Tuesday, April 29, 2008

So Glad To Be a United Methodist

I know this is out of order, but I just have to write about today here at General Conference. At 3:55pm, they closed all the doors of the conference hall. Police presence has been felt all day, along with bomb sniffing dogs because security needed to be tight.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of the Republic of Liberia, addressed the General Conference. And the tone for her address was set when we learned from her bishop in Liberia that she was a "daughter of the United Methodist Church". She attended a Methodist school in Liberia as a child and graduated from a Methodist college. She was one of the leaders of the reform movement and the first woman elected in a democratic election process in Africa.

She was incredible. She spoke with passion about the way that Liberia is beginning to put itself back together after years of corruption and strife. And she spoke about the way the church was working with places such as Liberia to offer hope to even more people. I urge you to check out her address at the General Conference website (www.gc2008.umc.org).

As flawed and as failing as the church is, I fell in love with it all over again. This church reaches worldwide and it is passionately spreading the good news in word and deed. It is offering hope to so many people who have very little to hope for.

Unemployment in Liberia is down from 90% to only 65% (!!!!). Poverty is still something that they're working on as about 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Many of them live on less than $1 a day. But whereas there used to be a lot of fear and suspicion of the government, now their reforms and generous actions to help others are beginning to have effect and the light in children's eyes are beginning to come back to life. They don't shy away when her convoy comes to town.

What an incredible moment--to share that with all these people. In that moment, the disagreements (which will resume tonight) and the hard choices we think we're facing just melted away and anything was possible.

So that's my unattainable prayer--one that only God can answer and only through God can an answer come--that through the love of Christ in the United Methodist Church that anything might be possible and the world might truly be transformed.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Radical Act of Hospitality

That's what General Conference is, you know. A radical act of hospitality.

First we have to be hospitable to the Holy Spirit. And you know, sometimes we just don't want God to mess with our business. But that's the whole point of General Conference. That we invite God to not only mess with our business, but through the Holy Spirit, to be in charge of it.

Then we have to be hospitable to each other. That's difficult enough when you differ from someone theologically or generationally or geographically. But when you add all the other different layers on top of it--different languages, different cultures, different worldviews--it just becomes something that we have to work at. It doesn't come naturally sometimes.

In my committee, we have several people who work with translators (French and Portuguese mostly). And the delegates have to remember to speak slowly and clearly so that the translators can get the message to their delegates. It is something we do willingly so that all might be included in the body.

It made me begin to wonder what a radical act of hospitality might look like for our home congregations. Say you have someone in your midst who doesn't speak "churchese". Think of how many terms you use that are "foreign" to someone just walking into our midst. Can you be as hospitable and welcoming to them?

But the hospitality lessons continue. We must be hospitable to the thought that we're not always going to be on the side of the majority. We must be hospitable even when our first thought is that the person speaking is crazy. Because it just might be the very thing that you need to hear. And you can't cut off conversation because you've made an assumption.

I believe Holy Conferencing is working in our midst. In my next post (the one above this one!), I'll describe some of my thoughts as I watched a sub-committee of the Judicial Administration committee work through petitions which have to do with whether or not pastors can be charged for being self-avowed practicing homosexuals or for performing homosexual union services. There was plenty of room for inhospitality there, but I saw something very different.

The tone of the conference is much more reaching out to one another. One story and then I'll go. One of the other groups that had a petition that addressed homosexuality (and whether clergy who were self-avowed practicing homosexuals would be eligible for ordination) was passionately debated on the floor. One gentleman identified himself as a homosexual and spoke passionately to open the clergy ranks to all. Another woman spoke equally as passionately about the realities of her home and what kind of damange that kind of proposal would do to her church. They both acknowledged that damage would be caused to someone no matter where the General Conference came out on the issue.

After the vote, which affirmed (in committee...this legislation has not reached the floor at the time of this blog) the previous standards for clergy (celibate in singleness, fidelity in marriage, self-avowed practicing homosexuals not eligible), the gay man who had spoken so passionately stood up and led the delegates in singing praise to God. The young woman who had also spoken so passionately stood up and went and joined him.

