Saturday, May 28, 2016

"What I know not, teach thou me!"

In the Preface to Volume V of his collected works, John Wesley writes with prophetic humility regarding how we might learn how to disagree in love. This should be required study for all future General Conference delegations, and is definitely worth a close reading.

1. The following Sermons contain the substance of what I have been preaching for between eight and nine years last past (in the year 1747). During that time I have frequently spoken in public, on every subject in the ensuing collection: and I am not conscious, that there is any one point of doctrine on which I am accustomed to speak in public, which is not here, incidentally, if not professedly, laid before every Christian reader. Every serious man, who peruses these, will therefore see in the clearest manner, what these doctrines are, which I embrace and teach, as the essentials of true religion.

2. But I am thoroughly sensible, these are not proposed in such a manner as some may expect. Nothing here appears in an elaborate, elegant, or oratorical dress. If it had been my desire or design to write thus, my leisure would not permit. But, in truth, I, at present, designed nothing less; for I now write, as I generally speak, ad populum: to the bulk of mankind, to those who neither relish nor understand the art of speaking; but who, notwithstanding, are competent judges of those truths, which are necessary to present and future happiness. I mention this, that curious readers may spare themselves the labour of seeking for what they will not find.

3. I design plain truth for plain people: therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and, as far as possible, from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scriptures. I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life : and, in particular, those kinds of technical terms, that so frequently occur in bodies of divinity, those modes of speaking, which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but which, to common people, are an unknown tongue. Yet I am not assured, that I do not sometimes slide into them unawares: it is so extremely natural to imagine, that a word, which is familiar to ourselves, is so to all the world.

4. Nay, my design is, in some sense, to forget all that ever I have read in my life. I mean to speak, in the general, as if I had never read one author, ancient or modern: (always excepting the inspired.) I am persuaded, that on the one hand, this may be a mean of enabling me more clearly to express the sentiments of my heart, while I simply follow the chain of my own thoughts, without entangling myself with those of other men: and that, on the other, I shall come with fewer weights upon my mind, with less of prejudice and prepossession, either to search for myself, or to deliver to others the naked truths of the gospel.

5. To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought - I am a creature of a day, passing through life, as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till a few moments hence, I am no more seen! I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book! O give me that book! At any price, give me the Book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book.) Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this eud, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark and intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. - Lord, is it not thy word, "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God." Thou "givest liberally and upbraidest not" Thou hast said, "If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know." I am willing to do; Let me know thy will. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then, the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

6. I have accordingly set down in the following sermons, what I find in the Bible concerning the way to heaven; with a view to distinguish this way of God, from all those which are the inventions of men. I have endeavoured to describe the true, the scriptural, experimental religion, so as to omit nothing which is a real part thereof, and to add nothing thereto which is not. And herein it is more especially my desire, first, to guard those who are just setting their faces toward heaven, (and who, having little acquaintance with the things of God, are the more liable to be turned out of the way,) from formality, from mere outside religion, which has almost driven heart religion out of the world: and, secondly, to warn those who know the religion of the heart, the faith which worketh by love, lest, at any time, they make void the law through faith, and so fall back into the snare of the devil.

7. By the advice, and at the request of some of my friends, I have prefixed to the other sermons contained in this volume, three sermons of my own and one of my brother's, preached before the University of Oxford. My design required some discourses on those heads. And I preferred these before any others, as being a stronger answer than any which can be drawn up now, to those who have frequently asserted -That we have changed our doctrine of late, and do not preach now, what we did some years ago. Any man of understanding may now judge for himself, when he has compared the latter with the former sermons.

8. But some may say, I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable, many will think this, and it is very possible, that I have. But I trust, whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, "What I know not, teach thou me!"

9. Are you persuaded you see more clearly than I? It is not unlikely that you may. Then, treat me, as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and therefore am unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little, take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you, not to beat me down, in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names, in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and so get more and more out of the way.

10. Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, iute kapnos, (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God's sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham's bosom. But, if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!

The God of Love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth, by filling our hearts with all his love, and with all joy and peace in believing.

