A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

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I am used to being rejected by Christians.  Many denominations reject female clergy: “I don’t believe that women should be pastors.”  Many Americans reject the validity of my authority, because Ageism, discrimination on the basis of a person’s age, is culturally normative: “You’re too young to be a pastor.”  I seem to fail to fulfill visual expectations daily, even though for our Traditional Worship I wear a traditional alb robe and the liturgically appropriate broad stole, a symbol of my ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church: “You don’t look like a pastor.”  For too many Christians, yes, some even in my beloved United Methodist Church, I am too female, too young, and too weird looking.

The one catalyst for rejection that often goes unnamed (although not entirely), but routinely felt is that I look like I might be a lesbian.  I have a very short haircut, maintained every two weeks like clock work by the town barber.   I wear flamboyant clothing, and atypical shoes.  All right, let’s be honest; I wear shoes that literally stop traffic and regularly having people make comments, take pictures, and reel when they find out that I’m not a stripper, but a pastor.  That is the honest, brutal reality.  Now I could grow my hair out; it used to be past my hips in length.  I could wear more sedate, normative clothing, and I could trade my platform boots with seven inch heels for serene flats.  But I won’t, because my outward appearance is about expressing my vibrant personality, my joy for life and God’s people, and the playfulness I have with fun footwear.  I know all too well how people’s attitudes, conversations, and affect towards me shifts when they learn that I am heterosexual.  I have developed a keen awareness and sensitivity to how people act around and towards me.  I pay attention, and I pay even more careful attention to how others around me are being treated.

I have confronted a young man beating his girlfriend in public.  I have confronted children bullying other children.  I have stopped meetings when adults were getting out of line and hurtful towards each other to call out and censure such behavior.  I am fiercely protective of those that are being hurt, because I have spent a lifetime being hurt because I am too female, too young, too weird, too lesbian looking, too…

I have never witnessed bullying, rudeness, intolerance for difference, and hateful affect like I witnessed at this Called General Conference, and I saw it from all sides.  I saw it from Christians!  People who supported the Traditional Plan, but just as equally in people who supported the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan.  We have become a snarky, hateful people all the way around.  It is very seldom that I am at a loss for words, but countless times I was so shocked and outraged by the behavior of not only delegates, but especially observers like myself.  Those who gathered to be present and witness the events like me had to register for a name badge that read “Observer,” but few just observed.  Many from all ends of the spectrum interfered, bullied with displays, verbal outbursts, and hateful posts on social media.  This included lay persons and clergy.  Shame on us.

I was not the slightest bit surprised that Called General Conference deteriorated into the chaos and pain-filled anarchy it did.  I have been here since midnight on Friday, and every day since.  I have watched as more and more people attended and their behavior brought shame upon our denomination.  Just when I thought I had seen, heard, and painfully experienced it all, yesterday happened.  In order to “encourage” delegates to support a Hail Mary attempt to pass the One Church Plan, a clergy person from my own Annual Conference attacked me.  I sat stunned, as if my face had been slapped, my gut punched, and my painful experiences co-opted for rhetoric, to hear that we should “eliminate all the divorced.”  Following it up with a call for those of us who were to surrender our credentials, meaning that I should stop being the clergy God called me to be and whom the United Methodist Church ordained me to be.

Yes, I did not mention that yet.  I am divorced, not once, but twice.  I am not proud of this, nor am I proud to be able to claim to have survived the irrational shame and self-loathing that accompanies when your spouse commits adultery.  I have yet to officiate holy matrimony that ended in divorce in eleven years, and I hope and pray with all that I am that I never do, but I know the statistics, and I know the likelihood that I shall.  I tried to hold it together after those words inviting even more condemnation, rejection, and hatred towards me rocked outward at the speed of sound to the whole delegation, the entire dome arena, and into the internet via live-stream all across the world.  I managed to hold it together long enough to move to the section where others from the Virginia Annual Conference were seated observing, but as I lowered my fractured form to the seat, my pain, hurt, suffering, heartache, and tears erupted.  I was so ashamed to uncontrollably weep in public, to let the attack hit me and not nonchalantly bounce off my iron exterior, but the truth is my divorces have hurt me, changed me, and fractured me in ways that no words can convey.  I have been attacked and forced to defend myself for this before, but after all that I had experienced at Called General Conference, I broke.  I am breaking again as I compose this.

We have become a people of perpetual pain, and we perpetuate it on others.  We are not content to disagree, but must lash out, strike back, and harm those that do not agree with us.  Progressives and Traditionalists, Liberals and Conservatives, Heterosexuals and Non-heterosexuals alike.  Shame on us.  All during the course of the anger and rudeness of Called General Conference, I yearned, prayed, and awaited the intercession of our leaders of the highest office.  I wanted our bishops to call us into account, teach us to do no harm, and to speak and act in a different way, a Christ-like way.  Instead, there was silence.  Instead, some instigated behind the scenes, in their media outlets, and in their participation of displays for the side they aligned with most.  I thank God that my bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference was not present, because I did not have to witness her complacency, yet I highly doubt she would have ever allowed that.

