By Suzanne Nicholson —
(The Asbury University revival gives us a window into the heart of God and how the Holy Spirit works in unusual ways in the lives of his people. The following article was written almost a week ago when public services were still being held around the clock and contains helpful reflections to give us perspective and greater understanding about God’s way of working. This piece was excerpted from a longer articlepublished on Firebrand Magazine. – Editors)
What do you do when the streams of living water suddenly burst into a flood? The spiritual outpouring that began at Asbury University on February 8 was spontaneous and unexpected. After an ordinary chapel service, a number of students felt called to linger and praise God. As students responded, the Spirit brought an immense sense of joy and peace. More students came. The Spirit remained, and so did the students. Worship has continued ever since, and – as a result of social media posts – thousands of Jesus-seekers have poured into the small town of Wilmore, Kentucky.
The day before the revival began, my Growth of the New Testament Church class was discussing Peter’s speech in Acts 3 after he healed a man in front of the Temple. Peter had described Jesus’ death and resurrection and then challenged the audience: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (3:19-21). Our class had discussed the beauty of the description, “times of refreshing,” only to experience that refreshing the very next day!
My students had noticed in Acts several places where – after the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost – the disciples had been described as being “filled with the Spirit” (e.g., 4:8, 7:55, 13:9). They wanted to know if Luke was simply reminding his readers that the disciples had been filled with the Spirit previously, or if this was a new filling. At the time I described it as sort of a turbo-charge: there’s always gas in the tank, but sometimes you need an extra burst of power for the task at hand.
As I’ve been reflecting this week, two other metaphors have come to mind that might be helpful. It’s important to remember that the Spirit who is present at Asbury this week is the same God who was present three weeks ago and is the same God who will be here long after the crowds have dispersed. The difference is in the level of communion we are experiencing. God is always feeding us by his Spirit, but some occasions are a bit more special. It’s like sitting down to meals three times a day, but occasionally indulging in a fantastic Thanksgiving feast, enjoying all the special dishes with the best of ingredients, and sharing the overwhelming spread with anyone who shows up to partake. The Spirit is giving us a feast right now.
My favorite image, however, arises from Psalm 1:3: those who delight in the law of the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” Believers who regularly commune with the Lord through prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, receiving the Eucharist, and other means of grace are the trees planted by streams of water, receiving their nourishment. But occasionally we need flood waters to spur new growth – not the destructive floods that wipe away homes, but rather the essential spring flooding of the Nile that brought much-needed water and nutrients to agricultural lands in the ancient world.
This is where we have found ourselves at Asbury these past two weeks. We are planted by streams of water, but the dry air of secular culture surrounding us has left us thirsting for more. The thousands of visitors to campus have only demonstrated how much spiritual thirst exists right now. These people are desperate for relief, life, and hope, and they are willing to wait in line for hours to enter the place where the veil between heaven and earth is remarkably thin right now. The Holy Spirit has graciously sent gentle flood waters to revive us, reshape us, and empower us for the work ahead. We are receiving a sort of spiritual Miracle-Gro, a nutrient boost to inspire new growth. We are drinking deeply from this refreshing gift.
Not everyone has found it comfortable to explore this movement of the Holy Spirit. Some students have said they feel pressured to go and join in the revival; others are skeptical or fearful of what they will encounter. Some students are experiencing the refreshing of the Spirit as they pray in their dorm rooms, rather than joining the immense and, for some, intimidating crowd. Some students have stayed in Hughes Auditorium for a few minutes at a time, while others have remained for hours or even days. These different experiences should remind us that we need to be gentle with one another, because what each of us needs from the Holy Spirit may be different. God is gracious enough to meet us where we are, and we are all at varying points in our walk with the Lord.
Yet we should also keep in mind that there is something powerful about being in community and hearing testimonies of how God is working among the body of Christ. When others publicly repent of their sins, we may be moved to do the same. When others praise Jesus in loud voices, we may experience a similar joy in the Lord. When others intercede in prayer for the nations, we may be urged to follow suit. Witnessing together the movement of God, we are strengthened for our own testimony just as we strengthen those who are giving testimony. Ephesians 4:15-16 reminds us of God’s desire for the body of Christ to be knit together in this way: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Some have asked how this outpouring of the Holy Spirit came about. How can it be replicated? The simple answer is that this was a spontaneous act of God, a beautiful act of grace. It was not manufactured. Asbury University simply had another average, ordinary chapel service, and God chose to move. We have done nothing ourselves to make this happen.
That’s not entirely correct. People have been praying for revival for years – some, for decades. God delights in these kinds of prayers. God responds in his own timing to the cries of his people. But make no mistake: this is not a “work.” The prayers of the people are a response to what God has done previously. God’s grace comes first, the people respond with prayers for more, and God pours out his grace once again.
What is so stunning about this kind of outpouring is that it is locally focused. We regularly preach the truth that God who created and sustains the universe is accessible anywhere – whether in foxholes or brothels or athletic fields or beaches or homes or churches. God is available to all who cry out to him. And yet there are times when the Spirit appears profoundly in a particular location. When Moses met God, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed, and he was told to remove his sandals because the place on which he was standing was holy (Exodus 3:1-6). When God led the Israelites through the desert, he did so by a cloud of his presence during the day and by fire at night (Exodus 13:21). God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38). When the Spirit poured forth at Pentecost, it filled a house in Jerusalem where believers had gathered (Acts 2:1).
