General Conference: Day Ten


This will probably be my final post until after I return home. Tomorrow is the final day of General Conference, and I am uncertain of what tomorrow’s schedule will bring. I am deeply grateful for all of you who have experienced this journey alongside me in one way or another.

This morning, Diane Miller led our Western Pennsylvania delegation in a time of prayer and sharing, inviting us into the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who pondered in her heart the profound mystery of what God was accomplishing in her life. As a delegation, we then had an opportunity to discuss some of our lingering hurt and sadness from yesterday and to join together once again in a spirit of prayer and unity. I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to “do life” with these faithful women and men from Western Pennsylvania.

During our morning worship service, Bishop John Yambasu (of the Sierra Leone episcopal area) proclaimed a message that left me feeling powerfully convicted in my frequent failure to live in a spirit of authentic community:

We sit together but are afraid of each other, so that we become enemies in the pew. I am fed up! The church doesn’t just need open hearts. We need COMPASSIONATE hearts! We don’t just need open minds. We need ENGAGED minds! Our church doors don’t just need to be open. They need to be DISMOUNTED and DISMANTLED so that people who aren’t like us can find their way in.

I heard in his words a clarion call to the kind of radical hospitality that dares to recognize the countenance of Jesus in the faces of even the most marginalized and disenfranchised souls.

As part of morning worship, we commissioned twenty-nine missionaries for the important work of spreading the Gospel throughout the world. It was nothing short of inspiring to see this large group of women and men responding to the call of Jesus Christ in a risky, sacrificial, and life-altering way.

A highlight of our day was a brief but joyful celebration of the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women in the United Methodist Church. It reminded me of how grateful I am to be part of a denomination that has lived into the Pentecostal reality that both sons AND DAUGHTERS are now gifted to prophesy. For sixty years, our part of the body of Christ has affirmed that ordination is dependent, not upon gender, but upon giftedness and call. It is heartbreaking that it took as long as it did. It is even more heartbreaking that some people in our churches continue to resist the idea of women clergy. Today’s celebration, however, was a loud “Amen!” to the amazing things that God continues to do through our church’s clergywomen.

It was an important but slow and laborious day of legislation, the spirit of which was much better than yesterday. We made our way through a good bit of legislation, but not nearly enough. Practically speaking, there are simply far too many petitions under the scrutiny of far too many people, all of whom desire to offer meaningful opinions that cannot be adequately accommodated by our limited time.

Petitions have come before General Conference in the past calling for a limitation on who can submit legislation (in an effort to produce a more manageable workload). But such efforts have been consistently rejected. Therefore, we are left with a noble but severely limited machinery called General Conference that cannot practice a thorough stewardship over its own agenda. I do not offer this perspective as a hopeless and bitter lament, but as a prayer for a more strategic and efficacious methodology. Having attended the last four General Conferences, I have become increasingly aware of how petition-management and its related fatigue often prevent us from giving our most attentive and energized minds to matters that demand nothing less than our collective discernment and prayer. I need to ponder this situation further so that I might move beyond complaining about the problem and become part of the solution, whatever that solution might be.

Since yesterday’s recommended “way forward” (offered by the Council of Bishops) was adopted by the General Conference, all petitions related to human sexuality have been deferred until a later date—meaning that the church’s current teaching on human sexuality is maintained for now as we move toward further conversation and discernment in the future. Even with these petitions removed from the conference’s agenda, we are still painfully overloaded. Much legislation, I fear, will have to go unaddressed.

Perhaps our most significant legislative decision today was to end the official relationship between the United Methodist Church and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The rationale for the severing of this relationship is the conviction among many that the RCRC is out of alignment with our church’s nuanced teaching related to both abortion and the sanctity of unborn life. I had hoped that some other alternative organization would be recommended as part of the legislation (to ensure our denomination’s continued affirmation of the ministries of counseling, advocacy, and health services to women in need). Unfortunately, no such recommendation was included in the legislation. I am hoping that the United Methodist Women will help us to find our way into a new and healthy institutional partnership in the days ahead.