That is where the hope of the church lies for me. Not that we will find agreement on every issue (already we aren't doing that...) but that we will find ways to affirm that God is still God, Jesus Christ is still our common Savior and Lord and we are still the church, flawed yet growing toward perfection.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Old Illustrations, Fresh Ears

I know I've spoken about the preaching quite a bit since I got here, but truly, we have bishops who are excellent speakers.

On Friday we heard from Bishop Joao Machado of Mozambique. He spoke Portuguese, so we listened with an interpreter (one of the joys of General Conference is having several languages spoken!). He said he was somewhat embarrassed to get up and talk after all of the wonderful sermons and addresses we had had so far.

But then he said he knew of a preacher who came to a church whose reputation was that they "looked inward" and not out at the world. He said the pastor preached a very good sermon about going out and doing something about the problems right outside their door. He received lots of wonderful compliments that day. The next Sunday he came in and preached, word for word, the same sermon. People were taken aback and thought that perhaps he had gotten mixed up. Not wanting to embarrass him, they didn't say anything except to thank him once again for the wonderful message. The third Sunday, when he preached the exact same text and the same sermon, the church leaders went to his home and asked if he was aware that he was preaching the same sermon. He said, "Until you show me that you can put into action the words I am preaching, I'm not going to change my sermon."

I don't know whether I identify more with the preacher or with his congregants sometimes.


Contact High

I am sick. Friends confirm it.

I actually enjoy the legislative committees.

When the legislative committee that I'm observing broke into sub-committees, in the name of transparency, observers were allowed to come and sit right next to them (so we could hear). I chose and sat next to a committee that was looking at several petitions related to chargeable offenses--in other words, actions for which clergy can be put on trial in a church court.

The discussion was fascinating. For all those of you out there who were pretty sure there was a latent lawyer (maybe Pharisee?) in me, you may be right.

But the really fascinating part, besides following the logic (or what I thought was a lack of it) of the arguments that each person made for or against the petition, I could see all of the hypotheticals moving across their faces. All of the situations into which clergy could be put into unfairly, all of the ways in which the new legislation (or lack of it, if they chose to reject it) could be used or misused...they were all there.

When you send someone to General Conference (or to Annual Conference, for that matter), they carry not only their stories, but the stories from the rest of the church. And those stories have an impact on them in the committees where they are doing their work. Whenever they make a decision, those stories weigh on them.

But I tell you, I could barely hold my tongue sometimes (also not surprising to a majority of you!). I could see where a key fact was not being lifted up because people were making assumptions about the writer's intent on the petition. Sometimes they weren't even making assumptions because the writer of the petition happened to be in the sub-committee! But I think it's all a question of angles. Is there a way to come at this issue from a different angle and perhaps crack it open a bit more?

It reminds me of nuts. Sometimes you just get a nut that falls open pretty easy and you can get the meat out without damaging the meat itself. Sometimes you're pressing on the wrong place and it cracks and splinters and you just get little pieces of nut all over the place.

I want to find the place to press on legislation where what's inside of it comes out whole.

The other image that kept coming to mind was this incredibly intricate jigsaw puzzle--or perhaps the bringing together of pieces from about 1500 jigsaw puzzles and trying to figure out the pieces that are supposed to go into this one. Sometimes if you put one piece in, it will automatically change a lot of other pieces. Sometimes a piece may be excluded if other pieces around it don't change first.

And I confess that it can be tedious. It can be convoluted. But jigsaw puzzles can be fun too. And this is a jigsaw puzzle that, when finally worked, is a map to guide us. It's a picture of who we want to be as a denomination. And it's really cool to me that lay people and clergy people--not just bishops and denominational leaders--get to hash it all out.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Look out! It's a committee!

