Some have already left for early meetings. Others are leaving soon from places around the world. All are headed to Portland where next week, the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church begins. Delegates from 130 Annual Conferences from all parts of the globe will gather at this quadrennial meeting of our Church. While many points of view on a variety of theological, ethical, political, and social issues are shared from our pulpits and our official and unofficial agencies on any given week, it is the General Conference and the General Conference alone that can speak for The United Methodist Church as a whole.
The ten day gathering in Portland will be filled with wonderful creative worship led by choirs, bands and preachers from many countries. There will be reports shared that will offer opportunity for celebration as well as reflection on where we need to grow and change. There will be mission opportunities and ministry information galore. And of course there will be the challenge that exists everywhere in United Methodism to focus on that which divides us or that which unites us.
I recall hearing recently a presidential candidate expressing the belief that while they and their opponent were both battling for their party’s nomination and were very willing to point out what they saw as flaws in one another, the things that held them together were much stronger than the things that pulled them apart. When I heard that I thought about our Church. I thought about how easy it is to focus on a few things that divide us rather than the many that draw us together. Now that is not at all to say that the things that divide us are not important, they are. But I believe deeply (you know that because this is not the first time I’ve written about this here in this forum), that one of the greatest gifts the UMC could give to our culture here in the United States is an image for how you find a way to love one another and live together when you disagree on significant issues. If there is anything we need in our polarized culture today it is this ability. So we must continue to speak to one another and share our various perspectives. More than that, we must continue to listen to one another and even more listen to the Spirit of God moving among us.
I don’t know what will happen in Portland this year. I don’t know what we will decide about any number of issues. And I am both excited about the possibilities and aware that regardless of what happens, some will come away unhappy. So I’m praying for the delegates. I’m praying for our Bishops. I’m praying for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon them and upon our Church. And I am trusting that regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen, what new legislation or program or initiative is passed or not, that in the wonderful and amazing grace of God we will find our way forward into the rich mission set before us.
Thanks be to God!
On Saturday I’m flying to Liberia to share in the Annual Conference of the Liberian United Methodist Church. I am excited about the trip and I feel privileged to represent our Conference, but I am also just a bit apprehensive. While I have done a lot of traveling in my life, I have never been to this part of the world. I don’t have any context for my imagination. Oh yes, I’ve seen pictures. I’ve talked to Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue, Detroit Renaissance District Superintendent, who is from Liberia, and whose advice was to watch out for the infestation of lions!! And yes, I have lived with my three foster sons who are from Liberia for the past seven years and have learned much about the culture, but I’ve never actually been to the place! And so I’m a little apprehensive about the journey.
As I thought about my upcoming trip, I was reminded of the text from Joshua 3:4. It comes as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. It instructs them with these words, “When you see it (the ark), you must move out from where you are and follow it. Then you will know which way to go. You have never gone this way before.” What I have always taken away from this text over the years is that God is with us when we go into places and situations we have never encountered before. It requires us to pay attention, to look for the Spirit’s leading and presence, but God is with us, God will guide us as we go into places and situations unknown to us. And that is good news!
For while I’m dealing with the small challenge of traveling to a geographic location I have never visited, some of you are walking into much more difficult settings. Some are engaging new diagnoses and the journey of chemotherapy or some other treatment. Some are moving through the uncharted waters of divorce or unemployment. Some of you are wandering the twists and turns of grief and the sorting of life without that significant one who has always been there.
The good news that I would invite us all to hear again today is that as we go into every new place, as we walk into every new unknown location, God’s Spirit goes with us and leads us. May we do our best to pay attention to that Spirit gift and may we receive it with humility and hope.
Last week I shared some days at a continuing education event in California with my best friend. During the time we were in LA my friend turned 60 years old. I took him out to dinner and I hope it was a good celebration of this important milestone in his life but the event got me to thinking about our journey together.
We met in seminary, graduated together, and were appointed in our first appointments. The appointments happened to be churches that had been a two-point charge and had reached the point where each was ready to have their own full time pastors (something that sadly almost never happens today). I recall well those early days of ministry. All the insecurities, the questions about my ability to actually DO what I had trained for and I believed God had called me to do. It was wonderful to have my friend there to share the struggles and joys. To encounter the same surprises and challenges that come with those first months and years as a pastor. And that connection and gift has continued as we now stand on the other end of this spectrum.
I have always marveled at his gifts, his humble, gracious love for the people God has given him to serve in every place where he has been sent. For all these years he has continued to be a confidant, a colleague, and an inspiration to me. Aside from my wife, my closest friend and the one I can tell anything, Don has been the one with whom I have walked this journey of ministry.
Now the reason I bring this up is because at the event in California there was conversation and presentation about the issues of loneliness and individualism among clergy. And it reminded me again of the fact that some of us don’t have people like Don in our lives. And because we don’t we try to do this, sometimes incredibly difficult and challenging work, alone. We don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable with a friend and colleague and because we don’t we experience an even deeper loneliness than the already significant loneliness that is a part of this life we lead.
That both saddens and worries me from the perspective of my role as a Superintendent. We need one another. We need people who know US. We need people who hear that almost imperceptible change in the timbre of our voice that causes them to ask, “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” Because they understand us that well.
Now it’s not just clergy who need this of course. We all do. But there is a uniqueness in the calling we follow as clergy that makes it particularly important. One of the reasons I began the cluster groups that we started last year for all our clergy was so that this might be a place where some of this needed care might occur and perhaps for some, this kind of friendship might develop. By the way have you met with your group lately? Do you need to rethink your decision not to make this a priority?
The fact is while our ultimate source and strength for ministry comes from God, we are created to need each other. I am grateful for my friend. I am thankful for the almost 40 years we have shared together in walking this road of ministry. Who do you have who shares the journey with you?