Offering Christ reaches hearts of others

6/5/2007

Editor’s note: This is a copyrighted excerpt from Bishop Scott J. Jones' forthcoming book to be published by Abingdon Press in December Used with permission.

 

By Bill McAlilly

Guest Columnist

 

Bobby rode his bicycle to Beauvoir United Methodist Church. Bobby knew to come on Tuesday because the food pantry would be open. He was graciously received and given enough food to last him several days. Climbing back on his bike, he tried to balance the sack of groceries on the handlebars as he rode off. 

 

Bobby is one of the many homeless people who wander into United Methodist churches daily in search of a meal. By providing physical nourishment for the hungry, Beauvoir is living the abundant life.

 

Tom is a 24-year-old college graduate working in one of our denominational institutions asking hard questions about the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church. He sees a church with great potential but also one that has lost its focus. In a sense, Tom sees what the rest of us have been unable to see, unable to name. What he names is a church that has forgotten its first love. “In our forgetting,” says Tom, “we are pushed not towards unity but into isolation and struggle.”

 

Tom is seeking the abundant life. Will he find it in The United Methodist Church?

 

Janice is the mother of three. She is longing to find meaning in her life. She comes to her pastor with more questions than she has answers. She aches with an emptiness that keeps her from living with any real sense of peace. In conversations with her pastor, she begins to discover the presence of God right at the root of her emptiness. Janice begins to bridle the impulse of mechanical and exhausting human “doing” and begins living as an enthusiastic human “being.” Jesus Christ moves beyond being an intellectual idea to being a living reality. Janice discovers the abundant life.

 

Notice each vignette begins, not with an agenda, but with a person. In order to achieve unity, United Methodist clergy and lay leadership must move to a renewed recognition:  Unity will come only as people like us offer Christ to people like these in a broken world.

Prayerfully aspiring for unity, our denominational conversation must be careful to attend real persons wrestling with real life issues. The message the world receives every four years when The United Methodist Church is said to speak seems to be reactive to the hot button topics of the day rather than faithfully witnessing to the life-changing presence of Jesus Christ in the world.

 

Bishop Scott Jones faithfully names the dilemma and leads in a new direction. He offers a way forward with his work, Staying at the Table: The Gift of Unity for United Methodists (forthcoming in December). As I asserted at General Conference in 2004 during the unity debate, we must hold the tension of the opposites long enough until God reveals a solution. Jones correctly argues that holding the boundaries of our church, as well as the tension, will bring us closer to God’s vision for the kingdom of God than will schism. In the context of Biblical theology: When the waters are stirred, the healing comes. The waters in all mainline denominations are stirred presenting United Methodists, beyond fear of crisis, opportunities to be healing agents in our time.

 

The greatest problems we face in The United Methodist Church are not human sexuality or doctrine. Our Wesleyan doctrine is sound and needs no correction. The underlying difficulty in our denominational membership’s search to find unity is the dangerously divisive quest for power.

 

In the recent past, many have strayed from the genius of Methodist “conferencing” to petition, lobby and desire to control. Conversations about emerging priorities are being aborted. The sanctuary of mutual respect for unique gifts and diverse perspective is being tragically compromised. Rather than believe in a thriving future, our community focus has narrowed to a fear of further losses or even survival of our denomination.

The image of the extreme center, which Jones offers, will allow the church to deal more effectively with the strains and struggles of power.

 

Instead of preoccupation with sinful power to create winners and losers, the church is called to focus on the consolidating power of God. Of course, current issues are vitally important.

 

Faithful people must continually wrestle to formulate spiritually discerned and painstakingly thoughtful, responsible stances on serious emerging issues.

 

The UMC must weigh every response, however, with a God-perspective which we apprehend through the discipleship of Jesus and the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We must never avoid dealing with social questions, but we also must never surrender the unique, transcendent perspective which is the hope of Christian people.

 

Years of debate among General Conference delegates and the resultant ecclesiastical legislation have failed thus far to strengthen the church in significant ways. Worse, media attention seems to accentuate what casual witnesses would view as internal bickering. All of this is a distraction from God’s call in our lives individually and corporately. What are we proclaiming to the world about United Methodism, even Christianity, in these controversial moments? 

 

Mission doesn’t make headlines. Love won’t be mentioned. Grace and peace and forgiveness will be silent. The world needs a savior – and we have him – and we are hiding him from those who need him.

 

The heartbreak many of us feel is a fear that unity is not possible. After the dust settled on May 7, 2004, it was finally recognized that there is a large, silent voice within The United Methodist Church that is not aligned with any one group. Voices urged us to become organized, to get a platform, to posit another position to counter those already in place.

 

In truth, there is the temptation to politicize the desire to hold the church together. However, at the end of the day, what is needed is not more political maneuvering. We do not need more people lining up on one side or the other. What is needed is for The United Methodist Church to be reminded of our focus and our mission. Jones calls us to that task effectively.

 

When we gather for General Conference in 2008, we will represent persons, both lay and clergy, who daily live out this mission by faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel. These persons serve in soup kitchens and clothes closets. They go on mission trips both at home and to the far ends of the earth. They are bringing rejuvenation to the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by restoring hearts, homes and churches. They teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, lead worship and visit in prisons.

 

In short, those we need to remember are the silent ones who have no agenda save offering Christ to a hurting world. The vision that will bring about unity begins in recognizing our need to be connected to one another in spite of and sometimes because of our differences as we, together, remember our call to make disciples.

 

In the end, I believe it will be churches like Beauvoir which model for us a way forward. It will mean establishing congregations that create a true sense of sanctuary where we risk ourselves in the greater world in the name of Christ. It will mean being a part of the Christian fellowship which understands its purpose to share the Gospel and its life with others who are alone and estranged. Focusing on anything other than this vision for the kingdom will not lead to unity.

 

The last time I saw Tom he said to me, “I believe that we trust the boat more than we trust God and risk faith.” 

 

At our best, this willingness to let go, to trust and to risk is who we have been as United Methodists. It is what makes our life together meaningful and effective in ministry. Our life together is a sacred trust full of the messy as well as the miraculous. Our future together will depend on how well we can attend, appreciate, align, and attune ourselves to people and places of need.

 

Only then will we discover that our unity does not come from legislation. Unity comes as a by-product of being faithful to Christ, through knowing one another as children of God, and finally, by loving others as Christ has loved us.

 

In the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-23 “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… so that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

 

McAlilly is superintendent of the Seashore District in the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church.