March, 1771. JOHN WESLEY

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Post 9 ... #UMCGC 2016

So that's done.

The 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon is over. It was a lot of work for a lot of people, who spent a lot of time and energy and money to gather us together, sift us into committees, guide us through piles of petitions, vote of quite a few of those petitions, and keep the United Methodist Church going for the next four years.

I'll be reflecting on these last ten days for quite a while, and will have thoughts on some more specific things to share along the way. But for now, on the evening of the last day, I have these initial impressions.

First this - everything is going to be fine. I have often called the United Methodist structure a "Holy Mess," and it really is. The "mess" notwithstanding, it is without a doubt "holy." God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

The church is still the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Secondly - the badly needed reform of the denomination cannot happen via General Conference action. General Conference is a system that is designed to tweak organizational structures, and it tweaks the structure very well. Our structure has been tweaked, little by little over time, until it is a giant entangled hairball that hardly anyone understands, let alone fully complies with.

We will never tweak our way back into good health.

Thirdly - My impression is that there are relatively few people on either end of the theological spectrum at General Conference that are just always going to be angry, and there's nothing we can do about it. The right wing organizes to use parliamentary channels to advance their cause; the left wing protests. And those edges are a pretty low percentage of the whole. 

The overwhelming majority of Methodism is comprised of people who are in the middle, with no desire whatsoever to channel their energy toward either political organizing for General Conference or protesting during it. The center would much rather channel their energy toward making disciples, helping people in need, starting churches, worshiping God, offering Christ, and just doing ministry in the places where God is calling them to go.

That's not to say they don't care about justice. That's not to say they're not evangelical. That's not to say they're somehow "lukewarm" Christians. It just means that the experience of General Conference is far removed from their experience and understanding of Christian discipleship.

The General Conference could be something special. If we could fundamentally change our system, throw everything out and start fresh, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church could be quite an amazing event. 

If we could spend our time in prayer, worship, conversation, fellowship, visioning, celebrating work well done ... if we could covenant to meet 12 new people every day we're here ... if we could tell our stories, exchange ideas, get to know one another ... 

If everyone coming home from General Conference was fired up for mission, ministry, and equipping the local church to do its work ... 

Because that's where the hope is, my friends. In the thousands and thousands of local churches scattered around the world, where Methodists are formed in community for a transformational ministry in our communities. 

If you're a Methodist, you've probably heard or read or watched something about this year's General Conference. Here's my advice: take it for what it's worth. And then go do your thing. Go and do what God wants you to be doing. Go be the church God is calling you to be.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Post 8 ... #UMCGC 2016

God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Of this I am sure.

Today at General Conference was surreal. That's the best word I've got at the moment. Surreal. I'm pretty sure that I've never felt the way I felt this morning, and I don't really have the words to describe it.

At the end of the day, two very significant things have happened.
1) The General Conference has take the Council of Bishops' advice, and approved their "Offering for a Way Forward."
2) The Judicial Council has ruled unconstitutional the petitions that would have established mandatory penalties for what is known as the "just resolution" process.

First, the Way Forward. The particular components of the bishops' idea are...
- There will be no more legislation debated at this General Conference that has to do with human sexuality.
- All of those petitions that would have been debated will be referred to a special commission, formed by the Council of Bishops.
- This commission's task will be "to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality."
- There is a possibility that a specially called session of the General Conference will be held prior to 2020 to address the work of this commission.

Secondary themes of the bishops' idea are...
- The bishops will continue to support the creation of a "General Book of Discipline" for the global church, implying more contextual books of discipline for various areas of the world.
- This: "We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline." I'm not 100% sure what that means, and I don't really think anyone is.

Historically speaking, this was the first time in anyone's memory where the General Conference asked for this kind of direction from the bishops. And needless to say it's the first time the General Conference has gotten this level of specificity from the bishops. Their role, traditionally, is just to preside.

That was, in fact, the first thing they said to us, yesterday morning. "It is our role to preside. You as the body of the General Conference need to decide what to do."

