Author Archives: Jack Harnish

About Jack Harnish

Retired United Methodist pastor, Pastor emeritus at First U. M.Church in Birmingham, MI. Former Associate General Secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Living on beautiful Platte Lake in Northern Michigan. I write a weekly column for the Benzie County Record Patriot newspaper and am the recipient of the Donn Doten award for excellence from United Methodist Communicators.

A Trip to Bountiful

It’s an old feel-good movie about an old woman who wants to go back to her old hometown. She takes off on her adventure, only to discover trains no longer go to the village of Bountiful, so she gets on a bus. The rest is…well, it’s the rest of the story, so if you are interested you will just have to check out the movie.

This autumn has been a “trip to bountiful.”

In October a death in the family took us to California to see my brother and his family, then another death called us to Florida to be with Judy’s brother’s family. Along the way, we got to see the Florida Harnish family as well. In the summer we really did make the trip “back home” to Clarion, PA for a reunion with 70 Harnish relatives. And now we’ve spent Thanksgiving with our own family at David’s home in Gettysburg.

It’s been a year of “bountiful.”

Sure enough, this year has also been one of too much war, too much gun violence and too much ugly political rhetoric. Even in our times of giving thanks, we can’t close our eyes to the pain of the war-torn world around us. But perhaps even the darkness helps us see the light. As we get in touch with the needs others, we are in fact more appreciative of what we have.

Every Thanksgiving I go back to the great hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.

It was written during the utter devastation of the plague and the Thirty Years War. In 1636, after burying hundreds of his parishioners including his own wife, Martin Rinkert could write:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hand and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.

His town was over-run with refugees and in all about 8,000 people in his village perished. Incredibly, in the midst of all the anguish and loss, it still sounds like he is on a trip to bountiful:

O may this bounteous God, through all our lives be near us,

With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us.

And keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills in this world and the next.

So now we begin the Advent trip to Bethlehem, the ultimate “trip to bountiful.”

“O may this bounteous God” be with you in the Advent season, in the new year ahead, and wherever the journey takes you.

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Looking toward Christmas, if you are looking for a small gift for a reader in your family, I would be happy to sign a copy of my book Thirty Days with E. Stanley Jones and send it to you.

A Thanksgiving Ebenezer

If you’ve been in worship when the congregation sang Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, you probably scratched your head when you got to the second verse:

Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come;

And I hope by Thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.

So what the heck is an Ebenezer?

First, it has nothing to do with Ebenezer Scrooge.  Rather it refers to the Biblical account in I Samuel 7:12. Having just won a battle with God’s help, the Prophet Samuel knew it would be important for the people to remember where they had been and how far they had come, so he erected a stone monument and called it “Ebenezer”.  The second phrase of the hymn defines the word, which literally means, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’d suggest we all need to raise a few Ebenezers in our lives.  We need markers along the way to remind us of key moments and the people who have help us.  Here are a couple of mine:

Percy Copenhaver was the Lay Leader in the first church I served out of seminary.  I was a young buck preacher, green as grass and overly confident.  He was a retired railroad worker with little formal education, but wisdom beyond measure.  One night after a particularly frustrating board meeting, he placed his wrinkled hands on my shoulders and said, “Don’t let it get you down, son.  You’ve got your whole ministry ahead of you.”  More than once in these 50 years, remembering Percy’s hands on my shoulder gave me courage in times of disappointment or discouragement. If I could visit his grave and leave a stone, like Samuel, I would call it Ebenezer, “Hither by thy help, Percy, I have come.”  

While I was the pastor in Dexter, Michigan, we were working on a plan to build a new church on the site of a former Boy Scout camp.  There were times when I doubted we could accomplish it, but Harold Aeschliman never gave up.  His tenacious hold on the dream inspired the rest of us.  Today a great church sits on that property and every brick is an Ebenezer to Harold’s vision. “Hither by thy help, Harold, we have come.”

Percy and Harold are only two of the host of saints who touched my life going all the way back to my Mother who sang me to sleep at night with the songs of the faith and planted a seed which grew into a call to ministry. In gratitude, I’d like to raise an Ebenezer for each of them and say, “Hither by thy help I’ve come”. 

