Spirit Alive: It's Time to Get Real
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and beyond.
March 5, 2019
With Heart, Soul, and Mind:
St. Louis 2019-- What Just Happened?
"I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you."
Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground
"Rather than putting 'Christ' back in 'Christmas,' I'd settle for putting 'Christ' back in Christians."
2018 holiday season post
At the same time, I witnessed the amazing resiliency, the remarkable courage, and the deep faithfulness of countless people. People, who in the aftermath of what happened in St. Louis, came together, in spite of the pain and grief, to find new ways to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and claim the everlasting power of love and inclusion...as we move forward into a new day.
Ultimately, this time turned out to be incredibly freeing in spite of it all. As one of my colleagues put it following General Conference, "I became disconnected from my church of origin, but gained the church of my choice."
What words could possibly describe the cauldron of raw emotions that were a part of this gathering?
We all observed it. But ultimately, we are all a part of it as well....and we are now participants in what happens next! Everything that occurred in St. Louis mattered...and everything we do next matters as well. But once the stone has been rolled away, it is time to join the celebration of new life that awaits.
As a result of attending General Conference, I have a much deeper appreciation of how difficult the Holy Week experience truly is. In these few short days, which take place annually, we go through the ritual of death and resurrection. This year Holy Week (April 14-21) won't be the same for me, because I have a renewed appreciation for what it means to go through the devastation of witnessing a crucifixion and then suddenly and miraculously, experiencing the redeeming power of resurrection three short days later. All is not lost after all. There is new life ahead!
So as we start on our way into an unknown future, here are some things I learned at General Conference about our church, matters of faith, and what lies ahead:
1. Faith is expressed whenever and wherever we interact with people....starting in the streets and in public places... not just in arenas, meeting halls, or even churches.
One of my lasting memories of General Conference will always be what I learned about faith as I encountered various expressions of it while walking each day to The Dome in St. Louis, where the General Conference was being held.
Each day, as we approached the security stations everyone had to go through in order to enter the arena, we were greeted by two different groups of people.
What struck me most about this experience was that while everyone on both sides of the street was kind and friendly, one set of materials was about legislation, interpretation, and positions, while the other group engaged people in an interaction that had to do with what they were experiencing themselves as human beings...inside the arena and inside ourselves.
One side of the street expressed a position, the other side engaged you in conversation. One group met me where they were at...the other group encountered me where I was at. And...there is a noticeable difference between the two.
I think you learn a lot about faith by how people treat each other...and how they behave in the streets. That is, in fact, where our faith begins.
These interactions made me think about the fact that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. It didn't have to do with their clever arguments nor elaborate theological positions. It had to do with their unique ability to love a diverse variety of people in that multi-cultural region of the world...and do so in an open, caring manner. This is the kind of church I want to be a part of.
I found it to be a powerful experience when we were asked during General Conference to greet each other in a manner in which the Commission of the Way Forward did at one point in their time together. We did so by holding hands and saying to each other: "If there is anything I have done intentionally or unintentionally to do you harm, please forgive me. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen." This is an important exercise to do with each other. During these days of division...as we move into a new way of being church together, it is critical for us to relate as human beings with openness and honesty.
Learning: Relationships matter. How we treat each other matters. It is an expression of our faith. And...this takes place everywhere and anywhere.
Resources: Margaret Wheatley has written a number of excellent books on leadership for uncertain, challenging times that are worth reading. They include: Turning to One Another, Finding Our Way, and Who Do We Choose to Be?
2. Legislating purity is an endless, frequently fruitless, path that often turns ugly
In their pursuit for religious perfection, the Pharisees cut off the circulation of curiosity and openness, and in the process their hearts hardened like stone. In the stories of Jesus that are a part of our Christian heritage, we see Jesus challenging this approach to spiritual living again and again. In the process, he reminds the Pharisees and others who their neighbor is, by confronting them....and holding up a mirror to their own actions and behaviors. Jesus understood and taught that a path focused on purity is too rigid for healthy living and that it is often selective in nature and oppressive in result.
