General Conference 1956

Today starts General Conference 2016. For months, years maybe, I have heard our church, my church, the church I love so much is broke. That we are weak and lost and maybe beyond repair. I have heard all the negative awful stories of decline, seen them with my own eyes, and felt it in my heart. In the days leading up to today, I have felt, like so many of my friends and colleagues, a tremendous pressure on my heart, a pressure we are laying very firmly on the shoulders of 864 delegates.

This morning however, I woke up praying. I hardly ever wake up praying as I am not a morning person and I do not have the peace of mind to talk to anyone in the morning, much less God. But this morning, before I even knew I was awake, I was forming words of prayer around General Conference. And I was lighter.

As I came in to the office, the thought struck me that perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church is not worse off today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are not in as terrible a place as the ubiquitous “everyone” wants us to believe. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is our own panic and need to have things the way we want them that has made us forget how to hold in perspective where we are now with where we have been. I am not saying we don’t need to improve. I am not saying that there are not changes we as a church need to make. There are. But maybe we are making death inevitable by seeing only death instead of celebrating the death we have cheated to get to where we are today.

When I came into the office, I pulled out my 1956 copy of the Book of Discipline. (I was given this by a male colleague when I started in ministry who told me every clergy woman should own this BOD. I think there may soon be more UMC clergywomen then there are copies of the 1956 BOD. What a thing to celebrate!) Sometimes I like to just hold this book in my hands and remember how far we have come.

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In 1956, as General Conference prepared to meet, there was no United Methodist Church. There was a very divided Methodist Church. There was a Methodist Church. There was a United Church of the Brethren. There were African Americans who were segregated into the “Central Jurisdiction”, regardless of where their churches were located geographically. There were no clergy women in full connection. Sure, we had pastors who were going to new Methodists who move into the community and making sure they stayed Methodist. Sure, had a million committees that did a bazillion things that reported at a quarterly conference so everybody better look busy. There was way more accountability that, at least on paper, seems better. But we also has trials for church members who bought, sold or made liquor. Shaming people for their sins was the order of the day. Excluding people, lots of people, was accepted and expected, not just in the church but in the world.

In 1956, I don’t know what the delegates were feeling or thinking. I am not sure what pressure was on them. We don’t have blog posts or tweets or emails to tell us their every thought. What we do have is a forward thinking decision to include women as full members of the clergy. What we do have is a courageous decision to remove the Central Jurisdiction and allow African American Methodist churches to join the geographical jurisdictions to which they should belong.

Are we a better stronger church today? I believe so. When I can name more women clergy that I know than men, I say so. When I see the global reach of the United Methodist church, not as missionary outposts but as churches that are part of the communities where people live, I say so. When I listen to former church member tell me how much her Korean pastor has changed her life, I say so.

Do we have much work to be done? Yes.
Are there more people to be included? Yes.
Do I pray that the General Conference of 2016 will be as courageous and bold and visionary as the General Conference of 1956 was? Yes.

In all things God works. Whatever our delegates leave us with, our church, my church, will remain the church through which God worked and works in my life and in the lives of many people I know and love. We cannot let the work of Christ stop. It goes on, regardless. And I am convinced with God and with the people of God committed to doing kingdom work where they are at, the church will only be better each year than the one that has past.

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Where there is no rainbow filter…

There is a  meme that has been born in various manifestations in the last 24 hours.  It may not be entirely true on your facebook feed but I suspect it is at least half true. The skittles half. 

                                                      

If you happen to be my friend, you will notice my face is the same Irish pale it usually is. I invite you not to read too much into this. Or maybe read alot into this but read into it specifically.

Last week, when I returned home from Annual Conference I was joyful to learn that our last written ballot results were:  

 Results of voting on Petitions 2, 11 and 14
Petition 2 calls for “Additional Definition for Self-Avowal.” Petition 11 asks for a “Mandatory Penalty for Violation of Par. 2702.1(b).” Petition 14 states: Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to delete the sentence found in ¶ 161F of the 2012 Book of Discipline that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The results are:
Petition 2 — 838 yes; 961 no; 96 abstentions. (1895 total)
Petition 11 — 811 yes; 994 no; 96 abstentions. (1901 total)
Petition 14 — 989 yes; 868 no; 40 abstentions; (1897 total)
Four ballots were ruled to be invalid.

