I had the privilege of leading our delegation early this morning in a time of prayer and spiritual contemplation. We focused on Jesus’ sweet and beautiful invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Resting together as a delegation this morning felt supernaturally rejuvenating. It felt like Sabbath. Little did I know how much I would need that Christocentric “rest” throughout the day.
In this morning’s worship, Bishop James Swanson, resident Bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference, preached a hard but important sermon on the reality of evil. The Bishop warned us that “if we are going to go forth in Jesus’ name, there is a shadow figure that follows us. Because, if we go forth in Jesus’ name, evil gets after us and evil is personal…Evil is let loose on us as individuals…And any Christian is a candidate for being an agent of evil.”
Bishop Swanson suggested that the only way to stand against evil is to move beyond justification so that we might surrender to the journey of sanctification, allowing ourselves to be so inwardly occupied by the Spirit of Jesus that there is no room for evil to build a home: “This evil is like the old boll weevil from the South. It’s lookin’ for a home, y’all! But we know that evil is not co-equal with God. We know that greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world!”
Bishop Swanson’s preaching served as a stark and prophetic reminder that evil is not simply a philosophical construct. It is a very real and devastating absence of good that results in hurtful behaviors and distorted relationships, even in the hallways of General Conference.
I don’t quite know how to describe this painfully difficult day, and I do not have the energy to provide all the details. Why was the day painful? For many reasons. Our Bishops responded faithfully and boldly to the General Conference’s request for their leadership, offering to us a recommended “way forward” that includes the formation of a Commission to examine and reevaluate the pertinent Disciplinary paragraphs related to human sexuality and a deferral of all action on the petitions related to human sexuality until either the General Conference of 2020 or a special called session of the General Conference prior to 2020. The Bishops’ recommendation very narrowly passed. The conversation around the recommendation bore witness to the theological and hermeneutical differences present on the plenary floor that can so easily lead to suspicion and mistrust in our relationships with one another. There were painful moments of accusation and miscommunication throughout the day. At times, it felt less like a sanctified church and more like a fragmented and dysfunctional family.
Making matters even more painful was the fact that, at one point in the afternoon, when some of our African delegates began to sing for the purpose of announcing their displeasure with some of the proceedings, an individual’s unconscionable racial slur was overheard by several delegates. While the articulator of the racial slur was confronted and rebuked, his language illuminated the continuing sin of racism in our midst and the brokenness in our church that Jesus Christ is still at work to redeem and heal.
There were many tears today over our agonizing divisions. Many opinions. Many words. Many heartfelt prayers and tender moments of engagement.
And there were signs of glorious hope. My friend Ann Jacob, the co-chair of the United Methodist Division on Ministries With Young People, stood at the microphone (with several young adults gathered around her) and read the beautiful “Statement of Unity” (adopted at the last United Methodist Global Young People’s Convocation), the conclusion of which includes this affirmation: “We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote our global unity as the United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ, rather than focusing only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Our young adults were the primary visionaries today, leading us all with their commitment to Jesus Christ and the unity of his holy church.
Another sign of hope was the impromptu meeting that the Western Pennsylvania delegation experienced during the morning break. For twenty-five minutes, we stood around a table and opened our hearts to one another, articulating our fears and frustrations, our hurts and hopes, our convictions and commitments. In our honest engagement with one another, it became abundantly clear to us how theologically diverse we are as a delegation. More importantly, it became abundantly clear to us how deeply we love one another. It made me think that our delegation might be poised to lead Western Pennsylvania and the entire denomination in casting a vision for a durable and Christ-centered unity that can accommodate our differences.
May it be so.