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The Power of Through

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Our Journey Together: A Historical and Relational Perspective -
The Power of THROUGH

If you had to tell the Judeo-Christian story in a word, what would that word be?

Love.  Grace.  Covenant.  Law.  Peace.  Hope.  Joy.  Reconciliation.  Justification.  Resurrection.  Forgiveness.  Healing.  Redemption.  Sanctification.  All worthy words important to the unfolding narrative.  But here is a word I'll bet you didn't think of: "THROUGH."

What?  For heaven's sake, what kind of word is that?  It's not an important word like a verb or a noun.  It can't be a subject, predicate or direct object.  "THROUGH"?  C'mon.  We're talking anchor words of faith, belief and action here and you're giving us a preposition?  An adverb at best.  A conjunction maybe.

But think of it.  The story of Judeo-Christian faith is a "through-story."  John Newton, the reformed slave-trader turned Anglican priest, taught us to sing this story in words we have come to know by heart: "THROUGH many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come...."

Here's that story: God swept over, under, around and THROUGH the dark, primordial, chaotic waters of creation and brought forth light and life.  People reeling from a world gone crazy-wrong, God saves the Noah family and their two-by-two menagerie THROUGH a cataclysmic flood.  Hopeless slaves in Egypt are led THROUGH an impassable sea to a Promised Land.  Jesus is born, nurtured and sent forth to proclaim that now is God's time THROUGH the water of a womb and THROUGH his death it's not only his life that's raised up but every one of us, too.  Where will we find the risen Jesus?  My favorite resurrection story in Mark says: "....go and tell his disciples.... he is going ahead of you.... "which means there's stuff we will have to pass THROUGH to get to where he is calling and cheering us on.

We Methodists love our history.  The same message comes THROUGH.  THROUGH the Wesleys' depressed and depressing failure of a mission enterprise in Georgia, God stirs-up a new movement of practical divinity to overwhelm the outward religious form and functioning that passed for church.  The movement grew THROUGH theological disagreements and brotherly ecclesiastical spats.  Why, there was even name-calling.  THROUGH different minds and practices about the role of laity and bishops, THROUGH the horrible institution of chattel slavery, THROUGH north and south divided, THROUGH the fears that birth control would ruin Christian family values, THROUGH a jurisdictional system created solely to keep blacks in their place—separate but equal or so we thought (wink, wink), THROUGH wrangling over ordination of women and now how we will fully or not so fully include LGBTQ sisters and brothers, THROUGH the new, ever-widening relationships we are living-into today becoming a global United Methodist Church.  THROUGH many a compromise that in hindsight makes us scratch our heads but in God's time may have been the Holy Spirit's only available avenue to stick with us to the end.

THROUGH IT ALL.

Since the first quadrennial Methodist General Conference in 1792 look at the cultural, societal cross-currents we've traversed: THROUGH struggles for liberation related to race, gender, sexual identity, and poverty, THROUGH attempts at widening inclusiveness involving language and who's at the table and at what place, THROUGH the culture of do-your-own-thing, I-did-it-my-way and it's-your- thing-do-what-you-want-to-do autonomy so contrary to Wesleyan connectionalism, THROUGH world wars, civil and not so civil wars, declared and undeclared wars, famines, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, THROUGH increasing, rapidly-changing modes of communication and transportation that not only bring diverse people and ideas closer together have than ever before but stir even swifter, more treacherous eddies of disagreement, THROUGH more and more people feeling the urge to participate in political processes in protests, marches and social movements.

WE HAVE COME THROUGH A LOT.

From the beginning to this very moment we Methodists sing our theology more than shelve it in some tome.  So how's this for a core theological statement: "And are we yet alive to see each other's face...."

What troubles have we seen
What mighty conflicts past
Fighting since without and fears within
Since we assembled last.

Yet (another word for "through") out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by his love
And still he doth his help afford
And hide our life above.

Then let us make our boast
Of his redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost
'Til we can sin no more.

That was brother Charles.  But someone else who knows the same history taught us to sing the same song another way:

"THROUGH it all, THROUGH it all,
I've learned to trust in Jesus...."

We have been THROUGH a lot.  And THROUGH it all, we have made great strides.  The discipline of history helps us with a longer view.  In my lifetime with the church, since the merger in 1968 that both united Methodists with EUB traditions and reunited us with Black Methodists by formally ending the Central Jurisdiction, we have and continue to wrestle with what it means to be an open and inclusive church—beyond the human sexuality issue.  Six ethnic/language ministry plans have been adopted: The Native American Comprehensive Plan (1968), the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry (1992), The Korean Ministry Plan (1996), Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (1996), Asian American Language Ministry (1996) and Pacific Islander Ministry Plan (2012).  Prior to the 2012 General Conference, The Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group noted that these plans are slowly drawing people of color into a denomination where the majority of membership remains white.  But more will be needed.  There's more to get THROUGH.

On the continent of Africa, THROUGH the action of General Conference (1996) Africa University was founded and today is thriving, creating leaders for the continent, difference-makers because of Christian morals, ethics and values.  Today more than 5,500 graduates are working in agriculture, technology, government and peace building.  THROUGH Acts of Repentance toward African Americans, Native Americans and other indigenous people and a full communion agreement with historically black Methodist denominations, sharp, painful, jagged brokenness of past history are in slow, careful, time-consuming process towards healing.  Journeying THROUGH deference to dignity, women in the church have slowly made gains.  While attaining full clergy rights in 1956, it was not until 1976 that 10 women clergy were elected to General Conference as delegates for the first time.  Four years later, Marjorie Swank Matthews became the first woman to be elected bishop in The United Methodist Church.  THROUGH divestments, Methodists had a hand in the fall of South Africa's apartheid government. THROUGH boycotts against Nestle, Shell Oil, Taco Bell, we have been partners to needed global social change.  THROUGH horrible rioting and urban distress ignited by police brutality in Los Angles, The Shalom Zone initiative was created and wrought zones of transformation.