A couple of personal highlights: I was really proud of my friend, Rev. Bob Zilhaver, for the work that he did today in making two important and detailed amendments to legislation related to pension matters. Bob’s mind for complex legislation and his refusal to settle for anything less than integrity have always been a great gift to the church. He did essential work on our behalf today, and I am grateful for his willingness to stand in that particular gap.

Finally, many of us had the opportunity to conclude the day with our friend and fellow Western Pennsylvania delegate, Rev. Sung Shik Chung, at the Korea Night Dinner. It was a special opportunity to learn more about the rich history of Korean United Methodism and to celebrate the vibrant and vital ministries of our Korean sisters and brothers. Sung’s ministry in Western Pennsylvania (and beyond) is a profound blessing for all of us. Sitting at his table this evening was an honor that I will never forget.

General Conference: Day Nine


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.

General Conference: Day Eight


In our early morning Western Pennsylvania delegation meeting today, Vicki Stahlman led us in a time of prayer and reflection. Vicki spoke to us about the servant leadership of Jesus and invited us to remember the servant leaders whose leadership has blessed us over the course of our lives. I immediately thought about my dad, who died in 2011, whose birthday is today, whose presence I dearly miss, and whose spirit of servanthood nurtured me in a thousand different ways.

Just before morning worship in plenary, we recognized and welcomed several ecumenical guests (guests from other Christian denominations) who have graciously been present with us for part of our conference. The presence of these leaders from other faith traditions is a tangible reminder to us that United Methodism is but one part of the body of Christ.

In our morning worship, Bishop Ivan Abrahams (General Secretary of the World Methodist Council) preached a multi-layered and richly prophetic sermon about the subversive and countercultural nature of God’s kingdom: “God’s kingdom stood opposed to all the other kingdoms,” Bishop Abrahams declared, “including the kingdom of Caesar. The early church dared to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that his Lordship demands the loyalty and full subordination of all those who will allow that Lordship to hold authority over their lives.” The Bishop then challenged us to be perpetually mindful of the difference between the Jesus of Caesar/Constantine and the Jesus of Palestine: “We need to be wary of empire, because it seeks a loyalty than only belongs to Jesus of Palestine—not Jesus of Caesar or Jesus of Constantine. To follow the Jesus of Constantine is to be seduced by the political power of the day and comfortably settled in the status quo…To follow the Jesus of Palestine is to become a counterculture to the world that seeks to own us.”

I was profoundly moved by this morning’s celebration of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, the 200-year history of which brightly illuminates God’s ability to overcome the sin of racism with a creative and redemptive grace that leads to new possibilities and new expressions of the kingdom. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is now 3,000,000 members strong with 7,000 congregations in 40 countries. As Bishop Gregory Palmer phrased it in this morning’s celebration, “We are blessed because of who you are, our sister church, and we recognize and celebrate that we are part of the Methodist family with you.”

We did important legislative work today at General Conference. Among other actions, we addressed legislation that called for a limited tenure for our bishops. (The petition received majority support from the delegates, but not the necessary two-thirds majority required for constitutional change.) We also approved legislation that makes it possible for ordained Deacons to be authorized by their bishops to preside at the celebration of the sacraments in their places of ministry during times of sacramental urgency and need.

At the heart of today’s proceedings was a brief statement by Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, related to the divisions in the church over human sexuality and Biblical authority. Bishop Ough, with a tone of quiet resolve, acknowledged the “collective broken heart” in our denomination. He further acknowledged that the situation is made even more complicated because the bishops themselves “are not united on these issues.” Bishop Ough’s statement concluded with a call for unity and a declaration that the bishops “are NOT advancing or advocating any plan for separation or reorganizing the denomination.”

