This statement is in the realm of “Well, I’d never heard that before.” This week at the Minnesota gathering of the United Methodist Church our bishop pointed out that this gathering which we do once a year once had a very practical purpose. In the days when the small gatherings of people who had hung their faith-star to the ministry of a man who became known as the founder of Methodism, the communities were scattered all over a newly settled land. Preachers rode from settlement to settlement on horses giving rise to the name of ‘circuit riders.’ These faithful held on to one another in a landscape that was new to them, one they were trying to learn to call home. But once a year, the preachers gathered for an annual conference. The primary purpose? To see who was still alive!
I had never heard this before and after the bishop told this story, I began to think about these early holders of this faith tradition. I imagined their difficult and dangerous life. I also imagined what it must have been like to travel dusty roads, sleep in precarious places, not know where your next meal might be found, all in the work of telling the goodness of God while bringing hope to a marginalized people. Frankly, it makes my daily work seem quite easy if not trivial.
But to think about the idea of these men, and they were at that time all men, coming together for the purpose of proving to one another that they were, indeed, still alive gave me pause. Still alive after riding dangerous roads. Still alive after sleeping in the heat, cold, snow, rain. Still alive after eating food caught, shot, received as gift. Food that was held without benefit of refrigeration. Wounds that were treated without benefit of antibiotics. “Are we all still alive?”, they asked.
Of course, this gathering, this annual conference of which I have been a part did not carry such a dramatic question at its heart. At least, not in the sense that our ancestors did. And yet, there is a sense in which this question, this intention still holds true.
I know of those whose work in their churches has been difficult, painful and down right spirit-killing. There are those whose gifts have not been used in the ways in which they have been offered, ways that might have brought life to their community and life to the one who was making the offering. There are those who have had difficult life situations that have made doing ministry a complicated and fragmented enterprise. Are they still alive?
As a church we continue to be embroiled in speaking the language of inclusion while taking actions and passing legislation that denies our intention. We have conversations and debates that spin endlessly and arrive in no particular place. Many of these conversations hold the seeds for change without the courage to plant them. We are reluctant gardeners. The message of justice that has been at the core of this movement called Methodist since its beginning often gets lost in the minutiae of language and the very diversity that gives us our identity. Are we still alive?
Charles Wesley, the brother of our founder John, wrote these words to a hymn we sing often: “And are we yet alive, And see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give, for God’s almighty grace!” This being church is a tricky business, filled with fragile humans, all trying to live out their faith the best way they know to do. When I think of this week, the many joys and the deep pains that have been shared, it is the blessing of the faces I will remember. The tired faces of those who have labored long and hard. The glowing faces of those who are full of the idealism of youth. The inspired faces of the newly ordained. The faces of those who are retiring and have a mixture of wonder, weariness and resolve. The faces of the faithful with all our differences….theological, political, educational, economic, racial, gender, social.
Next year, when we gather to ask the question once again, “Are we still alive?” there may be faces who will have faded into the distance, those who have left this earth. Some will have given up on this thing called United Methodism and will have taken their questions and wonderings someplace else. I pray God’s blessing on all these faces and those who will show up, yet once again, to prove to one another that, indeed, we may be bruised, we may be battered, but indeed we are still alive.