It’s the stories that stagger. I’m an introvert by nature, small talk is not my first language. But in just a few moments during a break here at General Conference, I encountered a woman from New York City whose daughter is studying to be a jazz musician, a woman from Liberia who showed me manila folders full of photos of the faces of dozens of “less fortunate” children from Liberia to whom she ministers, a newly married man from Nashville whose bold laughter turns heads, and a Palestinian man who began a ministry of reconciliation by refusing to be an enemy of the Israelis, even after they attacked his home and he was forced to move in a cave.
It’s like falling into a well-storied kaleidoscope. The colors shift and shine and certain patterns emerge. One recognizes instantly that United Methodists are not the most fashionable, nor glamorous, nor cutting-edge kind of people. Just below their surfaces, however, there’s a beauty that insists on reflecting the many faces of God.
One of my favorites of these faces is God the baptizer, the maker of new lives. Bishop Peter Weaver told the delegates about this God when he shared the story, in his episcopal address, of eight young people who he baptized in the Contoocook river in New Hampshire.
The youth were refugees from the South Congo. “They found what they thought was a safe haven in a small UN refugee camp called Gatumba, just over the border from Burundi. “One horrible night,” Weaver said, “the rebels paid off the camp guards and entered with their machine guns blazing; 166 men, women and children were massacred that night.”
One of the teens standing on the river bank waiting to be baptized survived the massacre because his father had thrown his own body over his son to shield him. The frightened son remained buried under his father’s corpse until dawn.
Also standing by the river was a mother who, the night of the massacre, had gone into labor. She was lined up to be machine gunned down, but the gunman ran out of bullets, Weaver said. The little baby boy, who was born in the mud and blood that night, stood with the United Methodists in New Hampshire, where he had been located by the United Nations, by the river waters of baptism.
The baptismal questions – do you renounce wickedness? Do you trust in God’s grace? — took on special meaning.
“You know such stories, you are such stories,” Weaver told the General Conference delegates in his episcopal address.
Called to live out, and among, these stories, United Methodists need to recognize “this is a time, not for timid tinkering, but for bold believing and fruiting flowing of the living Christ,” said Weaver in the 200th episcopal address.
Francis Asbury, the first bishop of American Methodism, didn’t like the first episcopal address, which was delivered by his successor William McKendree. But McKendree shrugged off Asbury’s reticence about the church doing a new thing. He invited Methodists “to do everything in the immediate presence of God.”
“Everything in the immediate presence of God”? That’s a way for the church to live. It’s a call to action. It’s also a perfect setting for our stories to unfold. Following Weaver’s story, the church joined in Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, claiming together, “Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.”
So be it, indeed.