In just another day and a half, the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will convene. I find myself here in our temporary Mecca of Roanoke, having made my annual pilgrimage a couple days early, for the task of assisting with worship preparation and set up. This year, I am part of the Worship Planning Team, and worship is one of my passions both as clergy and disciple. Worship will be vital to Virginia Methodism as clergy and laity alike gather for the business of the Church. Worship is where God reigns, and there we experience the Ministry of the Word. At its best, it is without prejudice or politics. It forces us to set aside our will, and open ourselves to God’s. As I help prepare and consecrate the make shift chancel and set the altar, I am praying that God’s will be done, and not ours.
I have been praying that prayer for a long time. I was praying it up to and in the midst of Called General Conference in February. I left St. Louis with sorrow and tremendous hurt, both of which made for an unholy union, and gave birth to hopelessness. Many on all sides of the issue of human sexuality and inclusion felt that same hopelessness. I have watched as it has expressed itself in a myriad of means. From declarations to protests to acts of defiance, hopelessness casts a heavy shadow on the vibrancy of the Virginia Annual Conference. Thank God that Christ’s light can permeate even the darkest of shadows (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So where do we find hope in the midst of hopelessness? As some have declared that the United Methodist Church is dead, I have watched entire households join the local church I serve. As some have railed at the decision of Called General Conference, I have watched non-heterosexuals refuse to leave our denomination, and instead, recommit to continue the dialogue, the journey, and the holy quest for full inclusion. I have been given the opportunity to witness the Holy Spirit continue to speak and move in our midst, and that always brings me hope. Can that happen here at Annual Conference? That depends entirely on us.
Just as John Wesley asserted that we can sin away our baptism, we can close ourselves off from the Holy Spirit. We can refuse to hear and be moved, but I have more faith in my fellow Methodists from the beloved Commonwealth of Virginia. I choose to believe that we are a people ever faithful and desirous of God’s Word for us. I choose to open myself to what God has to reveal to us next. I come here with great conviction, born of my own divine encounter and post-Called General Conference vision. Yet I know that nothing is ever finished until God declares it so. Thus far that consists solely of the salvation of the cross (John 19:30). So if we open ourselves up to what God has for us next, then Methodists on all sides of the issue can experience new direction and even new hope. As the Psalm cries out: “But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more” (71:14). Hope and praise, specifically in worship, are intimately tied together. When we declare God’s mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ and give thanks for our blessings, then hope begins to feel tangible.
So if you, like so many, feel like there is no hope, then I urge you with all that I am to turn to praise. Gratitude for what we have, no matter how small and insignificant it feels, is a gateway to hope. Hopelessness is incompatible with gratitude. Hopelessness cannot stand before hearts that rejoice in our Lord and Savior. Hopelessness will always fall before the Body of Christ that refuses to be silenced in praise in the midst of struggle, division, and disagreement. Hope will rise out of the void, because that is the miracle God promises: “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope” (Psalm 119:116). So we worship and we hope.
Over the next few days, Virginia United Methodists will worship and work. I, like thousands of others, will be here working, worshiping, and witnessing. If you are not here in person, you can be in Spirit. May our prayers and hopes rise to the highest heavens, and petition God to reveal what we have not yet seen: a bright and beautiful future for a denomination that freely gives the world a theology of unparalleled grace. I do not know what that may look like, but I know that God can do what we cannot. This evening, I wait with bated breath to discover what God will do next, and I pray that I am faithful enough to follow the Spirit’s lead.