I say I was joyful because Petition 2 made no sense to me. I did not see a need for it other than to cause more chaos and division. Both  of which are frankly not the work of Christ. Petition 11 asked for mandatory penalties to essentially force Bishops who are not currently punishing clergy to punish them. Clergy in conferences such as the Virginia conference who violate church law by marrying same gender couples are being punished. Two have been punished here in Virginia. Again, I see that this is merely going to cause more problems and I do not see those Bishops who are not currently enforcing church law being willing to enforce this anyway. More time, more money, more heartbreak for our church. Why would we do this. 

The last, petition 14 is where all the real debate lies. This is a sentence I long to see gone from our Book of Discipline. But before I tell you why I want to go back to the rainbow colored filter. Bear with me while I jump around.

When I was ordained, I realized something that I did not take so seriously in my ministry to that point. There was something about Bishop Kammerer asking the historical questions in front of a room full of clergy that included clergy that I both admire and am challeged by that made me stop and consider that I am no longer my own. I have thoughts and opinions. Those come out more than they should. But as much as I am able I need to be able to minister to all God’s people. In a public arena like facebook, we are asked to splash rainbow colors across our faces or share news articles of controversial subjects. And we can assume when someone does or does not do the same it is because they do or do not feel the same. 

Sometimes I do not “take a stand” because taking a stand means I do not know how I will be able to minister to those whom God has entrusted to my care who do not feel as I do. Because sometimes my personal opinion, all the time in this calling, my personal opinion must matter much much less than the ability to love as Christ loves. I have to set what I think aside, so that I can minister to those who see the world as I do and those who do not. My liberal friends have sometimes accused me of being too conservative on issues I am truly liberal at heart on and my conservative friends have accused me of being a liberal when I am truly much more conservative than I appear. The gospel at times calls us to stand with love, not law and love will lead us to some interesting places. 

I don’t think its just the calling of clergy to do this, but the calling of all Christians. But as a clergy person I certainly have to do a better job of modeling it. 

Which brings me back to petition 14. And why I so hope it is removed at General Conference. I am ashamed as a United Methodist it is in the Book of Disipline. These words “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” are beneath us. If we want to know the truth the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There are so many parts of me that are incompatible with Christian teaching that I cannot begin to look at the speck in my neighbors eye. If this sentence were to say, gossip or not feeding the poor, or refusing the children, or neglecting the widow, or rejecting the outsider, all practices Jesus himself says are incompatible with Christian teaching we would not bat an eye at their removal. 

Apart from Jesus Christ and his saving grace, the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There is nothing in us apart from God that desires love, or truth, or grace, or goodness. All that Christ teaches us that brings us to a new life in him, comes not because we are compatible but only because Jesus Christ offers it freely to all.

Remove the language. Removing the language does not open the flood gates to every church pastor performing same gender weddings, or ordaining openly gay clergy in married relationships. Those are debates we still have to have. Removing this language simply affirms that there is a place in the church and in God’s heart for all of his children. And if there is a facebook filter for that I would be all over it. 

#ThanksLiving2014 #Receive

Receive. This is a hard one today. At nine o’clock tonight, we arrived at Nathan’s grandparents house, received as we have been so many times before. But instead of the pure joy that receives us, we were received into a mix of joy that we are here, gratitude that we could come, and grief.

Tonight I would have liked to take a picture of our six year old curled up in her great-grandpa’s chair, where she has been received by him all her life. I would have a picture of Granny holding onto Nathan, or the arms of our Aunt that wrapped around me so tight.

In a season of thankfulness, I suppose we should think about receive in terms of the blessings we receive but I find myself being oddly thankful that we can receive each others grief and heartbreak and sorrow. To know that someone else is there to receive us when we are road weary and grief filled is a powerful gift.

One of the girls as we got out of the car, quietly said, “I am ready to be sad now”. Four men have defined their young lives: their daddy, their two grandfathers and Papa Llyod. I am glad that there was a house full of people to receive her sadness and to sit with her. I am glad that those same people will be there tomorrow to make her giggle and remind her she is blessed.

