I’m leaving General Conference 2016 and there are tears in the corners of my eyes. It’s not because I am sad to leave. I know in part it is due to the fact that I’m spent after an exhausting 12 days in Portland. I also know something deeper happened in my spirit here that will take some time to move through.
In my recent book, The New Adapters (shameless plug, available through Abingdon Press), I begin by saying that I believe in the church. I tell the story of my parents, two young adults who had been disconnected from the church, finding a home at a new United Methodist Church where they made their professions of faith in Jesus Christ and had their infant son (me) baptized. In that ritual my parents repented of their sin and confessed their belief in Jesus as Lord. They also said as a part of an old creed that they believed in God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Actually, the whole church made that confession that day. And in the covenantal language of the baptismal vows they said they believed in the church. The holy, catholic (or universal) church. On a day that I see as the most significant in my life, the people who created a community of love and forgiveness around me said they believed in Jesus Christ’s connected church. At General Conference, my belief in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit never wavered. God was there and showed up gently at times and powerfully at others.
My belief in the church, though, took some hits.
I saw people mistreated and shamed. There were many harsh words and many acts of mistrust. Stark division dominated legislative gatherings just moments after we seemingly worshipped in unity.
And so I’m crying now. Because even after all that I still believe in the church. I still believe it is God’s designed vessel for the world transforming message of Jesus. But dang, these last two weeks made me doubt that at times.
On my first day in our committee meetings I met Idda and Irene. Idda is a pastor in Tanzania. She is a church planter like me. She started a new church in a rural village and her church meets under a tree. Each day after I met Idda she greeted me with a warm embrace and even though we spoke different languages we shared deeply through the bond of Christ. Irene is a young seminary student who recently decided not to pursue ordained ministry to instead fight for justice issues that burn in her heart. She gave up two weeks in the midst of her last semester to be present at General Conference and advocate for people whose voices wouldn’t have been heard without her. On the theological and political spectrum Idda and Irene are polar opposites. My guess is they would have voted differently on many issues. Yet, they have much in common with each other and much in common with me. They believe in God, in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the universal church.
And so as I cry in the airport I think about a time that we know Jesus cried. He cried because his old friend, Lazarus, had died. Someone he knew well was different now, gone, and would never be the same. Jesus grieved the brokenness that they all felt because Lazarus was now wrapped in grave clothes. Yet, I have to think that even as Jesus cried with his friends over the loss of Lazarus he also knew that Lazarus could and would live again.
If you saw what I saw this week you might have said that the United Methodist Church is in grave clothes. Dying. At times a few people told me all hope was lost for its future, the church as we know it is dead. But, for those that follow Jesus, grave clothes are a sign; they are a symbol of something that is still to come. Not decomposition. Resurrection. That even as we cry, we believe. We repent of our sin and confess. God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. And, the connected church.
The resurrection of the church won’t happen at General Conference. Nope, I can attest to that. It will instead happen in a dancing, singing circle under a shade tree in the hot sun of Tanzania. It will happen as a young seminary student finishes up her studies to prepare to spread the gospel. It will happen at Providence Church as we worship this Sunday by serving at over 100 projects in our community. It will happen in St. Louis at The Gathering, a multi-site church that is learning about their rootedness in the Wesleyan tradition. It will happen at Oak Grove UMC in Portland, an over 100 year old church where I worshipped this last Sunday on Pentecost. It will happen at The Village a new United Methodist Church whose pastor sent me a text this week telling me that this Sunday a 6 year old boy would be baptized in a school gym in a water trough filled from a hose connected to a sink in a janitor’s closet. His parents have been disconnected from church for two decades, the dad shunned by his former church after divorce. This Sunday, the three of them will repent of their sin, and confess Jesus as Lord. And in the ancient ritual of the church the whole group in the gym that day will confess their belief in the holy, connected church.
That text brought me to tears. Maybe tears are what we experience before we truly see resurrection. Maybe as we see the church in grave clothes it should be a sign to us. That even as we grieve the loss of what we once knew Jesus sees what can and will live again.
Still crying, still believing.