Home – Part 1

GC-Train(This comes from my sermon at St. Paul’s Helena on May 29, 2016 and I am posting it has part 1 of 2 of my reflections on General Conference.)

Some of you know that I spent May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon for the United Methodist General Conference. I was elected as the 1 Clergy/pastor delegate to serve alongside our 1 Lay/Church member delegate from our Yellowstone Conference which includes all United Methodist Churches in Montana, Northern Wyoming and 2 churches in Idaho. For 2 weeks we worked with delegates from around the global United Methodist Church including the United States Europe, much of the African Continent, the Philippines, and parts of Eurasia. It was an incredible experience and many of you have asked me to share parts of my experience with you all. I am going to work to do this in multiple ways, including today and next week in my sermons here at St. Paul’s and at Covenant. To help get you all a sense of what General Conference feels like and the pace at which it moves I am going to share with you all a 5-minute video that attempts to encapsulate the entire two weeks, because in the scheme of things the 14 hour days made it feel like it all flew by in about 5 minutes.

 

The video can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu1M89ho0y8

 

Each morning for two weeks I got up, got ready, and headed down to get on the light rail train in Portland. I would take a 10 minute ride from my hotel to the Oregon Convention center, which had been taken over by United Methodists. Each morning on the train I could almost guarantee the people I didn’t know, but that got on with us were United Methodists. You couldn’t always tell, but then you would catch a glimpse of their nametag. We all had them…so we were pretty identifiable.

 

I had some great conversations on the train with people who were in Portland to try and listen to God’s direction for our church and wanted to learn about others. However, I always knew when I got on the train and I had met a pastor of a large church. One way I knew it was they were generally male, which is still a big problem in our church. Very few women still lead some of our largest congregations. However, I also knew they were large church pastors because the second question after asking where I was from was, “How big is the church you serve?”

 

They got to skip over the question about whether I was a church member or a pastor because I had my collar on everyday. The collar is kind of a giveaway. They always asked the how big is your church question quickly. I always knew that the next 5 minutes at least would be listening all about their church. The reason is the big church pastors are taught that you have to be good at your elevator speech; in this case it was their train speech.

 

Now I need to be honest I am getting pretty good at my elevator speech too, I have my faults too. The crazy thing I realized during this time is how little these conversations about the size of churches really let me know about people. A few of the people I heard elevator speeches from I got to know better over the few weeks of General Conference, but it wasn’t by learning about the size of their ministry.

 

Today’s scripture is the Apostle Paul’s train speech about the work he is doing in the church, in fact we are lucky because we just get the first half today.

Galatians 1:1-12 CEB

1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

10Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

 

Paul’s message at the beginning of Galatians is one I continually struggle with because it always feels like he telling the people exactly what they must here, and not leaving room for dialogue. I have heard biblical scholars argue that conversation is not the point of Paul’s letters. Paul’s letters are meant to be one-way communication and therefore we have to take them as instructions about how we live out God’s kingdom on earth.

 

Paul made some mistakes though, and I think we have to own them to find the gospel in his message to us. So, I am following the suit of Biblical scholars that try to reconstruct Paul so we can have a conversation with him. This methodology helps us to comprehend that Paul’s ministry is rooted in the understanding thought he would see the end of time. For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection was not about the miracle of that alone, but was a sign of the coming of the end. He saw the role of the Jewish people as being the bearer of an invitation to all nations to become part of God’s holy family. That by inviting the others nations to join Israel in the work of connecting to God then the world would be made whole in time for the God’s coming.

 

There is some challenges in this thought. The world did not end. Some 2,000 years later we are still here even though Paul thought it would end in his lifetime. Often seeing Paul as some apocalyptic preacher is enough for me to sometimes want to toss Paul out the window on the shaping of my understanding. However, Paul despite his mistakes usually has some wisdom buried in his writing.

In the case of scripture wisdom is buried within Paul’s speech, wisdom about whose approval we seek: the world? or God? While Paul’s understanding of the end times didn’t happen the way many scholars believe he intended, he organized incredible communities of Christians to begin living differently, and seeking God’s wisdom. Paul encouraged the people to stop seeking worldly approval, but to seek the approval of God.

 

When we serve up elevator speeches to the world, it becomes hard to listen to what God is saying because we have to work to get our entire life story into 5 minutes. When we try to cram our agenda into that time it sometimes makes other people want to toss us out a window because they feel like there is no room for them. People want a chance to participate with us and learn with us, God wants a chance to participate with us and work with us, and not just hear us cram our agenda into every 5 minutes offered to us. Elevator speeches that cram God and other people out are all about gaining the approval of the world and very little about seeking God’s understanding.

