151. Only if…

At our Annual Conference session in June, Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II (Assistant to the Bishop for African-American Leadership Development) provoked us to think in fresh ways about our human tendency to grumble and avoid work rather than to take responsibility and fulfill tasks. He showed us the thick rubber band he wears on his wrist. Every time he’s tempted to complain or blame, he quietly removes the band from one wrist and puts it on the other to remind himself to change his attitude from complaining to positive action. Soon after annual conference, we had requests from across the conference for wristbands.

One of our Superintendents (Thanks, Steve!) suggested that we imprint the bands with the words if and only running in repeated succession, one after the other around the band. When read from one point of view, the bands say if only, but from another perspective they say only if.

So many times we find ourselves lamenting and saying, “If only I had more resources, more gifts, more time… if only someone would do such and such… if only my church, my people, or my pastor would… if only God would….” However, we’re only able to respond to God’s call when we reverse the words and realize, “Only if I take responsibility, learn how, and get to work… only if I give my gifts and offer my efforts… only if our church works on this together… only if we respond to God’s call will things get done.”

At her Church Conference this year, Sharon Crawford, a layperson from Sumach United Methodist Church, was so moved by the conversation that she wrote a poem:

If only I had the time,
I’d do more to serve God’s Son;
But only if I take the time
can any service be done.

If only I could sing,
I’d sing praises of His Word;
But only if I raise my voice,
will my song of praise be heard.

If only I had a talent,
I’d be more actively involved;
But only if I test myself,
will my talents be known at all.

If only’s seem to cloud our judgments
As to our courage, and our skills;
But only if we trust our faith,
can we go forth and do His will.

During this Advent and Christmas season, I’m reminded of how many stories of scripture fit a similar motif. The owner of the inn, the shepherds in the field, and perhaps even Mary and Joseph themselves must have frequently thought, “If only God would intervene and change the world… if only God would do something spectacular and wonderful and redemptive.” And yet, their capacity to see, comprehend, and accept what God was doing required their active response.

In the end, the innkeeper could have hosted the miracle only if he had opened his doors, and the shepherds were able to witness the birth and worship the child only if they rearranged their lives and traveled the distance. Mary and Joseph were able to allow God to work through them only if they reoriented their whole lives to nurture the baby Jesus entrusted to them.

Many times we read the Bible looking for stories of God doing something dramatic, only to find that Scripture is the story of God summoning us and waiting for us to do something dramatic on his behalf. At some point we have to stop asking God to do for us what God created us to do for God. Only if we feed the hungry will the hungry be fed. Only if we praise God will God’s name be praised. Only if we invite people into the spiritual life will God’s invitation be offered. Only if we pray constantly, lead wisely, learn continuously, serve selflessly, and give generously will the purposes of Christ thrive in our communities.

Know during this Advent and Christmas season that I hold all our pastors, lay members, congregations, and ministries in my prayers. And I pray for those whom God has given us to reach with the good news that God has met our highest hopes and deepest needs in Christ. Serving Christ together with the people of the Missouri Conference is the highest privilege of my life, and I give God thanks for every one of you. May you enjoy a blessed and joyful Christmas.

Yours in Christ,