Bishop Leontine T. Kelly died on June 28, 2012. I just found some words I wrote when she visited the church I served in 2003…
“Words for the Edge of My Soul”
On Sunday, March 23, Bishop Leontine Kelly will be our guest preacher for Reconciling Sunday.
There is much that can be said to praise this fiery octogenarian. In 1984, she was the first African-American woman consecrated a Bishop in the history of the Christian church. Repeat that last sentence! We date time based on the historic guesses about Jesus’ birth year. 1,984 years later a black woman becomes a bishop. The church has never been in a hurry.
She was only the second woman in the United Methodist church consecrated Bishop. She’s a mother, been a teacher, served as a pastor in a local church, walked side-by-side with Desmond Tutu, and has been honored by the Ladies Home Journal as one of the most important women in America.
With all of her accolades, I remember one thing more than anything else about Bishop Kelly. She was my bishop in the relatively brief time she served as an active Episcopal leader between 1984-88. Thus, I heard her preach at least once a year at our annual conference of the California-Nevada United Methodists.
During one of her sermons, during one of the many worship services we have throughout a conference, she spoke a phrase that went straight to my soul. The phrase she spoke hit me with the force of personal truth.
Indeed, the phrase she used in the midst of that sermon is prominently displayed on the bookshelf in my office. I want those words around to remind me of that riveting moment long ago and to challenge me every time I glance at them.
I doubt the phrase she preached was original to her. She borrowed it from another source and, as preachers do, thoughtfully incorporated it into her message. But how she preached it, and how I was suddenly on the each of my seat listening to it, made it uniquely her gift to me. In that room of over a 1,000 people, it was suddenly just the two of us. And God. That’s the power of preaching.
What was the phrase?
The will of God
Will never lead you
Where the grace of God
Cannot keep you.
That phrase, those handful of words, are theologically brilliant. They took me to the edge of my seat and deep into my soul.
I won’t spend many of my words to explain those words. I suspect they will either work for you or they won’t. And, as is often the case with moments that touch us, “you had to be there!”
And yet, the phrase is worth a bit of reflection. How do we know it truly is God who is calling us? How do we know our decision reflects God’s will for our lives? We don’t. Much of what we do will be the proverbial leap of faith. But the worst thing we will do is nothing. So we leap, we make a next decision, we leave an old behind to embrace a new. And we listen to our heart. We honestly check in with how we feel. Is God’s grace present? Has the next step, the bold decision, provided a feeling of strength, hope, and renewal?
God’s will demands we respond.
The grace of God makes us feel like we belong.
When the will and the grace are part of the same person, moment, event, decision time . . . we are hand-and-hand with the Holy. It doesn’t happen often for me. But it happens often enough . . . and I feel blessed.
So, thanks Bishop Kelly. Thanks for your words and your ministry!