I have always loved Jesus, I have always loved going to worship, and I have always loved receiving and serving the sacrament of holy communion. But this time? It was the heavenly banquet, a foretaste of the kind of world that God meant us to create: a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, justice and mercy are practiced, grace abounds, the cup of salvation overflows, and all are welcome to taste and see that the Lord is good.
On February 11, I attended Sunday worship at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (Africa). A few days before, members of several groups, including the Committee on Faith and Order, Ministry Study Commission, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and Connectional Table, had gathered to collaborate on the content of a General Book of Discipline, to be presented to the 2020 General Conference.
The first thing I noticed as our van approached the church was the sign. I cannot read French, but I could understand the name of the church: “Canaan.” The sign also included these words from Deuteronomy 26:9, “God brought us to this place and gave us this land – a land full of milk and honey.”
Côte d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) is a beautiful West African country of over 23 million people whose primary language is French. Not only is Côte d’Ivoire the world’s largest exporter of cocoa beans and raw cashew nuts, but it is famous for its biodiversity, with 230 mammals, 700 birds, 125 reptiles, 100 fish, 35 different types of amphibians, and around 4,700 plant species.
At the same time, violent youth gangs have sprung up in the poor areas of the capital of Abidjan, making parts of the city unsafe. These gangs are called “microbes” or “germs” and roam the streets, robbing, harming, and even killing in order to live. Although Côte d’Ivoire’s economic growth is improving, large sections of the population are still vulnerable and living in poverty.
The 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church welcomed the Protestant Methodist Church of Côte d’Ivoire into the denomination as a provisional annual conference. Four years later, the 2008 General Conference affirmed Côte d’Ivoire as an episcopal area of The United Methodist Church with 700,000 members.
Canaan United Methodist Church is a place of hope, love, and joy where all are welcome to taste and see and join them on their pilgrim journey. And worship is a full body experience! As visiting United Methodist laity, clergy, and bishops, our group was invited to sit on the chancel platform and in the front rows. As we found our seats, the music was in full swing, the choir was leading, and everyone was moving! Wearing translation headsets, we were able to follow the service, and most of the hymns were ones we sing in US United Methodist churches.
Bishop Gregory Palmer preached a powerful sermon on the Transfiguration (Mark 2:2-9), and I have no doubt that we were all transfigured and transformed during our three-hour and fifteen-minute worship experience. Various parts of the worship service led me to the heavenly banquet in this land of milk and honey.
A charismatic choir director led a large choir on one side and a smaller women’s choir on the other side, with both groups wearing matching outfits and singing to choreographed movements. I can’t begin to describe the energy, passion, and power of this music, which led the congregation to Canaan, a land of milk and honey where there is enough for everyone.
The choir also sang during the offering, and I was so inspired by the Spirit that I decided to join them! I stood next to several women and attempted to imitate their motions. I am not a dancer, but this was truly a holy moment, as we held hands, smiled at each other, and sang and danced before the Lord.
I was blessed to be a communion server, offering the cup of salvation to so many of God’s beloved ones who came forward with shining eyes and beautiful smiles. Holding the very same tray of little cups that I have used for so many years, I looked into their eyes and said the very same words used the world over, “This is the cup of salvation, given for you. God bless you.”
Hundreds of people of all ages, especially babies, children, and youth. Each one a precious child of God, each one filled with the Spirit, each one smiling and eager to taste and see that the Lord is good. A large proportion of the thousand or so worshippers were wearing beautiful native clothing, and the fabric often bore the logo of The United Methodist Church of Côte d’Ivoire. They were obviously so proud of their church and their faith. Holding back the tears, I saw the face of Jesus in each person who came forward, praised God and marveled, “This is the milk and honey of heavenly banquet in the Promised Land! Who am I to be worthy to help serve it?”
Right after God offered to us the gift of bread and the cup, each person present was invited to offer their gifts to God. Once more, this was a time of movement. Two large and beautifully decorated baskets were placed at the front of the chancel, and everyone came forward to share their gift.
(click photo to watch video)
What a meaningful part of worship! People of all ages streaming forward, moving toward God, offering not only their gifts but their very lives. The music and movement of the entire congregation was contagious. The saints of Canaan UMC have much less in the way of material things than most of us who were visiting, yet what they do have is often elusive in our culture: the milk and honey of the joy of the Lord, an overwhelming generosity, and a deep commitment to share their faith with others.
At the end of the service, an elderly woman came forward, walking with the aid of a crutch, with her husband, family, and friends accompanying her. We were told that she was in a very serious car accident but survived and wanted to share her testimony. She said, “God manifested God’s power through this accident,” explaining that at first, the doctor said it wasn’t working. He was pessimistic about her recovery. But the woman pulled through and testified in her rejoicing that through this accident God has been glorified. Then the family requested that all of the bishops who were present come down to the main floor, lay hands on her and pray while the congregation sang “How Great Thou Art.”
My, oh my. Canaan, the land of milk and honey! This was the bread of life and the cup of salvation, not only for the Canaan UMC, but for the microbes and the germs, the very least of God’s beloved children, and for the world. This was not only the heavenly banquet, this was God’s reign on this earth, with sixty United Methodist leaders from around the world inspired and discipled by their brothers and sisters from Côte d’Ivoire.
God was surely smiling … and moving … as a thousand people sang the closing hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.”
Called forth from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth
Our charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name professing and at one table fed
To one hope always pressing, by Christ’s own spirit led.
Milk and honey in Canaan, Côte d’Ivoire. We were all transformed.