I for one was very pleased they offered their non-binding idea to us, and pleased that we accepted it. I don't love it; I don't hate it. It seems to be just fine. I'm eager for the commission to begin their work.

Secondly, the unconstitutional ruling. There are more than a few petitions submitted this year that would have made the UMC less open, and more rigid in our thinking. Several of those would have imposed automatic penalties for pastors who admitted to transgressing the Book of Discipline, in particular when it comes to officiating same-sex weddings.

A request was made to the Judicial Council as to the constitutionality of those petitions, and they were ruled unconstitutional. That means we won't even consider them at this General Conference. Automatic penalties have been officially declared unconstitutional.

Both of these actions today are good news for those who favor a more inclusive church. However, it should be noted that there are many who feel the more conservative faction of the UMC will make some kind of parliamentary maneuver tomorrow to attempt to reverse the actions that we took today. We shall see what happens tomorrow.

It was an amazing day. Surreal. Unprecedented. And I'm humbled and honored to be a part of it. I love this church, and I believe our future is only limited by the depth of our commitment to make it a reality. We will be processing the decisions made at this General Conference for days, weeks, and months to come. I can't help but think that this 2016 Conference will be remembered as a significant historical moment in the history of the United Methodist Church.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Post 7 ... #UMCGC 2016

I wrote this four years ago, after General Conference 2012:
Well, what if the General Conference could be “Facebook” for the denomination as a whole?
 Facebook is a social network that connects people, coordinates groups, promotes ideas, and pools resources. Isn’t that what General Conference at its best ought to do?
 We are a global connection whose coordinated focus is to promote the mission of God in communities all around the world. Couldn’t General Conference be our Facebook? We wouldn’t have General Boards and Agencies, we would have groups and pages! We could send “friend requests” to churches all around the world through the General Conference. We could create events like Imagine No Malaria and Nothing But Nets, and contribute via our denominational PayPal accounts to make them happen.
 The fundamental shift that needs to happen at the General level is from old-school, hierarchical authority to postmodern, flattened-out collaboration. If we actually believe that the most impact happens at the local congregation level, then everything we did as a broader connection would have to be geared toward equipping and empowering the church in local communities around the world.
 The General Conference would stop telling local churches what they can and cannot do, and start asking local churches what they actually want to do - how they feel God is uniquely calling them to fulfill the mission – and then the Conference would work to make it happen.
It's a bit clunky, perhaps, but I still believe that's the fundamental shift that has to happen in the United Methodist Church. Local congregations, local ministry, people seeing people, working with one another, singing, praying, sharing, helping ... that's where the church is at it's best.

We are not at our best when we are trying to legislate our ecclesial life via some kind of quasi-legalistic jargon, jamming one more amendment onto a petition that will change the seventh line of the third sub-point of of section 3 of paragraph umpteen-hundred of the Discipline.

A foundational problem, and maybe THE foundational problem, is that the people with an all-encompassing vision for the denomination cannot do anything about it, because in order to enact any big vision like that, it has to be broken up into little chunks and divvied out to various committees to read, amend, discuss, amend again, and then vote to approve, reject, or refer.

And by the time the pieces get back to the main body on the plenary floor, they rarely look like they did when they were all together in the initial vision. Unfortunately nothing will change until we figure out how to do a complete reboot of the system. Truly start from scratch. I'm pretty serious about that, too. Throw it all out and begin anew.

We will not tweak our way back into being a healthy church.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Post 6 ... #UMCGC 2016

Paragraph 304.3 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline =

"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

The petition before us would have changed it to =

"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is not considered by all to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, authority for discerning suitability for ordination continues to rest with the annual conference as provided in para. 33 of the Constitution, following candidacy procedures as provided in the Book of Discipline, and authority for making appointments continues to rest with the bishop after a consultative process to determine the suitability of such an appointment."

This was part of a plan called "A Third Way," created as a compromise that neither extreme was going to like, but those of us truly in the middle could live with.

The essence is: remove "being gay" as a disqualification for being ordained as a pastor across the entire church, and leave that decision to individual conferences.

