By Rob Renfroe –
What will happen at the special General Conference this February? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. We see through a glass darkly, not able to predict with confidence what the delegates will do and knowing that God can always surprise us and provide a solution to our problems that none of us imagined. Frankly, that’s what I’m praying for.
However, there are a few options that, at this point, seem most likely. Two that we can take off the board are the Simple Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
The Simple Plan goes too far. It redefines marriage as two adults, condones sex outside of marriage, prevents conservative annual conferences from refusing to ordain practicing gay persons, and allows pastors throughout the connection to marry gay couples. Whenever similar proposals have come before General Conference in the past, they have been defeated by a wide margin. The majority of the UM Church has not yet moved this far in a progressive direction.
The Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) creates three jurisdictions, each one with a different sexual ethic. No coalition has formed to support it and no group is doing the hard work of promoting it to the rest of the church. The CCP requires numerous constitutional amendments and there is little likelihood that a super majority of both General Conference delegates and then later of annual conference delegates around the globe will support it.
The plan with the greatest likelihood of passing is the Traditional Plan (TP). It maintains our present position of affirming the worth of and welcoming all persons to the ministries of the church without allowing for practicing gay persons to be ordained or for our pastors to marry gay couples. The Traditional Plan has several provisions that would allow the church to enforce the Book of Discipline more effectively when pastors and bishops violate our policies. Each of these provisions will need to be approved individually.
Why is the TP most likely to pass? Because it is most in line with what delegates have supported at every General Conference since 1972. It was the plan that the majority of the delegates supported less than three years ago in Portland – most of whom will be voting again in St. Louis. Whether all of the enhanced accountability measures can be passed remains to be seen. But it is most likely that a Traditional Plan of sorts will prevail. And a Traditional Plan provides the most hopeful path to a faithful future for The United Methodist Church.
It is also possible that no plan will be approved. If General Conference begins to approve a Traditional Plan, it is very likely that some progressives will move to keep the conference from passing a plan. Some will do so surreptitiously. There will be countless “points of order,” amendments, and substitute resolutions coming from the floor, bringing work on a Traditional Plan to a standstill. Others will be more blatant. In the past, scores of pro-LGBTQ supporters have entered the bar of the conference without permission and have brought deliberations to a halt with their chanting and protests. The bishops have been reticent to remove the demonstrators and the better part of a day has been lost before the protesters have been convinced to leave the conference floor.
At past General Conferences when the delegates met for nearly two weeks, the protests were a temporary disruption to the work of the conference. But in St. Louis, the delegates will have only three days to select, perfect, and pass a plan. It’s very possible, unless the bishops are willing to remove the protesters forcibly and quickly, that their demonstrations will not allow sufficient time for the conference to complete its work.
If nothing is passed, we will return to our churches with the same position – and the same divisions – that presently characterize the denomination. So, will we be stuck with the status quo?
No. It is highly probable that we will enter a time of chaos and crisis. Progressives will be angry that nothing has changed. Their liberal bishops will have failed them. Their “centrist” partners who assured them that they could change the church democratically will have proven themselves, once again, ineffective and out of touch with the majority of United Methodists. The progressives will see no other method of change left open to them but wide-scale disobedience. It would not be surprising for large numbers of progressive UM pastors to co-officiate high-profile gay weddings. In 1999 the “Sacramento 68” – ordained UM pastors, actually numbering over 100 – jointly conducted such a service without any enforcement of the church’s position. We could see the same in the coming months should no plan pass – only on a much larger scale. More Boards of Ordained Ministry are likely to announce publicly, as many have already, that they will ignore our policy of not ordaining practicing gay persons. And there is little reason to believe progressive bishops would enforce the Book of Discipline in any meaningful way. If a Traditional Plan passes, there would at least be some ways for the church to counteract such disobedience. But if no plan passes, chaos would be the order of the day.
