A post from Rev. Tom Snyder, Pastor Emeritus and Visitation Pastor, First and Christ United Methodist Churches, Ashland, Ohio.
A recent post on Facebook is a cartoon of three bookshelves with history books, each dated by its particular year beginning in 1999. That is until this year, 2020, which has not even reached the halfway mark, is up to six volumes already! One wag has observed, "The future just ain't what it used to be". We might add, nor are our recent past, nor the uncertain, chaotic, volatile present we are living through moment by moment. My response to the frequent expectation that "when things return to normal…" is the same as to those who wish to turn on their heels and march into an unrepeatable past: "It is not possible!"
There are uses for history, however, other than a destination for retreat and comforting nostalgia. For better or worse, history reminds us of our origins, where foundational values originated, the lives of those who founded and shaped our heritage; some of these are positive, some negative, some no longer applicable to our time, some even harmful, yet they are there for our assessment and learning to address the time in which we live.
We of Methodist heritage were reminded in Michael Gerson's excellent column in today's Ashland Times-Gazette of the social witness of our movement’s founder, John Wesley. While theologically evangelical, politically conservative, ecclesiastically traditional, and a powerful advocate and example for what he called "holy living", anchored in all this, Wesley never feared to express ideas or adopt practices prompted by the demands of his time.
Gerson highlights Wesley's denunciation of the scourge of slavery, a pillar of eighteenth century British economy. Undergirded by faith in Christ, Wesley based his argument on the absolute value of each person created in the image of God, "universally capable of accepting God's offer of saving grace." His appeal was to every person’s humanity engaging every other person’s human dignity. His direct question to the slave trader was, "Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle of compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain?" These are timeless questions; for us in 2020, volume six, they are also timely!
Pictured in the stained glass window above is Wesley preaching outdoors to the crowds in Moorfields, the city of London with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background. When the churches not only closed their ears but their doors to his message, he went to where the people were. It was radical and it was innovative. In the face of opposition, his mission was to make Christ present-- to individuals, the Church, to oppressive institutions, to the suffering of society, and if you and I honor this part of our heritage, to us as well.
When the former Methodist Episcopal Church adopted its first set of "Social Principles" at its 1908 General Conference, a forward-looking action among Protestant denominations at the time, it denounced and called for an end to child labor. Children as young as six or seven worked in deplorable conditions, some twelve hours a day, every day. The loudest outcry reacting to the principles was against the condemnation of child labor. We cannot imagine such an outcry. When the Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; and the Methodist Protestant Church; which had all split apart in 1844 over the issue of slavery, came back together in 1939 to form the Methodist Church, the merger was based on a compromise that all black Methodist churches were segregated into their own Central Jurisdiction, an injustice not rectified until 1964. We cannot imagine such a compromise. In my lifetime, when clergy joined in the civil rights movement, some at the cost of their lives, a popular demand was that it was "time for them to get off the streets and back in to their pulpits". I heard it myself, but remain astonished at the call for such a truncated Gospel.
John Wesley also famously asserted, "The world is my parish". Beloved, as United Methodists in 2020, volume six, and getting ready for volume seven, it is ours as well.
Faithfully, in love, Pastor Tom+