A week ago, on Epiphany Sunday, I attended worship at New Hope UMC in Des Moines where Rev. Dr. Lilian Gallo-Seagren is the pastor. And guess what? We sang hymn #257, which I had never sung or played before. Never! I was astonished. The hymn, which is called We Meet You, O Christ, was written in 1966 by Fred Kaan, who was a British minister in the United Reform Church. The hymn tune was composed by U.S. church musician Carl F. Schalk in 1987.
I thought that I knew virtually every hymn in our United Methodist Hymnal, which was published in 1989. Over the past 30 years, I have sung an average of three hymns from the hymnal every Sunday, except when I have attended contemporary worship services that don’t use the hymnal. We Meet You, O Christ is clearly not one of the top ten hymns among United Methodists!
- We meet you, O Christ, in many a guise;
your image we see in simple and wise.
You live in a palace, exist in a shack;
we see you, the gardener, a tree on your back.
It was no coincidence in my mind that we sang this hymn several days after a press release from the Council of Bishops regarding a “mediation team” that had been working for the past several months to bring a proposal to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. The mediation team was a diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups with contrasting views and bishops from the US and Central Conferences. Working with a third-party professional mediator, their goal was to offer a solution for our impasse around human sexuality in The United Methodist Church. Click here to read the document, Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. Click here to read FAQ’s about the Protocol document.
After reading the document, I met Christ. I had a vision of Methodists from across the globe, simple and wise, living in mansions and huts, old and young, speaking many languages, singing praise to God, and bearing a tree on our backs as gardeners and humble servants.
- In millions alive, away and abroad;
involved in our life you live down the road.
Imprisoned in systems, you long to be free;
we see you, Lord Jesus, still bearing your tree.
Jesus, you live down the road from each one of us. You want to be a part of our lives, yet so often we turn away. Just as the wise men followed a star in the sky, so you are the light of the world, beckoning us to see you in those around us: in the prisoner; in the police officer and fire fighter; in the person working at the checkout counter; in communities of different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions; in the LGBQT community; in the weariness of clergy, day in and out giving our all to ministry by bearing our tree; in those who seem invisible: the homeless, the hopeless, the hapless, and all those imprisoned in systems; and in our common human yearning to be recognized, acknowledged, celebrated, and thanked.
- We hear you, O man, in agony cry;
for freedom you march, in riots you die.
Your face in the papers we read and we see.
The tree must be planted by human decree.
After my initial reading of the Protocol document, I was both hopeful and deeply grieved. The very thought of separation, even if it is amicable, is anathema. Yet the more I prayed and pondered, I realized that faithful disciples who are in different places around human sexuality long to be free of a system that has unwittingly imprisoned others. What if there were a way that all of us could be free? Not free to continue hating, but free to bear our unique trees under the big tent of a Methodist movement that provides for a gracious separation that will reach more people with the gospel. The tree of life offers shelter for all living things.
- You choose to be made at one with the earth;
the dark of the grave prepares for your birth.
Your death is your rising, creative your word;
the tree springs to life and our hope is restored.
It is the beginning of a new year. Jesus is born. Wise men from the east come to bring homage, following a star in the sky. They travel from pagan lands and are Gentiles, not Jews. Yet through this baby, God has now invited all people to enter the story of salvation. Something new is being created out of people who did not think they would be part of the story. Nations have been brought to the light.
Yet we know it won’t last. Yes, the baby has become one with the earth, but it is the dark of the tomb that prepares for his birth. The word is creative, the tree is alive, and we know how it will end. The grave looms. Yet love wins, and hope reigns.
It’s time to plant the tree of life so that all may experience its fullness. For it’s the tree that offers shelter. It’s the tree that provides a resting place, shade, and protection.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25. Every year at this time, Christians around the world pray for grace and reconciliation. The worship materials for this year center around the theme, Unusual Kindness (Acts 28:2, “The natives showed us unusual kindness”). They have been prepared by the Christian churches in Malta and can be found in the attached file. The following prayer spoke to me.
Gracious God, heal the painful memories of the past which have wounded our churches and continue to keep us apart.
Hear our prayer for Reconciliation.
Gracious God, teach us to fix our course on Christ, the True Light.
Hear our prayer for Enlightenment.
Gracious God, strengthen our confidence in your providence when we feel overwhelmed by the storms of life.
Hear our prayer for Hope.
Gracious God, transform our many separations into harmony and our mistrust into mutual acceptance.
Hear our prayer for Trust.
Gracious God, give us the courage to speak the truth with justice in love.
Hear our prayer for Strength.
Gracious God, dismantle the barriers, visible and invisible, that prevent us from welcoming our sisters and brothers who are in peril or in need.
Hear our prayer for Hospitality.
Gracious God, change our hearts and the hearts of our Christian communities, that we may be agents of your healing.
Hear our prayer for Conversion.
Gracious God, open our eyes to see the whole of creation as your gift, and our hands to share its fruit in solidarity.
Hear our prayer for Generosity.
Dare we meet Christ in each other with reconciliation, grace, and unusual kindness, even in the midst of the possibility of separation? Where will you meet Christ this week?