Wednesday, April 30, 2008

President Sirleaf and an illustration of a divided church

God gave us bread for the journey today as President Sirleaf of Liberia addressed the General Conference. It is tradition for United Methodist world leaders to be invited to address the body and President Sirleaf was introduced as a true "daughter of Methodism". A member of our church and graduate of the College of West Africa, a Methodist secondary school founded in 1839, it was clear to everyone that the first elected female head of state in Africa is a part of this movement. Former First Lady Clinton addressed General Conference in 1996 (since she is a member) but our current president, although a member, has never accepted the invitation. A choir from Africa of all orphans also sang at the celebration. I think I'll remember those sounds and those dance moves forever. At the end all of the thirty-ish minute address, President Sirleaf shook hands with all of the bishops and it was projected on the big screen. The funniest interaction was Bishop Soriano who took a picture of her with his cell phone.
We dealt with several pieces of legislation that recommended reducing the number of episcopal areas in the United States of America so that funding could be made available for Africa. This was the picture of a very divided body. There was an enormous amount of debate and parliamentary maneuvering (as in hours worth) that I don't think were terribly helpful. In the end it was referred to another body for recommendation at General Conference 2012. I suppose I'm at a new place with all of this where I think the difficulty we're getting into is that people are trying to do the right thing but simply don't know how given our current structure. Several of the votes in this debate (on amendments or choosing how and what to adopt) were within fifty votes going one way or another with about 800 being cast.
In theory, at this point we are finished with all petitions that have financial implications... I think. I believe that we will begin consideration on petitions regarding sexuality on Wednesday April 30th. But it may be on Thursday. The minority report that will be put against our full committee recommendation has been printed on the consideration calendar. It pretty much looks like the current language with some minor tightening. Certainly, all of the nasty stuff is still in there.
So it looks like tomorrow is our chance to bring the church to a better place on this one. There will be lots discussed about homosexuality after we open the flood gates (marriage, membership, ordination, funding of ministries) so it isn't just the stuff I've been working on. But the prayer is that we will set the tone for where the conversation goes.
Bishop Peter Weaver of the Boston area (my bishop) will be presiding over the morning session, which I think is significant. The afternoon will be presided over by Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida. I think it is accurate to say that Bishop Whitaker is the most outspoken opponent of GLBT at the top level of church administration. So the prayer is also that Bishop Weaver will be handling the conversation before lunch.
Okay, this only happens every four years, and only if everything goes well, which it has. So let's really pray.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Staying a While Longer

Originally, I was supposed to leave for Boston this afternoon, but due to the excitement here and feeling like there was more I could do (and being threatened to be kidnapped by several people haha) I changed my flight for Friday night. So I am here through the end of the conference :-)

First I wanted to fill in the story on the drumming circle. Rob was out there and filled me in, as Jeremy and I left around 1 am. The police arrived around 12.30am and were completely on the side of Mosaic. They were concerned for the safety of the young people. After Jeremy and I had left, members of the Parents Reconciling Network formed a circle around the Mosaic kids to form a barrier between them and the protesters. The PRN here are amazing! The drumming circle had been taking place on a green area across the street from the Conference Center called General Worth Park (I think). Around 2am, the police still concerned for safety, recommended the youth move to the sidewalk in front of the Conference Center. After the youth moved, a friendly clergy came out of the Conference center and held communion for those in the drumming circle. While they were sharing communion, the protesters were praying. And the sprinklers turned on. Had the youth stayed, they would have been soaked, and potentially ruined drums. Instead, the protesters were soaked and quickly fled the area.

Second, I wanted to be the voice for those of you out there, who like me, are a little fuzzy on some of what's going on here I'll try to be the 'interpreter' if you will. The 161G paragraph that Will mentioned in one of his blogs is a huge HUGE petition that's going in front of the delegates. This paragraph is for inclusion, and is probably one of the biggest pieces of legislature we have. It's a cornerstone for many of the other petitions we are working on. We're not sure when this paragraph is coming before the delegates, but please pray for it and those voting on it. The study committee that Will said the Minority report was accepted, was not. The majority report was adopted, which was not what we were hoping for, but the amendments that were made to the majority report were in our favor. Basically this study committee is going to look at the structure of the church, and the reorganizing of Conferences so one conference does not have all the power. In it's original form, the bishops would have been bound to whatever the committee found which would have been bound. In it's adopted form, the bishops take what the committee finds as guidelines, which is much more flexible. There are still many more petitions to be voted on, and I'll do my best to interpret for everyone :)
I must say, the energy here is at time overwhelming. It does my heart good to look out on the floor of the delegates, and around the 'bleachers' of the convention center and see so many All Means All buttons, and rainbow stolls. We have allies out there, working with and for us. We are doing all we can here, and your prayers back home mean the world to us. Thank you for the well wishes! I also feel like I'm catching on to what's going on here, slowly but surely and am so grateful I was able to come. I didn't feel I knew enough previous to today to post (and didn't have time yesterday), but will do better for the remainder of the conference.
God bless to all those reading and may the Holy Spirit continue to move and breathe in Forth Worth! :)

Judicial Council elections and finishing committee work

Today started out with very excited, wonderful news. One of the first orders of the day was the election of members of our Judicial Council. The Judicial Council is the top court in our church that decides whether or not a Bishop is correctly interpreting the Discipline and also has final decision on all trials or other judgments. I'm sorry to say it, but for the last four years this court has been run by a group of ideologues who have made some horrible rulings. This is the group who decided that it was valid and acceptable for a pastor to deny someone church membership because they are gay. (decision 1032). Well, here's what happened on the floor. All five of the available seats were filled by moderate candidates who came from the group that the Council of Bishops nominated on Friday morning. Not one of the conservative candidates who were so aggressively marketed through a direct mailing campaign going back to January and the now infamous "cell phone letter" were elected. None of three of the officers of the old court (the chair, vice and secretary) are still there (although I think one is an alternate). This includes the former chair, James Holsinger, who chose not to run again (this is the same person who was nominated to be Surgeon General a few months back but withdrew his name). So in some very significant way, this is a new day for the church.
Also, my legislative committee finally completed our work today as we chugged through from 2:00 to 9:30 and handled our ninety-seven remaining petitions. Honestly, I had a few fits of uncontrollable laughter towards the end, but we did it! Our first pieces are being presented today in plenary but the big stuff should come tomorrow.
(I was typing with my eyes closed for a while and eventually retreated to bed...I'm now back and it's the morning.)
I of course could not be on the floor for all of the afternoon and evening plenary because I was seated in my committee. My understanding is that we adopted the minority report of the Conferences Legislative Committee that was a very acceptable combination of the Frank Wulf and Robbins/Okyama resolutions: the creation of a task force has been mandated to study the world-wide nature of the church and it has the flexibility to do the work it needs. This is good!