These kinds of manifestations of God’s presence have continued through the centuries as God regularly revives his people. Now God has chosen this season to pour forth abundantly his Spirit at Asbury University. But this does not mean that God is any less accessible in your home church. Pray for the refreshing Spirit of God to bless your community. Be persistent. Wait with longing. Don’t give up hope. And don’t forget that even as you await the flood, you are trees planted by water. Drink deeply of the Spirit who is always present. The flood is no replacement for the daily drinking from the streams of God’s goodness.
A Few Practical Notes
As the Spirit began to move, the leaders have worked hard to keep the emphasis on Jesus. No one leader has emerged, but a large team is working together to make sure the music, the testimonies, the personal narratives, the discussion of Scripture all focus on glorifying God rather than on individuals in the room.
Repentance has been a large part of what God has prompted among those in attendance. In order for God to revive us, we must confess the ways in which we have followed our own wills rather than the will of God. We must be willing to flee sin and be transformed by a loving God who desires to give us a life of flourishing (2 Chronicles 7:14). We have been called to a life of holiness.
Flexibility is an incredibly important part of responding to the Spirit. Our churches and institutions often have policies and procedures – routines that keep the cogs of progress running smoothly. But when the Spirit suddenly shows up in powerful ways, the rule book may need to go out the window. Our administration at Asbury encouraged professors to be flexible with assignment dates and attendance policies for those who have felt called to worship in Hughes Auditorium. Leaders have been creative in addressing unforeseen needs – a snack table outside the back door of the auditorium for those who remain for hours, portable toilets outside for those waiting in line to gain entrance to the packed auditorium, a baby changing table placed outside the restrooms (not your typical equipment here!).
In the early church, organization developed over time. At first, the believers simply gathered together and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Later, in Acts 6, deacons were appointed to distribute food to the Hellenistic widows who had been overlooked in the daily food distribution. Structure was introduced to make sure the needs were met. Similarly, here at Asbury systems have developed quickly to meet pressing needs. At first, volunteers simply showed up and asked where they could serve; now, sign-up lists have been created and leaders appointed to organize the needs. Flexible structures are important.
Discernment is perhaps one of the greatest needs. How is God moving? How can this gift best be stewarded? Where might people intentionally or unintentionally be leading this community in a different direction than God desires? Constant prayer is an absolute necessity.
Spiritual outpourings today contain an element not foreseen in previous generations: social media. Word about this movement of God has spread like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. In the past, teams of evangelists needed to travel from town to town to spread the word, but now in a matter of days people on the other side of the planet have heard about what is happening in Wilmore, Kentucky. For the first week and a half of this outpouring, Asbury University intentionally chose not to livestream the revival (other than our previously scheduled student chapel services). Some in the crowds, however, have been livestreaming non-stop.
We need to be concerned about the potential for abuse. Those who are unaware they are being filmed but are moved by the Spirit to repent publicly of their sins – even if they are in a room of 1,500 people – are not expecting to later see their testimony spread to millions across the globe (including family far away who may not appreciate the personal revelations) or that their images may be turned into memes. When we post under these conditions, we should consider posting short snippets of praise and worship so that God may be glorified. But we must be careful not to abuse others in our eagerness to share. Just because we can post intimate personal testimonies to social media does not mean that we should.
This dynamic is admittedly different when those present are aware that they are being filmed. On Sunday, Asbury University President Kevin Brown announced that Asbury will begin livestreaming services during the next week. Believers across the world who cannot physically travel to Wilmore will be able to see how God is moving here. It remains to be seen, however, the ways in which broadcasting will affect the nature and tenor of testimonies and worship. My prayer is that the focus remains on God as our audience and not those watching through their screens.
What Happens Next?
As I write this, thousands of strangers are on campus – so many, in fact, that on Sunday police officers had to close access to the main road into Wilmore. The town simply does not have capacity for any more visitors. The crowds have been unsettling to some of our students, who have found their routines significantly disrupted. Yet I am reminded that these newcomers are standing where we were two weeks ago when we drank deeply from the well of the Spirit – thirsty and desperate for a touch from God. We need to be careful, once we have drunk from the flood, not to lose compassion for those who remain thirsty.
Our administrators have done well to support this public longing for God, but they also recognize that this outpouring is not meant to remain here, but to spread. President Brown announced on Sunday that the services at Asbury for the general public would end on Monday, February 20, although evening services for high school and college students will be held through February 23. After that, services will continue at locations other than Asbury University.
My prayer is that revival will come to you. This refreshing Spirit is not for us alone, and there is plenty to go around. Scripture is full of language describing the abundance of God: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Already reports are occurring of revivals on other campuses, such as Lee University and Samford University.
The challenge will occur, however, after the flood waters recede. We must not forget that we are still trees planted by living water. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, even if we experience God in different ways on different days. We cannot forsake the normal means of grace in search of floodwaters alone. It will be important in the days ahead for local faith communities to disciple those who have found new life as a result of this outpouring. We will need to teach Scripture in depth and provide small-group support and accountability to help people make sense of what they have experienced and challenge them toward deeper relationships with Jesus.