When I reflect on all I observed, the atrocities in Christendom I witnessed, and the attacks I personally suffered, I doubt that any plan passed would have been sufficient to gloss over and overcome the sinful ways we act towards each other in our Church.  Shame on us.  Our failure to be an obedient Church was made manifest long before the first plenary vote yesterday, and long before the first legislative vote the day before.  United Methodists of all walks, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, socio-economic class, political affiliations, and status in the Church have been acting this way for so long that we accept it as acceptable.  Shame on us.  None of us would be willing to stand before the Risen Christ and act and speak like this to him, therefore it should never be done to another person.

We are broken this day in many ways, but we were broken before Called General Conference convened, because we have allowed ourselves to perpetuate the brokenness through our words and deeds towards others.  Christ does not want to hear snarky comments about those he suffered and died to save.  Christ does not like our Facebook statuses attacking others and their beliefs that are diametrically opposed to ours.  Christ does not retweet our one hundred and forty characters of snide attacks upon our “enemies.”  Christ does not deem our blogs of outrage and attack as righteous.  Christ does not think it is ok to shame people, attack them with words and visual displays, to label them with pejorative terms, and be inhospitable towards them.   Christ does not accept our ways as his own, but repeatedly calls us to accept his ways for our own.

After a long, hard and frankly beyond painful look in the mirror of United Methodism, here is what I know… I am ashamed of how we act towards each other.  I am ashamed to have been present at such a hate-fest on all sides, ON ALL SIDES.  I am ashamed that I allowed that irrational, unwarranted, and unrighteous experience to be internalized and shame me, when I know that I am forgiven, loved, and free because of the sacrifice of my Lord and Savior, the blood of the cross, and God’s abundant grace for me.  I am grateful that no one can steal my faith.  I am grateful that my faithful following of Christ Jesus supersedes any stance, position, or affiliation in any denomination.  I am grateful that today I go home to my people: Crozet United Methodist Church of the Virginia Annual Conference.  I go back from this exile to a place where I am never too anything, but too blessed beyond measure.  I go back from this wilderness wandering of the dark side of United Methodism to a place where the best of my beloved denomination is visible, audible, and tangible every day, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I am going back to where the grace of God and love of the Lord are for all, FOR ALL.

As the pastor of my church, I am more committed than ever to preach, teach, live, and embody the truth that: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  I return to live this out with more passion, fervor, commitment, and authentic me.  I know that there are United Methodists, clergy and laity, who go back to their church home to do the same, and so I hope.  For now I hurt and hope, and on Sunday, I will lay that hurt on God’s holy altar, and leave it there.  It cannot stop me from being the United Methodist Christ demands.  “The Lord is my portion” and my hope is in him alone (Lamentations 3:24).

 

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Perception Problems

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One of the most difficult things about the United Methodist Church is following, understanding, and navigating our parliamentary system for denominational governance and legislation.  Even for ordained clergy, trained in polity, it can be confusing.  We follow Robert’s Rules of Order, a procedural system based upon consideration of the rights of both individuals and the collective.  It can be a very cumbersome system, that often appears to complicate rather than streamline, and confuse rather than clarify.  Yet this is what we have for now, so we must work within its scope.

Yesterday many people present and watching the live-stream, social media, and news coverage, found themselves feeling hurt, upset, and even angry.  There are votes cast and preliminary decisions made that would bring that about anyway, but much was unnecessary as it stemmed from confusion.  The task of the Conference delegates yesterday was to function as the legislative committee, and perfect (amend, modify, and work upon) petitions submitted to the General Conference for consideration.  In a normal session of General Conference, this would occur in smaller committees in the week preceding the plenary, or full gathered body meeting, that makes final votes, and issues final decisions through the voting process.  Due to the Called nature of this General Conference, and the drastically compressed work schedule, the perfecting process occurred on the floor with the entire delegation serving as a singular legislative committee.  It is awkward because the same group making changes and perfecting will turn around tomorrow and make final votes.

Many of those invested and concerned following the Conference saw the results of perfecting votes and thought that was a final vote, killing some petitions in specific cases.  No one has asked me, and I have no power to speak, much less vote, but I personally would prefer to perfect every petition for a church plan, so that everything that came before the delegates tomorrow would be it its best, most perfect, and fully constitutional form.  This is true for petitions I may not even support, but upon which I would vote.  So what people observed and heard yesterday was that some of the votes on particular petitions, such as the One Church Plan (to create a system to specifically and openly affirm non-heterosexual persons), and the Simple Plan (to delete the current language of prohibition that causes pain to non-heterosexual persons), did not pass.  It readily appeared as though they were completely lost, and the Traditional Plan (to strengthen current language regarding non-heterosexual persons, and require adherence to The Book of Discipline), was passed.

