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Keep Christ in the center


Nearing retirement, Rev. John Hice reflects on his hope-filled seminary days, the challenging intervening years, and how he’s kept his ministry focus on Christ.

Superintendent, East Winds District

“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21, NRSVUE).

My pending retirement is making me pretty reflective, so let this be a postscript to my active ministry.

Seminaries are hopeful places. I remember my time at Garrett-Evangelical, studying with new friends in its sacred halls and diving deeply into Scripture to learn about God and the world we were to serve. Quickly discovering that our spiritual and theological formation would not be limited to classroom and library, we often gathered round tables in the dining hall and dorm rooms and discovered community. We freely debated theology, shared discoveries, and fell into koinonia (“fellowship love”). Together, we dreamed our dreams of living heroic lives of ministry, making a real difference in the world for Christ.

It was certain. We were going to change the world. Some friends wanted to make the church relevant for the twentieth century. Others wanted to stomp out oppression, racism, and sexism. Others wanted to work for an end to the arms race. We all had visions of what the world might be like if it moved closer to God’s vision. We were dedicating our lives to this quest; I had my list, too.

I’m not sure where a sense of caution came from, but it was undoubtedly the most important lesson I took to heart in those days. “Work prophetically, but never let a cause take your center stage. Always, as you devote yourself to righting wrongs and blessing the world, always keep Christ in the center.”

Hope is hard to hang on to. History since the mid-’70s took turns we could never imagine. We have wrestled with demons and unforeseen events for which we could not have consciously prepared. Who could have known, in 1976, what we’d experience in the coming decades? September 11, 2001, would stun us. We would engage in two wars in the Middle East. A Great Recession would befall us. A pandemic would imprison us. American society would secularize as far as it has. Strides made in equality and tolerance would suffer major setbacks. Disagreements would become so intense in The United Methodist Church that we would be dealing with rifts and disaffiliations.

Results can be dangerous measures on which to build either self-worth or faith. If we were to rely on results for our efforts, my seminary friends and I could conclude that the world is not in much better shape than it was back then when hopes were high. Hope is hard to hang on to.

A little plaque that hung in my wife Laura’s grandmother’s home responds to potential disappointment:

Only one life,
’Twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ shall last.

I have realized that we who follow Jesus Christ and serve God in this world do not get to choose our contexts for ministry. We do not get to choose many of our accomplishments. Whatever is gained is ever vulnerable to being lost again. The success of our lives is best not measured by the net sum of achievements over defeats.

The point of ministry is, finally, not success. It is Christ. The best we can do is hold Christ in the center. And in our context—as serene or ugly as it might be—we endeavor to be the earthen vessels that carry God’s grace. If you bring Christ’s light into whatever darkness is around you, you fulfill the call.

In the end, it is important to weather our storms and still hang on to hope. More important, still, is to keep Christ Jesus at your center and know that God’s hope always hangs on to us.

Last Updated on May 17, 2023

The Michigan Conference