Circles of Grace


December 11, 2014

Beloved in Christ Jesus:

Greetings again in these Advent days of watching and waiting.

I want to pick up where I left off in my December 1st love note to you. About halfway through this note I am going to ask you for a very specific action. You may recall my commendation of you for the remarkable ways that you are being church by opening your hearts and lives and reaching into your local communities in response to gun violence. You are doing this in myriad ways from all I hear. Prayer vigils, peaceful protests, relationship building with neighbors old and new are but a few means that United Methodists are responding. Thank you for engaging as the raw nerves of our tortured history around race in America lay bare once again.

There are all sorts of venues and an unending list of means to claim a future with hope. The key question to which United Methodist Christians must respond with our lives and witness is: Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the faith of the church have anything meaningful to contribute to personal and communal transformation? If the answer is no, we should get out of the business quickly if not sooner. If the answer is no, we have been misled and therefore are misleading others. But if the answer is yes, we need to stay engaged, if already engaged. If the answer is yes, we need to step up now if we have yet to find meaningful ways to engage. If our answer is yes, we need in these Advent days to embody the incarnate, beloved Community in ways that cannot be missed by anyone.

This past June during my Episcopal Address at Annual Conference, I pointed to some of the fault lines in our denomination. I asserted that we might benefit by gathering in Circles of Grace for in-depth, substantive conversations about the things that divide us as United Methodists. I still have every expectation that these will unfold across the conference as one (not the only) means of creative response to our schismatic impulses.

But in light of the current societal angst and pain about gun violence, race, police community relations, legal processes and so much more, it occurs to me that we cannot wait for a perfect tool or process. There is an urgency that demands a response. Following the decision of the grand jury regarding the death of Eric Garner, I was heartened to have been in two conversations with groups of persons that in effect became Circles of Grace. One conversation I precipitated with our Cabinet. One I was invited to with a small group of lay and clergy persons. Each table conversation represented some diversity of background, age, theology, politics and the like. Although not planned long in advance, they were both seasoned with prayer and people had gracious space to express pain, disappointment, anger, questions, hope. In each case people wanted to act in ways that would reflect and engender beloved community. 

The fruit of one of those “circles” was to roll up our sleeves, seize the moment and start birthing Circles of Grace as one way of bridging divides, and creating a place where more and more people might experience grace and beloved community. I am so grateful for the quick turnaround by members of our conference staff in pulling together the resources you will find by clicking on this link: Circles of Grace.

So I ask you today in the authority of your baptism to convene a Circle of Grace to engage in community the issues I have talked about above, and to do so between now and Sunday, January 18, 2015 – Human Relations Day. You might be saying, “Who, me?” Don’t focus on any perceived limitations you have.  Focus on God’s power and promise to use you to heal the world. Let me be clear that this invite is to lay and clergy alike. This kind of transforming work cannot get done by just a few. It will take all of us. If you truly can’t convene a “Circle” please, please, please be part of one. These “Circles” are ultimately about opening to God and neighbor. They are about making space for one another whether we think we are conservative or liberal theologically. 

Having conversation, engaging in dialogue may seem a small thing. It is small. But not to be too preachy, I still believe big things often spring from small things. Do not despise small things (Zechariah 4:10). Rufus Jones once said, “I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place.” Can you imagine the Holy Spirit showing up in your circle of grace?

Talking, dialogue, conversation may seem overrated. I protest. We haven’t really talked enough or been honest enough about what matters. Or we have talked too much with an eye toward converting our conversation partners to our point of view. The dialogue - the circle - is really about being available for a transformed relationship. I had a friend in Iowa, a retired pastor up in years, who passed away in 2013.  He reminded me more than once: “Our relationships are so superficial that we won’t risk saying something for which we might have to ask for forgiveness later.” Wow. His words haunt me frequently.  They speak to me now.

I began this note with a commendation of all that you are already doing to be agents of reconciliation. I am so inspired by your creativity in pulpit exchanges (see what's happening in the Ohio River Valley district), new study groups and sermon series that the current challenges have generated. Despite occasional discouragement, I continue to be hopeful in these dark days of Advent. I hear the prophet remind us again and again:

Every valley will be raised up,
            and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear, 
            and all humanity will see it together;

the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.                         
                                                                                               Isaiah 40:4-5  (CEB)

I look forward to reading and hearing about your Circle of Grace.  I am,

Your servant in Christ,

+Gregory V. Palmer
Resident Bishop