In fact, a majority approval vote in the legislative committee still requires a final vote and full delegation approval during the plenary session, which will occur today.  A petition that did not get a majority vote in the legislative committee can still come before the full delegation as a minority report, with a significantly smaller threshold for passing to be heard.  So the One Church Plan and the Simple Church Plan are not dead, and the Traditional Plan is not final.  Today will be the day when the final discussions are held, the final votes cast, and a final decision is determined.  Yet even then, the Judicial Council, the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court, will need to review and verify that anything passed is constitutional, and therefore valid.

For many United Methodists, we watch without having a voice or vote.  We are not officially elected delegates to this Called General Conference.  We seem to watch from the sidelines, and wait to see what will be handed to us from our legislative body.  No matter our theological stance on the issue of human sexuality and inclusion, we feel helpless and anxious to know what will be when all the votes are cast and a plan revealed as the way forward.  Having been in St. Louis and interacting with delegates since midnight on Friday, attending the day of worship and prayer on Saturday, and being present for Sunday and Monday, here is what I have discovered:

  1. Robert’s Rules of Order cause more pain, confusion, and frustration than we should tolerate.  Robert is not an Apostle of the Risen Christ, nor do the Scriptures outline this form of order.  Many clergy appointed to local church I have personally spoken with, do not follow all or any of Robert’s Rules.  They instead engage in a drastically simplified and modified version, if any version at all.  Preferring to be in conversation, collaboration, and work for consensus, rather than a winner and a loser as determined by Robert’s Rules.  There has to be a better way, and it is beyond time for the United Methodist Church to seek it out in order to go on to perfection legislatively.
  2.    We are such a huge denomination founded upon space for divergence in thought, practice, and emphasis, that we are not all alike in these areas.  We are alike in our fundamental Trinitarian theology, our foundational doctrine of grace, and our belief that our faith should transform the world.  All three are united to fulfill what we refer to as The Great Commission from Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  We may never all be of one mind outside of those holy and spiritual truths, but it is not to be taken lightly either just how powerful and vital that agreement is.  Much less how effective it has been in making disciples and growing our faith called Methodism.
  3. No matter what plan is ultimately passed tomorrow, we need to address how we speak to one another, and how we behave towards each other.  It is not all right to speak of those who disagree with us as all sides have been doing.  It is not all right to make assumptions and use our vast platforms for our voices to be heard to degrade our delegates, our leaders, and our family of faith.  I have seen so many people hurt on all sides in the past couple of days.  I have watched us speak of each other as we should never speak of our enemy, much less our fellow members of the Body of Christ.  We need to learn to speak with a Christ-like Spirit first and foremost, or the message too deep and profound for words will never be heard, received, or allowed to take root in each other.  We did not have a dialogue, nor did we engage in Holy Conferencing.  Growing up outside of Washington D.C., I all too readily recognized our tone, words, and behavior, and while it is readily American and political, it is not fit nor effective for the Body of Christ.  We are called to better, and should rise above such methods and manners.

So many non-heterosexuals have been hurt by Christianity in a scope larger than just the United Methodist denomination, but significant damage has been done within our Church and throughout its history.  Perhaps if we had been willing to focus first on addressing that, creating encounters for expressing that in healthy and reconciling ways, and seeking to create relationships rather than pursue legislation, we might have found ourselves in a different place that is not necessarily marked by a different outcome in voting, but a different way of processing, dealing with, and moving forward with it.  I heard arguments for and against all three plans yesterday.  I heard non-heterosexuals express their immense pain and suffering, their feelings of rejection in and from the Church, and their acquiescence to these plans rather than a clear unity on which plan was God’s will and justice for the entire community.  One delegate boldly identified himself as non-heterosexual from the floor, and rejected the Simple Plan, because he said it did not go far enough, since it lacked affirming words.

I honestly have no idea what will happen today.  Anything is possible.  I refuse to claim that our Church is already broken, or that the decision is already made, because God is greater than me, and all of us.  God can do what I could never envision, and God can redeem anything and everything.  Instead, I keep watching, praying, and making note of what we need to address no matter what.  For a Church that repeatedly today used the legalistic language of divorce in its discussions and legislation, I know from personal experience that sometimes there is a separation that results ultimately in reconciliation.  We saw that in our history with the Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal South Churches, who split over inclusion of slave owners, and later found unity once more.  That is not what I or I suspect many wanted, but I also know that there have been long periods of growth in the Bible as people seemed separated from their goal, i.e. bondage in Egypt for four hundred years, wandering the wilderness for forty years, exile in Babylon for seventy years, Jesus being tested for forty days before starting his earthly ministry, and many others.

