At the end of an unusually long-seeming winter (it began snowing on Halloween and didn’t much let up) we are finally getting some springtime. It’s good springtime too. Grass has slowly grown greener, leaves are popping out on the trees, and flowering bushes and trees are showing off. Spring is such a relief when you live in the “higher elevations.”
I’ve read journals of preachers who served these mountains a century or more ago. They report the winter quarter always brought with it disastrous results as people stayed in, fearful of weather and the long and difficult journeys they often faced, not to mention sickness and other temporal concerns. They would report on the spirit of relief that would overtake the churches when the weather broke finally and they could begin holding meetings once again. “Accessions” to the church would fill their reports as they described meetings of spiritual “interest” and baptisms. The reports would continue through summer and then they would report on their trek to whatever community was holding that year’s annual conference (which was held in the fall in those days). They would describe their aches and pains, their successes and failures, their gains and losses, and they would then describe the joy they felt when they gathered with the other itinerants and saw one another and heard everyone else’s account of how the work had been on their field of labor. As worship began they would sing the words of Charles Wesley’s old, revered classic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive?” This hymn was used in conferences from the mid 1700s and is still used today as conferences gather. Here are the words (written in 1749, and in the public domain):
And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!
Preserved by power divine
to full salvation here,
again in Jesus’ praise we join,
and in his sight appear.
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord
hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.
I am thinking about this tradition today. My annual conference has lost a number of lovely old retired souls as well as some active pastors in the past year. I don’t know if it’s my age or just a deep appreciation for the connectional church of which I’m a part, but this hymn has SO much meaning when you realize you are one with brothers and sisters from a region like the Holston Annual Conference. Each one’s life is part of our corporate lives. Each one’s death is a reminder of our own mortality. With each loss, I think about a song that has been in the social networks this week with the loss of George Jones: “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” The answer to that, an answer that often goes without notice, is God is going to fill their shoes. The work is bigger than any one person or any one church. It is a work we are doing together. It is a work that will not end as long as there is one soul left without an assurance of saving grace.
So I’m going to be giving some thought to the likes of Rev Dr G Steven Sallee who passed away this afternoon, Pastor Mike Watson who died about six weeks ago, Rev Bob Irwin who once gave impassioned speeches on the floor of the annual conference, Sara Jo Bardsley whose spirit radiated in her work as an educator and constant presence in her husband John’s ministry, Pastor Fred Williams who encouraged me so in a previous appointment and yet dealt with a sickness that caused him to lose his ability to work or even keep his marriage in tact. So many have been here before us, hopefully many more will come after we have finished walking this trail. But the work is the Lord’s and the Lord will, I have to believe, raise up a new set of leaders to keep it going, to keep it fresh, to keep it fruitful.
“Yet out of all the Lord has brought us by His love, and still He doth His help afford, and hides our life above.” May we have strength for our labors, and may our broken hearts be mended as we continue to apply our shoulders to the wheel of the work of God in the world, remembering that it is God’s work, not ours, and therefore, God will supply the strength.