apology. The Father interrupted with words of love. “Hush boy. You’re home!”
Got a wayward child? Let the far country do its work. Give the pods a chance to fulfil their purpose.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.
By Bishop Joao Carlos Lopes
I have been a bishop in the Brazilian Methodist Church for 25 years. After a few years in the episcopal office, I realized that our churches were stagnant. Not many people were joining the church by profession of faith. After much prayer and conversation with the conference leaders we decided, among other things, that no one would become an elder candidate before planting a church.
“Give me a church and I will give you the title” became a well-known saying in our conference. Now, 17 years after that decision, we have witnessed thousands of new believers as well as dozens of pastors who have experienced the joy of planting a new church even before entering the probationary period and becoming an elder. I am convinced that church planting is a key element in spreading the Good News of the Kingdom.
In Acts 10:38, in his dialogue with Cornelius, Peter said that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good…” There are a lot of good, loving, and even sacrificial things that we Christians in the Wesleyan tradition do specifically because we are followers of Jesus. After all, we are disciples of the one who “went around doing good.” All over the world we express our love for our neighbor by feeding the poor, fighting for justice, and caring for the orphans and the sick. By doing so we offer ourselves as channels of God’s grace to all people.
However, unless those efforts are aimed at getting the gospel to people who have never heard it and then gathering those people into local communities, we are neglecting the mission Jesus gave to his disciples.
Of course, I am very aware that there is no command in the Bible such as “go and plant churches.” But Jesus told his disciples that they should go to every village, every town, and every nation “making disciples … baptizing them and teaching them to obey Jesus.” And, as we know, all these things happen in the context of local communities.
When we do evangelism, the best way to teach and strengthen the new believers is gathering them together in local churches. So planting churches is essential for evangelism that bears fruit that will last.
In his journal of August 25, 1763, John Wesley wrote: “I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without the joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer.”
I am sure that same spirit was present in the late 1800s when the Methodists were planting more than one new congregation a day. That inspired the writing of a hymn that was sung in missions gatherings, campmeetings, and Sunday services: “We’re building two a day, dear God, we’re building two a day! All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day.”
We need that same fire. We need to take seriously the challenge of planting new churches. It is the only way for us to make sure that we will not have a wonderful and large church only in our “Jerusalem,” neglecting the command to go to people who have not heard the good news of salvation.
The experience we have had in the Sixth Conference of the Brazilian Methodist Church has taught me a few principles:
1. Church growth is not the same as church planting. The church in Jerusalem, according to Acts 2, was experiencing amazing growth, but the disciples were not planting new churches elsewhere until the persecution came upon them in Acts 8. Only then did church planting began to take place, for example, in Samaria and Antioch.
The reality is that most leaders prefer church growth to church planting. And the main reason is that church growth does not necessarily take us out of our comfort zone. Church planting always does. But it is worth it. Our experience is that many churches planted by new pastors are now planting new churches. It has become a new culture.
2. Evangelism is not the same as church planting. By itself, evangelism doesn’t necessarily give birth to new churches. According to Acts 19, the men from Cyprus and Cyrene shared the good news about Jesus in Antioch. They evangelized! But it was Barnabas and Saul who planted a church there.
Brazilian people used to use Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” as a means of evangelism. At the end of every presentation, after the prayer of confession, the evangelist was supposed to say: “Look for a church in your neighborhood (or look for the nearest church to your home).” For evangelism aiming at creating community, this is not acceptable. The evangelist also has the responsibility to make sure that the person evangelized is integrated into a community of believers.
3. Evangelism can be moment-based but church planting is always a process. Church planting takes building relationship, sharing the good news, bringing people together, assimilating them, and training new leaders.