For many of us, myself included, the Bishop’s statement felt like the well-intentioned offering of an over-the-counter salve to a patient with a sucking chest wound—a frustrating missed opportunity to cast new vision and breathe new life into a church that cannot currently see the way forward. I love our bishops, and I am grateful for their faithful ministry in our midst. This morning’s episcopal statement, however, left me feeling as though the Council of Bishops had backed away from a crucial opportunity to lead with creativity and boldness. (In our bishops’ defense, however, how fair is it for delegates to expect them to lead with boldness while at the same time entertaining legislation that limits their tenure? It’s tantamount to saying “Lead…but only for a little while, and only in a way that makes us cheerfully comfortable.” Such legislation reflects a lack of confidence in our bishops that is hardly conducive to the generation of visionary episcopal leadership.)

Interestingly, later in the day, a General Conference delegate, not content with Bishop Ough’s statement, rose to request more intentional and proactive leadership from our bishops, including the articulation of a clear vision for how a divided church might be able to move forward. Said the delegate, “A call for unity without a clear path toward it will never get us there.” His sentiments were affirmed by the majority of the delegates.

It was quite a significant moment, and I wish all of you could have been there: The General Conference, pleading with the church’s bishops to cast a vision that might help us to find our way through our brokenness. We shall see what comes of this in the days ahead. A plan for amicable separation? A plan for restructuring that permits both conservatives and liberal/progressives to find their place in the denomination in a way that prevents them from compromising their convictions? A special called session of the General Conference in the next couple of years to clarify and interpret the plan? Some other option? Time will tell. The only thing that’s clear at this point is that status quo is no longer sustainable.

A final word about the day, and it is a sincerely positive word: I was really proud of Bishop Thomas Bickerton, our episcopal leader in Western Pennsylvania, who presided at one of our legislative sessions this morning. The leadership that Bishop Bickerton offered today was gracious, comprehensively attentive, and wonderfully competent. General Conference delegates in a fractured church are an exceedingly tough crowd, and Bishop Bickerton led and loved us with great care. His ministry today was a highlight for which I was abundantly grateful, and Western Pennsylvania’s United Methodists would have been greatly pleased with the manner in which their Bishop presided.

General Conference: Day Seven


One of Western Pennsylvania’s lay delegates to General Conference, Rich Hoffman, led our delegation early this morning in a time of prayer and reflection. Rich asked us to ponder a moment in 1 Kings 19 in which Elijah discovered that God was not in the great wind. Nor was God in the earthquake and fire. Rather, as Elijah learned, God was present in the “sheer silence” that followed the spectacle and drama. We began the day by being still together in that sheer silence, so that we might listen for the life-giving whispers of God that so often resonate in the chambers of our souls when we pause to listen deeply.

During our opening worship time, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey (from the Louisiana Episcopal Area) preached a powerful word on Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (found in Matthew 22). In that parable, the King extends a wedding banquet invitation to just about everyone (after those who were originally invited fail to respond). Bishop Harvey suggested that that’s how God’s banquet really is. It is an open table to which everyone is invited. “God’s banquet becomes a world where loved ones are set free,” she proclaimed, “where addiction gives way to recovery, where acts of violence give way to the pursuit of peace, where women no longer feel the need to sell their bodies, and where all find their place at the banquet table…That’s the banquet that Jesus makes possible—a banquet that turns the world upside down!” Bishop Harvey concluded the sermon with an image that remains in my thoughts: “So put on your grace-lined banquet robe, because the Host is expecting you!”

So, what does wearing a “grace-lined robe” mean? Probably many things. For me, at the very least, it means living with an expanding awareness of the fact that every breath I breathe is an unmerited gift, and that my salvation is grounded in Christ’s atonement rather than my accomplishment. I have been thinking about that truth all day long.