Does that mean we want to endure this?  No!  Does that mean that God cannot take our mistakes, missteps, and failures, and make something new after a time of separation where all sides grow, and ultimately grow back together?  No!  I hope not.  God knows I hope not, but God also knows that sometimes we make such a mess that we have to lie fallow to heal and be ready to be fruitful again.  How long will depend on us and how much we truly want to be reconciled and united with those who share our unique theological emphasis on grace.  My point?  No matter what happens today, this does not have to be our end as United Methodists.  We can find a way to move forward, even if it is separate for a time, but we will truly have failed if we allow all hope for reconciliation in the future to die.  That is something that will be determined and lived out in our hearts, our minds, and in our churches.  May God help us all to find our way forward, and may we all find ourselves together in the Kingdom to Come, and hopefully in this world long before then, too.

 

Do No Harm

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Methodism has three General Rules, and the first is “By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind” (The Book of Discipline 2016, page 78). The Book of Discipline goes on to list some of the “most generally practiced,” naming specifically “returning evil for evil” and “railing for railing.” If we feel hurt, wronged, or made to suffer, then we are not to seek vengeance by becoming the one who perpetrates evil so that the other feels our pain. Jesus did not come to make us feel pain, but take pain upon himself that we might be freed from the cycle of sin and suffering to live a new, holier way. Railing is complaining in the extreme, protesting strongly and persistently. This can be the more insidious of the two, because we are not trying to cause physical pain, but using our words to bring about emotional pain in another, defaming them in some instances, and continuing to nurture the brokenness brought about by the original painful event against us.

What does any of this have to do with Called General Conference? Yesterday was a painful reminder that unchecked suffering, anger, and pain can lead good Christians to do harm to other Christians. It was a long day, and kicked off the business at hand with parliamentary procedure on full display. It culminated after the lunch break with multiple votes in rapid succession to determine what order the petitions would be heard on the floor of those already submitted. The vote was literally about high or low priority from each delegate’s perspective. Then the results were shared showing that the first item the delegates wanted to hear and address was the pensions. This unleashed many snarky comments in the stands, social media rants, and people wondering if it was all about the fiances rather than the faith of the United Methodist Church. Perhaps the delegates wanted to get that over with first. Maybe they wanted to ensure that no matter what they helped those like myself who are already invested in the denominational pension system feel better about our future, knowing that our money would be safe and secure when the time came and we needed it. I honestly do not know what the delegates were thinking, and I cannot exactly ask all of them. Then again, neither can anyone else.

The second item would be the Traditionalist plan, the least change to the tone and tenor of the current language of human sexuality and inclusion in The Book of Discipline, and setting up a higher system of accountability for those who disregard The Discipline around issues of human sexuality. Again, maybe the delegates wanted to hear and pass this most, but maybe they wanted to hear it, and then move on, but show the global church that they considered things as they are now before moving in a new direction. I have no way of knowing exactly what they were thinking, and I will never have the chance to ask over eight hundred voting delegates what they intended with that vote. Nor will anyone else.

Right after the results were shared with the Conference, a group of those who were against the Traditionalist plan gathered together in the walk way where the observers like myself are seated, and began to make decisions and plans to disrupt the Conference proceedings. They started to loudly chant “Hate divides, love unites.” They chose to do this even when the presiding bishop attempted to lead the Body together in prayer. Seated in the second closest row, I could not hear the bishop’s prayer over the disruptive behavior. It brought back all the horrible feelings and memories of intimidating behavior and yelling I encountered from protesters at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. For my fellow Methodists to prevent us from praying felt like a violation of our fellowship, not to mention rudely insensitive. I, and most of those gathered, have no voice and no vote. We did not hurt anyone, and no one should assume they know how we think or feel based upon a vote to prioritize discussion that did not include us. We may be feeling sorrow and pain, too. We may be confused and undecided. We may be struggling along side those that protested.

I recognize they feel pain. Some feel personally attacked and hurt, others feel the pain and suffering of their loves ones. I do not deny them that state of suffering, but we are called to a different response as Christians. We are not to lash out, strike back, or seek to make others feel our pain, so that they might suffer as we suffer. We are shown first by Jesus himself that his response to unfathomable, unjust pain and suffering in his passion and crucifixion was to pray for his enemies, going so far as to ask for forgiveness for them (Luke 23:34). This radical response in the face of pain and suffering is echoed in the account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60). This is the model the Bible offers to us, because to react in the first human way only fuels the fire of pain, continues the destructive downward spiral of suffering, and further divides us from one another.

