I Believe…

ImageI turned 51 this year. These are 51 things I believe:

  1.  Love does conquer all.
  2. Words matter.
  3. Creativity is essential for each person.
  4. Learning should never end.I Believe
  5. Yellow is seldom the best color.
  6. Money makes a difference.
  7. God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
  8. God is bigger.
  9. Travel broadens.
  10. Mothers shape character.
  11. Water soothes and heals.
  12. Geography is destiny.
  13. Both light and dark are somehow needed.
  14. Do-overs are acceptable.
  15. Balance is over-rated. Often it’s better to tilt one way or another.
  16. The place where the ocean meets the shore is a sacred place.
  17. So is good church.
  18. So are libraries.
  19. Grace prevails.
  20. Elephants appear to be wise.
  21. Naps have value.
  22. Change requires narrative.
  23. It’s important to dream big.
  24. It’s also important to be kind.
  25. Listening is important, too.
  26. Our questions can matter more than our answers.
  27. Everyone’s spaghetti sauce is unique.
  28. We should never just accept mediocrity.
  29. Growth is good.
  30. Most thresholds should be crossed.
  31. We all need to make some kind of art. Expression matters.
  32. It’s okay to lean.
  33. Others should not define you.
  34. Joy is to be expected.
  35. Hope should triumph.
  36. Doing and being are not opposites.
  37. Why is always an appropriate question.
  38. History shapes everything.
  39. Passion is preferred.
  40. Some of the best things are written between the lines.
  41. Doubt and daring should not be wasted.
  42. My mom is right, it’s better to love people and use things, rather than vice-versa.
  43. Hard is not always bad. Difficult stretches. It can stretch too much.
  44. God loves stories. So do I.
  45. Hearts are breakable. Some heartbreak teaches. Some is just ugly.
  46. Ugly is more interesting than pretty. Both can be beautiful.
  47. It’s good to find moments to wonder and to wander.
  48. Everyone wants to feel valued.
  49. It’s okay to dance, even if you can’t.
  50. Patience is seldom a virtue.
  51. Grace is. That’s it. It just is.

Tomorrow there will probably be 51 new things to believe, and of course, like the Red Queen, sometimes I’ll believe six impossible things before breakfast. Believe it.

Living prayers

In the closing hours of General Conference, the Judicial Council announcement came through. Plan UMC was “constitutionally unsalvageable.” On the large video screen that broadcast the session, a delegate held up a sign, “John 11:35” – Jesus wept.

For good or ill – most of the delegates believed the plan (or anyone of its three predecessors) was a move toward a new missional focus that went deeper than downsizing. It would have been a platform for change. But the platform collapsed.

Some speculated this felt like an historic moment for the denomination. They had a few hours to craft a new and hopeful way forward. And they did. It wasn’t as broad-sweeping, but it significantly cut the boards of directors at the General Church level. Money will be saved and those savings can be passed along to local churches, which will pay less in apportionments, having more to invest in mission and ministry.

In was legislative drama. But as the final amens were sung – looking back, I wondered what had been accomplished. The General Conference did away with guaranteed appointments (a move pending a challenge to the Judicial Council); cut $6 million from its budget; but did not create a position of set-aside bishops, nor did it adopt the Call to Action plan for restructuring or Plan B. No changes were made to the church’s stances on homosexuality.

There were several hundred pieces of legislation passed, but I’m not certain they’ll significantly reverse the decline facing the denomination. In my mind, I keep replaying an awkward little vote held early in the session. There was a proposal to add language to the preamble of the Social Principles. It said, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all. Neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Simple. But many delegates voiced their opposition.  They were firm in their conviction that a lack of belief and sinful living could indeed separate a person from God’s love. An amendment was made: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” — straight out of Romans 8. But the delegates voted, by only a margin of 53 to 47, percent to support this statement.