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Future With Hope

There is a reason to celebrate today as we took small but important steps toward making the church an inclusive place. For the moment, I am thrilled to let you all know that the Legislative Committee to which the Human Sexuality Sub-Committee had to report chose to accept all of our proposals across the board. We have re-written a version of para. 161.G of the Discipline which discusses human sexuality. (If you would like to read it, it's popping up all over the internet. I'd suggest generalconference2008.org for starters.) We also rejected all of the trans-phobic legislation that was brought before us. Finally, we held the line on resolution 33 (being in ministry with all persons), reaffirmed our support of sexual-minority teens at risk of suicide and broadened our support for human and civil rights (para. 162.H). The best part about it was that we built a coalition and did a new thing. Instead of doing the same old technique of arguing about the "incompatibility clause"or trying to insert "we are not of one mind on this issue", we perfected a document that has grace and rhythm and truth. I've made more than enough speeches in the last forty-hours, but I have to say that I think everyone would be proud of this faithful work. My heart was changed in the process of the conferencing. As many of you know, I arrived in Fort Worth committed to removing the prohibitory language from the Discipline, period. But instead we have moved with the Spirit which blows where it may. This all means that the committee will bring forward a suggestion to the entire Conference that we adopt our perfected language as the appropriate paragraph. But for the moment, party with the angels.
Our committee has very unfortunately not completed its work. The goal was to complete everything by tonight so that we could move to plenary tomorrow morning. Now I'm not sure what we'll do. We meet as a committee at 2:00 pm tomorrow. In the morning we'll receive some reports from committees who have completed their work in plenary... I think.
Again, I have not been able to track other legislation. Check out umc.org if you care to.
In the morning: Judicial Council elections!
Finally, Reconciling hosted our worship service today. I couldn't attend because we were busy passing faithful petitions through the legislative process. But check out the photos at generalconfrence2008.org. As Bishop Hutchinson preached the other day, "they prayed us through."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Do I hear a motion to go to bed?

When I was told at the 6:45 strategy planning breakfast this morning that SoulForce (google it if you don't know who they are) had arrived in Fort Worth, I said "Thank God!" Sure enough as I approached the Convention Center- there they were. Maybe two-hundred people in white tee-shirts, many holding stop signs that read "STOP- Spiritual Violence." The tears welled up, as they are right now, when I felt that my feelings, my experiences, were legitimate. Instead of being ignored or dismissed or seen as an issue, I had the chance for a few minutes to authentically interact with people who want to love and support me and help make the world better. Pretty sad that I need this refuge at the largest gathering of United Methodists in the world. But, I did get to give Jimmy Creech a great big hug. (Jimmy is a hero and a friend who used to be a United Methodist minister but was defrocked for serving his parishioners in the name of God.)
The drumming circle, that started the previous noon, was still going on this morning. (Apparently they had some trouble over night with counter protesters, but everything worked out. I don't have the whole story.)
Inside Conference, the early buzz was about a story that went national about 1:00 in the morning. It was revealed and acknowledged that the group of conservative action groups had been giving away free cell phones to delegates from Africa. It seems our African delegates received a letter inviting them to come pick up their free cell phone - a gift... On the other side of the letter was a slate of names to vote for Judicial Council. (Speaking of which, the Council of Bishops released their list of names yesterday morning of who they are endorsing for Judicial Council, included on the list of 15 people for 5 open seats was New England's own Vicki Woods!)
Anyway, back to the cell phones. Another member of the New England delegation - Ralph - was granted the floor for a moment of personal privilege and requested the Commission on General Conference form an Ethics Committee to address such crises as this. It was seconded and passed by a hand count (in other words, it wasn't close)! And then, just like that it was over and we went to the order of the day. It was very brave and important for him to get this out there so I think that's fantastic. (if anyone who isn't a die hard Methodist read this paragraph and any of it made sense, I'd be shocked. That being said, I could not exaggerate the type of "code" language that is used at events like this. It's simply it's own language.)
The Human Sexuality Sub-Committee finally finished our work at about 9:00 tonight and then we immediately went into a full committee meeting to look at the sub-committee's suggestions. We did pretty well, but people started to get antsy around 11:00. Someone rose to ask how long we were planning on going and I think people were pretty shocked to hear the chair say that he was anticipating 12:40 am. We decided to adjourn about an hour earlier than that but I was one who voted to keep working. Basically, because we adjourned so early we are in real danger of not finishing before the 1:00 am Monday morning deadline. So we will either 1) work past 1:00 am into early Monday, or 2) be dismissed from plenary on the Monday morning gather to complete our work. In any case, I would have preferred to stick around later tonight rather then doing it later. I don't think committee members get what we're up agains.
Finally, I want to share very briefly about a few spirit moments. The first came when a friend who is volunteering asked me how things were going in committee. He's a little younger than me and is also a gay man called to the ordained ministry who is working as a housing advocate. I let myself go somewhere in my mind that may not be terribly helpful to go to yet, but looking at his hopeful face I thought "maybe we can do this. Maybe through some miracle if the right things happen we can change this person's life for the better." Ummm... I had a minor breakdown, very minor. If you know how much I love to cry you wouldn't even rank this. I didn't even really need a tissue. But just the same, I was glad I was able to connect in a real way with someone I love around our shared experiences..................
Well I just tried typing a few times to share my thoughts about another vulnerable grace-filled moment where I connected with a very different sort of person around a very technical piece of our work but I'm just too tired. So if you want to hear that story, you'll have to wait for the sermon some time. It'll be awesome, I promise.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I'd like to amend the amendment to the amendment

