Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

By N.T. Wright

The whole New Testament assumes that Israel was chosen to be the people through whom the creator God would address and solve the problems of the whole world. Salvation is of the Jews. The early Christians believed that the one true God had been faithful to that promise and had brought salvation through the king of the Jews, Jesus himself. Israel was called to be the light of the world; Israel’s history and vocation had devolved on to Jesus, solo. He was the true Israel, the true light of the whole world.

But what did it mean to be the light of the world? It meant, according to John, that Jesus would be lifted up to draw all people to himself. On the cross, Jesus would reveal the true God in action as the lover and savior of the world. It was because Israel’s history with God and God’s history with Israel came to its climax in Jesus, and because Jesus’ story reached its climax on Calvary and with the empty tomb, that we can say: here is the light of the world. The Creator has done what he promised. From now on we are living in the new age, the already-begun new world. The light is now shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This means that the church, the followers of Jesus Christ, live in the bright interval between Easter and the final great consummation. Let’s make no mistake either way. The reason the early Christians were so joyful was because they knew themselves to be living not so much in the last days (though that was true too) as in the first days—the opening days of God’s new creation. What Jesus did was not a mere example of something else, not a mere manifestation of some larger truth; it was itself the climactic event and fact of cosmic history. From then on everything is different.

But it would be equally mistaken to forget that after Easter, after Pentecost, after the fall of Jerusalem, the final great consummation is still to come. Paul speaks of this in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15: the creation itself will receive its exodus, will be set free from its slavery to corruption, death itself will be defeated, and God will be all in all. Revelation 21 speaks of it in terms of new heavens and new earth.

In all of these scenarios, the most glorious thing is of course the personal, royal, loving presence of Jesus himself. I still find that among the most moving words I ever sing in church are those in the old Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City”: And our eyes at last shall see him, Through his own redeeming love.

Blessed, says Jesus, are those who have not seen yet believe; yes, indeed, but one day we shall see him as he is and share the completed new creation that he is even now in the process of planning and making. We live, therefore, between Easter and the consummation, following Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and commissioned to be for the world what he was for Israel, bringing God’s redemptive reshaping to our world.

Christians have always found it difficult to understand and articulate this, and have regularly distorted the picture in one direction or the other. Some suppose God will simply throw the present world in the trash can and leave us in a totally different sphere altogether. There is then really no point in attempting to reshape the present world by the light of Jesus Christ. Armageddon is coming, so who cares about acid rain or third-world debt?

That is the way of dualism; it is a radically anti-creation viewpoint and hence is challenged head on by (among many other things) John’s emphasis on Easter as the first day of the new week, the start of God’s new creation.

On the other hand, some have imagined we can actually build the kingdom of God by our own hard work. This is sorely mistaken. When God does what God intends to do, this will be an act of fresh grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone before so that in the midst of our surprise and delight we will say, “Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.”

So I send you.
Right at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, in verse 58, Paul says something that could seem like an anticlimax. Rather than a shout of praise at the glorious future that awaits us, which would be appropriate, Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved family, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, inasmuch as you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

What is he saying? Just this: that part of the point of bodily resurrection is that there is vital and important continuity as well as discontinuity between this world and that which is to be, precisely because the new world has already begun with Easter and Pentecost, and because everything done on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection and in the power of the Spirit already belongs to that new world. It is already part of the kingdom-building that God is now setting forward in this new week of new creation.

That is why Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 of Jesus as the foundation and of people building on that foundation with gold, silver, or precious stones, or as it may be, with wood, hay, and stubble. If you build on the foundation in the present time with gold, silver, and precious stones, your work will last. In the Lord your labor is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is soon going over a cliff.

Nor, however, are you constructing the kingdom of God by your own efforts. You are following Jesus and shaping our world in the power of the Spirit. And when the final consummation comes, the work that you have done—whether in Bible study or biochemistry, whether in preaching or in pure mathematics, whether in digging ditches or in composing symphonies—will stand, will last.

The fact that we live between, so to speak, the beginning of the End and the end of the End, should enable us to come to terms with our vocation to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, and in the power of the Spirit to forgive and retain sins. The foundation Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians 3 is unique and unrepeatable. If you try to lay a foundation again, you are committing apostasy.

The church has so often read the Gospels as the teaching of timeless truths that it has supposed that Jesus did something for his own day, and that we simply have to do the same—to teach the same truths or to live the same way for our own day. Jesus, on this model, gave a great example; our task is simply to imitate him. By itself that is a radical denial of the Israel-centered plan of God and of the fact that what God did in Jesus the Messiah was unique, climactic, and decisive. People who think like that sometimes end up making the cross simply the great example of self-sacrificial love instead of the moment within history when the loving God defeated the powers of evil and dealt with the sin of the world, with our sin, once and for all. That is, once more, to make the gospel good advice rather than good news.

Before you can say “as Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world,” you have to say “because Jesus to Israel, therefore the church to the world.” What Jesus did was unique, climactic, decisive.

Receive the Spirit.
But once the foundation is laid, it does indeed provide the pattern, the shape, the basis for a building to be constructed. Our task is to implement Jesus’ unique achievement. We are like the musicians called to play and sing the unique and once-only-written musical score. We don’t have to write it again, but we have to play it. Or, in the image Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3, we are now in the position of young architects discovering a wonderful foundation already laid by a master architect and having to work out what sort of a building was intended. Clearly he intended the main entrance to be here; the main rooms to be on this side, with this view; a tower at this end; and so on. When you study the Gospels, looking at the unique and unrepeatable message, challenge, warning, and summons of Jesus to Israel, you are looking at the unique foundation upon which Jesus’ followers must now construct the kingdom-building, the house of God, the dwelling place for God’s Spirit.

