Imperfect Reflections on General Conference 2019

In the days leading up to General Conference 2019, many of my friends and acquaintances used the phrase “just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you hate them.” I hereby invoke that umbrella, because the last few days would have been much easier if I did not profoundly love people who disagree, and I am not sure I have the perfect words to say at this moment.

I’m not sure there are perfect words.

But this is what I have. Our first rule as a Methodist people is Do No Harm. Yet deep and egregious harm has been inflicted on the body of Christ and especially on our LGBTQAI+ siblings. Their lives, loves, and calls were debated as legislation. Many mourn today because, while they are welcome in our pews, they will still endure sideways glances from brothers and sisters. They mourn because one of the holiest moments in their lives cannot take place in their place of worship and cannot include the pastor who loves and shepherds them. They mourn because they feel a calling to serve and are denied a path to follow. To all who grieve, I see you, I love you, you will always be part of my family.

Many believe the prohibitions left in place by the Conference represent a loving response. For if you love God, you live a holy life, and if you love your brother or sister, you encourage them to do likewise. To these, I honor your faithfulness even though we disagree. And I would remind you, you cannot lecture grieving people on theology, or doctrine, or polity. They cannot hear you. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar knew when they came to Job in his grief, that the first thing they had to do was sit with him and listen and mourn what was lost.

So here we are. Four days later very little has changed. The Traditionalist Plan passed and has been referred to the Judicial Council for review. Based on my reading of previous reviews, what they found to be constitutional was an expansion of the definition of “self-avowed and practicing,” a stricter complaint process, and a requirement that Bishops not put forward candidates they know to be “self-avowed and practicing.” An exit plan was passed. It permits (again my reading) the lifting of the trust clause between now and December 31, 2023, provided a church pays unfunded pension liabilities, apportionments for the current and next year, and other liabilities owed. However, its constitutionality is in question. We will not have final answers on either until April.

That doesn’t mean nothing has changed. The full effect of the outcomes of the General Conference will take months to play out. However, the process has damaged our witness. I’ve had too many messages from friends outside the church and seen too many articles focused on our infighting to pretend otherwise. We are called to be a city on a hill. I believe we can be a light of hope and graciousness in an era of dark distrust, but we have some work to do.

Part of that is to focus on the work of making disciples. Not as a blithe thing, not a return to business as usual as if nothing has happened. Rather we ought to focus on making disciples through a serious consideration what we mean by discipleship, of who needs to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in our local area, and of how the church helps and hinders that work. We need to learn from this moment without overrunning it or getting stuck.

As my congregation has tried to balance concern about the General Conference with the need to keep working for the future, I have often cited the story of Jeremiah buying a field as Jerusalem was falling. I returned to that text last night with fresh eyes. What I had not fully appreciated before were Jeremiah’s grief and confusion. In chapter 33 he says:

After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, saying:… Yet you, O Lord God, have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses”—though the city has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans.

-Jeremiah 33: 16&25

Even Jeremiah did not fully comprehend what he was doing. He could not see what God was about, but he was faithful to continue following. Jeremiah invested in the future of his people despite the uncertainty that surrounded him. He buried the deeds in an earthen pot so that even if the exile was long, they would survive; his hope would survive.

It was not easy for Jeremiah to proclaim hope, but neither was it hollow. The days to come may not be easy for us either. Even amid uncertainty, we will remain faithful to the hope we’ve known. I believe that hope is open to all. The gospel I proclaim will not change.

Our witness is imperfect, but our congregation will continue to Do All the Good We Can. We will feed the hungry, we will continue to care for and educate children, we will continue to serve our community, we will continue to offer life in Jesus Christ, we will continue to worship, and we will continue to welcome all who enter.

Church, we are imperfect people, and we are beloved children of God. My prayer is that we find ways to live as a body without doing harm to one another. I pray that we do all the good we can for the glory of God. I pray that make use of the means of grace we’ve been given to grow in our love of God and one another. I pray all this because I believe the world needs the witness of the Methodist people. I know the world needs Jesus.

The last few days were hard. This morning I’ve been reminded we are never promised the work will be easy, but that we labor unto glory.

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