A well-known Bible verse provides inspiration for the theme of the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.
Just how much of that verse to include was a subject of debate when organizers of the United Methodist lawmaking assembly met Aug. 7-9 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Ultimately, the Commission on General Conference approved the theme “…and know that I am God” from Psalm 46.
Along the way, the multinational group discovered that the way the rest of that verse is translated and even the verse number itself varies depending on the language your translation uses.
Many English-speaking United Methodists can readily quote the King James Version of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Members of the 2020 General Conference worship team recommended the abbreviated version of that verse.
“One of the things that we wanted to make sure was clear was that there are multiple opportunities and ways people come to know God,” Stephanie Parsons, a team member, told the commission. “It’s not just in the still and the quiet. It’s also in celebration, in conversation and in any number of ways.”
Kim Simpson, the commission chair, pointed out that General Conference themes traditionally have used only parts of verses. The 2016 General Conference theme was “Therefore, Go” from Matthew 28:19-20, in which the risen Christ instructs those he sends to go make disciples of all nations.
However, the Rev. Joseph Ndala Mulongo — a commission member from Congo — expressed reluctance to shorten the verse in the 2020 theme. “God is the one who says, ‘be still,’ in speaking to the community,” Mulongo said through an interpreter.
The Rev. Beth Ann Cook of the Indiana Conference said she learned as a seminary student that the passage “has less to do with physical stillness than the stillness of the heart.”
Following up on their comments, fellow commission member Stephanie Henry of the Pacific Northwest Conference made a motion to add “Be still” to the theme.
Isabelle Berger, a French interpreter for the commission, pointed out another possible wrinkle. What is verse Psalm 46:10 in English translations of the Bible is listed as 46:11 in French, she said.
Commission members Christine Flick from Germany and Audun Westad from Norway soon noted it was also verse 46:11 in their respective mother tongues.
That variation was just the beginning of the difference.
Westad noted that where English speakers see “Be still,” in Norwegian the translation says something closer to “Shut up.” Flick noted that her German Bible says, “Make peace.”
Don Reasoner, who organizes interpreters for General Conference, added that the Bible verse in Portuguese says, “Stop fighting.” In Spanish and Portuguese, he said the verse is also 46:10.
The Common English Bible, the United Methodist Publishing House’s most recent translation from the original texts, has its own take on Psalm 46:10. In that translation, God declares: “That’s enough! Now know that I am God!”
So, why all the differences?
It helps to know the context.
Like other psalms, Psalm 46 is intended for singing and begins with a notation for the music leader. That notation is listed as the first verse in some translations, while others begin the verse count with the song itself, Hebrew scholar Mark McEntire later told United Methodist News.
In some Bibles, he said, the psalm isn’t even listed as 46, but as Psalm 45 instead. That’s because Greek manuscripts merged Psalms 9 and 10 into a single poem. Protestant Bibles, following Hebrew tradition, separate those psalms.
“The collecting, selecting, arranging and numbering of psalms has always been a more fluid and contested process than most readers realize. We never reached full agreement,” said McEntire, professor of biblical studies at Baptist-affiliated Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
There is also the context of the brief psalm itself, which speaks of God as refuge when the world falls apart, nations roar and kingdoms crumble. Immediately before the verse used in the General Conference theme, the psalm speaks of God bringing wars to an end.
The variation in Psalm 46:10/11 is because the first Hebrew word — רפה (raphah) — leaves a lot up to the translator.
“Because the meaning involves stopping or letting go, its precise meaning is tied to a prior action or goal, that which is to be ceased or released. The ambiguity allows translators to shape the meaning to their own preferences,” McEntire said.
The full psalm, he added, “deals most with strife and warfare as the world’s natural way of being, so resisting this way of life seems to be the most likely reading.”
The Rev. Joe DiPaolo, a member of the commission’s theme and logo committee, said that his committee hoped the theme would be evocative.
“It seems to get people going in all kinds of different directions, and maybe that’s kind of the point,” said DiPaolo, member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
“It’s also something that, at the end of the day, offers reassurance as you’re going through troubled waters that God is God.”
After reflection on the passage, the majority of commission members voted to keep the recommended theme “…and know that I am God.”
The GC2020 logo, which United Methodist Communications is designing, remains a work in progress. The commission approved the concept, which features an image based on the Stone Arch Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.
A number of commission members spoke of their hope the delegates will take the bridge-building imagery and Scripture to heart.
“For me, the ‘be still’ part is God calling us to stop doing the ordinary, the everyday, the usual,” said the Rev. Lynn Hill of the Tennessee Conference. “Many times the ordinary, the everyday and the usual can cause division. To me, this verse is God’s invitation that there is a better way.”