Bishop’s Episcopal Address: ‘Winter and Road Construction’

June 23, 2021

By: Christa Meland

Since he was a boy, Bishop David Bard has been taken with the idea of new places and has loved maps. Pointing out the unique time we’re in given the pandemic, the need for racial reckoning, the unprecedented political situation in the United States, and the delay of General Conference and likeliness of a United Methodist Church split, he noted: “I don’t know about you, but I could use a good roadmap” right about now.
What we have instead is a story with a map, he told Minnesota United Methodists in his inaugural Episcopal Address during Wednesday morning worship. Drawing on Mark 7: 24-30, he reminded them of the story of Jesus going to the region of Tyre, Phoenicia, a predominantly Gentile area. He entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. But a Syrophoenician woman entered the house, bowed down at his feet, and begged him to heal her sick daughter. Jesus’s response to her was shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And the mother’s response was equally amazing: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus then healed the sick daughter and sent the woman on her way.
“While we grapple with just what this story might say about how the human and divine are related in Jesus, how they're interwoven, it is clear that this is a story about grace and about the creation of space for grace,” said Bard.
He noted that the Minnesota Conference has been working with a map of our Journey Toward Vitality. It has a river running through the center—a river of vitality that identifies the mission of the church as growing in love of God and neighbor, reaching new people, and healing a broken world. The map identifies core values affirmed by the conference: being rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation. The map is beautiful, and yet, just as Minnesotans know firsthand the havoc that both winter and construction have on roads, we know there will be unforeseen portages, unmarked rocks in the streams, unknown rapids to navigate, unexpected potholes and detours in our journey as a conference.
He said the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman gives us lessons for the work of the church and for our work as the Minnesota Conference:

This Journey Toward Vitality map provides a visual reminder of our vision and our journey as a conference.
  1. Maps are both helpful and limited. Maps provide some sense of where we are and where we want to go, but they are simplified and we ought never confuse the map for the fullness of reality. Typical thinking is stretched in this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman; new imaginative space is created, and healing happens. “Moving into the future, strategies will need to be devised and decisions made,” Bard said. “We need to offer our best thinking and deepest imagining, and we also need to be open to the possibility the map with which we began the journey may need to be re-imagined and re-drawn.”
  2. Lean into trauma. Our experience of the past 15 months has brought us face-to-face with dimensions of trauma that we have too long and too often ignored, and brought fresh occasions for trauma. We are becoming more aware of racialized trauma and its long history. An essential part of the work of racial reckoning, of anti-racism, is to listen to and acknowledge these stories of trauma and the ripple effects through time. “In this story, Jesus eventually leans into the trauma; space is enlarged, space making room for grace and healing,” said Bard.
  3. Embrace new learning and be willing to cross boundaries. We need not spend time debating what was going on inside Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman to see this story as a story about learning and crossing boundaries, said Bard. Jesus and the woman shouldn’t have talked, and they did. We didn’t expect such wit and intelligence from the woman on the margins, and yet that’s what we got. We live in a time where adaptive change is needed in the church and in the world, and the essence of adaptive change is learning. We need to learn, be open to the new, and be willing to cross boundaries as we draw maps of where we are and where we need to go.
  4. Healing space is often created out of broken hearts. Because this story has a happy ending and we love happy endings, we can ignore that we get there through some heartbreak. Our hearts should break with the woman, this caring mother whose child is traumatized by the demonic. “The story before us is a wonderful picture of such a journey, from pain to broken-heartedness to tenderness,” said Bard. “Jesus makes a way for that journey. Our churches need to be on such a journey and we need to be willing to accompany people on such a journey.” Broken hearts are hearts broken open to be enlarged, to be made more capacious.
We always need to be prepared to revise our maps, said Bard. “My vision for the future of the Minnesota Conference is that we are a spacious conference. God has a mission in the world, and love is at the heart of that mission. It is a heart-enlarging mission. It is a world-shaking mission. It is a mission that leans into trauma, that embraces learning and crosses boundaries, that allows hearts to be broken open to create new spaces—spaces for grace and healing. And friends, our manner must always match our mission...This way Jesus is making, we know, will still have potholes and orange barrels and lane shifts and detours. And yet we go, we go this way together, welcoming any who will walk with us.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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