“Abundant Grace and Liberating Hope”
The Cato Lecture at the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia
What is Abundant Grace and Liberating Hope?
In his Practical Divinity, one of my teachers, Thomas Langford offers a reflection on the grace of God:
“In a basic sense, grace is Jesus Christ. Grace is the specific expression of God’s nature and will, an incarnate and continuing presence. From the center in Jesus Christ, implications radiate, ranging from the prevenient grace of God to justification, regeneration, assurance, sanctification, means of grace and final glorification. The grace of God, expressed in and defined by Jesus Christ, becomes inclusive of life.” (41)
“Around this point—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—several attendant commitments form a tight nexus: biblical witness to Jesus Christ, vital experience of God in Christ as Savior and Sanctifier, commitment to human freedom and ethical discipleship, and the shaping of church life around missional responsibility”. (250)
We consider first the abundance of God’s grace. A Wesleyan framework would offer this sketch:
Prevenient grace is the presence of God in all people, prior to our acceptance of faith or response to divine revelation. We believe that every person is created in God’s image, that all persons are of “sacred worth,” and surely this is common ground, in the Wesleyan tradition, for ministries with all people. Our doctrine of prevenient grace is the basis for the conviction that no one is outside of God’s love and God’s saving activity. This resonates with Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church in Australia, that “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God”. It is important, when we move into public spaces as representative lay and clergy ministers of the gospel, to remember that we do not take the grace of God into these spaces. God’s grace is already present.
Justifying grace is the gift of salvation, which is ours through faith and apart from any merit. The ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross. We are saved by God’s grace because of faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something we possess. It’s not something we did of which we can be proud (Ephesians 2). Fleming Rutledge speaks of an active God who is “binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self‐sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly, and, indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate use of [God’s] favor.” The assurance that we can trust in the faithfulness of God through Jesus Christ to save us from sin (Romans 5) was a strong emphasis in the Reformed tradition (which led to the English phrase “justified by faith”), one of the traditions that shaped the Wesleyan heritage, and of course both of these traditions have flowed into the Uniting Church.
Sanctifying grace is the journey toward holiness, and this is our lifelong response to grace. Here our divisions become evident. Some emphasize personal (or interior or cloistered) holiness, the inward journey. Others value social justice, the reign of God with all of its public and structural implications. The former sometimes see holiness through the lens of personal purity or piety; the latter through the consequences of how it transforms communities and liberates those Jesus names, for example, in Luke 4. And of course holiness, or grace, is not bifurcated: Wesley spoke most often of sanctification as the love of God and neighbor.
God’s grace is abundant. To flatten grace is to cheapen it. To restrict grace is to deny its very essence. Grace is a gift to us, but certainly a gift to be shared, lest our being called and chosen look more like privilege (Isaiah 42). Thus grace, by its very nature, overflows the banks of our own streams into the oikos, the great household and the vast ecosystem that sustains and includes us all. And this is the basis for a hope that liberates.
A conversation about grace and hope, if it is to resonate, must take into account the real lives of those we know and serve, the real lives of those who share in this common life. Which leads to a question.
How can the Church bear witness in public spaces to the reconciling love and compassion of Christ?
+First, we are called to diagnose the present reality.
Two years ago I fell on the steps of a convention center stage. I quickly realized I could not get up, in my own strength. I was surrounded immediately by friends who took me to the nearest Emergency Room (ER).
In the ER, I was seen by the staff, and X-rays were taken. They revealed no broken bones, and so the remainder of the afternoon and evening was an exercise in the staff’s trying to release me, and my corresponding inability to stand, in my own strength. As the hours went by they gave me more and more medication, thinking this would mask the pain.
My wife finally assured them that I was not a person who was inclined to want to stay in a hospital unless it was absolutely necessary.
Later a staff member asked me, and we were now well into the evening, to lift my leg. I could not.
“Oh”, he said. I was wheeled to a room for the the night. And an MRI was scheduled for the next day. The MRI, taken the next morning, revealed a ruptured quad tendon. Surgery was scheduled for the next day.
So we ask the question: which comes first? Treatment or diagnosis?
In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz, Martin Linsky and Abraham Grashow of the Harvard Business School write:
“In most organizations, people feel pressure to solve problems quickly, to move to action. So they minimize the time spent in diagnosis, collecting data, exploring multiple possible interpretations of the situation and alternative potential interventions” (7).
