On November 1, 1792, a year after the death of John Wesley, the Methodist leadership in America gathered in Baltimore for a conference. The Methodist church was on one hand young, vibrant, and growing and on the other hand delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. It was under these conditions that Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, and others gathered for what would be the first General Conference. They determined then that it would be good to have such a gathering every four years.
Today, I am in Portland for my second General Conference. I reflected back on some words that I wrote before leaving for my first GC four years ago. The words stirred my now four year older heart that I admit has a bit more crust on it from another quadrennium of working too much and not trusting God enough. I realize the church is just like it was over 200 years ago: delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. I realize that my heart is in need of what the church needs, renewal and healing. I share my revised words as a way of centering my heart on the hope that we have as the church of Jesus Christ.
I have packed, prayed, read the legislation (ok, some of it, there is over 1500 pages), and prepared as best I know how for some two weeks of holy conferencing with my sisters and brothers from all around the world. (This year around 40% of delegates are from outside the U.S.)
Most of the sentiment I receive when I tell folks that I am heading to General Conference feels like cynicism, sympathy, or at best concern for my mental well-being. Strangely, though I feel hopeful.
I feel the same hope that I assume my parents felt when I was baptized in a little white dress in our small United Methodist Church.
It’s the same hope I felt when Quincy Hall led children’s time during worship and shared a story of cheating on a test in school. Then he said that God loved us so much that he forgave stuff like that.
The same hope I felt in my confirmation service. I had spent the last week in a hospital bed with an unknown illness. I was weak, and my mom helped me to the kneeler. With a feeble voice I professed my faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s the same hope I felt in Los Rubios Spain when on my 18th birthday I worshipped in a United Methodist Mission on the coast of the Mediterranean. It was the first time I really felt the Connection.
I sensed it again worshipping with the poor in Mexico and then again in Nicaragua. The hope I felt there helped me see how poor I really was.
I felt the same hope eight years ago when a few old bishops laid their hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would be poured upon me for the work of an elder in the church.
It’s really the same hope I felt last Sunday when I knelt beside a feeding trough filled with warm water from the janitor’s closet. I felt it in the air as I said as loud as I could “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son…”
I guess as much as I hear negative about the United Methodist Church, as much as I read about its decline, as much as I hunger for its reform and revival, I still have hope.
Whatever we debate and argue and legislate in the coming days, I believe it is worth it.
And so some might say I leave for the General Conference of 2016 naïve or idealistic or too young to know better.
I know this, I leave hopeful.