Churches are not planted in the pastor’s office. Churches are not planted at Church Planting Conferences. Nor are churches planted in Church Planting Research Centers. Churches are planted on the streets, where the unbelievers are. We need to focus on reaching the unreached and the unchurched, making sure that we are “not building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Joao Carlos Lopes has been the resident bishop of the Sixth Conference of the Brazilian Methodist Church since 1997. He earned both his M.Div. and Doctor of Missiology degrees at Asbury Theological Seminary. Besides his episcopal role, he is also a professor of pastoral theology at the Paraná Evangelical University and a member of the Board of Trustees of Asbury Theological Seminary. This is the fifth of a series of articles provided by TMS Global to platform some important voices in global Methodism.
By Stephanie Greenwald
A couple of years ago my family and I went ziplining at Findley Lake in the beautiful terrain of Western New York. We effortlessly flew through the air from one station to the next. When we got to the final platform, our guide who was taking care of our little hooks and harnesses said, “Okay, you’ve got two options about how to get down off the platform. You can take the Stairs of Shame or you can step off this ledge and you’ll just tether right down to the bottom.”
It sounded easy enough. I looked at both of our girls and said, “There’s no shame in the Stairs of Shame – but don’t you dare go down the Stairs of Shame. You can step off the ledge and you’ll be totally fine.” After I gave my best pep talk, my oldest daughter just stepped off and went down to the ground. Following another of my pep talks, our younger daughter stepped right off and fluttered down.
I was next. I stepped up to the ledge and for some reason the ground was a lot further away than when I was giving the pep talk. “Are you okay?” our guide asked. “Do you want me to give you a countdown?”
“Yes,” I said. “That would be so helpful.” And then he had the audacity to start at three. I was thinking we were going to start at 10 million or something. That would have been much better. “Three-two-one” and we were all still standing there. I finally said, “I am sorry. I cannot do this.” The guide said, “That’s fine. There’s no shame in the Stairs of Shame.” He unhooked my harness and I walked down the Stairs of Shame and before I got down to the ground, my husband had stepped off the platform and was safely on the ground.
Isn’t it interesting how when God calls us to take a step of faith out of our comfort zone it is so much easier to tell everybody else how to do it than when we are standing on the ledge and have to take the step of faith ourselves.
When the children of Israel were getting ready to live in the Promised Land, it was a hard step of faith. At the beginning of the book of Joshua we see that Joshua gets handed the mantle of Moses. God says, “Be strong and courageous … for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
We mistakenly think, this is great and it’s so easy. But then we spend the first five chapters of Joshua reading how God prepares the people to take the step. In the next 6 chapters, we read how God and the people conquer the lands. We get to see how God brings them through the Jordan. God is really good at parting seas and bringing people through difficult things that seem impossible. We see the time when they’re conquering the Amorites. And Joshua asks God to make time stand still. “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down for about a full day” (Joshua 10:13). Then we see all of these different kings conquered – 31 kings conquered – and then they get to the place where they have the land and they begin to divide it up and place the borders and send the different tribes into the different lands.
At the end of the book, Joshua gathers everybody back together and he talks about how God brought Abraham out of a land where they worshipped other gods, how he brought Moses and the people out of slavery from the Egyptians, and then he asks them to remember everything that’s happened.
God says, “So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13).
Then he says, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15).
This is a really interesting threshold that God has brought these people to because it’s not just about conquering the Promised Land. It’s not just about receiving the dirt and the land. It’s about how are you going to live in the Promised Land, because conquering it was the easy part. God is asking how will you live and who will you serve in the Promised Land. It’s a threshold that they have to decide whether or not they’re going to step out in faith and do what God has called them to do.
As we think about what that means for us today, God is calling us to embark on a new endeavor. He is calling us to the edge and instead of just telling everybody else how easy it is to do it, he’s asking us to actually take the step. But he’s saying to us, I have conquered so that you can be more than conquerors. I’ve paved the way for you so now you’re going to live in the Promised Land. Whom will you serve in the Promised Land?
Our Promised Land is not one of dirt. It’s not a Promised Land of ground. It’s not a Promised Land with trees. Ours is a Promised Land of souls. It’s a Kingdom. It’s the Kingdom of God that he wants us to be a part of and to live in. But he’s asking us, How are you going to live in the Promised Land? Who will you serve as your king? Because if serving God seems undesirable to you, there’s a lot of other gods to choose from. But whom will you serve as Lord of your life in this Kingdom where Jesus reigns? It’s a threshold.