In case anyone should think this is all too arbitrary, too chancy, we are promised at every turn that the Spirit of the master architect will dwell in us, nudging and guiding us, correcting mistakes, warning of danger ahead, enabling us to build—if only we will obey—with what will turn out to have been gold, silver, and precious stones. “As the Father sent me, so I send you…receive the Holy Spirit.” These two go together. Just as in Genesis, so now in the new Genesis, the new creation, God breathes into human nostrils his own breath, and we become living stewards, looking after the garden, shaping God’s world as his obedient image-bearers. Paul, indeed, uses the image of the gardener alongside that of the builder in 1 Corinthians 3. We are to implement Jesus’ unique achievement. This perspective should open the Gospels for us in a whole new way. Everything that we read there tells us something about the foundation upon which we are called to build. Everything, therefore, gives us hints about what sort of a building it is to be. As Jesus was to Israel, so the church is to be for the world.

But, you say, the people we minister to, the people we work with in the laboratory or the fine arts department, the people who serve us in the grocery store or who work in the power station, are not first-century Jews. How can we summon them as Jesus summoned his contemporaries? How can we challenge them in the same way? What is the equivalent? What is the key to help us to translate Jesus’ message into our own?

The key is that humans are made in the image of God. That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel’s unique position and vocation. And bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation. It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God. It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship—or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening, and God.

Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made. But like Israel with her vocation, we get it wrong. We worship other gods and start to reflect their likeness instead. We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God’s world as either a gold mine or an ashtray. And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative, many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse.

Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud described a fallen world in which money, power, and sex have become the norm, displacing relationship, stewardship, and worship. Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed, and the journalists who take delight in pointing this out are simply telling over and over again the story of Genesis 3 as applied to today’s leaders, politicians, royalty, and rock stars. Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion.

Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world. Israel was made to bring God’s rescuing love to bear upon the world. Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human. He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it. We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance to it.

N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England, and the author of dozens of books on New Testament scholarship. This article was taken from The Challenge of Easter. Originally found in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is by N. T. Wright. Copyright (c) 1999 by N. T. Wright. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

For the Cause of Unity

For the Cause of Unity

On November 5, 2009, twelve representatives of renewal and reform groups within the United Methodist Church met with the Bishops’ Unity Task Force. The same task force had previously met with a group representing the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA).

The wide-ranging and forthright discussion focused on matters that threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church. In this issue of Good News, we excerpt a portion of the statement dealing with unity and division within the United Methodist Church that was presented to the Bishops’ Unity Task Force by the renewal and reform group leaders. This was excerpted from the beginning and conclusion of their presentation. In the May/June 2010 issue of Good News, we will offer the middle section, highlighting the group’s specific concerns surrounding the way General Conference activities are conducted.

For the Cause of Unity
We are grateful for the opportunity to have this discussion and appreciative of the initiative the Council of Bishops has taken to explore the critical issue of unity. It is crucially important to us to lift up the unity of the church. We love the United Methodist Church, are committed to it, spend time defending it, and have served and supported it throughout our professional lives. We have come both to listen and to speak, and to seek to keep our hearts open to the Holy Spirit throughout this dialogue—for division within the Body of Christ breaks the heart of God and weakens our witness in the world.

We have come to be honorable partners in this process. Whether this conversation goes beyond this day or not, we seek to open ourselves not just to the Spirit but also to you, our Bishops. We want to be as honest with you as we can possibly be about tension points we see within the denomination, about dangers our church may face if they are not addressed, and about ways forward through them. We do this for the sake of working together so that these points of difficulty can be addressed. We also know that you have perspectives you would share with us, and we will be honest and thoughtful in our responses.

We also think it important to say that we do not perceive ourselves as representing fringe elements of the church. As we think of the people we serve, they form the core of the people in the pews, who pay the bills, build new congregations, support missions, love the Lord, and love his church. While they form a working majority at General Conference, the numbers they represent in the local church are even more significant. Therefore, it is doubly important to us that we are here, so that we can reflect to you with a significant degree of accuracy the feelings and thoughts of much of the heart of the membership of the United Methodist Church.

The theology of unity
We come here representing a network of renewal groups, some of which have been in operation since the 1960s. … We are committed to the mainstream generous orthodoxy of the church catholic and of classical Methodism. The focus of renewal movements varies, of course, according to the renewal movement. We have worked diligently for a deeper commitment to—and immersion in— Scripture, to the retrieval of our doctrinal heritage in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, to the development of comprehensive mission that includes evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, social engagement, and to a fresh and continuous Pentecost in our midst. More specifically, we are committed to the transmission of the Christian faith as bequeathed to us through the Wesleys and Methodism. We believe that Methodism has inherited a viable and precious version of the Gospel (in its doctrines and in its practices) that was birthed of the Spirit and that is vital to the church catholic in the future. Of course, some may disagree on what that legacy is, but we cannot but be faithful to the light as we see it.

We have no interest in dividing the church. Our aim is the renewal of the church, not its division. It is daft to seek to fix or renew something in order to divide it. On the contrary, division would be a very messy and unmanageable development. It would consume precious energy and massive resources that we want to use in sustaining healthy churches, in renewing the denomination, and in carrying out mission and evangelism. We have, in fact, been vital in enabling many United Methodists to stay within our church, especially those who have felt alienated for various reasons (some healthy and some unhealthy). We love our church—warts and all—and have absolutely no interest in causing schism.