This flood we are experiencing today is meant to revive us for a purpose – to share the joy and the love of God with those living in a dark world. As this revival has been occurring, we have simultaneously watched tens of thousands of dead being pulled from the rubble after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. We have witnessed several more mass shootings, including one on the campus of Michigan State University. We continue to see famine and poverty, addiction and despair, racism and sexism, abuse and ailments across the world and in our homes. We need this refreshing of the Spirit more than ever as a testimony that God has not abandoned this dark world. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). This is the hope for a world gone wrong.
Our experience of this hope empowers us to go and preach the good news to the dying and the destitute, not only through our words, but also through our actions. God calls us to perfect love of both God and neighbor. If we keep this refreshing Spirit to ourselves, then we have missed the point. God has given us shalom – wholeness and healing and flourishing – so that we can bring the love of God to others. If we proclaim the love of Jesus but do not demonstrate God’s love by helping the poor and destitute, then we are nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). God forbid that we turn these songs of praise into nothing more than a noisy interruption.
Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is an Elder in the Global Methodist Church and serves as Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand. Republished by permission of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com). Photo: Shutterstock.
By Stephen A. Seamands —
In his profound reflections on revival, based on his experiences in 18th century colonial New England, during what historians refer to as the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards said this: “God hath had it much on his heart from all eternity, to glorify his dear and only begotten Son; and there are some special seasons that he appoints to that end, wherein he comes forth with omnipotent power … and these are times of remarkable pouring out of his Spirit, to advance his kingdom.”
Revivals then, according to Edwards, are special times and seasons when God the Father reveals, glorifies, and exalts his Son through the power of his Spirit. And in such clear-cut, powerful, demonstrable ways that you can’t miss it – because he wants the whole world to know who his beloved son is.
That’s what Edwards saw happening right before his eyes. The members of the congregation he pastored had all grown up Christian, but during the Awakening, it was as if the veil was pulled back and they glimpsed Jesus for the first time. They were seized by a revelation, captured by what Edwards called “the divine excellency of Christ.” And after that their lives were never the same. I love the way he describes it in his quaint 18th century way:
“By the sight of the transcendent glory of Christ, true Christians see him worthy to be followed; and so are powerfully drawn after him; they see him worthy that they should forsake all for him: by the sight of that superlative amiableness, they are thoroughly disposed to be subject to him, and engaged to labor with earnestness and activity in his service, and made willing to go through all difficulties for his sake.
“And it is the discovery of this divine excellency of Christ that makes them constant to him: for it makes a deep impression upon their minds, that they cannot forget him; and they will follow him whithersoever he goes, and it is in vain for any to endeavor to draw them away from him.”
This is what happens in true revivals. People get seized, gripped, overwhelmed by the divine excellency of Christ.
As a result of being captured by his love, his “superlative amiableness,” as he puts it, they fall in love and stay in love with Jesus in such a way that their lives are never the same, the church is never the same, the world is never the same.
These first hand revival experiences, convictional experiences, divine encounters – grip us so profoundly, transform and shape us so deeply that they set us on a trajectory that continues for the rest of our lives.
Like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road, they impart to us such a profound awareness, such a revelation of the risen, exalted Jesus, such an experience of his presence in us through the Holy Spirit, such an unswerving commitment to his mission, that standing in chains before King Agrippa decades later, he would declare, “No matter what happens, I simply can’t be disobedient to such a heavenly vision.”
Revivals produce Christians who are faithful, bold, and unapologetic. Christians who find their joy and satisfaction in God. Christians with a love passion for holiness, who will gladly lay down their lives for Jesus, who are looking, not for a prosperity gospel, but in Amy Carmichael’s words, “a chance to die.”
Revivals cause the church to move forward in purity, power, and unity; in boldness and confidence to be his witnesses. As a result God’s people are able to withstand cultural pressures to conform and compromise. They refuse to be seduced by the gods of their culture.
I think Jonathan Edwards had it right. We need revivals because we need more of Jesus. Through revival God raises up a generation, a people, a church which gets focused on Christ. As the characters in Narnia would say: “Aslan comes in sight.” So we discover things about him that we never knew before. He truly becomes the pearl of great price. Ultimately, revivals are about “the divine excellency of Christ.”
Stephen A. Seamands is Professor Emeritus of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He served as the Professor of Basic Christian Doctrine at Asbury Seminary for close to 40 years. In addition to that class, he taught Introduction to Spiritual Warfare, Introduction to Healing Prayer, and a class studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dr. Seamands has authored numerous books, including Wounds That Heal, Ministry in the Image of God, and The Unseen Real: Life in the Light of the Ascension of Jesus.
Photo: Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University, February 10, 2023. Photo by Sarah Thomas Baldwin. Used by permission.
By Rob Renfroe —
Over the last few months I have had the privilege of speaking to more than a dozen churches and conferences in six different states and once to brothers and sisters in Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines via social media. What I enjoy most are the conversations I have with individuals after my presentation is completed.
Different locations and cultures, but there are similar themes that emerge as we talk. There is always sadness that we are at a place where division is necessary. But there is also great excitement about the future as we look forward to re-envisioning what an orthodox Wesleyan movement can be and do for a lost world. What took me by surprise at first, but now I’ve come to expect, are those persons who believe they should wait before making the decision to stay or go.