Today was all about the work of the Human Sexuality Sub-committee for me. Some of it was pretty tough going. Thankfully the difficulties were organizational as opposed to personal (though I did get yelled at - personally - by one of the most famous evangelists in the world, it wasn't pretty).
Thus far, we will be suggesting to make some very inclusive changes to the whole committee. Then of course, we have at it as a committee before forwarding our suggestions to the plenary floor some time next week. We're doing the work.
A twenty-four drumming circle is underway just in front of the convention center, being led by the young people of MoSAIC- that's the campus ministry and young adult segment of RMN. Also today there was a rally and picnic hosted by transgender United Methodists. Of course, I don't get to do any of these things (I actually has to work through our two hour lunch break today working with the chair of my group categorizing the petitions) but it's a bit of a Methodist festival in Forth Worth. Though I must agree with my friend sitting next to me on the floor, that it's a little worrisome that we weren't even important enough to get the Mayor... a United Methodist none the less.

It's 2:20 but I just want to say that I think you would be proud of what we're doing here. From what I understand, some really great legislation is moving forward from other committees. I'm pretty sure that we're the slowest moving sub-committee (several petitions were removed from our portfolio today and reassigned over fears that we would never get done, or actually more like we would never get started) so I don't have a great sense of what's going on everywhere. But I do know that we're being faithful.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Madam Secretary

This evening in Fort Worth, Texas I was elected Secretary of the Sub-committee on Human Sexuality of the Church & Society II Legislative Committee of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I would now ask that you address me by my proper title: The Secretary of Sex.
The S.O.S. had a very full day at General Conference today. The highlight had to be the first ever young person's address (and they were so prophetic and honest it could very well be the last). A young person finally said the words, "sexual orientation", "homosexual", "inclusion of gay people". And you won't believe it but the ceiling didn't fall in. However, the Spirit did descend.
I had to wait about twenty-four hours after conference began for us to finally organize as legislative committees, but when we finally did things moved right along. We elected officers, formed subcommittees and began meeting. As I said above, I am serving on the Sub-committee of Human Sexuality, which is exactly why I think I am supposed to be here. Tomorrow we'll start organizing the petitions and discussing how we want to forward them on to the entire legislative committee and then to the entire conference. By Sunday night we'll be done with our work as a legislative committee. In other words, this will be what is know as a loooong weekend.
I am sorry that I couldn't attend the Transgender info press conference today. But I just watched some of it at www.generalconference2008.org. It looks great. And, several petitions dealing with gender and trans people have been assigned to my committee, so I'm glad about that.
Tomorrow will be almost all legislative committee meetings, so I don't what I'll be able to write about or share. We also will learn who the bishops are nominating for Judicial Council. That will be very important because most people base votes on those suggestions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Will Green- 4/23/08

Today I experienced two different sides of General Conference; I started out the day at the RMN volunteer headquarters and ended being a delegate as we began the first official session of conference. It was nice for me to enjoy the differences. Volunteering with Reconciling is what I know best so it was grounding for me to spend my morning and early afternoon in that setting.
The Parent's Reconciling Network (a.k.a. PRN, a network of parents of GLBT people) hosted a press conference and lunch. Bishop Chamberlain spoke at the press conference. This was exciting in part because, to my knowledge, he hasn't been an ally who is always out in front for Reconciling... but he was today! Several members of PRN also spoke but the highlight was Rev. Bill Taylor. He is a pastor who has served for 35 years in Texas but has recently had his career and health put in jeopardy because of his support and love for his son Dawson. Dawson is a gay man who now serves the UCC at a church named The Cathdral of Hope in Dallas. I met Dawson when we were college students and went to the "Student Forum" together (that's an international gathering of UMC college students... I'll save it for another blog). All of the speakers from this event are available as a podcast at www.generalconference2008.org, check it out if you're interested.
I just want to share one tidbit about it. Bill Taylor said that after his son Dawson came out to him and his wife he prayed to God with all of his heart. He asked God for one of two things: that either his son would become straight or he would learn to accept and understand his son and his heart would change. His prayer was answered!
In the afternoon I went to an orientation for delegates under 30. There are about 45 of us, which I don't think is too shabby. The orientation was well run, but a little awkward given that it was supposed to cover the needs of people ranging in age from high schoolers to 30 year olds (one person confessed to me that even though he was 30, he was 29 when he got elected so he thought he was justified in sneaking in...) I sat next a young man from London who is a representative from the concordant, Methodist Church of Great Britain- not actually a part of the United Methodist Church but it still sends four full delegates to General Conference because of the historic ties between the churches.
Then the real fun began with opening worship at 6:00pm. I was so excited I was practically running laps before we started. Worship is being run by Mark Miller and Marcia McPhee, the two greatest worship leaders God has ever created. It was amazing. Although, when the Bishops marched in with two men holding the episcopal seals on enormous flags, it felt a little like the Roman army was invading.
Bishop Huie preached on Jeremiah 29: 10-14, which I'm sure has been preached on thousands of times in the last few weeks in Methodist churches (that passage contains the line about "a future with hope" where the conference theme comes from).
We went in to a rather tedious opening business section where we basically took forever to adopt the rules of order. Nothing very exciting.
But a member of the New England delegation, my friend We Chang, asked the Bishop to change her language around a motion being "defeated" so that we don't use war and violence language. The Bishop loved the suggestion and it got applause from the gallery! Speaking of which, they estimated that there were 6,500 people in attendance for worship.
Tomorrow we hear the episcopal address, laity address and young people's address. Then we break into committees to elect our officers. (Hope this shorter post is more readable than yesterdays...) Now I'm going to take a shower and shave before I go to bed since I'm leaving for the convention center in five hours...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Willy's First Day in Texas

