Monday, July 25, 2011

a school of christian mission and a camp meeting

Over the past two weeks I have had the honor of leading in two very different gatherings: the Western North Carolina United Methodist Women's School of Christian Mission, held at Pfeiffer University, and the Pleasant Grove Camp Meeting, which met in Union County, approximately thirty minutes east of Charlotte.

I am grateful that the United Methodist Women chose "forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation" as one of their mission studies this year (the others are Haiti and Joy to The World, a superb theology of mission by Dana Robert of Boston University). I led our spiritual growth study, and the text was The Journey, written by Stephanie Hixon and Tom Porter. A few reflections on this experience: I was impressed with how biblical and practical The Journey is as a text. Each chapter focuses, with some depth, on a biblical passage: Jacob and Esau, the words of Jesus spoken from the cross, the Canaanite woman, the Prodigal Son, etc. The methodology included lectio divina, sacred reading, and encouraged an environment of confidential listening and respect. The authors include material related to personal forgiveness and social reconciliation, and, in the best Wesleyan sense, participants were asked to hold these two realities in tension. My interest in this topic has emerged as I have found myself in denominational roles, in the work of leading a large and complex local church, and as a participant in last summer's Center for Reconciliation conference at Duke Divinity School, which I highly recommend. I am encouraging anyone I meet these days to consider The Journey as a Lenten Study in 2012.

At some moment along the way I had the insight that this is what we actually mean when we use the language of "becoming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world". These women (more than 300 were in attendance) had three days of their time to engage in study; our class alone was eight hours. This is discipleship, which includes learning from the scriptures and stories that have shaped us, and struggling with ways to put these truths in practice. Our time together include a service of healing on one morning and the celebraton of Holy Communion at our conclusion. I also know that most of these women are leaders in their congregations and communities: they are often at the center of resolving conflict in families and local churches, and theirs is usually the voice of strength, wisdom and restraint in volatile situations. I knew that the study was relevant to their lives and mine: forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation is the journey of our lives, whether we are Jacob on the way to meet his brother Esau, or the Prodigal on the way home to find his place in the family.

I had agreed, one week later, to be the preacher at the Pleasant Grove Camp Meeting in Union County. Pleasant Grove is a campground in the sense that there are small cabins (called "tents") surrounding an arbor (worship space). This is a place of meeting and reunion for extended families from across the United States, and there is a worship service each evening, and a closing service on "Big Sunday".

I decided, in preparation, that I would stay with the theme of forgiveness, restorative justice and reconciliation at the camp meeting. Years ago I served as the pastor of a four point charge (circuit) in rural Yadkin County. Each church had a revival in the fall and the spring, with a guest evangelist. The overt purpose of these services was to "bring people to Christ"; the practical reality was that most of those present had made a profession of faith, and those in attendance were pretty much the core of the church. And so, in my inexperience, I did wonder about the purpose of these gatherings. But along the way I came to the realization that these were the contexts by which neighbors in close proximity to one another became reconciled. When you live in a rural community and no one sells property or moves away, you become estranged over time from neighbors, sometimes over small incidents. Walls get constructed and relationships suffer. The revival was an important way that enemies could become friends again.

And so I focused not only on the vertical relationship (our connection to God) but also on the horizontal relationship: our need to forgive, to make amends, to be reconciled with each other. I preached on the prodigal son, again, and in conversations around the campground learned that the issues of those present were identical to those at the school a week earlier. To be reconciled brings our spiritual and social relationships together: thus Jacob saw God face to face as he wrestled all night, but then he would see the face of God in reunion with his brother (Genesis 32. 30; 33. 10).

There is a core to the gospel, a simplicity to it: this does not imply that the teachings of Jesus are not difficult---indeed, they are demanding. As one of my mentors, Ken Callahan has said, we sometimes assume that grace is easy and law is hard, but the reverse is true: law, or legalism, is easy; to live by grace---to forgive, to make amends, to seek reconciliation---is hard. Like Jacob, it can wound us (Genesis 32.31). Like the waiting parent, it can seem undignified to run toward the returning child, or perhaps it is an active of protection in an honor and shame culture (Luke 15. 20).

At the camp meeting (which also involved several hundred people) I met those who were clearly on the journey toward reconciliation; the messages, and the acceptance they found in community (and yes, sometimes in family relationships that had become fractured) were the means by which grace was being extended to them, and my hope was that they were in fact coming "home" in some way. I had the blessing of being in fellowship with them, and being the one who reminded them of the story. Of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen has said, "All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends is there."

So two very different gatherings, a UMW School of Christian Mission and a rural Camp Meeting, which had a common experience: our human condition and our need for the grace of God, and the confession that we are all somewhere on the journey between them.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Becky Coleman said...

Thanks for sharing. School of Christian Mission remains one of the "best-kept secrets" in our church, but it can be all that you have said here. Becky Coleman, Minneapolis

8:04 AM  
Blogger Talbot Davis said...

Glad to have you posting again!

I've spoken at Pleasant Grove on many occasions -- great place! Not sure they knew what to make of the book and revival series "Unchristian," though.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Bill Everett said...

Thanks, Ken. Ken Johnson and I will be leading a four-session study process based on the book at FUMC Waynesville from October 12 to November 2. I hope this will continue to spread the word about this excellent resource.
Bill Everett

7:10 AM  
Blogger shyrgil said...

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6:49 AM  
Blogger Hayley Nicole said...

Praise God! Let's continue to lift the name of Jesus and bring him glory. God bless!

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7:00 PM  

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