Sixth (and final) Update on General Conference – Hope

Much is being said about this General Conference on social media and in the news. There are many things to consider, but let me start with a basic truth. The truth is that the struggle for justice for LGBTQ persons is far from over … in some ways, when many people think this was the last word, I would say that this was anything but the last word.

Here are my observations about this General Conference (albeit articulated with a weary mind):

Constitutionality

While what has been known as the Traditional Plan has seemingly prevailed, it has proven time and again to be plagued with constitutional challenges. The United Methodist Church has a constitution that has largely stood the test of time. And while the General Conference has full legislative authority, our Judicial Council (think Supreme Court) can declare any portion of that legislation unconstitutional, which will then render it null and void.

The Traditional Plan was again referred to the Judicial Council, and it is expected that much of it will not stand the constitutional test.

Exit Strategy

I have never known anyone who really thought they were winning the war to plan a retreat or an exit strategy at the while, at the same time, declaring victory. Yet that has happened here in St. Louis. More moderate to progressive delegates finally began speaking plainly about what was happening and called out those who were working so diligently to craft a “disaffiliation plan” that provides a framework by which churches may leave the denomination and subvert what is commonly known as the “trust clause” and keep their property while moving to be either independent or join or create a new denomination.

While making every effort at decorum, it is no secret that the group that calls itself the Wesley Covenant Association has been working to create a new Wesleyan denomination that would no longer be part of the United Methodist Church. The Reverend Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection, called out the group for that very thing in an impassioned speech.

The struggle by the WCA to keep the exit strategy in place affirms that there is much more to this story than meets the eye.

Direct Action

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, addresses direct action in the wake of broken promises and continued prejudice and oppression of African American people. In that letter, he writes:

As in so many experiences in the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.

Today, I watched it unfolding. As the traditional plan was approved a group of queer clergy and laity and their supporters began a direct action that laid out the case “before the conscience of the local and national community.” Delegates gathered in the middle of the bar of the conference and observers made their way to the front of the stands directly beside me and elsewhere in the stands. I watched as three of the people in the group near me (who were obviously from the same conference) yelled to their bishop as she walked by, begging her to come to stand with them … in front of them on the floor level of the arena. She offered them a sign of peace, but would not come toward them. She slowly walked away as they begged her to recognize them … to stand with them.

 

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Protestors take to the floor and to the stands of the General Conference.

 

My heart was breaking at watching the rejection. My heart was breaking for them. A layperson from our conference seated near me also saw it, and she began to cry. She immediately walked toward them, and I was right behind her standing with them … in solidarity … wanting justice for them … wanting this nightmare to end.

As I moved back toward my seat, it occurred to me. This wasn’t the first time the church had been on the wrong side of justice. Dr. King’s letter from the Birminham Jail was written in response to an open letter to Dr. King from the “Alabama Clergymen,” and among the signers of that letter were Methodist bishops Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin.

In that letter, they challenged Dr. King to refrain from protests and wait for justice to come through civil dialogue. It was in his response that Dr. King wrote: “We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Hope

I am saddened, but not without hope. We have seen and will see various news articles that are making declarations that this is a final decision of the church. There are many who will give up and walk away. Here it is enough to quote a tweet by Bishop Karen Oliveto, the only openly lesbian bishop in the UMC, who herself quotes Richard Smallwood’s Hold On, Don’t Let Go:

I know so many hurt right now. From my GC play list:
“Hold on, don’t let go, even though your heart hurts you so; He’ll never let go of your hand”
I’m not going  to let go of you, dear ones who are hurting so right now. Let’s hold us all tight. (words spelled out from Twitter)

My friends, the wisdom from Bishop Oliveto is spot on. We are holding onto hope.

Fifth Update on General Conference – Courage

The divide is deepening within our beloved United Methodist Church. Not only have we been unable to find a middle ground; we are now feeling the pull far to the side of a more rigid orthodoxy. I write this midday to encourage my Wellspringers and others amidst the uncertainties that are now unfolding within our denomination.