There was a time when a crowd of people brought a man to Jesus who couldn’t hear and could barely speak. They wanted him healed. According to Mark, “After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly” (Mark 7:31-35).
First, I find it interesting that Jesus actually took that man away from the crowd. Jesus had the kindness in his heart to pull that man away so the only thing he could see was Jesus.
Second, the way that Jesus healed this man was super weird. But I love it when Jesus does weird things. What we learn from this part of the story is that we are going to have to be ready for the extraordinary. We are going to have to be ready for things that are not normal. Our whole lives we have done normal in The United Methodist Church. But I love it that Jesus is not normal. And Jesus is not boring. If we are going to live in the Promised Land and serve him as our king, we’re going to have to be okay with the extraordinary. We’re going to have to be okay with things that may offend. We are going to have to be okay with doing things that look a lot more like heaven and a lot less like earth.
Third, after Jesus does these strange things, he looks up to heaven and says, “Ephphatha” (translated: “Be opened”). We may think that Jesus is saying that the man’s ears and tongue need to be opened – which I think he probably is – but I love it that Mark writes, “He looked up to heaven” and says, “Be opened” because there is a threshold between heaven and earth. If we are going to live in the Kingdom serving God and allow the Holy Spirit to move in our midst, then we are going to have to cross over into what happens in heaven – and bring heaven to earth. That is what Jesus did. That threshold is Jesus Christ.
When we decide to make the commitment that we are going to serve the Lord faithfully – that we and our house are going to serve the Lord – it changes everything. Jesus is the one who makes that threshold between heaven and earth possible. There was a barrier before and it’s not there anymore. That is why we say, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because while there may be a separation for a time, it’s not nearly as big as we try to make it.
When God calls us to take a step of faith out of what is comfortable, we have to check ourselves to see if we’re really okay with the extraordinary because heaven is extraordinary and heaven on earth is extraordinary and God really doesn’t do normal. If you wanted normal you should have stayed an unbeliever.
When you cross over that line, when you take that step, there should be no turning back. God is calling you and me and the people in our churches. He’s asking if we can be okay with the extraordinary. You are going to have to be okay with the fact that God is going to open up the heavens. He will. It’s real.
Jesus is the one who makes crossing the threshold possible, but we have got to step up to the plate as believers, his servants, and his friends. We’re going to have to ask God to open the heavens because that’s what we want in our homes and in our churches. God, you are what we want.
So get ready, choose this day whom you will serve. “But as for me in my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Stephanie Greenwald is associate pastor at St. Andrew’s Community United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She is the co-host with Dr. Bob Kaylor of Holy Conversations, the podcast of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The Rev. Greenwald also serves on the executive board of Light Up the Dark, a nonprofit helping people who struggle with addiction and abuse. This article is adapted from her address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May.
By Simon Mafunda
The intriguing and inexplicable ways in which Jesus Christ works reminds me of an incident at my home in Zimbabwe a couple of months ago. I urgently needed to support a couple of my tomato plants which were starting to fall over with fruit. I retrieved a few straight branches of the poinsettia tree that I had pruned and dumped away several weeks earlier. They looked dry but I wanted to be certain to avoid growth competition with my tomatoes as I knew poinsettias grew easily from cuttings, so I drove them into the ground topside down.
To my surprise after just three weeks, all eight “dry” sticks had several healthy new shoots all around them. For me it defied logic that a plant could grow from an upside-down position, but poinsettias do!
We each have our own testimonies of how Jesus has empowered us to do things far beyond our imaginations. “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’ He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do’” (Luke 10:17-21).
Jesus sent his disciples out to teach, preach, heal, free people from demons, and to do anything else that would further the Kingdom of God. When we read this text, we encounter the disciples returning to Jesus with joyful and marvelous stories to tell.
