Lean in



Traveling 6,465 miles together really gives you an opportunity to get to know your companions. That is the privilege I had in leading the recent Holy Land pilgrimage with 90 South Georgia laity and clergy. On this journey to the heart of our faith we never felt like tourists; we referred to ourselves as pilgrims. We began each day by singing, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And at each place we visited we read scripture related to that location and considered what it means for us today. Then we sang our faith using the words of hymns that are written upon our hearts.

In addition to great photos and wonderful memories, I also brought home several insights that are helpful to me in preparing for General Conference 2020. On our first day in Israel we went to Caesarea. Our group sat in the ancient Roman amphitheater and looked toward the Mediterranean Sea. I drew our attention to the story of Peter and Cornelius found in Acts. 10. Neither the Jew (Peter) nor the Gentile (Cornelius) had a clue as to why they each received a vision directing them to come together. But as Peter shared the story of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles and they were baptized into the Christian faith. Peter and Cornelius realized that God was doing more than they could ask or imagine. This reminds me of some lines from Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam:

Our little systems have their day
They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of thee
And thou, O Lord, are more than they.

Peter was part of the Jewish system. Cornelius, a centurion, was part of the Roman system. They discovered that God is greater than each of their systems. A helpful reminder to us: our little systems have their day and their place. Let us make them as effective as possible. But let us never forget that God is greater than all our systems. Let us lean into the greatness of God in all we do.

A second insight emerged as we constantly saw many other groups who had come to the Holy Land. We met Christians from India, Nigeria, Australia, and Korea, just to name a few. One member of our group noted, “The Bible says crowds followed Jesus. Well, we can tell the folks back home that crowds are still following Jesus. They have come from all over the world.”

Two thousand years have come and gone, and Jesus is still the central figure in human history. Jesus is more interesting than our groups and our gripes. He is the attraction in the Christian faith. At the Tulane University Wesley Foundation, our call to worship often included this line: Jesus is more liberal than all the liberals and more conservative than all the conservatives. In today’s language: Jesus is more progressive than all the progressives and more traditional than all the traditionalists. Crowds do not come to hear our schemes and our debates. They come to see Jesus. Let us lean into the centrality of Jesus.

A third insight involves Carolyn Barber, a faithful member of Mulberry St. UMC (along with her husband of 50 years, Dr. Russ Barber). Because he had been there years ago, Russ knew that such a pilgrimage is a powerful way to deepen our experience of the Christian faith. That is why he encouraged Carolyn to make this journey. The spiritual maturity of the group was revealed in a striking way when Carolyn suffered a heart attack as we walked through Bethlehem. Group members sprang into action and worked diligently to care for her until the ambulance arrived. The Palestinian hospital personnel were kind and thoughtful to those who accompanied her to the hospital and who were the first to learn that she had died. That evening we gathered at the hotel to share our grief, to minister to one another, and to pray for Carolyn’s family back home. Then, a member of our group told of seeing a dark-skinned finger, most likely a Palestinian, reaching through the crowd on the sidewalk and making the sign of the cross on Carolyn’s forehead. A reminder to us that we were traveling under the Sign of the Cross.

A reminder that in life, in death, and in life after death, Carolyn was not alone. And we are not alone. God is with us. Through this experience I discovered that I was traveling with spiritual giants from South Georgia. The Christian faith is real and our people have the spiritual capacity to deal with whatever may come to us. Let this be a reminder that, before and after General Conference 2020, we have that same spiritual strength. All those years of prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and service – all those years have equipped us to travel together into God’s future, which will be more than we could ask or imagine. Whatever may happen, we will take care of each other. Let us lean into the spiritual strength of the South Georgia Conference.

The conference leadership and I will continue providing resources to prepare for General Conference 2020 and for our 2020 South Georgia Annual Conference session. But our most important resource is you – the family of faith. Let us lean into the greatness of God, the centrality of Jesus, and the spiritual strength of the South Georgia Conference.

Alive Together in Witness,
R. Lawson Bryan