General Conference is amazing. I wish everyone could experience the best of conference — without necessarily sitting through the tedious and trying parts. But it is glorious to work side-by-side with men and women from around the globe. Even though we may not all agree (on much of anything) we are all brothers and sisters bound together in the love of God. This is a graphic microcosm of what we could be if we would only love each other a little bit more like God loves us. Oh, sure, there are some pushy people, some short-sightedness, and some uneasy tensions here, but these things pale when compared with the focus on God’s Spirit and power to unite us. There is a sense of possibility here — not so much on the plenary floor, but in the relationships and community encounters. We are here praying and singing and reflecting and — at this point — bringing out the best in one another.
A while ago, a very angry woman cornered me to tell me how damaging and destructive she thinks I am being in my criticisms of the denominational plans. I explained to her my thinking and motivations and I could see the muscles in her face relax. She finally shook my hand and told me that she found me “surprisingly reasonable.” Would that all encounters could end so amicably! We disagreed before, we disagree now, and we left our brief encounter both smiling and friendly. It is so nice to disagree in Christian love… we should try it more often.
At this point in our conference together, we are willing to trust. We are hearing messages of hope and potential. There is a feeling, albeit uneasy, that we are all on the same side. This won’t last — at least, it will be repeatedly tested and we will be found wanting from time to time. But there is a real hope that we can make progress. And isn’t that something to value and celebrate?
The vast majority of people at this conference have never heard of me and have no clue who I am. They don’t read the blog and they don’t know what I think or feel (or much care what I think or feel). A handful do know me, either personally or through reputation (“You’re the United Methodeviant,” one person quipped), and they like/approve of me. A very few know me and dislike me immensely, and they feel compelled to let me know. (Someone sought me out today and presented me with a small, green button with a single word on it: “unreasonable.” She thought of me, for some reason…) But I don’t believe that there is one single person here with whom I cannot have a productive, civil and respectful conversation. I truly do believe we can rise above our differences to do good work together. (We’ll see…)
One of the most fascinating aspects of this conference is conversation with representatives from the global church. A big deal is made about the “conservative theology” of our southern hemisphere neighbors, but I am finding them to be social justice progressives who make many of our more left-leaning brothers and sisters look like right-leaning moderates. Health care, poverty, government oppression, torture, war, civil unrest, gang violence, and other life-threatening concerns are primary with so many of our global delegates. For us to become a worldwide church, we are going to need to become much more political and devoted to the crusade for human rights. Justice may become the greatest mission focus in the decades to come.
We are here together, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but we are not here alone. The feeling of Holy Spirit and the deep devotion of kindred hearts is overwhelming. I believe many disenchanted and disheartened United Methodists would find great hope if they could only see the commitment with which the delegates are doing the work of the church. Truly, this is a glory to God. Legislation? Disciplinary revision? Roberts Rules? A glory to God? This time in Tampa is proof positive that God is greater than all our failings and limitations. Thanks be to God!
As our church in microcosm, we can be proud of our witness (so far) in Tampa.