I’ve been rocked by God’s grace and wrecked in worship these past two days!
I am attending the Indiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church being held at the Convention Center in Indianapolis. In my earlier years of ministry in this beloved fellowship of churches, I was content to come late and leave early – but in the past year I have come to deeply appreciate the clergy covenant of which I am part in the United Methodist Church. Because of theological battles and disconnections with the General Church bureaucracy over the years, I have sometimes been less than enthused about the United Methodist church – when we seem to behave more “unTIED” than “UNITed” – but in the past twelve months – and over the past 27 years – since I was ordained in the church of my childhood and youth – I have come to appreciate our “methodist” mess of a church!
We gained the name “methodist” early in the history of our movement – more as a derogatory statement about our founder, John Wesley’s vigilant attention to being “methodical” about following Christ! Our ‘systems’ are quite ‘methodical’ as well – we even publish an update book every four years after our General Conference which outlines “the way we methodically do church.” I have too often seen this as a set of rules – instead of the great guide it has been for our faith and practice! Recently, I’ve become quite the fan of “systems thinking” and now I have a grudging appreciation for our “methodical” church – which is actually the result of the formation of three great Christian traditions in the “new World” – the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Association, and the United Brethren Church. Prior to 1968 the EA and the UB came together to form the EUB church – and in 1968 they joined in (and were largely absorbed by the larger ME church to become the UMC – the United Methodist Church (carrying the tradition of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Church – even in the “United” name.)
It was through the influence of this church that I came to know about the grace of God in my life – at a UM Church Camp when I was twelve years old (in 1972.) Now 40 years later (yep, I’m 52 now!) I am honored to serve as a pastor in this great historic denomination. We are not perfect – but we are good! Sometimes we are not “united” – but we are always “methodical!” This is the church that nurtured me as a child – provided Christian community in camp environments where I grew in my understanding of God’s grace – and then later, graciously “called me out” and “set me apart” for the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Some of my friends who were ordained with me are now retiring – or have already retired! I believe I am “technically eligible” for retirement now – having faithfully served over 20 years in pastoral ministry. When that day comes, if it does, my family will be well provided for because this great denomination, “methodically” required the churches I serve to set aside funds in an investment account for my retirement. And when my health went into a crisis last year, the “expensive insurance program” that I often complained about (forgive me Lord – and colleagues) has provided remarkable coverage for my extensive medical bills! But even greater are the friendships and ministry partnerships of my colleagues in the United Methodist Church.
One year ago when I was unable to attend Annual Conference because of my recovery from brain surgery, I was being prayed for by these friends and my Bishop! By God’s grace as I have been able to attend this year’s conference, I have been approached by countless people, many who I have not known personally, who have expressed their continued support for me in prayer and have rejoiced with me in God’s grace in my life!
Tonight’s evening session was the time for our Conference clergy and lay delegates to gather for a service of Holy Communion – which was led by our Bishop Mike Coyner (I love and respect my Bishop – I’m honored to serve under his wise and gracious leadership!) Tomorrow I will be “appointed to return to Fort Wayne to serve another year as the lead pastor of Sonrise Church. What a privilege – what an honor – to be entrusted to “take authority & preach the Word as the pastor of a local church under apostolic authority! WOW!
I’ve also been reminded again – as I have throughout this past year – that …
… I am simply a “broken jar of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7) – that God has been willing to fill with the “treasure” of the gospel of grace! (I’m just a “cracked pot” – and I’ve got the scar to prove it!)
… It’s not about me! It’s all about Him! In fact, His power is made perfect in my weakness! (2 Corinthians 12:9)
… I must decrease … he must increase! (John 3:30)
I have noticed that it is tempting as a pastor of a larger church to let our ego become too big – in fact, I’ve noticed the bigger the church, quite often the bigger the ego of the pastor! I don’t want to be that kind of leader – I want to be like John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle. I stand in a great line of splendor – of faithful leaders who have handed down to me this privilege – and increasingly I realize it is my job to prepare to hand this treasure of the gospel on to the next generation. This is why I’ve started more intentionally mentoring younger pastors – and had the privilege to meet with a couple of them even today! I want to ‘speak into them’ as those who have gone before have spoken in to my life.
In addition to watching several of my mentors in ministry “retire” in the past few years, I’ve also attended the funerals of some of them – seeking to honor those who have gone before me and invested in me. (This past year this included funerals for Bishop Sheldon Duecker who started the church I grew up in as a child in Muncie, Indiana – and Willis Gierhart who was both my pastor as a young man and later my District Superintendent when I was appointed to start a new church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.) I am simply running this leg of the race and preparing to hand the baton of leadership on to the next generation of leaders! I am praying that God will help me grow in a “healthy humility” – not thinking less of myself, just thinking of myself less – and giving God greater glory!
One more thing that has “surprised me” at this Annual Conference session is how “wrecked” I am by worship! On the first day in the “clergy session,” we sang the old hymn that I can’t say I always understood … but now I do. The hymn was, “And Are We Yet Alive?” It is sung by the clergy who return to Annual Conference – written in the tradition of the wilderness preachers of early American Methodism who risked their lives to ride their horses along their “circuit” of churches (the early multi-site movement) – I was “wrecked” and began to weep as we sang:
And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for His almighty grace.
What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past,
Fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford, and hides our life above.
Let us take up the cross, till we the crown obtain,
And gladly reckon all things loss, so we may Jesus gain.
WOW – with the year I’ve had – and the recent “fightings” within our General Conference gathering – this one just hit me – and the message of grace just overwhelmed me – that God has allowed me to ‘survive’ brain cancer and now I can return to my covenant community of clergy to serve Him more! WOW!
Then tonight – I was “wrecked” again in worship – just wrecked! We were preparing for Communion and the young song leader – younger than my own kids I think, led us in the recent version of “Jesus Paid It All” made popular by Kristian Stanfill with these lyrics:
And I hear the Savior say, They strength indeed is small
Child of weakness watch and pray, Find in me thine all in all.
Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe, Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow
Oh praise the one who paid my debt, And raised this life up from the dead
Oh praise the One who paid my debt, and raised this life up from the dead.
THIS JUST WRECKED ME! I WAS SINGING THROUGH A PUDDLE OF TEARS … because God’s grace has done this for me – I didn’t deserve it – but I’ve been forgiven (WOW) – he paid the price of my sin – ALL of it! And this past year – God has RAISED MY LIFE UP FROM THE DEAD! (wow, wow)
I am one grateful dude – grateful for God’s grace – and grateful for my “connection” to the United Methodist Church!
Thank you Lord!