This petition came out of the subcommittee with a 19-9 vote in favor, which was encouraging! Broad support in a subcommittee is a good thing, because those are the people who know each other best, have talked together, worked side by side on the petition, and now were commending it to the full committee.

The discussion in full committee was respectful and gracious. I commend the chairperson, Bill Arnold, for setting a very collegial tone for the group.

I spoke. I stood to speak in favor of the petition, and talked about unity and freedom. If we are truly one church, united in Christ, the question is how much freedom will we allow someone else in their practice of ministry? If I see things differently than you do, am I willing to allow you to do your work differently than me, in the way that you have determined works best in your context, for the sake of the one mission and purpose of our church? And would you do the same for me?

The response, in the next speech against, was dramatic. What kind of freedom, the speaker asked, is it really, when giving freedom to one person is "putting a noose around the neck" of another?

You may want to go back and read that again, just to make sure you got it.

The speaker's point was that in Africa, there is so much hostility toward homosexuality and homosexual people, that to allow anyone, anywhere to ordain a gay person would be literally physically dangerous to pastors and churches in African conferences. So the argument against allowing individual conferences to decide whether or not sexual orientation should be a qualification for ordination is, ordaining for example a gay man in New England would kill a pastor in Africa.

And finally, it was time to vote. And it failed by a vote of 30-34. That's pretty close, and it means the petition will be calendared for debate on the plenary floor. And so we'll see what happens.

And so it goes.

But the coolest part of the whole thing was what happened AFTER all of that. On a break, out in the hall, I met my friend Nestor Gerente. It turns out Nestor had been translating in the room in which I had been working. He had translated my speech (and the others, of course) into Tagalog (I think) for the Faith and Order committee that day. What a cool connection!

He thanked me for my words, and told me how hard it is for him to not get overly emotional when he is translating, particularly when the content is our denomination's inclusiveness of people who are gay. We spoke a while, and took a picture to mark the occasion.

And that is one small example of the good stuff of General Conference. The people with whom you can connect. The woman I had never met before who embraced me after that session. The pastor who is on the "other side" of the issue from me who shook my hand afterwards and thanked me for what I had said. The young man I spoke with this morning who has sensed a nudge to be a pastor, but is not allowed to follow that divine call because of the doctrine of his church.

We are a profoundly connectional church, we who are called United Methodist. And that connection is so much deeper than our Book of Discipline. Our connection is eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand, hugs and handshakes. And singing. Oh man, can we ever sing!

The point being, far too many United Methodists derive our connectional identity from the Book of Discipline. Frankly that's not where we are connected; that is precisely where we are most fractured.

We are called to a much higher standard than Robert's Rules of Order.
We are called to a much deeper connection than the trust clause.
We are called to a profound unity that is not derived from our clergy pension fund.

We are more than what is happening in legislative committees and plenary business sessions. We are more than our doctrine. We are more than our Discipline. And if there's only one thing I hope people know about General Conference 2016, I really hope it is that the United Methodist witness to the world extends beyond those mundane things. We are so much more.

(Check out the We Are More website right here.)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Post 5 ... #UMCGC 2016

"I have to go down to sign some books. I need you to sit in for me while I'm gone." That's what Emanuel said to me to let me know I'd be experiencing my first ever participation in the actual work of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

He went to get the form from Brian, brought it back to me and I gave it to the usher. Then I took my seat.

And do you know the first thing I thought, sitting there? I thought, "I really wish I could tell Daddy Monk about this." My grandfather would have been so excited, and wanted to hear every detail of my time working in the Faith and Order Committee. He was a man who dearly loved God and dearly loved the United Methodist Church, and I always wanted to make him proud.

So with him looking over my shoulder, I focused on the work at hand.

Petition Number: 60660-FO-para. 120-G; Hedglin, Chelsey - Nashville, TN, USA.

It was a petition to change the mission statement of the church. My first thought, "There's no possible way this is going to pass."

The new statement started out: "The mission of the church is to create a community relating people to God and to one another through Jesus Christ by making them disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." (The words in italics are the ones the petition would have added.)

