Friday, May 30, 2008
Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. No mystics can prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection they will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionaries can avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions … The appearance of Jesus in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.
— Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
Thursday, May 29, 2008
General Conference, the international policy-making assembly of the United Methodist Church, met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. I was honored to serve as an alternate delegate. The Conference meets every four years to set direction for the entire Church. Almost 1,000 delegates, representing 11.5 million United Methodists in 129 Annual Conferences from 50 countries, held proceedings translated into 7 languages. There were over 1500 petitions to consider in a grueling 9-day schedule. It was one of the most mind-boggling experiences of my life. Simply put, it was BIG!
In the center of our gathering was a communion table made from wood salvaged from Gulfside Assembly in Mississippi, destroyed by Katrina. Bishop Janice Huie opened by casting vision related to the theme “A Future With Hope.” Like other mainline denominations in the U.S., there has been numerical decline in recent years. Yet the Spirit is alive. We set forth four clear priorities: poverty, global health, new churches, and effective leadership. These are things I can get excited about.
I learned that the legislative process is complex. I discerned that the division we have between regions over issues related to homosexuality is deep. I was on the floor voting during the peaceful protest concerning our denomination’s position and walked by protestors lying outside on sidewalks as if wounded. It was both troubling and strangely beautiful.
But I was also overwhelmed by the things that unite us. We heard the Africa University choir and voted on another $20 million to support this mission that has now trained 2,000 Christian leaders in Africa. We heard the “Hope for Africa” children’s choir sing and dance, and celebrated that most of them were saved by Methodist mission homes. It was exciting to vote on a $330 million World Service missions budget. It was inspiring to acknowledge that we are becoming a global church. Though we are declining numerically in each U.S. region except the Southeast, the church is growing like crazy in places like Africa, the Philippines, and Korea.
It was incredible to hear the president of Liberia speak. She is the first woman elected president of an African nation. She is not only United Methodist, but was raised in a school built by our missionaries. Hearing Bill Gates, Sr. (the father of Microsoft’s founder) speak and pledge to join the UMC in our fight to wipe out malaria through “Nothing But Nets”, was inspiring. We raised $480,000 for nets in a serendipitous movement of the Spirit, bidding on a bishop’s basketball.
Important decisions were made, including expanding the mission statement of the church to making disciples of Jesus Christ “for the transformation of the world,” beginning a Hymnal Revision project, changing our constitutional language to recognize our global nature, and a strong resolution against homophobia and related violence. The right to vote on clergy delegates was given to licensed lay pastors, and we reduced the number of bishops in the U.S. to free up funds for more bishops in Africa, where the church is growing.
Experienced delegates say that though we remain divided on a few key issues, this was a calmer and more unified Conference than in the past. The bishops encouraged a spirit of “holy conferencing” throughout. Acknowledging our differences but casting vision with the four new priorities, the bishops left me feeling that there was much to get excited about.
There are times, of course, when I desperately need to cry out in anguish and pain, bow down in awe of God’s glory, recount the amazing things God has done, or simply visit with God in holy play. Indeed the life of prayer emerges from felt experience, and God meets us where we are. I am finding, however, that regularly singing or saying praise, whether or not I feel like praising God, has brought into my spiritual life new dynamics. Opening the next psalm as if meeting a beloved companion for morning coffee, rather than picking and choosing based on what I want to say, has helped me to put the matter of praise in God’s hands.
One morning not long ago, I found myself moving from Psalm 105 to Psalm 106. I was struck by something I would not notice unless visiting the psalms in order of appearance. Psalm 105 is a psalm of thanksgiving, tracing the history of the Hebrew people and remembering God’s marvelous works which culminate in the Exodus. Psalm 106, however, is a lament that emerges from the same set of experiences, but with deep mourning over the sin and failure of those who had forgotten all that God had done.
Embedded between these two prayers are the opening words of Psalm 106, “Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” Praying these psalms side by side accentuated this centerpiece of praise. The way of prayer is not simply a matter of choosing optimism over pessimism, and praise is not just an anecdote for life’s miseries. To praise is to dance. Honest lament and joyful thanksgiving are natural, flowing movements of the human life oriented toward God. The dance of praise brings these movements, these expressions of all of who we are, before the Holy One. The praise of the psalms, with their beautiful descriptions of God’s wonderful attributes, amazing characteristics, and awesome name, are not given to us because God is lacking in self-confidence and needs to hear our compliments. The gift of praise is that the words dance in the imagination in such a way that praise takes us beyond the words. It brings our entire being, including all of our laments and all of our thanksgivings, to focus upon God’s glory and grace.