The disciples were clear that the success they witnessed was not accomplished by their own wisdom or authority, but “in Jesus’ name.” The name of Jesus, our Lord, was the reason they were successful.
These disciples reported: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” If I were one of them, I would have fallen into the temptation of claiming that, “Lord, even the demons submitted to me.” But Jesus’ disciples knew the demons did not submit to them, the demons submitted to the name of Jesus.
Jesus reminds them that he empowered them; they had been empowered to serve in his movement. As empowered people, Jesus said they will do extraordinary things, they may even become insulated against any harm directed at them. These are indications of Jesus’ empowerment.
The Gospel according to Matthew 7:21-23 says that all these extraordinary demonstrations of power and authority will not be enough for us to enter heaven. These acts and deeds need to be accompanied by a faithful obedience to the will of God.
In the text from Luke, Jesus proclaimed some profound truths of our faith: the things of God are hidden to those who want to use human reason, those who claim to be clever or wise according to human standards, and revealed to those who approach the things of God like little children!
Normally, when we speak of empowerment, we do not see the image of a child as a representation of empowerment. We see images of presidents, bishops, business leaders, influencers, armed soldiers, and other powerful people of our times. But Jesus says empowerment is hidden from all these and revealed to child-like persons.
May we shake off the shackles of institutionalism and regain the childlike faith that believes that all things are possible with God. May we have the courage to stand against the powers and principalities of this world knowing that when we stand with Jesus, the battle belongs to him and he wins the battle!
Our world is on its knees because we have divided people into the categories of those who enjoy privileges and those who carry the burden of responsibilities, instead of creating the conditions where everyone might have access to privileges, and the responsibilities that come with them.
We have the privilege of knowing that we belong to Jesus. We have the privilege of being workers in the Lord’s vineyard. We have the privilege of being ambassadors for our Lord. And we have the privilege of the “name of Jesus” to authenticate the Good News that we proclaim. These privileges also bestow on us many responsibilities.
• Spreading the uncompromised “good news” of Jesus to all parts of the world and to all people, irrespective of where they are and who they are.
• Using the authority that comes with our empowerment by Jesus to bring relief and joy to those who have been shunned by this world and pushed to the margins.
• Trusting God like children who trust their parents and always seek to please them.
• Storming the gates of hell and introducing people to Jesus so He can rescue the perishing.
• Being the church Jesus is building.
Aware of our privileges and responsibilities given to us by our Lord, we are indeed more than conquerors!
In my country, Zimbabwe, we have faced many challenges over just my lifetime. I have seen some of the worst cases of drought in where whole valleys were strewn with the carcasses of both wild and domestic animals. Access to clean and safe water became a national challenge for households in both rural and urban areas.
Zimbabwe has also experienced terrible outbreaks of cholera and typhus as the healthcare system nearly collapsed. And perhaps worst of all, hyperinflation has wreaked havoc on Zimbabwe’s economy. A country once considered the breadbasket of Africa was reduced to the continent’s beggar within a few years. Businesses in all sectors closed while shelves were emptied in our stores. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs and life savings.
To my knowledge, Zimbabwe is the only country to have issued a 100 trillion dollar bill, but it was practically worthless. We were all billionaires but we could only afford to buy necessities like a loaf of bread. And while we were standing in line to buy the bread, the price would go even higher by the time we got to the head of the queue. Many people fled the country in search of jobs, only to be persecuted and sometimes brutally murdered by people who had developed fear and hatred for my people.
For many days, months, and even years the challenges seemed insurmountable. But I do believe, with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind, that Jesus has called me and many others to teach, preach, heal, and proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
Despite all the challenges and our own limitations, I believe I am – I believe you are – called every day to be about the mission of sharing the Gospel with our words and with our deeds.
And we can go forth to fulfill the mission Jesus has given us because he empowers us. He protects us. He guides us. And he will make us more than conquerors despite all the obstacles we face in in our faith journeys!