As I'm writing this (on Saturday night), I'm not quite sure if the legislative committee that I've been sitting in on has gone home yet. Several of the committees stated the need to go almost until 1:00am in order to finish work on petitions that could then be brought to the whole body.

Is anybody having flashbacks to a Texas Legislature session?

What could be taking so long?

Some of the petitions are controversial, but even when a committee agrees, sometimes they're not quite sure how to agree. I can see positioning even now to bring something to the floor of the legislative committee and then to the floor of the General Conference that will "pass muster," and everyone has a different idea on how to do that.

But I promised I would let you know what the committees are! Once petitions are sent to the General Conference, they are divided into legislative groups, so that similar petitions can be grouped together and areas of the Discipline (our book of order) can be covered by the same committee.

The thirteen committees are:

Church and Society 1
Church and Society 2 (these two committees deal with what the church looks like and acts like and believes about the wider world...this is usually where the questions of what we believe regarding homosexuality, the death penalty, the environment, war, and immigration fall)

Conferences (how the various conferences--Central conferences outside the US, Jurisdictional conferences inside the US, Annual Conferences--relate, their purposes and how/who we elect to be at them)

Discipleship (anything to do with worship, education, age-level ministries and some racial/ethnic ministries)

Financial Administration (like the Finance committee in a local church--they have to figure out how to pay for everything and how much each Annual Conference's share will be)

Faith and Order (ministry standards, how we will "order" the church and how we will treat each other)

General Administration (exactly what it sounds like!)

Global Ministries (many resolutions and a concentration on how our worldwide agencies are in ministry)

Central Conference (legislation having to do with the Conferences outside the United States)

Independent Commissions (Archives and History, Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, Religion and Race, Communications, Status and Role of Women, United Methodist Men, etc.)

Judicial Administration (procedures for how we hold people accountable--both lay and clergy)

Local Church (how we structure the local church, especially as concerns membership and committees)

Ministry and Higher Education (the ordination process, our colleges and seminaries, campus ministry)

Superintendency (legislation relating to our district superintendents and bishops)

So there you have it. Our delegation has a voting member on each of the committees except discipleship. Our voing members each selected a committee to be on, and that just happened to be the one left out. But we still have people sitting in on the discussion.

I wonder what it would be like to be from a conference where we only had 2 voting members, though. You might not hear about important changes in legislation until it came up on the floor of the General Conference. But, given the amount of work that each of the committees spends on its issues, I can't see how you would want to divide into any fewer working groups. If I had taken the time to write a petition, I would want it to have serious consideration.

Which is the beauty that I have seen in the system, really. Even things that I might have regarded as silly need to be looked at in terms of the frustration or hope that led someone to write a petition at all. We are a fully participatory body, asking for input from everyone.

And I think that's actually a good idea. I acknowledge some pitfalls to it (too much input leads to logjams of legislation), but I have seen ideas that help us move more fruitfully and can lead to creativity in discerning the Holy Spirit.

I know these posts aren't meant to be long, so I'll close for now. I'm so full of everything I want to explain and everything I am experiencing, it's a bit of a logjam for me too!


Rest of Thursday

Goodness! It's already Saturday and I'm not done with Thursday yet!

I had to miss some of the Laity Address on Thursday simply to catch up with some paperwork that I needed to complete, but I was excited Thursday afternoon to go into the legislative session dealing with Judicial Administration.

If that sounds boring to you, then I must be one sick puppy because I'm really enjoying it!

For those who don't know, the General Conference receives lots of petitions. Some of them ask to change the Discipline (our book of rules, order and doctrine read in company with the Bible), some of them ask to have a resolution in the Book of Resolutions (our statements on specific world situations). People from all over the world send in petitions--over 1500 to this General Conference. One of our agencies takes the petitions and divides them up into thirteen different groups. (I'll list the thirteen in a later blog.)

In any case, I'm observing the group that deals with all the petitions related to our "court system". When a clergy is charged with a church offense or when there are problems that need to be taken to our church court for interpretation, there are specific rules that govern those actions. Those are the petitions we're dealing with.

