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Episcopal Address: Hope!
God is good all the time! And all the time, God is good!
Greetings to the clergy and laity of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church!
I am Delores J. Williamston, and 164 days ago, on January 1, 2023, my little K9 buddy Odin and I moved to the state of Louisiana to serve as your resident bishop!
What a blessing to be here! Thank you all for your Southern hospitality!
Thank you to the conference episcopacy committee, to Kathryn Moore, the executive assistant, Cabinet and Extended Cabinet, Rev. Dr. Van Stinson, the assistant to the bishop, and all the conference staff, clergy and laity, and friends for your commitment and for taking the time to meet me in various groups and on the Boots on the Ground Tour.
By the way, my boots are not done yet! The boots are still marching! There is much to do! And more groups to meet across our conference!
In places such as: Natchitoches, Lafayette, Plaquemines, Rapides, Kisatchie, Houma, New Orleans, Tchoupitoulas, Tchefuncte, Tangipahoa, Ouachita, Opelousas, Lafourche, Laplace, and more!
And thank you to everyone who sent me the phonic pronunciations of these names and places. As you can tell, it almost worked! Overall, I am excited to go to these places and more…as we march together with Hope as the United Methodist Church of the future…with our sights and vision set on the Cross of the resurrected Jesus Christ!
But I want to be honest with you, the journey ahead will be tough…there are mountains to climb, rivers to cross, streams to wade through, and boulders and barriers to remove! But as the song said, we have to Build our HōPE on things Eternal! And hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Lord, be with us in these few moments that are but a second in your eyes. Help us to open our hearts, our minds, our doors to hear what you have to say to our souls today. Help us in these moments of conferencing to reclaim who we are as your people called United Methodist, help us to revive our souls and rise from a mat of paralysis we have experienced, especially these last four years, and help us renew our spirits and walk with you as we raise the ceiling of our Hopes in the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. And Lord, bless our congregations, for we are 271 churches strong, and bless our organizations and community partnerships. Send an extra blessing of encouragement to the dedicated hearts and souls of our excellent clergy, our faithful laity and committed disciples who are now finding new homes to place their United Methodist membership in across our state. Lord, we know we live in changing times, but Lord, re-ignite us as a movement of People Called United Methodist; empower us with your Holy Spirit and create in each of us new HōPE and help us set our sights, our hopes, and dreams, our vision on you, with the cross before us and the world behind us. So, Lord, may the words of my mouth, the meditation of my heart, soul, and mind be acceptable to you, for you are our Rock and Redeemer for All times and in all places
Time is filled with swift transitions. This is true! For us, personally, collectively, in our families, communities, nation, our world, and for us, the United Methodist Church!
Time is filled with swift transitions as we have witnessed since 2019. Life has changed, and life is always changing, adapting, morphing, and transforming. And regardless of what occurs in life and creation, life will always find a way.
Time is filled with swift transitions.
Unplanned transitions cause us to pivot on a dime on a daily bases. We have to adjust and grow in our adaptability reflex...times are filled with swift transitions!
And sometimes, it feels as though we are experiencing whiplash from the multiple pivots in our day… and nothing is stable; it is like wet cement that never dries…
The times are filled with swift transitions with hard, difficult, painfilled decisions to make, and yet, through it all, we must hold on to God…
God’s unchanging hand and build our Hopes on things eternal by placing ourselves and the United Methodist Church back in front of Jesus!
In our scripture lesson today (Mark 2:1-12), we encounter four faithful people who are carrying a paralytic man to Jesus who was teaching, preaching, and healing at a place in Capernaum. Now, we do not know who the four people are, their names, or where they were from, and we do not know if one or two of them could have been a woman or a youth, we do not know. And we do not know much about the man either, his, Name, Age, Ethnic origins or family history.
And we do not know what his paralysis was. Was he born unable to walk? Was he in an accident? Did his body develop a disease that created his paralysis? All we know is the man could not walk. Maybe he had seen many doctors and specialists about his condition to no avail. All we know is four faithful people picked him up on his mat and carried him to see Jesus.
When they arrived at the house where Jesus was staying, it was packed. Every entryway was blocked. But that did not stop them! They had to pivot and devised a strategy/plan, and in doing so, they lifted the man on the mat up onto the roof of the house.
We can only imagine what is going through the mind of the man on the mat when he realizes the four are lifting him up onto the roof! Maybe his initial thought was he hadn’t signed up for all this…maybe he hoped they wouldn’t drop him or that they must be insane!
Yet, no matter what he thought or how the man felt about it, the four worked together and lifted him up onto the roof, laid him to the side, and commenced to removing a portion of the roof. Making an entry big enough to lower the man and his mat down to Jesus…
And as they lowered him down in front of Jesus, …. Jesus looked up and saw their Faith!
Can you see this scene unfolding?
Can we imagine for a moment what is going on in the house with debris falling from above?
Can you hear the comments in the room?
