By Frank Decker
“For what are you willing to die?” That was a sobering, yet defining query asked of me by an older pastor during the early days of my ministry. I now find myself asking aspiring missionaries that same question.
Though an unpleasant subject, it is the type of question that can serve as a filter, especially in the charting of one’s future. If I believe I am willing to offer my life in service of the gospel, but am not willing to make that level of sacrifice—simply pursuing a life-enriching adventure in another land—it may help me discern my commitment to missions in light of the risks of ministry in the developing world. And, sadly, the sudden deaths of mission officials from our own denomination in the Haiti earthquake has served as yet another severe reminder that cross-cultural ministry is often hazardous.
Furthermore, as undesirable as it is for a new missionary to consider the subject of danger overseas for one’s own life, the thought is especially unwelcome to parents with children as they contemplate missionary life as a family. Perhaps that’s why I was provoked by the question of a seemingly well-intentioned lady who asked while we were preparing to depart for our first term of service, “Are you going to take this little girl to Africa?”—apparently astounded that we would actually consider bringing our two-year-old (our only child at the time) with us to a developing nation. In retrospect, I am grateful that I did not respond with what I was thinking, “No, of course we won’t bring her to Africa. We are going to put her in a kennel for the next seven or eight years.”
Despite my sarcasm, I was convinced that God was calling our whole family to missionary service and, in my zeal, I tended to dismiss worries expressed by others about my family’s safety by categorically storing those concerns in my mental “lack of faith” file. Accompanying these thoughts was my lack of appreciation for the apprehension of extended family members; an uneasiness that was exacerbated by the fact that our only child at the time was also the only grandchild on both sides of our family.
In the wake of these discouraging detractions to our missionary aspirations, we clung to a devotional thought by Oswald Chambers: “If we obey God, he will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience.”
And yet, to be perfectly candid, I did have nagging, subterranean fears about my family’s safety in a strange land. I knew stories of missionaries who were killed or died from foreign-born illnesses. And it didn’t help that our specific assigned field of service had historically been known as “the missionary’s graveyard.”
I believe the enemy of our souls seeks to employ undue fear as a potentially debilitating weapon, and he knew that my greatest fear was the loss of a child. I subsequently learned that another tactic he uses is condemnation when, a few years later, a sense of guilt became my unwanted companion when our second child, born while we were overseas, tested positive for tuberculosis as a toddler.
Now my wife and I live in the States and our three children are grown. In recent years we’ve seen each of them serve on overseas missions without us and in that process have begun to realize the depth of what our parents felt when we moved to a new country more than 20 years ago.
I had coffee yesterday morning with a colleague who has two adult children serving in different regions of Asia. He told me that one of them, a civilian working in Iraq, felt his bed shake last week when a bomb went off near his home in Baghdad. I asked, “How do you deal with that?” He smiled and said that he and his wife often recall the quote by the renowned missionary David Livingstone, “I am immortal ‘til my work is accomplished.”
Livingstone died in Africa of dysentery and malaria, ill for the final four years of his life. Likewise, there are no guarantees that we, nor the ones we love, are immune from suffering and death on the path of obedience. And yet, the same God who gives us the wisdom to answer the question, “For what are you willing to die?” is able to provide the greater grace needed when we contemplate the costly obedience of those whom we love—whether that grace is provided in the form of divine protection or eternal perspective.
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society.
By Emily Cooper and Jan Surratt
One church launched a prayer altar ministry, another initiated prayer partners, and one other called for the creation of prayer spaces. At still another church, the pastor set aside the lectionary for part of the summer to preach on prayer.
Four United Methodist congregations in South Carolina. Four different paths to reinvigorate the role of prayer in the lives of members.
There are many different paths to reviving prayer ministries in churches, congregation leaders say. The key is to make it a priority and get started.
“If we are the people of God, the most important thing we should be doing is listening to God,” said the Rev. Michael Henderson of Cayce United Methodist Church. “There has never been a revival or a reformation or re-anything that was not firmly bound in prayer.”