What would conservative churches do? Many would stop paying apportionments, either in total or, at least, the part that supports our national boards and agencies, including the episcopal fund that pays the bishops’ salaries. Some will leave the denomination. And some, before they go, would attempt to lead their annual conference out of the UM Church.
Is it possible that General Conference will pass the One Church Plan (OCP) – allowing every pastor, every congregation, and every annual conference to determine its own sexual ethic? It is not likely; but yes, it is possible. If it does, we know what will happen. Exactly what has happened in every other mainline denomination that has liberalized its sexual ethics. Traditionalists will leave – lay people, pastors, and congregations. But only after lengthy, litigious, and costly battles have been fought. That’s not a threat. It’s reality. It’s what we learn from other denominations – all the other denominations – who have gone this way before. The only way around this dire scenario is for General Conference to provide an equitable exit path for congregations to leave with their property.
I do not know what will happen in St. Louis, but the glass I am looking through is dark. And my heart is heavy. We Wesleyans have a most marvelous gift to give the world. It’s a gift of grace and hope and power that comes from God himself.
Instead, the bishops we asked and empowered to think creatively to end our division, are offering the world a church that will continue to be embattled, self-absorbed, and dysfunctional. My heart breaks because it did not have to be this way.
Is there any hope? Yes, God is good and God is sovereign. I believe he still has plans for the people called Methodist. Maybe it will take a period of crisis and chaos for progressive and centrist leaders to realize that the time has come to stop denying reality and embroiling the church in a destructive battle that ruins our witness and harms our churches. Maybe the months after St. Louis will be the dark that comes before the dawn. Or maybe, even before St. Louis, we can come to our senses and work for a future where there are no winners or losers, no victims or villains – just people who see things differently and who are willing to set each other free.
Surprise us, Lord God. Surprise us.
George and Barbara Bush with their children, George and Robin, at the rodeo grounds in Midland, Texas, October 1950. Courtesy of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
By Steve Beard –
It had been three hard days for George H.W. Bush, the 94-year-old former President of the United States. Lifelong friend James Baker, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff, went to check on his neighbor – a man he called “Jefe,” the Spanish word for “chief.”
“Mr. President, Secretary Baker’s here,” said one of the caregivers. Bush opened his eyes and looked at Baker and said, “Bake, where are we going today?”
“Well, Jefe, we’re going to heaven.”
Bush replied, “Good. That’s where I want to go.” A few hours later, a kinder and gentler man took his last breath.
“Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”
That is the eloquent appeal from the Book of Common Prayer to be read at the time of death. A lifelong and devoted Episcopalian, Bush would have anticipated those words. He was, after all, raised from childhood on the scriptures and daily readings from the Prayer Book – an incalculable gift to Christendom from King Edward VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century.
“We all knelt around him and placed our hands on him and prayed for him and it was a very graceful, gentle death,” reported the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Bush’s pastor at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. “We were silent for a full long measure as this man who changed all of our lives, who changed our nation, who changed our world, left this life for the next.”
Once again, the Prayer Book intones: “Deliver your servant, George, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, forever and ever.”
Bush’s friends in the Oak Ridge Boys sang “Amazing Grace” at his memorable funeral in Houston. Afterward, his body rode 90 miles on a specially commissioned Union Pacific railroad car, pulled by engine #4141, through Texas to his final resting place next to his wife Barbara and their daughter Robin who died at age three of leukemia.
Washington D.C. was my home during the Bush 41 administration and I still recall the stark radicalness of his call for a kinder and gentler way of doing things in our public square. “Abraham Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ are companion verses in America’s national hymn,” observed Bush biographer Jon Meacham in his eulogy. “Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.”
Like many other grateful Americans who admired the grace, kindness, and compassion of the 41st President of the United States, I stood by the railroad tracks to pay my respects. The gorgeous iron horse rolled right past a legendary former saloon and brothel in Old Town Spring, right down the street from a bank rumored to have been robbed by Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s. Every parking spot within a country mile was taken. American flags and homemade signs were displayed from the backs of pick-up trucks. Veterans saluted the former Commander in Chief and fighter pilot.
“Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic,” observed former Senator Alan Simpson in eulogizing President Bush. On this rainy day, the sky cleared up and the track was clear.
It was good to be reminded of Bush 41’s inaugural address: “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.
“What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment, there, to trade a word of friendship.”
In the wake of his death, a list of life’s lessons learned by Bush is worth remembering. 1. Don’t get down when your life takes a bad turn. Out of adversity comes challenge and often success. 2. Don’t blame others for your setbacks. 3. When things go well, always give credit to others. 4. Don’t talk all the time. Listen to your friends and mentors and learn from them. 5. Don’t brag about yourself. Let others point out your virtues, your strong points. 6. Give someone else a hand. When a friend is hurting show that friend you care. 7. Nobody likes an overbearing big shot. 8. As you succeed, be kind to people. Thank those who help you along the way. 9. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear when your heart is broken because a friend is hurting. 10. Say your prayers!
One did not need to share his political leanings to marvel at his magnanimity and genteel demeanor. Those close to him testify to his overwhelming charm, curiosity, and decency.
At a Christmas concert nearly two decades ago, President Bush raised his hand to receive a packet during an appeal to become a personal sponsor for a foreign child in need. “I want one,” said Bush, recalled Wess Stafford, the president emeritus of Compassion International. Two weeks later, Bush began writing to a seven-year-old boy named Timothy in the Philippines.
Stafford knew the sponsorship had to be kept secret. “For his own security, this little boy must not know that his sponsor was the President of the United States,” recalled Stafford in a Facebook post. They used an alias (George Herbert) and carefully censored the letters so no clues were given. The former president encouraged the young boy to love and respect the people around him. Little Timothy and Bush even exchanged hand-drawn pictures.
It did not take long before Bush fudged the rules. It began, according to Stafford, with a picture of his dog: “This is my dog Millie … she knows many famous people!” Of course, the English Springer Spaniel had become world famous during his tenure at the White House with the Bush family.
Another big hint of his identity was shared with young Timothy when Bush (41) wrote during the administration of his son, President George W. Bush (43): “This year for Christmas we are going to celebrate with my son, at his house … he lives in a big White House!”
Stafford was able to later tell President George W. Bush about his father’s loving antics. The younger Bush teared up, smiled, and said, “Yup, that’s my daddy!”
As leader of the free world, George H.W. Bush knew great triumph. He also knew tremendous heartbreak. He was shot out of the air in war and lost two crew mates in the process, survived the death of a child as a young father, and lost the presidency of the United States. His resilience and faith, however, tethered him to hope. “Be strong,” Bush wrote in his diary after his election defeat. “Be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding, let people know how grateful you are, don’t get even, comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down, say your prayers and ask for God’s understanding and strength, finish with a smile and with some gusto, do what’s right and finish strong.”
Fittingly, Bush’s pastor at St. Martin’s, called us to find inspiration in Bush’s virtues. “Some have said in the last few days, ‘this is the end of an era.’ But it doesn’t have to be,” Levenson said. “Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”
At his passing, we gratefully return to the Book of Common Prayer: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant George. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” Amen.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
Claudia Teli N’guessan sings during worship at during worship at Temple Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Man, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
By Heather Hahn –
In a village so thick with red dirt that the palm trees bear a rusty hue, a fresh burst of color beckons people from near and far. A new United Methodist church in Gouabo, Côte d’Ivoire – painted an almost-iridescent green – fills with worshippers eager to sing their love of Jesus.
Even with its bright exterior, the building is unpretentious. A plastic roof keeps out the rain. Open windows let in the breeze. Wooden pews provide a place to sit and hear the word. But when Zacharie Aka looks around the modest structure, the church lay leader has in mind a much more exalted location.
