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Reflections from under the surface

Will General Conference be a Mount Saint Helens or a spring rush of multiple streams that renews? 

General Commission on Religion and Race

“Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching …  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, …”  Acts 15:1-2 (NRSV)

Dissension around church practices has been a part of the fabric of the whole church since our very beginnings.  As we read the Book of Acts we see it in the newly forming local churches, across regions and between key leaders.  Yet, even with all these “fightings within” we are still here.  We are many denominations worldwide, and in each of our neighborhoods.  We are complex and God still works on us so that we might be a source of transformation and new life in our local communities across the world.

We just celebrated Pentecost in many of our local churches, hopefully with great vibrancy and colorful paraments and banners.  I enjoyed seeing some of the photos on social media even while I am here in Portland.  Many of our Michigan local churches brought confirmands into full membership and welcomed other new members.

Here in Portland at the 2016 General Conference we have participated in daily expressions of worship and prayer.  New missionaries, new deaconesses and new initiatives are being brought forth.  New clarity for our shared work is taking place.  Yet, under the surface many of us have felt the growing pressure and the dissension around how we will share our communal life in the midst of differences.

United Methodists from Michigan pause for prayer at the beginning of what promised to be a stressful day of legislation at the 2016 General Conference. ~mic photo/Mark Doyal

On several sunny days this past week I could see the peak of Mount Saint Helens from my hotel room window.  At first I could not be sure which peak it was.  It was snow covered in the distance, yet I could tell it had a somewhat flat top rather than the sharp peak of some of the other magnificent peaks in the area.  When I had opportunity to go out to dinner with my niece who lives in Portland I described the massive outcropping of earth to her and she confirmed it was most likely Mt. St. Helens.  Over the past couple of days I have been contemplating how this once majestic symbol of the power of the formation of the earth might be symbolic of this season in the life of our United Methodist Church.  While this peak is still inspiring, some of us will remember the massive volcanic explosion in 1980 that lowered the summit from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet.

This is my fifth general conference.  My work has primarily been to offer myself “beneath the surface”.  I have monitored, written legislation and legislative talking points, collaborated on writing the daily monitoring reports for the Daily Christian Advocate, etc.  I am here as an official part of the General Commission on Religion and Race staff team in 2016.  As such, I listen for the pulse of what is going on, track legislation that will impact the relevancy and diversity of our Church, and am the initial daily draft author of the Vital Conversations Report of GCORR in the DCA for the gathered delegations.  Each day we seek to offer ways to equip and invite delegates to be in authentic relationship and dialogue as they make decisions together.  It has given me a great opportunity to interact with delegates, visitors and advocates from local churches and extension ministries across the worldwide connection of our Church.

Yet this fifth time in this gathering I sense that things are different.  As we entered this second week of general conference I was very mindful that many here in this conference have been almost expecting the eruption that could take the top off of our connection and bring considerable devastation in its path.

“As we entered this second week of general conference I was very mindful that many here in this conference have been almost expecting the eruption that could take the top off of our connection and bring considerable devastation in its path.”

I do not say this in a pessimistic way, though such underlying pressure saddens me deeply.  Like many of our Michigan clergy and laity I have given my entire adult life to strengthening, broadening and transforming our Church so that we might help transform the world in God’s grace.  The idea of the tension between extremes exploding has been simmering and these next few days will be telling.

I originally wrote this late Monday night and into early Tuesday morning.  After listening to the concerns and frustrations of multiple colleagues, and following late night breaking social media postings I anticipated an announcement from our Council of Bishops this Tuesday morning as we gathered in the convention center.  Bishop Bruce Ough, the new President of the Council of Bishops, offered one of the most heartfelt statements I have heard in some time.  Like many, my heart was moved and my soul reassured.  Some have been suggesting it is now time to find a way to amicably divide our denomination.  My prayer these past weeks has been to ask for wisdom for us to find a way to not destroy our potential blessing to the world.

Will we be a Mount Saint Helens, or more like the spring rush of multiple streams that renews the channels of a river?

God is with us in this time and place!

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