Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reflections on Writing Missionary Biographies

By Elliott Wright

The liturgy for the commissioning of United Methodist missionaries includes a moment of what could be called a "holy touch"—hands placed on head or shoulders symbolize the grace of God and the blessing of the church.

As each new missionary receives the hands, relatives and friends in the congregation may stand, signifying both support of the person commissioned and identity with God's mission.

I always want to stand for every new missionary because each has entered my life, my world of work, and my spiritual journey in a private way that becomes indirectly public.

For some years now, I have written the internet biographical sketches of new United Methodist missionaries. These bios can be accessed in several configurations from the Global Ministries' web homepage. They are snapshots of the background, work, and aspirations of the in-service missionaries; the short accounts are suitable for download for use in mission education and promotion.

I had no idea when I started this post-retirement assignment that it would become a constantly renewing saturation in Christian witness—the witness of women and men, young and mature, from all parts of the world, so diverse in culture and experience; so united in love of God and global neighbors.

From data the missionary candidates provide for public use, I come to know the narrative of each life: spiritual journeys, calls to mission service, education and earlier employment, languages spoken, musical instruments played, the names of children and grandchildren, and hobbies.

I meet parents and grandparents, pastors and campus ministers, and teachers and coaches who guided their footsteps; hear about life-changing mission trips; and can often feel the struggles each faced before answering God, "Here am I, send me."

Jesus is the dominant presence, a constant companion, in the faith stories, a presence of compelling compassion that has reshaped lives into the many forms of today's missionary service.

Another presence is that of John Wesley, often by name and always by implication. His profound combination of personal and social holiness is often given as the theological reason for being both Methodist and missionary. The influence of Wesley, especially the impact of his written sermons, is most dramatic in the spiritual pilgrimages of missionaries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The hallmarks of Methodism, such as God's free grace and the social nature of the church, have come as joyful, liberating gifts making the impossible possible in Jesus Christ. Never as a lifelong Methodist have I felt the Wesleyan experience of faith as powerfully alive as in these global missionaries. 

The new missionaries allow me to walk with them if only for a short span as I write their brief online biographies; they touch me with their passion, wisdom, humor, and loving spirits; the touch is holy.

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