Why is this so?
- We have limited time and space (like an ER).
- We want to reduce or eliminate the pain quickly.
- We think all problems benefit from the same solution.
- We think the answer is simple and too much thought is unnecessary.
The art of diagnosis, they continue is iterative, as we are “moving back and forth among data collection, interpretation and action” (7). In the ministry of leadership we do not have the luxury of being in an ivory tower, separated from those with whom we serve. From the days of Francis Asbury in 18th century America or we go could farther back to a Francis of Assisi in 12th century Italy, we too are itinerant, and it is from this itineracy that we are exposed to the data that forms the basis of our diagnosis.
The data that we collect is in the metrics, the stories, the profiles, the visits, the phone calls and e-mails and letters, the history that we celebrate and the history we would rather suppress, the long term trends, the conversations we have with each other but also the listening to God, the silence, the study of scripture, the mission field that surrounds a local church and the people in the community who are not in the church.
As we resist the urge to fix or act too quickly, we are seeking to avoid treatment without an appropriate diagnosis. Heifetz and his co-authors are clear: “The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis” (7).
So which comes first—diagnosis or treatment? Diagnosis always comes first.
For those of us who might be prone to treat the body, we do not dare suppress those voices who ask the provocative questions that lead us to diagnose what is really going on.
- Where, in the life of the church, is abundant grace?
- And where is liberating hope?
We can assess the present reality in many of our local churches, and here I will make assumptions only about North American Christianity, and acknowledge that we need to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people, to borrow the language of Lovett Weems.
If we do not find them in large numbers in our assemblies or sanctuaries, we might ask what the encounter of abundant grace and liberating hope will look like in our public spaces? And what is the most essential spiritual practice in those contexts?
+Second, we practice the art of diagnosis through listening.
I will begin to reflect on this question with reference to the Fresh Expressions movement, whose origins were in Great Britain. By definition, a Fresh Expression is a form of church that comes into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
One of our most gifted clergy in Florida, a deacon, was describing his church’s partnership with the schools and especially the at-risk children in the surrounding community. He said, “we begin with a questioning model”.
A questioning model implies that we do not begin with answers, but in a posture of listening. What are people thinking and feeling? What conversations are going on in their minds and hearts?
Of course, our listening to another person is deepened as we have been listening to God. This is one of the great insights of Dietrich’s Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:
“Many people are looking for an ear to listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But the one who can no longer listen to his brother or sister will soon be no longer listening to God.” (97-98)
Bonhoeffer goes on to describe love for God as listening to God’s word, and love for our neighbor as listening to them.
In the Fresh Expressions literature there is a term “third places”, which I will describe more fully later. Third places are settings where we can listen to each other—a coffee shop, a diner, a pub. I love the American sport of baseball. I love baseball in part because of the slow pace—when I am watching a game with a friend there is abundant time to catch up on where we have been, how our families are, what is going on in the world.
In contrast, it is true that technological devices, as helpful as they are, do not help us in the experience of really listening to each other. There is an absence of embodiment; we are not really physically present with each other. And so many have come to the practice of setting the devices aside at meals, placing them in the backpack, putting them on silent mode—everything will be captured and available when we return!
Serving in a dynamically multi-cultural state, I am in an ongoing process of improving my Spanish. One of the ways I do this is to try to speak it when I with a friend for whom this is their first language. Another, when I with two or three persons who might be Cuban or Puerto Rican, is to ask them to speak in Spanish and to tell them I will try to follow them. Another has been to read the Bible in Spanish, especially the Psalms.
One word that appears over and over again in the Psalms is escuchar, to listen. We listen to God, escucha a Dios. We ask God to hear our prayers, escucha mi oracion. We listen to each other.
Another common word is buscar, to seek, to search. Estoy buscando la scripturas, I search the scriptures. We seek and search for God, God seeks and searches for us, we seek and search for each other, and for the lost.
Listening is wrapped up in seeking and searching for each other, who we really are, what is really going on. We begin with a questioning model.
Jesus taught in an iterative way, and by constantly posing questions to his students, his disciples, as they were walking together:
- Who do you say that I am?
- What does it profit us to gain the world and forfeit our lives?
- Do you know what I have done to you?
- Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?