To answer a couple of the questions I have received via email and text:

  1. No, I do not immediately know the impact of this General Conference. The divide I am feeling suggests that a greater breaking may come in the future, but there is no crystal ball to see the full implications for our future.
  2. Yes, Wellspring will still be a Reconciling Congregation. Our association with Reconciling Ministries Network is no different from our brothers and sisters who associate with the Wesleyan Covenant Association (both are parachurch organizations).

I will have another update this evening, but I write just now to encourage us!

This is what faith is about … the courage to let God still guide us even when we walk through dark valleys.

Courage, friends! Take courage!

Fourth Update on General Conference – Committee Work

Today was a day of challenge and disappointment. It has taken me several hours to decide how to address this. So I will start with a couple of observations:

First, early in my ministry, I worked with a pastor who had suffered through a terrible time as pastor of a very unhealthy church. The church was what is commonly known as a clergy-killer, and his Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (personnel committee) routinely blamed him for everything wrong with the church. After he left that church, it was a friend of his who gave him a small plaque that he placed on a shelf in his office. It read: “For God so loved the world that he did not send a committee.”

The second thing that occurred to me today, as I witnessed the continued harm done to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, was this simple truth as found in scripture: Jesus was crucified by a majority vote of those present and voting. I don’t say this as a diatribe, but I do believe that the majority doesn’t always get it right when it comes to justice for the “least of these.”

Background

It probably helps to have a bit of education of what happens in the General Conference. As I explained in my previous blog post, the General Conference adjourned as a plenary session yesterday and put on the hat of a legislative committee. That means that the work done today will be reported back to the plenary session tomorrow (which just so happens to be the exact same people who functioned as the legislative committee today but with slightly different rules).

Again, I know this sounds a bit strange, but Methodism isn’t for the faint of heart. Just because we saw something seemingly defeated today doesn’t mean that it is completely without hope tomorrow. As I told one of our members with whom I was texting today, supporters of the One Church Plan are on the ropes but not completely down.

The plan known as the Traditional Plan goes forward as the “preferred” plan of the legislative committee, but the plenary session still must address the other plans that were sent forward with the label “non-concurrence.” When a committee votes a petition or plan as “non-concurrence,” each of those plans may have a minority report. It is expected that the One Church Plan will have a minority report. It is also likely that a motion will be made to convert the minority report into the primary resolution. If that passes, then we could still adopt the One Church Plan.

The truth is, this scenario is unlikely given the opposition, especially from our African, Eastern Russian, and Asian delegates.

The plan known generally as the Traditional Plan will likely go forward … BUT the legislative committee voted to forward it to the Judicial Council (the church’s “supreme court”), who, it is anticipated, will find much of it to be unconstitutional. The teeth that the more conservative sisters and brothers would like to have in it will unlikely be enacted as legislation because of constitutional issues. The teeth I describe here come in the form of accountability and serious consequences for those who are LGBTQ clergy or those who otherwise act outside the parameters of the United Methodist Discipline.

Without those teeth, there are many who threaten to exit the denomination. That will still be a big topic for tomorrow’s work.

Today’s Blessing

Today, however, brought a blessing. As the body was considering the motion to refer all of its work to the Judicial Council for review of its constitutionality, a young man by the name of JJ Warren, took the floor to speak for the motion. He is a lay delegate from the Upper New York Annual Conference, and what he said brought me to my feet and then to my knees.

His speech (only 3 minutes long) was powerful. When the church has so often denied people their voices, it is a powerful thing when they find their voice. For those who did not hear it on the live feed, you can find it by clicking HERE.

After you have seen this, you will understand. All I can say is, “With Christ, all things are possible.” It is true … God loved us enough not to send us a committee.

 

For full information on the proceedings of the General Conference, click HERE.

The daily record of the General Conference is called the Daily Christian Advocate, and you may find it by clicking HERE.