Do we see ourselves, our congregations, and the United Methodist Church as the man on the Mat being lowered down and placed in front of Jesus? Paralyzed suffering from a paralysis of sorts? Hmmmmm….
I believe we are on that mat… a mat of paralysis that has paralyzed the United Methodist Church and us for decades. Our recent paralysis intensified in 2019 and then in 2020 when Covid-19 shut down the world, and everything changed, meetings changed, the church changed, and families changed. Yet, even now, in 2023, our paralysis continues with the after-effects of never-ending political strife and drama in the world…
We are paralyzed with surging numbers of gun violence in our nation, with the number one killer of children being gun violence. The term ‘going postal’ is a distant memory, and we are accustomed now to the term ‘mass shootings’. As the assault on schools, shopping malls, grocery stores, nightclubs, synagogues, and churches are unending. We feel paralyzed to do anything about it… it's overwhelming…
And in the United Methodist Church, we are paralyzed by the dis-information and misinformation about who we are as the United Methodist Church. And Congregations and people have suffered, wounded, harmed, and our clergy leaders bear the brunt and stress of it all; and burnout is real!
And we are paralyzed by the analysis of paralysis of analysis… where we take too long, and the opportunity is gone for sometimes the overthinking to make something perfect. We are paralyzed by the fear… of speaking up… out of fear of retribution. And when conflict arises, we become so paralyzed that we disengage…And we forget the two greatest commandments of Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We are on a mat, y’all…paralyzed. by even talking about … diversity, equity, and inclusion of all people, forgetting that we all are made in the image of God…. And we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves…We’ve been paralyzed by storm fatigue, COVID fatigue, political fatigue, and in the United Methodist Church, disaffiliation fatigue across our connection and around the world.
Yet, it is time…to make a swift transition!
To change our paralysis with a dose of HōPE as we lower ourselves back down in front of Jesus Christ.
It is time y’all! It is time for us here, the Louisiana disciples of the United Methodist Church to raise the ceiling of our HōPE!
Howard Thurman says this about raising the ceiling of our HōPE, he said:
It is easier to believe little than to believe big!
Our immediate demand is often so urgent the immediate problem is often so acute or so insoluble that the ceiling of HōPE is lowered, leaving little room even for breathing…. And at such a moment, life seems not only to close in around us, but it also seems to close down upon us.
He said: I will lift on high the ceiling of thy hopes!
In other words: I will lift on high the ceiling of my HōPE!
Or - We are called to lift on high today the ceiling of our HōPE!
As the four lifted that man on the mat and removed a portion of the ceiling to get the man to Jesus, we too must do likewise and lift the ceiling of our HōPE! As Jesus saw the faith of the four…and as he heard the grumbling in the house, he told the man on the mat that he was forgiven and now take his mat and go home. And the man did exactly what Jesus said… picked up his mat and went home!
Church, I believe Jesus is calling on us to get up from our mats, from our paralysis, and go home!
Time is filled with swift transitions!
And now we, the United Methodist Church, must get up from our mat and transition and walk. It is time church - to move!
In the Louisiana Conference, disciples are gearing up and retooling for deployment in the mission field of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. To see the vision is keeping the cross of Jesus Christ before us…and on our horizon.
We have 271 reasons to keep marching forward with HoPE! And nearly every location, you see clergy and laity on the move! And the annual conference is on the move, shoring the conference with reinforcements by sending servants out in the field as congregational strategists to look at the whole area of the conference.
And we are beginning to strengthen the United Methodist witness of those in the Ruston and Monroe areas of the conference where churches have disaffiliated. We will set goals to develop class meetings of people around the conference and find those potential locations for new worshiping communities of United Methodist.
And we will retool our message to share the message of the Good News of the Gospel of what we believe as United Methodists. And we will seek those who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and have not been a part of a worshipping community!
We are sending strategists into the field to strengthen our ethnic and Black United Methodist Churches and build enduring relationships and make reconnections to ensure access and equity of opportunities for all. We are deploying opportunities for clergy to have solid resources and ongoing leadership development for a new United Methodist Church and the world today.
There are new challenges ahead, and the care of our clergy’s souls is a priority as they continue to lead in difficult and uncertain times. We must take the time to strengthen them for the journey ahead.
We must remember that the purpose of the Annual Conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church, all to the glory of God.
We are strategizing resources to reequip and retool our over 271 strong local United Methodist congregations and Louisiana Conference organizations and partnerships…to strengthen the ties in our connectional system in and beyond our conference.
We are strategizing the needs of children and reconnecting to missions beyond ourselves to Cambodia through the General Board of Global Ministry, which many of you are familiar with and have supported for decades in the Louisiana Conference.
We are fully aware of reported HōPE sightings in the Conference, such as:
In the Alexandria District – at St. Joseph in the northeastern corner of the District. The children call their pastor, Pastor Cool. New families are joining the church, and those who may have left for a season due to the stress of disaffiliation talks, have returned to support their church that there is new life and HōPE!