- When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
And perhaps, one of the most profound questions in all of scripture, found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan:
- Who Is My Neighbor?
This was in response to the law that he and we know very well—that we love our neighbor. It is very appropriate question. And of course listening is a form of love. To question is to begin with the assumption that God and grace are already present in a person’s life. It is a reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving. In my own country, one of the civic realities is that we rarely listen to each other, and beneath that is often the posture that we assume the worst about each other, and we know all there is to know. This is our impasse, in the church and in the culture.
+Third, listening implies a convicted humility.
We are in need of a convicted humility and a shared repentance. A convicted humility implies that we have convictions—beliefs and perspectives that anchor us in a place and in relation to the world—and that we hold these convictions with some degree of lightness. We do so because we see through a glass darkly, in the words of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13). Which is to say that all has not been fully revealed to us. The tagline in one U. S. denomination, that “God is still speaking”, is intended to push against the idea of a closed canon; we do listen for the conviction of the Holy Spirit, who will guide us into all of the truth (John 17).
And yet God’s corrective speech is not (merely) turned toward others, among them persons we perceive to be not as open-minded as we imagine ourselves to be, but toward ourselves. Here a convicted humility must lead to a shared repentance.
Convicted Humility has been a key part of the theological framework of the Commission on a Way Forward, the United Methodist Church’s work to address our impasse with the unity of the church and human sexuality.
“We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same sex relations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse, and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled. We pray the exaggeration of our differences will not divide us. We also recognize and affirm that as United Methodists we hold in common many more fundamental theological commitments, commitments which bind us together despite our real differences. These also have implications for how we understand and express our disagreements, and for what we do about them.
Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of corrections. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.
“We remain persuaded that the fruitfulness of the church and its witness to a fractured world are enhanced by our willingness to remain in relationship with those who share our fundamental commitments to scripture and our doctrinal standards, and yet whose views of faithfulness in this regard differ from our own.”
When we see ourselves as we really are, we can see the world as it really is. And one of the learnings of this contemplation is that we are not separate from the world. We are not “in here” and the world is not “out there”. For better or worse, we are connected, bound together, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in “an inescapable network of mutuality”. The benefit of this is that it works against our sense of isolation. The challenge is that it is humbling.
How can people of faith becomes known as people who listen? To God? And to our neighbor? And where might we undertake these spiritual practices?
+Fourth, we are incarnationally present in public spaces.
The processes of diagnosis and discernment, particularly for spiritual leaders in our time, are iterative. They occur within the movement of ministry. And yet there is a need to find the deserted places (Mark 1. 35) where we hear the still, small voice (1 Kings 19). The is the ordering of a life that includes action and contemplation.
In the work of Heifetz and his colleagues, this includes the practice of “getting on the balcony”, where we gain some distance and perspective from the day to day work of oversight and ministry, which is the dance we find ourselves in. For some, the balcony is a different geographical location (a cabin in the mountains or by a lake); for others, it is a day in a state park or a few hours of solitude in a favorite coffee venue. When I served a rural parish and the parsonage was situated between two of my congregations, the balcony was a thirty minute ride to the nearest city, and more particular a book store, a library and a favorite restaurant.
It is also true that diagnosis and discernment will take place in the “murky waters” of the events and relationships of one’s area. Here reflection happens in the midst of action: as one is leading a meeting, or mediating conflict, or preaching a sermon or counseling a clergy or lay leader. In the moment we are called to weigh an option, to interpret a situation, to suggest a way forward. The best coaches and mentors know that these settings are often better for the asking of additional questions than the definition of answers, and yet the conversations themselves are helpful.
Danny Morris and Chuck Olsen note three contexts for discernment:
- the closet (individual)
- the house (a small group of trusted friends or colleagues)
- and the sanctuary (the public assembly).
Spiritual leaders will recognize each in the ministry of Jesus—his early morning practice of retreat, his going apart with the inner circle of disciples, his public encounters with religious leaders. We will also find a rhythm of diagnosis and discernment in our own ministries—a healthy practice of quiet prayer, meditation and study; the reliance on a small group of confidants in whom we have great trust; and the public and inclusive spaces where the church often encounters both the mission field and needs of society.
In its most mature expression, spiritual leadership will occur across all three of these contexts—the closet, the house and the sanctuary—and each is essential to the other.
