There’s a lot I could say about the three days we spent last week in Roanoke, VA, but when I reflect on those three days, my mind keeps coming back to the people. Thousands of people showed up this past week for our denomination – a denomination that is currently going through a rocky season, but a denomination that we all so evidently love & care about, or else the Berglund Center would have been vacant last week. Right now is a difficult time for our denomination & there is a lot of work to be done, but people showed up last week to participate in that work because we we care about the direction in which we are going together, and that gives me hope. The fact that people are showing up to do difficult but necessary work for our Church, inviting the Holy Spirit to do a new thing, gives me hope.
These people I write about today are the people who make up the Virginia Conference – these are just some of the many people who make up the body. These are my fellow brothers & sisters in Christ. These are my friends, my pastors, my church family members, my Facebook friends that I finally got to meet face-to-face. These are people willing to weather the stormy season, endure, & work through these difficult times for the sake of a better United Methodist Church. These are people I am proud to know & be in ministry with.
A lot of people entered into this time of annual conference with anxious hearts, worried about where we are & where we’re headed. I know personally I’ve been plagued by a lot of fear recently, and one of the things that elicits a lot of fear for me right now is, indeed, everything going on with our denomination. When people ask me how I’m feeling as I prepare for seminary, I typically say something along the lines of, “I’m equally excited as I am terrified” and one reason I sometimes feel terrified is because I don’t feel capable of being called for such a time as this. I’ve written about this before, but it’s a hard time to be entering seminary as an aspiring United Methodist pastor (not that seminary is ever easy). I could not be more thrilled to being going to seminary – its been a dream & a goal of mine since freshman year of college. I’m called and I thank God he has placed a call upon my life that’s not dependent on my feelings. But with that, the unknown definitely scares me a bit. This is the denomination that I’m (Lord willing) going to be ordained in and the picture of what our church will look like when that happens is becoming less & less clear. & The weight of everything our denomination is going through is a lot to process, to think about, to talk about.
I don’t feel capable of being called for such a time as this. But I am called.
And I’m right – I am not capable. At least not on my own. And that’s the key – I’m not on my own, and annual conference reminded me of thatI’m not alone like I often lead myself to believe I am. I’m not alone in being worried about our denomination. I’m not alone as I enter seminary. I’m not alone when I feel intimidated by the candidacy/ordination process. I’m not alone as I pursue my call to ministry during a time like this. Annual conference this year, in the midst of everything, reminded me the importance of our people – and when I say, ‘our people’, I mean the people in each of our lives who support us, love us, challenge us, & walk with us – our cloud of witnesses, as Bishop Tracy Malone talked about during the ordination service. As I’ve been preparing to enter seminary, I’ve realized just how important my ‘cloud’ is, and have slowly but surely been establishing who those people are around me who will be there when I need them to be (& when I think I don’t). This was a beautiful reminder for because I have a hard time being vulnerable & an even harder time allowing people to speak into my life – a lot of that has to do with my experience at Liberty where people I trusted took advantage of my trust & openness in order to manipulate and attempt to convince me my call from God was wrong in the eyes of God & sinful. But I am grateful for the people who, since then, have gently walked into my life & offered me a new model of what it means & looks like to be ‘my people,’ my ‘cloud.’ I got to see some of those awesome people at conference last week & it was with a deep sigh of relief I remembered I am not alone – we are all in this thing called ministry together. The thousands of people who showed up this past week are also worried, are also scared, are also in this difficult season of unknown, discernment, & work. We all didn’t show up last week because we know the answer or are fearless in this. We showed up because we believe in a God who is greater than what we are capable of doing on our own, or even all together. He is alive & at work, friends – in this, & in everything. As Dr. Kevin Watson reminded us, “it is not our job to save the Church – if that were the case, it would be saved by now!” God is a God mighty to save – mighty to save us, our denomination, & our world. And I am grateful – I am grateful for a God who invites us & assures us that we can have wholehearted dependence on him, because he’s not going to budge – he is our greatest support, our Rock, our safe place. He is our hope.
I have hope for our denomination moving forward and that may or may not sound naive, but I have this hope because of (1) the thousands of people who showed up & continue to show up to do the grunt work for the sake of a better UMC and (2) because God is in the midst of this all, & we find glorious hope in him. God is working even when it feels as though we’re never going to find a way forward. He is moving in the our midst and has the power to do what none of us even all combined could ever do in our local church, our communities, our denomination, our lives, our world. We have a future – the UMC has a future – even if we can’t see exactly what that future will look like yet. We lose sight of this hope & we lose sight of what’s possible when we get to talking with one another & discussing these issues forgetting about or ignoring the Holy Spirit’s involvement. Unity & genuine love (agape!!) happens when we invite the Holy Spirit into these conversations, these conferences, these studies, these moments of prayer for our Church.
I certainly glimpses of unity throughout our time at conference, as though we were truly one with each other. I saw hope in the people & in the ways in which God chose to work in our midst.
When a young girl got up onto the stage to deliver the scripture reading but became overwhelmed by stage fright, unable to get the words out, all of us in that Berglund center joined together with her in one voice to read the scripture aloud. It was the most beautiful, unified sound. When over 300 people woke up at the crack of dawn to run/walk/bike a 5k the morning of our final day at conference, there was joy, unity, & so much energy for it being 6am, and I saw & felt encouragement from each person I encountered before, during, & after the run. It was so much fun and were able to let go of the seriousness & formality of conference for the sake of simply running and having fun, full of childlike joy, which isn’t something you always get to do during a conference. There were these awesome little kids handing out crafts (papermade kites) at the end of the 5k, and afterwards I stood with 3 district superintendents and my home church’s new pastor as we each shared our thoughts about our kites (put these people together, you’re bound to get goofiness). During conference I saw & reunited with new & old friends, pastors, and people who have influenced my life in huge ways, people I share the same views with & people I do not share anything in common with except for our identity in Christ (and that’s fine!) I had the joy & privilege of serving Communion during closing worship on Saturday and have to say, there is just something so powerful & special about serving the body & blood of Christ to our sisters & brothers, especially during such a time as this, perhaps because we’re reminded that Jesus died for all of us – white, black, brown, straight, gay, bi, English, Spanish, old, young, tall, short…
The whole weekend, and especially while serving Communion, I couldn’t stop thinking about these words we find in the Great Thanksgiving – by your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Those words were ringing in my ears – and being one doesn’t mean we have to be the same, think the same, live the same, speak the same. It just means we have the same one mission in mind – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, & to love our God & love our neighbors the whole entire time we are doing so.
So, what do we do? If we are so sad to see our denomination in this state, what do we do about it?
I’m definitely not going to sit here and claim to have a definitive answer. But I think we keep showing up – we keep showing up before God to seek his strength, his wisdom, his guidance, his counsel. We keep showing up for our Church, for our denomination, and we don’t just give up on it because times are hard right now. We keep asking questions, we keep having discussions with one another, we keep LISTENING to one another, we remain teachable, and we keep our hearts, our minds, & our doors open to all people. We keep inviting his Spirit to flood our conferences, our conversations, our churches. We keep reminding ourselves & one another that GOD can work in this season & do so much more than we can even imagine, in order to build his Kingdom.
It is work, but it’s important, necessary work – it’s work that is required in order to witness a better United Methodist Church, that makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
May we always strive to be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.