 

The United Methodist Church like many other denominations continues to struggle with questions of Human Sexuality. Specifically our larger church is trying to understand its future in regards to accepting people of different sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life of the church, including ordination and marriage. St. Paul’s has prayerfully considered its future and continues to seek ways to open its doors to all people. The larger church has not come to this conclusion and continues to struggle through the conversation. Human sexuality becomes a challenging conversation to have across global cultural boundaries, through different languages, and amongst people who are entrenched in their opposition or support for change.

 

At General Conference this time the years long debate on human sexuality was to be moved into small group discussion, in hopes that we might find a way forward together as denomination. We were going to implement a process nicknamed “Rule 44” to help us discuss, understand each other by listening in small groups, and then have a small group of delegates take the data from these groups to create legislation that might help us work this all out together. This process was named “Rule 44” because it was the last rule added to a list of 43 other rules, but was based strongly on a process the Uniting Church of Australia used. The entire idea was to listen to each other, pray with each other, and to learn from each other as we sought direction for the church.

 

We didn’t pass the rule, and the entirety of the special process did not happen. In fact if you read news articles about General Conference it appears as if we passed the buck on the whole conversation. One article used the analogy that we gave the whole human sexuality debate a “cold shower.”[1] An analogy I think is too extreme and not very appropriate to what actually happened.

 

Those of us present saw that we didn’t trust each other enough to try a process like “rule 44.” We knew we had to seek another way to engage in this topic, or else the church was going to split. Instead we asked our Bishops to lead us by seeking a common solution to present us with. People stood up on the floor of General Conference and pleaded with our Bishops to give us leadership and direction. The Bishop’s did just that, they all went away and you know they did because for the afternoon of our work that day the entire long stretches of bishop tables were empty. They came back with a proposal for us to form a commission to seek a way forward, which we adopted and you can read about more in the news. The important thing to know is that the General Conference will probably meet again in a special session to just address the future of the church around human sexuality.

 

However, something else happened as a part of the voting on this process. Our Bishops, our episcopal leaders forced us into a small and tiny version of “rule 44.” For 45 minutes they said we are going to ask you to talk with one another. To listen to one another, that day I was thankful for the tactful leadership of our Bishops.

 

Nothing miraculous happened in those short minutes talking with people from other places. However, something good did happen. Instead of elevator speeches I experienced getting to know people I disagreed with. Instead of trying to please the world we actually talked about the things that were dividing us. I ended up at a table that all thought I was wrong on the issue, but I got to know them and we slowed enough to create space for God in our relationships. I got to know who people were and what they were struggling with. Most everyone at the table, including myself left with questions unanswered. The conversation has to continue, and the relationships are where change might come from.

 

There is something else in Paul’s theology, which he got wrong a little, but is very helpful for us today. Paul believed in calling the gentiles(the outsiders) into the Christian faith because by doing so he was preparing for the end times. However, in his need to invite the outsiders in he also created a theology whereby we are all children of God, and all members of one family. This theology of uniting us together is core to the Christian faith and it is core to seeking God’s vision for us all.

On the final day of General Conference Bishop Elaine, our Bishop was preaching. During this challenging task of preaching on the final day of a long two weeks she showed a picture of one of the light rail trains wrapped in the United Methodist logo, and on it read the words “United we help millions.”

 

She said, “What kind of witness would it be if we came saying, ‘United we help millions.” and we left a divided church.”

 

The day before on Thursday morning, Bishop John Yambasu; Sierra Leone Episcopal Area shared this story with us.

 

On a plane flight that was very long and hot a passenger had hidden in his carry-on several very dangerous snakes. Well the snakes got out of his bag and began to terrify, injure and harm passengers. (My friend turned to me as this story started and said, “So Hollywood got the theme for the movie Snakes on a Plane from this folk tale.”)

 

The pilot of the plane called to the person in the control tower and said, “I need to make an emergency landing, there are people getting hurt and could perhaps die because of snakes attacking them.”

 

The control tower responded, “Negative on emergency landing, fly higher.”

 

The pilot radioed back and said, “Excuse me control tower, but I have 25 years of experience, I can land this plane in any condition, I believe the best way to solve this problem is to land now.”

 

The control tower responded, “Fly higher.”

 

The pilot did not understand. However, the other thing his training had taught him was to always, “Trust the control tower.” If a pilot doesn’t trust the control tower then they risk colliding with other planes, or flying into unknown obstacles.