This Thanksgiving, look back over your life recalling the times and places, the critical turning points, and most important remembering the people who made a difference in your life.  Then maybe in some small way raise an Ebenezer of gratitude to say, “Hither by Thy help I have come”.

Here’s an arrangement of the hymn like you have never heard it before.

You Mean Jesus Isn’t an American or a Brit?

That’s the title of a chapter in my book about the great missionary evangelist E. Stanley Jones. As Jones began his ministry in India in the 1920’s, one of the first challenges he faced was the identification of Jesus Christ and the Gospel with the British Empire and the American culture. If Christ was to be “naturalized” (his word) in India, he had to be seen as the universal Christ rather than as a representative of the West. Jones’ first book, The Christ of the Indian Road, hit like a bombshell as it tried to see the Gospel through Indian eyes.

Jones didn’t use the word Christian Nationalism, but that’s exactly what he was facing. Today it is the melding of a narrow view of Christianity with a jingoistic understanding of what it means to be American, wrapping the cross in the American flag. It often ties Jesus to the coattails of Donald Trump, as represented by Michael Flynn’s ReAwaken America roadshow. ( See https://religionnews.com/2022/10/31/evangelicals-and-trump-reawaken-america-shows-us-who-changed-who/ )

In the Roman Empire, Caesar was worshiped and the mandatory pledge of allegiance was “Caesar is Lord.” When the early Christians professed “Jesus is Lord”, they were directly challenging allegiance to Caesar by proclaiming their first allegiance was to Jesus Christ, not Caesar. They went to their deaths, not because they were religious, but because they were considered unpatriotic.

I am an American and I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes those two commitments are in concert, sometimes they are in conflict, but they are never the same. If we believe that “…God has highly exhalted him and given him a name which is above every name, that the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10), then no national or political allegiance can equate to our loyalty to him.

No, Jesus is not an American or a Brit.

He is the Christ who comes to save the whole world. He is the Christ who can speak to every culture and every nation, every language and every land. He is The Christ of the Indian Road, The Christ of the American Road and The Christ of Every Road–which happen to be the titles of three of E. Stanley Jones’ books.

Jesus is the Lord of all. Alleluia. Amen.

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NOTE: My book Thirty Days with E. Stanley Jones and the three Jones’ books are available from Amazon. For more information visit my website www.johneharnish.com and www.estanleyjonesfoundation.com. If you would like a copy of my book to give as a Christmas gift, I would be happy to sign a copy for the recipient and mail it to you.

“The church will be preserved…”

This week, one of my former churches closed and another one voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. I am not sure that sets any kind of record, but it does lead me to reflect on 50 years of ministry.

Calvary United Methodist Church, Hawthorne, PA was part of a three-point charge–Hawthorne, Oak Ridge and Mt. Zion--where I spent my first two years out of seminary. Following the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the former Methodist church four years earlier, in all honesty, there were too many small UM churches in the Redbank Valley. In the tiny hamlet of Oak Ridge, the EUB and Methodist Churches had been pressed into a merger with the old EUB building padlocked and sitting there as a painful reminder. So I guess you could say I started my ministry in the shadow of a closed church. When I left we closed Mt. Zion which was running about a dozen in worship on a good Sunday, held together by two aging couples. Over the decades, church participation has declined along with the population in the area until finally, Hawthorne held its last worship service last week.

I served 10 years at the Dexter United Methodist, my longest appointment. The church was growing so we purchased land, made plans to relocate and since then it has grown to more than 1,000 members under the leadership of its current pastor. It has also become much more conservative and aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This week they voted overwhelmingly to leave the UMC and join the fledgling Global Methodist Church.

Add to that, one of the first churches I served in Michigan, Davis United Methodist, closed a few years ago, so I am hoping this is not a trend.

This week I received the news from Hawthorne and Dexter with sadness. I invested a dozen years of ministry in these two places and in both congregations there were good people who blessed my life. I regret the closing of Hawthorne, even though as I say, there are too many small UM churches in the Redbank Valley so perhaps it was inevitable.

