Water and Spirit Flow Through Annual Conference Worship Services
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV).
The 2011 Texas Annual Conference worship services served as a reminder that since the beginning of time, God’s wind – God’s breath and spirit – have been (and still are) moving over the waters. Each worship service built upon the theme “Remember and be Faithful,” and explored one’s relationship with God through the lens of God’s waters – baptismal, flood, storm, river and living waters.
‘You Can’t Help but See That it’s Good’
Sunday’s Celebration of Life honored the 31 clergy and clergy spouses who died during the 2010-2011 conference year. It also celebrated what Rev. Jerry House Jr. called “furious love” that God has for God’s children.
“The love story begins with a formless void and a good God…This is a God who speaks a word and life bursts forth and the sun and stars are flung into place,” House said. “No matter how out of order ‘your productive emptiness’ may be, be assured that there is a God hovering over it all waiting for the right moment to speak a word of life.”
First UMC Houston (downtown and West Campus choirs) provided music for the evening along with the Marian Anderson String Quartet. One of the highlights was a musical and liturgical interpretation of “The Creation,” from James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones.” “This great God almighty who created the sun, who flung the stars on the sky – like a mammy kneeling over her baby – God breathed the breath of life – man became living being,” the poem states.
Rev. House, who is the senior pastor of Christ UMC College Station, continued this imagery of God’s unparalleled love: “God does not call the world to be chaotic and fragmented. He stays with it until it becomes as he wills it…[God] loves you just the way you are, but is never content to leave you that way.” You can’t help but see that it’s good. Restoration is God’s specialization. House described this quality as “the God of the Third Day.” It was the third day when “a good-as-dead” Jonah was spat out onto new opportunities; the third day when God provided a “ram” for Abraham and Isaac (turning death into life again); and, the Third Day when “Jesus turned the tomb into a womb for life that would never again be defeated by death,” House said. “I believe in the God of the Third Day, don’t you?”
‘You Can’t Help But Be Swept Away’
“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple…” (Ezekiel 47:1 NRSV)
Monday Night’s worship centered on Ezekiel 47:1-12 and the vision God showed Ezekiel of a stream of healing water flowing out of the temple onto a dry and cracked world.
“We are empowered through our baptism…What a wonderful time to be in ministry for such a time as this – to get in on the move of God,” said Dr. Robert Childress, senior pastor of Covenant Glenn UMC in Missouri City. “The good news is we don’t have to recreate the flow of God, we just have to get in on the flow of what God is doing.” But, how does one get swept away by God? Childress outlined the steps in accordance with Ezekiel’s vision. Step one: get in the water. He likened this step to tourists who will walk along the each, cruise along the water, but just won’t get in. “You may not be swimming yet, but at least you can celebrate you’ve gotten in water – in the flow,” he said. “To get swept away you’ve got to go deeper.
The “knee-deep water” represents one’s prayer life: “When I’m too tired to keep going, prayer keeps working… John Wesley said, ‘prayer is where the action is.’” Prayer, Childress continued, is a Christians covering, protection and source of power for production. “No learning, studying, gift, will make up for or supply its lack,” he said. As the vision continues, Ezekiel discovers that the water is waist deep. “When you’re waist deep, more of the water and less of the body is seen,” Childress said. “I thank God that at times life has to break me in order for God to make me.”
It’s necessary for Christians to imitate Christ, which will be evidenced by a less visible individual, who is overshadowed by God’s waters. This ultimately leads to a river that is “deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed” (Ez. 47:5). “Ezekiel had reached the point where the river was in control,” Childress said. “At the mercy of the river when you’re this deep, you can catch bigger fish, sail larger boats, and do bigger things.” You can’t help but be swept away. And, it all begins with surrender –just as the Dayspring UMC Tyler band sang: “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”
‘You Can’t Help but Say Amen’
So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31 NRSV)
Rev. Emily Chapman, associate pastor of St. Paul’s UMC Houston, preached the Sending Forth service and recounted the experiences of the God’s spirit hovering over the waters, the water that sprang forth from the rock, the parting of the waters for the Israelites, the disciples’ casting of nets on the waters and more. “The Holy Spirit [was always] at work through water, in the same way the Holy Spirit began a good work in us,” she said.
She cautioned the congregation that things change when the Holy Spirit gets involved. The spirit works in ways that are “dramatic, sudden, shocking and on its own time frame.” “The Holy Spirit will not be confined to ways we’d like,” she continued, “and will not be contained by our demands…it shoves us into a new life, whether we are ready to go or not.” And, ultimately, “you become like the face of the one you love,” she said. As you do that, you become a living witness, like Philip in his ministry to the Ethiopian Eunuch.
“The story is not a story of someone on the inside helping someone on the outside,” Chapman said. “This is a story of two people reaching out for one another – joining one another on the journey, both willing to give of themselves. This is a story of those who love Jesus, or who come to love Jesus, becoming like Jesus. “[The eunuch] already had a copy of scripture. What he needed was someone who could tell the story; who could live the story before him, guiding him through it – someone who could join him on the journey.”
The call to action of today’s disciple is to tell the story, as Philip did, “of the God of Israel becoming one of us, teaching us, healing us, saving us.” “We serve a church and live in a world that is desperate for a better story than the ones we hear most of the time,” Chapman continued. “As we tell the story, there is water in the desert to give us power for ministry…Slowly, the more we tell the story, the story makes us become more of what we are – forms us into more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, it equips us to be part of God’s transformation in the world.” You can’t help but say Amen.