Some tell me that there’s no reason to leave right now because “nothing has changed.” What they usually mean is that our official UM doctrines are still orthodox and biblical. On the face of it, that’s a true statement, but it’s not a good description of reality. We presently have pastors who preach that Jesus was not resurrected from the dead or that the resurrection doesn’t matter and that Jesus did not die for our sins. We have seminaries that teach Jesus is just one of many ways to God and one that has even created curricula for persons wanting to be ordained in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination that denies the Trinity and the deity of Christ. We now have a commissioned candidate for ministry who preaches in drag and is celebrated by centrist pastors as being a gifted communicator of the Gospel. We just elected a second bishop who is married to a spouse of the same sex. No bishop charged with teaching and enforcing our doctrines has ever spoken out publicly against any of these false teachings and practices.
Believing that “nothing has changed” because our written doctrines have not been altered is a strange way of looking at reality. It would be like having a peace treaty with a neighboring country that’s dropping bombs on your territory and saying, “But nothing has changed; they haven’t rescinded the treaty.” It doesn’t matter what’s on paper if it’s not being followed or enforced. Nothing has changed? Everything has changed. Compare where we are to what Wesley preached. To where we were when the UM Church began in 1968. To what the Bible teaches. “Nothing has changed” is the last thing you can say about where the UM Church is now.
Others tell me they can stay because centrist leaders have told them that traditionalists will always be accepted and they will never have to accept a progressive pastor. There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s hard to know where to start.
First, centrist leaders on a national level have never kept the agreements they have made with traditionalists. In Portland they agreed with us that the UM Church could not stay together and we needed to work together for a respectful separation. But they came to General Conference 2019 with a plan that went back on that commitment. They agreed that the special called 2019 GC would settle our differences over sexuality once and for all – until they didn’t get their way and then they condemned the UM Church and ignored the decisions of the General Conference. Most recently they have reneged on their commitment to the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation after helping to create it and pledging to support it. For those still unconvinced, the recent actions of the Arkansas Annual Conference should be telling. At a special called conference held November 19, the conference refused to approve the disaffiliation of three churches which had fulfilled every requirement for leaving the denomination. Each of these three churches had made their way through the arduous pathway created by the Arkansas AC and had passed a motion to leave by more than two-thirds. Still centrists and progressives there refused to honor their decision. So, when centrists state that no traditional church will ever be made to do anything they find disagreeable, they already have. There’s little reason any serious person should trust what centrist leaders promise about the future.
Second, every UM Church will one day have a progressive pastor. In November our five U.S. jurisdictions elected thirteen new bishops. Not one was a traditionalist. The UM Church in the United States will never again elect a traditionalist bishop. And you can be sure few, if any, traditionalists will ever again seek ordination in the UM Church. Why would a young person looking at forty years of ministry join a denomination that despises his or her views – which one of our recently elected bishops described as “a virus which will make the church sick.” You may have a traditional pastor now, but the well is drying up, and the day will come when there will be no one to appoint to your church but a liberal pastor with a progressive theology.
Most importantly, I believe, is not whether traditionalists will be accepted, but what they will have to accept if they remain. In the future, traditionalists will be in a denomination that allows its pastors to preach that Jesus’ death did not make atonement for our sins and that he is just one of many ways to God or that permits its pastors to pray to God as “the Great Queer One,” as future UM pastors did at UM Duke Divinity School recently. If you remain in the UM Church, give your time and your money and lend your name to the UM Church, you will be supporting all of this. You will be aiding a church that promotes sin and allows its leaders to deny our most important Christian beliefs. Will you be accepted as a traditionalist in the UM Church over time? Probably not. But more importantly, you will have to accept a church that undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Still others tell me they are remaining in hopes that something similar to the Protocol will be passed in 2024, something that is more fair and less costly for churches than the present exit path they are being offered by their conference. I can certainly understand this desire. Many bishops are abusing their power and adding exorbitant fees for churches that wish to disaffiliate. But there’s no reason to believe that General Conference 2024 will bring any relief. Literally thousands of traditional churches will have left the denomination by 2024, meaning there will be fewer traditional delegates at the next General Conference to fight for a better deal. Centrists and progressive leaders have stated they will not support the Protocol. Do you believe they will offer a more generous pathway than before for exiting churches now that they have the upper hand? Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline that churches are using now to depart goes away at the end of 2023. There is absolutely no reason to believe that waiting until 2024 will be advantageous for churches wanting to leave in the future.
Finally, some have said they will remain to “be a witness” within the UM Church. If God is calling you to be a Jonah, by all means, be faithful and stay. We traditionalists have tried to be a witness for the past fifty years. Those within the UM Church who have had ears to hear have heard. Those who don’t have not. If God has called you to stay, do so. But please make certain it’s God calling you to do the hard ministry of staying, not your desire to avoid the hard work of leaving.
What I find wherever I speak are good people who love Jesus, who are committed to the Gospel, and who care deeply about their church. It is a privilege to be with them, to listen to their concerns and hear their stories. I also discover that good people can be in different places when it comes to leaving. But I am convinced the UM Church is on a pathway that will take it far from the orthodox Christian faith and from proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Lord of all. If you feel called to remain in such a denomination, then stay. If not, the time to leave is now. Do not remain because leaving is difficult.
This moment is about the Gospel. This moment is about Jesus, lifting him up and proclaiming his glory. This moment is about doing the hard things required to be faithful. Do not take comfort in misleading promises or false hopes. The time is now.