Henderson said his church had a prayer chain, but no real emphasis on prayer ministry. This past summer, he abandoned the lectionary and preached on prayer for several weeks.
Members decided to become more focused and do away with the shopping cart approach to prayer. No more robotic rattling off names and needs to God. Instead, they prayed for specific things daily. These were posted on the church sign.
“Pray for the homeless.” “Pray for those who are unemployed.” “Pray for President Obama.” The church also “adopted” Busbee Middle School, and the Sunday before the first school day of the month, cards are passed out with the name of a school staff member. Members pray for the person listed on their card every school day in the month.
Jericho United Methodist Church in Cottageville began a prayer partner ministry nearly a year ago. Now, more than two dozen people turn out for a meal and workshop once a month. In addition, the prayer partners talk with one another several times a week. They may meet in person or talk on the phone to pray. Prayer partners also arrive before Sunday services and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit. They continue to pray through worship.
“We know that prayer changes the world and that God’s hand moves when people and pastor move together,” said Jericho’s pastor, the Rev. Jerry Harrison Jr.
The Rev. Jeff Kersey said prayer is also re-energizing his congregation, Mount Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington. The church has grown from 250 to 2,600 since becoming more deliberative about prayer. To accomplish this, the congregation developed an altar ministry. During worship, people are invited to come forward and be prayed upon.
“People get up from all over the sanctuary to come during the pastoral prayer time,” Kersey said. “They come because they believe something is going to happen.” Today, he calls Mount Horeb “a prayer-driven” church.
Members of First United Methodist Church in Lancaster recently held a conference that discussed creating prayer spaces and rituals. People who are artistic and energetic may enjoy prayers that allow for movement, such as talking, singing or dancing, said church member Betty Kay Hudson. Others may prefer quiet activities, such as walking, writing or memorizing Bible versions.
The key, Hudson said, is to be intentional about not only when you pray, but where you pray. Be comfortable, said the Rev. Nellie Cloninger from Lawrence Chapel United Methodist Church in Clemson, another conference presenter.
“We need to be real when we pray out loud,” Cloninger said. “Tune in to where you experience God on a regular basis and let that feed your praying.”
Emily Cooper is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. Jan Surratt writes for the paper.
Letters to the Editor
Stop the dollars
As a retired elder from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, I read with interest in your Jan/Feb 2010 issue, the article about the meeting with the “Renewal group leaders and the Bishops’ Unity Task Force.”
How can an organization that has lost one-third of its customers (read UM members) during the past 30 years continue to do business as usual with the same type and style of leadership? The board of directors or the shareholders would have fired the leaders long ago. Likewise no military commander could take those type of loses and retain his/her command. This does not appear to apply to our bishops or agencies.
I do not believe we will see any real reform in the UMC until the amount of dollars stops pouring into the national church, thus forcing our bishops and boards, which drink from this trough of UM riches, to actually become responsive to the will of the membership. As long as money is sent up the chain, we can yell as loudly as we want but nobody will listen until the dollars stop.
Let’s stop the flow of money up the pipeline, implement term limits for bishops, and make our UM boards and agencies accountable while there is still time to save the UM Church and our Wesleyan heritage.
Indeed, as a whole, I consider Good News a valuable asset for any pastor. But I am sensitive to what I hope is only an innocent oversight by the contributing writers to the magazine and to those “others” who respond with letters to the editor; that is, in our panic to discover how to revitalize our denomination, we seem to only have a hope if we rekindle the practice and theology of Wesley.
Now, I think my concern will be like “one crying in the wilderness,” but why are we overlooking the contribution and uniqueness of the “other” founders of our “United” denomination: Philip William Otterbein, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright? I assume we still use the word “United” in our conversations, although it seems we have shortened our language and thinking to just “Methodist.” Let’s take a closer look at the enthusiasm and uniqueness, which the Evangelical United Brethren Church brought to the table in 1968 and add it to our research for fixing what is wrong with the whole house. Our blinding concern with proper “program” and “method” seems to lead us away from what should be the core of our doctrine; that is, an absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. How about we get excited over Jesus as soon as possible, and our historical search for a “fix” will reward us with new life and relevance to a wandering society.
