Well...I got back on Saturday afternoon from South Indiana (S.IN.) Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church down in Bloomington, IN. I was there with a representative from Broadway, named Scott who is terrific. But that was about the only good thing I felt the whole time there. It wasn't that what happened was so bad...it was that it all seemed so lifeless. I couldn't believe how lifeless it felt.
Perhaps I'm way too cynical -- but it just seemed so divorced from the everyday lives of not only the people of our congregations -- but also the people of the whole state of Indiana. The Church seems to act as if it exists in a vacuum, that we live on little islands apart from our fellow citizens. And it's just not true.
The issues that face us in Indianapolis, face us not because we are United Methodists but because we are citizens of the state. The health care costs (whether insurance or drug costs, etc...) for people of all ages and stations of life, are pretty real and dramatic concerns. What is happening with the young people in our schools, again another real concern. What happens in our communities happens to our churches, as well. We are tied together.
We should have picked up on that when we saw the video at Annual Conference about the effect of Hurricane Katrina on the people of the Gulf Coast. But what we almost overwhelmingly showed was simply the destruction of United Methodist Churches. All that was asked for was donations for United Methodist Churches that are being rebuilt. It made me wonder if it wouldn't have be better for everyone (including United Methodists) if we could be part of the solution for healing the whole area. But instead -- we only look to ourselves.
Then there were all the votes being taken and the groups reporting...and it just seemed so empty to me. What we could really do if we would tap into the potential of all those good folks gathered in that room is amazing too me. But instead -- we just make plans that we will never fulfill -- not because we don't want to, or because they aren't good ideas -- but simply because no one was called to do them in the first place. We have so little faith to look around and see what God is doing around us.
I did enjoy the one morning I heard Randy Maddox, the Wesley Scholar, speak for a bit on John Wesley's life. One of the things that Wesley published in his life was a "physic." That is to say it was a book on how to cure a whole lot of ailments that came to his door as a pastor. And most of what was in the book was available in good medical books of the time. It made me wonder what it would look like if someone were to publish a book today of what to do with the variety of gifts and interests that people present to us in the church when they come to ask for financial help. Mostly what we do today is probably what most pastors did during Wesley's day for those who needed physical help - they were referred somewhere else. You know -- let someone else handle the problem. But Wesley took time to listen to folks and to look into what some actual solutions might be.
Scott and I attended the ordination service. Scott always wants to attend -- but it is always painful for him. It is reminder to him of the time when he was in college and felt a call into the ministry -- but knew because of his sexuality that it would not be possible to follow through. As I looked around the room at Annual Conference I knew that Scott would be a better pastor than 90 percent of us in the room. And that is because Scott is so talented and gifted a leader, a spiritual leader.
We celebrated 50 years of women's ordination on Friday afternoon. And it made me wonder all over again...how soon we would have to wait until we could start counting the years to the 50th anniversary of the ordination of gay and lesbian folks (of course we have been ordaining gay and lesbian folks for years -- just not if they actually admitted it).
The lack of commitment to the poor was astonishing to me. Astonishing if you consider the rich history of our denomination. The history of our denomination is not food pantries -- it is economic development. But we have a hard time wrapping our mind around that today. Instead the best we can do is celebrate "us" helping "those people." Yikes!
Mostly I looked around that room -- I know a lot of people in the room. I grew up around these folks. Literally. There are people in the room I have known since my earliest memories. And yet...I feel that most of the people in the room are being wasted. They are only being asked to be slotted into committees that meet with overwhelming portfolios. They are being asked to spend their time driving to meetings, where they sit and simply report on what they are doing. They are wasted. And that's a sin...it seems to me.
I left Annual Conference feeling drained and frustrated. I should know better than to expect to feel some other way, I suppose. As we left, Scott wanted to take me to a local hang out -- "Bears" - and we had a good lunch. Afterwards he wanted to stop in the Seven - Eleven, so we did. As Scott was making his purchase and I heard him say to the cashier – “a word of wisdom? You don’t walk to talk with me…you want to talk with my friend!”
I stepped over skeptically and looked at the cashier. She explained that a friend of hers is graduating from high school and that she thought she would get her the gift of wisdom from everyone who stopped by her cash register in 7-11 that day. While Scott and I pondered what we might say to her friend…two other young men stepped to the counter. They were asked the same thing…one of them wrote two words – “Don’t Die.” I thought -- well gosh...I don't know if a teenager needs to be encouraged to think they are immortal! Scott and I then both added our words. I’m not sure what Scott wrote…but I asked if I could write a quote and she said “sure” that there were two quotes already – one from the Grateful Dead and one from Elvis – I said – “well…mine is from St. Augustine.” What would I want a young person to hear? It is what I say when we prepare to share communion, “be what you see, receive who you are and say Amen!” That is the way to approach life and faith.
I’m a little curious about how this young graduate will receive this information – but mainly I think that she is fortunate to have a friend who sees all who come into her store as people who have personal wisdom and gifts to share. She sees all who come in the store as people who have something to offer, and then she ties us together – though we will never meet. I wonder if 40 years from now the graduate will remember some of those words and they will be encouraging in a difficult time – I think, in particular, that the young man who wrote “Don’t Die” could be very encouraging to some one struggling, struggling with a difficult issue in their life – and who just wants to fold up and die.
Mostly I was struck with the contrast between our Annual Conference session of the church -- who could only see giftedness in its own hands -- and then was wasting what it did have. Over against that was this young woman, a friend, who sees the stranger not as a scary figure - but as one with wisdom to share and gifts to give.
The Gospel of John from Sunday reminds us that Jesus said, in responding to Nicodemus -- "'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdo of god without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of hte flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to yu, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'" -- This text is so often used by the church to exclude others - while really it is exactly the opposite. It is a reminder that the Word comes to us much more often from cashiers in 7-11's -- than it does in sanctified church gatherings. Or so it seems to me.