As I continue to walk through the psalms in the mornings, praise becomes less about what I am doing and how I am feeling, and more about how I am oriented. At the deepest level, praise is not something I do at all. It is something I join. In praise, I join with all of God’s creation in raising limbs and songs toward heaven. I join with generations of faithful followers who have eyes to see the glory of God. I join with all the saints, as pictured by hymnist Reginald Heber, “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Praise is becoming part of a grand celebration on the dance floor of a much larger rotunda. It is moving with the perpetual music of the saints, and this forms a prayer life based on much more than my own limited experience.
It is highly significant that the most common phrase in the psalms is “His steadfast love endures forever.” I am finding that though good times and bad times don’t last, God’s greatness does. Through all of life’s ups and downs, praise becomes a beacon to guide me back to the shores of what is truly solid and enduring about life. It ushers me into a deeper place of humility as one creature who beholds God’s glory. In short, praise draws me back to God.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
It has been nine months since my mother died, and I am still hurting. Walking through the journey of grief has been like taking steps through a vast, unexplored territory. Though I have counseled many people through loss, I am surprised by the fact that when it came to my own, I had no idea what to expect. Not really.
Grief has been like wandering in an unfamiliar world, living in an exile of sorts. The simplest things, like addressing an envelope to Dad and catching myself writing Mom’s name too, or listening to her name still lingering on his answering machine, remind me that home, as I once knew it, is gone. I am living a long way from that home, ripped away from my roots. Sometimes I am overcome by fear of the unknowns in this new place. At other times, it is more like confusion, as if I’m walking in the fog trying to figure out where I am. Still other times, grief feels more like waiting, as if in my desperate longing for this exile to be over I realize that there are a thousand more steps I must take. I have no map, and I have lost my beloved guide. Something about losing my mother makes me feel that I am left to fend for myself as I try to find my way back home.
One of the consolations of my grief came just a few months after Mom died. I experienced the grace of attending a session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. During one of the assigned reflection times, I pored over Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. My heart softened as I realized how difficult it must have been for those who had been corporately ripped away from their mothers and thrown into a whole new context. I can only imagine the grief and pain of walking in the strange and foreign land of Babylon.
Since that day, Jeremiah’s words of encouragement have resonated throughout my grief experience. In the midst of their suffering, he counseled the Hebrew people to make the best of life in the midst of pain – to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat from them, create families and multiply with them, and work in the city and prosper. These were not complicated instructions. They were simple actions of finding contentment in a foreign land.
In the exile of my grief I have been able to take comfort knowing that I can walk through this “valley of the shadow of death” one step at a time. I can find ways to embrace life in exile, trusting in the thrust of Jeremiah’s letter: When you are in exile, there is a way to live. We must choose life. This is a daily decision those who are grieving must make.
Like the exiles in Babylon, I am finding that making my way to joy again is a path of simple steps like building, planting, and eating. I write in my journal. I pray about my feelings and talk with a trusted friend. I pore over the psalms, which articulate the hidden cries of my heart. I spend time with my wife and kids, share with my church family, and email a friend. I lay a flower on Mom’s grave, and I remember her often in conversations with laughter and appreciation. I start new projects, believing that I honor her life by moving forward with mine. I negotiate with my brothers over what dish we each will bring for the holidays. These are not complicated things, no more than building, planting, and eating. Though they require great effort at first, it is the simple things that help me find a way to cope in this new and foreign land. I have to keep living. I have to keep breathing. I have to keep loving. I must find my joy again, because my joy is a choice.
I am not finished with exile yet. The journey has a way of dredging up monsters in the depths of my soul, and I have to stop from time to time and lay them in the hands of God. At times I feel barren and stranded, but I am learning to make the most of simple joys once again. I am alive, and I had a mother whose life I celebrate. I miss her terribly, but I honor her life by picking up the pieces and finding a place of contentment once again. For people in exile, contentment is a form of liberation.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
Sunday, May 25, 2008
When I was a child, my father served as pastor of a church in Fayette, Alabama. The church was right next door to our home. On the opposite side of us lived a woman I knew only as “Mrs. Alleen”.