David A. Keller
Central Pennsylvania Conference
Get a grip
The recent dialogue between the renewal group and the Bishops’ Unity Task Force was enlightening, but I’m deeply disappointed with the powder puff response of Bishop Sally Dyck. Good News should follow up the reaction of the Council of Bishops. My concern is about our shrinking membership and its corresponding impact on local and national finances. What has the Council of Bishops done to alleviate, perhaps solve, this downward spiral that has been unabated for a number of years?
May I suggest that our 47 active bishops and 90 retired (those able) should go out in the hustings and rally the troops in old-fashioned evangelistic meetings. Weren’t they chosen for their gift as great preachers? In our some 40 years of living in the USA, I’ve seen only one bishop preach in a church where I’ve been a member. Their presence may not significantly boost dwindling church rolls and budget deficits, but they will certainly lift morale and strengthen faith. Quit talking about geopolitical matters. Get real, bishops!
The episcopacy and its 13 bureaucratic general agencies, including conference staff, are supported by apportionments. This top-heavy hierarchy is untenable and unrealistic. Apportionments are causing havoc on the budgets of many local churches. Apportionments are hardly met in Iowa churches. Ministers are forced to appeal to members to increase their giving. This, in the face of current economic doldrums? How about a freeze on apportionments and bishop entitlements? Come on!
There is an urgent need to overhaul these institutional structures to conform with the prevailing realities in the marketplace. We need more transparency on episcopal issues and accountability of our financial dilemma. Good News’ suggestion to hold a special session of the General Conference to address reorganizational matters is a timely wake up call. Bishops, this is reality. Get a grip!
Artemio R. Guillermo
I read your article today and wanted to thank you for your thoughtful statement in response to GCFA’s request to have a special session of General Conference. Your statement clearly lines out what Good News has believed is the deeper problem of our decline and calls not only GCFA but the Bishops and the whole church to accountability.
Western Pennsylvania Conference
In regard to Good News’ statement on Afghanistan, would not a better statement be: “In this time of contested orthodoxy, declining membership, and troubled finances, we call upon the Council of Bishops to rightly govern the church, the task to which it is called, and not attempt governing the nation, a task to which it is neither called nor qualified.”
By James V. Heidinger II
This spring at our annual conference sessions, pastors and lay delegates will open with a Memorial Service honoring members and spouses who have died during the past year. At this always-touching service, we will lift our voices, singing triumphantly, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…” (Hymnal, No. 711).
Two of those to be remembered this spring will be pastors who have been especially important to Good News’ ministry, to the evangelical witness of the United Methodist Church, and to countless numbers of young clergy they inspired toward ministry.
Just how does one get a handle on the scope of the ministries of the Rev. W. A. Amerson, who died last September at 92 years of age, and the Rev. Mr. Edgar Nelson, who died in January 2010, at the age of 95? I knew both of these pastors and was touched by their friendship and their ministries. They both incarnated what Eugene Peterson wrote about in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. They were, indeed, “faithful unto death.”
What strikes me about these two statesmen are the similarities of their ministries. Both W.A. and Edgar were graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary and members of the Good News board of directors in its early, formative years. Both had lengthy pastorates at large, flagship evangelical UM Churches—W.A. seventeen years at the Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, Ohio (East Ohio Conference) and Edgar twenty-five years at the Yuba City United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California (Cal-Nevada Conference). They both had a lifelong passion for missions and thus, both of the above churches developed strong missions programs which continue to this day. In good Wesleyan fashion, the world became part of their parish.