What I have not been addressing in my posts is that from the first morning we gathered here, there have been several protesters stationed across the street, with vulgar signs, and amplified hate speech towards us. They say abhorrent things, and verbally attack anyone they see and suspect is part of the Called General Conference. Their goal is to disrupt and dishearten. They have not done so, because they do not know us, and they are at enough of a distance to make us feel safe from physical harm. Yesterday’s protesters were us, other Methodists, and well within what we thought was our safe space from angry words meant to wound our hearts. The outside protesters were never able to disrupt all the prayer we enjoyed and experienced on Saturday. Inside the Conference center, we were blissfully enshrined in our sacred space where we worshiped and prayed in peace with one another. But yesterday that peace and safety was violated such that even prayer was denied to us.

I found myself thinking, “What would I do if someone walked into the Sanctuary at my church, and tried to shout over my lay liturgist or myself while we led communal prayer?” We would be hurt, threatened, concerned for our safety, and deeply sad, but I would not turn around and shout at them, nor would I allow anyone else to do so. I would ask for our peace, look for another way to hear them, address their concerns, and seek to find a different way. But to violate the means of grace that is prayer is not all right.

I do not hate those that intentionally stripped us of our prayer together. I am disappointed that they would think it is all right to rail at their perceived enemies, and return what they feel is a painful slight by causing pain in retaliation, but that will abate. It is embarrassing to hear the chants in the live stream, and have people question how we can treat each other this way during prayer. It is devastating to think this is what we show to the rest of our denomination watching, and the world looking on.

Yet even now I have hope that we can all choose a different way. That the protesters of our Family of Faith will return to a position that can honor prayer time, and the leadership of our bishops in their office during this difficult time to navigate. I have hope that we can use our words to explain, rather than lash out. That we can lodge our complaints in a way that reflects our desire for reconciliation, not vengeance. I have hope that we can hear their pain in their words, and honor their experience, so that we can all come together in prayer. I wish no one felt harmed, but I know that many do, both of those present and those in our fellowship. Christ gives me hope that we can all speak without seeking to transfer our pain to others. Sometimes people have a bad day, and things happen they might never enact again. Perhaps we can make space for that, so we can look for ways to continue to strive for a way forward together. It will not be easy, or any easier now, but no less vital, important, and our duty to God and one another. We have to try, and hope demands nothing less.

Signs of Hope

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Perhaps some might say it is too early to be hopeful for the United Methodist Church.  Others would say it is too late.  As people of the Living God revealed in the Old and New Testament, we should never limit hope to our conceptual timelines, because we are actually putting God in a box.  It would be hubris to think God is constrained to our expectations.  The opposite is true: our expectations are unrestrained due to God.  Hope is not optimism, but the gift of God for those who know God, love God, trust God, and believe that the promises of the Scriptures can and shall be fulfilled.

We prepare ourselves for that fulfillment by nourishing hope through intentional contact with God.  Nurturing our relationship with our Lord through worship, personal devotion, fellowship in the Body of Christ, and, of course, prayer are crucial to this.  So I was thrilled beyond words to have spent yesterday doing all of these things.  The bishops carefully and thoughtfully planned the first day together at the Called General Conference to be just that.  Over six hours of prayer together yesterday, led by our spiritual leaders of the highest office in the Church.  Those of us who gathered were privileged to experience this in person, and were blessed beyond measure.  Our concerns melted away, even if it was just for that sacred time together.  Our spirits were soothed by the comfort of Christ in our midst.

I consider myself an optimistic realist.  I hope for the best, but make practical plans for whatever outcome.  I, like so many, have had my moments of doubt and despair about this Called General Conference, but with so many unknowns, making practical plans seemed impossible.  As a single parent, I am used to triage, making long term plans around safety nets, and living with caution, because I have another person for whom I am responsible, another being in my trust.  As a pastor of a mid-sized church by Methodist standards, I do this as part of my ministry to order the life of the church to which I have been appointed, the congregation I hold in trust for the Virginia Annual Conference.  Whenever I felt the need to make a back up plan, just in case, I felt this nudge from the Holy Spirit to lay that burden aside.  It was a burden, and one no single person can bear alone.  There was a tension that perhaps I was relying on hope in God to the point that I was failing to make back up plans, and so failing my congregation.  All of that dissipated yesterday.

I am not alone.  There were so many who came to St. Louis like me, not in an official capacity, but crashing because we just had to be here.  We looked down at the floor where the delegates were seated, and saw over eight hundred other Methodists sharing in this profound love for our denomination, care of our Church, and the burden of leading us into the future.  We watched as the bishops from around the world offered prayers, words of hope, celebrations of our faith at work transforming communities, and their commitment to lead us.  One of the great blessings of General Conference is to experience bishops from outside of the United States.  Their people experience difficulties and suffering most of us in the United States cannot fathom, much less will ever have to experience for ourselves.  Yet these same bishops erupt with hope.  They have seen miracles.  They have witnessed what God can do in the midst of strife, war, violence, extreme poverty, and death.  They know that God can and will not only help God’s people, but do what we think must be impossible.  Their testimonies and prayers reminded me that my American perspective often is centered around political and ideological conflict, when God has transformed physical and deadly conflict in their ministerial settings.