 

The pilot listened and started to fly higher. As the plan got higher in altitude the snakes began to become inert and passive. The passenger quickly contained the snakes back in their container.

 

You see science has told us that snakes can only survive at certain altitudes; go too high and their bodies are unable to function.

 

Bishop Yambusu reminded us that sometimes we need to listen to the control tower, because God knows what is really happening. We need to fly higher. We need to pray and listen to God and seek God’s approval and direction for our next steps.

Some of my most powerful experience of God’s presence at General Conference is when I felt powerless to change things. In a very real sense I felt like a child in a strange element during certain times and during these times are when I most often found myself in prayer. As I reflect back on these moments it was at these times of prayer and in a sense of powerlessness that I felt most like a child trying to make sense of what my next steps were. Paul’s work invites us to remember that we are all children of God and sometimes we need children to remind us to listen and enjoy each others company again.

 

Crystal and I went on a train trip about 7 years ago. On our way home we sat behind a young couple with a young boy, probably about 2 years old. The father took the son to the bathroom.

As the boy came back to his seat, he said, very loudly, “I peed in a sink mommy.”

Crystal, myself, the mom and the Dad all had to break out laughing hysterically. The mother was embarrassed and yet the boys comment was so vulnerable and genuine we had to laugh. He was so good at telling the truth and being himself that he had to let his mom know what had just happened.

The boy didn’t stop there he was curious and had to follow-up, “What is so funny mom?”

“You are very funny?” replied his mother.

“Yes I am,” said the little boy and he began to chuckle.

Paul reminds us through his mess of human work that we are all children of God, and like the young boy on the train God still supports us when we run around saying silly things. On the train that day the boy’s comments were silly and provided some much needed humor. The boy’s service to all of the adults was to remind us to take life less seriously. However, sometimes we say things without knowing we are hurting other people. If we truly listen to God and the people of God all around us we learn from our mistakes and our service come from asking forgiveness of our mistakes and learning how to move forward. I am convinced after General Conference that this only happens if we learn to listen more deeply to the teachings of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit among us.

Only if we listen can we truly serve the world.

We are called as people of Christ to first be by listening to the truth that we are children of God and to listen for our God’s still small voice. God will provide us the space to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, to be human, to make mistakes, to have success, and to learn how to live life to the fullest together.

 

We are then called to serve the world by listening to the God who lets us be. Our service must be centered in the life of Christ, which begins by listening for God’s presence and then sharing the Grace and love of God with the people around us.

 

Only if we listen can we truly serve the world.

[1] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/gc2016-wraps-up-with-budget-divestment

Away

fire-800548_960_720Embroiled in the strange games we play as human beings disables our best thinking, it makes us think we can fix things, and it drives us into the darkest corners of our beings.  When we experience this deep darkness we often desperately run around the room looking for the nearest light switch to fix our problems.  We don’t find the lights though because we have withdrawn so deeply into the recesses of our minds that our reptilian brain cannot reason where the light switch might likely be.  Sometimes it is better to withdraw from amidst the crowds to be in our own space in the dark.

Over the last week I have been participating in the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon.  This legislative body draws together the world’s United Methodists from countries like Bulgaria, Zimbabwe, Liberia, the Philippines, Russia, Austria, Kenya, Angola, and the United States.  There are 8 million United Methodists worldwide and over 2 weeks every 4 years we gather to legislate our future.  Pastors and church people from around this globe gather in hopes of celebrating our achievements through the love of Jesus Christ, and to seek our future together.

It sounds like a great idea, except it can be awful when your worst fears are realized.  This is especially true when there is a realization that bitter disagreement causes people to be the worst versions of themselves.  I have seen conservative and progressive, I have seen myself and my friends be both amazing witnesses of the faith this week and the most pitiful versions of humanity.  We have spoken to the love God made true in the world and schemed to shift for our own ends.  Notice I say we because I believe whole heartedly after this experience, and more than ever that we all make previous errors to harm others even when our intentions appear noble to us in the moment.  We screw up and we make errors.

On Pentecost we always focus on Acts 2, but today let me guide us to the story just before.  Acts 1 ends on the election of Matthias.  The Disciples have been through a lot of amazing experiences between Easter and Pentecost.  They have witnessed the resurrection and the accession.  Those are not small events, those are life changing events of transformation.  Resurrection and Ascension could be described as experiences of God’s power and grace that would change any life.  What do the disciples do next…they move to an election.  AN ELECTION!!!

