I am sitting in the Washington National Cathedral, a good place to gain some perspective on the recent General Conference. I would like you to believe that I have come here on a spiritual pilgrimage, to purge myself of the spiritual maladies which cling to any soul that has recently attended the international meeting of the United Methodist Church. The truth is that I have just attended the commencement ceremonies of Wesley Theological Seminary.
I like the Cathedral. I always feel right-sized by her by the towering walls, flying buttresses and domed arches. Here God is so large and I am so small. Just by sitting quietly one can experience a certain sense of healing here. Last year’s earthquake damage has required the Cathedral to hang metal safety drapes across all the ceilings. Even this is a reminder of God’s saving power. How easily one could be randomly crushed by falling debris. It is by grace that we survived the whole commencement. Who am I that God is mindful of me?
Throughout this occasion I have been looking at the faces of these graduates, thinking of General Conference 2012, and the church in which the United Methodists will now be appointed. GC produces a load of cynicism and even some hopelessness in many, but of course, such things are in style in everything from politics to professional sports. What are citizens of the U.S. not cynical about these days? As people have asked me how I am doing after GC, I find that I feel strangely renewed. Don’t get me wrong. I am tired. Two weeks in a hotel room, 8:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. in a folding chair, meetings that sometimes warrant blowing the dust off words in your old SAT study manual, like pugnacious, or rancorous, and a head cold that became the metaphorical experience for the whole event, leave a man feeling bushed. But God can redeem even this: I have been renewed through weariness.
A few months ago I thought GC 2012 had great promise. There were petitions that could have advanced our life together and our mission in the world. I was encouraged that the church would be able to emerge with a modern structure that would enable it to more strategically and efficiently coordinate its ministries. I hoped we might acknowledge to each other that we disagree on issues of sexuality so that we could celebrate our unity in Christ amidst such divisive topics. I hoped we could bring term limits to the episcopacy along with the end of the guaranteed appointment to create some parity. I believed that there might be change in the air. As the months before GC turned to weeks and days, however, I could feel the breeze go still. In some legislative committees in Tampa, it was downright stale. Not much changed, and what the Judicial Council didn’t declare DOA is still pending on their docket.
I am tired, but not dispirited, because my original high expectations had been tempered by the reality of conversations and correspondence that I received in the days leading up to General Conference. What we are attempting to do is very complicated. We have a recipe that has never come out all that well, and we have added more ingredients in recent years. In one bowl we unwrap blocks of liberals and conservatives. Then we add the spice of numerous cultures and languages from North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia and the Pacific. (If I left a resident of Antarctica out, I do apologize). We dump in a cup of moderates, two heaping tablespoons of financial anxiety, and a dash of reality with figures of our decline. For two weeks we mix and stir before we bake the whole thing in plenary sessions where the oven door is repeatedly wrenched opened and slammed shut, and are then surprised when the soufflé falls. Let’s just say I didn’t think it would be pretty from the beginning. Beyond all that, we have the beloved trust clause, which means that we have no way for people who just plain disagree with everyone to gracefully exit the neighborhood. Since most of us love our buildings and capitalization, sometimes as much as the Lord Jesus himself, we are ever more polarized as the years go on.
I am fine after GC, because I am so aware that the greatest good that UM pastors, members and churches do to make disciples for the transformation of the world requires absolutely no GC action. Faithful disciples who are United Methodists need no majority vote, no referral to a committee, no perfecting amendment and no affirmation from General Conference. There are so many ways we can bless the world as United Methodists. And if you hear a speech for or against the calling you are currently pursuing from God in the church, it should neither make you feel too proud nor too humble. GC 2012 may be known for the opportunity lost in all that we were not able to do. But it does not greatly change the good to which God calls us. It will be in the intersections of our many callings that we shall find the most Spirit-infused ministry as a denomination. To the extent that is named in a GC petition, I celebrate. To the extent it is not, we are in no way hindered.
General Conference was neither a mountain top nor a death valley for me. But it was a time to receive the blessing of renewal of the truth that above all else, we must invoke the presence of the risen Christ and place ourselves humbly at his feet and hear his will for our lives and ministry. If disappointed, we might ask ourselves why we had any Great Expectations for it. Great Expectations for a church meeting is just a form of soft idolatry. I enjoyed some of the worship at GC. I commend its leaders. Goodness knows how anyone leads rousing worship at 8:30 p.m. in such a non-sacred setting as a convention center. But I knew we had a problem when the song leader led United Methodists to sing, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Who knew the Pelagians were writing praise music? Such a statement, especially in the context of worship, helps us understand that our greatest problem is not parliamentarian procedure. It is our operative theology. I am sure the song was meant as a call to action, but it demonstrates how confident we are in our abilities to bring the Reign of God without first fully submitting to the Lord of Hosts. It would be far better for us to be humbled by the beauty of Christ, overwhelmed by the power of the Creator and overcome by the love of the Holy Spirit. Such an encounter with the Triune God, along with lowered expectations of the fully fallen human aspects of the church, would allow us to enter General Conference sessions with a spirit of meekness that would enable our conversations.
I find it so strange that I have come away from this experience with a deeper love of the church, given how little was accomplished compared to the time and money spent on our gathering. I love the church, and the UMC, not because it has met my expectations or is worthy of my adoration and praise. I love it because it has demonstrated its brokenness, its need for love, and how lost it would be if it were not for God’s consistent grace. I love the church for one main reason this week after General Conference: Jesus loves it, and laid down his life for the church, including a sinner like me. My love of the church is a Lordship issue. To do otherwise, even to give myself over to cynicism, would be to violate the command to “love each other the way I have loved you.”
General Conference remains an important gathering that is a cornerstone of UM polity. Future delegates should be discerned and discerning. But it is not a meeting in which we should entrust our deepest aspirations and hopes. For those, we should look to Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” This is not a rejection of the UMC or skepticism of General Conference. It is simply a right-sizing of its importance in the daily ministry of millions of laypersons and pastors around the globe whose current disappointment in their denomination is more than offset by the power of the love and the calling of Christ in their lives.