We believe that our unity is both a gift and a task. It is a work of the Spirit, and it demands constant effort. Unity is fragile today. The evidence from other mainline Protestant traditions (Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian) is obvious and compelling on this front. We support both the teaching and canon law of our Book of Discipline on homosexual practice. Contrary to what is often thought, this is not the primary issue for us. It has been made a primary issue by those desiring to change our teaching and discipline; we cannot ignore it because it simply keeps recurring again and again. Our primary commitments are scriptural, doctrinal, and missional. We place these in a theological vision of the Methodist tradition that is committed to the divine revelation enshrined in Scripture. So the bigger issues are those of faithfulness to our Lord and to the church as a community of Word and Sacrament rightly ordered in faithfulness. These are not matters that can be resolved by political slogans like “the extreme center” or “the middle way” or “inclusivism.” Theological and missional integrity under the authority of divine revelation are vital to us.

Tension points
As we in the renewal and reform groups seek what will make for unity in the church, we find a number of tension points that we believe are disruptive of the unity that we all seek.

1. Some leaders of the church seem to be promoting an agenda of changing the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality. This is being done both overtly and more subtly. Examples include the following:

• Bishops who speak at Reconciling Ministries events, including celebrations at Reconciling Congregations within their annual conferences.

• Bishops who participated in an “extraordinary” ordination of a self-avowed practicing homosexual person who was denied acceptance into ministry in the UM Church.

• A bishop taking the microphone on the floor of General Conference and haranguing the delegates about how our votes on this issue were contrary to the will of God.

• The utilization of “testimonies” by self-avowed practicing homosexuals during worship services and other programs sponsored by boards and agencies and annual conferences, in an attempt to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.

• Placing self-avowed practicing homosexuals or vocal proponents of the acceptance of homosexual practice in positions of high visibility in the church, for example, music leaders at General Conference.

• Articles printed or promoted by general boards and agencies contradicting United Methodist positions, such as a recent article on the General Board of Church and Society website that promoted the acceptance of sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage, with no commitment or covenant expected.

These and many similar activities are corrosive to the unity of the United Methodist Church. They represent a minority of the church attempting to force its agenda on the majority. We believe the leaders of the church, including its bishops, should promote and defend the church’s position on issues, not a minority agenda that alienates people in the pews and fosters division in the church.

2. On the flip side of the coin, there is often a deafening silence when it comes to promoting and defending the United Methodist Church’s position on doctrinal and social issues that are controversial in the church. There have been times when a bishop has spoken out in defense of the church’s position, but then has been pressured by colleagues into subsequent silence. It seems that it is acceptable for bishops and others to speak out against the church’s position, but it is not acceptable for bishops and others to promote the church’s position.

3. It is our perception that the renewal group constituency—theologically orthodox, evangelical, or conservative—is not adequately represented on boards and agencies and other denominational decision-making bodies. Several general boards have fewer than 10 percent of their directors voting in a theologically conservative direction, whereas recent Barna surveys and other studies have identified that over 50 percent of United Methodists consider themselves to be conservative theologically. Numerous surveys over the past 20 years have demonstrated that General Conference delegates, general board members, and agency staff are not (as a group) representative of the opinions of grassroots United Methodists. The Byzantine nominations process used to constitute boards and agencies, including the Connectional Table, are so convoluted that it is nearly impossible for us to gain fair representation on these decision-making bodies. Even within various boards, classically orthodox members are often excluded from strategic committee assignments.

There is great concern about diversity of externals, such as race, gender, age, or those differently abled, but there is very little attention paid to ensuring the presence and participation of those committed to the historic doctrines and mission of the UM Church. This lack of proportional representation leads denominational decision-making bodies to speak and act in conflict with the beliefs and values of many grassroots United Methodists, resulting in a widespread lack of trust by laity in these church bodies. Inasmuch as bishops are heavily involved in the nominations process at the Jurisdictional level and at the various boards and agencies, we believe that bishops could exercise leadership in assuring that orthodox United Methodists are proportionally represented at the various tables where the current and future ministry of our church is being set.

4. To us, there seems to be a misuse of the principle of accountability within the covenant of ordained ministry. On the one hand, there is little or no accountability exercised over bishops, elders, or deacons who contradict the church’s doctrinal standards or moral positions. On the other hand, there have been instances over the past ten years of leaders using the complaint process to silence or expel classically orthodox voices in some annual conferences. While we sympathize with the desire to eliminate the guaranteed appointment, we are afraid that its elimination will provide one more tool for the marginalization of solid, loyal, classically orthodox clergy within annual conferences.

These are some of the items we have identified as leading to a fracturing of our United Methodist body and increasing the tensions that lead to disunity among us. They are reflective of the polarization of our church and society at large. They also reflect a struggle for power within the church that seems to be more about a certain agenda or vision of the church, than about promoting the unity and mission of the church. We are alarmed that some pursuing this power and control agenda disregard the consequences of their approach to the unity and vitality of the church. It seems as if they would rather have their way in the church, even if it leads to widespread membership losses or even outright separation.

Worst case scenarios and how to avoid them
Our intent is not to be caustic, hostile, or divisive; but simply to be honest. We acknowledge that our major problem within our local congregations is not with the practice of homosexuality, but with heterosexuality run amuck.
Nevertheless, we strongly support our current stance on this issue. Simply put, we welcome all people, but we do not affirm all behavior.

If there was a change in the position of our denomination in regards to the practice of homosexuality no longer being incompatible with Christian teaching, it obviously would have a devastating impact on the United Methodist Church. The experience of the Episcopal Church in America is an example and should serve as a warning to us. Very serious and dire consequences would in all likelihood ensue for the United Methodist Church as well. Membership and worship attendance loss, apportionments withheld and unpaid, and litigation would occur in local congregations and within entire annual conferences. It is not only large congregations that would be adversely affected by a change in our stance, but churches (and conferences) of all sizes.