Thanks to a 5:45 am drive to Logan this morning from my neighbor Sean (thanks Seano!) I had no trouble making my flight, although I slept most of the time. There were only two occasions when I was awake. The first time, a glance out the window confirmed that we were indeed flying over the United States of America... I recognized the land. The second time I woke up, I looked to my left and noticed a man two seats over was reading the Second Book of Kings. I assumed he was headed to the same place as me but it turns out he was simply a Texan: Baptist. Don't get me wrong, I see people reading the Bible on the T in Boston at least once a week and I know a number of people to turn to at the non-profit where I work if I need to borrow a Bible. I was just making assumptions about this guy and thought he must have been a Methodist. See where assumptions get you?
After touching down at DFW, I almost immediately saw someone who I felt very safe in assuming to be a Methodist. She was wearing a blue vest that said “A Future With Hope” and she was holding a poster board with the United Methodist cross and flame logo on it. (Sometimes you can just tell when someone's a Methodist.) However, apparently I wasn't so easy to identify. After I shook her hand and introduced myself to her she looked at me a little blankly and said, "Are you here for General Conference?" People must be really friendly in Texas because I'm pretty sure that after the way I had approached her, she should have been confident that I was here for Conference. In most places holding a cross and flame poster board and wearing a vest that quotes the prophet Jeremiah normally wouldn't invite people to start a conversation unless they knew what they were getting into. But for some reason I confused her. I’m guessing it was my eye-liner.
After talking to her for a few minutes, a second woman came up to me who could have been her twin. The only difference was in her outfit. Instead of wearing a blue vest over her clothes, she had on a brightly colored rainbow stole. These rainbow stoles are one of the unofficial trademarks of the Reconciling Ministries Network- although yellow boas are also big. So there they were, a Reconciling volunteer and a volunteer from General Conference each trying to see who could show a better welcome to people arriving at the airport. I thought it was cool that RMN has people at the airport greeting delegates.
Out on the sidewalk, another man was waiting for the shuttle too. It turned out that he wasn’t’ coming to General Conference but was instead going to hear the president of Mexico speak. I told him why I was in town and he instantly pulled out a business card. He asked me to please do all that I could to advocate for the rights of immigrants who are being detained by the United States government and don’t have access to visitors or proper legal representation. I instantly felt responsible, not guilty or complacent (although I suppose I'm those things too) but responsible in the sense of having the authority and the power to make a change. The work of General Conference is going to have real impact on people’s lives and people who are vulnerable know it best. I promised the man that I'd do every thing I could to advocate for immigrants who are being detained. He gave me a big smile.
But on the shuttle ride we weren't talking about a world that needs the power of God to change things, we were talking about ourselves. It was a wonderful and frightful introduction to the level of networking that goes on. The first person I met was a senior citizen who introduced herself by holding out her hand and saying, “My name is Laurel and this is my fourth General Conference, I’ve been coming since 1992 in Louisville. I’ve also been a board member of the General Board of Church and Society for two terms, well actually more like three because I had to fill out the board term of another member who got selected to serve on the Jurisdictional Districting Committee so she had to step down.” How’s that for a warm welcome? It got worse from there.
I was in the back of a fifteen person van with a man who's son plays football at the University of Alabama. I froze when this came up. You see I've been preparing like mad for this conference. I have read the proposed petitions, I’ve been studying Books of Discipline and Resolutions going back to before I was born and I've spent way too many hours on endless conference calls. But in all of my efforts, I had forgotten a key component of southern culture and networking: I have never learned all of the positions on a football team. Still, for the sake of church unity, I took a risk and continued the conversation... “What position?” It worked! I asked it the right way. His son is a long snapper. I would have sworn that was a type of fish, but appartently it’s something to do with the “special teams.” I responded to this information by shaking my head confidently and saying "Sure, sure, yep." However I think I gave myself away when I noticed two people passing us on motorcycles who were wearing bandannas. I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged a little and I said, "Wow. No helmet law in Texas?" No one answered.
As the shuttle snaked through the downtown Fort Worth, I was shocked by how many United Methodists I saw walking around. Identifiable mainly by our official United Methodist name badges, United Methodists have taken over Fort Worth. All in all they'll be about 5,000 of us. (992 delegates plus Bishops, volunteers, agency staff, pages, marshals, musicians, worship leaders and the hospitality team). We are everywhere.
I arrived at my room which is an apartment I’m sharing with a friend a little under two miles from the convention center. Because a very large hotel wasn’t completed in time (actually it looks like it was barely started) we are extremely short on rooms and in a bit of a crisis. So I'm staying in a nice complex that is fully furnished. The irony of this is pretty bitter because I work as a housing advocate who helps homeless people find affordable housing. But because I'm a delegate to General Conference, I could pretty much waltz in and get an apartment for two weeks.
At the convention center and at the temporary HQ for Reconciling volunteers, I saw many many many familiar and friendly faces. I'd guess that Reconciling has about 100 volunteers who are already hard at work to impact conference. Their work covers everything from offering delegates meals to tracking legislation in sub-committees to distributing news letters. Last General Conference, this is what I was doing. I must have been a good volunteer because a few months later I was asked to be on the Board of Directors.
I also had a little bit of time to look at the display area at the convention center. (a.k.a. The Mall of Methodism) This you’ve got to see to believe. It’s a Texas sized display area with probably sixty foot ceilings and is bigger than two football fields. Not even a long snapper for Alabama could snap (?) a ball across it... Not unless she was really good. The displays for the church agencies are very flashy. United Methodist Communications has six flat screen t.v.’s all running advertisements. All of the displays have fancy furniture to invite delegates to take a load off so they can learn more about the particular agencies work. There are displays for the GBOD, GCCORR, GCCUIC, COSROW, The Committee for Strengthening the Black church for the 21st Century and anything else you could name. Then there’s an opening in the wall and it lead you to our official church bookstore display. This is the part of General Conference where I would suggest the Daily Show should report from. Let me just say that if you want me to buy you General Conference 2008 “A Future With Hope” cuff links, please text me. They have everything you could imagine. It’s hilarious. There are also about forty round tables set up to create the feel of a cafĂ©.
The last thing I want to mention is that I went into the area where we’ll be actually meeting in plenary session. It was way creepy. Bishop Christopher was rehearsing her Episcopal Address that she’ll deliver Thursday morning but the five- thousand seat arena was empty save for about five people working technical equipment. So she was standing on the stage with one of those over the ear microphones (I called them Madonna microphones, they’re like the ones we use at the church where I work if you’ve ever seen them). She was apparently reading off of two of those invisible prompters that look like salad bar sneeze guards that the President uses. And her face was projected on five enormous screens spread throughout the hall. All of the lights were down beside the light on her. It was creepy to see her talking to an empty hall with all of the special effects. I have to admit, it made me think of some of our churches that have five people in them on Sunday morning. I wondered if there would ever be a day where we're still spending a large fortune on General Conference (this year's cost 6.6 million dollars) and going through all of the motions, but people have just stopped showing up...
I am thrilled to get to work. Tomorrow I have orientation for delegates under 30 and the first plenary session. Hope to post again tomorrow night.