By Kimberly Constant —
Ezekiel stood, looking out across a valley filled with bones that stretched as far as he could see. Bones that were brittle. Bleached by the relentless sun and worn down by the ravages of time. Bones which represented the once proud nation of Israel, now seemingly without hope. Devastating reminders of what had been a community of God’s own formation, tasked to make his glory known. Now bearing silent witness to the devastating reality of the downfall of God’s covenant people because of their sin. As Ezekiel surveyed the wreckage, with God at his side, God posed a weighty question, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Can these bones live? Perhaps it’s a question that we find ourselves pondering. As a new year dawns, it is natural for many of us to think about fresh starts. New beginnings. To look with expectant hope to a future in which we long to find better days. But sometimes, we face more of the same seemingly endless challenges of the past. Illness, debt, broken relationships, dwindling faith, all of which have us staring into our own valley of bones. Perhaps, mourning the loss of what once was, we look into a new year filled with terrifying unknowns and wonder if there are some situations which might be beyond hope. Maybe in this season of fresh starts and new beginnings some of us wonder if revival is possible. Can God really breathe new life into something that seems as far beyond the point of resuscitation as a valley filled with bones?
In reading Ezekiel’s vision, recounted to us in chapter 37 of the biblical book that bears his name, we might ask why Ezekiel himself didn’t pose this question to God, instead of the other way around. Didn’t Ezekiel wonder? Surely, as one of God’s prophets he knew the words of those who preceded him, which spoke to the promise of rebirth. That the exile of God’s people, both a physical separation from the land of promise and a spiritual separation from the God of promises, would not last forever. At least for a remnant. Could it be that the thought did not enter his mind? Maybe as Ezekiel looked out across that valley of death, what lay before him seemed like a heartbreaking indication that indeed all hope was lost for the majority of Israel. That if a remnant would arise, certainly it would not be from this pile of death.
So, in the silence of the moment, as God and Ezekiel took in the sorrow and despair of that valley of bones, God asked the question that Ezekiel either couldn’t or wouldn’t ask. A question for which only God could supply the answer. Ezekiel said as much, “My Lord God, you know.” Some translations insert a word of emphasis, “My Lord God, you alone know.” Can these bones live? You tell me, God. For any answer in the affirmative would require a miracle that only you can provide.
But the truth is that God had been asking and answering that question since the formation of our world. Marshalling out of nothing a universe of such brilliance and complexity that scientists and poets through the ages have found no shortage of material for exploration and invocation. Forming and fashioning that universe through the power of his voice; his words constructing light and space and time. Creatures and environments and the pinnacle of it all, us.
God had asked and answered this question over and over again. In his provision of coverings for the shame and sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. In the olive branch delivered by the dove to Noah as he waited for the waters to recede. In the words of Joseph to his brothers upon their discovery that he had not just survived their cruel actions but had become their means of salvation from a vicious famine, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” God asked and answered this question when he brought the people out from slavery in Egypt. When he assembled them at the foot of Mt. Sinai and formed them into a nation bound to him by a covenant of holiness. And later when they complained. When they worshipped the golden calf. When they bought into the fear in the eyes of ten of the spies returning from their scouting mission in Canaan. God asked and answered this question when he brought down the walls of Jericho yet brought out from the destruction the Canaanite prostitute Rahab and her family as a reward for her courageous faith.
God asked and answered this question for Ruth and Naomi when they had lost everything. For David in the wilderness as he fled from Saul. For Elijah as he prayed for death to relieve his loneliness and pain. For Mordecai and Esther as they faced the eradication of their people. God asked and answered this question for the nation of Israel each time it assembled itself to renew the covenant, repentant for the sin of the past and expectant for a future of obedient faithfulness. God asked and answered this question through the promises of his prophets. That indeed restoration would follow judgement. Indeed, hope need not die even in the face of terrible suffering. For not only would a remnant return to rebuild a devastated Jerusalem, but God would also send a righteous ruler. A king, a prophet, a priest to usher in a new beginning. To restore what had been lost. Not just for Israel. But for all. And although Ezekiel could not see nor understand the implications of some of these prophecies, we know that God asked and answered this question once and for all from a cross and an empty tomb and a throne seated at his right hand.
Can these bones live? The answer is always yes for those who cry out to God. God’s grace and mercy remain an ever-present gift for us, ready to be received at any moment, not just at the turn of a new year. Ours for the taking if we will repent. If we will turn from pursuing our own will and desires and turn towards the path of God. God asked Ezekiel the question not because God needed him to supply the answer. God wanted Ezekiel to be part of the solution. To serve as God’s mouthpiece once more and to prophesy to those dead people. Ezekiel had a part to play in reviving what seemed forever lost.
So, God said, “Prophesy. Tell these bones to hear my word. They will live. And they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel, to his credit, didn’t run away in terror or laugh in utter incredulity. He didn’t question his abilities or ask God to send someone else. Ezekiel spoke to that pile of death and God breathed life into the broken remnants of his people. What arose was something truly magnificent, an exceedingly great army. Warriors strengthened and brought to life by God. The hope of Israel renewed and restored from the grave of its demise.
Many of us might feel as if we, too, are staring into an abyss of bones. The remnants of our own hopes and dreams. The remains of marriages, friendships, jobs, even of our churches, many of which have experienced something akin to divorce in this last year. Many of us might feel as if we’ve lost our moorings. As the secular world increasingly dismantles any notion of fundamental morality, we might feel as if our way of life is becoming more and more of a fringe movement. Perhaps we’ve endured scorn and ridicule, even cancellation, for the beliefs that define us as Christians. As the people of God perhaps we wonder where do we go now? Can God still breathe new life when and where it seems impossible?