Someone moved to amend the petition by deleting these words. We talked about that, then voted. I voted for that amendment. The amendment passed 25-4.

But the petition wasn't over; there was more. The second sentence of the mission statement would be changed to read, "Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple making occurs. (Again, the words in italics are the words the petitioner added.)

My first thought, again, was, "No way this ever passes. It makes the statement messy and unclear. And it really isn't true, either."

But a couple of people spoke for it. A couple of people spoke against it. The ones who spoke against it said pretty much what I was thinking, so I didn't say anything. Then we voted, and the petition passed 16-13, with 1 abstention. I was one of the 13 "no" votes.

(Now what that means is that the subcommittee chair will report to the full committee that the subcommittee has voted to recommend approval of the petition by a 16-13 vote. Frankly I do not see it passing out of the full committee, but we'll see.)

At this point, Emanuel was back in the room, and we switched out.

But I was there for a full 20 minutes, from the introduction of a petition, through an amendment, and through the final vote itself. Which was all pretty cool, to be honest with you. I actually felt really excited about being there and a part of the process. I was in the middle of the holy mess, and I kind of liked it!

Post 4 ... #UMCGC 2016

Today was full. The Missouri delegation met at 7:30 this morning, and I got out of a meeting at about 7:30 this evening. A twelve hour day.

(Now I know that people who have done this before are thinking, "Shoot, that's nothing." Yes, I know y'all used to stay up til midnight finessing the finer points of parliamentary procedure. But nevertheless, to day was indeed full.)

The big event of the morning was our decision not to pass "Rule 44." All else aside, I am deeply disappointed for the people who worked so hard on the proposal. Four years of time and energy, dedicated to an idea that we might actually be able to talk with one another more naturally than Robert's Rules will allow, numerous meetings, countless hours, research, discussion, writing, rewriting, studying models ... all for naught.

And to make matters worse, what this group was doing was in direct response to instruction they had received at the last General Conference, 4 years ago. So what happened was, in 2012 we said, "Hey, will you guys please work on a different way we might talk with one another?" And then in 2016 we said, "Never mind. Just kidding. We didn't really mean that." And it's gone.

I cannot imagine how our sisters and brothers who created "Rule 44" must be processing today's vote. They must be devastated.

And what was the problem? In a word, trust. Rather the lack thereof.

Into the weeds of Rule 44: After the small group conversations, there would have been a six-person "facilitation group" whose purpose is to compile all of the summaries of the conversations and create legislation for the full conference to vote on. Because of the deep suspicion of this group of six, like it was some imagined "power play" of some kind, we killed the idea. Never mind that the process by which these six would have been chosen was completely transparent, and the result of their work would have been debated and voted on by the entire body anyway.

Nope - it's a power play. We don't trust them. Who are these people anyway? How do we know what their agenda might be? Seems fishy to me!

So that kind of clouded a lot of the rest of the day.

Though there was much to celebrate as well. The people of the Methodist Church, face to face, are amazing people. I met so many super cool people today, starting with David on the train in the morning. David is a Swahili translator at the Conference, he is serving in Dallas as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital. And he was just the first. Methodists are in general gracious, friendly, happy, spirit-filled people.

We just don't function well in large groups.

There's more to tell, but I'm sleepy. I'd like to write about new worship ideas that I'm pondering. I'd like to write about how big plans with broad implications get divided up into different committees so the people working on them can't see the whole picture. I'd like to talk about the young adults in the legislative committee Googling a document someone was referencing to discover that it was a 13 year old document and pretty much out of date.

I'd like to talk about the brilliant idea that a handful of youngish Methodist pastors came up with at Rock Bottom while we were eating supper. But actually you'll probably read about that one in the news tomorrow!

Seriously though - I love my denomination. I love my church. I love the people called Methodist. We have some dysfunction, but what family doesn't. We are a mess, but isn't it a holy mess, after all?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Post 3 ... #UMCGC 2016

From sublime to banal. The whiplash that is General Conference was in full effect today.