When we are transformed by the one who conquerors all things, we can be sure nothing will stand in our way. And when God fills our hearts and minds, we will have some sense of that joy the disciples experienced when they returned to Jesus and shared what had been accomplished by the power of his name.
To be sure, our movement faces great challenges. Right now many of us feel like we have been planted upside down, and so think it is impossible that we will grow roots and sprout new life. But our Gardener is in the business of bringing life from death. He is the miracle worker and the way maker. He is doing a new thing in us and through us, as he empowers us to go forth to be even more than conquerors.
Jesus is calling us and sending us out as an advance team to all the places he plans to visit. We must not tarry consumed by our fears, doubts, or circumstances. Rise up, church!
Simon Mafunda is the Africa Coordinator for the Wesleyan Covenant Association based in Harare, Zimbabwe. Prior to his current role with the WCA, he served as the lay leader of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference. He was elected by his conference to be a delegate to the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences, and he represented his annual conference at the 2019 special General Conference. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May.
By Erik Grayson
Have you ever been lost? My worst experience being lost came several years ago. My college roommate, Robert, and I decided to enter an adventure race. We had never done anything like this before, but were excited at the prospect. It was a race against multiple teams where you had 12 hours to find 30 checkpoints in the wilderness with only a handful of coordinates, a compass, and a topographical map. And by the way, the checkpoints are scattered across the Francis Marion National Forest, which is only a mere 258,000 acres.
A few hours into the race we started to notice a change. We were suddenly separated from the other teams, who were, by the way, searching for the same check points as us. But we kept persevering, trekking through what had become a swamp. Weary, tired, and up to our knees in swamp water, we finally admitted it: we were lost. We couldn’t hear another living soul. The only other living creatures we could hear were the sounds of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. Everywhere we looked, there were trees, swamp, trees, and the constant fear of snakes and alligators. We didn’t know if were wading in a straight line or going in circles. We were hopelessly lost.
Fortunately, I’ve never been lost like that ever again, but I’ve come to recognize that same feeling of confusion and uncertainty in another aspect of my life. I’ve come to sense that same wilderness wandering coming from our beloved denomination.
Now I want to acknowledge that I love The United Methodist Church. It’s been the denomination that’s nurtured my family for generations. I was baptized as an infant in the church. As a youth I returned to The United Methodist Church and it was there that Jesus touched my heart, renewed my soul, and gave me a new vision of life. It was in The United Methodist Church one night for Sunday evening services, sitting next to my best friend, that I heard a sermon that made me think, “I could do that. I could be a preacher.” After the sermon I leaned over to my friend and told him, “I just had the craziest thought. I was just thinking about being a preacher!” And he said, “No way, me too!” Today we’re both pastors in The United Methodist Church. I will forever be grateful for the profoundly powerful ways that God’s changed my life through this church.
Yet all the while I was experiencing God’s grace through the church, I was also growing aware of a different story. I was learning about the story of our ongoing conflict, our disagreement over sexuality, that we were divided on how to read Scripture, that we didn’t have the same ideas about covenants, vows, and accountability, that we saw salvation differently, and that at times we even disagreed on Jesus.
I felt so torn. I loved the church and all the many ways I had experienced God in this holy place. Yet I also saw that with each successive year the issues plaguing our church grew ever more serious and ever more toxic. Our beloved denomination was stuck, knee deep in a murky mess, wandering in circles, trapped with no obvious way out.
I struggled with those two realizations. On the one hand, I yearned to preach, teach God’s word, and lead God’s people. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned for the church I loved and the Wesleyan tradition that had shaped me. I remember struggling and asking, “what do I do?” As I wrestled with the question, God laid a word on my heart. He told me, “This is where I am calling you right now.” I mulled those words over in my heart. That set me free not to fear for the future. God had something for me to learn in the present. I’ll follow God where he leads next, but this is where I am called right now.