I don’t remember a lot about life in Fayette because we moved away when I was four. But I do remember a few images: the large steps in front of the church, the playground, the kitchen and den of our home, and of course Mrs. Alleen. What I remember about her most is that she was always ready to invite me in for a Coke float. And I loved Coke floats. I have always had a lingering image in my mind of her gracious hospitality, with glass and spoon in hand.
Years later, I had the opportunity to go back to Fayette to preach as a guest in that church. I was curious about Mrs. Alleen and asked one of the church leaders what had become of her. He said she was still alive and lived in the nursing home. “Would you like to go see her?” I was delighted.
I’ll never forget this visit. He brought me to her room and told her there was somebody that wanted to see her. Her eyes turned to me with anticipation. I reached out my hand and said, “I’m sure you have no idea who I am, but my name is Stephen West.”
She immediately threw her head back and exclaimed, “OH! I remember you! I used to hear you all the time, standing out in the carport crying at the top of your lungs.” She mimicked the sound of my wailing. “One day I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so I opened up my fridge and asked myself, ‘what can I give that boy to keep him quiet?’ And all I could find was some ice cream and a bottle of Coke!”
Until that moment I had no idea why she had been such a person of warm hospitality! She had shown me Jesus in a Coke float. There is something incarnational, something wonderfully mysterious about self-giving love in the name of Christ.
Most of us roam around in life, crying out in pain. The child in us is screaming, sometimes loudly, sometimes silently. We expect somebody to take the pain away but no person can, not really. But what we can do for others is share the love of Christ, who is “made known to us in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35b). When we share the love of Jesus in a Coke float, a smile, or a gesture of care with somebody who is hurting, it makes all the difference.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
A Dangerous Prayer
Some prayers are dangerous indeed. They are prayers because they express the deepest yearnings of our hearts. They are dangerous because they just might change us.
As I reflect on my first General Conference, I am drawn back to the visual design of the delegates’ seating area. The space itself was a prayer. The basic cruciform design created by open aisles was the first thing I noticed. Suspended in the center was a round communion table, made from wood salvaged from Gulfside Assembly (destroyed by Katrina). I doubt everyone was aware of it, but for me this was a silent, persistent prayer undergirding everything.
And it has become my prayer. I pray that our work as a denomination takes the shape of the cross, and we find a way to humbly offer our very heart to Christ. This cruciform prayer is a prayer of hope, because I believe our declining denomination will not be saved by working harder or doing more, and certainly not by endless legislative maneuvering over hot topics. This is a dangerous prayer, because transformation that is uniquely Christian only comes through cross and resurrection. Being transformed will mean letting die some aspects of institutional life we hold dear. I hope that transformation is just around the corner for this church I love. I’m not sure what that will mean, but I know that it will be painful though it leads to new life. It scares me and it enlivens me at the same time. Taking up the cross could mean some kind of division, or it could mean some unimagined change in direction. But it can’t mean doing more of what we already do at General Conference and expecting the results to change.
A Mind-Boggling Experience
My first trip to General Conference was one of the most mind-boggling experiences of my life. It was wonderful, though some aspects were troubling, and it was exhausting. Simply put, it was … BIG. I learned that the legislative process is extensive and complex. I discerned that the fundamental division we have over one major social issue is deeper than I realized. And yes, I was overwhelmed by the incredible things that unite us, for they are correspondingly huge. I’ll save that good news for last. Make sure you keep reading.
We are a people who are regionally conflicted about issues around homosexuality. I knew this. What I didn’t know was how extensively this division plays into legislative process. There were numerous times when subtle regional control issues related to this issue were beneath the surface in debates over various matters, like the meaning of membership and the number of bishops. It was like suddenly being a member of congress for two weeks and discovering the politics underneath everything. I found myself asking, “What is their dog in this fight?”
Our beliefs are the deepest things about us. It was difficult for me as a person who doesn’t fit into labels like liberal or conservative, who would rather be known as a radical Christian than even the term “moderate,” to feel that I have a voice. I suppose this is because of the natural dualism of legislative process. But it felt as if 10% of us are way over on one side of the universe, screaming not only for acceptance but pushing the entire gay rights agenda (marriage, ordination, etc.). And it felt as if 10% were way over on the other side of the universe, not understanding why we are even talking about this (I recall the African delegate who said homosexuality was “of the devil”). The extremists work in caucuses, support demonstrations, and hand out literature. They fire legislative missiles at each other and it felt like the other 80% are caught in the middle. Language becomes more inflammatory than reasonable. A viewpoint that attempts to strike a balance might be compared to slavery and labeled as “spiritually violent” by some, and called “unscriptural” or “demonic” by others. It’s as if we can’t talk, we can only legislate.