Of course, this vote was loaded with undercurrents about tolerance of homosexuality.  A lot of things were. But it struck me that it might also be a vote most churches and most individuals might take each day as they begin or end their day. Do our beliefs and practices reflect God’s love? Are we living prayers, living witnesses, living texts to the world that God’s love is available, unconditional and abundant? Are we voting “yes,” to grace far beyond the bar of General Conference?

In a closing sermon, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the new Council of Bishops president, reminded the delegates that church really exists “out there.” Our ingathering is essential. Strategy, structure, budget, and tending to and living out the connectional system that makes us United Methodists should never be discounted.  But ultimately, it’s in the pulpits and pews of United Methodist churches where the cross and flame will transform people’s lives. It’s in those places where 11 million people across the globe gather to worship and serve and try their very best, each in their own unique way, to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

Worship words

The theme of General Conference worship was “Discipleship by the Sea.” Led by worship consultant Marcia McFee, members gathered each morning and evening to encircle the business of the church in praise and prayer.

Each day of the conference, a different word and symbol were placed on the altar and lifted up to provide inspiration and spiritual guidance.  They included:

  1. Call.  The symbol was the shoreline in the Gospel of Mark, which became a metaphorical home for the delegates, who each morning were greeted with a hymn calling them to come away to the shorelines of their life to meet Jesus.
  2. Invite. The symbols were the grasses and reeds that grow at the shoreline. In many cultures, these items are woven into mats to welcome honored guests.
  3. Heal. The symbol was salt, which figures prominently in Scripture in covenant making and has healing properties.
  4. Listen. The symbol that offered a metaphor for the work of General Conference was river rocks, one of the earth’s oldest materials. When justice is silenced, even these rocks cried out.
  5. Believe. The symbol was water, evoking baptism and the power of transformation.
  6. Pray. Each person became a living symbol on this Sabbath day.
  7. Embark. The symbol was a piece of sailcloth, urging worshippers to allow the winds of the Holy Spirit to catch their sails.
  8. Encourage. The symbol was a piece of rope, which can bind, hoist, secure and create lifelines.
  9. Encounter. The symbol was a candle, inviting those present to allow the light of Christ to shine within and through them.
  10. Feed. The symbol was a piece of driftwood, wood tossed by the sea graced the altar evoking the fuel used in the fire in John 21, on which Jesus cooked breakfast for his disciples.
  11. Follow. The symbol was a piece of net, reminding each disciple that they are a fisher of people, taking the best of who they are and offering it to the world for the glory of God.

Call, invite, heal, listen, believe, pray, embark, encourage, encounter, feed, follow:  words of life.

What does God really require?

For more than two hours, about 30 United Methodists gathered in protest Thursday around the Communion table at the center of the General Conference and sang, “What does the Lord require of you?” The answer seemed simple and so they sang it interwoven with their prayers: “to seek justice, and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”

But they also seemed to believe that the Lord wants more — that God wants the church to formally agree that its members disagree on homosexuality. I suspect they also believe that God would like the church to truly act as if all people were created, and deserved to be treated, as beloved children of God. But for the moment, they just wanted to believe that justice, kindness, and simple and authentic acceptance would be offered to them by their church. They were disappointed.

The protest sprung from a vote earlier in the morning. The Revs. Adam Hamilton of Kansas and Mike Slaughter of Ohio, two of the church’s superstar pastors, put forth a resolution, to be included in para. 161F of the Book of Discipline, which acknowledges the church’s official stance while clarifying that United Methodists disagree on whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God and urging unity and respect among people with differing theologies and viewpoints.

Ralph Williams and Jen Ihlo, lay delegates from the Baltimore-Washington Conference spoke with passion about the pain the church inflicts when it discriminates against LGBT people.

Others, like the Rev. Maxie Dunham of Kentucky, spoke against the statement. “It leaves out good teaching.” There is no reason at all to state we disagree, because we disagree about almost everything, he said. Another delegate from Africa spoke against the statement in much harsher terms – naming homosexuality as sin and intolerable. The majority of the delegates agreed with them.

In the past, I’ve often reveled in the vast diversity of ideas that sprung from the faith of United Methodists. We seemed to come in all kinds of flavors – but beneath the surface we were united in Christ – United Methodists.

