A grace-filled church

A grace-filled church

By John Miles II

Senior Pastor of First UMC Jonesboro

In the fall of 1974, I was a freshman at Hendrix College in Conway. Every Sunday morning, I would put on my three-piece polyester suit and walk to Conway First United Methodist Church. At the time I was not sure I believed in God, but somehow I could not get away from the church. The church had always been a place of grace where I felt welcomed and loved.

In the summer of 1975, I knelt by my bed in the parsonage at Arkadelphia and felt the presence of God. I have heard somewhere that there are three conversions in the life of a Christian. We are converted to Christ, converted to his church, and converted to his cause. I guess I found my way to the church before I found Christ, but the United Methodist Church has always been a place where I experienced grace. After my conversion, I soon felt the call of Christ to his cause. For me, that was the cause of full-time ministry as a pastor in the UMC.

I am now in my 36th year of ministry, and I have to say I have had a wonderful time as a United Methodist Pastor. The grace I experienced as a boy in the church has continued to this day.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to serve my church as a delegate to General Conference. That year, I was assigned to the committee that addressed the issue of human sexuality. It was a remarkable experience to sit in that room with 30 other people from around the world. That experience confirmed three things for me around this controversial issue.

First, even though those 30 delegates were worlds apart in their understanding, we offered grace to one another. It was the same grace that I have encountered throughout my life in the Methodist Church. At the close of the meeting, a young man approached me who was on the liberal side of things. He acknowledged our differences, but also said, “I bet I would enjoy going to your church.” I smiled at him and said, “I would love to have you as a member.”

Second, there really are three distinct groups in our denomination: liberal, moderate and conservative. Liberals view the issue of human sexuality from the lens of love based on Matthew 22. Moderates see this issue from the lens of unity based on John 17. Conservatives view this issue from the lens of biblical continuity based on Matthew 19.

The final observation was the one which most surprised me. In that 2012 meeting, and in subsequent discussions, I have concluded that we really don’t understand each other very well. Due to our misunderstandings, we sometimes assume the worst of others in our community. We accuse liberals of being amoral and unbiblical. We accuse moderates of being institutionalists who only want to maintain the bureaucracy of the church. We accuse conservatives of being schismatic and homophobic. While this may be true of a small percentage of each of these groups, this is certainly not true of the vast majority of people on all sides of this debate.

Given our differences, I don’t see us being able to resolve our dilemma around human sexuality at our 2019 General Conference. At the end of GC 2019, some will be joyful, and some will be heartbroken no matter which plan or no plan we choose. Here are my hopes for GC 2019.

I hope we can offer each other the grace that I have found so abundantly in the United Methodist Church. Even in our differences, I hope we can see the love of God in each other. I hope we can avoid belittling and demonizing people with whom we disagree and don’t understand.

Finally, I hope we can respect the pain and sorrow that is going to come from whatever we decide in 2019.

No matter what happens, I thank God for the love and grace I have found in the United Methodist Church!

This is part of a continuing series from members of the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.

Starting not so fresh

By Bud Reeves

Senior Pastor of First UMC Fort Smith

New Year’s resolutions have gone out of style.

Nobody keeps them anyway. The average New Year’s resolution lasts until the second week of February; only 10% last six months. We have a hard time starting over.

Still, there is something about the New Year that calls us to take stock, assess, evaluate, and resolve to do better about some aspects of our lives. We would like to think the New Year gives us a clean slate to leave the past behind and stride confidently into the future. It doesn’t; the baggage and consequences of the past do not magically fall away and disappear.

As I write, our government is close to a week in partial shutdown mode. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are temporarily out of work. The intransigent leadership, continuing division, animosity, and gridlock of our political system will not disappear when the ball descends on Times Square.

Our United Methodist Church will not magically get unified in the New Year. No matter what happens at the special General Conference in February, we will need to keep praying, keep reading and thinking, and most of all keep talking as we try to be faithful to God’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Those pesky personal problems won’t go away just because the number on the calendar is different. Family conflicts and dysfunctional relationships take time and toil and tears to resolve. We can’t just put them away like we do the Christmas decorations. And our weaknesses and sins are harder to eradicate than a New Year’s resolution can conquer. Why do we keep doing the things we know are wrong and destructive? Even St. Paul couldn’t figure that one out. (See Romans 7)

So what’s the point? Is renewal a pipe dream, progress an impossibility? Can the New Year actually be a time of starting over in a meaningful way? I think it can.

In the New Year, we can accept forgiveness for the past. So many things went wrong last year; so many times we fell short. But grace means forgiveness. We know God forgives us. That was the whole point of the cross. Forgiving ourselves can be harder to do, but we have to find a way if we hope to move forward. And if someone we have hurt offers us forgiveness, take it like a kid grabbing candy. There’s nothing sweeter.

In the New Year, we can generate new resolve. The human process involves many new starts; why not let one of them be right now? You’ll probably need another new start by April and July and October. But don’t let that stop you from starting over today. One thing is for sure: you won’t do any better unless you decide to. We Wesleyans believe free will is a gift of God, and progress, while not inevitable, is not impossible either.