God stands beside us and poses the very same question he asked of Ezekiel, “People of God, can these bones live?” Even as we ask ourselves, can we find our way forward through a world filled with so much anger and pain? Can we find our way forward through the disdain of society that wants nothing to do with God, let alone an understanding of moral and ethical absolutes? Can we find our way forward in new or changing denominations? Can we as God’s people find our way forward through the valley of bones that lay before us?
To that God says, prophesy. Speak to the bones. Prophesy to the breath. Proclaim the truth. The hope and the life available through Jesus Christ. The peace and comfort to be found in the Gospel. Speak of the love of God so great that there is nothing that can separate us from that love. Not even death. And then, and then my friends, we will live.
The story of the Bible is a story book-ended by beginnings. From the beginning of our universe and our creation as human beings, born from the dust of the earth, imprinted with the image of God, and imbued with his life-giving and sustaining breath. To the beginning of a new creation, at the end of days, when we will live in the very presence of God in resurrection bodies that testify to God’s ability to revive and restore. In fact, the story of the Bible is one of continual beginnings arising from what looked like endings. It’s a story of hundreds of fresh starts. Made possible because we are loved by a God whose power is limitless.
But it is a story that needs telling. God calls each of us to play a part in spreading the hope of new beginnings. We as God’s people must be willing to speak God’s word into the darkest corners of the world. Into places where it looks as if there is no one to hear; no one who cares. Even if they laugh. Even if they scream. Even if they threaten. Even if they do their worst. Prophesy. Speak to the breath of the one who can do the impossible. For from the disasters of the present, God can and will call forth his people into a time of greater unity, a time of resolute purpose. Not just a people, but an army of spiritual warriors. Where we might see nothing but old bones, a hopeless wasteland, painful endings, God envisions a fresh explosion of life.
As we march into 2023 let us remember that sometimes what comes from brokenness is even more beautiful than that which came before. From Jesus’s birth came his ministry, from his ministry came the cross, from the cross came the empty tomb, from the empty tomb a throne. Indeed, because of Jesus’ victory, we can endure. Indeed, we will live.
Kimberly Constant is a Bible teacher, author, and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. You can find out more about Rev. Constant at kimberlyconstantministries.com.
Art: Francisco Collantes (1599-1656). Vision of Ezekiel. Public domain.
By Walter Fenton, Global Methodist Church –
United Methodist Bishop Mark J. Webb, the former leader of the UM Church’s Upper New York Episcopal Area, has resigned from the episcopacy and withdrawn from the denomination. Webb has joined the Global Methodist Church.
The GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) announced it has hired Webb as a bishop in the GM Church. Its Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline provides that UM Church bishops may be received as bishops in the GM Church to serve until the latter’s convening General Conference; Bishop Webb has been received in this capacity. Initially, he will serve as one of the general superintendents of the GM Church and will not be appointed to a specific residential area.
“I am humbled to be a part of a fresh expression of Methodism that seeks to capture and live the fullness of our Wesleyan DNA and equip individuals and congregations to boldly and urgently live out God’s call to offer the good news of Jesus Christ to a desperate world,” said Webb regarding his new role with the GM Church. “I’m also grateful for the leadership and gifts faithfully offered by so many in the formation of this movement and look forward to becoming a part of all that God is doing and will do in and through the Global Methodist Church.”
Webb served as the bishop of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the UM Church for over 10 years. Prior to his role as a bishop, he pastored three local churches and served as a district superintendent in Pennsylvania for 23 years. His clergy colleagues elected him as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award in 2002, and in 2018 he was named as one of the top 100 leaders by the John C. Maxwell Transformational Leadership Award.
“We are honored to have Bishop Webb join us and to immediately assume leadership responsibilities in the Global Methodist Church,” said Cara Nicklas, Chairwoman of the TLC. “His humble spirit, his courageous witness, and above all, his fidelity to the core confessions of the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith are inspiring. I am confident his creative leadership will contribute to the growing health and vitality of our Church.”
A graduate of Shippensburg University (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania) with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Bishop Webb also holds a M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky) and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut). He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio).
“What has impressed me most serving under and alongside Bishop Webb has been his keen ability to use his gifts of leadership and discernment to cast vision and work with others to implement that vision in often complicated situations,” said the Rev. Steven Taylor, Lead Pastor of Panama UM Church (Panama, New York). “He unapologetically proclaims that hope and salvation are found only in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
Former United Methodists who have already transitioned to the GM Church and United Methodist hoping to follow them have long regarded Bishop Webb as a courageous and gracious leader, willing to speak up on their behalf. He was very warmly received at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 2022 Global Gathering in Indiana, where he offered the closing devotion and served as the celebrant for Holy Communion.
“The entire staff is excited to welcome Bishop Webb to the team and is looking forward to working with him,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the GM Church’s Transitional Connectional Officer. “His experience, and the gifts and graces he brings to us will bless and increase the GM Church for years to come. We praise and thank God for his willingness to serve among us during the denomination’s critical transitional period.”
Just launched on May 1, 2022, hundreds of local churches in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States have already aligned with the Global Methodist Church, and many more are hoping to do so over the next few years.
