Center Lines - July 2008

Two strands of thought came together as I prepared this month’s reflection.  One was from Bishop Felton May.  Bishop May served our conference in the mid-1980's.  He is now retired.  For the past several months and until September 1, he is the Interim General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM).

At the GBGM’s March 10-13 meeting, Bishop May suggested that “the church needs to think less about charity and more about justice.”  He made the remark as he noted that 2008 is the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Report.  The Kerner Commission was formed in response to social unrest across the United States in the 1960's.  The Commission’s final report included the often-quoted conclusion that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white- separate and unequal.”  In remembering the report’s 40th anniversary Bishop May, lifted up that its information on poverty “reminds us of the unfinished agenda in the United States and the world.”

Bishop May offered these thoughts as he praised a program that speaks to the link between poverty and health problems.  In particular, he referenced a Volunteers in Medicine clinic in South Carolina in which retired doctors, nurses and other health professionals volunteer their retirement time to staff free clinics for those without health care.  The volunteers’ contributions help to break the cycle of poor health leading to poverty which then lead to even more poor health.  Their work empowers people to be healthy which in turn strengthens them physically, emotionally and spiritually to remain healthy and live right and live well.  The end result is more than simply caring.  It is more than charity.  It is justice.

The other strand of thought came from Binghamton District Superintendent Dave Masland’s July 24 Dave’s Desk, that week’s installment of his e-mailed reflection to pastors and laity across the district.  Dave commented on the resolution passed at General Conference to add a three-word phrase to the end of the covenantal words spoken by persons coming into membership at our churches.  In addition to upholding the United Methodist Church with prayers, presence, gifts and service, the phrase “and my witness” is now added.

Dave feels that this “shifts the new member’s commitment from entirely inside the walls of the church, to outside the walls of the church.”  He continued “This has gotten me to thinking about my own openness and readiness to be a witness wherever I travel these days. ... I am [now] looking for chances to engage folks in conversation. ... It’s amazing the opportunities that God is giving me to have significant conversations with people.  It makes me wonder how many opportunities I have missed because I haven’t always been open in this way!”  He closed with “Please join me in taking our witness to the streets!  God is so good, all the time!  Let’s tell others!” And so my readings and meditation had brought me to being a witness on the one hand, and to thinking less about charity and more about justice on the other.  Of course these are not opposites.  As with so much in our faith and in our faith-walks, the choices are not “this or that” or “one or the other.”  The option often is “both / and.”

Rising petroleum prices, our misuse of the environment and the increasing cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq leave us with fewer and fewer resources to assist the least and the lost in our midst to whom our Savior calls us to minster.   It is easy to become overwhelmed and do nothing; to not witness to the life and joy God in Jesus Christ infuses into us.

It is easy to provide charity.  A few dollars here, a couple of donations there and we can salve our consciences that at least we have “done something.”  But we know that charity is not justice, and we know that keeping the freely, ever-flowing gifts of God to ourselves is not witness.

Our God, our Savior and our faith call us to respond to these urgent needs in ways that go beyond what our society and culture can do.  They urge us to look beyond small-minded arguments of fear, scarcity and distrust.  They beckon us to tell the story of God’s ever-flowing grace, of God’s ample provision, of God’s love made real of us in Jesus Christ.  It is a message that often does not sit well when times are tough and terror rules the day.  Nonetheless, it is our call and it is a call that we claim to be a privilege.

And so at this mid-summer’s time of reflection may we be energized, inspired, led (hounded if necessary!) to get outside of our walls (physical and spiritual) and seek to be witnesses to the Gospel truths that sustain us.  May we live and exemplify them in ways that the world will hear, see, believe and live likewise.


By: Reverend Mark Marino On 7/25/2008