I have to confess that I really have no idea what to do today. Because for the last 48 years or so, I’ve spent every Memorial Day dressed in church clothes sitting in a large sanctuary or auditorium somewhere for the Annual Conference session.
For those unfamiliar with Methodism, that’s our yearly meeting of pastors and lay delegates from a geographical area, in my case, the eastern third of Texas. And our session has begun on Memorial Day weekend all these years for a simple reason: Methodists are cheap. We’ve taken the second of John Wesley’s admonitions about money—”earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”—to heart. And since no one else has ever wanted to come to downtown Houston to celebrate a holiday weekend, the hotel rates are better.
It’s not to say that what we do at an annual conference is not important. Forty-five years ago this week, for instance, I was first ordained as a deacon in The United Methodist Church and three years later on the same day I became an elder. And along with all of the business matters and endless speeches I’ve sat through (think one unending church board meeting) there have been inspiring worship services and uplifting moments as well.
Mostly, however, conference is about renewing the ties that bind us as Methodists and even more particularly for some of us, as fellow pastors and preachers. Since the days of John Wesley, in fact, every annual conference around the world has begun with the singing of one of his brother’s best hymns, written in 1749: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face, glory and thanks to Jesus give for His almighty grace.”
It’s a powerful moment for me personally. For when I think of those largely unlettered circuit riders, many of whom died before the age of 35, I can’t help but glance around the room when we sing it to see the faces of those who have made it another twelve months, missing the faces of those who haven’t. And I’ve recognized all too plainly the truth of Wesley’s third verse: “what troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without and fears within, since we assembled last!”
There’s a special poignancy this year, thus, for those “fightings and fears” have certainly been manifest in the present pandemic which caused the postponement of our session for the first time in our history. In the meantime, though, ministry goes on and I am reminded of another of Charles Wesley’s observations: “God buries His workmen but carries on His work.”
I’ll be remembering many of those workers in my prayers today, along with the relatives and friends I’ve known over the years who gave their lives up in the service of their nation. For maybe in the end, Memorial Day has actually been a perfect time for we Methodists to meet after all.
I think I’ll grill some burgers out on the patio today too. For isn’t that what regular people do on Memorial Day?