At a meeting in August 2009, the senior pastors of 92 of the 100 largest United Methodist Churches in the United States had a discussion about this matter in relationship to General Conference. These churches have over 150,000 in weekly worship attendance, and pay between $45-50 million in apportionments each year. While those in attendance vary significantly in ministry and theological styles, they left that meeting with a definite consensus that it is imperative that the 2012 General Conference focus on our pathways in worship, prayer, and mission planning, and to defer all legislation concerning human sexuality.

In the strongest possible language we can use, we would ask that the bishops actively work to help avoid changing the current stance on sexuality.

The center of God’s will and a way forward
Again, we want to thank you for the invitation to dialogue and to discuss issues that are dear to all of our hearts.

Hopefully, you have heard how much all of us and those we represent love the United Methodist Church and our Wesleyan heritage. We are committed to preserving the wonderful gift God gave the world through the Wesleyan revival—its doctrines, disciplines, and spirit.

How do we move forward as a church together in mission?

One way that we are convinced will not work for the long term is finding “middle ground.” We disagree with that concept theologically and practically.

1. Theologically, the goal should not be to take a poll of all views within the church and land somewhere in the middle of the most extreme views—mistakenly thinking that such an approach is unity. It is not. It’s little more than a politically expedient way to ignore the deep issues that divide us.

The goal is to be faithful to what God has revealed. Where we in the renewal movements are wrong, we want to be corrected. Where we are right, we cannot deny what God has said simply because others see matters differently.

Though our disagreements as a church often center on sexuality, we know that the real issues that divide us are much deeper and more important — issues such as the authority of the Scriptures, the present work of the Holy Spirit, and the uniqueness of Christ (whether his work on the cross is the sole means of salvation for all the world). Even on matters we consider essential, we know that United Methodists are not of one mind. And our differences on these issues do raise the question of what kind of unity is truly possible for the people called Methodist.

We can disagree amicably and with respect. We can look for points of agreement and celebrate those. And we can believe the best about each other. But our goal is not to find a middle ground. Our goal is for the church, theologically and missionally, to be faithful to what God has revealed and to live in the center of God’s will.

2. Practically, we are uncomfortable with the concept of finding middle ground because we don’t believe that’s what the other side desires. In Pittsburgh the motif that was chosen by the Reconciling Movement was “like water on a rock.” It’s a great metaphor and one that is telling. The goal of the Reconciling Movement is not to agree to disagree—it’s to wear away at least some of the long-standing, traditional Christian beliefs regarding human sexuality. Simply stated, it is to change the views that have been in The Discipline for decades and in the Church for centuries.

Any movement away from the current positions and towards what some might describe as middle ground will simply create a new starting point for further dialogue—again with the stated goal of trying to reach new middle ground. Only this time, we will begin even further from where the Church has always been theologically, and closer to a view that the majority of United Methodists hold to be incompatible with Christian teaching.

Practically, finding middle ground will become nothing more than a series of steps, with the goal of each time taking us further from traditional beliefs and closer to views that the Church has rejected. Like water on a rock, the ultimate goal is to wear away our resistance to a cultural flood that rejects traditional Christian teaching. And the other side will not be satisfied until this end has been reached.

We don’t fault those with whom we disagree for promoting their beliefs. They have every right to do so. But we’re not naive. “Middle ground” is only a step toward changing the Church’s views, and it is best to admit so at present and acknowledge that we can’t take that journey together.

How do we move forward?

One way is to watch our language. It’s hard to believe we can move forward together when we are likened to the KKK by persons representing the other side. It’s hard to believe we can work together when we are called racists, as we were at General Conference, or when bishops refer to us as sinners because we have voted our conscience.

We respectfully ask that if leaders of our renewal groups have ever used derogatory language to refer to persons whose beliefs or practices differ from ours that we be given that information. We will personally ask them to apologize and make whatever amends are necessary.

How can we move forward together?

The best way we know is to agree that The Book of Discipline will be our guide, and for our bishops not only to enforce it but also to promote it. It should not fall upon the renewal groups to defend and promote the position of the church regarding sexuality or any issue. That is the charge given to our episcopal leaders. And yet, when have we ever heard our bishops give a thoughtful, substantive defense and rationale for our views? The loudest voices are those that speak in favor of changing the church’s position. That does not create unity, and it does not assure our church members that the leadership of the church represents them and their beliefs.

Again, we are grateful for the invitation to meet with you. And we pray God’s wisdom and courage for you as you move forward.

Bishops’ Unity Task Force
• Sally Dyck, Chairperson (Minnesota)
• Mike Lowry (Central Texas)
• Minerva Carcaño (Desert Southwest)
• Peter Weaver (New England)
• Daniel Arichea (The Philippines)
• Joao Machado (Mozambique)

Renewal delegation
• William J. Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies and Altshuler Distinquished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He is widely known as a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of Methodism, most recently as co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford University Press 2009).

• Larry R. Baird is in his seventh year as District Superintendent for the Cornerstone District of the Western New York Conference. He has served on the General Board of Discipleship, the Northeastern Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee, and New ACT—the body responsible for enabling leaders in four Annual Conferences to create a new upstate New York Conference.

• Eddie Fox is one of Methodism’s foremost evangelists. He has been the World Director of Evangelism for the World Methodist Council since 1987. A member of the Holston Annual Conference, Dr. Fox has served as a General Conference delegate on several occasions.

• Tom Harrison is in his seventeenth year as the Senior Pastor of the 7,600-member Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dr. Harrison has been a General Conference delegate and alternate. He currently serves as chairperson of the Oklahoma Annual Conference Council on Finance and Administration.

• Liza Kittle is a member of Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia, and is the current President of the Renew Network, the women’s ministry program arm of Good News.