I am one of the 80% in the middle. We are not all the same, of course, because there are many shades of gray that seem obscured by all the polarizing. But I just want to move through this and focus on missions and evangelism. I believe what Bishop Hee Soo Jung articulated in his sermon. We need to hold our commitment to social justice in one hand, and our commitment to personal holiness in the other, in creative tension.
Almost all the votes that involve issues related to homosexuality came out with the typical two thirds or three fourths majority, except for one. The closest vote was on the very language itself, that though God’s grace is available to all, the practice of homosexuality is considered “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The alternative petition was simply a statement saying we are “not of one mind”. I imagine that’s why the language was retained by a margin of only 55% to 45%, because it’s obviously true that we are not of one mind. I was looking down on the assembly as the energy built for this vote, as the debate gathered steam, and as the SoulForce protesters in the balcony prepared to put on their black veils and sing “Jesus Loves Me.” You could cut the anxiety in the room with a knife.
I found myself asking how I would vote since I essentially believe both petitions. I might reword it in a more balanced way, but I essentially believe the language in the Discipline. On the other hand, I also believe we are “not of one mind”. How do you decide between two petitions if you believe both? I concluded that if I were voting, I would vote not on what the petition says, but on what it does.
The positive way of saying it is that I would vote to preserve the historic integrity of the church, though I deeply desire to be as inclusive as possible (we passed a resolution strongly against homophobia and prejudice, which delights me). The negative way of saying it is that I am afraid. It scares me to think of what would happen if we took one step down what could become a long, slippery slope. I doubt seriously that those who would ask us to say “we are not of one mind” would simply thank everybody and go home satisfied if we did.
The next day, I walked by protestors lying on the sidewalks as if wounded. I sat in for a delegate on the floor when we voted to maintain the stance against the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. The bishops announced that during the 15 minute break, witnesses would be allowed to come to the floor. The SoulForce demonstration commenced and protestors wearing black with rainbow stoles came in and sang. They placed black cloth on the altar and spoke words of protest. A few delegates quietly left, most remained seated, but some stood in support. It was both deeply troubling and strangely beautiful. My understanding is that this was much calmer than the last two General Conferences, when proceedings were interrupted, arrests were made, and a chalice was shattered.
Just in front of me, one of the protesters started crying. I could feel her pain. A delegate seated behind me handed her a handkerchief and returned to her seat. The woman accepted it with grace. We can love each other even as disagree over what our beliefs are and what our boundaries should be.
A Future With Hope
I’m glad you kept reading, because having said all that, equally mind-boggling was that which inspired me. That which unites us was threaded through everything. There is hope.
Worship was amazing, as there were people in the room who were United Methodists from 50 countries all worshipping one Lord. The arts brought worship to life, as we had choirs and instrumentalists from all over the world, a deaf choir, a drum choir, and the “Strangely Warmed Players” doing a drama of a ship with a captain and crew arguing over whether to leave shore.
It was overwhelming to hear the Africa University choir, with young Christian leaders sharing rhythm and song. We voted on another $20 million to support this mission that has now trained 2,000 young leaders. It was amazing to see the “Hope for Africa” children’s choir sing and dance, and be reminded that many of the children in the group were saved by Methodist mission homes.
It was overwhelming to vote on a $330 million World Service budget (part of the $642 million total) and know that God is transforming the world through our missionaries. It was inspiring to acknowledge that we are becoming a global church, moving away from being a U.S. dominated church. Though the church in the U.S. is declining numerically in each Jurisdiction except the Southeastern Jurisdiction, the church is growing like crazy in places like Africa, the Philippines, and Korea.
It was an incredible experience to hear the president of Liberia speak. She is the first woman to have been elected president of any African nation. She is not only United Methodist, but was raised in a Methodist school built by missionaries. It is mind-boggling to realize that missions can change the trajectory of the world.
Hearing Bill Gates, Sr. (the father of the Microsoft founder and director of the Gates Foundation) speak to us about Wesley’s vision that “the world is our parish,” and pledge to join the United Methodist Church in our fight to wipe out malaria with a $5 million gift, was inspiring. He promised to match the bid of the delegation that won the bishop’s basketball, which delegations spontaneously began bidding on after a bishop dribbled it in a report on “Nothing But Nets” to wipe out malaria. We raised $480,000 to save lives during the conference in a serendipitous movement of the Spirit.