Worship was transcendent. It was intimate and reflective, with capacious silences interspersed with scripture, liturgy, and prayer. I don’t know how the worship design team and the worship leaders made it possible for several thousand people to feel a personal connection to the worship experience, but they did. Sublime.

And then, an episcopal address from Bishop Greg Palmer. What can I possibly say?  He said some things!

Things like, “there is grave danger in being overly self-reliant. We need to cultivate and practice a renewed God reliance. We have been so adequate, so able, so competent, and so successful for so long it may well be that we have only given lip service to trusting in the Lord. We didn’t mean to. It is a hazard that comes with the territory.”

He said things like, “I refuse to give in to discouragement and despair because the work of becoming the church we can be, of truly embodying beloved community is hard.”

He spoke profound truth. Sublime truth. Transcendent truth. I am humbled to think that this man’s hands were on my head, along with my Grandfather’s, my Father’s, Rev. Sarah Evans’ and Rev. Steve Campbell’s, as I was ordained in 2007 by Bishop Robert Schnase.

And then there is the ordinary sublime stuff. The stuff that is so hard to describe. It happens in between, in the hallways, in the passing conversations. There are smiles and laughter. There are handshakes and hugs.

There are friends introducing friends. Strangers connected by our common Methodist identity. There is an energy present that brings tears to my eyes. Literally. It is so, so good to be in close proximity to so many amazing people, sharing the same space, breathing the same air, singing the same songs together.

The best single word I can come up with is simply “sublime.”

And yet, there is the other stuff. Which, if you pinned me down on a single word, I would only be able to describe as “banal.” Vapid. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It is “Robert’s Rules of Order” run amok. We as a body seem to know more about the minutiae of parliamentary procedure than we do about making disciples of Jesus Christ, much less changing the world.

All due respect, the church is called to a higher standard than Robert’s Rules of Order.

I get it. We have to have some system by which to operate. I understand. We need some rules. Right.

But is this as good as we can do? Frankly, there is no room for trust in Robert’s Rules. Robert’s Rules were not written within a framework of trust and grace and love. In fact, Robert’s Rules were written to eliminate any need for trust whatsoever.

So we deliberate as a body, hardly able to agree about how it is we are going to be talking about the things we are supposed to be talking about, much less actually talking about those things. And sincere, well-intentioned people come to the microphones to say things that are not in the slightest bit helpful to the conversation. I would estimate that we could have gotten by, accomplished the same results, with less than one-third of the speeches from the floor that we had this morning.

It is banal. Utterly banal.

And the thing is, there is no in between. General Conference is either sublime or banal, never just kind of meh. And often times the sublime and the banal reside within moments of one another. Whiplash! It’s General Conference whiplash.

Those who have been to several of these things may be used to it by now, but since it’s my first one, I’m not. I have whiplash, and I think I need a massage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Post Two ... #UMCGC 2016

I am really tired.

But it was good. A lot of really, really good stuff. And then a lot of really kind of befuddling stuff that didn't really do anything but generated a lot of energy.

I will never forget the worship experience today - a truly global celebration. It felt like Pentecost! A mix of video and live voices in many languages, merging into all of us saying "Alleluia!" together. The service was a true blend of styles; many times "blended" services end up feeling like two styles mashed awkwardly together. This wasn't. It was amazing.

And then ... there was an exhausting conversation about how we would conduct ourselves. Today's rules debate reinforced to me just how grateful I am that in Missouri we don't do that. We don't have these lengthy, Robert's Rules, motion to amend the amendment kind of discussions at our Annual Conference sessions. We actually trust each other! Imagine that. We like each other, we trust that the committees and other leaders are doing their jobs, and we stay focused on mission and ministry.

I wonder if that kind of thing could happen here? Could we actually focus on mission and ministry at the United Methodist General Conference? I hope so, but I'm going to bed now so the spiritual revival will have to wait until morning.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Post One ... #UMCGC 2016

It's 7:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 10, 2016. I'm in a hotel room in downtown Portland, Oregon, getting ready to jump on the MAX and head up to the Convention Center to get started with the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

It's the first time I've been here, and I'm really excited and anxious and nervous and eager and scared about what is about to happen. I've heard such a variety of stories from those who've been before.