“I’m already in heaven,” he said. Like other Ivoirians, most of whom speak French, Aka spoke to the United Methodist News Service through an interpreter.
Before the church was built, Aka and about 50 others would gather in a cramped, narrow building. The heat often was unbearable. The new church now draws 300 men, women, and children each Sunday, he said. An exuberant choir carries God’s praise well beyond the church walls. The experience of United Methodists in the village of Gouabo is just one example of how the church is growing in western African countries.
Between 2006 and 2016, denominational data shows, the number of United Methodists in West Africa grew from about 1.46 million to nearly 1.8 million – a 22 percent increase. The Côte d’Ivoire Conference played a significant role in that growth when it officially joined The United Methodist Church in 2008, adding 677,355 members to the denomination’s rolls. (To put those numbers in perspective, the largest conference in the U.S. – North Georgia – has just under 361,000 members.) More recent church membership figures in Côte d’Ivoire are hard to come by. Nevertheless, United Methodists here can point to plenty examples of continued growth – including the experience in Gouabo.
“As Jesus said, the Gospel must go to the ends of the earth,” said the conference’s Bishop Benjamin Boni. “When I was appointed bishop, I put myself to work so that everyone in the church would catch that global vision.” He said United Methodists in the Côte d’Ivoire Conference have multiple ways of spreading the Gospel. These include powerful preaching, spirited choral singing, and ministry with the least of these. The conference, the bishop said, also is growing by starting new places of worship.
In Côte d’Ivoire – where Christians are about 34 percent of the population and pastel-colored mosques dot the landscape – building a church is an act of evangelism. With that in mind, United Methodists in the conference have established Victory Mission Group, a nongovernmental organization that constructs churches. Ivoirians call the buildings temples.
Daniel Dombo, who founded Victory Mission Group, said the goal is to build churches where United Methodists previously have not had much of a presence. In 2014, the year that marked a century of Methodism in Côte d’Ivoire, the group launched an initiative to build 100 new United Methodist temples. At the time, the conference had 1,030 churches. That includes building in the majority-Muslim northern part of the country and in southern villages with few United Methodists. So far, Victory Mission Group has constructed 50 new places of worship, with five under construction. And people are flocking to the new temples.
In one southern village, Yapo-Kpa, only six people were United Methodist before Victory Mission Group began construction. The church had previously used a temporary structure that fell apart. The small congregation then worshipped outdoors and saw its attendance plummet. Today, 105 people regularly attend the village’s Macedonia United Methodist Church.
In Zienkolo – a community in the northern part of the country – the villagers were all animist or Muslim before Victory Mission Group arrived, Dombo said. Since the construction of the temple – painted bright green like the one in Gouabo – Dombo said about half the village has converted to Christianity. Animists believe objects, places, and animals have a spiritual essence, and that these spiritual beings are concerned with human affairs.
Dombo estimates that each new temple leads to an average of 75 new United Methodists. That means the initiative has led to about 3,750 new church members since 2014. “When you build a temple, the temple draws people to come to Christ,” he said.
Building new churches takes collaboration. Dombo said the group receives financial and other forms of support from local volunteers, the Côte d’Ivoire Conference, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and some conferences in the United States.
A new temple, built without a ceiling or tiled floor, costs about 10 million West African francs, or a little more than U.S. $17,000. A temple with a ceiling, tiled floor, toilet facilities, and a separate space for Sunday school costs about 25 million West African francs, or about U.S. $43,000.
New construction is not the only way the church is growing in Côte d’Ivoire. As has happened with many multi-campus U.S. churches, established United Methodist churches here also can grow by adding new worship sites. An adult Sunday school class at Jubilee United Methodist Church is taking the lead in expanding the congregation’s presence. Jubilee is located in the relatively prosperous Abidjan neighborhood of Cocody – home to the bishop’s residence, a university, and various foreign embassies.
The young professionals of the church’s New Jerusalem Sunday school class two years ago started a second church campus beyond these comfortable environs. Their goal is to proclaim good news to the poor.