One other similarity fascinates me. Both pastors were passionately committed to calling on their members in their homes. It was nothing for W.A. to have 70-80 calls in a week’s time—not a long visit, obviously, but enough to learn whether there were any needs the family had; if so, he could stay to address those and offer encouragement. For Edgar, I learned recently from the Rev. Al Vom Steeg (for whom Edgar was a long-time mentor in the conference) that “he made it his goal to be in each member’s home at least twice in a year. And sometimes he would be at the home of church visitors nearly before they got home from church.”
My ministry began as W. A. Amerson’s associate pastor in 1967 at the Dueber Church in Canton. I learned so much about ministry (administration, calling, funerals, weddings, etc.) by simply being there and watching him in action. He allowed me to preach and share in the administrative load. I consider those four years (1967-1971) a time of invaluable learning.
What impressed me about W.A. was how this pastor, coming from such humble beginnings, made himself and his talents totally available to God. He knew the difficulties of the Great Depression and how to live with little. W. A. put himself through college at Texas Tech and then earned graduate degrees from Asbury Seminary and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary while working every kind of job imaginable to acquire tuition money.
The people W.A. served loved him because they knew he loved them. He visited them, cared for them, prayed for and with them, and he remembered their names. His great memory was one of his special gifts and he amazed people at his ability to remember their names. Because of the love they felt from him, countless hundreds were moved to accept the Savior he served and about whom he preached. And no one knows just how many young men and women W.A. and his wife Virginia (who died in 2004) encouraged and directed into Christian ministry. He was a father in the ministry to scores of persons, including the young and not so young.
I’m not sure it fully struck me until his death just how much this dear pastor had meant to me—how he had touched my life personally. In addition to all I learned from him about pastoral ministry, W.A. served on the Good News board and nominated me to be on that board in 1974. That introduced me to a wonderful family of renewal-oriented United Methodists. Then, as a member of the Asbury College board of trustees, he nominated me to be on that board in 1979, where I was privileged to serve for 28 years.
As best as I can determine, taken together, W.A. and Edgar’s lives account for more than 130 years of ministry and service within our denomination. W.A. lived 92 years. Edgar lived to be 95.
Edgar Nelson was a giant, both spiritually and physically. At six-foot-eight, when he entered a room, he commanded your attention immediately. And his heart was as big and loving as his physical frame. There was about him a charming warmth and contagious smile that made you love him from the start.
Edgar served the First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California, from 1960 until his retirement in 1985. During those 25 years, the church flourished and with his passion for missions, the church developed a strong, dynamic missions program that continues yet today.
While serving as a pastor, Edgar was also one of the founders, along with the equally legendary Dr. J. C. McPheeters, of Redwood Christian Park near Santa Cruz. (Some may recall that in the 1950s, McPheeters served as senior minister of Glide Memorial Methodist Church while also serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, commuting cross country on a regular basis.) Edgar remained active in leadership at Redwood Christian Park as long as he was physically able.
I have been to Redwood Christian Park a number of times. Nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful setting of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it is a magnificent venue for Christian camping and conferences. With lovely, modern facilities, it has been for 60 years a wonderful evangelical center for summer camps, weekend retreats, ministerial gatherings, family camps, and other professional group meetings. And in many respects, it is an abiding testament to Edgar Nelson’s (and McPheeters’) passion for both evangelism and missions.
Edgar remained concerned about denominational renewal right up until the end of his life. It was not unusual for this dear friend to call me just to chat and catch up with what hopeful signs might be seen across his church. He was faithful and regular in his support of Good News.
Edgar Nelson’s lovely wife and lifetime partner in ministry, Marian Barber Nelson, still lives at the home they enjoyed for 51 years. The two would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming August.
By every measure, the lives and ministries of W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson are worth celebrating, perhaps on our knees before God. And as you sing that great memorial hymn the next time, maybe this spring at annual conference, note carefully verse 3: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,/ and win with them the victor’s crown of gold./ Alleluia, Alleluia.”
W.A. and Edgar fought nobly and boldly—and they did so for several decades before any organized renewal efforts emerged in the church to give encouragement. They were faithful unto death. They have surely won the “victor’s crown of gold.”