 

God had something different in mind.

After the election they stayed hidden in there place, they were not going to go out of their place.  They were AWAY hiding in an upper room and hope Jesus would return soon.  They begin hiding in the only place they felt like they had any power left to control and they held an election to make sure their numbers were the same number of people Jesus called into leadership.  Honestly, I think the Gospel writer was hoping to make a point here. The number of people called in Acts to the disciples path were exponential and one election did not make the difference.

The story goes that suddenly God’s Holy Spirt filled the room.  Mind you this was after the election, that was totally a human process. The Holy Spirit fell upon each of their heads and they began to speak languages of all the nations.  Then they went out and shared this Good News of God’s Prevailing Love with all people and I promise you they put no stipulations on who those people were.  Whenever they did put stipulations on love they were stifled by the Holy Spirit. We as Christians claim the entirety of Paul’s letters as an example of that stifling of restrictions by the Spirit.   

Several years ago I was busy rushing to get ready to leave the house, caught up in my own human processes I was grabbing all the things I needed and doing each of the things I needed to do including turning out the lights.  Suddenly it was completely dark and I couldn’t do anything.  Then from the darkness came a small voice, “light?”  My 2 year old daughter at the time was asking the right question for the moment.  My hurry had done everything that needed to get done, but it put us in the dark.

The disciples hurry to elect and work has put them in the dark.  Locked in a room and God wants nothing to do with that.  God sends the light, the fire to fall upon them all.  Then God’s light brought to them a moment that pulled them out of the reptilian controlling part of their brain into their frontal lobe.  If you don’t know the frontal lobe of our brain is where our compassion, love and empathy comes from.  It is also where our speech comes from.  God pulled the disciples out of a moment of escaping into the most primal of instincts into a developed moment of sharing languages of love with so many others they could not count.  From electing one to nominating by the thousands and empowering thousands to share the love we learned from our Messiah, Jesus.

This morning I got a text amidst the craziness of this week.  It was from a friend who was teaching IMG_2446Sunday school at the church I serve.  It was from our Sunday school kids and it was what they celebrated about the birthday of the church, why they love the church.
They are kid answers, but I want you to notice something they have their voices about why they love the church.  Overall they know they are valued and welcomed to be a part of the love of God shared with us in Christ.  And I was reminded the elections aren’t going to bring their voices to the front…we will bring their voices to the front by empowering them to speak God’s word of love.

 

As we turn into the final week of General conference I pray that we do not run around in horridness looking for a light switch.  Instead I hope we seek the willingness to recognize the need for us to trust that we Go Away to hide in the place we feel we have power, that God’s Spirit will overwhelm us with the Holy Spirit and help us speak languages of deep love, empathy, and respect for all.  Finally, that we trust that God empowers us not to cast lots on a ballot for one, but to deeply transform the world by lifting up voices to declare how God’s love transforms lives and moves mountains.  The world is saying “light?” and we need to let God light our minds, so we can share in many voices God’s love for the world.  We can try to go AWAY, but God won’t let us.

 

 

 

Debating the Rules

Oh, yeah?!

Creative Commons – Flickr

Today was the first official day of General Conference 2016 and some would say, “We couldn’t even get beyond the rules.”  The truth is we really didn’t.  From the outside looking in we as delegates working with our chair looked like kids arguing about how their make believe game will be played.  Every side seemed like they knew how they wanted the game to end.

The great thing about watching kids argue about the rules of play is that you realize they are testing the waters.  They want to know the boundaries of their world and see what might be possible.  I have two daughters and every once in a while the older one will come running to me screaming about how the younger one has committed the biggest injustice ever.  I struggle to avoid annoyance at first because the screaming makes it seems like a mortal wound has been inflicted.  The injustice is rarely worth the noise.  Then quickly my older daughter and I talk about what happened and learn that the younger violated a rule.  The challenge for my older daughter becomes grasping that the younger generally violated the rule to get the reaction.  The younger doesn’t like screaming, but she loves seeing what the rules might be, testing her environment.  The younger is just learning what is possible.

I am not saying that there is not major injustice in the systems of our church.  There are major injustices and those will need to be addressed.  However, what I am saying is that like arguing children we tested the waters of General Conference tonight.  We tested our Chair, Bishop Warner Brown, we tested each other and we overacted in the testing of the rules.