We cannot just receive what is commonly defined as blessing. God has prepared us with tear ducts and strong spirits to also receive sadness and sorrow and to find a gift. The blessings of a life remembered, the joy of knowing you have a place in a family that is easy to take for granted on the “blessed days”, the certain knowledge that God’s love is there to receive us when our time here on earth is over.

When we are willing to receive the fullness of life, not just the blessings but when we are willing to risk loving someone so much that it hurts when they are gone, we begin to have a small glimpse of how truly loved we are by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Receive life in its fullness and be blessed.

The Kingdom of God is like a pile of puzzle pieces

It was rainy day. We were sitting at our timeshare in Williamsburg, VA with nothing planned except enjoying each other. So we decided to break out a puzzle our eight year old has been wanting to do for awhile. Its a complicated one with pieces that are not exactly normal puzzle shapes. With 1500 peices, it is a doozy for an 8 year old so teamwork to get it done in two days was what it would take.

I have a deep love of puzzles. As a teenager, I would spend hours on my bedroom floor assembling any puzzle I could get my hands on. My grandfather taught me that you sort out all the edge pieces first and put them together, then you sort the pieces into like colors. When you do it this way you do not need the box cover to put the puzzle together. His advice was not to look at the whole picture but to look very carefully at the details of the piece you needed to find a match for. His wisdom was that very often the pieces that belong together do not look like they belong together if you are looking at the puzzle as a whole.

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Working on this puzzle as a family, made me realize that some are more gifted in seeing the details and putting them together than others. My eight year old, like her mother, can look at a pile of puzzle pieces and pull out just the one that is needed. My ten and twelve year olds threw their hands up in frustration because they just could not see the details in the shape of the piece, the minute variations in color and pattern. They would pick up a piece and try it over and over again only to have it go in a completely different part of the puzzle.

Leading a church to revival is much like putting together a puzzle. Leading a particular people to Christ is like matching puzzle pieces. The challenge for church leaders is that we do not get caught up in needing the big picture, the picture of what is going to be, but we spend time carefully considering the edges, the patterns and textures.

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At the Festival of Homiletics, one of the speakers suggested that we should continue to point out parables as a way of understanding God. The parable that came to me on that rainy day is this: The kingdom of God is like a puzzle without the box, its messy and chaotic and overwhelming at times. It calls us to patience and persistence. It demands we pay attention to tiny details: peoples lives and struggles, the churches history, the communities needs, the words of scripture, the hope of Christ which is found in the mundane.

The kingdom of God is like a puzzle, we can try to work it out alone but when we have help, the vision emerges faster and the burden of putting it together is filled with far more laughter and joy.

My eight year old and I discovered that we could put the puzzle together by ourselves very quickly. But we also discovered the joy of leaving the “easy” pieces for others to come along and add. It gave us more pleasure to hear squeals of excitement when the others came along and put in a piece that was waiting. The baby of the family put in the last two pieces (the only two she was able to fit together on her own), and we all rejoiced because the picture was beautiful; because the work was worth it; because we did not do it alone but helped each other along the way.

We have a pile of pieces in the church, locally and globally. We actually have a picture, a very clear picture, of what is supposed to emerge from a pile of believers and communities and opportunities that are very different from each other. The picture is that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

It is going to take all of us, conservative, liberal, and inbetween. All of us, those who believe women should preach the word of God and those who believe women should use their gifts only to support men. All of us, random, seemingly unrelated, pieces. The ones who love high church organ music and those whose souls resonate with loud rock music. The ones who love color and texture and those who love stone and flying buttresses. The sinners and the saints. The ones who are absolutely certain about what they believe and the ones who have more doubt than faith.

I hope we will not stop working together. I hope we will continue to sit beside each other, examine tiny details, the curves and colors of the pieces, remembering that it is not for our own glory we labor, but so that Christ will emerge with love and grace. We might be tempted to toss aside the pieces that don’t look like us, the ones whose shapes seem a little off and whose coloring is not quite right, but if we do we will find ourselves with holes in the picture when we run out of pieces.