• Tom Lambrecht is an ordained minister in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and former Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Good News. He served as the coordinator of the Renewal and Reform Coalition efforts at the 2008 General Conference.

• Senator Patricia Miller has been the Executive Director of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church since 1997 and has served as a General Conference delegate from South Indiana five times. She became a State Senator in Indiana in 1983 and continues to serve in that capacity.

• Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News and previously served as the Chairperson of The Confessing Movement Board of Directors. He is the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, north of Houston, Texas.

• Chuck Savage is the Senior Pastor at Kingswood United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. He has been in full-time ministry for sixteen years and was elected as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Board of Church and Society.

• Steve Wende is the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Houston, one of our denomination’s leading congregations. He is a member of the Texas Annual Conference and has served as a General Conference delegate five times.

• Alice Wolfe has served as a pastor in the West Ohio Conference for twelve years and is currently serving as Senior Pastor of Anna United Methodist Church in Anna, Ohio. She served as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference and to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2004 and 2008.

• Steve Wood is the Senior Pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, a 9,000-member congregation in the Atlanta area. He has served as a church planter, the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, and as a delegate to both General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

Carrying one another’s hearts

By Liza Kittle

The purpose of Renew has always been two-fold. On one hand, this organization has engaged in a twenty-year spiritual battle for the integrity of the gospel, the historic tenets of Methodism, and the need for Christ-centered women’s ministry within our denomination. But just as importantly, we have been engaged in ministries of love, hope, and healing to the lost and broken.

In his devotional book This Day with the Master, Dennis Kinlaw writes about how Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives a wonderful example of “the attitude Christians ought to have toward those to whom they minister.” This book reveals Paul’s passionate and tender love for others—the love of a father, brother, and friend—even in the midst of great personal suffering. Paul writes, “I thank God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy” (Philippians 1:3-4). Just thinking of the Philippians brings an indescribable joy and sense of gratitude to Paul due to their kinship in Christ. This bond results in a supernatural ability to love each other. Paul also says, “It is right that I should think this way about you, because I carry you in my heart” (Philippians 1:7). The intimacy of his relationship with Jesus manifested in his relationship with those he was called to serve. Kinlaw challenges the reader to ask, “Are you loving like Paul did? Are you carrying the people God has given you in your heart?”

God has given Renew an opportunity in ministry that I believe has produced this joyful and grateful spirit of love and kinship in Christ. Last summer, a young pastor from Uganda emailed me inquiring about resources for a women’s conference he was holding at his church. As we began to correspond with one another, I was struck not only by his great knowledge of the Bible, but also by his tremendous heart for the women and families of those he served. His name is Paul Mabonga and the church he planted is the Magamamba Healing Centre, located in Iganga, Uganda, East Africa.

Like many local pastors in Uganda, Paul completed a one-year course of study through a ministry of the Nazarene Church, a church with early roots in the Methodist holiness movement. Pastors are equipped through a network of regional training centers, which enable them to be trained locally for Christian ministry. Against incredible monetary and physical constraints, the Lord has blessed this young congregation with fruitfulness and joy. They worship in a room rented from a local school, with a few plastic chairs and a dirt floor. They hold women and youth conferences and all-night prayer vigils, praising God with songs of joy and thanksgiving. The members of Paul’s church have heard the Word preached, accepted the gospel offered, and experienced lives transformed.

I believe this young pastor Paul shares many characteristics with the great apostle Paul—passionately devoted to Jesus Christ and to the souls of the Ugandan people. As Paul’s letter to the Philippians explains, he “carries them in his heart.”

Paul Mabonga also carries Renew in his heart. His family and congregation have “adopted” Renew and pray for this ministry. We are their “spiritual moms” and their love for us in emails Paul writes can be felt across the many miles between us. At the end of each email, Paul always closes with a blessing and a thanksgiving. He asks God to bless Renew abundantly and to expand our borders, and Paul thanks Renew for loving him and his church and “carrying them in our hearts.”

Our partnership with this young church in Uganda is just one of the exciting areas of ministry God is developing for the Renew Network. Initial plans are beginning for a national leadership conference to be held in 2011 where women from all across our denomination will be able to come together for praise and worship, biblical teaching, and leadership training. There is much on the horizon as God enables and equips Renew to “expand our borders.” Please join us as a member of the Renew Network and experience the love, joy, and gratitude made possible through a relationship with Jesus Christ and service to his kingdom. Let’s “carry each other’s hearts” in ministry together.

Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Network (www.renewnetwork.org), P.O. Box 16055, Augusta, GA 30919; telephone: 706-364-0166.

Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

Haitian Methodists, UMCOR assess volunteer needs

By Linda Bloom

The Methodist Church in Haiti and United Methodist Committee on Relief are identifying “suitable projects and assignments” for volunteer teams wishing to assist with earthquake recovery in Haiti. Both groups are asking volunteers to delay their arrival in Haiti until those assessments are complete.

Evaluations in the six church circuits most affected by the earthquake are being made to determine the extent of the damage in church communities and beyond, according to the Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church in Haiti.

“Suitable projects and assignments for volunteer teams wishing to contribute to the recovery effort will not be identified until this process is complete,” he wrote in a January 28 letter to the United Methodist Church.

Paul estimates work teams for priority projects probably could schedule trips for late March and April, once the emergency relief and debris-removal phase is completed. Rehabilitation work also needs to be completed at the Methodist Guest House before the building can host volunteer teams again.

Paul expressed deep gratitude for the outpouring of love and support from United Methodists. “You have kept us in your prayers and we are grateful. You have sent donations through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. We thank you for your generosity. You have expressed your selfless interest in volunteering your time to come to Haiti to help with the recovery effort and we look forward to welcoming you.”