I sat on the outside of the bar in the visitor's section, which basically means I have no voice and no vote. It's an interesting feeling to know that I have plenty to say about some of the petitions, but not be able to. I understand the reasons for that--with almost 1000 delegates officially elected to the body, it would be extraordinarily difficult to allow everyone the opportunity to speak, especially over the course of 10 days!

But it was great to see the person from our delegation who is officially on that committee (Beverly Silas, lay person from Austin) be elected to the vice-chair of the committee! I just feel so proud when I see legislation that was written by someone from our conference and know that there are people out there who really do care and want to give some guidance to the General Conference as to their thoughts and wishes on our church's future direction. And it's really cool when I see people from our Annual Conference honored by the body as they recognize leadership qualities.

The next blog will talk a little bit more about what happens next in the committee because that's when it gets really interesting!


Friday, April 25, 2008

Opening Addresses Part II

I was talking about the Bishop's Address in the last blog. After hearing about the 4 areas of focus, we heard from the Young People.

I've actually written a little bit about this on another blog, in response to someone's observation that there was no representation by any young adult from the SouthEastern Jurisdiction.

Here's what I said:

I am here in Fort Worth for the duration of the General Conference, and I'd like to address a couple of the topics raised by people. Just so you know, I am 36, so just out of what is technically considered "young adult", though still considered by my AC "young clergy".

First, the applause at the end did not have a patronizing feel in the arena--there were lots of tears running down the folks of a lot of people, including some of our delegates. To be in the room when something like that happened was incredible and to have that presentation happen on the heels of the Bishop's address (which was also spectacular) was a real way of saying that they hit a home run. When we broke for lunch there was energy and passion running through the crowd and lots of conversation about it everywhere I went. Their address has continued to be a part of many of the conversations that I have heard taking place in committee meetings as well.

Second, I'm usually a bear on representation, but I think that it didn't have much affect on me (I'm from the South Central) simply because with the exception of Kira and possibly Jason (who spoke about being from the reddest of red states), they didn't speak about their young adult status in geographical terms. They spoke about it in relational terms, which is I think much more characteristic of this age group. It's been said before in this blog that young adults are a much more mobile population (for example, Texas in the South Central Jurisdiction is my home, but I went to college in the Western Jurisdition and seminary in the South Eastern Jurisdiction). I would be interested to know if any of them have spent significant time in any of the other jurisdictions. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that I didn't get the feeling that any of them were particularly trying to represent their jurisdiction. I think they were far more concentrating on representing their age group in relationship to all the other age groups, which may have been enough for this time. Though clearly not, since it bothered some.

Third--I too noticed the lack of college/campus ministry. I would be interested to know if any of them participated in campus ministry of the United Methodist variety. Campus ministry has become so underfunded that I think it's very possible that the university or college (if they went) they attended did not have a Wesley ministry attached. What does it mean that the most compelling stories these six could tell were not about our presence on campuses?

Fourth--back to the question of what they were actually saying. I think what I took away from it was that young adults didn't need the patronization of older adults, either lay or clergy. That they have hope and energy now. And that they aren't giving up on the United Methodist church, despite what some people have read and interpreted the stats to say. They were saying, "We don't just deserved to be trained to sit at the table someday. We deserve to be at the table now because everything you're talking about--hope and passion and energy and creativity--we have it now in spades. What we do need is your prayers and your support and a place to give our voices. We will not be you. We will be ourselves. And everyone needs to get okay with that pretty quick 'cause we aren't going anywhere."

I hope that you'll go online and listen to the Young Person's Address. Remember--that address is www.gc2008.umc.org.


Opening Addresses, Part I

I'm going to have to blog a lot more than just at the end of the day if I'm going to keep up! Several of us from the delegation sat around talking last night, so I didn't try to blog then, but I'll try to start catching up now...

