The agenda for the Florida Annual Conference at the Tampa Convention Center June 1-4 was designed to support Bishop Timothy Whitaker’s 2011 theme, “Transforming the World by Living as Peacemakers.”
In a series of messages delivered during plenary sessions, four speakers emphasized various aspects of peace, from ethics to pastoral care to justice to leadership.
“WHO IS OUR GOD?”
Dr. Daniel Bell, professor of Theological Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., was the keynote speaker for the Conference on June 1. He opened his remarks with a question posed by Martin Luther King, Jr., when the civil rights leader passed by churches in his travels. “What kind of people worship there?” King asked, and “Who is their God?”
“This annual conference,” Bell said, “represents almost 700 congregations and missions. What kind of people worship here? What kind of people are we? And, who is our God?”
|Dr. Daniel Bell|
Just as important, he suggested, is how the people who live around our churches perceive our faith. What would they say about the kind of people we are and the kind of God we worship?
“Are we known as peacemakers?” Bell asked. “Is our God a God of peace? Do we reflect God’s desire for peace? Jesus bestowed the gift of peace on the disciples, and we share peace in communion. Do we keep it to ourselves, or are we tenacious in sharing peace in our communities?”
Bell argued that, while Christ is our peace, it is a peace experienced in two dimensions. We have peace through Jesus because in Christ God reconciled the world to himself. This is peace understood vertically.
“But if we stop here,” Bell said, “we have failed to proclaim the good news. Because the second dimension is horizontal, the peace that reconciles humans with one another and creation.”
We err, Bell said, when we say that peace with God and with humans are two different things.
“Love God and love your neighbor,” Bell said. “Christ joined these two together. … Churches are not supposed to be fortresses or escape pods, but lighthouses, mission stations, base camps.”
These questions matter, Bell concluded, because so many studies suggest that faith is not compelling because people can see no difference between Christians and non-Christians.
“Or, as one atheist famously said, ‘I’d be more inclined to go to church if Christians would sing better songs and look a little more redeemed.’ If Christ really makes a difference then we will reflect that,” Bell said.
PEACE IN A GODLY LIFE
The Rev. James McWhinnie, senior pastor at Venice-Nokomis United Methodist Church, was the preacher at the Annual Conference’s Service of Remembrance on June 2. He took as his text Luke 2:29, where Simeon told God, “You may now dismiss your servant in peace.”
|The Rev. James McWhinnie|
McWhinnie referred to “the peace we all seek,” and shared stories illustrating how the faithfulness of ministers who died during the past year translated the peace of God into the lives of many people over the years.
He repeated a story about Winston Churchill, who often walked Westminster Abbey in the middle of the night during World War II. “Yes, I come to pray,” the prime minister said when questioned. “But far more I come to listen to the footsteps of kings and listen for the echoes of immortality.”
“This is why we are here,” McWhinnie said, “To listen for the footsteps of those who have gone on, to hear once more the echoes from immortality that we might find our courage for today and hope for days to come. Those we remember today gave to us the peace of an immortal cause, a calling far greater than merely ourselves.
“We’re here because your loved ones and ours gave to all of us the peace that’s found in a godly life formed by way of a gentle grace; set before us evidence that they were men and women filled with the character of God, filled with the compassion of Christ. Not merely church professionals but godly souls, lovingly created by the gentle grace of God,” he said.
“PEACE FLOWIN’ LIKE A RIVER”
At the Gospel Service on June 3, the Rev. Geraldine McClellan, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant UMC in Gainesville, read from 1 Corinthians 12:12: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body…” She delivered an impassioned message on inclusiveness and unity in the Body of Christ.
“This is a call to speak up,” she said. “If you are in Christ you are somebody special. Doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, black, white, Native-American, single, old, young. … If you’re a believer, then you are somebody special in the body of Christ.”
|The Rev. Geraldine McClellan|
McClellan drew the first of a series of “amens” and outbreaks of applause when she said, “We have no business acting like those outside the body of Christ!”
She pointed out that peacemaking is about relationships rather than simply tolerating one-another. “We are one,” she said, “and we must cultivate love among each other. I may not like what you do but that does not stop me from loving you.”
McClellan shared some of her own struggle during 31 years in ministry, her experiences of being put down, rejected and made to feel unworthy in her calling.
“And nobody spoke up,” she said. “I carried my hurt and pain, but many won’t speak up still. They are afraid of losing status and popularity. But the time for reconciliation is now, and all it takes is to speak up. We must speak up for one another. We must right the wrongs that separate. We must open doors to conversation. We must let our differences exist, and sing the glory of God.”
McClellan argued that it’s critically important the church show the world that we can live in harmony, that the church is where people dare to act against injustice and risk unpopularity because Christians refuse to cooperate with evil. She said the church is at a critical turning point.
“The choice is always unite or die,” she said. “We feel the death even now, so we have no other choice but to unite, to build on foundation of togetherness, not separateness. … Together we can paint an offering to the master artist, God. We are all colored human.”
AN EVENING WITH THE BISHOP
On June 3, Bishop Timothy Whitaker shared a message that tied peacemaking to the idea of “churchcraft,” which he defined as the body of skills necessary for building up the body of Christ and a sensibility about what the church is. He confessed some difficulty with pinning down the spirit of churchcraft but said it’s a practice as old as Christianity itself.
“The church is God’s creation,” he said. “God established the church following the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The church is God’s gift to the world. It is the visible body of Christ.”
|Bishop Timothy Whitaker|
Consequently, Whitaker argued, while it is popular to rail against “institutions,” God did create the church and so the church must organize itself to move effectively in the world. The apostle Paul spoke of himself as a skilled master-builder, and likewise we are all called to give our best skill to churchcraft, he said.
“There are certain elements to a craft – commitment to the task, a study of manuals, developing practical experience, and the passing on of skills and traditions to others, worker to worker. It is the same with churchcraft,” he said.
Churchcraft, Whitaker said, involves learning how to be church members and church leaders with order, faithful commitment and appropriate communication. He expressed concern that the tradition of churchcraft has broken down.
“I think, generally, in the United Methodist Church, we have begun to take this for granted. I think it’s been a mistake. I’ve learned, through traveling the world, that where the church is vital and effective, they take churchcraft very seriously. They’re really doing kingdom work,” he said.
Whitaker talked about the meaning of church membership and the value of understanding and implementing church polity. Membership is not the same as joining, he said, because in membership we enter a covenant relationship with Christ, with the church universal, with the United Methodist Church, and with the local congregation, in that order.
The bishop noted that some pastors no longer require new members to use the traditional membership vows.
“Nobody gave you permission to skip these,” he said, pointedly. “It’s a mistake. The Methodist Church is only justified if it’s a faithful part of the universal church of Jesus Christ.”
The bishop talked about the critical importance of prayer, both for one another and for the Body of Christ, and about communication in the local church.
“This ordinary, mundane stuff serves the mission of the church,” Whitaker said. “When we don’t do this with care we have confusion, disruption and distraction – energy wasted on negatives.”