Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holy conferencing, Batman!

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.” 
John Wesley, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer

I often feel that I am out of the loop when it comes to matters United Methodist. Yes, I have been (and continue to be) a member of a United Methodist church since I was confirmed at age 11. Yes, I am a certified candidate for United Methodist ministry. And yes, I am a commissioned young adult missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

And yet I have had so much trouble understanding the conflicts that have been brewing in the run-up to the 2012 General Conference. I’d like to blame this confusion on how I currently attend a Lutheran church and work for an interfaith organization. I’d like to think that because of the vast amount of time I spend outside of the auspices of United Methodist influence, I am an outsider and so am confused about General Conference.

I don't know how to say this, but it's kind of a big deal.
However, if my logic is that if I am confused about General Conference, I must therefore be an outsider, frankly, I estimate 95% of United Methodists are outsiders. Ouch.

Many other people can talk better about the specific issues that General Conference will consider. I suggest the official United Methodist website for one perspective and the Methodist Federation for Social Action for another. But I want to talk about a concept I’ve been hearing a lot as I educate myself about General Conference.

That is vital congregations.

Many of the dramatic restructuring proposals claim to encourage the growth of vital congregations. The logic is to let local congregations and annual conferences make their own decisions without so much bureaucratic oversight, and congregations will be able to do what they do best. Which is…well, I guess that differs parish to parish. Parishes that are shrinking and disappearing.

Well, shoot.

What makes a vital congregation? How can we possibly measure vitality? It’s the conundrum that large, quasi-federalist churches have struggled with for generations. Speaking as young person from what I’ll call the Millennial generation (I was 11 when we entered the 21st century), it’s really, really hard to see vitality from the outside. And unlike past generations, when we see ethical and moral rot by people within the church, we have other places to go. My generation is awfully jaded and impatient, and we’re not afraid to leave if we smell a hint of hypocrisy.

However, because of that, when we find authentic community, where people are comfortable enough with themselves and each other that they willingly share their hurt and brokenness, we stay. When we can share our own doubts and suffering at the hands of supposedly Christian people and we get empathy in return, we stay. When we can share our ideas that seem so crazy and out-of-sync with tradition and get the opportunity to try it out, we will definitely stay. I might like it so much that I’ll even take off my cap during service because you asked me nicely.

This is vitality. The congregation not only praises God for how wonderfully she made the earth but also shares in the sharp pains of how we’ve messed that earth up. Vitality isn’t all smiles and confidence; it’s also tears and doubts. Vital congregations make space for that.

So great. How do get there? I argue that while any social change must occur at a grassroots level (i.e. local parishes), that space is shaped and limited by the grass-tops decisions (i.e. General Conference). In order to be truly vital, while congregations do the very, very hard work of self-reflection, they must also look outward for opportunities live out the revelations God gives them through tradition, scripture, reason, and personal experience. This is where agencies like the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and other general boards and commissions have a very, very important place.

As United Methodists, while we seek authenticity in our communities, we need challenges. In community organizing, we call this agitation. Vital congregations will embrace these challenges, and outsiders will take notice. General Conference will shape how congregations embrace the challenges inside the parish and outside of it.

I pray that my sisters and brother who will be engagin “holy conferencing” next week also embrace these challenges.

Friday, April 6, 2012

At the Foot of the Cross: Our Fleshly Connection

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
- John 19:25-27

"The Crucifixion" by El Greco
At the foot of the cross, Jesus wasn’t alone.

Yes, his dudes and bros, his lieutenants and committeemen, even the rock on whom Jesus would build his church, they all left Jesus. I guess they all figured that the movement couldn’t continue if they’re all dead or in prison. That could be good sense for movement building.

Except we know that not all of Jesus’ followers abandoned him. The people that the text identifies were some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, the ones who accompanied Jesus even to the foot of the cross.

And Jesus recognized them.

As an organizer, I think what Jesus says to the last folks still with him is amazing. These words make my eyes widen, my mouth hang open, and keeps me in awed silence. For all the militancy and revolution that I like to find in the teachings of Jesus, these last instructions are anything but an action plan.

This isn’t a hyper-masculine climax where the epic hero shouts “FREEEEDOM!” in a voice that thunders through the hills and awakes the clans to bloody glory.

This is a much more nurturing, compassionate interaction. Like a mother to a child. Like a lover to a beloved. It is an intimate whisper, a whisper that draws one’s partner close.

Jesus, in his last teaching to his disciples who accompanied him to the very end, creates a space for life-giving relationship. I hear him invoking the cry of the ancient adam, the “groundling” which God created from the earth, “This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” the isha, my companion, my accompanier.

At the foot of the cross Jesus reminds us, even in the midst of torture, how we should see one another. A son. A mother. A sister. A brother. Born of the flesh wrought by God the Creator, whom we are to love above all else.

At the foot of the cross Jesus reminds us, even in the midst of great injustice, how we should care for one another, sustain one another, love one another.

At the foot of the cross we remember, even in the midst of the blood of Christ which is the blood of our Mother-Father God, we are connected by the labor pains of the second birth.

Let us respond to this final, intimate whisper as did the disciple whom Jesus loved. Let us take one another into our homes and into our lives and into our hearts.