I asked a few moments ago about expressing the Judeo-Christian story in a word.  If asked to describe The United Methodist Church in a word at this point in history, lots of folk might say “STUCK.”  I want to introduce these people to the power of THROUGH because the sweep of history shows the Sprit moving among and THROUGH whatsoever and whosoever; moving THROUGH old brokenness to new lands of hope and promise, from staked-out positions to other sides and shores where God is forever leading us.

The story of the Judeo-Christian faith is about God is busy in the world NOT saving, redeeming and sanctifying the world FROM dangers, toils and snares but THROUGH them.  Hope is in God busy in the world calling new life out of death, hope over despair and transformation where all we saw was one dead end after another.

The Holy Spirit stirs in the thick of the THROUGH, endowing the faithful who have open hearts, open minds and open doors with gifts: affection, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, a basic conviction that basic holiness permeates things and people, loyal in commitments, not needing to force our own way (Galatians 5:22, The Message).

This is our story, this is our song.  God help us to stick to it.  To hang together with hope and trust and each other because THROUGH IT ALL new life awaits.  The journey we're on is not about who gets there first, or how to find it, or what is the right way.  It's about hanging-in, hanging-on and hanging-together till we get there.

I want to suggest that there are key, keen strands from our core denominational DNA that are great assets as we experience the power of THROUGH for our time:

United Methodists are people whose relationship with God is grounded in A THEOLOGY OF LOVE AND INCLUSION.  The distinctive theological text of our tradition, our hymnal, is the Wesley brothers’ cover-to-cover tome to God's jaw-dropping, amazing, boundless, boundary-breaking, life-igniting ALL consuming, merciful, redeeming, perfect, perfecting and sufficient love.  More than pen to paper or note to score, our forebears believed, sung and gathered in ways to make it plain God's love is fully available and must be made accessible to EVERYONE.

United Methodists are people who EXPERIENCE God's love and in the experience are TRANSFORMED.  The Lay Leader in my home church, at the time thought to be the congregation's model Christian, surprised everyone one day describing a new experience of spiritual renewal.  He spoke about faith moving from his head, where it had comfortably resided for years, to his heart, where he felt a fervor he hadn't before.  All at once, that fire that moved from head to heart moved to his hands and feet.  As far back as the Wesley's, to this very moment, United Methodist DNA stirs the rational and doctrinal towards the experiential—what John Wesley called "practical divinity." Our Book of Discipline's Theological Statement says: Our Theological Task is essentially practical.  It informs individuals’ daily decisions and serves the church's life and work... incorporat[ing] the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives (The Book of Discipline, pg. 79)

United Methodists, propelled to put God's love into action are DIFFERENCE MAKERS.  Grounded-in and experiencing the God of love and inclusion as life-changing, United Methodists can't sit still.  The experience of "Amazing Grace" is dynamic.  The Holy Spirit provides the energy.  The United Methodist family album kept at the General Commission on Archives and History is chock-full of examples of Spirit-driven difference-makers.  From the Wesleys, Otterbein, Albright and Boehm to Asbury, Allen and Hosier, from Francis Willard, William, Catherine Booth and Mary McCleod Bethune to the Methodist-influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Graca Machal, we have been and are witnesses in and to the world—in word and deed, personally and institutionally, collectively, spiritually, materially acting-out God's love in Christ.

On the verge of another General Conference, thinking about essentials for mission in a world-wide United Methodist connection, here are some UMC DNA tests questions: How will what we decide and do be grounded in God's boundless, boundary-breaking love?  How will what we decide and do bring people to a head-scratching, heart-stirring AND life-changing experience in God's love?  How will what we decide and do translate into a Spirit filled, difference-making, invitation for those to whom God's love in Jesus Christ is a stranger; bringing them to discover "people called Methodist" as godly, generous friends.

On Thursday, May 10, 1804, the General Conference Journals for the session says:

Bishop Whatcoat rose to recommend the suppression of all passion or ill-will in debate, and that reason should rule in every loving contest.  Bishop Asbury moved that the doors be closed.  Carried.  Closed against all but members of the conference, by a further vote, taken and carried (page 53).

Bishop Asbury in his journal two weeks later:

I came off to Perry Hall, on my way to Souderberg, to meet the Philadelphia Conference.  The Lord did not own the ministerial labors of the general conference; it was a doubt that any souls were converted; this made us mourn; I prayed for hundreds; but God did not answer my prayer.

Must history repeat is self?

Yet (another word for THROUGH)!

With some African American and Jewish friends, Friday last, I attended Shabbat services at Philadelphia's Rodeff Shalom synagogue.  The service was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At the close of the service, in a part of their liturgy that weekly remembers anniversaries of deaths and immediately thereafter sends the congregation forth, we prayed these words:

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai's foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise passes THROUGH the wilderness.

And that there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, (and) marching together.

God open our eyes to the power of THROUGH, that the winding way to promise leads THROUGH wilderness, and that there is NO WAY to get there except by joining hands and marching together.

Rev. Alfred T. Day, General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History
Presentation to the Pre-General Conference Gathering, Portland, Oregon
January 21, 2016

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