Lord, for the lives and faithful witness of these two saints, we thank you. May those of us who follow after be found faithful. And Lord, as we are moved by their memory, help us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NRSV). Amen.
James V. Heidinger II is the president and publisher emeritus of Good News.
By B.J. Funk
As a girl, my mother thought nothing about bringing people off the street to her kitchen for a hot meal. I remember the rancid odor from their bodies, the dirty clothes, and the toothless smiles of gratitude. There was no reason to be afraid. My sister and I ran around barefooted on the dirt, catching lightning bugs way into the night, without ever a care. Andy Griffith and Barney Fife were characters we could understand. Mayberry could have been my hometown, and everybody had a church group with an Aunt Bea. Safety was not a concern.
If there was poverty “on the other side of the tracks,” then Mama saw it as if it were right at her doorstep. She lived in a comfortable home, but she made no distinction between people in nice, clean homes and people in run-down, insect-infected houses.
I never knew how my mother met the sad lady with her four even sadder children, but I learned quickly that Mother took her for keeps. Her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I had never seen so many beds crammed into one room. The apartment had a strong smell of Clorox. Maybe she was trying to cover the dirt, the hurts, or the unbearable pain. Maybe she could pretend it wasn’t actually so bad, at least during our visits. As a child, many times I sat in the backseat of Mother’s car as she drove this woman around for errands, stopping to buy her ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She was always crying.
“Mama, why does she hurt so much?” “Shhh. You don’t need to ask those kind of questions.” Mama didn’t dwell on the questions, just on answers.
Mother lived to be 94. It’s better that she’s in heaven now. She would not know how to deal with today’s doorstep poverty. Her tender nature would become victim to another’s addiction. How do I take her lessons and incorporate wisdom and discernment into my decisions? Where do I draw the line? What would my mother have me do in this world of crime and drugs? Do I simply ignore the poverty at my doorstep because of fear? Do I wrap my grandchildren in a cocoon of safety, never teaching them about compassion? Gone forever are the days of Mayberry.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus warned us that there are wolves out in this world. He said we were to be as wise as a serpent. Therefore, we are not to be gullible pawns, but rather sensible and prudent. There must be a balance between wisdom and compassion. How do we find it?
Last week, a loud knock came to our church’s front door. A victim of the clutches of crack cocaine, this young man wanted food from our kitchen. He would likely barter it on the street, for the drug need was more important to him than his stomach need. We gave him something to eat anyway.
The next day, his mother came to see me. “I want to apologize for my son. I’m so sorry he came begging. He was hungry. He has been on crack for two years. He steals from me. He takes all of my food and sells it.” Her scant clothing attested to the fact that she was in need. My heart broke. The problem was so large. What could be done to help this family?
Jesus claimed to be the Anointed One who had come to preach to the poor, free the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, and cancel debts. At the synagogue, he stood and boldly declared that Isaiah’s words were at this very moment being fulfilled.
So, what do we do with this national problem that has robbed our young men and women and thrust itself at our church’s door? What would Jesus do with this broken world of 2010? How would Jesus deal with poverty at the church’s doorstep? I imagine he would do the very same thing he did with the broken world he found at the temple doorsteps. He loved them and did something about their pain.
When Jesus spoke of welcoming the blessed into their inheritance, he spoke in terms of their entrance being determined by their hearts. He spoke in first person. “I was hungry; you fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me a drink. I needed clothes; you gave them to me.”
Excuse me, Jesus, but we have never seen you in any of those difficult places.
“Oh yes you have. That was me. I was the hungry beggar. I was the outcast cocaine addict. I was the crying mother whose son stole her food. I was poverty at your doorstep.”
“Mama, why do they all hurt so much?”
“Shhh. You don’t need to dwell on the questions. Just on the answers.”
The church has to figure it out. We have got to figure this one out. God help us.
B.J. Funk (email@example.com) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.