I have heard people state that tonight is a sign of bad things to come at General Conference.  Tonight was bad because if rules take this long then the rest will not happen.  I think tonight was a good thing.  We were just figuring out the rules tonight, we need to know what might be possible.  There is a lot of growing up we need to do as the church that is learning the new needs of our global community.  The good news is we have a God who loves us and will let us know things will be ok, and will calmly be with us as we figure it out.

Tomorrow, we will finish testing the rules.  Who knows we might even find a way for everyone to play nice?

 

Change Is Here

IMG_2151 As I took a moment to reflect this past week I found myself noticing the coming spring.  It is always good time to notice change and realize what change is happening around you.  Preparing for GC2016 has come amidst a flurry of change in my own life: future plans for my career, joys of planning family life, seeing where my daughter will go to school next year, the blossoming of ministries planted in the past, and the everyday growth of being a young clergy who is raising kids and balancing work and family life.

In the mail yesterday I got a book that is pretty much contained everything I stand against in the world and church.  In that same day a friend of mine posted a great quote from a Methodist woman in the late 1800’s “If there is friction here, who are at fault but those who made the line? If foam breaks against the wall, the builder is responsible, not the sea” ~Mary Griffith, 1880.  The author of the quotehand wrote this to the 450 delegates to a General Conference pleading for the full inclusion of Women in the church.  It took the church until 1956 for us to change our understanding and to include women in the Church.  That is a strange thought for me who has served with two women Pastors who I value as mentors and for a man who’s only Bishop while under appointment has been a woman.  Why did it take us so long?

Now we approach this current General Conference and I hope for massive change.  Creating space for LGBTQ people into the full life of the church is something I value deeply.  The book I mentioned earlier that was pretty awful, it contained the idea that somehow the change requested in the church was some kind of conspiracy of LGBTQ to destroy the church.  In my experience it has been the opposite, those LGBTQ that have remained in the church despite discrimination build it better and more diligently than some of us who have privilege dripping from our ears.

“We are not there yet.”  This is the line shared by significant female leaders in our church.  We still have great work to do to include women fully into the life of the church and now we have a responsibility to see the change of all people, sexual minorities too, must be included into the full life of the church.

Bishop Talbert and Rev. Val Rosenquist performed a marriage of two men in North Carolina about two weeks ago.  My initial response was to be concerned that perhaps the action was too dramatic and would harden the people we are trying to convince that change is needed.  Then in prayer and reflection I began to doubt this course of thought.  God calls us in John 17 by praying for all who put their faith in God and reflecting that Christ will be in us.  The action was not dramatic it was just, and Christ was active in the Bishop Tablet and Rev. Rosenquist because they prayerfully considered what was the way to welcome change into our midst.  What better way to do this than to invite in faithful partner committed to living out a Christian life together.

Then something transformed my heart.  15 of my colleagues in New York came out and shared there identity as LGTB or Q.  I call them colleagues having never met them because in faith they stepped out, at risk of losing their hope for a career offering love to their communities, and they in turn have solidified my resolve as a white straight male clergy in Montana to stand with them.  Change is in the air, it may not come how we expect at this General Conference, but it is coming because of the faithfulness, and the Christ filled hearts of the people who risk greatly to overcome those who would conspire against them.  May we conspire not with this world, but with the God who loves us to see change come.

Hopes for GC2016 and Why in the world I chose to represent my conference now?

What is your hope for General Conference? 

As an emerging global church I pray General Conference can begin the process of seeing unity among diversity.  We do incredible things together as a global church ranging from UMCOR, to Global Young People’s Convocation, to the Advance, to Imagine No Malaria, and more.  Our challenge as a global church is that we need to reflect that in how we operate administratively.  For too long the church has been dominated by the the church in the United States in how decisions are made.  My hope at GC 2016 is that we can see the transition begin to being a global church united in making disciples to transform the world and capable of regionally making decisions about how best accomplish this in our context.  

Why were you called to serve on the delegation?

My call to serve as a delegate at this point in my life had a few factors.

  1. For family and the churches I serve this year was a time I could work to have the focus for General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. 
  2. With my service on the Division on Young People’s Ministry over the last quadrennium and my service in two other conferences  I felt my connections at the General Church level were at an adequate level to help me be an effective delegate with supportive resources across our United Methodist Connection.
  3. The call also came from a passion to see us remain a unified denomination with diversity in belief.  We are a big tent church.  This is a huge advantage on the world stage forus to communicate with multiple audiences a message of God’s love.  There are divisive issues and most are around human sexuality, but I have faith that God can help us to find ways to break our cycles of disagreement.  My call is to help our denomination becomes radically hospitable to all people and also embraces a wide diversity of belief.