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?