By Rev. Lowell Greathouse
May 24, 2016
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
On Friday morning during the last day of General Conference a good friend and fellow Director of Connectional Ministries said to me: “So, Lowell, what do you think we accomplished at General Conference these past two weeks?” I think he asked this question through the lens of someone who had just witnessed two weeks of tension, frustration, and split votes that often marked the legislative process at the 2016 General Conference, and he anticipated that I would say “not much.”
But that isn’t what I said, and this isn’t how I feel about what took place at General Conference. As often as not,what we see happening around the edges is as important as what we see taking place on the main stage. This was certainly true of General Conference, and it is usually true in life as well. This interaction with my friend, in many ways, reveals a key aspect of understanding what really takes place with mission and ministry. Sometimes the most important things that occur have to do with us simply encountering each other as human beings made in God’s image.
At General Conference…yes, legislative decisions matter. Yes, what we stand for as a denomination matters. Yes, demonstrating unity matters. And on that front, one could easily conclude that General Conference produced pretty mixed results. But in mission and ministry the “how” often matters as much as the “what”…and relationships and encounters with each other matter as much as what makes the headlines in newspapers or is tweeted out to the world through social media. These “other things” are often much harder to measure in concrete terms, but they do matter as well.
So let me share what I said to my friend on that Friday morning at the close of General Conference:
I said that in many ways, as United Methodists, we demonstrated to the watching world that we are trying to function as a global church in an age that is finding it harder and harder for people from different nations and cultures to get along with each other…let alone for us to communicate lovingly even with our immediate neighbors. It is no small feat to communicate in multiple languages simultaneously and to listen patiently to someone who doesn’t share our own narrative history. This doesn’t mean that we did this especially well throughout General Conference, but we clearly desire to work at it…and that matters in a broken world.
At General Conference, we were greeted and welcomed to the land by the Grand Ronde Tribal Elder Kathryn Jones Harrison, who reminded us that it matters that we listen for the Creator to speak to us in our lives. During our time together, we also made a conscious effort to communicate our sense of sorrow and repentance over the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, which involved Methodist leaders, with a number of descendants of those who were killed at Sand Creek. Both these things mattered as well.
Throughout the weeks, we sang and listened to music in many different languages….and we tried to understand each others’ histories and cultures as we worked at being church together. We didn’t vote on these things, but they happened nonetheless…and they mattered.
And this is no small matter. Quite frankly, I don’t think that the churches in Corinth, Thessalonika, Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Philippi interrupted the gospel in exactly the same way either back in the First Century, but in the end they were somehow able to pass along the Christian movement that we are entrusted with today….and that clearly mattered.
One’s culture does make a difference, and trying to understand each other takes time, curiosity, and a genuine willingness to understand. Yep, we are struggling with unity, but we are still committed to working at it for the time being…and that is something the rest of the world needs to pay attention to and can learn from….even if we are not model students at this ourselves.
Secondly, I said to my friend that I witnessed an amazing” leadership tennis match” related to the LGBTQ legislation/conflict in which the bishops started by “serving” the ball to the General Conference delegates with a plea to remain united as a church. This was followed by the General Conference “volleying” back a request for the bishops to lead. After some time of reflection, the bishops “returned” this request by presenting a course of action that ultimately won the day…after several “volleys” from the General Conference had hit the net. As we witness all the time in our present context, it is not easy for leaders to willingly serve and volley with power and differing points of view. It is much simpler to just say what you believe and not waste your time trying to understand how or why someone else reached a position different from your own. Just serve and forget about all the volleying back-and-forth. It’s just a whole lot easier and doesn’t require nearly as much effort!
In the end, the bishop’s proposal won the day…barely…and I believe it offers the church a new opportunity to see if we can manage our differences with new insight, wisdom, and understanding. This could still all ultimately lead to an end of our efforts to preserve unity in our diversity. But for now we are showing a deeply divided world that United Methodists are willing to try and work with each other, even when things are contentious and divided…and trust is not always present. Some might say that it is through the love of Christ that we are trying to make our way collectively to higher ground spiritually. We’ll see if we are up to the task!
Finally, I told my friend that the interaction between our global church and Portland was a two-way street in which all the participants benefited. As it turns out, we were wonderful hosts. I heard this countless times from many different people. But if we really paid attention, those of us from Oregon-Idaho had the unique opportunity to really get a sense of what it means to be a part of a global church. The Oregon Convention Center was much more colorful and diverse than Portland usually is…and that was an amazing blessing to receive.
At the same time, Portland is a unique place…young, edgy, the None-Zone, beautiful, and open. It was hard not to notice the cannabis shop right across the street from the convention center or not appreciate the fact that people can easily navigate our city by mass transit. In fact, by the second week, I say lots of Voodoo Donuts boxes scattered among the delegates. Indeed, the world discovered our little corner of the world as well. I guess when you spend two weeks together, you tend to rub off on each other…and I believe that when this happens, more often than not everyone benefits.
So what did we accomplish at General Conference in Portland? More than will ever make its way into a newspaper article, a newscast, or a tweet, but did it make a difference? What do you think?
Blessings on your journey,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. It seeks out where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities.