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Can Mainline Christians Be Joyful?

August 21, 2009

I spent a portion of August in the country of Liberia.  Our congregation has a number of wonderful persons who are Liberian, having fled the war that engulfed that country.  Our worship is somewhat formal and traditional, and I have learned that this resonates with many Liberians, who yet add the spice of the spontaneous and emotional to it!

I was in Liberia to speak at a graduation and at a gathering of United Methodist clergy in an annual conference setting. Along the way, my time was filled with conversations with a  number of women and men who are deeply courageous and committed: a woman, formerly a district superintendent, who now leads the ministry with youth and young adults, many of whom are former child soldiers; an instructor of new testament whose vehicle was ambushed by rebels, and was the sole survivor; another district superintendent, again a woman, who told me that none of the clergy in her district received more than $1 U.S. per day ($30 a month) in compensation---this would place them among the one billion people in the world who live on $1 a day; the Bishop, who stood between rebels and three hundred children under his care in an orphanage, to protect them, and who passed through life-threatening checkpoints in venturing out for food when those children were at the point of starvation. 

In the worship of Liberian United Methodists, there is a common refrain, which struck me as odd:  the leader says "God is good", and the congregation responds "all the time"; then the leader continues, "and all the time", and the people echo, "God is good".  My wife asked what this meant to them, and the Bishop responded, "our fourteen year civil war was so terrible, we became aware that we had only survived by the goodness of God".

My relationships with Liberians have taken shape over a number of years, and they are of course as diverse and complex as those with Christians in the United States.   I returned from Liberia, however, grateful for the distinct character of their faith, which is marked by perseverance and joy.

I did come away with one additional insight:  these people believe in God.  In the United States, and especially in the mainline churches, our default responses to most every situation is political or sociological, whether we are liberals or conservatives.  The ethos of the Liberian Christians that I know is quite different. God is shaping events, God is meeting needs,  God speaks through dreams and God is real.  And, yes, God is good.  All the time.


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