Answer | RISE UP!
Our guest writer for the Season after Epiphany is Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls. Dr. Smalls is a native of Washington D.C., and an elder in full connection with the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He currently serves as the senior pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Michigan.
Dr. Smalls holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Claflin University, a Master of Divinity from Interdenominational Theological Center, and a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary, where he focused on postmodern preaching to contemporary audiences with an emphasis on hip hop culture. During his twenty years in service to the United Methodist Church, Dr. Smalls has served in a variety of appointments. He is the founder of the Young Adult Christian Cafe and the Off the Hook Bible Study. He is an author who has published a book and a number of articles in periodicals, and he is a contributor to the Africana Worship Book.
Dr. Smalls is married to Lisa Karen Smalls. They share parenting responsibilities for their six children. We are pleased to share Dr. Smalls’s unique voice, poetry, and insights into the Scriptures with the wider church during this season.
I remember being at annual conference during the session where the bishop "fixes" the appointments. I was sitting next to a colleague, and we both were getting ready to go to very significant assignments in our ministries. When the bishop got to the very end of the service, he said "I declare that the appointments for this year, are now hereby fixed.’ We both wept. It was an exhale of sorts, perhaps because we were both able to recall our individual journeys to get to this place.
It's not easy, being raised up as a prophet. You, of course, know this. When you sit between two warring sides of an issue and try to chart the path to unity, you know this. You know this when you introduce an idea that the church has never considered. You know the weight of this when you think of all the weeks of wrestling with a text, casting vision, visiting the sick, marrying those in love, comforting those in disbelief staring at the casket over an open space in the cemetery. You know that this work is tough, painful, exhilarating, joyful, liberating, enslaving, and at the end of any given day, you look in the mirror and are forced to remember that all you are left with is to deal with all of your own stuff, sorrow, grief, dreams, visions, and perplexities.
My appointment that year was to return to my home church–the church where I was baptized, the church where I preached my first sermon, the church where I launched a life of discipleship, the church where I went to Sunday school and sang in the choir. I was raised up a prophet, like most of you, right out of the community in which I grew up as a child.
I walked in that church where this nourishment was supplied, smelling the holy musk of worn hymnals, rays of sunlight forcing themselves through stained glass windows, creating the dust and aroma that permeates older, still, peaceful congregations. I stood in the back of the church, peering over the empty pews, remembering the voices and seeing the faces of those whose membership has since been transferred to the great church triumphant. This time, I wasn't the youth running around in the giant-sized church. I was now the pastor standing in a church that had shrunk to the size of my adult perspective.
Moses tells his people that in the same way he was selected, there would be another whose voice would emerge. God would raise him up and anoint him for the work at hand. God would answer the people's longings for a leader. God would provide a leader and would never leave the people abandoned. Never.
While Moses is assuring the people of God’s plan to provide for a new leader, he also gives them guidelines that the leader must follow. These guidelines are now in the people’s awareness as they prepare for a leadership shift. “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.” Our theological task as United Methodists gives us a similar guideline to discovering the arrival at truth. Our theological task begins with the question, “Is it true?” What things are true and worthy of celebration as we seek answers throughout our life’s journey of faith?
You can’t wait to get your new schedule for high school, only to find out that on that schedule is the one teacher that no one likes. The teacher has the reputation of being mean, hard, unforgiving, and tough. You then attempt to change your schedule because you don’t want to be caught in the trap of being in that teacher’s class. Once the principal informs you that a schedule change is not available, you prepare for the worst. How many times, have we imagined the worst, only to discover the best? We must trust God to go with us in scary and uncomfortable places. The best way to find the God of surprises is to look for an answer in the territory that you resist the most. Be careful to not give up too soon, or to reject an answer because it wasn’t what you initially hoped for or imagined.
Congregational Development/Growth Imagination
Many congregations are ambivalent about reaching out to the folks immediately around them. There are some cases where the church has been in a community for over fifty years, and during that span of time, they never engaged the neighborhood in any way. There are many reasons for this. Some could include: fear of rejection, lack of confidence that some won’t like their church, or that their church is not ready for newcomers yet. Some are annoyed by religious fanatics that knock on the doors, and they see themselves as such by doing something similar, so they don’t reach out at all. But, God calls us forward. God calls us to connect. God does not make room for us because we have good reasons to not reach out. In God’s eyes, there is only one reason to reach out: Love.