As we respond to the grace we have received in Jesus Christ, we allow God to grow us as disciples of Jesus Christ. One response is to follow our United Methodist General Rule of Discipleship, which encourages us "to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."
We'll ask the Rev. Dr. Connie Mella what it means to respond with gratitude to God's grace at work in our lives.
Guest: Rev. Dr. Connie Mella
The Rev. Dr. Connie Semy P. Mella is an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church and has been the Academic Dean of Union Theological Seminary, Philippines, for several years now. She has multiple roles as a global leader in the United Methodist Church and currently leads as the Executive Director of GBHEM LEaDHub Philippines and Southeast Asia is an officer of the Philippine Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, Universities and Seminaries (PAMSCUS) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Central Conference Theological Education Fund of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church.
In 2017, she earned her Doctor of Theology from the ATESEA Theological Union. She also has several other degrees: Master of Arts in Theology (Cross-Cultural Contextual Theology) from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Holland in 2004; and Master of Theology (Biblical Studies) from Southeast Asia Graduate School of Theology in 2005. Her Master of Divinity (Summa Cum Laude) is from Union Theological Seminary in 2000. She studied at Harris Memorial College (AB Christian Education) for two years and then finished Bachelor of Religious Education (cum laude) from Union Theological Seminary in 1996.
She has been to Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Israel/Palestine, Norway, Switzerland, the USA as a representative and speaker to various international conferences. Rev. Mella has also served different local churches, including the PCCL University Church inside the campus of Union Theological Seminary, Philippines.
Host: Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff
Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women's Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018).
Dr. Ashley Dreff: Hello, and welcome again to Tuesdays at the Table. I'm your guest host, Ashley Boggan Dreff, the General Secretary of Archives and History. Today we're going to be talking about, “If it's all grace, what's my role as a United Methodist Christian?” With us today is Reverend Dr. Connie Semy Mella, an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church, who's been the academic Dean of Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines for several years now. She has multiple roles as a global leader in the United Methodist Church, and currently leads as the Executive Director of GBHEM's LEAD Hub, Philippines and Southeast Asia. Welcome Connie, how are you this morning?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: I am well. Thank you very much, Ashley. Good morning, good evening, and good afternoon, because I know that we have different time zones. So again, I'm Connie Semy Mella, I am an ordained elder from the Mindanao Philippines Annual Conference, Davo Episcopal Area, Philippines Central Conference, of the United Methodist Church. I am very privileged to serve the church in various capacities: as a local church pastor, as a school chaplain, as a counselor. And I'm also involved in different organizations, and different boards and agencies of the United Methodist Church. And part of that is the Central Conference Theological Education Fund. Presently I'm serving as the Academic Dean at Union Theological Seminary, Philippines, and the executive director of LEAD Hub Philippines and Southeast Asia. So I always say that I am a homegrown United Methodist. My second name, Semy, actually is a shortened of seminary, where I was born, while my father studied at Union Theological Seminary. So I am a pastor's kid, and now I am also a pastor, and serving in the seminary where I was born.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: Wow. That's quite the story. So thank you, Connie. We talk a lot about grace in the United Methodist Church. How should we respond to God's grace?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: Very interesting question. First, let us go back to our understanding of grace. So our book of discipline defines grace as the underserved, unmerited and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. In Filipino, we call grace as “Kagandahang loob ng Diyos.” Grace is God's presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform human hearts, communities, and the entire creation. We understand the work of grace in God's creating, healing, reconciling, and transforming activities. Hence, we have the prevenient grace that goes before us. The justifying grace or the saving grace, a grace that transforms us into a new creation, into a new identity. And we have the sanctifying grace, or the perfecting grace. We believe that God's goal for humanity is the complete restoration of the divine image, and the conforming of all creation to the image of Christ.
What, then, is our appropriate response to this grace? Gratitude. Gratitude is not only being thankful for what we have been given, but it is recognizing the good. In Hebrew, it is “Hakarat hatov” which means literally, "Recognizing the good." A good friend of mine once said, "Connie, it is not enough to appreciate the good. We need to know and appreciate the goodness of the good." We need to recognize the intrinsic value of the good, by acknowledging the giver and the gift, and replicating the act of goodness by paying it forward to others. We must walk the way of gratitude. Our gratitude to God's grace is expressed in our three general rules of doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God. This manifests in our acts of piety and mercy, justice, and compassion.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: Thank you. I love the way that you expressed recognizing the goodness of good. I think that's such a beautiful way to think about it. So, related to that, how would you define discipleship? The general rule, which you just referenced, of discipleship of the United Methodist Church, is quote, "To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow His teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit." Can you say a little bit more about what discipleship means?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: Okay. Well, what do we mean by the words, disciples and discipleship? The word disciple comes from the Greek word, mathētḗs, which means learner or pupil. A learner listens to and emulates the words and deeds, and the very example of the teacher. The learner does not only accept the views of the teacher, but practices these views as an adherent. This manifests in one's words and actions. A Dictionary for United Methodists, defines discipleship as the active living of the individual Christian in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The general rule of discipleship of the United Methodist Church, is to witness to Jesus Christ in the world. And to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What do we mean by this? It means that we need to give flesh to the teachings of Jesus, to exemplify the characteristics of Jesus through our acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.