Bishop Hope Young Ward of Mississippi shared amazing stories and testimonies about Katrina and we celebrated a wonderful United Methodist response to this terrible disaster.
Important Decisions Made
Having said all that, many important decisions were made. Here are some highlights:
- Generally speaking, the church stayed on course concerning major social issues (abortion, peace in the Middle East, war, immigration reform, etc.)
- We added a phrase to the mission statement of our church. It is now “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.”
- We voted to begin a Hymnal Revision Committee. Our bishop is nominating me to serve on this, and I’m honored though I know there are only a few at-large members so it’s a long shot.
- We added to the vows of membership, so that now new members promise to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
- We adopted the bishop’s initiative to focus on four major areas in all ministries, including focused budgeting around these goals. They are poverty, global health, starting new churches, and developing leadership. I wholeheartedly agree and believe if we can focus on what unites us we can transform the world!
- We created a new litany for worship that is a companion for our Social Creed.
- We now give deacons sacramental authority when granted it by the bishop for specific ministry situations.
- We changed constitutional language to recognize our global, and less U.S.-dominated, nature. If ratified by Annual Conferences, “Central Conferences” will now be called Regional Conferences and the U.S. will be a Regional Conference.
- If ratified by Annual Conferences, our constitution will now clarify that all persons shall be eligible to be members if willing to take the vows. I think this will be controversial in Annual Conferences. For some this is about the nature of church membership and the responsibility of the pastor to discern readiness, not just about its relationship to a controversial case concerning homosexuality.
- We passed a strong resolution against homophobia and related violence and prejudice.
- The conference took more steps toward fair representation, making sure growing regions of the church (such as the Southeast) are fairly represented by vote.
- The right to vote on clergy delegates was given to licensed lay pastors who have completed Course of Study and have been appointed two years prior.
- Our Women’s Division and Church and Society have membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and efforts to remove them were narrowly defeated.
- We set up a study committee to recommend a new Regional Conference structure for global Methodism and a Commission on Faith and Order to clarify theology.
- There was a “first ever” Young People’s Address, and there seemed to be many younger delegates due to the church’s efforts to bring a new generation into delegations.
- We reduced the number of bishops in the United States, where the church has been declining, in order to free up funds to add to the number of bishops in Africa, where we are growing and need bishops desperately.
The Bishops’ “Non-Anxious Presence”
Experienced delegates say that though we are divided on a few key issues, it seemed to be a calmer and more unified conference than in the past. I am a student of Family Systems Theory and was fascinated to watch with an eye for how groups function in the emotional system, given that there is a huge amount of anxiety related to these issues. Processes such as triangulation, cutoff, poor differentiation, “either/or” and “black/white” thinking, and labeling were at work all week.
But I saw great hope in the bishops’ presence. They encouraged a spirit of “holy conferencing” which helped us focus on things of the Spirit even when talking about controversial issues. They were truly pastoral. They were clear about boundaries (such as clarifying during the protest that some would be maintaining the role of presiding and others would be moving around to perform pastoral functions). They maintained a non-anxious presence, acknowledging differences but casting a vision for the four priorities, which we can all get excited about. With one exception during the protest, they did not speak in inflammatory ways. They stayed connected. They negotiated with protesters, and about a dozen of them committed to holy conferencing with them between now and four years from now. I find this presence incredibly promising. We will likely remain divided, and might even eventually separate, but the bishops made me feel that whatever happens, we are in God’s hands.
Choosing to Live in Hope
It would be easy to fall into despair about the fundamental division in our denomination over sexuality with regional complexities most local church folks are unaware of. It is easier to live in despair than hope. If we live in despair, we don’t have to do anything. But if we choose to live in hope, we do. Recalling the “cruciform prayer” I began this reflection with, our hope is in taking up the cross. This church belongs to God and God is not finished with us. Despite our division God is using us in amazing ways.
I am still processing things and I’m still exhausted. But I’m honored to serve and appreciate the trust members of the conference have placed in me. As an alternate, I kept up with legislation in order to vote responsibly if called on. I “sat in” four times (once in legislative committee and three times on the floor) for several hour blocks each time, sometimes during very important votes, and it was an honor to represent North Alabama.