“Many people are coming to the Global Methodist Church with a passion to follow Jesus and be the Church, but also with a deep weariness and pain from past experiences and struggles. We are a broken and wounded people, called to offer Jesus to a broken and wounded world. We will need to help one another heal,” said Bishop Webb. “We must choose to trust and encourage one another, while fully depending upon the power of God’s Spirit in this new journey. I strive to give thanks for the formation my past provides, but I also know that the Gospel message invites me to lay the past behind and focus on the vision and hope God is birthing today. The battles of yesterday are no longer our battles. There will be new struggles, but I know God will be faithful, and I trust that God has already equipped us to be faithful to the glory of God and for the increase of His Kingdom.”
Bishop Webb lives in Lititz, Pennsylvania and is married to Jodi. They have two sons, Tyler, who is married to Lyndsay and Benjamin, who is married to Mary.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer. Link to original story HERE.
Photo: Bishop Mark Webb, formerly of the Upper New York Conference, gives the closing devotional at the May 7 Global Gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. (Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.)
By Jessica LaGrone —
My friend Ryanne is a colorful Christian. Her home is colorful. She often paints a wall or ceiling or the whole front porch on a whim, based on some color that has drawn her fancy. Her family is colorful. Her children’s skin colors are a glorious variety of hues. Her language is sometimes a little colorful. As she stands yelling at her four kids and two dogs (and yardful of chickens, to boot) from her multicolored porch, she sometimes uses words that attract attention and occasional alarm from her aging neighbors. She stands out in her neighborhood, and pretty much everywhere else, which is clearly the way Ryanne likes it.
She especially stands out when she and her kids pull into the church parking lot on Sundays, her ancient station wagon covered in bumper stickers that range from humorous and whimsical to edgy and political, surrounded by all the matching minivans. It can be hard at first to tell who the adult is in this brood. Ryanne is shorter than her oldest and matches him in cropped hair and faded jeans. She looks a little more like a teen headed to detention than a mother of four on her way to worship. Her church attire is a special T-shirt – one of her favorites to wear to church has “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little” printed across the front. “Just because I don’t dress like a church lady doesn’t mean I don’t believe like one,” she laughs.
Does someone whose life seems so messy fit into the orderly picture of God’s good creation? Do we need to be a people of sterile, ordered lives to be a people of God?
Honestly, Ryanne has one of the most solid faiths of anyone I’ve ever met. Her house and car might look a little odd, but she and Jesus are tight. He was with her when the child support was late again. When the electricity was about to be turned off. When her middle kid wanted to go live with his dad. When her daily life was as torn and beat-up as the old carpet on her back porch, where we sat as she told me how Jesus helped her put the pieces back together.
Just because he made her whole again didn’t mean he ironed her personality flat.
Order and chaos. One mistake we make when we talk about order and chaos is to assume God’s call to order is a sentence to bland uniformity. He didn’t tidy up the vast expanse of creation expecting us to fall marching into line. Looking around at the world he made, we can see that his creativity is unmatched. Whether or not we wear it on our T-shirts, all of us are a little colorful, made up of stories and opinions pasted over a bit with life and humor and politics that would entertain some and shock others.
But God’s idea of order in this vast universe wasn’t meant to keep the riffraff out, to place plastic covers on the couches, or to send uniform Christian soldiers trooping into churches dressed up and combed up and polished into essentially the same model with a slightly different minivan.
The design of order in creation was never meant to decree uniformity. Creation by separation was never meant to make clubs of those who belong and outcasts of those who don’t. There’s no sign or secret handshake that Christians have to give in order to be truly accepted. The mark of a life lived faithfully with Christ isn’t some outwardly visible thing that shows up in our homes, our dress, or the shape of our family portraits in the church directory. It doesn’t matter if you wear a suit or a faded T-shirt. Those are only outward appearances, after all, and God looks at the heart.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton’s take on the discipline and order found in the Christian life was that “the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
When God, on the first three days of creation, laid out one environment after another, creating space to swim and fly, to run and walk, to breathe and sing and dance, he was preparing a space ordered for the things that would come to live in it. When he looked out at each created space and named it “good,” surely part of the goodness was the intended purpose – the goodness to come, as wild things, humanity included, would enjoy this place to its fullest.
Room for play. There is something appealing about order, about pristine gardens and manicured lawns. Why risk letting anyone in to mess it up? If order is the highest value, then why allow play? Put up signs on the field that read, “Keep Off the Grass!” Fertilize it to green perfection. Manicure the heck out of it. Mow it in careful parallel stripes and guard it from pests, especially those big enough to run and kick a soccer ball.
What does it say about God that he didn’t put a plastic cover on the couch of creation? That he didn’t put up a “Keep Off the Grass” sign and shake his fist every time we came near?
We’ve bought into the lie that there are only two options: to either keep everyone off the field so they won’t mess it up, or to let it all go to seed, to descend into a wild space overtaken by weeds. The creation story paints a shocking alternative. God took the dark, empty chaos and made a beautiful space. Then instead of hiding it away, he decided to share it with us, knowing that our footprints would mess the field but that our play would be the ultimate fullness, the thing he made it all for.