As the Conference starts back up today, the work on the proposals and plans will earnestly begin.  Our day of prayer and abiding presence yesterday has prepared and reminded us that we have hope.  What needs to be restrained is our assumptions, our desires, and our will, so that God’s plan for us can be revealed.  This is not a time to resort to the same worldly approach of politics and legalism, but the time to fully embrace Holy Conferencing.  If over a dozen years in pastoral ministry has taught me anything, it is that God can do anything when we open ourselves to God’s will.  Jesus tried to instill that in every believer by teaching us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10b).  How many times have we prayed that without paying homage to what we are asking, praying, and needing to do?  We lay aside ourselves, that God may be revealed.

My grandfather, a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church, would have recognized “Thy will be done.”  While I prefer the New Revised Standard translation, the core remains the same: God’s will, not mine.  My will cannot fathom all that is, all that God can see, and all divine wisdom encapsulates.  So if my will is an obstacle to what God wants and what God can do, then it is my duty to lay that down, and make room for something that perhaps we have not yet seen, heard, or even thought for the glory of God is that God is too big to truly comprehend.  God’s hope is just as massive and beyond our full grasp.  So let us cling to that hope, the icon of which is the cross, and only then shall our wills align with God’s, for God will then have overshadowed our good, but often misguided, intentions and our unintentional sin, letting grace and glory wash over us.  Hope is not just a sensation, an emotion, or an esoteric concept.  Hope is the gift of our faith to spirits that abide in a world of sin and suffering, yet desire the Kingdom to Come.  Hope is our light in the darkness, our inheritance in Christ.  Today I have hope bigger than my fear, more solid than my doubt, and more holy than myself.  That is what I choose.  What about you?

The Beauty and Blessing of Methodism

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My travels here to St. Louis did not go as planned.  In fact, one might say they went dreadfully wrong.  Right after I checked in to the first airport and made my way through security, I discovered my flight had been delayed, and I would miss my connection.  I waited patiently in line to make new flight plans.  I stood there and smiled, willing myself to embody hope and the intention to take this hick-up in stride.  While smiling, the young woman in front of me turned around and struck up a conversation.  We joked, laughed, and wished each other luck when her turn came first.  We departed, her heading to meet her boyfriend in Denver for a vacation skiing in the mountains, and me heading to meet my fellow Methodists for a work conference in St. Louis.

The airline staff were able to make a shift for me, but now I would have a four hour layover in Charlotte, and not arrive until almost midnight in St. Louis.  I smiled, thanked her, and remained committed to taking all of this as part of the journey.  I finally got on my first flight, and the steward came up to me and asked if he could take a picture of my furry, pink moon boots.  “Sure,” I laughed.  It started a conversation with my previously silent neighbor, and she and I enjoyed the hour we had together.

Then I found a perfect little place to enjoy some food and wait out my layover in the Charlotte airport.  I sat at the bar, and made three more friends.  Laughing, getting to know one another, and wishing each other the best of luck with our remaining travel, I felt better about being waylaid.  Then I headed to my gate to make my final flight to the temporary Methodist Mecca of St. Louis.  Once on board my flight, my next neighbor and I struck up a conversation and managed to chat away an hour before I discovered to my surprise that one of my Methodist family was on the same flight.  Lori and I once worked at the same church.  We have had lots of laughs, heartaches, and celebrations together over the years.  Suddenly Methodism made this world much smaller, more intimate, and manageable.  We hugged, promised to carpool to our hotels, and laughed at the irony of being on the same flight.

That is when it occurred to me: Methodism is not just another Christian denomination.  It’s a blessing, a gift that makes this world brighter.  It makes friends out of strangers, and family out of friends.  It lets me adopt an outlook of thriving when I would otherwise barely survive the trials and tribulations that come my way in the course of living.  Methodism has given me an identity: I am a beloved child of God, of sacred worth, forgiven, loved, and free.  That is what makes it possible for me to smile when others frown, be nice when others yell in anger, make friends when others withdraw, and keep going when other give in, give up, and go home.  Methodism makes me better, and that makes it possible for me to do what Methodists do: strive to make this world better for others.

