Monday, June 13, 2005

if i was a preacher, somebody might say amen

As annual conferences go, this was a good one. An annual conference is a time when Methodists gather to do a variety of things together, and it is a tradition of a couple of hundred plus years. Our new Bishop, Lawrence McCleskey, presided. I introduced him early in the proceedings. His wife, Margaret, spoke and was a riot. There was monotonous business and gatherings of groups for no real purpose; it was hot, humid and crowded; as my divinity school/Florida pastor friend Skip would say, there is still a market for polyester, and apparently for white shoes; most of us tolerate this annual gathering for the reason that it is also something of a homecoming/reunion, and we know, somehow, that it is good for us.

Annual Conference is the one time of year I see many people. For years I was either president or vice president of the conference board of ordained ministry, which is the group that passes, or doesn't pass candidates. And so often I will see someone and try to remember, "now did I have a good experience with that person, or was I the messenger who brought them disappointing news". It seemed to be a quiet year for pastoral appointments: a few people moved, but not many of them. This may be the result of fewer persons making decisions to retire, and I am sure this has something to do with pension funds and the cost of health care. I always have, on balance, a real appreciation for others who are doing this kind of work. As Bishop McCleskey said in his ordination sermon, there is a cost to it, but there is a joy. It attracts peculiar people, this call of God.

There were also small moments of grace: a conversation with a minister with whom I once worked, whose wife died this year; hanging out with friends from former churches in East Bend, Greensboro and Winston-Salem; a long conversation one evening with friends on a deck overlooking the lake on how we might change the world (not the conference,or the denomination...the world); talking with two or three people about writing; enjoying dinner with another group of friends at Butts On The Creek (highly recommended barbecued pork, pulled!), which overlooks Johnathan Creek.

There was worship: having the honor, with my wife, of laying on hands in the ordination of our friend Ann Haywood, who is a pediatric chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; singing "And Are We Yet Alive"; listening to a couple of very fine sermons, given in very different styles, by Rob Blackburn and Arnetta Beverly; receiving Holy Communion. Tara, one of the pastors in our church, was commissioned as a probationary elder. Mary Lou, a member of our church, gave the laity address. Bill, another clergy member in our church, gave the conference finance report, somehow blending the language of financial modernity, fiscal rationality and down home Texas call and response preaching. Abby, our younger daughter, was a district delegate. She hung out with other teenagers, played basketball, and tried to avoid the boredom of the meetings I described earlier. She is better at this than I am, but that is the gift of adolescence.

The ordination service was one of two spiritual high moments. The other was the Africa University Choir, which sang on Friday evening (see the link to Africa University, to the right). They were amazing, uplifting, energizing, and awesome. When Jim Salley got up to preach, I wondered, "How is he going to follow that?", but he did, taking all of us to yet another level, this lay member of a church near Edisto, South Carolina, now Associate Vice-Chancellor of Africa University, he was everything the choir was, and it was obvious to all who were there, and especially when he got into the "Kool and the Gang" riff, which was funny, and people were laughing and praising God and giving money to Africa University, more than they had planned to, I am sure, and he asked, or shouted actually, toward the end of it all, with a huge smile on his face, "If I was a preacher, somebody might say amen".

On Sunday morning, the Africa University Choir sang at our church, Providence UMC in Charlotte. It was everything it had been at Junaluska, although we don't (or can't, or maybe don't know how to) dance in our church; maybe that's just one of our disabilities. Not to worry---again it was amazing, uplifting, energizing, and awesome. Our folks graciously hosted them, loved their music, enjoyed them as people, caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God, and many, I am sure, are still sensing the beat of the rhythms of the African music in their hearts.


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