A Joyful Journey

Bishop Bard looks back at the 2018 Michigan Annual Conference in response to members’ feedback …

Last month I wrote about January in July. Annual Conference in August seems like a good follow-up, but for those of you who skim quickly please note that there will be no proposal offered here to move our Annual Conference session into the month of August! While some would like to see our Annual Conference session moved, either earlier or later, no one has suggested August.

I know this because the Commission on the Annual Conference Session met in late June to begin planning for the 2019 Annual Conference and as a part of our meeting we read the feedback offered on the 2018 session. I thank you for the many kind comments you offered about my role and leadership at Annual Conference, even when a slip of the finger or auto-correct complimented Bishop Baird or Bishop Boyd. I felt better about the youth award given me at Annual Conference, “Best Bishop Present.” There may have been some competition.

One role I have in Annual Conference is to be part of the Commission on the Annual Conference Session. Please know that the Commission takes seriously every comment and suggestion offered, and while they will be responding more officially in the coming days, I know that the Commission is already working on ideas to improve food and parking, two of the more frequently mentioned areas for improvement. I also know that we will not be able to respond in ways that please everyone. In addition to food and parking, legislation was also frequently mentioned, with a number of suggestions offered for improving our processes. Every idea will be considered, yet I know that we will not equally please the persons who want more time for legislation and those who want less time for it.

Some theological commentary was offered amid all the feedback. One person wrote that they did not appreciate all the “works righteousness” heard during our time together. It is an intriguing comment that I want to explore further with you. Our focus at Annual Conference this year was on that part of the mission statement of the new Michigan Conference that says we will work together to engage in Christ-centered mission and ministry. Our theme was “Engage.” The key Scripture reading for our time together was the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37. It ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.” Transformational Outreach Ministries (TOM) were highlighted in a series of brief vignettes shared by Michigan United Methodists from across the state. “Doing” language was prevalent.

Yet all this is a far cry from “works righteousness.” “Works righteousness” is a theological position which argues that in order to please God, one must accomplish certain tasks, do certain works. We are saved by our works. God’s love is earned. While we talked a lot about doing, about engaging in ministry, I did not hear works righteousness, nor is that my theology.

At the heart of my faith, and at the heart of a Wesleyan understanding of Christian faith (though not limited to Wesley), is grace – God’s love freely given. God’s grace works in our lives before we are even aware of it, what John Wesley called prevenient grace. God’s grace saves us, as we open our lives to God’s abounding and astonishing love, what Wesley called justifying grace. A key Scripture here is Ephesians 2:8-9a: “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works.” God’s grace also continues to work in our lives, forming us, shaping us, nurturing in us the fruits of God’s Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Wesley called this sanctifying grace, and within the Christian tradition, he is considered a strong voice in identifying the importance of this on-going work of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s Spirit in our lives. Wesley went so far as to argue that Christians should be working toward perfection, which he described, using slightly more contemporary English, as “the humble, gentle patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our attitudes, habits words and actions.” Wesley was a strong advocate for doing all the good one can.

Our conversations, celebrations and encouragements at Annual Conference were not works righteousness, trying to earn the love of God. It is because we already know the love of God so freely and generously and wildly given that we seek to love. Because we know that God so loved the world, including us, we seek to love the world as God does. It is because we think that Jesus was not only telling a story about a Samaritan, but about how God loves, that we see as a neighbor in need those wounded by the side of the road of life. We are not seeking to earn God’s love, but to live God’s love. We want to be those who “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27)

For Wesley, that could have something to do with the wider world in which we live. Among Wesley’s voluminous writings are letters and essays against slavery. In his treatise, “Thoughts Upon Slavery” (1774), Wesley wrote: Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? … But if your heart does relent, though in a small degree, know it is a call from the GOD of love…. Long and serious reflections upon the nature and consequences of slavery have convinced me, that it is a violation both of justice and religion; that it is dangerous to the safety of the community in which it prevails; that is it destructive to the growth of arts and sciences; and lastly, that it produces a numerous and very fatal train of vices, both in the slave, and in his master.–Freedom is unquestionably the birthright of all mankind; Africans as well as Europeans

This brings me back to another series of comments about Annual Conference, concern that some of the resolutions we consider are too focused on social issues, or too political. Wesley seemed to think that living out our faith, living out God’s love, might have something to do with engaging issues in the wider world. Slavery was such an issue for him. While debates about such issues can be difficult and uncomfortable, we cannot rule them out ahead of time, as some suggested in their Annual Conference feedback. I do think it would be helpful for persons to sharpen some of the language used in resolutions, noting that on occasion passion for an issue overcomes clear writing. I think all of us can ask about the impact of a resolution. Does a single letter from the Michigan Conference secretary have more impact than say 500 letters from individual Michigan United Methodists? I think we might ask if rather than legislation on some issues we would not be better served by offering discussion forums on some topics. All that said, we will continue to do our best to think and work together to live lives in a manner worthy of the gospel, to do all the good we can, not to earn God’s love but because we have been loved so lavishly by God.

One final note on Annual Conference in August. One of the resolutions passed at Annual Conference dealt with opposing state or federal legislation that would limit the rights of organizations to attempt to address injustice through means of boycotts, divestment or sanctions. The primary target of such legislation right now is to limit how organizations might seek to respond to the continuing establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since Annual Conference I have been informed that just such a piece of legislation has been passed out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I have also, in recent days, received a heartfelt and passionate letter addressed to United Methodist bishops from Alex Awad, a United Methodist Palestinian Christian, who reports on worsening conditions for the Palestinian people. As someone who has spent hours studying the Holocaust and the tragic history of anti-Semitism, and who believes strongly in democratic forms of government, I believe support for Israel is important. Support for the rights of Israel cannot blind me to injustices done to the Palestinian people, nor does support for more justice for the Palestinians excuse murderous behavior. Both sides need to be held accountable for bad behavior. There is little argument that currently it is the Israelis who hold the most power. Part of holding them accountable might be the selective use of boycotts or divestment. While not advocating a specific course of action here, I would ask us to prayerfully consider what it might mean for our government to prevent such means for holding others accountable. Please join me in praying for “the peace of Jerusalem…. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” (Psalm122:6-7)

If you’ve read this far, thank you so much, and I promise no more legislation until next May (unless you are a delegate to General Conference).