Well, Ashley, I am fond of etymology, or the study of where the words come from. And I learned that the word compassion, comes from the Latin word compati. Com means with, and pati means, feel. The word compassion therefore means, to feel with. To have compassion with people, is to feel with the people. Jesus had compassion with the least, the last, and the lost. For the Filipinos, it means being a Kapwa. Kapwa is a Filipino term that means “kapareho ng kaluluwa”or shared spirit, or same spirit. My Korean friends said that it is synonymous with their “Sangsaeng” spirituality. A Korean concept of sharing economy and community that allows all to flourish together. It is parallel with the African Ubuntu, which means, "I am, because you are." Because we are Kapwa, or same spirit, then we are each other's keeper. Therefore, we will embody the message of Prophet Micah, to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Well, I believe that that is the essence of discipleship for me. To embody and to emulate the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: If we're to embody and emulate the teachings of Jesus, then what does discipleship mean for how we live our lives? How do we do that?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: I love that. I love that question. Actually, I believe that the true mark of discipleship is by living in love. That is a distinctive mark. That is the identity of Christians. My favorite song says, (singing) ”And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” One of my favorite seasons in our liturgical year is Lent, wherein we celebrate the Holy Week. A day before Good Friday, we have the Maundy Thursday, where we celebrate the last supper and the washing of the feet. The word Maundy, or Maundy, comes from the Latin word, Mandatum novum, which means New Mandate. Because it is during this time that Jesus explicitly stated his new mandate, which is actually a reiteration of the mandate of old. And what is that mandate? To love one another.
Jesus said, "A new commandment I'm giving to you, that you should love one another as I have loved you. And people will know that you are my disciples, if you will love one another." The true mark of discipleship is love. Love is real. When it can give itself to others, a life of discipleship is a life that is characterized by love, anchored on a firm foundation that shows consistency of words and deeds, by its capacity to give itself for the sake of others. It is a love that is self-giving, other affirming, and community binding
Dr. Ashley Dreff: So it sounds like discipleship is very much a communal aspect, a communal part of our lives. But is discipleship something that we can also do alone?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: Well, I believe in covenant discipleship. We are a community of faith. And by learning together, we'll flourish together. Hence in the Methodist tradition, the cell group is very important. Organizations within the church, associations, and other covenant discipleship programs, are very important in the life and in the growth of the church.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: So the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, is, quote, "To make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world." Can you say a little bit more about what this statement means to you? And how does discipleship change the world around us?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: I love that question. As a United Methodist, we uphold social holiness. And we always say, there is no holiness but social holiness, there is no religion, but social religion. The piety of our hearts must be manifested in the society where we belong. Because the world is our parish, then the holiness of our hearts must be translated to a social relationship that would bring healing to the whole creation. The word salvation comes from the word salve, which means to heal and to make whole. And we know that this world is broken and fragmented. That's why we need to heal and to make whole.
Hence, the grace of God prompts us to participate in the ministry of healing, creating, reconciling, and transforming. And we carry this out through the life and ministry of our local churches, and the agency of our different general boards and agencies, like the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Global Ministry, General Board of Discipleship, General Board of Church and Society, General Commission on Religion and Race, of course the UMCom - United Methodist Communication, the COSRW, Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the General Commission on the Unity and Interreligious Affairs, and the rest of our boards and agencies. Their existence is to help carry out the church mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And by the way, that's the reason why we have the social principles.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: Thank you so much. So how should understandings of discipleship guide what we do in the future, and what we stop doing?
Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella: Our challenge, and a challenge to each one of us, is for us to live out the general rules of doing no harm, of doing good, of staying in love with God. Let us stop harming each other because of our prejudices and bigotry. I hope, Ashley, that we could learn from our past and work on the unity of the church. Our history tells us, that in 1816, we had our first schism because of racial discrimination, which gave birth to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1821, another split happened in the church, because of the same issue. The issue of racial discrimination, which gave birth to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In 1830, another schism happened in the church because of the issue of clericalism, which gave birth to the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1848, another split happened, because of the issue of slavery. This is an issue of classism, which gave birth to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Well, we're also happy that the three branches merged again in 1939. The Methodist Episcopal church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, to become The Methodist Church. And in 1968, The Methodist church merged with The Evangelical United Brethren, to form The United Methodist Church. We have our gains already. The presence of the General Commission on Religion and Race, reminds us to do away with racial discrimination or racism. The equal representation of the laity and the clergy, reminds us to do away with the issue or the problem of clericalism.
Now we are threatened by another schism, due to sexism. Particularly, heterosexism, or the discrimination or prejudice against gay people on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. When can we learn our lesson? And when can we realize that we are all children of God, and that we need to live in harmony and love? We could not fully understand yet. Hence we need to be open to God's revelation, every day, and to live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I hope we can learn our lesson well. Racism, classism, clericalism, and now, heterosexism will threat the church again, or will split us again. We are all children of God. And these people which we are discriminating against, they are also children of God. Ashley, I love The United Methodist Church, and I want to stay in The United Methodist Church.
Dr. Ashley Dreff: Thank you, Connie. And thank you for reminding us that at the heart of discipleship, is this communal desire to transform the world around us, the broken world around us, through love, and through a feeling with one another. Thank you so much, it's been a pleasure to be in conversation with you.