More than 2,000 years ago, the people of ancient Israel found themselves lost as well, though not in a swamp. The people of God had been scooped up by the Babylonians and forcibly taken into exile. They were nowhere near their homes, the Temple, or the Promised Land that God had given them. They had to adjust to living in a strange land among a foreign people. Exile meant being taken away from everything they called home.
Can you imagine how traumatic it would be to be plucked up and taken away from your home, your place of worship, and to lose your sense of community and how you understood the promises of God? The prophet Isaiah refers to the experience as a wilderness.
But the good news is exile doesn’t last forever.
When I was lost in the wilderness I can tell you that my senses perked up, especially my hearing. I started listening for any sound of civilization. I knew there were occasionally service roads in the woods, so I was listening for a car, or a radio. But most of all I was listening for the sounds of voices. I was hoping to hear another team in the distance. That voice would mean I was saved. I would still be in the wilderness, but at least I’d know my journey was coming to a close.
After decades of exile, the people of Israel finally heard a new word from the Lord. In Isaiah chapter 40, God speaks through the prophet, saying “comfort, O comfort my people.” A voice cries out in the wilderness, “she has served her term.” God is announcing that exile is coming to an end. Suddenly those long years of suffering, waiting, and yearning are about to produce something new. The people of God are on the precipice of that new thing God had promised long ago.
Can you imagine what it is to be stuck wandering in a wilderness for decades and finally be told your time of renewal has come? Let’s be clear, this is a word for the people of God – the people of God in ancient Israel and the people of God living today.
Exile is coming to a close.
Now God is giving the people a word before they can embrace the new thing. Exile wasn’t just a holding pattern. It wasn’t just a waiting room. Exile was a space where God was reminding the people who they are. You can’t get to the land of promise if you don’t learn the lessons of the wilderness.
The Lord tells the people that “All people are like grass.” He goes on to say, “the grass withers and the flower fades.” It’s a cheerful message, right? But then he also says, “But the word of our God will stand forever.”
On the one hand this means that we’re finite. Human decisions and choices do not last. How was it that Israel ended up in exile in the first place? One of their enduring problems was poor leadership. They had pre-exilic leaders who didn’t take their God-given responsibilities seriously. The land was polluted with idols. The leaders compromised their values with foreign ideas. They proclaimed, “Peace, peace, when there was no peace.”
Leadership matters. I wonder if we as a denomination have been guilty of those things? Have we brought the idols and ideas of the nations into the house of the Lord? Have our leaders proclaimed “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”?
No enduring movement of God is sustained by human initiative. If we want to see this next phase of Methodism thrive then we’re going to have to heed the second part of Isaiah’s message: the word of our God will stand forever. There are some good ways and some not so good ways that we can put this into practice.
We cannot simply adopt a slogan or catchphrase declaring that we’re a biblical church. We cannot adopt a contextualized reading of scripture that dismisses two thousand years of consistent biblical interpretation. We cannot adopt a regionalized reading of the word that places an iron dome over our culture’s reading and rejects the wider witness across global Christendom.
The new Methodism will need to catechize believers in the faith in such a way where Scripture flows forth from their hearts and minds. We will need to make sure that Scripture is our primary authority in matters of worship, theology, and social witness.
The success of our movement will not be known for some time. In the present we’re all united by a shared experience. We’re going through this transition together. This unites us. The builders of a movement stick together. The real test of our movement will come a generation from now when future Methodists face another thorny issue. Will we have provided them with a shared biblical theology? Will their worship enable the word of God to flow forth from their hearts and minds? In times of trouble will they have spiritual disciplines grounded in the word to fall upon? I believe that the success of this movement will hinge in part on how well we center our common lives around the Holy Scriptures.
Isaiah’s warning to the people is a reminder that no enduring movement of God is ever built on human initiative, but on the word of our God that stands forever. We must learn the lessons of the wilderness to be prepared for exile’s end.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what the end of exile looked like. I’ve always wanted to imagine a very simple and clean end. I want to picture King Cyrus waking up one day and saying, “Okay, everyone go home!” I want to imagine that they just threw their families, their livelihoods, and their communities in the back of a UHaul truck, drove down the road, and enjoyed a move-in ready parsonage.