This is what is at stake over the next four days.  We cannot let Methodism suffer because we are frail, fallible, and fraught with discord.  We cannot allow our differences become the wedge that breaks such a beautiful manifestation of holy community, God’s grace, and what is means to see the world as a blessing rather than a burden.  I realized just how much Methodism makes me who I am, makes me better than I was before, and will make me better still in the days ahead.  This flawed, imperfect denomination is just that: flawed and imperfect, but it is mine, and millions of other Methodists’.  If we commit to it as it has been committed to us and generations of other Methodists across time and the globe, then it will bless others for generations to come.  Perhaps we are here to recommit ourselves.  Maybe God has allowed of this to happen so that it culminates in us recognizing how much we love Methodism, and how much it has loved us into the disciples we are today.

St. Louis may not be Mount Sinai, the holy site where God and the people of Israel made covenant with each other, but it is here on the banks of mighty Mississippi River, the closest the United States has to a holy river, like the River Jordan in the Promised Land.  Not all of the tribes were willing to cross the river and enter into a new phase in the relational journey God invited them to travel.  Those that crossed over discovered that there were still trials and tribulations.  There was still sin and mistakes.  There was never going to be a perfect nation, but a perfectly loved people of God.  I do not know what God has waiting on the other side of river, but I know that God will make a path for us to traverse, dry land where we are safe from the waters of chaos.  This has been God’s way, and I suspect God’s will all along.

So today I am hopeful, because I know how much I am willing to fight, strive, and commit to the United Methodist Church, and I know that some of the best Methodists the denomination has to offer are here, not just in person, but through prayer.  We can only rise above our differences with the help of God.  It will not be human design, but God’s that will show us how to continue the journey of the people called Methodists.  May our prayers be for God to do what God has done in the Scriptures, in Church history, and promises to do now and in the days ahead: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).  Let us stand still, firm in our commitment to God and one another in this glorious Church of Methodism.

“So She set out from the place where She had been living…” (Ruth 1:7).

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Today is the day when I depart for Called General Conference. I am leaving the place I have been calling home for the past two and half years since I was appointed to Crozet United Methodist Church. I am leaving my family, my pets, my home, and my church to be with my people, my other people. All my bags are packed. I am ready to go. Soon I will be leaving on a jet plane. Yet I know when I am coming back again: the day after the close of Called General Conference. It will be a six day journey, and one where I will not be with my church for Sunday worship. That in and of itself is a huge sacrifice. One that never sits well with me. I want to be with my church for worship. Perhaps deep down I recognize that I need to be for my own well being. So today has me mindful that come Sunday, I will be missing them, and that means that prayer will be our connection over this distance.

I will have some time today before, during, and in between flights to stop and pray. I have been praying continually for many months now about this epic meeting of Methodists. Over the course of the next four days, our legislative body of over eight hundred delegates from all over the world, half laity and half clergy, will bear the heavy burden of making a decision about how the United Methodist Church will handle human sexuality and inclusion. After decades of pleas, requests, demands, protests, arguments, motions, and questions, the legislative body of the global church is ready to call the question. Thousands of other Methodists will be crashing the Conference, like me. We have no vote, and technically no voice to be heard from the floor. What we do have is presence and prayer.

In our current context of social media in the digital age, the concept of no voice seems outrageous. How can one be voiceless when there are so many platforms, websites, and apps not just allowing, but inviting and encouraging our voice? Even if we were rendered mute in real life, our written and typed voice can scream volumes about our perspective, our view, our opinion, and our thoughts on any and every topic. Yet in this instance, it is not our voice that the Church and the world need to hear. It is the Word of God. The struggle for every individual Christian and every denomination in the Church Universal is to discern God’s Word so that we can know and follow God’s will.

Now more than ever our lives are filled with sounds, noise, music, words, commentary, reports, etc. It may be making it harder to hear God above the cacophony. Hearing God is not about silence, but intentionality. We are repeatedly called through the Scriptures to hear God. The deeper we journey into our personal spirituality, the more we discover that hearing God hinges upon engaging God. Our relationship with our Lord enables us to not only hear God, but understand what God is saying. God’s grace is what enables us to fulfill God’s will. We cannot do this on our own, not as individual disciples or as a denomination. The Father created us together (Genesis 1:26-28). The Son called us together (Matthew 18:19-20). The Holy Spirit holds us together (Ephesians 4:1-6). Trinitarian theology is about being united, in the Godhead, in the Church, and in each person’s mind, body, and spirit.

The glory of the Gospel is that it tells us that God’s love has made grace available to us through Christ Jesus. Grace becomes the glue of holy community. It binds us, bonds us, and brings us together when our own humanity threatens to tear us apart. It speaks, through the Holy Spirit, in sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Perhaps that is where the power of presence and prayer is revealed. My most profound prayers have remained unspoken; so deep, so raw, and so personal that they could not have been uttered out loud. My prayers for my beloved United Methodist Church are no less poignant if they are not heard by another person, written out, or read by others. My presence is no less important, if I am not an official delegate. I am an official member of the United Methodist Church. I am an officially ordained Elder, clergy person of the Virginia Annual Conference. It is not just my voice, but my ministry of presence that marks my place in the Body of Christ. This journey is about that aspect of my Methodism.