Once areas for relief and rehabilitation are prioritized, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission “will be integral in the long-term recovery of the church and communities in Haiti, and opportunities will soon be available to come and help in meaningful ways,” he wrote.

UMCOR executive Melissa Crutchfield expects medical personnel, structural engineers, and architects will be among the skilled volunteers needed at the beginning of the recovery process.

Debris removal must be done before rebuilding can begin and UMCOR and the Methodist Church in Haiti are among the groups organizing cleanup teams of local citizens in cash-for-work programs.

Structural engineers and architects are among the skilled volunteers who can contribute to what most likely will be a national rebuilding plan, Crutchfield points out. “It’s critical that we have some experts to lay a solid foundation,” she says.

In time, however, many types of volunteers can partner with the Methodist Church in Haiti in both spiritual and practical ways through the earthquake-recovery period. “I believe there’s an opportunity for volunteers in the longer term for rebuilding not only the church structures but the church community,” Crutchfield says.

Donations to support UMCOR’s Haiti Relief efforts can be made to Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance #418325. You can donate online, or write checks to UMCOR with “Advance #418325 Haiti Emergency” in the memo line. Checks can be put in church offering plates or mailed to: UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. The entire amount of each gift will be used to help the people of Haiti.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.


Fallen UM mission leaders remembered in Haiti
By Kathy L. Gilbert

Walking up the curving driveway to the Hotel Montana, Melissa Crutchfield stopped several times to pick flowers.

Crutchfield, United Methodist Committee on Relief international disaster response director, was on her way to a memorial service for two United Methodist executives and friends who died in the hotel after being trapped inside during the January 12 earthquake.

The Rev. Sam Dixon, top executive of UMCOR, and the Rev. Clinton Rabb, executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, both died from their injuries. The January 22 memorial service occurred at the same time a funeral service for Dixon was taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabb was remembered January 23 in a service in Austin, Texas.

Dixon and Rabb went to Haiti to discuss projects to improve life in the impoverished island nation. They were in the hotel when the quake hit. Both men were trapped for several days in the rubble before rescuers found them. The initial elation at their discovery turned to grief when neither mission worker survived.

“This time last week, we thought they were alive,” Sharad Aggarwal, another colleague from UMCOR, said as he walked inside the hotel gates to the service.
The Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church of Haiti, and the Rev. Marlo Despestra, also an official with the church, coordinated the service that was attended by Crutchfield, Aggarwal, and the Rev. Edgar Avitia Legarda, an executive with the mission agency. The three are in Haiti preparing the way for UMCOR to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake.

The private service began with the singing of “Amazing Grace.” While Paul prayed, a search and rescue team was still working to recover bodies from the rubble.

“They came to help us,” Despestra said. “It must have been a very painful time, they must have suffered a lot. We don’t understand why or ask God why. The God who created us is with us now.”

The small gathering said The Lord’s Prayer together.

“We commit their souls to God and his Son. We know one day we will have the privilege of being with them in heaven,” Paul said. “The Methodist Church in Haiti is grateful for their service.”

Crutchfield left the small bouquet of pink, white, and red flowers on the rubble.

Kathy L. Gilbert is a news writer for the United Methodist News Service on assignment in Haiti.


Clinton Rabb celebrated for making a difference
By David Briggs and Linda Bloom

A mission leader who died serving one of the world’s poorest nations was remembered as a friend and advocate for the most vulnerable of God’s children.

More than 700 friends, family, and mission workers from throughout the world packed University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, January 23 to celebrate the life of the Rev. Clinton Rabb, 60, who died from injuries received in the rubble of the earthquake that struck Haiti January 12.

Tears, some laughter, and moments of profound silence filled the two-hour service that took participants from the plains of Mongolia to baptisms in Russian prisons to the darkness of post-quake Haiti as witness after witness spoke of the passion for life and faith of the director of the Mission Volunteers program at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

“As we are gathered here this day, the occasion of our worship is the death of Clinton Rabb. The purpose of our worship is to give thanks to almighty God for his life and for life eternal,” said Bishop James Dorff, who leads the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference, where Rabb was a clergy member.

In an emotional presentation of a plaque to the Rev. Suzanne Field Rabb, Clinton Rabb’s wife, Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona said the Methodist Church of Columbia wished to pay homage to the man who loved all people, “especially the smallest of this world.”

“No one,” Cardona said, “has love as big as those who give their life for their friends.”

The Rev. James Gulley, an UMCOR consultant who was trapped with Rabb and Sam Dixon, struggled to control his emotion at times as he spoke of the ordeal.
Although Rabb was pinned down in the rubble with his legs broken, Gulley said, he would spend much of his time trying to lift up Dixon to make him more comfortable by creating a makeshift bed of plaster and laptop bags.

That strength, and his resilience through days of agonizing pain and vicarious suffering, gave hope to his colleagues that Rabb would survive. At one point, as rescue workers struggled to free him, Rabb told a reporter, “Please tell my wife that I deeply love her.”

“I can’t answer the question of Job, of why some people suffer and die and others do not,” a shaken Gulley said at the memorial service. “We all will someday meet again.”

“There is a deep abiding grief, one that would extinguish the stars and dismantle the sun, with the knowledge, ‘My beloved Clint is dead,’” Suzanne Field Rabb said.

“He was my north, my south, my east, and my west,” she said. “I thought my love would last forever.”

Clinton Rabb served as a pastor and chaplain for the denomination’s Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference before joining the mission agency in 1996. He created the “In Mission Together Church to Church Partnership Program,” which links congregations, annual conferences, volunteer efforts, and mission personnel.

David Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service, Nashville, Tennessee. Linda Bloom is a news writer based in New York.