Fellowship UMC in Hineston received eight new members and is excited to be a part of the church!
In Ponchatoula as they held joint services for the community during Lent and are holding strategic conversations on how to best serve the community around them. By addressing drug addiction, hosting training about suicide prevention, and providing meals for their neighbors through their Daily Bread ministry.
There are hope sightings on the North Shore area of Covington. New ministries are happening, and 30 people found a new church home after disaffiliation and are ready to live out their United Methodist discipleship!
And people from other faith traditions are joining!
Joint youth groups and VBS groups are happening on the North Shore. In Baton Rouge, several youth directors are strategizing an ALL-Youth program for the summer June-July called the Summer Tour 2023.
In the Lake Charles area, churches are still ministering to those affected by the storms. And the day school for children at First UMC of Lake Charles is full of vibrant little children who are building their foundation at the United Methodist Church school.
In Lafayette, there are youth ministries happening at Asbury, and committed disciples are helping the youth continue to grow in their discipleship.
There is work being done by the LA Conference Anti-Racism Taskforce, also known as The Beloved Community Coalition. They are working to engage in the work of equity, diversity and inclusion and how we all can continue to grow in our changing times.
There are HōPE happenings in the Monroe and Ruston area….As a committed group of 25 to 30 STAY UMC members gather…and meet to strategize…. and the Louisiana Conference is right there in those conversations…
And there are HoPE happenings in Shreveport. Churches and church members have opened wide the door of their hearts for those UM members whose churches disaffiliated… and they were there on the scene as one of our largest churches, First United Methodist Church of Shreveport (dear to many of you), made their decision to disaffiliate.
But there is still HōPE; there is still HōPE!
Do you want to know what my vision is as a bishop?
The vision I see for this conference and the denomination is that we will set our sights on Jesus Christ as we march forward in Hope! in a new day and new dawn….We will march, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, to reclaim our movement heritage…and move forward in Hope!
We want no United Methodist left behind or forgotten….here or anywhere! We must get up from our mats and march in HōPE! For HōPE stands in the middle of the house looking up at the four and telling the man to get up, take your mat and go….
Hope’s name is Jesus!
Yes, times are filled with swift transitions, and we have to attend to the hard things, delicate conversations, and leaner budgets and resources; it is the responsible thing to do, but I’m here to tell you there is nothing impossible for God…if we keep steady, faithful to the mission to make disciples….
You see if we raise the ceiling of our hopes in times of swift transitions….We can rewrite the current narrative with HōPE. Are we willing?
There is a poem I read long ago called: What can one person do? it says this…
One person can listen to the word of God and believe in the spirit of God within them and set out to tell the truth to the people.
One person can believe that the Holy Spirit does pour out gifts, and that these gifts can be used to change impossible situations
One person can believe that the church of Jesus Christ, has the courage of its convictions, and can set out with a love that is so great, and look the impossible in the face and say
Change, change, change.
The times are filled with swift transitions and change. Let us rise from our mats…in our hearts, souls, spirits, and mind a truly be transformed in the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church truly a people of HōPE, laity of HōPE, pastors of HōPE, churches of HōPE and shepherds of HōPE…
We can no longer allow others to fish from our basket as United Methodists… I’ll say that again. We will no longer allow others to fish from our baskets!
There are plenty of fish in the sea! (There is even an app called Plenty of Fish, and they too need to hear the Good News, I suspect…but there is plenty of fish in the sea….)
We are called to go to the highways and byways of life…and go and compel others; people come who do not know about Jesus Christ! We are compelled to share the good news with our friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors, an old model of evangelism that was and is still effective today…
It is time to make a swift transition and remember!
Jesus is HōPE …. and HōPE stood before Lazarus’s tomb and called him forward after 4 days y’all, 4 days… Lord, he’s gonna smell…but Hope called for them to Unbind him and set him free…
Hope healed the woman with an issue of blood,
Hope raised the dead girl back to life!
Hope told the man on the mat to get up and go home,
I don’t know about you, but I am glad that Jesus didn’t mind that day that someone removed a roof to get to him and told that man on the mat to get up…take his mat and go home. I pray, as we move forward, that we will put away our weapons of suspicions, distrust, and mistrust that keep us separated in the house.
I pray that we will pick up our mats and move forward in Hope, remembering that Jesus is the HōPE of the World and is with us and sending his disciples out into the world to write a new chapter called: HōPE in the Louisiana Conference!
I am reminded that Jesus said:
In this life, in these times of swift transitions…
There will be trials and tribulations but be of good cheer. Jesus said, For I have overcome the world!
Hey, y’all, there ain’t no stopping us…when we have HoPE!
And no one can take our joy, peace, love, grace, faith, or hope away because the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.
Time is filled with swift transitions….
Are you ready? Let’s get it! Let’s Go!
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