The decision in Dexter gives me greater sadness. I suppose it was also inevitable, given the effectiveness of the pastor in bringing people together around his vision. I’m a firm believer that as a former pastor, when you leave you leave, but I left a part of myself there. I assume the congregation will go on, do good ministry and help build the Kingdom, but for me it feels like the loss of a significant part of my legacy. I wish them well, with regret, and pray God will bless them. Most of all, I pray for folks who no longer feel at home in a place which has been their church home for decades and generations as they seek a new place to live out their faith.

Hawthorne, Mt. Zion, Davis and Dexter represent 17 years of my ministry. Amid the feeling of loss, a word of reassurance comes from the Order for Confirmation in the old hymnal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear in the current hymnal. I wish it did:

Dearly beloved, the church is of God and will be preserved till the end of time for the conduct of worship, the due administration of His sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers and the conversion of the world. All persons of every age and station stand in need of the means of grace which the church alone supplies.”

Looking back and looking forward, I truly do believe that even amid our divisions and dead ends, our fumbles and failures, the church IS of God and will be preserved till the end of time.

Thanks be to God.

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NOTE: Next Sunday, Nov. 13, I will be the guest preacher at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Beulah. If you are in the area, come and join us.

Divorce, Methodist Style

My non-United Methodist readers can opt out now, or hopefully they will be patient as we United (or Untied) Methodists try to work out the settlement agreements for churches seeking a divorce from the denomination. Because one of the exit procedures expires the end of the year, some congregations around the country are trying to settle it ASAP. We are discovering divorce is always messy and “breaking up is hard to do”.

For those who are considering it, here are a couple questions I would ask:

  1. The Trust Clause is a favorite whipping boy of the folks who want to leave, but I would ask, “Has the trust clause ever kept you from building what you needed to build for the sake of your ministry? Or did your work with the District Committee on Church Location actually help you perfect your plan?”

2. If your church is thriving now, obviously being United Methodist hasn’t been a problem, so how will leaving the UMC make it better? And if your church is not thriving now, will changing denominations make a difference?

3. So some preacher or Bishop said something you disagreed with, did that ever keep you from doing effective ministry in your community?

4. Who gets the house? Unless your church was built recently, you are the inheritors of property some else paid for. Those folks did so with the promise the property would remain United Methodist (ie, the Trust Clause again) and now you want to take it with you free and clear. Doesn’t the other party in the marriage as represented by the Annual Conference deserve something in return?

5. What about your next partner/preacher? The highest estimate I have seen for the Global Methodist Church is about 5,000 churches nation-wide with about the same number of clergy. Currently, the UMC has 32,000 churches and 83,000 clergy (including retirees). In many divorces, folks think they will find a better partner someplace else, but in a smaller denomination, where will you find your next partner/preacher?

5. Blaming the spouse is fairly typical in any divorce. If you feel you need to leave, then leave but at some point, please stop blaming and bad-mouthing the bishops, the conference, the folks you disagree with. Own your decision and move on, hopefully to a more positive future and allow your former partner to do the same.

The worldwide family of churches in the Wesleyan tradition includes more than 80 denominations so adding one more in the form of the Global Methodist Church probably isn’t the end of the world. I do, however, regret watching the largest and most truly global denomination break up over one issue–homosexuality. We should have been able to find a way to live together and love together and serve together without going through all of this. Since more unites us than divides us, we should have been able to keep the family together.

And I do believe one day our grandchildren will scratch their heads and ask, “Exactly why did you get a divorce, anyway?”

“Something Bigger Than Themselves”

Thirty years ago the United Methodist General Conference voted to build a new university in Zimbabwe. It was a privilege to be present for the grand opening as a representative of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, to walk in the procession and hear the then-president of Zimbabwe speak in glowing terms about the new school. Last year 722 graduates from 18 countries joined thousands of AU alums who are making a difference across the continent of Africa.

A century earlier, Bishop Hartzell looked out over the fields of Mutare and envisioned students from all across Africa coming there to get an education. But the dream never would have become a reality without the commitment of the General Conference, the work of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the faithful support of Methodists from around the world. Only by establishing an annual apportionment for the years ahead could the church guarantee a firm foundation for a university.

This is why I believe in the “Connexion”.