+Fifth, we identify and inhabit “Third Places”.
It will help to pay attention to the places where people increasingly gather, and to be less generic and more particular about defining them. The sociologist Ray Oldenburg has called these “third places”. So imagine that the first two places are your home or apartment, first, and your work, second. What is your third place? In a church culture, where I grew up in the deep south of the United States, the third place was the church. It was where you went to meet people, to help your children make friends, to play on a sports team, to make business connections, to be a meaningful part of the community, to run for political office.
The church has a presence in that culture, but increasingly it is more marginalized in most contexts. What are our emerging third places?
- Coffee shops
- Pubs and Breweries
- Arts Communities
- Political Organizations
- Sports Teams
- Digital Culture
And we could add to the list.
If we are going to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people, we are going to be incarnationally present where people increasingly gather, not where we wish them to be. This is missionary and pastoral work. We can also pay more attention to networks, and less attention to neighborhoods. People form deep relationships not necessarily with those they live closest to, in proximity, but with those with whom they share passions around intellectual life, recreation, politics, hobbies, games, media, and we could add to the list.
+And sixth, we disciple persons into the way of Jesus.
Of course the diagnosis, the listening, the incarnational presence is for the purpose of making disciples, or, more literally Matthew 28. 19) to “disciple” (mathetes) others in the Christian faith. The critique of “making” disciples is that it can be seen as formulaic or mechanistic, as if the sole focus is our own agency. The error here is that disciples come into being through the Holy Spirit. Each new disciple is an outward and visible sign of God’s abundant grace and liberating hope, not the product of our efficiency or ingenuity or ability.
I will later reflect on a model for discipling persons in the way of Jesus, described as returning to the gospel, rediscovering the charisms of the founders of our movement and reading the signs of the times.
III. How do we witness through our life and mission?
+First, we practice a Mixed Economy of Pastoral Leadership
I want to talk briefly about a mixed economy of pastoral leadership. The word “mixed economy” in the Fresh Expressions movement is traced to Archbishop Rowan Williams, who talked about new forms of church alongside inherited or parish forms of church. We might think of the church as it has existed, and the church as we see it in potential. Or we might think of the church within the walls of our buildings and the church beyond the walls of our buildings.
This frame may be helpful:
- Attractional + Missional
- Tradition + Innovation
- The Church as Building + The Church as Community
- The Church as Structure + The Church as Movement
- Inherited Church + Fresh Expression
A mixed economy holds all of this together. It is not either/or. It is both/and.
The word economy derives from the Greek word oikos. Oikos means house, household and home. We might say that housekeeping includes resources of time, space and money, and home is about boundaries of place, restorative space, and acceptance. Families are economic communities: who does the laundry? who prepares the meals? who cares for the children? who keeps the budget? And homes are deeply personal: think about your bed, your closet, household objects that were passed down to you.
So when we begin to talk about a mixed economy of pastoral leadership, it is complex. But it is a needed conversation. We cannot have mixed economies of church without mixed economies of pastoral leadership. I have thought about this, I have witnessed it, but I realize I have never articulated what is needed in the life and work of a pastor in our time. Increasingly, a mixed economy of pastoral and missional leadership is essential. And it will draw upon an ancient source: a diversity of gifts.
+Second, we recall that there is a Variety of Spiritual Gifts
Now there are varieties of gifts (charismata), but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services (diakonia), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities (energemata), but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12. 4-6)
Here Paul speaks of the relationship between gifts, service and energy. We are in our “sweet spot” when we these dynamics form a triangle. We are at our best, we are fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives, our callings, when we hold these three words together.
The word gift (charismata) is rooted in the word for grace, charis. This reminds us that any gift that we might have is a gift of God’s grace, and not our achievement or merit.
Spirituality is also connected to service (diakonia). My colleague and friend Richard Pereira of the Methodist Church of Cuba told me once of the revival in that church. Many would pray through the night to receive charismatic gifts. Once two young men came to him and said, “we prayed all night, we have received the gift, now what do you want us to do?” He responded, “Now that you have received the gift of the spirit, there is a mop, leaning against the wall. You could begin by cleaning the church!”
What is your gift?
How are you serving?
Where is your energy?
Why are we given these gifts? Paul insists that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (sympheron) (.7).