To be honest, today’s legislative work was exhausting in its tedium. What we accomplished was important: We elected the new members of the Judicial Council (which has been described as United Methodism’s “supreme court”), the University Senate, and the Commission on General Conference. We approved portions of what is known as “the consent calendar.” (The “consent calendar” is a collection of petitions or resolutions that received an overwhelming support for the prevailing vote during last week’s legislative committee meetings. By approving the consent calendar, we act on many petitions and resolutions in a single vote, thereby expediting the legislative process by preventing us from having to deal with every petition and resolution individually.) We had important conversation about the possibility of translating our Book of Discipline and our Book of Resolutions into the languages spoken in our Central Conferences. So, our work today was important in its scope. But technological challenges, methodological confusion, and the slow process of various elections made it a slow and draining day.

One of the highlights of the day for me was the celebration of Zimbabwe’s Africa University, a United Methodist-supported institution, the work of which continues to provide life-changing education for thousands of African men and women. The Africa University Choir blessed us this afternoon with its wonderful ministry of music. The choir members’ music and the spirit with which they offered it was, for me, the most joyful and enlivening part of a long and challenging day.

Something difficult but significant happened today. In the mid-afternoon, a group of nearly 100 United Methodists facilitated an unscheduled demonstration. They paraded through the plenary room, chanting “Black lives matter!” and carrying a banner that read, “All Black Lives Matter: bisexual, transgender, poor, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, disabled, women, men, youth and children.” As reporter Jessica Brodie described it,

 The marchers included members of various groups, including Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the  Reconciling Ministries Network and Love Prevails…They marched twice   around the floor, chanting, ‘No more hate’ and ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s  got to go.’ They ended at the center table for proclamation and song before marching out.

It was a moment that once again made clear the deep divide in our denomination over human sexuality in general and United Methodism’s stance on homosexuality in particular—a divide that will no doubt find further expression in upcoming legislative conversations.

Please, as you read my description of what transpired during today’s demonstration, I implore you not to allow yourself to become cynical, belligerent, or combative. Today’s demonstration, after all, came from the hearts of people who love Jesus dynamically and who believe wholeheartedly that the church’s current teaching on homosexuality is as harmful as it is misguided. Even if one disagrees strongly with their conclusions, one can at least be respectful of their deeply held convictions. I would greatly appreciate the avoidance of vitriolic debate in this medium (since I am already finding quite enough of that here in Portland). I describe today’s demonstration in detail only because I want you to understand with greater clarity the scope of what lies before us as a church.

During this afternoon’s demonstration, members of the Western Pennsylvania delegation, along with some guests, formed a circle, joined hands, and prayed silently. It was all we could think to do. The emotional intensity of the demonstration, I think, was starkly but meaningfully unsettling to all of us. For what did I pray in the silence? I prayed for a church that never loses its passion for both holiness and justice. I prayed for peace in our world, our nation, our church, and the plenary floor of General Conference. Most of all, I prayed that Jesus would continue to help United Methodism to find its way through our divisions in a manner that treats human lives with radical compassion; that honors Scripture with a spirit of attentive obedience; and that reflects a supernatural love that infuses even our most difficult relationships and conversations.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for praying. Thanks for being there.

Pentecost and Day Six of General Conference


It has been a day of rest.  A day of Sabbath.  A day without legislation and large crowds and layered conversations.  It is Pentecost, after all, and Pentecost is a time for pausing and allowing God’s Holy Spirit to make his rejuvenating and transformational presence known.  Tomorrow, we will re-enter the rhythms of legislative conversation and administrative responsibilities, which have their own significance.  Today, however, we step away from polity and protocol in order to allow the Holy Spirit to fall afresh upon our busy minds, our weary hearts, and our fragmented lives.

At this, the midway point in an eleven-day conference, my introversion has begun to organize a coup d’état on the rest of my temperament.  When that happens, crowds begin to feel claustrophobic.  Voices begin to lose their uniqueness.  Responsibilities begin to feel oppressively heavy.  The only doorway out of the exhaustion is prayerful solitude, which is precisely what I have experienced today.  This morning, I traveled to the 10:00 service of worship that was held in one of the ballrooms of the convention center.  A number of gifted and gracious souls led us in worship. The music there celebrated the Holy Spirit’s redemptive agency throughout history.  The Scripture and proclamation painted a vivid portrait of a God who breathes the Divine Breath into even the most painful segments of our journey.  The celebration of the Lord’s Supper brought me to tears as I looked around the room and saw people from different parts of the world, speaking different languages but partaking of one bread, one cup, one Spirit with a unifying gratitude.

