I recently attended a discussion about the Way Forward Commission sponsored by the Wesleyan Student Association at Boston University. I brought along my daughters, Grace and Salem, and was thankful for the sandwiches, fruit and veggies provided for our supper, and for being able to gather with fellow Methodists who are concerned about the divisions in our denomination and the upcoming General Conference which will determine our future. Bishops Devadhar, Hassinger and Middleton took turns explaining the three “sketches” the commission first offered to the bishops and the two remaining possibilities that are on the table now. The questions in the room far outweighed any answers available. In her opening remarks, Bishop Middleton noted that this year is the 50th Anniversary of the forming of the United Methodist Church, a time which normally would be celebrated. But the climate of conflict, tension, and uncertainty has put a damper on any thought of festivity.
My life feels particularly tied to the UMC, for not only was my grandfather a Methodist pastor, who graduated from BU in 1936, and my roots on both sides of the family are deeply tied to the tradition, but I, too, will be 50 this year. I was raised in the UMC in Central New York, held fast by Wesley Amherst UMC when my faith was shaken at college, sent by them to Duke Divinity School who continued to form and affirm me as pastor. I have served the New England Annual Conference now for 20 years and completed my Ph.D. at BU after immersing myself in the worship practices in Methodist camp meetings. I have felt no little distress at the powerful cultural tug of war breeding distrust and discord among us quadrennium by quadrennium, annual conference by annual conference. I left the meeting at BU ready to dull my fear and pain with Coconut Almond Chip at J. P. Licks.
Yet there will, indeed, be at least one celebration of the formation of the United Methodist Church this year. It’s a four-day event called "Merging the Streams: Celebrating The United Methodist Church's 50th Anniversary.” It will be held from July 9-12, in Dayton, Ohio, where the historic merger took place just weeks before I was born. It is sponsored by the Methodist Historical Society of the UMC (of which I am the new secretary), the North Central Jurisdiction Commission of Archives and History, the Wesleyan Historical Society, the Charles Wesley Society and the General Commission of Archives and History.
We don’t know what will come out of the special General Conference next February. Will we be more divided than ever? Will ruin and destruction overwhelm our fragile, congregations, many of which have been nearly paralyzed by 50 years of steady decline? What can young seminarians expect when they graduate and are ready to serve? Where will they find support? How will they make it through the precarious probationary-member-stage of pastoral leadership? How can we celebrate in the midst of such uncertainty?
Two days later God spoke to me through the ministry of our Jesuit brethren who produces the podcast Pray As You Go. It began with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Our father, we have entered in the holy place, as you have invited us. Be close to us. Open your hearts to understand your word. Remove the darkness that surrounds us and give us your light.” Then Isaiah 49:8-15 was read and it focused my attention on what God is doing with and for the UMC, “Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’, to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” (8-10)
God won’t leave us in this stuck place. God has not abandoned us to one another’s judgement and wrath. A miracle will happen, just as the Red Sea parted long ago. God will make a way out of no way. “I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up… But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (11, 14-15)
Isaiah gives us not only permission, but a mandate to sing for joy in the midst of present suffering – joy in the work God is doing to get us out. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.” (13) Our Jesuit friends remind us what Methodist have known since John Wesley, “God's will is that all people should know his saving love: that they should know what it is to be loved unconditionally. In that love people will know true liberation....Isaiah promises that God will guide [the] people through problems and seemingly impossible challenges ....Rejoicing might seem a bit odd in Lent. But Isaiah's call on us to rejoice is significant even at this time of year because we are preparing to celebrate the most holy and joyous mysteries of the faith.” (March 14, Pray as You Go). Resurrection is not something that happens one day or season of the year. It is a reality of God’s salvation history, available to individual, to congregations and yes, to the people called Methodist in the 21st century.
Even at this stage in our history, United Methodists are called by God to rejoice in the new life that will come as we push forward together through these birth pangs. Even with all the things that are still wrong with us, so much good has come from the UMC in 50 years. Look at all the women clergy and bishops; look at the steady growth of the church through the world; look at all that we have built and rebuilt through UMCOR and the Advance; look at the success of the Methodist-Catholic dialog, praised by Pope Francis on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation last Fall; look at how similar our Basic Pattern of worship now is to those of so many other brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. God has been at work in and through us all along, even as we’ve been focused on blaming and shaming one another. Turn your eyes back to Jesus and see the new thing he is about to do in us!
We are part of something new about to be born. The waters are breaking, joining the streams that merged 50 years ago. We are feeling some birth pangs, to be sure. It will hurt more if, in our fear, we try to steel ourselves against the pain. Oh Adonai, help us to find the rhythm of relaxing and pushing. Help us to remember to breathe deeply of your Holy Spirit. Keep the vision of new life before us, that even in the midst of the struggle we may rejoice in the work of God in our midst.
Rev. Dr. Sarah Mount Elewononi is pastor of South Walpole United Methodist Church in South Walpole, Massachusetts and an Elder in the New England Annual Conference. She is also the secretary of the Historical Society of The United Methodist Church.