The word sympheron comes from Greek and Roman politics, and s related to coming together for mutual benefit. It is also a cognate of our word for symphony. How do we hear many voices, the pronounced and the muted voices? It is clear that we are given spiritual gifts not for individual self-definition, but for others. When I left pastoral ministry after twenty-eight years and began to serve first a district superintendent, briefly, and then as a bishop, I realized that this work is not about us. We do this work for others. We sit at these tables in order to see the gifts of others. And churches enter public spaces not to colonize them, but to seek the common good; in the language of Jeremiah, the shalom of the city.
+Third, we seek to recover the Qualities of a Movement within our Institutions.
So I went through surgery, on my ruptured quad tendon, and then summer of physical therapy. The therapist would work with me, and in the first stages that was to keep the leg straight, to heal. But then one day he said to me, now we enter a different phase. We need to regain the range of motion. I needed to learn again how to do what I had once been able to do, bend, be flexible. I remembered a phrase, “muscle memory”. And I connected that with the church. How can we become a movement again? How can we be flexible? How can an institution regain a range of motion that allows it to be in life and ministry with new people, younger people and more diverse people?
How do we regain our strength, for the purpose of offering abundant grace and liberating hope?
Sustained by Abundant Grace, Resilient in Liberating Hope
Andrew Zolli has defined resilience as
“is the capacity of a person, system or enterprise to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”
I am indebted to Bishop Janice Huie, who led a group of our leaders this summer to reflect on resilience in this complex season of ministry. Our time together in retreat led us to ask a few key questions:
- What is our core purpose?
- What does it mean for us to live with integrity?
- What are signs of our dramatically changed circumstances?
We also understood that the practice of resilience, as leaders, was closely related to our resilience as persons, how we are anchored spiritually, which is akin to the Wesleyan question, “how is it with our souls?”, how we are participating in networks, again, framed biblically, “are we watching over one another in love?”, our humility and our courage. In other words, the renewal of our institutions and our movement cannot be separated from our own personal and spiritual renewal.
So how do you take this away, based on who you are? How you take all that you have learned, in your formation and the formation of your people, and how you integrate this with your context?
How do you engage with problems, such as—
- I cannot be myself and be in ministry.
- We don’t know who we are as a church.
- Our church is overcome by depression or grief which manifests itself as displaced anger.
- We are not connected with our community or context.
Here I rely on the work done by my friend Martyn Atkins of Westminster Central Hall in London, in his book, Resourcing Renewal. His pattern is both a way of renewal and, more basically, a way of becoming disciples in the way of Jesus.
+First, we return to the Gospel (Identity)
- How do we return to the gospel each day?
- How do we live a life shaped by the mind of Jesus (which is both humility and courage!)?
- What patterns and habits in the life of Jesus do we see?
- What core teachings of Jesus are at the heart of our calling?
Here is a simple model of returning to the gospel each day, based on Design Thinking. Of course you might adapt it to your own spiritual practice.
- Immerse yourself in the gospel. Read a verse, or a passage, or a chapter. Practice centering prayer. Imagine with the senses. Taste and see. Journal. Draw. Doodle.
- Expand your perceptions. Where did you see Jesus in the past 24 hours? What are you most grateful for? What are you most anxious or fearful or disturbed about?
- Design the day. What can you engage? What can you let go of? How can you share? How can meals be different? How can technology be different? How is friendship a part of your life?
- Act on the gospel. What are one to three actions that are the most urgent? That will have the most impact? How might you imitate Christ in a small way?
+Second, we rediscover the Founding Charisms, or Charisms of the Founders. (Purpose)—why you were set apart, ordained or took on membership promises to lead this particular community
Doris Donnelly writes, “Charisms are a special variety of gifts dispersed through the Holy Spirit in Church and world, as needed, for the common good.”
- Why do we exist, as a church?
- What is distinctive about the Uniting Church? (resources for bearing with one another in love)
- What is it that contributes to the larger church’s witness in a community?
- How can we define our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) as the mission of the church (missiology)?