 

Third Update on General Conference – Out of the Chute

My grandfather was a roper, and my aunt was a barrel racer. Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time around rodeos. While I loved those events, my favorites were always the chute events … bronc and bull riding. In each of these events, the horse or the bull would be brought into a chute. For those who might not know, it is a space not much bigger than the animal itself. The door to the chute is beside the animal, and the animal is placed so that the animal’s head is toward the hinge of the gate. The gate swings open from the backside of the animal, and then the animal breaks free with the rider holding on and, where possible, spurring the animal to even wilder kicks. Even though the full ride requires a great deal of work on the part of the rider, the hardest part of the ride is generally just getting out of the chute and into the arena.

Today’s proceedings of the General Conference felt a lot like that … the challenge of just getting out of the chute. For those who were watching the video feed, it seemed like a big challenge in hoping for the eventual adoption of the One Church Plan (or perhaps even the Simple Plan). The delegates today were asked to prioritize the legislation for the group to act on as a legislative committee.

At most gatherings of the General Conference, the delegates divide into several small groups (legislative committees) early in the General Conference to work on legislation that will be brought back to the plenary session. The legislative committees operate by slightly different rules than in the plenary session, and their job is to craft legislation that will be presented and (hopefully) adopted by the plenary session.

As Methodists, we tend to be rather … well, methodical … in our way of doing things. So the delegates, as the plenary session prioritized the list that was sent to the legislative committee … which, in this General Conference, is the exact same group of people with a different hat on. So the plenary session was adjourned and then immediately reconvened as the legislative committee. Funny? Yes … we are an interesting people, we Methodists.

The room got very quiet when the prioritized list was presented. The plan known as the Traditional Plan was higher in priority than the plan known as the One Church Plan. Admittedly, it caught me a bit off guard. In further conversation with a couple of the delegates from our Annual Conference, I realized that this was not really the pitting of one plan against another. It was simply asking for the order in which plans would be considered. Each delegate was given the opportunity to cast a vote on each of the three primary plans and a host of separate petitions expressing whether they thought the plans were a high priority or a low priority. Then the totals were cast, and the results were read.

In practical terms, that means that one person wanting to consider all three of the primary plans could have ranked them all as “high priority.” While the Traditional Plan was ranked higher, the One Church Plan was not that far behind. That said, the work has only just begun. The delegates will begin their work in earnest tomorrow as they begin a long legislative process of working through the agenda.

You see, the trick in bronc or bull riding is not to get pinned or struck by any part of the chute or the gate on the way out of the chute. For someone like me, it was perhaps a rocky start, but we are out of the chute. We are in the arena, and we will see what tomorrow brings.

As my friend, George, always says … courage, my friends. Courage!

 

For full information on the proceedings of the General Conference, click HERE.

The daily record of the General Conference is called the Daily Christian Advocate, and you may find it by clicking HERE.

Second Update on General Conference – Day of Prayer

Today is a day of prayer. We have shared in prayer stations … in corporate prayer … in silent private prayer … for all United Methodist Christians around the world. There is an overt appeal for unity, but it is nestled firmly in our belief that we are ALL children of God.

At one point, the entire Council of Bishops took the stage to simply shout their own prayers for the church. Today I am seated at the opposite end of the room, I looked up at the screen and saw her … standing right in the middle of all the bishops … Bishop Karen Oliveto, a child of God who responded to the call of God, who served as a pastor in the church and was elected as a bishop, and who just happens to be a lesbian married to another woman. She was praying with a fervor that was inspiring.

In the spirit of prayer, today’s update is just that: a prayer. My challenge to you, the reader of this blog, is that you might pray this prayer … offer your own prayer … and ask God to be part of this critical General Conference in the life of our church.

A Prayer of Hope

You, Lord God, authored creation and every single creature that is part of this creation. We join your affirmation that everything you created is good.

But we are broken, Lord. We confess our tendency to harm one another by things we say and things we do. We confess that we have created traditions that have marginalized and hurt others. We confess that we have failed in creating new traditions of unqualified acceptance and love. Forgive us, God, and remind us that ours is a legacy of grace.

