Life is mysterious, it presents great challenges and incredible moments of wonder, but ultimately life is to be lived as gift. The unfolding of each new day presents for us opportunity to be a part of something so much greater than ourselves. There is wonderful music being threaded together all around us and our opportunity is to be still and quiet and see if our spirit can get caught up in the spirit of the music that is the sacred song meant for all of God’s creation. There is a song that is beautiful enough for the inclusion of us all.
During my travels, I sat with a man who taught me so much about the Spirit of God at work in the world, Rev. Keith Tonkel. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this year and his 48th year ministering at Wells Memorial United Methodist in Jackson, Mississippi. It is unheard of for a United Methodist Minister to serve so many years in one place. Keith believed his ministry was to grow a community lived love. Love is the ultimate creation song.
During the Civil Rights years, Keith was one of 28 ministers who signed a statement called the “Born of Conviction” statement. They were naming their commitment to spend their lives working to end segregation in the church. Keith was sent to Wells Memorial UMC as punishment for signing the document. The church was understood to be a dying congregation. He shares there were 13 people there when he arrived. His sermon was prepared and ready and when he touched the handle of the front door of the church something in his spirit made him think there was another sermon he was to preach.
Keith began to preach a sermon on the valley of the dry bones. After he was done, a member of the church came up to him and slapped him on the back and said, “We had decided if you didn’t have the courage to preach to us from that very text we were going to close the doors of this place.” Over the years, Wells has grown in number and the congregation is described to be the most inclusive congregation in the state of Mississippi.
Keith is one who truly drinks life. Outside of his house sits a cooler that says, “Drinks here are for postal workers.” When I shared I loved the cooler, he said, “Baby, you can’t have their drinks, but I have your favorite coffee right here, just for you!” I smiled and drank my coffee and drank the joy of being with one who reminds you to drink life and who knows how to live love!
Sitting with Keith, one might think his full spirit comes from an easy life, but that would not be true. His spirit song has lived through cancer, the death of his wife, the illness of children, and the harsh reality of being thought odd in a state like Mississippi for singing a song his whole career long that is a song that has rhythm and harmony for—ALL!
We live in a world where people need to hear music rising above the chaos, music that rises above anxiety filled hearts, and music that is a witness that stands against any doubt that there is a God with love great enough for all. This is our story. This is our song.
With you on the journey,