As an alternate delegate, I'll be sitting and watching a lot. That's okay with me. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open to see and hear what there is to see and hear. And I'll try to share it as honestly as I can. I hope to write a few posts here, and I'll also be tweeting @randrew and sharing pics on Instagram.

It's kind of amazing. On the train yesterday, I met some people here to help with translation; they were from several different countries in Africa. To think about the thousands of miles they've traveled to be here, to sit beside delegates, who have also traveled thousands of miles, and help them understand what is happening, so that we together can be the church that God has called us to be ... it kind of blows my mind, you know?

The national news leading up to this day has been all about marriage and ordination, two of the most sacred acts that the church does. Specifically, the questions of who can be married to whom and what qualifies a person to be ordained are front and center this time around. (Again.)

Yet a lot has changed since 2012 when General Conference last met. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States. Will United Methodist pastors be officially permitted to marry same-sex couples two weeks from now? Many United Methodist clergy and clergy candidates have come out of the closet, including 126 in the past week, in two different very public acknowledgements. Will they still be officially "clergy" two weeks from now?

And significantly, how exactly will we as a body converse with one another about these questions? Will there be grace? Will we embody Romans 12 values? Will the Holy Spirit move, and will we recognize it if that happens?

There are at this point, a LOT of questions. And to be honest, two weeks from now there will likely also be a LOT of questions left on the table. And somehow, some way, in the midst of that mess, we will still be the church. This I believe with all my heart.

Therefore, go!

Friday, May 06, 2016

Graduating Girl

There’s a young woman graduating from High School tonight.

There are many young women graduating, actually, and many young men as well. But there’s this one that I’m particularly fond of.

Tonight she’ll be just one more of hundreds of capped and gowned seniors starting a new chapter of life. She’ll be just one face in the crowd, for most of the crowd.

For me, she will be it. The only one. The singular high school graduate.

I was one of the very first people to see her face, to gaze into her eyes.

I held her in one arm with no trouble at all.

I saw the very first smile she ever smiled.

I wiped her chin, changed her diaper, put band-aids on her knees.

I carried her on my shoulders. I can still feel her weight there, her chin resting on my head.

I saw her crawl, then walk, then dance.

I took her to the art museum on “d” days. We got in trouble once because I was carrying her on my shoulders and that made the guard nervous, like I was going to drop her into a work of art.

I read chapter books to her at bedtime.

I ran beside her bicycle as she figured out how to balance, watched her pedal off on her own.

I heard her say, “If there are kids who need help … and we can help them … then we probably should,” and it changed my life.

I saw her step onto a stage and become someone else. Golde, Leisl, Cinderella, Patsy. Scrub. Miss. She sparkles on stage, pure brilliance.

I tried to teach her how to play piano, with moderate success.

I accompanied her as she sang.

I told her, every morning, “Be a peacemaker today!”

I asked her, every night, “Who’s my girl?”

I have seen her angry and I have yelled at her, too.

I have told her the most hilarious jokes in history.

I watched her sing, in her high school choir, and saw an artist at work.

I have watched her try to keep things calm, no drama, relaxed. And I know how it hurts her when that doesn’t work.

I know that she gets really anxious about trying new things, but she tries them anyway because she is so incredibly brave. And strong. And smart.

And after tonight, she’s going to be trying a really, really big new thing. It’s newer and bigger than anything she’s tried so far. And she is going to be amazing.

Life happens in seasons. Old seasons fade; new seasons emerge. “Wind’s in the east, there’s a mist coming in, like something is brewin, about to begin.” We do well to notice the transition times, to mark them, to absorb every moment.

So there’s a young woman graduating from High School tonight. She’s my girl. She is Corneille Marie Bryan, and she is ready for what’s next.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

"Global Connectional Conference" - #UMCGC Petition

Methodist nerds, here's a plan coming to General Conference this year, called the "Global Connection Plan" and it is a restructure of the denomination.