Monday, April 21, 2008

My General Conference Boa

A deflated balloon is on my mouse pad. It's orange and crinkly and has a little bit of green ribbon attached to it. I'm also wearing a yellow boa. These two items are four years old; they're both from a party I went to in Pittsburg in 2004. The party didn't start until after midnight because it was the last event of General Conference. It was a communion service led by the Reconciling Ministries Network. I held the cup next to my friend Vicky who gave people bread to remind them about God's love. It was cool.
Despite all that went down at in Pittsburg for those two weeks, Reconciling United Methodists were celebrating when it was all over because we know that in the end it's about God.
I have a little more packing to do. I'm bringing the boa. I'm also bringing the balloon. They'll help me remember who I am.
And thanks to my faithful friend Chip for giving me this boa. Look for it in Fort Worth.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

General Conference Blogging

As CWM heads to Ft. Worth for General Conference, our blogging team will expand. Guest bloggers will post each day to keep friends at home and across the connection up to date with all that is happening as we witness to God's love.

Check our blog for daily updates from the CWM Mission Team.

A Sending Forth to General Conference

This Sunday we at CWM will commission nearly one-third of our worshipping congregation as they prepare to travel to Fort Worth for the United Methodist Church's General Conference.

Every four years the global United Methodist Church gathers to consider our theology, tradition and polity, allowing the Holy Spirit to move in and through the church as we engage in holy conferencing. As in years past, this General Conference will take up significant matters in the life of the church...the global nature of the church, our theology of ministry, questions of the episcopacy, and issues of social justice related to war, economic injustice, immigration and sexuality. To find out more about General Conference you can go to the United Methodist website or the Reconciling Ministries General Conference blog.

CWM has historically commissioned missionaries to go to General Conference in order to faithfully witness to God's love and prophetically call the Church to ministries of peace and justice. This year, we send our missionaries forth with a special rite of blessing. This blessing was adapted from a similar service in the book, Shaping Sanctuary, edited by Kelly Turney (Reconciling Ministries Network, 2000).

Commissioning Our CWM Missionaries

One: All who seek to follow Jesus are called into ministries of love and service, making real the Body of Christ for the world.

All: We gather this day to offer blessings to our missionaries, our witnesses, our friends, who offer themselves to the United Methodist General Conference as living testimonies to the love of God, the joy of Christ and the peace-filled power of the Holy Spirit.

One: Throughout the ages, O God, you have sent forth your people to proclaim peace and justice in the midst of a broken world. You have called ordinary people to extraordinary tasks, empowering them through your Spirit with courage, conviction, strength, wisdom, and love. Just as you have filled those before us with your Spirit, so now breathe upon these missionaries and empower them for service and witness.

All: Fill them with the spirit of Moses and Miriam as they led the Hebrew people from slavery to freedom.

One: Fill them with the spirit of Queen Esther as she defied conventional wisdom to save her people.

All: Fill them with the spirit of the disciples, bereft from the departure of their friend Jesus, yet able to organize a new community founded on the promises of love, joy and peace.

One: Fill them with the spirit of Stephen, Lydia, Dorcas, Timothy and so many other early Christians who risked living a minority faith in an empire of oppression and enforced uniformity.

All: Fill them with the spirit of Rosemary Denman, Paul Abels, Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Beth Stroud, Drew Phoenix and so many other faithful advocates for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

One: We pray that through the power of your Holy Spirit and their faithful witness, they might embody Christ for our broken Church. Let us join together in commissioning and blessing our friends.

All: God of peace and God of justice, pour out your Holy Spirit upon these missionaries that they might be for the world a living testimony to you. We pray that by this commissioning, their hands and hearts might be strengthened to be compassionate to human need, tender in their care for one another, and faithful to your hope of a better world. Bless them with love. Bless them with joy. Bless them with peace. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Closer to Fine

This Easter season at CWM, we have been focusing on the resurrection promises of love, joy and peace that Christ promises. We understand these not as rewards at the end of life, but real, concrete promises of resurrection in this lifetime. Inspired by the work of Christine Smith, we too have been searching for "resurrection in this life" by discerning, acknowledging and savoring moments of joy.

For me, joy often comes in the form of music...my soul music. Soul music is music that "participates in a story, embodies a people...and sings the people's existence." (Tex Sample in White Soul, p. 71).

The music of my soul varies...from Latin American protest songs to the bluegrass tunes of Dolly Parton, from the sweet melodies of Cris Williamson to the childhood ditties from Free to Be You and Me, from hymns penned by Georgia Harkness to rock ballads by Queen, from sentimental odes to love by EmmyLou Harris to the raging rants of Ani DiFranco. These songs echo and resonate with my very being, helping me to engage both the struggle and joy of life. As I listen, it is as if my soul reverberates with the truth the music communicates and is enlivened by the hope it offers.