We lift up to grace those who have been harmed. We lift up those who are abused … those who are harassed … those who have died at the hands of others and often at their own hands … because they were gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer. We lift up families of LGBTQ persons … parents, siblings, and others … who struggle to fit in without having to keep their loved one closeted in secret. We lift up the friends and advocates of LGBTQ persons who have faced opposition in trying to create a safe space for their friends.

Lord God, pour your Holy Spirit on the delegates … on the clergy … on the local churches throughout our global connection that we might create a church … perhaps even a world … where peace and justice are the norms and where all people are valued and cherished as the children of God. Recreate your church in the image of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Our Response

As we prayed for people around the world and for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, we responded with a corporate response created by the task force known as Praying Our Way Forward. I close with this response:

We are the body of Christ – baptized in his name, redeemed by his blood, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Glory to God! Amen!

 

First Update on General Conference – The Arrival

I arrived at the hotel this evening. Since I had not eaten a true meal today, I went to find something close to the hotel (which, by the way, is NOT near the convention center where the General Conference is held). I checked in and went to find a place to eat nearby. I was seated at one of the two-seat tables where other two-seat tables were close enough that a foreign patron might have suspected that we were all in the same party.

I was enjoying my time in silence when a couple was seated at the table next to me. They both were engaging, and I soon found myself in conversation with them. One was from here, and they had returned to visit family. They said they lived in California. After a bit of a visit about the food, the inevitable question came: “Are you from here?”

When I said, “No,” a follow-up question arose: “What brought you here.” I explained that I was here for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church and that I was a Methodist pastor. The man seated next to me said he knew exactly what this conference was all about. He then began to inquire where I and my church were on the issue of full inclusiveness of LGBTQ persons. I explained that my church was a Reconciling Congregation and that our motto was “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted.” And I told him the caveat I quote every Sunday: “All Means All.”

At that point, his eyes began to well with tears. He told me he was glad to know there were Christians out there who were open and inclusive. He told me that he was blessed to hear that the United Methodist Church might someday see that everybody is a child of God and that God didn’t make throw-away people. As I paid and was getting up from the tight space, he grabbed my arm and said, “Keep telling people the Good News.”

I promised that I would.

And this couple … who blessed me and affirmed what I was proclaiming … they were both men. Men whom God sent to me at the beginning of this General Conference … and who reflected the face of Christ to me. So maybe … just maybe, Church … we will begin to break down the walls and live into our witness as disciples of the Lord who lived and died and rose for us … not some of us … all of us.

When Temples and Icons Are Gone

I was blessed to have two church homes. While the church that is primary is the church of my hometown of Ennis, TX (near Dallas), the other church I claim … that claims me … is the church where my mother grew up. It is a church that my grandfather and grandmother called home for most of their married years. It is in a small, unincorporated community southeast of Waco. It is the community of Mooreville, and the United Methodist Church there is my other church home.

Mooreville UMC.jpgMy grandparents raised my mother directly across the street from that church in a house my grandfather built. He built and owned the little store next to the house where he sold his own butchered beef. Following my grandfather’s tragic death when I was two, we spent many weekends with my grandmother … mowing the acreage behind the house, helping fix things that had broken during the week, and making sure she had everything she needed until we returned. She didn’t drive for 8 years following his death, and I was ten years old before she got behind the wheel of another car. That meant that my parents, my sister, and I usually spent three weekends out of four in Mooreville during my childhood and at least half the weekends through my teenage years.

The Mooreville church was key to my growing faith. It was the place I first learned about grief and mourning. It was the place where I met God … sometimes in simple … but always profound ways. In the days before we had to lock church buildings, the church was always open. Every weekend, whether on Friday evening or sometime on Saturday, I would go across the street to the church. I had learned early on that I could play the piano by ear, and the only songs I played were church hymns … the old, old hymns.