The words on the front of this morning’s worship bulletin were these: “Come and Find the Quiet Center.”  It feels to me like the Holy Spirit met me there—right there in the “quiet center” where Father, Son, and Sprit experience a sweetly intimate fellowship with one another and with the souls that will dare to pause there and be still.

This afternoon has been wonderfully quiet and prayerful.  Apart from an enlivening conversation with Tara (whom I desperately miss), the only other voice to which I have attempted to listen is that of the One whose love does not depend upon my accomplishment and whose grace makes it completely unnecessary for me to hide my own brokenness.

This evening, I will gather with the members of Western Pennsylvania’s delegation at a nearby restaurant for a time of bread-breaking, laughter, and playful engagement.  It will be a wonderful way to step out of the solitude that I am currently experiencing.

As I reflect upon the Scripture from Acts 2 that I heard proclaimed this morning, it occurs to me that perhaps the most miraculous thing about what the disciples experienced at Pentecost was not the rush of wind or the flames or even the spontaneous languages. Perhaps the most miraculous thing was that a new era was being initiated—an era in which people would be valued and measured differently. Gender would no longer limit the full expression of a person’s giftedness, since, after Pentecost, both “sons AND daughters” would now prophesy God’s Truth. Age would no longer be a disqualifying factor, since both the very old and the very young would experience God’s “dreams and visions.” Humble servants and marginalized people, instead of being cavalierly dismissed, would now be recognized as precious souls through whom God could accomplish miraculous things. Herein lies the deepest miracle of Pentecost. It is the miracle of the Holy Spirit ushering the world into a wonderful but demanding new reality in which people are valued, not because of their gender, their age, their station, or their ability to dominate, but because of their giftedness, their sacred worth, and their willingness to be obedient to God’s life-altering call in Jesus Christ. Come, Holy Spirit!

General Conference: Day Five


My friend and colleague, John Seth, led our delegation early this morning in a time of prayer and reflection. John encouraged us to follow the prophet Jeremiah’s instruction to find “where the good way lies” and to “walk in it.”

At General Conference, my sense is that God’s “good way” often gets distorted by things like pace, tone, presuppositions, weariness, and woundedness. For me, then, God’s “good way” is the way of a carefully-managed tempo, a patient rhythm of prayer, and an ever-deepening attentiveness to the present moment, so that the people I encounter don’t slip through the cracks of my personal agenda and so that my own heart does not get lost in the frenzy of all that I want to accomplish.

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar preached at the morning worship service today, focusing, interestingly, on the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus. “Like the Wise Men of old,” Bishop Devadhar said at one point, “will we experience the epiphany of God’s glory in Christ and travel home by a different road? Will we open ourselves to the direction of God so that we might hear the Great Commission—‘Go, therefore…’—as a mandate to travel by an alternative pathway, declaring the Epiphany of Jesus Christ to the world?

An important part of our morning was the Young People’s Address, offered by Chelsea and Peter. Chelsea is a young adult from Delaware (now living in Michigan), who became Christian because of the radical hospitality of her United Methodist Church, where “everyone was welcomed and loved as image-bearers of God.” Peter is a young adult from the Republic of the Congo, who was raised Muslim, came reluctantly to a United Methodist Church for worship and, after a season, became a Christ-follower because of the pastor’s consistent preaching about “the transforming power of God’s forgiveness and grace.

As I experienced the Young People’s Address this morning, it became abundantly clear to me how desperately the church needs its young adults, whose leadership is urgent, whose presence and absence are all-too-often ignored, whose voices are waiting to be heard and valued, and whose love for Jesus is something dynamically grand. Peter, one of today’s presenters, described the life of Jesus in a compelling manner: “Jesus, the Savior of the world. Jesus, the Servant Leader. Jesus…the young adult.