Down a steep, muddy alley and past rickety buildings with walls of corrugated metal stands a small shelter. This concrete structure in the middle of a city slum is the New Jerusalem campus. The structure has little more than a roof, a few pews, and a blackboard in the back. But each Sunday afternoon, it is packed to overflowing with adults and children eager to learn and worship.
Here, the Jubilee members lead Bible studies that double as literacy lessons for both children and adults. A worship service full of rousing singing and preaching follows.
“It is very important for us to found a place where we can announce the Gospel and try to make disciples,” Benjamin Olagboye, one of the campus leaders, told United Methodist News Service. The Sunday school class has a holistic approach, working on health, water, and sanitation issues in the neighborhood. Olagboye works for USAID.
“The purpose of this work is to put Jesus Christ at the center of development in this community,” he said.
Whether revitalizing a slum or brightening a village, these new communities of worship mainly aim to nurture lifelong Christ followers.
Back in Gouabo, Assovie Olivire said it has strengthened his faith to see United Methodists from outside the village help establish the new temple. He and other villagers also helped with the construction. “I am very happy to be part of this church,” he said.
Heather Hahn is a reporter with United Methodist News Service and DuBose is a photographer. Isaac Broune, director of French news for United Methodist News Service, contributed to this report. To help train evangelists and church planters in Côte d’Ivoire, contributions can be made to Advance #3021990.
The Rev. Phillip Musharu, Harare West district superintendent, worships with congregants of St. Phillip Church in Kapatamukombe, Zimbabwe. Photo by Taurai Emmanuel Maforo, UMNS.
By the Rev. Tauri Emmanuel Maforo –
John Wesley’s “The world is my parish” is being relived in Muzarabani Circuit as congregants worship under grass-thatched homesteads and pole sheds.
A cappella music and ululating filled the humid atmosphere while rhythmic dance movements, sometimes with an accompaniment of shakers and an African drum, characterized the worship scene. Having no walls around the worshippers seemed far from being an obstacle to the celebrations.
Out of the nine local churches and preaching points in Muzarabani, only one has a built up sanctuary. It’s named after John Wesley. “In spite of the droughts and hardships faced by the region, the church seems to be more inspired by their biblically-inclined names …” said Pastor Desmond Mundondo, who is appointed to the circuit.
The names of the churches are St. Phillip (Kapatamukombe), St. Peter’s (Zone 30), St. Faith (Bwazi), St. Dorcas (Dambakurima), Holy City (Kapembere), King Solomon (Chimoyo), King David (Machaya) and St. Paul (Kairezi).
“Yes, we sometimes have to brave the rainy and windy seasons,” said Edward Shanyurai, who joined The United Methodist Church in 1992 and never turned back, “but, weather conditions are not deterrent for our worship.”
The 80-year-old Shanyurai believes anything important is worth sacrificing for. “We sometimes plough our fields while it rains, so why not do the same for our God?”
“I have now come to realize what John Wesley meant by ‘the world is my parish’ and why the early church braved persecution shut up in their house churches,” said the Rev. Phillip Musharu, the Harare West district superintendent.
Musharu went around nine preaching points on a two-day, face-to-face visit to the circuit. The preaching points are all under one charge and one pastor. The pastor travels up to 140 kilometers (about 87 miles) to the furthest preaching point. The area is not easy to get to by public transport. Total average attendance for the churches ranges from 230 to 270.
The Muzarabani Church was started by the Chinyerere family who moved to the region (which had no historical roots of United Methodism) and began to spread the Christian message from their home. Muzarabani is a district that is relatively flat and situated along the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border in Mashonaland Central province in Zimbabwe.
The villagers of the region in the 1980s struggled with tsetse flies and have perennially been stalked by severe droughts and floods. The plight of the residents is further compounded by the hostile, unpredictable weather conditions.