Before anybody in my current church gets excited, I only play in a couple of keys and not that well. As a kid, once … precisely once … I played for that little congregation because the pianist was sick, but they had to sing the three hymns I chose, and we sang them all in either C or F. I prayed all through the night that everyone would just sing loud.

But when I played alone in that old church, I did so as a form of prayer. Because I played by ear, I would often play with my eyes closed … or looking at the painting that the mom of one of our friends had painted … or looking at the other art and architecture of the building itself. It was just God and me in those moments, and my faith soared. It was there that my call to ministry was confirmed. I have preached there as a teenager, as a young seminarian, and the last time as a 40-something preacher during a revival there.

My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, my mom’s brother (who died in infancy), along with a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins are buried in the Cottonwood Cemetery just down the hill from the Mooreville church. Each time we stood at the edge of the grave, the people of that church walked with us through our grief and loss. It felt like something more than community. It felt like family.

Temples and Icons

While many people know about temples and icons, not many of us think about them. A temple is sacred space … a space where, if we are fortunate, will become a place where we meet God. Icons are those things around us that teach, instruct, and remind us of the essentials of our faith. They are focal points of meditation intended, not as objects of our worship, but to connect us to the divine in ways that we might not otherwise be connected.

Many churches and cathedrals around the world use stained glass windows, art, and other icons for instruction, meditation, and prayer. Incense is often used to create an aroma that strikes the senses to evoke sacred memory. They are not the objects of our worship … or as we often say, the buildings and objects are not the church … but they contain and evoke for us sacred memories.

That little church in Mooreville was one of my temples. The painting of the woman praying in the field, the little altar, the pulpit, the pews themselves, and the sight of the old familiar guest registry in the small vestibule … those were my icons. The smell of 100-year-old wood throughout the building had a certain, wistful aroma that was my incense.

So what happens when those sacred spaces are no more?

The Burning

Last Thursday night, my temple was destroyed by fire. I learned early Friday morning that the Mooreville church burned, along with all those icons of my faith. My heart sank. I called and talked to Ann, who was Mom’s maid of honor in 1958. They had grown up together. Ann confirmed it … the church building was gone. The people would still gather for worship … they were still the church, no matter what building they used … but the space so many of us called sacred … it was gone.

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All the people working to put it out could not stop it. They could only protect the adjacent fellowship hall, itself the sacred space where people fed us and cared for our family when Dad and Mom had died. But the sacred space of my childhood was gone.

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The tightrope I find myself on is strung between sentimentality and triviality. While I am grieved about the loss of sacred space, it is more of a reminder of the loss of those loved ones who lie at the bottom of the hill. It is a reminder of people whom I loved and for whom I grieve. It is more than just sentimentality.

But neither is it a trivial loss. Every time I have been by to visit the graves of my ancestors, I have immediately left the cemetery to drive back across the creek and up the hill. And there it was. The church on the hill … reminding me that our faith takes us beyond our death … that bell tower pointing ever upward toward the Source of life and hope.

Where We Meet God

As I have reflected on this, I am reminded of the many temples and icons that still remain. More than that, I am reminded of the legacy of faith that came … not just from a piano or paintings or windows or old wood … but from the people of Mooreville and other people of faith throughout my life … my parents … and my grandmother, who will forever be one of my patron saints.

Paul beckons us, in 1 Corinthians 6:19, to recall that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that, finally, we are not our own. In other words, people of faith are challenged to be icons for others. We are challenged to let the Holy Spirit inhabit us in such a way that, no matter where we are, we create sacred space for people to encounter God.

The inanimate temples and icons will always have their place in my journey of faith. Ultimately, however, God creates a true temple in the bodies of the very people who inhabit those sacred spaces. Each person of faith is an icon. I am challenged to see the image of God … the face of Christ … in everyone and everything that God has created.

When I pause and reflect on the gift of God’s abiding presence in the face of the children of God all around me, I am in awe … I am in the temple! Life is still bigger than death, and my hope is restored.

I thank God daily for the temples and icons of my faith!