I spent the rest of today (until 9:30 this evening) in my Discipleship legislative committee, sitting at a table with the three young people pictured above. We were able to finish our work. We vetted and perfected legislation that will come before the entire General Conference next week for final action. The legislation entrusted to our committee addresses several important matters: the creation of a new United Methodist Hymnal, available in multiple formats; reducing the risk of child abuse in the church; expanding young adult ministry in the United Methodist connection; addressing teen suicide; clarifying both the strategy and the language for the training and equipping of the laity; and fortifying the ministry of both the “Native American Comprehensive Plan” and the “Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century” initiative.

There were several moments throughout today’s work with the legislative committee when I experienced the joyful sense that I was participating in something meaningful and redemptive—something that would lead to the betterment of God’s church.

It felt good.

General Conference: Day Four


My friend and colleague, Rev. Amy Wagner, led our delegation early this morning in a time of prayer and reflection. Amy borrowed an image from Richard Rohr—specifically, the image of “replanting grace”—to move us more deeply into a contemplation of where it is in our own individual lives that we most desperately need a fresh “replanting” of God’s life-giving grace.

Personally, I am most in need of a grace-filled replanting in my pastoral ministry and leadership. More specifically, I long for a new experience of grace that will generate within me a healthier confidence in spite of my inadequacies; a healthier joy in spite of my self-doubt; and a healthier vision in spite of my deficiencies in leadership. My prayer this morning became something like this: “Replant within me, O God, a grace that will equip and inspire me to be a faithful pastor and friend to the exceptional congregation that I am privileged to serve.”

In today’s morning worship service, Bishop Sally Dyck offered a provocative sermon that challenged all of us to “go learn mercy.” What made Bishop Dyck’s sermon particularly noteworthy was her allusion to the fact that “only one category of people do we declare to be incompatible with Christian teaching” (a reference to the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s language about the practice of homosexuality). Bishop Dyck went on to express her desire that nothing (or no one) be singled out in the Book of Discipline as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and that we would all recognize our shared fallenness and our shared need for God’s saving grace.

For those who desire a change in the church’s current teaching related to homosexuality, Bishop Dyck’s proclamation came as a liberating word of profound hope. For those who support the denomination’s current position, however, the Bishop’s words sounded more like a stark dishonoring of a long-held denominational conviction related to the stewardship that one is to practice over his or her sexuality.

Immediately following Bishop Dyck’s sermon, I engaged in a conversation with some of my colleagues. The conversation focused on hard things: the difference between mercy and acceptance of a particular behavior; the crucial connection between compassion and accountability; the demanding relationship between the pursuit of holiness and the language of “incompatibility.” In many ways, the conversation I experienced today was a reflection of the larger struggle in which our denomination currently finds itself. Bishop Dyck’s sermon took us straight to the broken heart that beats somewhere in the middle of that struggle.

It may be that some of you who are reading this are deeply and meaningfully troubled and unnerved because you have never experienced a church gathering in which human sexuality was so specifically named and debated. Or maybe you are seeing disruptive social media sound bites in the Facebook news feed that leave you wondering why the church is focusing on these matters. If this describes you at all, please know that I am prayerfully standing alongside you in the journey; that Jesus Christ is still Lord of creation and head of the church; and that God will provide a way through that is grounded in radical patience, relentless compassion, and profound obedience. Hang in there, friends. Jesus is in the messiness of all of this, doing something creatively redemptive and good.

The highlight of the day for me was the Laity Address in which a number of beautifully-gifted lay persons reminded us afresh that, if there is going to be authentic revival in the church, it will come, not primarily through the clergy, but through the laity. It has always been that way throughout the church’s history. Particularly moving today was the testimony of 14-year-old Hannah Foust, who stood before the entire General Conference and described the manner in which her heart was drawn to the suffering of many people in the West African country of Burkina Faso, where sources of clean water are scarce. Through her individual efforts, Hannah has funded three wells in Burkina Faso, thereby providing clean water for thousands of people. Her motivation? “Jesus, the Living Water, has called me to change the world through funding wells. He brought people from the other side of the world into my heart, and he is using me to help them in their hurting.

