“And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?” These are the opening words of a Charles Wesley hymn and sung to open nearly all annual conference sessions throughout the Methodist movement since the days of John Wesley.
On Monday the lay and clergy members of the Central Texas Annual Conference will sing it as the 2013 session of the conference begins. Since I first learned about this tradition and the lives of the early Methodists, I have been struck by the power of Charles Wesley’s words for those pioneering preachers on the early American frontier and what they continue to mean for us today.
In the early days of the Methodist Church in America, only clergy were voting members. They were known as travelling preachers, or “circuit riders.” Peter Cartwright (1785-1816) was one of the best known of the circuit riders and in his autobiography he wrote this about the life of a circuit rider: …he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle-bags for a pillow. Often he slept in dirty cabins, ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee; took deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune.
It is little wonder most of these preachers died almost before their careers had begun. Of those who died up to 1847, nearly half were less than 30 years old. Many were too worn out to travel. When laity began to attend the conferences, many of them travelled to the sessions of the conferences out of great hardship and heartache. Clergy and laity alike often did not know until they gathered who had made it another year and who had gone on to glory.
While life is very different for clergy and laity today, the words of the old hymn still speak to us as we gather. With communication being what it is today, we know almost instantly how our brothers and sisters are faring throughout the year. Yet, still we gather—as Methodists have for generations—celebrating being together again and celebrating the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. Somehow the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn have managed to remain fresh in every generation and somehow they tie us to all those who have gone before.
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.
Please keep our Annual Conference in your prayers leading up to and during the sessions – June 9-12.
Grace and Peace,