And I'll start with the opening addresses. There were three: the Bishop's Address, given by Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher; the Young People's Address, given by six UM's (both lay and clergy) under the age of 30; and the Laity Address.

I should probably describe some of the set up--the delegates are seated in 4 sections, laid out in quadrants with a stage area in front (that's where the bishops and the other speakers are). A pulpit and a font are up on stage. But in the crossroads in the middle of the delegates is a huge round table, made of wood recovered from the Gulfside Assembly in Mississippi which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina (the font and the pulpit are also made from the wood). It's great to see it there in the midst of the delegates--the seeds of destruction turned into something beautiful.

And the Bishop's address made use of the table to remind us that we gather, not around an agenda, but around Jesus Christ. She wove the report and the hope that we have for our future around 4 proposed areas of focus. In and through the report, we heard and recited parts of the Great Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous way of reminding us that we live lives of sacrament. It was also a powerful way of manifesting that as the Body of Christ, we too are broken open and poured out for the world so that all might know Jesus Christ and live.

We heard about the four pathways too, which will provide areas of focus for the United Methodist boards and agencies for the next four years: 1) leadership development for both lay and clergy; 2) starting new churches in new places for new people; 3) eradicating poverty through ministries for and with the poor; 4) eradicating the diseases of poverty, especially malaria (through the Nothing But Nets campaign), AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis.

So at this point, we've only been there for 3 hours, and I feel full already! It's so exciting to not only hear that the United Methodist church has committed itself to these life-changing hopes and dreams--it's especially exciting for me that I feel the spirit moving that through Christ we can actually accomplish them! This is the transforming church at its best--when lives are saved, both physically and spiritually.

The thing that is still sticking out in my mind is the drum beat. The music for this conference is fabulous, led by Marcia McFee and Mark Miller. They use a lot of percussion, especially African drums, and it just sounds like a heartbeat, strong and sure. I am drawn to music with a strong beat which then dances in and out on the "offbeats". I feel like the Spirit is dancing with us in those moments and flowing in and out of the music.

And the song that keeps going through my mind is a text that I have known for awhile: "And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace." Right now, that all seems possible, even though I know that the decisions won't do anything to create those things if they are not put into actions. None of this will make any sense unless this passion moves outside of the Fort Worth Convention Center and into the churches.

The Bishop's address continued the theme of hope...and the fact that we can't calculate exactly what the future is going to bring. But I have this sure conviction, from the bleachers, that the decisions we make here can bring forth fruit. PLEASE continue to pray this might be so.

I'm trying to keep individual posts shorter, so I'll blog about the next addresses, the Young People's and the Laity a little later!


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

After the First Night

Well, they tossed us right in!

I am officially registered as a Visitor for the Conference. I got in and almost managed to get myself lost in the downtown area.

But I got to the Convention Center okay. What an amazing place! I spoke a little bit to some people from Zimbabwe and just continued to marvel at what an awesome site it is when a worldwide body gets together.

For those of you who haven't checked it out yet, the official blog of the General Conference is http://www.gc2008.umc.org/. The worship service tonight (and actually, if you're reading the blog, it's after midnight, so it's probably last night) was streamed live on the video. Most of the addresses tomorrow will also be streamed live (starting at 8:00am on Thursday with the bishop's address).

I think my overwhelming impression tonight was reserve. That was understandable because there's such tension around the issues that we're facing and, from some quarters, fear about what we'll do about various things.

But then Bishop Huie started to speak. And it made me glad. I've heard so much over the past few years about what's wrong with the church and speculations about whose fault it is and how if they'd just listen to X-Y-Z, everything would get fixed. I've even made a few of those comments and speculations. And they come from a negative space or perhaps a reality space.

Tonight, though, we went to the place of hope. That may seem self-evident that the opening sermon would be about hope, since this is, after all a Conference whose title is "A Future With Hope." But there was a difference in her preaching...a difference in the hope she described.