Yep. That’s Jesus. That’s church.

I spent about six hours in my Discipleship legislative committee this afternoon. We acted on about 1/3 of the 52 petitions that have been entrusted to our care, which is an excellent start. The work that we did today as a legislative committee will lead to better and clearer training for lay persons who feel called to deepen their ministry. Beyond this, we clarified legislation that will hopefully result in life-changing ministry through the Native American Comprehensive Plan and an important initiative called “Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.”

The evening concluded with a beautiful banquet that celebrated the ministry of the laity of the United Methodist Church. As I sat at the banquet, weary and deep in thought, it occurred to me how blessed I am to know Jesus and to experience the remarkable things that he is doing through his people.

General Conference: Day Three

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At our delegation’s time of prayer and conversation early this morning, Paul Morelli read to us some weighty words from pastor and author A.W. Tozer. Tozer’s words ushered us into a contemplation of the perpetual nearness of the sin of idolatry. According to Tozer, idolatry is not limited to the glorification of a literal, physical idol. Rather, idolatry is the willingness to abandon our “lofty opinion of God” in order to settle for an image of God that somehow truncates the greatness, the holiness, and the beauty of God’s character. As Tozer puts it, “the first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.”

I wonder, where do I sell God short in the way I conceptualize God? In the way that I pray? In the way that I make God less than God in my deepest thoughts? Where have I slipped into a functional idolatry in the way I quietly reduce God to little more than a divine best buddy who winks at sin? Or a coldhearted observer who merely watching my suffering and pain from a distance? Such questions bring me to the heart of an idolatry that I commit all to frequently. This morning’s devotions helped me to name and confess it.

At our morning worship service in the plenary room, Bishop Christian Alsted, of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area, preached a powerful sermon that centered on Jesus’ encounter with a Roman centurion in Matthew 8—a soldier who is crying out to Jesus for a healing on behalf of his servant. Bishop Alsted suggested that this soldier’s counter-cultural willingness to reach out to Jesus is a Biblical reminder to us that the starting point of our deepest transformation, “is a willingness to subordinate ourselves to the revolutionary authority and healing power of Jesus Christ and to depend upon him for the healing of our church.” The Bishop’s words brought the Gospel afresh to my heart. It was an enlivening way to begin the day.

The remainder of the morning was devoted to a lengthy conversation and debate around proposed Rule 44, which I referenced in my last post. Just to remind you of the particulars, Rule 44, if approved, would have allowed delegates to experience extended time in smaller groups (no larger than 15 people) in which the more controversial legislation (such as legislation on human sexuality) might be discussed without the pressure of an immediate vote, thereby creating a safer and (hopefully) more hospitable context in which delegates might listen to one another’s hearts before having to legislate. It was a long and, at times, frustrating discussion about Rule 44 in today’s plenary—frustrating because of procedural quagmires and technological uncertainties related to who was permitted to speak and for what purpose. When it finally came to a vote, the Rule 44 proposal was rejected, 477-355.

Clearly, the General Conference was not ready to say a collective yes to this new process of discernment. While I respect the plenary’s decision, I am also saddened by it. The rejection of Rule 44 leaves me wondering where and when our denomination will create contexts for safe and desperately-needed conversations about hard and complex issues. At present, we seem to be far more eager to legislate our position than we are to listen to one another—far more passionate about casting a vote than we are about engaging the hearts of those who see things differently than we do. I love the United Methodist Church and it’s emphasis upon personal and social holiness, its devotion to personal piety and public acts of mercy, and its Christocentric vocabulary of grace. But there are issues before us that demand deeper conversations than a legislative plenary can accommodate. I was hoping that Rule 44 might have at least opened the door to such conversations, thereby enabling us to love one another more attentively, irrespective of the final legislative decision.

