All in Unison, Act with the Most Perfect Harmony

On April 7, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery set out in canoes into territory few white persons had ever entered. Lewis wrote in a letter to President Thomas Jefferson that day, “I can foresee no material or probable obstruction to our progress and entertain therefore the most sanguine hopes of complete success… At this moment, every individual of the party is in good health, and excellent spirits; zealously attached to the enterprise, and anxious to proceed; not a whisper of discontent or murmur is to be heard among them; but all in unison, act with the most perfect harmony. With such men I have everything to hope, and little to fear.”[i]

The Iowa Annual conference last week was sweet, inspiring, draining, encouraging, challenging, and humbling. Why do I have everything to hope for the future of The United Methodist Church and little to fear? Because of our call to “all in unison, act with the most perfect harmony” in fulfilling the mission of The United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The memories are imprinted on my heart.

  1. Colorful doors hanging on the back walls of the stage of Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines beckoned us to walk into God’s future together, wherever that leads The United Methodist Church.
  2. Experiencing the joy of United Methodists engaging in holy conferencing with deep affection for each other.
  3. A delegate offering me a hand drawn picture with a quote from John Wesley, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”
  4. Another delegate passing me a note through our Diakonos teenagers serving as pages, which included these paraphrased words, “I want to say thank you to my pastor and congregation for encouraging and creating an environment which houses many, many, many differing views on many subjects and issues on all points of the spectrum… I am so proud to be a part of such a diverse, challenging but loving congregation that is a model for how to be effectively in worship together, despite our deeply held differences, for the sake of Christ and our calling to serve all people… We need to figure out how to live together well.”

  1. Sitting on the edge of a canoe with second-grader and kid preacher Kinnick Driscoll, who prayed for us at the end of the opening service, “Thank you for our worship day and night. Thank you for making this a holy conferencing, not a kind of arguing conferencing. Help us to recognize you more and to show courage when making decisions about the church.”
  2. Standing room only at two workshops around how United Methodists can respond to the mental health crisis in Iowa.
  3. Sunday afternoon’s dialogue with four delegates to the 2019 called General Conference and Bishop Bruce Ough, one of our preachers. We discussed the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishop’s recommendation of the One Church Plan. We also saw a video by Gil Rendle about how discerning the interests behind the positions we hold can enable people with differing opinions to find a way to move forward together. Click here to access the video.
  4. Being blessed by Rev. Christian Coon, lead pastor of Urban Village in Chicago, who came back to his home state to share a word of grace with the conference, reminding us that failing boldly can be a springboard for hope and new opportunities.
  5. Laying hands on the heads of five clergy who were ordained elders and then having the privilege of washing their feet. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.” John 13:14

  1. Receiving the gift of extra time on Monday morning, which enabled us to have an “open mike” opportunity where anyone who wished could speak their heart to our denominational impasse around human sexuality. Speakers had up to 90 seconds, and there would be no arguing or rebuttals. What we experienced was a perfect harmony of generosity and depth of spirit that filled the hall as forty people were able to speak and more did not have a chance because of time. The invitation to simply listen to one another opened up sacred space.
  • “We are finally getting to where we can be transparent.”
  • “After many years, my niece told me that she was a lesbian and said, ‘I could not tell you before because you are a Christian. I was afraid you would stop loving me.’”
  • “I am concerned that the One Church Plan will become the ‘do as you please’ option.”
  • “I pray that we can hold close what we have in common rather than focus on what divides us.”
  • “The primary question we should be asking is not, ‘Are you LGBTQ, but are you bearing fruit for the reign of God?’”
  • “I am bisexual. I am afraid that my mother will lose her job because of me.”
  • “What if we only had only option and we had to find a way forward? Then we would all have to grow up and be God’s people.”
  • “If you preach Jesus Christ alone, go for it. I am ready to surrender all, despite personal preference.”
  • “We talk about one church, but we are not living as one body and are guilty of institutional sin.”
  • “I struggle with the LGBTQ movement, but I know they are created that way, and it is not a choice.”

  • “I grieve when you talk about us without us at the table. We are not an abstraction.”
  • “We are all one but think differently.”
  • “Did Jesus ever exclude anyone?”
  • “I know people who are LGBTQ, and it does not bother me. What does bother me is people who do not accept others.”
  • “We must adapt to the next generation. What one generation tolerates, the next generation embraces.”

And are we yet alive? Indeed, we are, when we “all in unison, act with the most perfect harmony.” With such courage, conviction, humility, and grace, United Methodists have everything to hope and little to fear! “O God, help us to recognize you more and to show courage when making decisions about the church.”

[i]Stephen E. Ambrose,Undaunted Courage; Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 210.

Is Your Life the Sermon?

Last week we celebrated the life of Kevin Smith, one of our active clergy, who died unexpectedly. We lost an excellent second-career pastor who felt called into the ministry in 2004 and served local churches for fourteen years.

As his family described it, “Kevin’s life was the sermon.” Kevin touched every person he ever met. He would talk to anyone, treated everyone as family, always wore a cross, and never hid his faith. Perhaps Kevin’s greatest gift was that he devoted his ministry to making others’ lives better.