Whether you will be in St. Louis or not, you are no less present through the miraculous power of prayer and the uniting power of the Holy Spirit to bridge gaps between people and geographical distance. The Apostle Paul testified to this power in his second letter to the Church in Corinth: “as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). “The blessing granted through the prayers of many” is precisely what the delegates and presiding bishops at Called General Conference need of each and every one of us. Prayers to unite, uphold, console, encourage, and yearn towards God’s will being done in and through the United Methodist Church. So here is what I am praying throughout the day:

God of All,

We lift our prayers to you, in union with myriads of others.

Bonded together by our love of you, commitment to our Church, and hope for tomorrow,

We entrust ourselves into your hands.

Let your will be done in us, that your purpose will be revealed through us.

Guide us in this time of restlessness.

Heal the wounds we have made against others, and those made against us.

Perfect us by your love, that our love and service will be perfect for others.

Lead us to one another, so that we may journey forward into your Kingdom together.

You are our hope and stay, all else is fleeting and sinking sand.

May we trust you, hear you, and follow you.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray.

Amen.

Planning, Packing, & Praying

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There is nothing more Biblical than looking back over our journey and paying heed to how far we have come, what we have overcome, and where we started.  Last night, I started out by getting the final things together for my trip to St. Louis, and more specifically, Called General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  It began as a practical endeavor.  I opened my luggage and looked over the carefully packed outfits, supplies, and necessities.  Then I started to get my carry-on bag in order, and that is the precise moment when things shifted.  I grabbed some of the gifts I have been given for this journey: a blinged out notebook and matching pen, a hand woven bracelet, a picture frame with my son’s picture, and a set of markers for making visual statements on poster board I will purchase when I am in St. Louis.  Each one is a thoughtful gift, but also a talisman of the giver, a small piece of them embodied in their thoughtfulness for me.

I was caught unaware by this wave of sadness that washed over me, even as I smiled at the precious artifacts in my hands.  I was getting ready to leave on an airplane that would take me to a city where a pivotal moment in United Methodist history would occur.  I am excited to be there in person.  I am anxious about what may happen.  I am hopeful that God will make a miracle for my beloved denomination.  I mourn that we Methodists find ourselves at this place where we know that hearts will be broken, fractures may become permanent, and some will choose to walk away from our family of faith.  The reality of a Body of Christ comprised of human beings is that no matter what we do, someone is upset.  Someone will leave.  That is not a statement about this issue of human sexuality and inclusion, or even how we have handled it to this point, but the reality of living in community, even a Christ-centered one.

I have been planning this pilgrimage since it was announced after the 2016 General Conference.  I knew that I would need to be there, to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, and experience with my person the atmosphere of spirituality or its lack thereof.  United Methodism has a concept of Holy Conferencing, when the Body of Christ gathers to be in prayerful discernment together, not just individual discernment while sharing same space.  We believe that the Holy Spirit moves in a unique and powerful way when we come together to seek God’s will and word for us in this manner.  I have seen it before.  I have been part of it since becoming clergy.  I know that it has a distinctive feel from any other gathering, meeting, or governing body.  We have to engage and work at it, but there is nothing so powerful as God guiding one of the largest denominations in Christendom.  I want to testify that it did occur.

So here I am, all packed and plans confirmed, and there remains so much prayer to be done.  Countless Methodists, and I suspect Christians from outside our formal membership covenant, are praying about this gathering.  I hope we are not praying for our desire, our wish, our way, but God’s will.  I hope we recognize that human will is powerful and can be manifested by our sheer willpower.  Perhaps that too reflects the divine image in which we were all created (Genesis 1:26).  Yet the challenge is to set aside our will, and create space first in our being, and then in the Church for God’s will to overshadow our own.  That is what I envision happening when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she became the bearer of the Christ-child (Luke 1:35).  If we, as the United Methodist Church, are to bear Christ to the world with our unique and vital theology of grace, then we must be willing to be overshadowed, so that God may be fully embodied.  That is the hard part, but no less necessary.

Last night, after checking all my packing one more time, I unpacked the one thing I do not need: my will.  It was so heavy and burdensome.  I did not realize how much so until I set it aside.  Then there was all this room for the truly important and Godly things!  I had all this room for hope for the future, openness to receiving God’s word, assurance of God’s providence, and the peace that no matter what does or does not happen at Called General Conference, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).  Now I am truly ready to journey to a place where my brothers and sisters of Methodism will converge from all over the world, and seek God’s will and way together.  Now all my planning, packing, and praying have culminated in a heart ready for anything, because God is once more my everything.