I saw it as soon as I walked into the darkness of the small log church. It was the smallest item in the room, but it caught my eye first, just the same.
There were plenty of other things to notice. There was very little light, only a bit of sunlight streaming in through a very small window in the balcony and what little sunlight could squeeze in around the people standing in the doorway. The smell of the small room was old, of old wood that had been fashioned into benches where countless people sat, across the years, straight backed and proper and of old logs that formed walls and beams. A large hand wrought pulpit dominated the front of the room and there was a balcony that encircled the room on three sides. So, there was much to see and feel and notice.
There, at the base of the very imposing pulpit was the small table that caught my eye when I first entered. The wear and tear on this small table was obvious. There were repairs to the legs and carvings in the top. The top was well worn, smooth. And the wood had lightened over the centuries, but this small, well-worn table claimed a place of honor in this historic church. It was the table that had served as the communion table in the Rehoboth Methodist Church, which is the oldest standing Protestant Church building, west of the Alleghenies.
I had the honor of visiting this church this past week with the Provisional members of the WV Annual Conference who are part of the Residency program. Rev. Bart Thompson, Rev. Alan Williams and I are co-directors of this program. This visit to Rehoboth was our last Residency meeting before Annual Conference.
I had never been to this shrine before, but as lover of history I was excited to visit this historical Methodist site in Monroe County, WV. I knew that our speakers, Dr. Lawrence Sherwood and Anita Tracy, would tell stories about the early Circuit Riders who were responsible for this congregation. I knew that we would hear stories of the early church members on this wild frontier, brave souls who survived the wilderness day by day and looked forward to the monthly preaching services, where their souls were soothed by singing hymns and listening to the words of scripture and sermons that would inspire the next round of survival living on the frontier.
And I knew that I would hear stories about Bishop Francis Asbury, a giant of American Methodist history, who visited Rehoboth on four occasions, who preached the word of God, and who stood behind this very table that caught my eye, lifted the bread and the cup, and consecrated these elements for this congregation of frontier families, so their souls could be nourished by the sacrament.
Bishop Asbury was the ultimate Circuit Rider, traveling all over, visiting communities and congregations where there were people called Methodists. In his journal, as he was leaving England for America, he wrote: “Whither am I going? To the New World. To gain honor? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do.” (From The tours of Bishop Francis Asbury in West Virginia, 1776-1815 by Dr. Lawrence Sherwood). And Bishop Asbury faithfully served God, preaching to all who would listen and bringing encouragement and hope to those living difficult lives on the frontier.
For a while, I sat in quiet in this small church, thinking and praying for the events of my life these days. I looked intently at the small table, where later, the bread and the cup would rest, waiting to refresh the souls of people whom God had called to ministry. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Bishop Asbury standing behind the table, lifting the bread and the cup, praying in a booming voice.
What I felt was the presence of hundreds of saints who had worshiped in this space across the last 231 years and I felt I was sitting in the midst of history, where God had been worshiped and where God encouraged, forgave, challenged, and soothed the souls of the faithful who gathered in that space.
I sat and listened to the stories and let my imagination go in this holy space, but all the while I knew that I would come to a time when I would stand in front and preach to these provisional members of our Annual Conference. While I wasn’t nervous to preach in front of these colleagues, I was aware of the countless preachers who had stood in that same place for over 200 years. And I was aware of the presence of God.
And so, I began. I talked about journeys, how we are all on faith journeys, life journeys and how we are called to help others along their journeys. I talked about how God is with us on the journeys, despite the times when we will stray from the path or when God takes us down paths that are narrow and treacherous. We all prayed over walking sticks that were presented to our third year class, who will be ordained at Annual Conference. We shared Holy Communion, consecrated at that table, where hundreds of years before Bishop Asbury consecrated the elements of bread and the cup.
It was a powerful moment for me. Life can bring all of us powerful moments and when it does, it is important to savor the moments and notice where God is in the moment. I felt the presence of God in those moments of preaching to and sharing communion with the members of this residency group. And as I felt that presence I felt that God was offering encouragement and hope as these provisional members move on to ordination.
The United Methodist Church is divided these days. Just this morning, an email from Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball called us to love and to prayer. I have so much respect for this call because if we are concentrating on loving deeply and praying fervently, without our own agendas, then I feel that we can discern where God is taking us. I know that it is only when we pray without our own agendas that loving deeply can take place and this loving deeply is what God calls us to in our lives of faith. Loving deeply can help us to see people, all people, as the Gospel bids us to do—not with eyes of judgement, but with eyes and hearts of love.
In that moment when I was preaching, there, sitting before me was a group of provisional members, folks that God has called into ministry and is encouraging them on their journeys. And as I write this, I am reminded that God encourages all of us, no matter who we are or what we do, to love deeply, to pray deeply, without our own agendas. There are so many situations in the world that need eyes and hearts of love.
There are holy moments in our lives often and yet, so often we miss them and what God is trying to tell us and encourage us to do. Now, maybe more than ever, our world, our leaders, our friends, our neighbors need us to pay attention to those holy moments when God is encouraging us to see those around us with eyes and hearts of love.
May we all experience those holy moments that God puts in our lives to challenge and encourage us.
To God alone be glory!