In the pursuit of personal progress, we have the encouragement of God. Our Creator wants us to leave the past behind, walk the narrow path that leads to righteousness, and become the person we were created to be. Paul, who struggled so mightily with his sin, gave witness to this encouragement in Philippians (“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”) and Ephesians (“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”) Scripture is replete with encouraging words from God.

In the New Year, we can also find encouragement in the community. There are many reasons people pack the churches for Christmas Eve services—the music, the story, the threats of family matriarchs. But I’m convinced that one of the reasons we gather is that at some significant level, we acknowledge that we are part of a community of faith, and it does our soul good to be in a church full of people who share our spiritual foundation. Yeah, we may neglect our faith 50 weeks of the year, but a couple of times a year, we can’t escape our Christian DNA.

Christmas Eve and Easter only happen twice a year. What if in this New Year we re-engaged with the community of faith and rediscovered the encouragement of like-minded pilgrims on the journey? Every week isn’t a high holy day. The sermon may be a snoozer, or half the Sunday School class may be absent. But little by little we grow in Christ. Inch by inch, we make progress toward the goal. We will find it helps to feel accountable to someone else traveling beside us.

Renewal is an ongoing process. We could start just as well on March 2 or June 23 or September 16. But we probably won’t. There is something about the New Year that calls us to a new day. Let me encourage you: Engage the process. Take some baby steps. Trust in God. Find community. Soon you will look back and discover how far you have come. The goal of perfection in Christ will be nearer than ever before. Happy New Year!

What can the new year bring?

What can the new year bring?

By Dede Roberts

Senior Pastor of Asbury UMC

As I write this, I am finishing a day of reflecting on 2018 and planning for 2019. I have had enough experience to know that some of my plans will come to naught, but some will flourish and bear fruit. So I set goals and plan, holding loosely to my dreams and making room for what God dreams for me.

In the last several months I have been surprised and disappointed, and encouraged and hopeless about the future of the United Methodist Church. I met Jesus in the United Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church nurtured that relationship and taught me how to follow him. The church taught me to read the Bible and how to pray. The church encouraged me to listen with the ear of my heart and see through eyes of faith. The United Methodist Church confirmed this teenaged woman’s call to ordained ministry and provided for my education as an undergraduate through seminary and beyond. Then, for over three decades, the United Methodist Church provided a place for me to serve, offered support for my family, and gave me a community of believers with whom to share life and love.

It never dawned on me that all that could end — not even six years ago when Bishop Scott Jones announced that the United Methodist Church no longer existed and he and some “others” were working on a plan to dissolve the church. You see, everything that is good in me, and everything that I value, is somehow connected to the United Methodist Church in all our complexity and imperfection. We mediate the grace of God to each other and the world. We have the opportunity through our call to serve the least, last and lost in Jesus’ name. And we are invited to live a higher, holier life; a life set apart for sacrifice and service guided by the very mind of Christ.

Therefore, as I face into this new year and the called session of General Conference, I do so with hope and awe. God has been and is with the United Methodist Church. God is doing a new thing, in spite of our sin and faithlessness. God is doing a new thing in our midst, and it might just emerge as we are busy doing our own things.

I have no doubt that many of my brothers and sisters who read this will be disappointed by my refusal to choose a side or endorse a plan. Frankly, none of the plans, as they are, capture my imagination of the future God is bringing to the church. As one scholar recently commented, the Traditional Plan represents a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. And in much the same way, the One Church Plan is a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century dilemma. I am prayerfully preparing for God to bring us a 21st Century witness in the midst of this divisive 21st Century conference because I believe in a higher unity that comes through our baptism into Christ and reveals the One Lord God and Father of us all.

I hope that God will deliver the General Conference from Robert’s Rules of Order, and we will truly conference together as disciples of Jesus Christ. My deepest desire is that the Holy Spirit will show up, and we delegates will be led home by another way—a way that is not currently available in any piece of legislation but one that will emerge as we worship together. My fondest vision is that Jesus will come, and we will finally know what Jesus would do and have the courage to do it ourselves.

These are my prayers even as I plan to be a member of and minister in the United Methodist Church before and after the called session. For as Isaiah foretold it, “Forget what happened long ago! Don’t think about the past. I am creating something new. There it is! Do you see it? I have put roads in deserts, streams in thirsty lands.” (Isaiah 43: 18-19 CEV)

And so it goes, with my planning: make it yours, oh God. Amen.

This is part of a continuing series from members of the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.

Looking to the past, preparing for the future

By Karon Mann

General Conference 2019 Delegate

In his book The Singing Thing, author John Bell says, “We are creatures of our past, we cannot be separated from it.” He was referring specifically to the music of our past, particularly hymns and religious songs that evoke strong feelings or memories, but smells can elicit memories, too, as can objects.

