I was asked some months ago to write a blog as part of a series entitled “My hope for United Methodism.” It first appeared on UM & Global’s site, but UM Insight picked it up as well.
“Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem… They looked for Jesus and said to one another as they were in the temple area, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?” John 11:55-57
The Scripture text above for the day before Palm Sunday ends with a question: Will Jesus show up? It is a question many people in the United Methodist Church are asking – sometimes with anguish in their hearts, yearning for renewal. At our best, I think we ask this question not with anxious handwringing but with what Cornel West calls a “blues sensibility” sort of faith. Our eyes are wide open to the problems in our church and world, but we have faith that Jesus will always show up. It is the faith and love of Jesus working out in our lives that moves us with hope and a persistent unconditional love for others. At our best we sing with the pathos of a famous African American spiritual as our model, yearning for the “City Called Heaven.” It is that ultimate hope expressed with the grit of a blues artist that I pray will animate our life together as United Methodists in the years to come.
Where do I see this happening? What gives me this kind of gritty hope for the UMC? I have two stories.
Just before Holy Week I gathered with fourteen people in Portland, Oregon in order to encourage one another in our experiments of living in intentional Christian communities. Most were folks from Portland, but I drove an hour with my housemate and Romanian missionary friend, David, to see what this might be. I knew some friends would be there who went through Missional Wisdom training and prayerful retreats with me, but the circle was wider than that with people who have been experimenting for less than a year to one man who had lived in an intentional Christian community for 33 years. I went to this gathering because I’ll be serving as a faculty mentor next year for two residential houses of university students who want to explore in practical ways what it means to live a deeper life of Christian fellowship that they have been reading about in the “great books” honors program I also teach in. I need help to dream what those houses could be so that my prayers would not be too small. Small prayers are a problem for many of us. On my drive home with David last night we spoke about what we experienced in that Portland living room with other disciples of Jesus. There were deep wells of wisdom there, experiences of desert wandering, and also a spirit of holy experimentation. It is the willingness to experiment and yearning to keep re-envisioning church that gives me hope for United Methodism.
My second story is a tad less contemporary. I’m a historian of the missionary movement, and one of my current projects is to examine one of the earliest and exuberantly hopeful missionary endeavors of American Methodists. No other missionary venture of early American Methodists more fired the imagination than the mission to share the Gospel of Jesus with Native Americans in Oregon. Big dreams of mass conversions of thousands of eager Native Americans (whom Methodist missionaries barely knew anything about) were quickly met with discouragement in the years after missionary arrival in Oregon in 1834. Instead of thousands yearning to become Christians they instead encountered thousands of people being decimated by diseases that had had been transmitted to the region earlier via trading ships.
The Methodist missionaries persisted in Oregon but perhaps the best missionary of the bunch, Henry Kirk White Perkins, has barely been recognized in Methodist mission histories. His journals reveal that he was probably the leading missionary linguist in the denomination at the time; he translated a good chunk of the New Testament into Sahaptin, a language of eastern Washington. He was also a man with a heart full of love for others and a belief that the Gospel truly can transform lives.
In a letter to his friend, Daniel Lee, he relays stories of a revival that took place at the Willamette Mission – a few miles south of where I now live – during a few days surrounding a Watch Night service in January of 1839. Perkins tells stories of the conversion of a half dozen Native Americans. Most were older children in the school the Methodists were running along with some adults and children of white settlers. He was especially moved by the emotional conversion of two Native American women – both named Mary. Mary Sargent had been converted the day before. She was friends with Mary Hauxhurst who was married to a white settler. As Perkins tells the story, “Mary S. arose and with joy beaming in her countenance, went and threw her arms around the neck of her friend, [Mary Hauxhurst] and they wept, and prayed together…O, thought I, this, this is religion, and religion is love. God beheld the sight, and he wiped their tears away, and in a few moments they were praising God together.”
At first glance this is not a particularly unusual conversion story. What makes it noteworthy to me is that it is the first conversion story in Oregon where – at least in the way Perkins tells it – the missionary seems to be more of an observer to one Native American woman introducing another to the saving love of Jesus. Perkins, it seems, trusted that what was happening to these two women was of God even though so much of their history and culture was unknown to him. It would still be over a year before he could preach in any language other than a rudimentary trade language the local people used.
This story that Perkins tells illustrates a hope I have for United Methodism in that we too will learn to trust one another across cultural and linguistic barriers. Perkins made plenty of mistakes in his work, to be sure, but as I have read his journals I am struck by his openness toward Native American cultural practices that were foreign to him. As he painstakingly translated Scripture day after day he was also willing to question his assumptions about how he interpreted the Bible. He even wrote back home to ask a friend for help in thinking through some passages. That letter home embodies another hope and gritty prayer I have for United Methodism – namely, that we would learn to be better friends and vulnerably ask for the help we need – from God and one another. For where two or three are gathered… Jesus will most assuredly show up.