Today, I felt like, if this is “united,” I don’t ever want to see fractured. Part of my discomfort came from a sense of finality.

The African delegates, to my eye, vote in a bloc with the church’s more orthodox members. Statistics indicate that, in future years, they will have a clear majority at General Conference – able to easily cast a conservative approach upon almost any issue.

While the African church is growing at an amazing and enviable rate, it is still financially fragile and is subsidized by United Methodists in the United States. The cost of the approximately $5,000 it takes for each African to attend General Conference, is paid for, in a large proportion, by Americans. I confess it troubles me that I am now paying to bring people to General Conference so that they can hurt people I love.

I know there are probably bigger pictures, but for now, I have a difficult time seeing beyond the pain of the people gathered around the Communion table. My hearts aches for them and for the many others who drifted out of the Convention Center who are asking, “what does the Lord require of us” and are not sure we’re coming up with the right answers.

 

Vote by vote

“A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense,’” says President Barack Obama.  General Conference is trying its best to make sense.

At this General Conference session, 952 delegates from around the world will consider 1,200 pieces of legislation; 143 are on the calendar to be voted on by the full body. These petitions include huge, weighty matters – the potential restructuring of the denomination, the role of bishops as leaders, issues of who is included and who remains outside the church doors, and setting missional priorities for the next four years. There are also a few silly petitions. But each of the 1,200 is treated as a sacred trust, sent forth from United Methodists across the globe as pieces intended to build God’s kingdom in the United Methodist tradition.

By some estimates, I’ve heard, the delegates will spend $1,500 for each minute they gather. That makes the decisions they consider and how they invest this time critical. It makes it essential that reason, passion and wisdom merge in creative ways. Business-as-usual can feel, at best, self-indulgent, and, at worst, sinful.

In the Conferences Legislative Committee, which I was on, 43 percent of the members were United Methodists from outside of the United States. Most were from Africa. This new, global participation shapes the proceedings. Translations take time and nuance is sometimes lost. A more orthodox edge is being felt.

During some of the breaks in the committee’s schedule, Chamusa Kasweshi of the South West Katanga Conference led us in song. I didn’t have the slightest idea about what the words I sang meant, but joining together with a church that stretches across a multitude of cultures seemed to be contain the spark of something holy. We were Russian, German, Africans that spoke Kiswahili, French and Portuguese, and Americans from the East Coast, West Coast, the Deep South and points in between.

In our committee, was the Rev. Seth McPherson of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, who had a list of Hebrew words from 2 Peter 1:5-7 tattooed on his forearm. This passage speaks of adding to your faith: goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and love. On McPherson’s other arm are Aramaic words that echo Jesus’ words in the Garden: “Not my will, Lord, but thine.”

It was almost these exact elements that the committee sought to reflect and create as they debated and voted on legislation to send to the plenary. They’re also words the General Conference is trying to press into the fabric of the church’s future. Pressing 1 for “yes” and 2 for “no” on their electronic keypads, they’re hopeful the votes will create legislation that makes sense and delivers a potential for something holy to unfold.

It’s legislation, but it’s also a ministry in which extraordinarily diverse people come together and, in a process of envisioning, deliberating and voting, attempt to craft a future for a church they love. My prayer is it does make sense, and like a good sentence or a good song, reaches out in unexpected ways.

Repent and believe

A small, odd part of me wants to give Oklahoma to the Rev. George Tinker, or maybe Florida, or Maryland. After the General Conference’s Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples, April 27, it feels like an opportunity for broad hearts and bold gestures.

Actually, I’ve never really understood historic acts of collective repentance. I’m still not sure I do. But Tinker’s honesty and his brief and blood-filled history lesson of conquering, confiscation and colonization, made my heart begin to lament the sanitized version of history taught in our schools and churches.

Tinker, a member of the Osage Nation, shared the story of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, at which a Methodist pastor was ordered by another Methodist official to kill more than 160 mostly women and children, a month after the Native Americans had surrendered.

