If we remember amid life’s laments that God's steadfast love and mercies never end, we can still have hope.
This was the message brought by Bishop Bruce Ough to the Memorial Service at the 2018 Annual Conference Session.
The lamentations will come in this life, Ough said, but if we remember God’s promise and persevere in sharing Him with the world, we won’t lose hope.
Watch the Memorial Service | Watch Bishop Bruce Ough's sermon
Seventeen clergy members and 21 clergy spouses were memorialized at the 2018 Annual Conference Session, along with a diaconal minister and a daikonos.
The names of eight clergy members and two clergy spouses who have passed away since May 2018, but whom will be memorialized in 2019 were read as well.
Bishop Ough told the Conference he was somewhat surprised in looking at the service program and realizing how many of those memorialized this year were people he knew and who graced his life.
“This is a service of remembering,” he said. “We remember with deepest respect and honor, those saints who were the pioneers and cornerstones of our faith and who, this afternoon, bear witness that even in death, our hope is in Christ Jesus.”
“We praise God for graciously receiving each of our beloved colleagues, friends and family members into His presence and into the glorious company of the saints of light,” said Bishop Ough, “I welcome the families and friends of these we mourn and extend my deepest sympathy. May God grant us grace, that in pain we might find comfort; in sorrow, hope; in death, resurrection.”
He also referenced with gratitude the churches in the Conference “which have come to the end of their life cycle but leave a rich legacy—a firm foundation—disciples made; children nurtured; compassion expressed; grace, justice and salvation proclaimed.”
In addition to a service of remembrance, Ough said the memorial service was one of celebration.
“We celebrate that you, the members of the Iowa Annual Conference, are living memorials to God’s saving grace,” he said.
“You are living stones that Christ Jesus is building into a spiritual house, a royal priesthood,” he said. “May God ground your ongoing kingdom work in the memory of this cloud of witnesses we celebrate this afternoon. May we remain prisoners of the hope we have in the Risen Christ. May we keep a grip on hope as we carry on the work of those who have led the way and have modeled what it means to make a difference.”
Bishop Ough recited Lamentations 3:19-24, noting the book is “filled with relentless grief and anger and gloom and weeping,” and is an “expression of outrage at heart-stopping tragedy. He said as well that it “expresses the abandonment, fury, and disorientation of the Hebrew people following the invasion and destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians.”
“This lament, poetic as it is, goes on verse after verse after agonizing verse,” the bishop said after his recitation. “A narrative of despair. A narrative of decline. A narrative of destruction. A narrative of disorientation. A narrative of loss of identity, purpose, meaning. A narrative of resignation.”
He pointed out that we can relate to this text in “our own seasons of grief, anger, and disorientation, and the words recall our own heart-stopping tragedies, dark nights of the soul and overwhelming sorrows.”
“There are family members and friends present today of these we memorialize,” said Bishop Ough, “who know all too well the words of the poet: 'She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks ... she has no one to comfort her.'"
He listed other of ills that befall us in life, drawing parallels with the grief expressed in Lamentations.
Bishop Ough also mentioned among life’s lamentations those faced by congregations in decline, and also the homosexuality debate and whether it would split in the church.
“The author of Lamentations has captured our frustration, grief, and pain,” he said.
There is nothing wrong with a good lament, Bishop Ough noted, when it leads to thoughtful critique, truth-telling, humility, and repentance.
“But when it leads to blaming or shame or makes us enemies of each other,” he said, “the Church becomes little more than a puddle of grief, a pot of despair, a stew of lamentations, a purveyor of a culture of decline.”
Jeremiah does do an about-face in the middle of all his lamentations, said Bishop Ough, suddenly remembering that the steadfast love and mercies of God never end.
“They are new every morning!” he told the Memorial Service gathering. “Friends, the steadfast love, and mercies of God never end. Great is God's faithfulness!”
The bishop then cited author Eugene Peterson capturing this epiphany in his book The Message
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed.
I remember it all - oh, how well I remember
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there's one other thing remember,
and remembering, I KEEP A GRIP ON HOPE!
“AII of a sudden it is about God,” said Bishop Ough. “AII of a sudden the author tells God's side of the story!”
“Do you know the overriding mark of a person who makes a difference?” he asked. “The kind of people we are remembering today. They always remember and tell God's side of the story. They always know it is about God.”
The bishop went on, “So, here is God's side of the story; God is full of grace and goodness. God always keeps God's end of the covenant. God's loyal love never runs out. God never walks out and fails to return. God rescues God's people from exile and hopelessness.”
“The goodness of God is the true treasure of the people,” he said. “Regardless of the people's faithlessness, God is faithful. Great is God's faithfulness. God ransoms and redeems and restores his faithless and sinful people.”
“God watches over and protects his people,” said Bishop Ough. “God remains as God ever was—ready to forget how far we have wandered, ready to forgive us. God is good, all the time!”
“When we focus on God and who God is,” he added, “then we can keep a grip on hope.”