One of my favorite pastimes is browsing through antique malls, looking for items that remind me of my parents or grandparents. It’s fun to find aprons like my grandmother’s, vintage Tupperware measuring cups like my mother’s, or crystal Candlewick pieces to add to my mother-in-law’s collection. I enjoy using these pieces, thinking about what life would have been like for my relatives when those pieces were brand new. Objects in my house are a mixture of old and new, past and present.

Uncovering pieces of United Methodist history is something I also enjoy. Over the years I have acquired a few pieces from family: an 1876 Methodist Episcopal Church, South hymnal, children’s Sunday School pamphlets from 1902, and a 1940’s Sheridan Headlight article describing my grandfather’s family as “the singing Methodists” from Grant County, Arkansas. I was thrilled to find these treasures.

I continue to collect pieces of Methodist history I find – older hymnals, Books of Discipline from the 1900s, and a booklet explaining why we baptize babies, but my favorite find was recent. I was looking around in an online vintage bookstore site and saw a copy of the 1972 Daily Christian Advocate (DCA), a complete compilation of the proceedings from General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

The 1972 General Conference was the first full General Conference of the newly formed United Methodist Church. One of the items to be received at this General Conference was the report from the Social Principals Study Commission containing the newly proposed statement of social principals. Purportedly there was tension and anxiety over the coming report, especially the section on human sexuality, and much debate was anticipated.

I purchased the DCA and awaited its arrival, hoping to receive the bound copies of the proceedings and read the discussion surrounding the Social Principals Study Commission report, especially the debate over the insertion of the sentence, “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching.” I hoped that reading the actual words would give me insight into the thinking and rationale that led to the revising of the proposed Statement of Social Principals. I wanted to understand how we got from there to here, where almost 50 years later we are still debating the words and face a 2019 called session of General Conference over the issue of human sexuality.

The document that arrived was so much more than printed words. It was filled with handwritten notes in margins and underlined passages. Typed worship bulletins, budget notes and handwritten speeches that the owner hoped to give on the floor of General Conference were inserted. In reading it, I felt a little of the experience of the owner (whose name is not recorded anywhere in the book).

When I flipped through the printed legislation and daily reports, they showed the hopes and dreams of our newly formed denomination: a focus on evangelism, much written about the participation of women in the church, and the encouragement of lay participation. In addition to the statement of social principals, new doctrine and doctrinal standards were adopted, as was a revised structure for the church, adding a Board of Discipleship and the Board of Ministries and Higher Education.

In his closing address to the 1972 General Conference, Bishop Eugene Slater said, “May I suggest that the time is at hand when each of us and each group among us must begin to recognize its relationship that it sustains as persons and groups to The United Methodist Church as a whole. It is within this segment of the household of faith that we have our life as Christians. If we are to be built up and renewed in our faith, it will be within the fellowship of the church, the body of Christ.”

As we approach the 2019 called session of General Conference, I pray for the future of our church. Despite our differences I am committed to remaining a part of and supporting our “segment of the household of faith” called The United Methodist Church, and believe that it is possible for faithful Christians to disagree on scriptural interpretation and remain committed to our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This is part of a continuing series from the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.

A prayer for General Conference

By Asa Whitaker

General Conference 2019 Delegate

A few days after publishing this column, I will — with God’s help — deliver a sermon in my local church that I have entitled “Living in the presence of God.” As some of you will probably imagine, I have spent a great deal of time, study, and prayer preparing this sermon.

I am struck by the irony of approaching Advent where we as United Methodists will spend those four weeks preparing our hearts so that we might have a full realization of the real meaning of Christmas. While at the same time, my fellow delegates and I are preparing for General Conference with a great deal of time, study, and prayer that we might have a full realization of what it means to be the church.

Since the completion of General Conference 2016, we have been waiting with great anticipation on the proposal from the Commission on A Way Forward. Having received that proposal, we were advised that we must wait a while longer because the Council of Bishops had requested the Judicial Council to determine if the plans submitted in the proposal were constitutional. Their decision was rendered; however, delegates remained in waiting for the Advance Daily Christian Advocate to arrive in the mail so that we might have a complete picture of the legislation coming before us in February.

We now have a starting point defined. However, there will be many motions, amendments, and additions to come once the proceedings are underway. In the meantime, the posturing of various points of view has not only begun but are in full swing. Disagreement at General Conference is always a part of the proceedings, but the tone is building quickly with accusations, innuendos, and finger-pointing.

The Conference planners have called for and have invited delegates to come together for a day of prayer before proceedings begin. I welcome this. Through all of this I know God is still on his throne, he loves his church and us, and his presence will be in our midst. It is my prayer that we humble ourselves before God admitting our need for his guidance and direction freely through the Holy Spirit, that we open ourselves to the advice of the Holy Spirit, and finally conduct ourselves in such a manner that we will advance the Kingdom of God in the world. If we do this, I believe we will be living in the presence of God. His church through the expression of the United Methodist Church will continue to be a beacon of hope in the world.

I ask for your continued prayers as we do our work and invite you to share your thoughts and concerns with the members of the delegation as we move forward.

This is part of a continuing series from the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.