My heroes and mentors in the faith are dying. Some, such as my Grandmother Florence, my Uncle Ed, and Rev. Russ Harris and Rev. Norm Shawchuck (Dakotas Conference pastors) entered into resurrected life some time ago. In recent weeks, Rev. Chuck Purdham and Rev. Don Klarup, exemplary church statesmen and spiritual leaders of the Minnesota and Dakotas Conferences, respectively, joined the communion of saints. Four days before Thanksgiving, Bishop Wayne Clymer, a true shepherd of souls and the church, died preaching the good news of resurrection faith. Then, I joined the world in grieving the death of Nelson Mandela, whose commitment to reconciliation and acts of forgiveness transformed South Africa, offering all held in bondage a future with hope.
Bishop Rueben Job, whose health is severely diminished, recently asked me to preach at his funeral. Many of you know that Rueben is my closest spiritual friend and mentor. I said yes, of course, but find myself in denial that his death, like yours and mine, is inevitable.
I have a strong resurrection faith. I have experienced many new-life occurrences, and I have a firm belief that all who follow Christ are called to “raise the dead to new life.” Yet the recent and impending deaths of my heroes and mentors in the faith have thrust me into a season of reflection, prayer, and a bit of melancholy.
It has been a fruitful season of reflection. Among many fond memories and renewed resolutions to embody the attributes and characteristics of those heroes, I became keenly aware that each had been nurtured and formed by the “Wesleyan way”—our United Methodist theology and rule of life. It has renewed my personal commitment to practice and promote the “Wesleyan way.” And it has renewed my hope that our great revival movement can indeed “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
One of my fondest memories is related to the historic November 2006 meeting of the Council of Bishops in Mozambique, Africa. On the last night of the Council’s meeting in Maputo, we were unexpectedly blessed to have Nelson Mandela and his spouse, Gracia Machel, join us for dinner and share their powerful witness to God’s grace and the role of the Methodist movement in transforming and shaping their lives.
Gracia spoke first. When she came to the microphone, her first words were, “I am standing here as your Methodist child.” Gracia was born into extreme rural poverty. But she had a courageous mother who, at great personal sacrifice, made sure Gracia received an education at United Methodist mission schools. Gracia spoke lovingly and gratefully of Mabel, a United Methodist missionary, who “gave me a reference, principles, and values.”
As the first woman minister of education for Mozambique in 1975, Gracia Machel led the newly independent country to reduce the illiteracy rate from 93 percent to 23 percent in the span of four years. Her words: “From the United Methodist Church, I had an obligation to give back to those who had supported me. I had to give back to the community.”
As Gracia prepared to leave the podium, she paused to introduce her husband, Nelson Mandela: “And, now I give you your Methodist son.” Nelson rose to speak, beginning by reminding us that, like Gracia, he, too, had been reared and educated and formed by the Methodist movement—in British Methodist schools in South Africa. A man who conquered his own anger, forgave his captors, defeated apartheid, and gave the world hope was formed in the “Wesleyan way.” (By the way, I was privileged to greet President Mandela and shake his hand following his address.)
For 300 years, the Methodist movement has been transforming individual lives, countries, and the world. Or, as our Book of Discipline phrases it, “…seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world” (paragraph 121). This work of formation and transformation continues. It is wonderfully evident in the lives, work, and witness of persons like Florence, Ed, Russ, Norm, Chuck, Don, Wayne, Rueben, Nelson, and all the faith heroes and mentors each of you could name.
I was never more proud to be a part of The United Methodist Church than I was that evening in Maputo—on the other side of the world—when Gracia Machel and Nelson Mandela affirmed that they were children of the Methodist movement.
Aren’t you glad—thankful—to be a child of the United Methodist movement as well? Do you know a young person in your family or community or neighborhood school that needs a hero or mentor in the faith? Or, by the grace of God, could be formed as the next “Methodist child”?
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church