But Tinker also explained that neither he nor his people were really interested in apologies. The stealing of one’s land and the murder of one’s people should never come so cheaply. He also shared that reconciliation isn’t possible now – nor for a very long time. “The only agreement open to us now is to be reconciled to conquest,” he said. His soul won’t bear that.

Rather, Tinker said, it’s time for white people “to find a whole other way of being in the world.” It’s a time “to go back to the Creator, instead of making yourself God.” As Jesus taught, repentance is “a process you do again and again and again. It’s a process you live out of.”

At the service, the words of Chief Joseph, a leader of the Nez Perce in the late 1800’s, were lifted up. He said his people didn’t want churches because they would teach them to quarrel about God.  Learning how to live in ways that don’t make people question who we say we are seems a good first step on the way of repentance.

At the close of the service, each person present was asked to come to the symbolic river that ran down the center aisle of the worship space and select from the hundreds of rocks gathered there. The rocks would be a sign of remembrance – a promise to hold, to tell and to learn.

My rock was mud-like – dusty and brown. I wanted to rub it clean, but it’s resisting easy efforts. I suppose I have been too. The service of repentance was a first step.

“History frames our identities,” said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. It’s important that frame and that identity reflect truth. Broad hearts and bold gestures might follow.

A well-storied church

It’s the stories that stagger. I’m an introvert by nature, small talk is not my first language. But in just a few moments during a break here at General Conference,  I encountered a woman from New York City whose daughter is studying to be a jazz musician, a woman from Liberia who showed me manila folders full of photos of the faces of dozens of “less fortunate” children from Liberia to whom she ministers, a newly married man from Nashville whose bold laughter turns heads, and a Palestinian man who began a ministry of reconciliation by refusing to be an enemy of the Israelis, even after they attacked his home and he was forced to move in a cave.

It’s like falling into a well-storied kaleidoscope.  The colors shift and shine and certain patterns emerge. One recognizes instantly that United Methodists are not the most fashionable, nor glamorous, nor cutting-edge kind of people. Just below their surfaces, however, there’s a beauty that insists on reflecting the many faces of God.

One of my favorites of these faces is God the baptizer, the maker of new lives.  Bishop Peter Weaver told the delegates about this God when he shared the story, in his episcopal address, of eight young people who he baptized in the Contoocook river in New Hampshire.

The youth were refugees from the South Congo. “They found what they thought was a safe haven in a small UN refugee camp called Gatumba, just over the border from Burundi. “One horrible night,” Weaver said, “the rebels paid off the camp guards and entered with their machine guns blazing; 166 men, women and children were massacred that night.”

One of the teens standing on the river bank waiting to be baptized survived the massacre because his father had thrown his own body over his son to shield him. The frightened son remained buried under his father’s corpse until dawn.

Also standing by the river was a mother who, the night of the massacre, had gone into labor. She was lined up to be machine gunned down, but the gunman ran out of bullets, Weaver said. The little baby boy, who was born in the mud and blood that night, stood with the United Methodists in New Hampshire, where he had been located by the United Nations, by the river waters of baptism.

The baptismal questions – do you renounce wickedness? Do you trust in God’s grace? — took on special meaning.

“You know such stories, you are such stories,” Weaver told the General Conference delegates in his episcopal address.

Called to live out, and among, these stories, United Methodists need to recognize “this is a time, not for timid tinkering, but for bold believing and fruiting flowing of the living Christ,” said Weaver in the 200th episcopal address.

Francis Asbury, the first bishop of American Methodism, didn’t like the first episcopal address, which was delivered by his successor William McKendree. But McKendree shrugged off Asbury’s reticence  about the church doing a new thing. He invited Methodists “to do everything in the immediate presence of God.”

“Everything in the immediate presence of God”? That’s a way for the church to live. It’s a call to action. It’s also a perfect setting for our stories to unfold. Following Weaver’s story, the church joined in Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, claiming together, “Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.”

So be it, indeed.