A challenge to focus on Faith, Hope & Love despite difficult year
By Lindsay Peyton
Bishop Scott J. Jones’ Episcopal Address at this year’s Annual Conference focused on the event’s theme, “Faith, Hope, Love.” The words are drawn from 1 Corinthians:13, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Earlier in the verse, Paul describes our knowledge of God, which can only be partial like a reflection, even though God is never limited in his knowledge: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Jones draws a parallel with the past year, when much is seen through a Zoom lens or a computer screen, when meetings are still virtual. There are times when life feels dim, he explained, but that is not as “unprecedented” as it might seem.
“There have been pandemics before. There have been wars and disasters before,” Jones said.
Still, he explained, in the midst of difficulty, trusting God is essential. Only through faith can the correct perspective be reached.
The pandemic is a prime example. There has been so much loss of life and suffering, Jones said. At the same time, schools closed, jobs were lost, food insecurity mounted, the digital divide widened and access to childcare become challenging. Church doors shuttered.
“So many of us have lost friends and family members to this terrible virus,” Jones said. “Even for those persons who did not die from Covid-19, the long-term effects are still unclear.”
Still, churches in the Texas Annual Conference quickly pivoted and made adjustments. “Most of our pastors and their staff members became overnight experts at online worship,” Jones explained. “Many churches across the Texas Annual Conference purchased tech equipment one day, trained the next day and started online worship on Sunday.”
There were a number of silver linings, he continued. For instance, attendance at one church actually increased by 50 percent during the pandemic, and A&M UMC seized the opportunity to reach out to former students now living all across the country.
Residents of other states tuned in as churches broadcast sermons on Sundays. Bible studies resumed by Zoom, and Sunday schools moved online. Congregants upped their financial support, continued to tithe and give offerings. Churches even helped their neighbors to get vaccinated in concert with the TAC’s Community Health Worker Initiative.
Jones thanked clergy for their perseverance and creativity. “We all made adjustments for minimizing the spread of the virus,” Jones said. “I suspect these new skills will continue to play roles in our ministry toolbox for many years to come.”
The Bishop pointed to other challenges in addition to COVID-19. The political divide widened, and political leaders have taken steps to restrict voting rights.
A dangerous ice storm and electrical outages caused death and damage across the state. In the disaster, churches persevered, members rushed to repair damage at the congregations and reached out to neighbors in need. Even now the Conference’s disaster response ministry is helping repair homes for people whose insurance is insufficient to fix the damage.
At the same time, Jones said, concerns continue to mount, including a decline in Christianity. “Our response as the Texas Annual Conference is to continue planting new churches, revitalizing our existing church and reaching out to newcomers in our communities,” he explained.
Churches in the Conference continue to seek ways to address the presence of racism in the U.S., Jones continued. “I hope that congregations and districts will continue to create forums where honest conversations between people of different ethnic groups can take place,” he said.
The Bishop said that fighting racism will require patient perseverance, education about inclusion and combatting policies that are unjust. “We need cross-racial conversations. We need multi-racial congregations and groups. We need to strengthen our African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American churches,” he added.
Even as the TAC faces so many challenges, it is still dealing with uncertainty, Jones explained, as the General Conference has been postponed to 2022.
“I do not know what the United Methodist Church will look like five years from now,” he said. “The uncertainties of how best to serve Christ in the midst of our denominational turmoil are staggering.”
Pastors and laity struggle with that doubt. Jones too prays for wisdom daily. “In my heart, I believe I am the kind of person who, when I know the right thing to do, will have the courage to do it,” he said.
The Bishop blesses all of the congregations of the Conference -- regardless of convictions or theological perspective -- and promises to lead with fairness and integrity.
“I deeply desire to help the Conference stay together as much as possible because maintaining as much unity as possible is the best way to follow Christ,” he added. “We know that church will never be the same, and we have both challenges and opportunities as we move into the future. The uncertainties around all of this make planning difficult.”
There’s only one path forward with unpredictability, Jones said, and it’s paved with humility, faith, hope and love.
“Humility has got to be our starting point,” he explained. “By humility I mean that we have to acknowledge our need for God in our lives. We are not capable of saving ourselves. We have issues that we cannot fix.”
Humility leads to faith. “We are re-oriented Godward,” Jones said. “Our values change and we adopt godly priorities. Our behavior changes, and we start using the means of grace to strengthen our faith and help us grow toward fulfilling our destiny under God.”
Then faith leads to hope, Jones said. “Because we trust in God, and we know that God is at work for his purposes in the world, we are hopeful,” he added. “In the darkness, we look for the sunrise. Facing dead ends, we know there is a way out.”
And hope produces love. Jones said that Matthew 22:37-39 contains the greatest and most important commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second, the Bishop explained, is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“Corinthians 13:13 is clear. Faith and hope are important. Nevertheless, the greatest of these is love,” Jones said.
Because of faith and hope, your heart can be filled with love for God and neighbor.
“This Christian life is all about taking miserable sinners like you and me -- we who cannot save ourselves and have a deep and abiding need for God -- and transforming us into the salt of the earth, the light of the world, instruments of God’s grace and advocates for justice and peace,” Jones said.