“But, faith life continues to grow warm in the hearts of the ardent seekers who have become strong United Methodists in spite of their material challenges” Mundondo said.
The Rev. Tauri Emmanuel Maforo is communicator for the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.
Church leaders take part in evangelism training at McBride United Methodist Church in Jalingo, Nigeria. Photo by the Rev. Ande Emmanuel, UMNS.
By the Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel –
By the year 2030, The United Methodist Church in Nigeria expects to have more than 2 million professing members. Over the past 10 years, the Nigeria Episcopal Area witnessed a 15 percent increase annually in church membership, and that trend is likely to continue, say United Methodist leaders.
The increase, said the Rev. Samuel Sule, director of evangelism and discipleship, “has brought the total statistics (to) 742,652 professing members and 900 churches of The United Methodist Church in Nigeria.
“With the current population growth in the country and the renewed interest in our board,” he said, “we are envisioning 18 percent annual growth rate in Nigeria between now and 2030.”
At that rate, said the Rev. Denis Obadiah, Taraba West District superintendent, “by 2030, we are going to have 2,079,425 professing members.”
The Nigeria Area Board of Discipleship and Evangelism recently offered evangelism and leadership training to help the church strategize for the next dozen years. From 1984 to 2018, the church maintained a steady membership growth of more than 15 percent annually. During this time, The United Methodist Church in Nigeria expanded from one Muri Provisional Conference to four annual conferences, from 28 to 785 pastors, from 15 districts and 180 charges to 52 districts and 900 charges with about 162 preaching centers, and from 145,000 members to 742,652 professing members.
The episcopal area’s current membership number is considerably higher than what was reported to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, in 2016. According to the episcopal office, the Northern Nigeria Conference was underreported at that time, and that report included only three of the four annual conferences — the North East Nigeria Conference wasn’t established until 2016.
Situated on the western coast of Africa, Nigeria shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Its coast lies on the Gulf of Guinea in the south and borders Lake Chad to the northeast. According to the United Nations, Nigeria’s population exceeds 197 million, with a median age of 17.9 years.
The U.N. forecasts that Nigeria will overtake the United States as the world’s third-most-populous nation by 2050. Nigeria’s fertility rate is 5.13 children per woman, compared with 1.87 per woman in the United States. The most-populous country on the continent, Nigeria is known as “the Giant of Africa.”
“The current population growth in Nigeria is serving as a clarion call for The United Methodist Church … and its international partners to use this opportunity by coming up with plans that will boost the growth of United Methodism in Nigeria by 2030,” said Elizabeth Anthony, youth president of the Taraba Central District, who participated in the evangelism training.
“Nigeria is a country with 36 states, plus the Federal Capital Territory,” noted Rimande Garba, a lay leader in Magami/Jalingo. More than 70 percent of the United Methodists in Nigeria live in the northeast, he said, “making the remaining parts of the country a potential ground for the growth of the church.” Possible international areas of growth, he added, include Chad, Niger, and Cameroon republics.
Rapid population growth, training participants learned, will affect various United Methodist programs such as evangelism and social services. Frequent crises with Boko Haram, Nigeria’s militant Islamist group, and tribal struggles prompt immigration from neighboring countries into Nigeria.
The Rev. Gloria Iliya Dogara, district superintendent of the Jalingo District, said the revived interest of young people in the church is signaling a bright future for United Methodism in Nigeria. “The United Methodist Church in Nigeria is living out its mission: to raise faithful and fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ who are passionate to transform the world through preaching, teaching, and providing services that meet physical and spiritual needs.”
The Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel is a United Methodist clergyperson and communicator for the Nigeria Episcopal Area. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.
By Carolyn Moore –
One child’s birth in Bethlehem radically altered human history. In addition to his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ transformed the way that we view many aspects of everyday life.
