Over the course of my life, I have been involved with many churches. Recently, I decided to count just how many churches I have been a part of and I came up with 34 churches that I have been a part of over my life, 35 if I count my grandparents’ church. I have been involved in the lives of these 35 churches because either I served them as pastor or a member of my family served them as pastor. Each church has been unique, having successes and struggles.
Of all these churches, Eldbrooke United Methodist Church is the church where I learned why I am United Methodist. It was the church where I worked during my first seminary years at Wesley Theological School in Washington, DC. The church was named for Mr. Eld and Mr. Brooke and was originally established as Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in 1840. It was built at the intersection of River Road and Wisconsin Ave., NW when there was still farmland surrounding it. During the Civil War, the building that was there was used as a hospital and the surrounding grounds were used as encampments. A small cemetery is directly behind the present day church, which was constructed in 1926.
The first time I walked into the building I was startled by what I saw and how I felt. The building was old and beautiful, stately and, at that time, well cared for and it felt holy, like generations of saints had worshiped there and left their voices still silently singing their praises to Christ, their Lord. At certain times of the day, the presence of these saints seemed to float on the ethereal stained glass colors enhanced by the afternoon sunlight. It was a holy place.
The congregation was an old congregation, with the youngest member around mid-seventies. The neighborhood had changed so many times and the congregation knew that constant transitions, the older congregation, and limited resources would make it difficult for new families to make Eldbrooke their church home. So the congregation made a decision that in the last years that the church had left, they would open their doors to as many seminary students as they could and teach them what it meant to be United Methodist.
I was born into a Methodist family, where my father was a Methodist preacher and in 1968, I became a United Methodist as the church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren church. I went to college at a United Methodist college. I thought I knew what it meant to be United Methodist and I did, for the most part, but it was the congregation of Eldbrooke United Methodist church that taught me to live as a United Methodist.
This congregation taught me to welcome all people. The building was massive and so they opened the third floor to a music school, paying the utilities so that as many people, young and old, could come for all kinds of music lessons. Recitals were something that happened frequently and the congregation was always invited. The basement floor was opened to a business school that helped people, of all nationalities, receive training in all avenues of business, helping many people to find jobs to support their families.
The congregation invited many music students from American University to come and be a part of the choir, helping with small stipends so that many of these students could afford to live in the city. They taught these musicians to proclaim good news and to hear good news and to pass on what they could to others.
The congregation listened patiently to many, many seminary students as we learned to preach. They surrounded us in all sorts of life adventures. When I went to India and Pakistan in my last year, they supported me and encouraged me to tell stories and write about my experiences, inviting the District Superintendent to come hear me preach and in turn, he published my sermon in the district newsletter that circulated throughout United Methodist churches in the DC area. The support that I felt from this congregation was an amazing gift that came so naturally to them.
This congregation was involved in feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, protecting those who came to us in fear. They work with peace ministries and ecumenical ministries. They encouraged us in whatever we wanted to try. Their only question when we pitched ideas to them was: “Have you sought the Spirit in this?”
John Wesley would have been extremely proud of Eldbrooke’s witness in our nation’s capital. This congregation loved the passage found in Matthew 25:46 and following. And they loved how John Wesley interpreted and preached the words of Jesus. They helped me to connect with my Wesleyan roots and to know how deeply Wesley was rooted in the words of Jesus.
I have thought about this congregation as we have entered February and as we move to the countdown of days before the special session of General Conference that will take place February 23-26. Like many United Methodist across the globe, the saints of Eldbrooke would feel deep sorrow for their beloved church and the controversy that faces us now. It is a controversy that centers around questions about ordination and about the inclusiveness of all people in ordination, including LGBTQ people. It is a painful issue. It has become a divisive issue. It is an issue that is deep in my heart, in my prayers.
Over the past several months I have wondered how to address the upcoming General Conference. I have wondered how to write about it, how to preach about it. This beloved church that I love so much and that I know God loves so much is at a crisis moment and as I have thought about the upcoming General Conference, I have heard the voices of the congregation at Eldbrooke saying to me: “Have you sought the Spirit in this?”
Yes, I have sought the Spirit. For months now I have sought the Spirit, to know how to address the circumstance, how to reflect and write about the work that needs to be accomplished, how to preach about it. The words that have come to me out of this searching have been these words that resound deeply in my soul.
Call my people to prayer.
Do no harm.
Stay in love with God.
Call my people to pray.