Sam Dixon remembered for life of service
By Linda Bloom

Hundreds of worshippers celebrated the life of the Rev. Sam Dixon, the leader of the United Methodist Committee on Relief who was on a mission of mercy when he died in the rubble of the Haitian earthquake.

Friends and family, United Methodists from agency leaders and bishops to North Carolina colleagues and missionaries in the field, gathered at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 22, 2010, to remember a life given in service to others.

“Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?” the Rev. William Simpson said in a moving eulogy referring to 2 Samuel 3:38.
Simpson, Dixon’s former pastor and a close friend, noted that Dixon died on the birthday of the slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. I believe that fits Sam Dixon,” Simpson said.

The Rev. James Gulley, an UMCOR consultant who was trapped with Dixon and four other colleagues in the rubble of the Hotel Montana after the earthquake, told the story of their ordeal in a voice occasionally broken by emotion.

“There were moments of hope, moments of anger, moments of humor, moments of despair,” Gulley said. Gulley said Dixon’s last words to him were, “Please tell my family I love them,” and he named his family members one by one.

“You could not be in his presence and not have a sense of his passion for his faith and for his work,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

Dixon, 60, had served as the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s top executive since 2007.

A world traveler for the business of mission, Dixon went to Haiti to discuss projects to improve life in the impoverished island nation. When he walked into the lobby of the Hotel Montana on Jan. 12—just moments before the earthquake would bring the building crashing down around him—he was anticipating a working dinner with five colleagues.

Instead, he was trapped for several days in the rubble of the hotel, pinned under a concrete slab. Rescuers eventually found the group and four colleagues were saved. They worked to free him, but it was too late. Dixon’s death was announced on Jan. 16. A fellow Global Ministries staff member, the Rev. Clinton Rabb, was pulled out but died later from his injuries.

Dixon had served for 24 years as a pastor before joining the Board of Global Ministries’ staff in 1998. He became executive director of the United Methodist Development Fund in 2001, then was elected to lead the board’s unit on evangelization and church growth two years later. In that role, he also supervised programs in mission education and relations with mission partners.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. Ted Avery, a freelance writer from Durham, N.C., contributed to this story.


Crossing boundries to share the gospel
By Robin Russell

In 1990, Rudy Rasmus was saved from a life of running a bordello with his father. Two years later, he and his wife launched St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, with just nine members.

The church has more than 9,000 members now—3,000 of whom are homeless—with 400 baptisms last year. Mr. Rasmus credits the church’s evangelistic mindset—a “radical response of love”—for the growth.
“People who need the system most are crying out for change in how the system works,” he told about 615 attendees at the Congress on Evangelism in New Orleans, January 5-8.

One of the keynote speakers at the annual event, sponsored by the Council on Evangelism and the General Board of Discipleship with the support of the Foundation for Evangelism, Mr. Rasmus told the audience that before he became a Christian, he didn’t have much use “for church or church people.” He recalled sitting in a church pew for five years waiting to see if the gospel really was true.

“There was something about this Jesus that began to change my heart,” he said. “I could no longer do or say things I used to do or say!”

He’s never forgotten his experience of finding God’s grace. He calls evangelism “love with skin on it.” And he sports a beaded goatee to make unchurched people feel more comfortable at St. John’s.

“People really need Jesus. People really want Jesus. So what’s the biggest barrier? Church folk. More specifically, preachers—which is why I wear the beard and look like a musician.”

He reminded conference attendees that Jesus came “not to condemn the world but to save it,” and that means acting more out of love than fear. St. John’s works with the marginalized and the poor, he said, yet there are no bars on the church’s windows. In the 18 years he’s been pastor, the church has never had a break-in.

“Whatever we’re afraid of grows large in our minds. It is that much more difficult to see that person as a neighbor,” he said. “It’s time for a revolution. And Jesus was the ultimate revolutionary.”

Racial boundaries
The conference drew United Methodists from across the connection—clergy and laity who are particularly interested in evangelism and outreach. Keynote speakers included Bishop Minerva Carcaño (Desert Southwest); William Paul Young, author of The Shack; the Rev. Jim Walker, co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the Rev. Kendra Creasy Dean, associate professor at Princeton University.

Bishop William Hutchinson (Louisiana) welcomed attendees to New Orleans, where he said United Methodists have had to learn to overcome racial, ethnic, and social status boundaries as they rebuild their devastated city together.
“The lives of the people in this great city have been disrupted and changed forever.…New Orleans as you knew it, no longer exists.…Cities all along the Gulf Coast were laid waste. The houses of worship were not spared.”
Residents who were dispersed from their homes and then scammed by unscrupulous contractors have had to depend on their faith communities for help, Bishop Hutchinson said. Yet some churches were reluctant, at first.

“There was to be no mixing of the established neighborhoods.…We don’t cross over into those other neighborhoods—even in the faith community,” Bishop Hutchinson said. “You want us to do what? Merge ourselves to that church? We don’t even speak to the people of that church, much less merge our worship services with that church.

“It’s so easy to go back to the way things were. If post-Katrina New Orleans has taught us anything, it has taught us that we have to return to life by another way. We cannot do it like we once did.”

Young adults respond
Jeffrey Hooker, 25, pastor of Immanuel United Methodist Church in Waltham, Massachusetts, a first-time attender at the Congress, said there are no youth in his congregation. But he still plans to use some outreach ideas he learned in a workshop: “Do youth group things” with older adults. Go bowling, have a pizza party, and encourage them to bring a friend.

“A light went on in my head,” he said. “We’ve got to change the culture of the church. ‘Evangelism’ is a dirty word in religious circles. It’s really just the calling of people, calling out the lost to be saved, offering a truth you can share.”

