Grace and peace to you as school has started and fall church activities are not far behind. After a summer in which many of us have actually been able to get away for a vacation, it doesn’t seem as if we are much farther along with COVID-19 mitigation because of the Delta variant. Some school systems are requiring masks and others aren’t. Many of us have received the vaccine, but others are choosing not to. Some have even gotten COVID after having been vaccinated.
How will COVID teach us as people of faith? The coronavirus interrupted our march toward General Conference 2020, which has already been postponed and is scheduled for late August and early September 2022. And in our local churches, clergy and lay leaders are carefully and prayerfully discerning how we can best worship and live out our call as disciples while not putting others at risk. Through it all, we are united as disciples of Jesus Christ by our fervent desire to embody Christ’s love, reach out to our neighbors, and extend grace and hope to all. The Pandemic has reminded us that, regardless of our views around COVID, vaccinations, and any number of other issues, we are all one in Christ Jesus and are inextricably connected with each other.
Throughout the summer I was reminded of that connection. It was July 23, and Gary, Talitha, and I had climbed to the top of the Mount Constitution Loop Trail on the island of Orcas. Orcas is located in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Island chain off the northwest coast of Washington State. Our youngest daughter, who lives in Seattle, had planned a wonderful series of hikes for the week. It was a trip we intended for a year ago but had to postpone because of COVID.
Mt. Constitution is a 6.6 mile loop trail through the forest that has some steep elevation gains and is amazingly beautiful. Once at the top, you are greeted by a 360-degree view of the Cascade Mountains, from Mount Ranier to Mt. Baker and into British Columbia. I’ve been fortunate to do some traveling over the years, but never have I seen a more spectacular panorama of mountains, water, and islands. Unlike in other locations, visitors to Orcas Island have the choice of either driving to the top of Mt. Constitution or walking. As avid hikers, driving wasn’t an option for us.
After we had our fill of the view and ate our sandwiches for lunch, we stopped at the restrooms in the parking lot before scampering back down the mountain. As we waited in line, Gary noticed that the young woman next to us was wearing a white cap with a big blue “Y” on it. Gary immediately recognized it, pointed a finger at her and said, “YALE!” She said, “Yes!” and he said, “Me too! I’m M. Div. ‘75 and S.T.M. ‘81.” And she said, “I went to Yale Divinity School, too!” We learned that Ann graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 2018.
What a coincidence! Gary then introduced me, noting that I also had degrees from Yale and revealing that I am serving as the United Methodist Bishop of Iowa and the Dakotas. And so the coincidences continued. Ann then added that she is a United Methodist and pastors a local church in Washington State. Here we were, at one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we made connections with a young woman who just happened to be a Yale Divinity School graduate and just happened to be serving as a pastor of a United Methodist congregation.
That’s still not all. Ann was a bit surprised but was also very excited to introduce me to her father, who was nearby. It just so happens that he, too, is a United Methodist pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Ann’s father had served as a District Superintendent and as a General Conference alternate delegate, and he remembered when I was elected a bishop in 2016. But there’s even more. Not only does Ann’s father serve in Eastern Pennsylvania, but I was born and raised in southeastern PA. He knew my small hometown of Souderton.
The connections were amazing: Yale grads, clergy, United Methodists, from the same part of the country – all connected in Christ at the top of Constitution Mountain. Later in the day, I learned from the website of Ann’s church that her congregation is committed to cultivating an anti-racist, contemplative, and beloved community grounded in the way of Jesus. Meeting Ann and her father was a deeply spiritual experience. It was not a coincidence, however. It was a God moment, for we are, indeed, all connected in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you have heard of the concept of “six degrees of separation.” “The six degrees of separation theory states that any inhabitant of the Earth could meet anyone in the world with a maximum of six or fewer mutual connections between them and another person.” As a result, a chain of “friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
Gary and I were way ahead of the six steps of separation as we chatted with Ann and her father on Orcas Island. But COVID has also reminded us of this truth as well. We are all connected as one human family whether we like it or not, or whether we desire to be connected or not.
I am so grateful to be a United Methodist, for the “Connection” is our greatest gift to the world and to one another. At a time when we still don’t know what The United Methodist Church will look like after General Conference 2022, I can’t help but think of John Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, where he says, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
I thank God for our serendipitous encounter with Pastor Ann and her father, and I thank God for each one of you. Every day you bless me by your faith, by your hope, and by your commitment to the unfailing love of Christ and for all people. The following words are found on the website of Pastor Ann’s congregation.
No matter where you are on life’s journey.
No matter what you believe or doubt.
No matter how much or little you have.
No matter your race, gender, or immigration status.
You are beloved and belong and are welcome.
We say these words often to remind ourselves that even though the world sometimes places limits on belovedness or worth, God does not.
For whatever reason you’ve arrived here, know that you’re not alone.
We’re each seeking something: new life in the midst of pain,
a gracious community as life changes, a space to become more fully ourselves,
or a group of people with whom we can make the world a more just and loving place.
Look around. Make yourself at home. We’re so glad you’re here.
All connected in Christ, may we and our congregations continue to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.
. “M. Div.” is a Master of Divinity degree. An “S.T.M.” is a Master of Sacred Theology degree.
. from the website of Edmonds United Methodist Church, Edmonds, Washington