Kevin used to say that doing God’s work was his payment. It was a privilege and a joy for him to preach, visit, lead people to Christ, and make a difference wherever God called him. Kevin’s activities in the communities he served were simply an extension of his ministry. He was a chaplain for the Iowa firefighters, was involved in local conservation, drove a school bus, and was an ambulance driver. Kevin was ready to help at a moment’s notice.

Kevin’s premature death prompted me to reflect on what it means to be a professional in ministry. With annual conference just days away, a time when women and men are licensed, commissioned, and ordained to ministry and many clergy are preparing to move, how can our life be the sermon, just as Kevin’s life was?

Last week, I wrote about the important role that congregations play in welcoming new pastors and helping them get off to a good start. Today I am pondering how clergy can begin a new appointment well. Every year at annual conference, I find myself revisiting my own call and uncovering the layers of my ministry over many years. Although I am thinking especially about ministry professionals, I am convinced that our lives become the sermon whenever the qualities described below characterize the ministry of laity as well as clergy.

First, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate God’s presence. Much of ministry is simply presence: presence at weddings, baptisms, and funerals; presence at coffee hour and in the homes of those who have just experienced a tragedy; presence at athletic events, graduation parties, Vacation Bible School, and at the front door of a new neighbor with a freshly baked pie.

Have you ever had the experience of walking into the hospital room of a parishioner and the person starts crying? They cry not because they see you but because they see God through you. You are God’s representative in the world. In our time of greatest need, nothing helps more that the assurance that God walks with us on our journey through the presence of others.

Wherever and however you serve, and whether you are lay or clergy, remember that your call is to incarnate God’s presence in the world through your very being. But don’t forget: you are also called to empower others to believe that they, too, incarnate God’s presence.

Second, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate God’s grace. Grace is nothing more than God’s unconditional love. You and I are saved by grace through faith and not by anything we do. If only we could show grace to one another, we would truly reflect the nature of God. Yet the sad reality is that the church can be every bit as judgmental, harsh, and condemning as the world.

I’d love to have a big sign in the front of every church that says, “Grace is spoken here.” When we, as ministry professionals, model the kind of love that includes everyone, it permeates entire congregations and moves outside the doors of the church to heal our communities as well. When the world seems cruel, injustice reigns, and despair looms large, our call is to incarnate grace in our very being and then call children, youth, and adults to embody God’s unconditional love in their life as well.

Third, our life becomes the sermon when you and I incarnate gratitude. When our entire life is a prayer of gratitude, miracles happen. When our attitude is positive and we intentionally look for God’s blessings, they’re right in front of us. No, we won’t always get what we want or even deserve, but when we are grateful, our eyes are opened to other miracles like caring, community, sacrifice, and hope. We are able to see hope in the breaking of hearts, in mourning, in financial challenge, in the loss of employment, and even in the death of relationships.

In my travels around Iowa, I can often gauge the feeling tone of a congregation as soon as I walk in the door. When churches are filled with grateful people, there is spiritual enthusiasm, light, vitality, and health. On the other hand, I occasionally enter churches where the atmosphere is one of depression, negativity, despair, or mere survival. Of what kind of church would you like to be a part? As leaders, our call is to incarnate gratitude in our very being and then inspire others to live lives of gratitude as well.

Fourth, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate servanthood. Every year at annual conference, I am amazed at the women and men who make a life-long commitment to professional ministry. I am stunned because claiming and serving Jesus as Lord is a counter-cultural act. We give up lucrative professions that could offer financial security. We give up “having a life” because we are always on call. We give up any semblance of routine or absence of pain.

Our calling is to incarnate servanthood, and by so doing, model those words we know so well but are so hard to live out, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:39) We let go of ego and pride in order to serve the very least of these. We are always migrating to the margins, seeking out the poor, the rejected, and the oppressed. Knowing that we can never remain safe and secure in our comfortable churches, we courageously walk out the front door with these words in front of us, “You are now entering the mission field.”

Finally, our life becomes the sermon when we incarnate shalom, which is nothing more than fullness of life. The essence of the good news of the kingdom of God that we proclaim is a shalom that implies wholeness and harmony for the world and its people. Shalom is a peace that includes reconciliation, forgiveness, grace, dialogue, respect, hope, justice, and joy. Shalom involves restoring our connection with nature, other humans, and God through Christ.

Is your life the sermon, just as Pastor Kevin Smith’s life was the sermon? Whether clergy or laity, how will you incarnate presence, grace, gratitude, servanthood, and shalom in your words and actions? And if you are preparing to preach your first sermon in a new congregation in a few weeks, don’t worry as much about the words on the page as about the life you will live as their pastor. Your new parishioners will not likely remember the theological nuances and detailed outline of your amazing message, but they will remember how you made them feel. And they will sense your passion for ministry, your love for God and neighbor, and your desire to lead them in becoming difference makers for Christ in their community and the world.     

One time, Kevin was sitting in a car shop when a man came up to him and said,

“I saw the cross in the window of your car. I knew I had to talk with you. I just found Christ and need some guidance,” Kevin prayed for the man and handed him a Bible. Kevin’s life was the sermon. Is yours?

P.S. Because the Iowa Annual Conference will be in session next Monday, the next Leading from the Heartwill be published on June 18.