Kara Eidson, 27, an associate pastor at First United Methodist in Lawrence, Kan., and a provisional elder who hopes to be ordained in June, said she struggles with the “in-your-face” style of evangelism that includes handing out tracts “to save everybody regardless of whether they already attend a church.”

“I’m very passionate about reaching out to the unchurched,” she said. “I want to see us getting more involved in building relationships. We want to reach those who serve with us.”

Generational boundaries
In morning Bible studies, Bishop Will Willimon (North Alabama) stressed that the church shouldn’t ignore those who are younger than the average membership. After all, he said, Jesus was a young adult, yet he carried the “full revelation of God.”

He urged United Methodists to do more than simply “caring for the people who were previously saved in another generation and calling that ministry.”
“Why have we set up a whole organization to benefit the spiritual needs of one generation?” he asked. “…We’ve lost a sense of the Cross as the radically transforming sign of the embrace of God.”

Bishop Willimon urged United Methodists to practice the “spiritual discipline” of spending at least an hour a week with someone who’s not a Christian. “How sad when we crank down ministry to those who have already heard and who are no longer shocked by the gospel,” he said.

“We’re in the middle of a supernatural movement of a God who is determined to get back what is his. Nothing is going to stop the movement of the Holy Spirit. And one great thing about being a Christian is you get a front-row seat on the machinations of an amazing God.”

Robin Russell is the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter. This article was adapted from her lengthier story in the Reporter. Reprinted with permission of The United Methodist Reporter (www.umportal.org).

Hope in the midst of trouble: An Easter meditation

Bishop Scott Jones addresses pro-life service

By Connor Ewing

In what has unfortunately become a rare occurrence, the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. was used on the morning of January 22 to defend the dignity and sanctity of unborn life. The occasion was the twenty-second annual Lifewatch Sanctity of Life Service of Worship, sponsored by The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality. The event featured a message delivered by Bishop Scott J. Jones, resident Bishop of the Kansas Area.

In contrast with the recent lobbying by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which governs the United Methodist Building, Bishop Jones rejected any government health care plan that funds abortions. “We need to recognize that access to an abortion is not a right,” Jones said. “While we believe that persons have the right to health care, abortion is not normally a health care issue. Rather, it is a sinful behavior.”

Entitled “The Once and Future Church,” Bishop Jones’ sermon addressed abortion and the role of churches in multi-religious society. Highlighting a defining feature of United Methodism, Jones explained, “The pursuit of holiness, both personal and social, is deep in the DNA of Wesleyan Christianity. We are committed to seeking holiness for ourselves, and to helping others move toward that goal.”

Referencing the profound religious and social evolution the United States has undergone, Jones said, “These demographic and cultural changes mean that our Wesleyan drive for social holiness faces significant intellectual and political challenges that did not exist during the abolitionist, temperance, or civil rights movements….In such a situation, given the decline in communal acceptance of moral values, Christian claims to impose our moral values on others are not well received and appear to be negative and punitive.”

In the face of this challenge, Jones proposed that United Methodists “must remain engaged with the larger culture and nurture our corporate commitment to use every resource we can to end evil and promote biblical values.” He then offered three ways to satisfy this call to serve culture: announcing God’s call for holiness with clear reference to what is pleasing to God, creating communities that “foster growth toward holiness through the means of grace,” and working toward consensus with religious and non-religious groups alike.

Turning to abortion, Jones summarized the relevant Social Principles as teaching that “abortion should be legal and rare.” Further exploring this teaching, he explained, “The fundamental teaching of our church on this issue is that human life is sacred, and the sanctity of life extends to the fetus….Therefore, anything that intentionally ends a pregnancy is wrong. Abortion is a sin.”

Jones asserted that current American culture would not allow for returning to a “1950s world where abortion did not happen legally,” whose “negative consequences far outweigh the positive benefits and the net gain for social holiness.” He noted that “living in a society that values individual freedom inevitably leads to more sinful behavior than we would prefer.”

The bishop did reiterate the United Methodist stance against partial-birth abortion. “We need to strengthen our laws against late-term abortions except in well-defined circumstances, because our courts have concluded that viability outside the womb is in fact a value that is sufficiently widely held that it can be sustained in law.” And he emphasized: “We also need to be clear that reducing the number of abortions is a goal.”

How to reduce abortions when disagreement about abortion pervades both church and society? To this question Jones responded, “The first step is to create communities of holiness that use the means of grace to help people through personal crises.” This entails encouraging adoptions, working with others to reduce the number of abortions, strengthening laws that restrict late-term abortion, increasing the availability of family planning services, and supporting crisis pregnancy centers.

Addressing legislation in Congress, Jones argued, “Proposals in the recent health care debate to provide tax funding for abortions are very misguided. What you fund with tax dollars will increase.” He continued, “While taxing abortions is both unfeasible and wrong, we need to find ways of dis-incentivizing abortions. We should be subsidizing positive alternatives to abortion that provide life-giving options that enhance personal and social holiness.”

Reiterating his belief that United Methodists must respond to their culture, Jones cited the ancient Christians’ attention to the vulnerable members of Roman society. Of these it was written, “They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, they take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

Jones ended his message on a hopeful note, saying, “Once we realize that women in crisis pregnancies are among the least of these, and that our commitment to the sanctity of human life means we should do all in our power to welcome new life rather than end it prematurely, helping create communities of love for the unborn will come much more easily. The early Christians did it in a hostile society. We can do the same in our time and place.”

The worship service was sponsored by Lifewatch, also known as the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS). The organization was founded in 1987 and seeks to provide a unified voice defending women and their unborn children by promoting “Biblical and Wesleyan moral responsibility in the United Methodist Church and American society.” The service coincided with the annual March for Life, an event that draws thousands of abortion opponents to Washington D.C. to memorialize the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

Connor Ewing is a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C.