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Living in bittersweet days

Bittersweet grows in Michigan

The Michigan Conference Board of Laity met and Lay Leader Anne Soles described it as bittersweet. “Bitter that we talk of uncertainty. Sweet in the pulse of new ideas for the pews.”

ANNE SOLES
Lay Leader, Michigan Conference

Our neighbor left for Arizona as the leaves turned and fell. So, it took a while to realize that spreading across the top of their natural hedge beside the stream was a topping of bittersweet berries.  The woody vine had climbed up to the top of the hedge and now was the only spot of color in the yard.

Solanum dulcamara, the Latin name, made me think immediately of Dulcolax and colonoscopies. The berries are poison. But a few clippings given to my 99-year-old painter friend brought a big, “oh, how wonderful,” and a little commiseration between us that she wasn’t painting flowers anymore.

And our January Michigan Conference Board of Laity meeting. Bittersweet.

We came from all points of the mitten– John Preston represented the upper hand and Wynne Hurlbut part of the cuff. And we felt more connected, more effective in our work and planning and more in touch with laity in the pews and the connecting structures of conference and district than in any prior meeting.  “Pews and Public News” to credit Jody Pratt when talking about what to write.

Vibrant Congregations is May’s Annual Conference theme. Decisions, reviews of ministry possibilities, and our charge to find Lay Equalization members representing all corners and all aspects of the state meant Annual Conference planning filled our meeting.   

The agenda was full of sweet projects. And tinged with caution and with uncertainty over the talk of separation. Bishop Gary E Mueller of Arkansas Annual Conference wrote:

“I love the United Methodist Church and the way of being Christian it shares. But ultimately, local congregations matter more than denominations—even our beloved United Methodist denomination. People need your local church, not a denomination.  Your community needs your local church, not a denomination. And most importantly, Jesus needs your local church, not a denomination”

As a Board of Laity, we could feel the press of strengthening our local congregations with the connections between us and among us. Bitter that we talk of uncertainty. Sweet in the pulse of new ideas for the pews. Following the discussion among District Lay Leaders, United Methodist Women and Men and Lay Servants that day went like this:

Lay participation at Annual Conference: In addition to members selected by each congregation, we are charged with finding Lay Equalization Members from each district.  We look at geography, at rural-urban congregations, at ethnic congregations and especially at young adult and youth members. Some districts are complete. Some are working towards a full complement. These delegates will fill out the plenary session and help the Annual Conference make representative decisions.

New Member Lunch:  if you are new to Annual Conference, Thursday lunch is where your questions are answered. There are table-by-table discussions of what to expect, where to park, who can answer questions and a host of other issues. When you reach Governor’s Hall and the first discussions, you need to be “up to speed” and comfortable to discuss and to vote.

Workshops:  Laity will gather on Thursday afternoon for Lay Orientation. We seem to fill the hall and so can greet Northern Skies members, Lay Servant Ministries, United Methodist Women, and Bishop Bard. With the mechanics out of the way, we will break for workshops this year:   Fresh Expressions, Guest Ready/Hospitality, Lay Servant Ministries around the Districts, and Single Board Governance are the choices. Each congregation has this chance to bore down on a practical topic to take home.

Bishop Mueller in his article went on to say

“This means the single most pressing task is enabling your church that has a unique location, is filled with a unique group of people and possesses a unique history to become the church Jesus wants you to be—a vital congregation that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.”

In devotions starting Board of Laity, we looked at Paul talking to the Corinthians, his church always in need of his attentions. In the first and second chapter of Corinthians II Paul writes: It isn’t that we are trying to control your faith, but we are working with you for your happiness because you stand firm in your faith. So I decided that, for my own sake, I wouldn’t visit you again while I was so upset. If I make you sad, who will be there to make me glad when you are sad because of me?  

Bittersweet.

And so, in our planning, we talked about comforting congregations and other members. We talked about fairness and even-handed information about the unknowns ahead of us. We recommend the Conference website on General Conference 2020. We lifted the FAQ’s of the new Protocol or separation discussion noted in the Wall Street Journal and CNN.  Good questions for any proposal coming to us. We talked about fairness and good process for Lay Member selections. And prayers for our own Michigan General Conference 2020 delegates.

It was both a bitter and a sweet gathering. In closing we looked at an old copy of Holling Clancy Holling’s children’s book, Paddle to the Sea. A boy on the north bank of Lake Superior sets his little carved canoe on a snowy hillside for an adventure through our Great Lakes. “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle to the Sea.” And many hands helped on the journey.

This Michigan IS a unique location, a unique group of people with a unique history listening to become the church Jesus wants you to be.

Solanum dulcamara has bright berries of celebration. And paints a picture of (thorny) hope.