It is clear to me that our prayer is important for this time in our church. The presence and working of the Holy Spirit is most important for those three days, so important that on February 23, before anything else gets started at General Conference, there will be a Day of Prayer. From 9-10 am there will be an opening prayer service for all delegates and visitors. From 10 am – 2 pm there will be experiential prayer guided by bishops from the four different regions of the world. A prayer room will be consecrated. There will be self-directed prayer. Seven prayer stations will be offered including stations for Thanksgiving, Intercession, Wisdom and Discernment, Unity, The Kingdom of God, Addressing Violence, and Humility and Compassion. Then the Day of prayer will close at 2:00 pm with prayer service and Holy Communion.
God is calling us to pray and what I know to be difficult about this call to prayer is that God is not calling us to pray for a particular outcome, but for the guidance, wisdom, and presence of the Holy Spirit to be felt, drawing the delegates to the heart and mind of Christ, and the grace and mercy of God. When the guidance, wisdom and presence of the Holy Spirit is felt—truly felt–the delegates will know what to do.
This is a difficult way to pray because as humans we often think that what we feel and are passionate about is the truth and the heart of God. We can read scripture many ways and find justification for what we think is right, what we know to be right. And we are so certain that we are right that we miss the presence of the Holy Spirit trying to help us understand what the heart of God really is.
As a child of the South, I know this to be true. At the time of desegregation, there was also much hatred found, even in the church. For decades Southern Christians—Methodists–read scripture with their own hearts’ desire in mind, leaving little room for the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were determined to justify the institution of slavery and after the Civil War, racism. Slavery and racism ARE NOT at the heart of God. Mercy, love, justice, and peace are at the heart of God and it is the work of the Holy Spirit that helps us to know and desire mercy, love, justice, and peace for all people and to help us know that even when we are wrong in our convictions God is merciful to us.
If there has ever been a time for the Holy Spirit to stir us, to breathe upon us, to guide us, this IS the time. If there has ever been a time for Holy Spirit to lead us to focus on mercy, love, justice, and peace for all people, this IS the time.
Call my people to prayer.
As I hear these words, I hear three phrases: Do no harm; Do good; Stay in love with God. These phrases are important to United Methodists. These are John Wesley’s three simple rules for living. As I have been praying for General Conference, these phrases have risen in my heart and become part of my prayer.
Do no harm
Stay in love with God
The phrases have been part of my prayers as I have prayed for bishops, delegates, conference leaders and all the visitors who will attend General Conference. These phrases have been part of my prayers as I have prayed for United Methodist members and congregations worldwide. These phrases have been part of my prayers as I have prayed for all people whose lives can be touched by the ministries of the United Methodist Church. These phrases have been part of my prayers as I have prayed for anyone who might be harmed by the division in our church past and present.
The late Bishop Reuben Job, in his book on Wesley’s Three Simple Rules, writes about another time:
“I frequently receive mailings from denominational groups that appear to be intended not so much to nurture and heal as to divide and conquer. So often the rhetoric seems more like gossip than truth-telling in love, aimed at discovery and mutuality. The division, partisanship, and sharp criticism, not only of positions but also of persons, have not strengthened denominations, communities, congregations, families, or individuals. The louder our voices and the more strident our rhetoric, the weaker and more wounded we ourselves become. Our witness to the redeeming love of God loses its authenticity…
Is our way of living life-giving rather than life-draining?…
Disagreement, dialogue, and debate are not foreign to followers of Christ. We are not strangers to honest conversation, patience, loving acceptance, compromise, and mutual agreement.
And yet in recent years, it seems that these attributes have not been welcome guests or widely cultivated in our midst.”
We are not the first community of faith to have difficult issues to solve or with living faithfully. The author of Colossians clearly had these kinds of struggles in mind when he wrote:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14, NRSV)
John Wesley also knew that there could be times just such as the time we are experiencing now, when we are at a disagreement that threatens to divide the church and cause hatred and pain. These three simple rules grew out of such knowledge and experience. These rules are meant to be rules, based on the teachings of Jesus, that offer us guidance for living and for anything that we face:
Do no harm
Stay in love with God
These three rules, of John Wesley, have given me much to ponder as I have opened my heart to prayer in ways I never have before. These three rules, of John Wesley, have reminded me, like the saints of Eldbrooke taught me, of the reasons why I am United Methodist. Over the next few days, as we move toward this weekend and General Conference in St. Louis, I will be writing about what these three rules means to me as a United Methodist committed to justice and peace.
To God alone be glory!