Of all my soul music, I confess it is the music of the Indigo Girls that most closely sings the songs of my life. It is as if their music is indeed a "letter to my soul" (lyrics from Virginia Woolf). Lyrics and melody wed together to sing my greatest fears, deepest longings, and most fervent hopes into being.

Here are just a few of my favorite lines:

"The epicenter love is the pendulum swinger." - Pendulum Swinger

"Welcome to why the church has died
In the heart of the exiled in the kingdom of hate
Who owns the land & keeps the commands
And marries itself to the state
Modern scribes write in Jesus Christ
Everyone is free
And the doors open wide to all straight men & women
But they are not open to me" - The Philosophy of Loss

"This is a message
A message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire
Fire" - Strange Fire

"Up on the watershed
Standing at the fork in the road
You can stand there and agonize
Till your agony's your heaviest load
You'll never fly as the crow flies
Get used to a country mile
When you're learning to face
The path at your pace
Every choice is worth your while" - Watershed

"There's more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
(the less I seek my source)
The closer I am to fine" - Closer to Fine

Of course, this post could go on indefinitely, for the music of the Girls never ceases to connect with my heart. Their music indeed is the music of my soul.

Soul music sings us to and through life. Through word and melody soul music connects us to the Divine love, peace and joy that Christ promises.

What is your soul music?

Walking Through Dark Valleys

Far from a poem merely about the journey toward death, Psalm 23 explores our longing and hope for comfort in the midst of the hostile world. Let’s be clear, the valley of the shadow of death does not just come at the end of our lives. For many of us, we traverse it daily. Here in this community one-third of our members will be traveling through it this coming week as they journey to General Conference.

This longing for comfort in the midst of struggle is not isolated to our own time and place, but is nearly universal to the human experience. Psalm 23 itself arose out of a living place of grief, sorrow and disappointment. The community in which this psalm was born knew what it meant to walk through the valley of the shadow of evil for the lives of the Israelite people had seemingly been perpetually marked by struggle. The very name Israel means, "those who have struggled with God." They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most important, they struggled with God.

A nomadic people, tossed to and fro by the political winds of the region, the Israelites longed for a sense of security, comfort and assurance. They longed for divine guidance and protection in the harsh world in which they lived.

We who live on the margins of both church and society can relate to this feeling, can't we? It seems like our lives are marked by this same sense of struggle and longing for comfort. As we wrestle with our church for the blessing God has given us, we tire, grow weary and can even lose hope. At times, we may feel as though the green pastures and cool streams will never come. Yet, if we remember the promises of Jesus made during the farewell discourse, we understand that the green pasture does not come on the other side of life’s struggles, but rather bubbles up through the cracks of despair, creating moments of comfort, moments of solace, moments of peace even in the very valley of the shadow of evil itself.

For God has promised to accompany us throughout our lives. The key to finding our way home is remembering that even in the valleys of the shadow of death, those green pastures are there…for God has not and will not abandon us.

When we feel like lost sheep, alone and abandoned to the wilderness, God calls us to be still long enough to listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd calling us home through the dark valleys. In the those places of struggle, we must quiet ourselves long enough to discern the presence of the Divine. For even there in the middle of the very valley of the shadow of death, God still goes the road with us to protect and guide, to comfort and provide.

As General Conference approaches, we as a community here at CWM will walk through a dark, dark valley as we watch our denomination debate our very worth. Yet, I hope as we take this journey together we can remember our faith convictions and hold strong to the promise of peace, love and joy that God gives us, a promise that we will find our way out of the wilderness of exclusion and struggle and be brought home to our God.

* The artwork is a painting by Irv Davis entitled Psalm 23 and found at About.Com

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor

Gayle Carlton Felton, one of our denomination's preeminent theologians and author of This Gift of Water, By Water and the Spirit, United Methodists and the Sacraments and This Holy Mystery has written a new brochure, Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor.

This brief pamphlet looks at membership in the context of our denomination's history, ecclesiology, constitutional and disciplinary regulations and fundamental beliefs about the nature of God's activity in human lives to bring about redemption for individuals and the wider world.

Felton points to the work of Wesleyan scholar, David Lowes Watson, who said:
“it is historiographically inept to try to apply Wesley's polity for early Methodist classes and societies to membership in the church today.”
Building on the work of Lowes Watson, she illustrates the way in which Wesleyan history has been misunderstood and misused to support the right of a pastor to deny membership to individuals. Wesley's only requirement for joining the Methodist societies was a "desire to flee from the wrath to come." Indeed, she writes,
"No spiritual attainment or religious status was necessary—only only the desire to seek God. Wesley accepted any who sought admission, but made clear that there were postconditions for society membership."
While it is true that continued membership in the societies required adherence to the General Rules and equally true that those who failed to abide by the Rules were often "purged" from the societies by Wesley himself, Felton points out that it was inconceivable for Wesley to remove a person from membership of the church:
"this exclusion was from the society, not from the church. The rules of what was essentially at that time a small religious order could not be applied to the church at large—in that case, usually the Church of England of which most early Methodists were members, if not active ones."
Felton continues on to explore our denomination's ecclesiology, or understanding of the nature of the Church, that has moved from being a sect or "holy club" to being a worldwide church...one, holy, catholic apostolic church which in accord with the wider Christian tradition roots membership in baptism. She writes:
"One becomes a member of a church by baptism. Those who advocate giving pastors the authority to determine membership ignore the significance of the sacrament. Those who want to exclude persons from the church on the basis of sexual orientation forget that many, many such persons are already baptized members. A church which practices the baptism of infants and which values baptism in accord with orthodox Christianity cannot deny membership to any class of people. By Water and the Spirit plainly states, “There are no conditions of human life that exclude persons from the sacrament of baptism.” ¶216 of the Discipline describes the process by which baptized members become professing members. ¶217 specifies that the requirements for professing membership are the taking of seven enumerated vows. No power is granted to the pastor to interrupt this process. If baptized persons are barred from professing membership, they remain members of the universal church of Jesus Christ, marked with the sign of the cross, and sealed with the Holy Spirit, yet not qualified to be United Methodists!"
Felton's work is central to the conversations, debates and votes which will happen at the coming General Conference in regard to the right of pastors to determine readiness of membership. While some in the church seek to limit membership based on the discretion of individual pastors, Felton has clearly demonstrated that to do so would be contrary to our Wesleyan heritage, theological tradition, ecclesial polity and fundamental assertions about God's redemptive power working in and through the Church.

