On a cross-country train trip, Anne Soles learns that ministry and Annual Conference are related to planting, one seed at a time, with a dandelion or two along the way.
Lay Leader, Michigan Conference
“Each family knew where to find greens.”
When I asked around the table at the assisted living facility, three out of four had eaten dandelion greens as a child. Even John, the city boy, knew what we were talking about on a cold spring morning last week. Just thinking about that bitter taste — we went on to rhubarb next—took everyone back. “Get the early ones.” That was the advice given with a small, far-away smile.
I took a train trip in late April on the way to the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Picking up the train at Holland, I come down through Bangor, St Joe, and Michigan City to Chicago. The leaves were not out, some shrubs had color and every back yard—you see a lot of back-row America on a train—had a sprinkling of dandelions, even around the derelict steel mills at Burns Harbor.
From Chicago, we headed across Illinois, the corner of Iowa, into Missouri and Kansas on Train 3 going west, the companion to eastbound Train 4. The Super Chief travels to Los Angeles each day on a route very like Route 66 and eventually traces the Santa Fe Trail.
National Park Service volunteers came aboard in La Junta, Colorado and practiced their new script for summer travel to Las Vegas, New Mexico. Ranching, rainfall, mountains, and plants all explained. Thanks to them we saw mule deer, antelope and trail markers for the Santa Fe trail. Through their eyes, this barren landscape was a community – their home quite literally as they pointed out a ranch going by.
Coming from Michigan, having crossed the swollen Mississippi and Missouri rivers, this land seemed endless and dry. Any green meant a river–hard to be a tree on the plains. Indeed, no dandelions and few green fields.
The conference in Santa Fe brought lay leaders from around the country together hosted by the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. Our worship opened with the lay leader from Mountain Sky Conference –a professor and rancher from Grand Junction, CO—leading us through “planting.” “We choose to plant love”. “We choose to plant wisdom,” thinking about the challenges of the places where we plant.
Talking with her later at McCurdy Mission, she said they farmed with 7 to 10 inches of rain on average. They plant carefully and have learned specialized farming practices particular to their land. As the conference went on, we moved deeper into discussion about community and that planting of hope and love and wisdom in our own “fields.”
Desert Southwest talked about the challenge of immigrant families coming over the border to the churches in Yuma. North Carolina spoke about churches struggling with insurance deductibles in the face of unrepaired flood damage. Cal-Nevada talked earnestly of Paradise and the Camp Fire. And there were good stories, too—laundromat libraries in Philadelphia made us smile. In our diversity, we had experienced the planting—and the challenges to the planting—of love.
On the ground, we were united. On matters of governance and General Conference behind us and ahead of us (last February in St. Louis and next May in Minneapolis), not so much. It was challenging to have any kind of discussion about the future of the church, let alone a debate. We wanted to talk about community and the uniting themes of transformation; about planting seeds, really.
Concerning The United Methodist charge of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” Making disciples seems to be an individual thing. “Relationship building is not scalable,” said our key-note speaker, Jacki King. This planting is done seed by seed.
Conference over, reading my book on the train going east, I was struck by one of the reviewer’s comments on the back cover. “Yes, It’s the story of one Ohio town … [but it is] the stark choice between conformity and community.”
Conformity and community? That contrast brought me up short. Conformity and suburban Ohio made me think of manicured lawns – not a dandelion in sight. Community made me think of my own town, my own church’s growing commitment to our community. Centenary UMC’s Community Dinners have transformed the church, and small groups are reaching out with other ministries. We would be quick to tell you that a church in a resort area—this is Pentwater—is overwhelmed by visitors at times, and isolated by distance, resources, and weather at other times.
Like the ranchers on the Great Plains, we each plant with an eye to the season. Which brings me back to dandelions. Dandelions famously seed themselves all over everything! One bright bloom, a spot of color, and they are off in the wind. They shamelessly plant themselves anywhere from the White House lawn to a Chicago back alley. If I were sentimental, I’d point out that what was once a spring green for the table is now pursued with Round Up weed killer. As a gardener, I yank dandelions out by that long tap root.
Looking across the work of the laity as God’s people assemble for The Michigan Annual Conference, I see many gardeners. We like control, and so we like conformity.
Efficiency and predictability are all a part of our planning and output. As we plan policy and plant ministry, we must remember that we are dealing with choices for conformity — all things green and even — and community — seeing all the people, creating the relationships, planting with love.
And if you are feeling creative, go find a few fresh, green dandelion leaves for your salad. God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.