One local church might be able to send a mission work team or support a missionary, but it can’t build a university. It takes the commitment of thousands of congregations banding together to make it happen. That’s why I believe in the Methodist tradition of the “Connxion”, as John Wesley called it, and that’s why it troubles me to see churches breaking away to become independent. A pastor from one of these mega-churches in Texas said, “Well, the conference really hasn’t done much for us“, as if the conference exists solely to support the local church. He seems to miss the fact that the Connexion exists to bring churches together to accomplish work no single church could ever do.

Dr. Greg Jones, President of Belmont University in Nashville, recently said, “Vibrant institutions are crucial for human flourishing, cultivating hope and reweaving the social fabric. They provide a space for people to come together and build something bigger than themselves.”

Oh, sure. I could tell you what’s wrong with the United Methodist Church. There’s plenty that needs fixing, but leaving to go-on-your-own or to join a fledgling denomination with no infrastructure or institutions seems like a fool’s errand. I’d rather stay connected in the Connexion where we are able to build something bigger than ourselves.

Happy Birthday Africa University!

NOTE: For more information, visit www.africau.edu. Dr. Greg Jones is the former dean of Duke Divinity School, another great United Methodist institution. His article entitled “In dark times, our institutions can offer hope, help us flourish” can be found at https://religionnews.com/2022/10/18

Has the Church ever been “like-minded?”

Advocates for the Global Methodist Church often say that in their brand of Methodism, everyone will be like-minded. One article I read said everyone will be expected to agree on their interpretation of the the Bible, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, Wesley’s General Rules and Articles of Religion and everything they term as “doctrine”. I actually heard a representative say, “In the GMC, you will hear the same Gospel message in every church from Boise to Bulgaria.” Since one of their major concerns is “robust accountability”, a congregation or pastor who doesn’t toe-the-line theologically (or if you don’t pay your apportionments every month) can be kicked out. That includes not just basic Christian doctrines, but specifically their view of marriage and homosexuality, which was, of course, the impetus for this movement in the first place.

Has the church ever been like-minded?

As I read I and II Corinthians or the Book of Acts I wonder if the church has ever been like-minded. True, at its core the Christian Church has always affirmed Jesus Christ as Lord, but the church has always struggled to know exactly what that means in practice. True, the church believes in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection, but there are a variety of theories of the atonement and the glorious mystery of the Resurrection. True, St. Paul told the Philippians to “have this mind among you which was in Christ Jesus”, but he was talking about the spirit of humility and self-giving love, not doctrine.

There have been brands of Christianity which expected everyone be like-minded.

The first major split in the church happened over theological hair-splitting as to whether the Holy Spirit was “one with the Father and the Son” or “proceeded from the Father and the Son.” and more than once Catholics and Protestants were at each others’ throats. American Methodists divided over the role of laity in 1828 and slavery in 1844 and in our times, the Southern Baptists went through a major purge of their seminaries getting rid of faculty members who weren’t “like-minded”. There are several denominations where I would not be welcome in the pulpit or at the communion table because I am not aligned with their doctrine.

Please don’t get me wrong.

I regret the debates which have divided the Body of Christ just as I regret what is happening in the United Methodist Church right now, and I do believe doctrine matters. But suggesting that everyone in a denomination will be like-minded is either a wishful fantasy or it will result in a very small denomination. I’m happy to be a United Methodist where we affirm our central beliefs and then allow for a breadth of thought and action in response. I love the often-quoted words of John Wesley:

Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein, all the children of God may unite, not withstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”

Or, as E. Stanley Jones said,

Here we enter a fellowship. Sometimes we will agree to differ. Always, we will commit to love and unite to serve.”

For United Methodists–hearing from both sides.

Several weeks ago I was invited by a congregation to share why I intend to remain United Methodist. They had already had a detailed presentation on the Global Methodist Church, and now the congregation will reflect on both presentations. I am surprised by churches that will not permit “the other side” to share their point of view. Why would a United Methodist Church not allow United Methodist members to share why they want to remain United Methodist? Or, in all fairness, to hear from those who don’t. A life-changing decision like disaffiliation deserves thoughtful reflection by the congregation and that requires good information on both sides.

The Way is Made By Walking

That’s the title of a book by Arthur Boers describing his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain–The Way is Made by Walking. 