For example, Jesus’ take on the value of life changed how we value children. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” he said (Matthew 19:14). Google “Jesus and children” and you’ll find a menu of articles, some of them claiming that Jesus basically invented children, in the sense that he defined them as people of worth. Before the culture of Christ permeated the Roman world, children were considered property, not people. They were used as slaves, often for sex, and infants were left on the street to die. Baby girls were abandoned more often which meant more boys than girls, which meant more tension among adults and more abuse of women. When Jesus gave children value, the paradigm shift was global. And to think God did it by sending a baby, so we could no longer question what God really thinks about children and about the value of life.
Jesus made it crystal clear that women played a central role in the story of God’s redemption of the world. The incarnation occurred through a woman. Jesus was the son of God, but he was also the son of Mary. Women were with his disciples as they traveled. Women funded ministry. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb, and first to be told to go and tell the others. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” wrote Paul in Galatians 3:28. This was a radical statement, and it flowed out of Jesus’ own treatment of women. Jesus offered a paradigm that values women, children, the poor, the oppressed, the ones who never knew they had the favor of God. That changed everything.
It even changed the way we view education. One of the most radical social statements of Paul within a male-dominated culture was the permission he gave women to learn (1 Timothy 2;11). It meant admitting that women had potential beyond their ability to bear children. And as Christianity progressed, schools became part of the Great Commission. Some of the finest academic institutions in the world were begun by Christians. Literacy is a Christian value. Global literacy was introduced with the movable press, and the first book printed on the Gutenberg press? The Bible.
Christianity opened us up to love. Jesus gave us a charge to love the hard ones – those who are sick and in prison and those who are poor. We’re told over and over in the Bible to make room in our hearts and lives for widows and orphans. This led to the development of what we now call hospitals. One of the early Councils of church leaders (the Council of Nyssa) made it a standard that every church should be attached to a place that cares for sick and poor people.
Jesus made humility and forgiveness stand-out virtues. In Philippians 2, Paul explains the crucifixion and its value of humility in such clear terms. Jesus humbled himself even unto death as a way of serving humanity and that personality trait changed the way a hierarchical world valued humility as a virtue. Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, “What is best in life?” This was his answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” In contrast, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). Hannah Arendt, a professor at Princeton, goes so far as to say that, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a claim.
Jesus changed the way we value people. The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian as a result of a miracle on his ship. He continued to trade in slaves for years after his conversion but eventually God changed his heart, and he wrote a scathing pamphlet read by every member of the British Parliament, entitled, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” It was a Christian emperor who banned gladiator fights, and it has been Christian missionaries who have helped humans end the practice of cannibalism.
Christians have made some of the most profound scientific discoveries. One of the biggest misconceptions of our faith is that somehow science and Christianity stand in opposition to each other, when in fact, Christianity promotes the idea of a rational God as Intelligent Designer. We consider our God the inventor of the scientific laws discovered by Christian scientists – Galileo, Johannes Keppler, Robert Boyle, Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton, Henry F. Schaeffer. Dr. Stanley Jaki was a physicist who famously developed the theory that, “modern scientific inquiry cannot only exist alongside religion, but that modern science only could have arisen within a Christian society.” Sir Francis Bacon said he practiced science as a way to learn more about God. He wrote, “A little philosophy inclines man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men’s minds about to religion.”
What Christians believe has fundamentally changed the course of human history. The change was in process with the Jewish people, but Jesus – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – changed everything. And because of that, our day to day circumstances are not the ground of our hope. The only circumstances in which we can place hope are the circumstances surrounding the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and on our acceptance of those circumstances. If we place our hope in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment.
This is the message of the Gospel. It is a message to the world that our Messiah has come and his coming changes everything at the most basic level. This baby changes my value, changes my capacity for forgiveness, changes my personality, changes my potential for understanding the world around me. This Son of God has chosen to reside in my heart, and in the hearts of all who invite him, and claiming that as my hope changes everything.
Carolyn Moore is a United Methodist clergywoman, writer, and pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia. She is the author of several books, including The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit (Abingdon Press, 2018).