Gratitude and the Witness of Stayers
Let me begin with gratitude. Some psalms begin with gratitude because gratitude is a call to worship, a beacon for new orientation and perspective. I want to thank you for your faithfulness. I am grateful for your focus on the mission while a pandemic rages on. Thank you for putting the Afghan refugees at the center of our table. Thank you for your sacrificial and faithful apportionment dollars and the mission infrastructure we are able to do because we contribute our fair share. I have many miles on my car and I have carried you with me across those miles in prayer and thanksgiving. These days I have been mindful of the witness of those whose mission is at the heart of town and country ministry.
I have been here so long as your bishop, some of you may not remember I was with you as a pastor and district superintendent. I remember with fondness my days in East Troy, and I still remember the road to Crandon. About two months ago after a funeral in Platteville, a rural road compelled me to pull off the well-worn path, and to stay a moment because God had appointed me to a pond that I might sit at the feet of sandhill cranes.
These days are full of the loss of a known world, a feeling of not being at home. For God’s people in Babylon, exile was an experience of such a loss and more. Exile is an experience of moral and cultural incongruity. Exile feels like, ‘where did the world go?’ ‘How do I get home?’ In his book Resonance, the sociologist Hartmut Rosa writes about how our relationship with the world is problematic. For Rosa, acceleration is the problem. We have an endless compulsion toward escalation for resources, output, and unlimited growth. It leads to a pathological relationship with the world and the environmental crisis, the crisis of democracy, and the psychology of burnout. Ask people if they are happy and they will tell you what they have: health, a job, a family, a second home or boat or an accumulation. Rarely do we talk about peace that is found in terms of relationship with God and neighbor.
East Troy and Crandon know about the loss of a world they knew. For decades, we have watched farms disappear, regardless of the name on the political administration of our public good. Today the term rural conjures notions of loss but not investment. People who live in rural places invest in time and fuel as a part of driving for goods and education, but it is an investment in staying to be in relationship with land, often for generations.
In an essay entitled, The Work of Local Culture, Wendell Berry reminds us, that education no longer serves the local community but a faceless economy that is not bound to a place or a people and does not remember our good is interdependent. Pointedly Berry says, “our children are educated, then, to leave home, not to stay home, and the costs of this education have been far too little acknowledged.”
Today I write thinking about what we can learn from the stayers—those who have paid the prices of staying because of the love of farming or a community or a way of life. Perhaps we could learn from the rural church an ethos that knows, ‘we’re in this together. We are here for each other. Our churchyards make room for graveyards because we need to see both the church and names on the stones as we walk up for worship. When we do, we are reminded of our Sunday school teachers, our soloists, and the hard and common work we share with the Saints who rest from their labors but inspire ours.
One of the major words in the gospel of John is a Greek word we translate, ‘abide,’ ‘stay,’ or ‘remain.’ We are told in the 15th chapter, ‘Abide in me, as I abide in you.’ Jesus uses the image of the vine and in doing so centers creation, the vine, the vineyard, the land, and the abiding good we are together in Christ. It is time for our pulpits and passions to center the earth and the kind of nesting that would invest in staying because there is no other planet to turn to with our endless patterns of consumption and leaving.
As a denomination, we are trying to be stayers in rural places that other denominations would not value, and yet our rural networks are dry on the vines and clergy rarely stay long enough to learn their craft. We need what the stayers can teach us about Jesus, the one who abides, stays, remains, to the glory of God. I know the cranes offered me an experience of church, of resonance that was healing, and more. It made me give thanks to God for the people of East Troy and Crandon and Plainfield and Iron Creek and Pleasant Prairie. You have touched me with hope. I thank God for your ministry and will ask us all to listen to your witness. Know that I am praying for you.
Peace to you.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).