One of my favorite performers is a guy named David Wilcox (www.davidwilcox.com). He has a song whose chorus is, "Someday Soon made a promise I will follow. Someday Soon is why I try. Someday Soon told me, 'Take this cup of empty hope up to the well that's dry, where there's just enough of Someday Soon to satisfy.'"

I've always taken the Someday Soon to be a Kingdom of God time that leads us on and guides us. And the Kingdom of God is embodied in this hope which is enough to take nothing into a place of nothing and making something wonderful happen. That's the hope that we look to--not a fearful hope that says, "Are you sure this will work now?"

But a hope that says, "Someday Soon...I will follow Someday Soon." Because I think that the God of hope can be trusted. And for some glorious, unfathomable, incredible reason, the same God of hope, I believe has asked the United Methodist Church to be the cup bearers...to the empty well...so that the world may know the Living Water of hope in Jesus Christ.

My prayers for the delegations tomorrow are that they taste and feel and see and hear that hope embodied in the people who are speaking, even when they disagree with them. I want this to be about the Someday Soon, and I want us all to be pulled on into the hope.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Emails and Publicity

I was warned when I became a part of the delegation for our conference that we would be getting an awful lot of mail. The communications from all different caucuses (interest groups) and factions has been coming in at a much greater rate within the past few weeks. I have gotten email and mail from almost every quarter, each giving a different spin on the various issues. I have tried to read most of it, even from the groups that I tend to ignore.

There is a lot of fear, anger and tense anticipation out there. Big decisions face the United Methodist Church on everything from our understanding of human sexuality (not limited to, but including homosexuality) to how we will function as a church in the global society. But these are not the only issues, nor are they nearly as simple as many groups would have us believe. Much time will be spent on how we will allocate resources--land, money, people--to best bring about God's kingdom. Much time will be spent on what United Methodists have to say about spiritual formation. Much time will be spent on what expectations we have for clergy and laity...and how we will form them for service and ministry.

I urge everyone to realize that some of what will be coming out in the popular media is not the only thing that's happening. Many of us in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference will be blogging like this to talk about what we see and hear...not just on hot button issues, but on all of the ways in which the Spirit of God is moving afresh in the UMC. I will publish the names of those blogs as I learn them. I also encourage you to keep up with the General Conference on www.gc2008.umc.org.

So for now, we are expecting rain tomorrow and potentially through the rest of the week. May it be a splendid reminder to us of our baptisms and the grace that drenches us so that our cup overflows (Psalm 23).


Monday, April 21, 2008

Getting Ready

Tomorrow (well, actually today), I'm on my way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in preparation to attend General Conference as a part of the delegation from my Annual Conference (Southwest Texas). In this blog, I'm going to record my impressions and hopefully joys in seeing my first General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I speak for no one besides myself. I welcome your comments!

I am a 36 year old first career UMC pastor, ordained elder in 2003. I pastor a medium sized church in Austin, TX, although I will be moving to McAllen, TX in the Rio Grande Valley this June. I am the daughter of a retired clergy and a retired schoolteacher. My husband is also pursuing a call to ministry.

Just to tell you what our delegation has already done in preparation for this event. We have met several times, and I was incredibly happy to find out that all elected, from the head of the delegation to the last alternate to Jurisdictional was made to feel a part of the team. We've gotten together multiple times over the past 7 months to discuss theological, political and practical concerns about the decisions we will make. We've pored over documents and some of our delegation have even written petitions to the GC. I'm extraodrinarily proud that our delegation includes 4 of us under the age of 40 and several more in their 40's. It is a good cross-section of our Annual Conference, and I have been profoundly moved in my faith by our discussions. The amount of work that people on the delegation have put into helping us be as prepared as we can be is staggering.

That being said, I don't know what the next couple of weeks have in store. I don't know if or how much time I might have on the floor, given that I'm only an alternate for Jurisdictional. But I intend to go and aide our delegates and offer a newbie's eye view of the proceedings. Please continue to pray for all of us as we seek to listen to the Holy Spirit move and find joy in the discernment!