A brief reflection from my own tradition, from the late Bishop Rueben Job:
“Methodist life was marked by a deep and authentic personal piety that led to a broad and uncompromising social involvement. Methodists were known for their prayers and for their commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. This commitment resulted in persistent efforts to build houses of prayer and worship as well as consistent efforts to visit the prisons, build schools and hospitals, and work for laws which moved toward a just and peaceful social order. Not everyone agreed with or applauded the way early Methodists lived, but it did not require many at any one place to make a difference. Because they took their relationship to Jesus Christ with utmost seriousness, their life of prayer and witness was readily identified and often contagious as many wanted what Methodists appeared to have.
“Among these Methodist gifts were a certain knowledge of their own salvation, and at-homeness in this world and confidence in the next, a living companionship with a living Christ, and access to the power of God that could and did transform the most broken and hopeless persons into productive, joyful and faithful disciples. Such was the power of God at work in the way Methodists lived. Methodists believed that they were to be the leaven that God could use to transform the church and the world.”
+Third we read the Signs of the Times (Context)
If we are spiritual leaders in positions of oversight, we are called to undertake the integrative work of diagnosis and discernment with great seriousness. The Lord, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah about the qualities of the prophets and priests in the sixth century B.C., gives voice to our crisis: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace” (6. 14).
Spiritual leadership is of vital importance because there is a great deal at stake—in many communities the health of the faith community and its capacity to support and engage is the difference between life and death for many, especially children and youth.
One of the most significant models of diagnosis and discernment in the public sphere in my own country can be found in the ministry of William Barber, the pastor and activist from Goldsboro, North Carolina in the United States. In his memoir The Third Reconstruction, he describes a process that leads to civil disobedience that includes
- gathering data and facts
- an attempt to negotiate with those in power
- the self-purification that enters into a suffering that transforms enemies into friends
- direct action and acceptance of consequences
To read the signs of the times, in the language of Vatican II, is a complex art. We will become more collaborative, more conversant with the literature of adaptive change, and more immersed in the spiritual disciplines of our faith. This will require more, not less, from each of us. Thus our need for resilience. And yet the massive human needs in the world alongside the fragile state of the church itself call for leadership and oversight—guidance, encouragement, accountability—that incorporates the excellence of human wisdom, the depth of scripture and the best of our traditions.
Atkins describes the method as undertaking these three practices together (234) and not in a linear way. Renewal comes through…
Identity~The question, “Who are we?”, which is rooted in a return to the gospel.
Purpose~The question, “Why are we here?”, which is grounded in a a rediscovery of the founding charisms.
Context~The question, “When and where do we live?”, which is based on our reading of the signs of the times.
Conclusion: A Confidence in the Gospel that is Abundant Grace and Liberating Hope
I conclude with a word from Vincent Donovan's memoir, Christianity Rediscovered, and the prophet Isaiah.
“We are called to announce the good news of Jesus and trust that those of other cultures and generations will interpret it for themselves. Ours is to communicate, theirs is to respond. We must know the gospel and teach it, but not force our interpretations on others. We are tempted to align with political or economic systems, but these are not and can never be equated with the kingdom of God. Neither is the church the kingdom of God. The church is always on the way to the kingdom and is only a part of the mission of God.
“The goal of evangelism is to place all things under the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is our destiny and the evangelist or pastor or missionary or witness is simply a channel of hope for those who do not have it. Leadership is not calling people back to where we once were, or where we ourselves are at the moment. Leadership is going with people, across generations and cultures, to a place neither they nor we have been before.”
And from Isaiah 41.
God has called and chosen us, not for privilege, but to be a servant church in the public spaces where you are already present and awaiting us. But in the service there is fatigue and fear: fatigue in the enormity of all that needs to be repaired in this world, fear in the prospect that we are not the people we imagine ourselves to be.
Yet the good news could not be more clearly stated; again and again the Lord says to us, "do not be afraid”. God is with us, God is for us, to keep our feet from stumbling, on the iterative way. How firm foundation a foundation, indeed.
So in this season of scarcity, will believe that you will relieve our fatigue, Lord, with your abundant grace.
And in this season of despair, we trust that you will remove our fears, with your liberating hope.
(Ken Carter is president of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, which is composed of twelve million members in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States. He also serves the Florida Conference, which includes over eight hundred local churches and Fresh Expressions of church in a region that stretches from Jacksonville and Tallahassee to the Keys. He is greatly honored to give the Cato Lecture in the Assembly where his and his wife Pam’s classmate and friend at Duke Divinity School, Deidre Palmer, is installed as President of the Uniting Church in Australia.)