Dr. Anne Hebert, our pastor at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beulah, recently completed a three-week pilgrimage on the Camino.  The path is an ancient one, dating back to the to the 9th century.  Tradition says the Apostle St. James went to Spain as a missionary in the first century, then returned to Rome where he was beheaded.  As the story goes, his followers carried his body to Spain where it was buried. When his remains were discovered in the 9th century, the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was built over the place and the path from the Pyrenees mountains in France to the coast of Spain became a pilgrim way, which today attracts thousands of walkers every year.

Judy and I walked 10 days of the Camino with four friends several years ago.  There is something inspiring about knowing that day by day you are moving toward the cathedral, step by step, making your way toward the final destination.  Along the way we would pass (or be passed by) other pilgrims who greeted us with “Buen Camino“, a gentle blessing on the way. And we learned Boers is right—the way is made by walking.

Sometimes, the only way to find the way is by walking. 

Since we can’t know the future, we are always walking into the unknown, taking one step at a time, trusting the way will open up before us. Sometimes the way leads through pleasant green pastures and still waters, as the familiar Psalm 23 says.  Sometimes it leads through valleys of shadow, even the valley of the shadow of death, but we walk on believing the path will ultimately lead to new life.

The day we climbed the mountain O Cebreiro, we walked in driving rain.  (From the statue, it looks like St. James faced the same thing!) The wind whipped us with pellets of rain, sometimes coming almost horizontally as we trudged ahead.  Sometimes we walked in mud, sometimes on rocks made slippery by the deluge.  I’ve thought about that day as I watched the incredible destruction of Hurricane Ian, the homes laid waste, the lives lost, the devastation. Sometimes life is like that.  But the only way to go is to keep going, to walk on, trusting that a brighter day lays ahead.

This ancient prayer for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago can also be a prayer for our daily walk, wherever the road takes us:

     “O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him on his journey , who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us, your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

       Be for us our companion on the walk, our guide at the crossroads, our breath in weariness, our protection in danger, our shade in the heat, our light in the darkness, our consolation in our discouragements, and our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. Apostle Santiago, pray for us. Santa Maria, pray for us.”

The way is made by walking, so walk on, as the song says, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.

And Buen Camino, Pastor Anne. Welcome home.

    

Bringing in the Hose…and the Harvest

My friends Bob and Elsi Sly used to have an autumn party they called “Bringing in the Hose”.  It seems all too often Bob left the hose out all too long and it would end up frozen, so Elsi decided to invite their friends to help Bob bring in the hose.  On a chilly autumn night, we would stand around in a circle with the hose stretched out between us as Bob rolled it in.  Each person brought a limerick, a song or a joke about the hose.  (Ok, some were pretty off-color!)  Then we would sing a chorus of the old gospel song “Bringing in the Sheaves” substituting “hose” for “sheaves”.

          “Bringing the hose, bringing in the hose;

          We will come rejoicing, bringing in the hose.”

October is a time of bringing in the hose, the house plants, the boat, dock and hoist. It’s a time of apple picking, cider drinking and donut dunking.  For our farmers and orchards, it’s a time of harvesting.

“For me,” said Larry Ward, a meditation teacher in Pataskala, Ohio, “it’s also about harvesting what has occurred in the year. What has this summer brought to you and your life? What has this spring brought to you? Harvesting means taking stock of the year (or years) behind you.”  (New York Times, September 24, 2022).  I would call it the “harvesting of the soul.”  Taking time to take stock of what I have experienced, seeking to learn the lessons life has offered me, taking into account what God has done. 

This autumn season will ultimately end in a time of Thanksgiving when we gather to sing “Come, ye thankful people come; raise the song of harvest home”, but for now, maybe it’s a slower process, even a painful one.  This season of harvest will end in a feast of gratitude and rejoicing, but for now, perhaps it is a time to step back, to slow down and simply “harvest” the lessons of the year.

There is a lot of conversation in the culture right now about “mindfulness” and I guess that is what I am recommending.  October is a good time to be mindful of our days, our lives, our journey this far. It’s a good time to take time to harvest the blessings and the burdens, the victories and the losses, the pain and the pleasure of the year which is passing, bringing in the harvest of the soul.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

And maybe this year Bob will remember to bring in the hose.

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I’ll be preaching at St. Andrews Presbyterian on Oct. 9. Join us on line or in person. www.benziestandrews.com