This afternoon and early evening were devoted to the work of the twelve legislative committees. All afternoon long, the 80-plus members of my legislative committee (Discipleship) were tremendously patient and gracious in dealing with one another as we settled into a shared process and a common approach.  It felt like the way church ought to be—a roomful of Jesus-followers who were willing to allow themselves to be slowed down for the sake of making certain that everyone present understood what was being said and what was being done.  It felt like a gathering of imperfect saints who were willing to subordinate expediency to relational attentiveness.  I was honored to be a part of it.



General Conference: Day Two


Our Western Pennsylvania delegation began the day together rather early with a time of prayer in which my friend and colleague, Pastor Bob Zilhaver, offered an important word to us about the hard, sacrificial, and redemptive work of forgiveness. In many ways, Bob’s reflection was an excellent preparation for today’s morning worship in plenary, which was, at its essence, a communal time of confession and repentance. It was a kairotic experience for me as I sat in that crowded plenary room, brought the profundity of my sin to the foot of the cross, and wept over both the gravity of my personal transgressions and the enormity of God’s forgiveness. I can’t help but wonder how many others had a similar experience.

Bishop Gregory Palmer then offered what I received as an exceptionally compelling Episcopal Address, which was as prophetic as it was engaging and as challenging as it was insightful. Most striking to me about Bishop Palmer’s address was his description of sanctification as “an entire life, humbled and completely delivered from our hubris and our nagging sense of self-sufficiency.” He then boldly called the General Conference to embrace its deepest purpose while at the same time rejecting misguided impulses: “We are not here in Portland to wallow in unbridled doubt, fear, and cynicism…or to lick our institutional wounds or to fixate on our shortcomings and struggles. Rather, we are here to invest ourselves completely in the discernment of the work, the ministry, and the dynamic future of what God desires for the part of the Body called the United Methodist Church.”

Bishop Palmer concluded his address by daring us not to settle for shallow or superficial relationships in the ministry of the church: “Have our relationships in the church become so superficial that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to go back and apologize for?!” His words awakened within me a deeper desire for a church where people stubbornly refuse to remain in the realm of anemic politeness and instead opt for the riskier, messier, and holier territory of heart to heart engagement and relational authenticity.

This afternoon was devoted to what are known as the General Conference legislative committees.  Every delegate to General Conference is part of one of twelve legislative committees, each of which does a substantial amount of work in discussing, amending, and perfecting the thousands of petitions that come before the General Conference. Think of it this way:  Without the work of the legislative committees, the plenary of General Conference would have to give detailed attention to every single petition, which would demand an additional two weeks of conferencing! The legislative committees are what help the General Conference to prioritize and administer its legislative work.  I am a part of the Discipleship legislative committee, the responsibility of which is to care for a variety of proposals concerning the language, strategy, and disciplinary paragraphs related to our denomination’s disciple-making ministries.

My day concluded with a three-hour period of training that will enable me to become a small group facilitator for a newly-proposed process of group discernment. This new process (outlined in the proposed “Rule 44”) will allow delegates to experience extended time in smaller groups (no larger than 15 people) in which the more controversial legislation (such as legislation on human sexuality) might be discussed without the pressure of an immediate vote, thereby creating a safer and (hopefully) more hospitable context in which delegates might listen to one another’s hearts before having to legislate.

What complicates this matter is that Rule 44 is not without some controversy of its own and will be voted on by plenary tomorrow. If Rule 44 is not passed, then I just spent three hours being trained for something that will not occur. No matter what happens with proposed Rule 44, however, the training that I experienced tonight will help me to be a better listener and a more competent bridge-builder in every segment of my discipleship. I am honored to have been asked to serve as a small group facilitator.

Personally, I am intrigued by Rule 44. It may have the potential to provide for delegates a unique opportunity to recognize the personhood and integrity of the people standing on the other side of the proposed legislation. Even better, it might just help us to recognize that the unity we share in Jesus Christ is far more expansive than our divisions.