Sometimes we tell ourselves the lie that the life God loves is a sterile, empty picture of life where there’s no room for human error. But anything that doesn’t allow room for human error doesn’t allow room for humans, and the whole point of the creation recipe culminates in putting humans in the environment to flourish in their relationship with God and each other. A place for God’s children to bring their imperfect and chaotic selves into his presence to commune with him is just the glorious chaos he ordered. A creation empty of messy inhabitants would be a different kind of chaos – the chaos of puritanical sterility, lacking the vulnerability that always comes when we open ourselves to sharing life and space with others.
Signs of Life. When life comes pouring in, all kinds of accompanying miracles and mayhem come with it, even in places we wouldn’t expect. That’s exactly what happened when Dr. Bill Thomas became the new medical director at Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York.
Upon his arrival, Thomas found a tidy, well-run facility. The staff members were focused on keeping patients safe and comfortable in their last years of life, and they were doing it well. But Thomas noted that while the environment was quiet and safe, the light had gone out in many people’s eyes. The excellent job the caregivers had done in providing order and minimizing risk had also succeeded in producing a dead calm.
Dr. Thomas began to wonder what it would look like not just to keep patients alive, but to give them a reason for living. He wanted Chase to feel like a real home, not an institution. He found the inspiration for what was missing when he went home at night to his own household: plants, animals, and children – untidy, unpredictable, and utterly alive.
The plan Thomas formulated and presented to the administration was called, appropriately, the Eden Alternative. If you’ve been imagining the Garden of Eden as a serene and tranquil paradise, you might not have pictured every kind of creature bursting onto the scene with all of their predatory and procreative instincts revved up and ready to go. As the old Lucky Strike cigarette ad used to quip, “Nature in the raw is seldom mild.”
Dr. Thomas first proposed removing all the artificial plants and adding live plants in every room of the facility. He wanted to pull up the back lawn and plant vegetable and flower gardens. Then he proposed housing one dog and two cats on each of the home’s two floors. He was going to have to lobby the forces at the state capitol for waivers to work around the rules and regulations that stipulated no more than a single pet per nursing home. But the menagerie was only getting started. Thomas proposed a flock of laying hens and a colony of rabbits on the grounds. A hundred parakeets in cages would be brought into living areas and residential rooms.
Oh, and he wanted the staff to bring their kids to work so they could spend time around the residents too, and he proposed opening an after-school program for the community.
Surprisingly, the administration signed off on the proposal – mostly because they assumed Thomas would never get the approval he needed from the authorities to put his plan in action. How wrong they were. Dr. Thomas was awarded not only the grant money he needed to accomplish the plan but also all the waivers needed for the rules he wanted to bend. Now they were going to have to see if it all worked.
The residents at Chase Nursing Home had been existing in a state empty of light and life. The staff’s efforts to produce a calm, safe environment added up to an empty existence that actually accelerated the end of life for many residents rather than giving them something to keep living for. This little corner of creation had order but no fullness. It was formed, but not filled. But all that was about to change.
The prescribed dose of what Dr. Thomas had gleefully called “total pandemonium” arrived so quickly that no one was really prepared for the consequences. A greyhound named Target and a lapdog named Ginger were both getting settled amicably on their separate floors, figuring out how to share space with two cats each. Staff members’ children were dropped off at the door by their school buses each afternoon. The back lawn was dug up and transformed into a garden and a playground next to the rabbit pen and chicken coop. Things were getting a bit crowded.
And then, in the midst of it all, the birds arrived. One hundred parakeets, all delivered on one day in one truckload – with the birdcages nowhere to be seen. The staff locked all one hundred birds in the center’s hair salon until the cages arrived later the same day – some assembly required. Through the glass picture windows of the hair salon, the residents gathered, watching and laughing as the staff spent hours assembling birdcages and chasing the loose parakeets all over the hair salon, grabbing at feathers and ducking as birds flapped around their heads. “Glorious chaos” had arrived.
(You can read about the Chase transformation in greater detail in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books, 2014).
The pandemonium caused by all these changes was not all humorous. I can tell you personally from years of helping to stage live nativity scenes in the back parking lot of our church each December: when you get live children and live animals together, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. The staff pushed back at times on their new duties. Some felt that if money could be spent on animals, then someone should be hired to care for them all. But gradually, someone else did begin to take over the animals’ care – namely, the residents.
Many of the elderly residents agreed to host a pair of parakeets in their rooms. They helped water the hundreds of new indoor plants and demanded a say in the planting of the flower and vegetable gardens. Residents who had previously been nonambulatory said they’d take one of the dogs outside for a walk. Light began to dawn in people’s eyes. Even some of those with advanced forms of dementia seemed to take joy in the burgeoning life and noise around them. They could recognize birdsong, run their fingers through a pet’s fur, turn their head when a child ran shrieking down the hall.
Over the first two years of Chase’s Eden Alternative, researchers watched the center’s vital signs carefully. Their study found that the number of medicines being prescribed at Chase fell by half, especially those prescribed for agitation. The number of deaths fell by 15 percent. The immeasurable changes were even easier to witness: life came back into residents’ eyes, and the number of smiles grew daily. Instead of simply waiting for death, they were jolted back to life as it ran and chirped, hopped, and grew all around them.
God’s vision of order is not one where chaos is ironed flat, but a place where good things run wild in each of our lives, as holy and messy as the day is long.
Jessica LaGrone is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a member of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church. LaGrone is the author of numerous books. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Out of Chaos: How God Makes New Things from the Broken Pieces of Our Lives. Photo: Shutterstock.