The nutshell idea is to create a "Global ConnectionalConference" to deal with world-wide matters, 4 "Connectional Conferences" that would deal with continental matters (Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, then "Regional Conferences" that would be like our current "Jurisdictions." Annual Conferences would remain the same.

There are more details in the link, if you are interested CLICK HERE.

On one level, this plan seems to me just adding one more layer of complexity to the current structure. And there's no getting around that basic fact. Whereas currently the UMC is organized into five concentric circles (charge, district, annual, jurisdictional, general), this plan clearly adds one. Wouldn't that be just one more tangle in the hairball?

Yet on the other hand I am sympathetic to the goal of this plan. There are definitely issues and questions that apply to the church anywhere and everywhere in the world, and at the same time issues and questions that are dramatically different in different areas of the world. Does it not make sense to have a venue in which to address what is peculiar to the North American church, as well as other regions.

This plan is parallel to an idea coming from the StandingCommittee on Central Conference Matters, namely the creation of a Global Book of Discipline. This plan would scale down the denominational Book of Discipline to include ONLY those matters pertinent to the entire global church. (And by the way, that plan still forbids pastors from conducting "homosexual unions," so apparently they think that issue is important enough to apply to the entire planet.)

I like the idea of the simplification of the Book of Discipline and of having a more focused denominational gathering. But I am on the fence about the Global Connection, to be honest. I need to know that it won't be making things even more complicated than they already are.

Monday, May 02, 2016

"One Holy Catholic and Apostolic" vs. "The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church"

“We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

With these words, the Nicene Creed describes the body of Christ in the world. Of course, each of those words is loaded with meaning. And each of these ancient words has a great contemporary relevance.

To say the church is “one” is to say that we are united in heart, though not in opinion. It is to say that we may love alike, even though we do not think alike.

To say the church is “holy” is definitely not to say that the church is better than anyone, rather that the church is “called out” and designated for a particular purpose.

To say the church is “catholic” is not a means of distinguishing one expression of Christianity from another, but rather is a way to say that the faith is both deep and wide, a global community of local communities.

And to say the church is “apostolic” is to say that the church is sent on a mission, like the apostles of the Bible whom Jesus sent into the world with a message of love and grace and hope.

I for one am profoundly excited about the new expressions of faith that are emerging in and around and through the church. There is a deep sense of unity that transcends our differences. There is a sense of calling to a higher purpose. There are such diverse local expressions of our one global body. And the church is reaching the world with a focus on mission unlike we’ve seen in several decades.

In other words, the church is still the church. No, it doesn’t look like it did a generation ago. And it doesn’t look now like it will a generation from today. And that’s a good thing. But I for one believe that the 21st century church is still one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church

With that said, there are very few petitions to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference that will have any impact whatsoever on any of that. At least of the ones I have read. And I mean no impact one way or the other; won’t help / won’t hurt. It’s a bit disheartening, to be honest, to read through petition after petition, redundant, irrelevant, inwardly focused, meddling with the minutiae.

As I’ve written before, the United Methodist Book of Discipline is too thick and unwieldy to be practical. It’s like slogging through a swamp to find anything of any usefulness. And every four years we complexify it further!

But here’s the thing. I believe Jesus when he says of the church that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” In fact, I’m pretty sure he was alluding to our beloved Book of Discipline directly when he said that! Somehow, the church will survive, and the Book of Discipline will not prevail against it!

I believe that with all my heart, because as Bishop Schnase is fond of saying, “Ministry happens at the margins.” How many of us here in Missouri have seen him drawing his famous concentric circles, pushing us to think outwardly, to local congregations, where the real action is? Yes, the church is the church at all levels, even the “middle circle” that is General Conference. But it’s at the edges where the Holy Spirit is most active, and that’s where our energy, our focus, and our resources ought to be directed.

Local congregations need to be unleashed for Christ’s sake, not burdened down with restrictive language about whom to marry and not marry, how precisely to structure a Pastor/Parish Relations Committee, what level of pastoral credentialing is necessary to be given authority to vote at Annual Conference, and other such navel gazing inanity.

As a denomination, do we still believe that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body? And if we really do, can we start acting like it?