At General Conference, I saw yet again what a path toward selective purity looks like as the Traditional Plan was debated and ultimately passed. The result was something that embodied exclusiveness, not because there aren't traditional ways in which to express one's faith, but because you simply cannot legislate one approach as the only path and then force people to sign statements of compliance. When this happens, the result is quite ugly, especially when it is exposed for its own inconsistencies...and the light of a gospel of love and inclusion is shined on it. God's children are simply too diverse, expressive, and multi-dimensional for this approach to work.
Learning: We have to be honest with each other and embrace the richness of our diversity rather than prevent it from being expressed.
When I began as a District Superintendent back in 2010, I told those I worked with that in order to embody a new way of being church we needed to be honest with each other. I said that I planned to tell people the truth of what I saw and experienced, but was counting on everyone else to do the same thing with me. I believe we cannot grow in Christian maturity...nor Christian community...if we aren't honest...and able to converse and learn from each other.
But those having power frequently want to retain it, and those who want purity of perspective, the Pharisees of Jesus' day, use their understanding of purity as a tool for empire, position, and status. This way of being always divides people and often protects privilege...and you can never pass enough legislation to become totally pure. It is a endless task.
Resource: The General Commission on Religion and Race has created an amazing collection of video resources to stimulate reflection and conversation in honest ways related to difficult subjects that we need to discuss as a church. If you'd like to learn more about these resources, click here.
3. There may be walls between us, but there are always cracks as well and that is where the light and spirit are found
At General Conference, the doors were clearly shut on being an inclusive church, and walls were even built to disallow for differences to exist among us regarding human sexuality and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. But that doesn't mean that there aren't cracks present as well for the spirit to work.
You can clearly see this expressed by what the Western Jurisdiction Council of Bishops and leadership have said about how we plan to proceed. If you haven't already seen these statements and the WJ Bishops' video, click here. If you'd like to read Bishop Elaine Stanovsky's statement to the Greater NW Area, click here. If you'd like to learn more about what is taking place within the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, click here.
In the coming months in the Greater NW Area, we will be holding approximately thirty Table Talks 3.0 to discuss what happened at General Conference, have conversations with each other, and honor our covenant to (1) be curious, (2) be kind, and (3) listen with the same amount of passion with which I want to be heard.
If we can do that, we will not only continue to model the church we wish to be, but also move our conversations forward in healthy, vital ways. Something new is being born among us, even now!
Learning: Stay open, listen, learn, let the spirit in...and beware of the peacocks. Our strength is in our diversity and willingness to learn from one another. But sometimes when things are chaotic, leaders emerge and like peacocks are more interested in displaying their own colors for everyone to see...rather than being a part of a collective movement of people creating a new way of leading that involves a broad base of support, talent, and energy. If we are to reflect the spirit embodied in the One Church Plan, we need to create opportunities for many voices...diverse voices to be involved and share those insights and cultural perspectives as we move forward.
I want to be a part of a church that is so alive and vital that people can openly talk with each other....a church so hospitable that everyone feels welcome...a church so concerned about justice, compassion, and peace that I'd willingly offer my life to be a part of it.
Resource: In her book, The Nature of the Future, futurist Marina Gorbis describes a new way of connecting that she calls "distributive leadership." This approach to organizational development has much to teach us about a new way forward.
One of my biggest regrets from the 2019 Special General Conference Session is that we had a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we were a church that was able to find a way forward and stay connected in love, even when we don't agree on important matters of religious expression.
God knows that the world longs for examples of people who are able to listen to each other rather than talk at each other...stay at the table together rather than walk away...build bridges rather than walls...and love one another rather than judge each other. We missed this opportunity in St. Louis, and it will never come our way again.
But....this doesn't mean that we won't have new chances to demonstrate to the world what it means to live together as people of God in the future or be a new expression of the church in contextually relevant ways. The question is: Will we be up to the challenge when it comes our way again at another time and place?
If anything, St. Louis taught us that this question is still up in the air. So even if the actions of the Special Session of General Conference are now a part of our history as a church, the way forward is still up to us.
No, things will never be the same again, but we will survive and even thrive as an expression of Jesus' love...especially if we find ways to work together and continue to remain open to an ever changing, dynamic, spirit-filled world.
Let us walk in the light of God's love,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.
Want to see all the videos that have been part of Spirit Alive? See them all on vimeo.com.