“We live in a threshold time,” the bishop pointed out. “We live in a time that is seeking to keep a grip on hope.”
He then detailed various challenges to local and global ministry, including poverty, hunger, migration, violence, greed, terrorism, and ecological destruction.
There are prevalent signs of despair, he said, including children dying in the U.S. from lack of health insurance, endless war in the Middle East, and a whole generation of Syrian children in refugee camps.
But conversely the bishop said, there is a risk taking service and generosity from both Christians and non-Christians, proceeding to list dramatic growth with Volunteers in Mission, the overwhelming response to UMCOR disaster relief efforts and unprecedented partnerships between the faith community, private foundations, and governmental agencies to fight malaria in Africa.
“More and more United Methodist pastors and churches across the Connection are engaged in innovative, breakthrough experiments of church, and they are leading with courage, creativity and a renewed determination to make a difference in the world,” he said.
“There is absolutely no doubt the Holy Spirit is at work on God's good earth and in the Iowa Annual Conference,” said Ough. “We witness Holy Spirit breakthroughs every day.”
New life is being unleashed in and through congregations across the globe, he said, cultivating spiritual vitality, reaching new people and healing a broken world.
“United Methodists around the world are putting hope into action,” said Bishop Ough. “We make a difference. We keep a grip—a firm grip—on hope.”
He gave some examples of people who have kept hold of hope.
The first was Bonnie Kittel, an Old Testament professor at Yale Divinity School who taught a course on Exodus through the last three years of her life before dying of cancer.
“Bonnie Kittel kept a grip on hope,” he said.
The bishop also mentioned the two women who’d encountered Christ’s empty tomb on the first Easter. Despite being were filled with fear and disbelief, later when Jesus appeared to them they took hold of Jesus' feet and worshipped him.
“In their bewilderment and fear and confusion, the women fell to their knees and grabbed hold of Jesus' feet,” said Bishop Ough. “They were keeping a grip on hope.”
In John's Gospel Jesus gave witness that he came not to do his will, but the will of God who sent him, the bishop said, reciting "And, this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that God has given me, but raise it up on the last day." (John 6:39)
“Dear friends, can you comprehend this promise?” asked Bishop Ough. “Nothing that God has given Jesus, including the United Methodist movement, will be lost. With a promise like that, we can keep a grip on hope.”
“When we depart from this time of memorial,” he continued, “when we leave this service of remembering the difference makers, when we go forth to pass the mantle to the next generation, we go as God's people—the spiritual leaders—the bold, spirit-leaders of the United Methodist movement in Iowa—to remind others to keep a grip on hope.”
He offered ways for Conference members to keep a hold on hope.
These included helping people to dream big; inviting people to be captured by God's imagination; encouraging our people to help stamp out poverty; we keep a grip on hope; reaching children and generations of young people lost to Christ; starting new congregations and reaching new people; working for just immigration laws; and teaching people to be fruit bearers.
“When we take up our crosses and turn outward to the world, we keep a grip on hope,” said Bishop Ough. “When we lose our lives for the sake of the world, we keep a grip on hope.”
“When we remember God's great faithfulness,” he said, “we keep a grip on hope!”
“Go from this celebration remembering God's steadfast love and mercies never end,” the bishop charged the Conference.
“In the middle of your lamentations, and they will come, get a grip—get a firm, unbreakable grip—on hope,” he said. “Go and tell God's side of the story. This is how you make a difference—by telling God’s side of the story. Great is God's faithfulness! Alleluia! Amen!”
Clergy memorialized in 2018:
Hugh S. Bird
Dale E. Gray
Richard T. Hohl
LeRoy W. Kelderman
Norman L. Knight
Warren J. McFate
Harold S. Miller
Richard C. Pfaltzgraff
Elizabeth E. Piette
Julie M. Poore
Alfred E. Rau
James W. Stiles
Emmanuel A. Tabelisma
Charles G. Tefft
Carryl R. Ziettlow
Clergy spouses memorialized in 2018:
Ruth S. Bonath
Doris L. Brent
Alyce K. Brown
Noreen F. Kahler-Miller
Lois J. Miller
Evelyn L. Nester
Marjorie L. Robinson
Nora Evelyn Rose
Dale J. Seylar
(Venca) Jean Sparks
Mary Ann Ziettlow
Diaconal Minister memorialized in 2018:
Bernice E. Dvorak
Diakonos memorialized in 2018:
Names read at the 2018 Memorial Service that will be memorialized in 2019:
Bob D. Davis
Pamela J. Farren
Michael G. Ferguson
Robert H. Gamble
Edward C. Meyer
Bonifacio B. Mequi
Mary Catherine Roath
Kevin W. Smith
LaJeune D. Williams
Gail G. Streyffeler
Churches closed or closing in 2018:
East Central District
North Central District
Beaver UMC (more recently known as “Beaver Yoke”
Fort Dodge Riverside UMC
South Central District
West Grove UMC
Union Memorial Church, Milford