To obtain a complete copy of this paper, please contact the Reconciling Ministries Network.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Culture Wars and the UM Hymnal

The results are in for the recent hymnal survey conducted by the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) and they bear a striking resemblance to the ballot of answers suggested by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and Good News in their 2007 call to action.

In the fall, Good News sent out notices to members instructing their constituents how to complete the survey. The following comes from a Good News letter:

"We would encourage you to participate in a hymnal survey being done currently by the church. You can share your ten most favorite hymns as well as the ten least favorite that you would like to see removed from the hymnal. Mark Tooley reminded us recently that the supplement to the hymnal which came out in 2000, entitled The Faith We Sing, had some problematic hymns included. They were approved because the supplement did not have to be approved by General Conference. Hymns such as "I Am Your Mother," "Mother God," and "Womb of Life" to just name several, have problems theologically. They would be good for your removal list. To participate in the hymnal survey, go here."

This target list indeed bore out in the survey results. The top three least favorite hymns reported by the 4,119 survey respondents included Mothering God, I Am Your Mother, and Womb of Life, followed closely by She Comes Sailing on the Wind, Bring Many Names and A Mother Lined a Basket.

This survey attests to the pervasive impact of the larger culture wars on the life of the Church. The debate over the hymnal is not new. In 1989, the same lines conservative v. liberal were drawn then. For a brief history, check out Cross and Flame's 2007 diary entry.

Is the UMC really so opposed to feminine images of God and praise for women in leadership? I cannot imagine that to be the case...not in a denomination where women serve at every level of leadership from laity to bishops; not in a denomination where the percentage of women in seminary exceeds that of men; not in a denomination that sponsors a powerful global mission society of women; not in a denomination whose tradition has been to promote and advocate for women's rights throughout history.

No, these results do not represent the wider United Methodist denomination. In fact, the protest directed toward these particular hymns does not even represent the opinion of the majority of survey respondents. The results show that only 13% of respondents chose Mothering God to be eliminated, only 10%, I Am Your Mother, and a mere 9%, Womb of Life. Hardly a resounding majority! In fact, it is only at most 535 people out of a denomination of 8 million. The survey itself revealed a wide diversity of hymns that folks liked and did not like.

GBOD is not unaware of the orchestrated campaigns to purge the United Methodist hymnal of feminine images of the Divine. In fact, earlier this year GBOD responded to the IRD campaign with a thoughtful letter that attended to the concerns of some in the church that feminine images for God were not scripturally sound.

Both Good News and the IRD have a history of using controversial issues related to sexuality and gender to motivate their constituency. Yet, despite their success in pushing through an anti-homosexual agenda in recent years, they have failed to advance any of their other agenda items related to doctrinal fidelity, reshaping judicial processes, changing the accountability of the Women's Division, refocusing the Board of Church and Society, reconstituting the University Senate, and requiring confessions of faith for seminary professors...to name a few.

The Rev. Scott Campbell noted in an essay in the book, Hard Ball on Holy Ground, that the call for schism at the 2004 General Conference was a direct result of the resounding defeat of the conservative agenda. Campbell writes:
Conservative renewal leaders find themselves in a most uncomfortable place. They have a denomination that rejects the ordination of homosexuals, but which has enacted almost nothing else on their reform agenda and doesn't seem inclined to do so any time in the near future. The church remains solidly centrist by almost every measure. What is more, it continues to lean to the left in terms of most of its social policy positions. (Why the Right Proposed Schism, p. 83)
As we approach General Conference, it will indeed be interesting to see what, if any, impact these conservative renewal groups have on the wider church. The tradition of the United Methodist Church has always been one of openness and diversity and there is little indication that it will change anytime soon.

The culture wars that we witness in the UMC are not disimilar to those in the wider society. The recent trend of political polarization (red state/ blue state, for example) translates itself from town halls to church councils. This is not all bad news...for the UMC has always affirmed a unity in diversity. Perhaps it will be the church in the next few decades that will model for the world a way of reconciliation in the midst of division.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Living Into Easter Joy

One of the most memorable communion services I ever attended happened during my time in seminary. As part of a global campaign to close the School of the Americas, a US sponsored training camp for Latin American terrorists located in Columbus, Georgia, a small group of seminary colleagues and myself had decided to participate in 14 day fast for justice. Holding daily vigils, we ate nothing but our daily portion of communion bread served to us at a brief service each evening.

Here we were, a handful of friends and acquaintances gathered in the cold, damp basement of Theology House, circled around a stained plastic table stuck in the corner of a vacant room. Each night had been the same. We raised prayers for the victims, naming some one by one: Vincente Ramirez, Rosa Santiago, Oscar Romero… A loaf of bread and a bottle of Welch’s passed from hand to hand without much ceremony, without many words. We ate our tiny portion of life even as dwelt in the midst of death.

We were a solemn bunch, keeping ourselves subdued and silent, mournful as we remembered the torture of our Christ in the context of the torture of thousands upon thousands of victims throughout the Americas.

This was serious business. After all we were starving ourselves for justice.

But one night, somewhere in the middle of the fast as we silently and solemnly passed the loaf from person to person, one of my friends, Sara, broke our silence in protest. Looking at the pathetically small scrap of bread handed to her by her partner she yelled, “Hey, I want a big hunk of Jesus!”

In a moment, we were all undone, laughing and giggling at what seemed a most inappropriate outburst in the midst of our somber gathering. Of course, we had all been thinking the same thing…who in the midst of a fast would not want a big hunk of fresh, delicious bread? We all wanted more….but this was holy communion. You can’t be greedy before God, right? Communion bread should be miniscule…it’s just a symbol in the end. Who needs to really taste it to understand and know God’s grace?

Yet, Sara was right after all. Who are we to deny ourselves the abundant life that Christ has promised for us? Taking a small scrap of bread seems quite frankly ridiculous in light of what this meal is supposed to help us remember. How in the world do we think a meticulously cut cube of dry, white wonder-bread is supposed to help us experience the presence of the risen Christ?

Holy communion is not some magical rite of symbolic transcendent spirituality. It is a concrete, earthy, fleshy experience of the real presence of a hungry Christ. Christ never intended for us to spiritualize this ritual by making it into some somber funereal symbolic meal. Christ wanted us to make it real, to embody and live it out, to truly experience throughout eternity the love, peace and joy God gives us.

Think about the story that we just read from the Gospel of Luke. What happened? There were two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a village about 7 miles from the city. They were walking away from Jerusalem, leaving behind all of the trauma, chaos and disappointment of the prior week. Believing everything over and done, they were getting out of there. Nothing more to see, nothing more to do. It is finished. I imagine as they walked that road together their grief was overwhelming. Perhaps still in shock and wallowing in their own sorrow, they were probably a sad sight to see.

As they were walking a stranger appears to them and asks them, "Why the long faces? What’s going on? What is it you two are talking about?"

“You have got to be kidding me? You don’t know? Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know what just happened?” The disciples harsh words translate overtime and we can sense the accusatory and incredulous tone with which they greet the wayward wayfarer.

And so the disciples rehearse the story for this stranger, who unbeknownst to them is really the Christ.

“Well, there was this man Jesus from Nazareth…surely you heard of him, a prophet mighty in word and deed? You know, healing the sick, feeding the poor, raising the dead kinda guy? Anyway, he was arrested, condemned to death and crucified. We all had thought he was the One, you know the One, the Messiah, our hope of liberation, freedom and salvation? But he wasn’t. He died and left us all alone. But then, just this day a group of women claimed to have gone to the tomb and found it empty and what’s more they had the audacity to claim that they had seen the dead man walking. They claimed Jesus was alive. Can you believe that? Well, some of the men went and sure enough the tomb was empty, but this whole business of Jesus being alive and walking around? Yeah, that was just not true. The men who went saw nothing. Really, who believes this sort of outrageous tale anyway? Alive? I don’t think so.”

These two disciples are more than a little disappointed. In the shadow of their grief, I imagine bitterness has set in, along with anger, resentment and regret. Why did they believe this guy in the first place?

But Christ is patient with them. Exasperated, perhaps, but patient nonetheless. Rehearsing the story from the beginning of Moses to present day, Christ interprets the entirety of the scriptures to them so that they might understand…Genesis to Zechariah Christ explains it all.

And still they don’t get it.

Their grief and disappointment is too thick. It blurs their vision. So, they sit down for a meal together on the road. All of them hungry for sustenance on this journey they break bread together. Here in the midst of the disciples’ disappointment and despair something miraculous happens. The stranger takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them and in doing so is made known to the disciples. Their eyes flicker with recognition as hope takes life in their hearts once again. In the midst of the very ordinary, something extraordinary happens.

This story points to the Christic presence in the very ordinariness of day to day life. The picture of the Christ we get from this story is one of an earthy, fleshy Christ who shares the road of our lives with us, who walks with us, who talks with us, who sits down with us to bring us hope in the midst of despair, love in the midst of rejection and life in the face of death.

But then, just as recognition and hope begin to dawn in the disciples eyes, the Christ vanishes. Just like that the fullness of God is known and then gone in a flash. Fleeting, momentary, the Christ comes to us to offer a glimmer of hope in the midst of a broken world.

We are given these moments of earthy, fleshy divine experience not to tease or tempt us, but rather to encourage and fill us on the long journey that is life. In these moments, we get to savor resurrection life and experience the hope of a future that not only will be, but already is. Our eyes are opened to the Divine living and moving and dwelling in and through us.

Yet, so often we neglect, ignore or even refuse these moments, turning away God’s offer of joy for one reason or another…we don’t deserve it, it can’t last, why bother. Worse, we sometimes reject God’s joy out of some twisted notion of sacrificial piety. God wants us to suffer, to sacrifice, to starve. That means we are good Christians, right? Somber, silent, mournful, serious…just like that group of well-intentioned yet misguided seminary students not so long ago.

We Christians sometimes take ourselves way too seriously. Here is a clip of one of my favorite stand-up routines that unmasks brilliantly our Protestant piety gone awry (Beware there is some profanity in this clip):



Izzard’s riff, like so much comedy, queers the world up enough for us to see things in a new way, to see beyond our own pretensions to the reality we seldom like to acknowledge. Why is it the hegemonic power that is mainline Protestantism is so pathetic when it comes to expressing and experiencing joy? How is it that those most oppressed and most marginalized are the ones who translate that resurrection joy to us?

God intends for us to savor these moments. Here today, gone tomorrow, we are meant to enjoy the presence of Christ while we can, to let the holy goodness of these moments linger on our tongues that we might taste the goodness of God.

In that musty old, nasty basement room, Sara brought life back into that deadly ritual of our own fashioning and helped us glimpse more clearly the meaning of communion. This is no death ritual…this is the rehearsal of life, resurrection life that is abundant, joyful, and delicious!

We are called to recognize and remember these moments of joy when our hearts burned with the presence of the Christ known most fully through love, joy and peace. Let us savor the goodness that is God and enjoy the fleeting moments of divine revelation scattered throughout our lives to give us hope and send us forth.

So take a big hunk of Jesus that we might taste the goodness of God!