I hate to admit it, but exile didn’t end that way. The end of Israel’s exile was a little slower and messier. From Cyrus to Nehemiah to Ezra, we know it happened in waves.
I imagine there was a hardy group that was ready to go first. They had been praying for this, watching, and making preparations. As soon as the word came out, they were out the gates. Every movement needs someone to go first.
Yet I imagine there was probably a sizable chunk of people that wanted to make the jump from exile to promised land, but weren’t quite ready. They had to do the hard work of getting their affairs in order, wind down their businesses, and prepare their households. They were eager, but it would take them more time.
Still I imagine another group. I picture them as eager to move but they’re waiting for permission. Just like Nehemiah had to get permission from the king, so too do people have to wait to be released for the new thing.
I wonder how different people decided when they’d leave exile. Yet leaving wasn’t the only thing to consider. The journey itself wouldn’t be a walk in the park. We’re not talking Two Men and a Truck here. Imagine packing together all your earthly possessions, and either riding on a donkey or beast of burden, or a cart if you’re lucky, but likely traveling on foot. You’re on dirty, uneven roads enduring the dangers of the countryside and braving the elements. The journey will be difficult.
And then, on the other side you’re not arriving in luxury. You’re showing up in to begin the real work of rebuilding or building from scratch. Building the Temple. Rebuilding the walls. Standing up the infrastructure. There’s work to be done! Exile didn’t just end. It took time and it was hard work.
There’s no question that moving from exile to promise will at times be challenging, but that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking is, “Is it worth it?” If we were to ask the people of ancient Israel if it’s worth it, if we could speak to those who got to worship God once more in the Holy City, I believe they would tell you, “yes, it is.” If you were to ask the prophet Isaiah, he would say to you that Israel “has served her term.” And when we ask the Lord, I believe he may very well say, “this is what you are called to do.”
Sybil’s exile comes to an end
The church I pastor is a wonderful congregation located in a very impoverished area. There was this stretch of months where a woman named Sybil had been coming to our church food bank. The lines in her face made it clear she had lived a rough life. She was stuck in a loveless marriage she longed to escape, struggled with substance abuse, and it rained inside her house but her husband was too proud to accept any help. And to add insult to injury, Sybil had convinced herself that she was the worst of all sinners. It was an emotional struggle for her to step on the church grounds just to come to the food bank. Worship was completely out of the question for her. Her own sin and her self-perception of her brokenness made her into an exile, cut off from community.
Each week we had to beg her to accept the food she picked out, saying, “Yes, it’s okay for you to take this.” This went on for countless months until one Sunday, she showed up in the back of the church. You can imagine my surprise when I saw Sybil, sitting on the back pew, tears quietly rolling down her face. Something had happened inside of her. Her exile had come to an end. God was on the move.
Toward the end of the worship service I led communion. At the end of the communion liturgy I asked our servers to come forward, yet this week for some reason no one stood up, with one exception. Sybil rose to her feet and began shuffling down the pew. Every eye in the church was glued on her as she limped down the aisle. You could have heard a pin drop. She got to the chancel steps and paused. She wobbled for a moment and abruptly crumpled over at the waist like a wet noodle. With her hands on the steps, she crawled on all fours up the chancel steps. She reached to the altar and pulled herself up, and she stretched out her hands. And I got to serve her. This is the body of Christ, given for you. And this is the blood of Christ, given for you.
It was the most undignified, awkward, and difficult journey to the altar that I’d ever seen. It was also the holiest.
The journey from exile to God’s new thing will be difficult. There will be challenges, obstacles, and questioning about when and how. Yet despite the challenges, when God calls, we will be more than conquerors.
Erik Grayson is pastor-in-charge at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina. Erik and his congregation created a non-profit called Holy City Missions which is pursuing the establishment of a $4 million missions campus and year-round shelter for marginalized people. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May.