Friday, May 11, 2012

general conference, united methodists and the grace we need

A few days ago the General Conference in Tampa concluded.  Like other delegates I made my way home, began to process what had happened, and struggled to articulate to others what the outcomes actually were.  Looking back, there is relatively little to show for our two weeks there.  I have suggested that the conference was no more intense or fractured than the previous two (2004, 2008); this conference was marked by the parallel conversation in social media, especially twitter, and so many saw the church at work in a new way.  The transparency is good, but perhaps the disillusionment that comes upon some is an inevitable result of the wider access.

Many have summarized General Conference, and this is certainly not the last or the ultimate word.   It may be, however, a word that has not been spoken, and therefore it may help.  I hope so.

We are Christians because God's grace, for some mysterious reason, is at work in our lives (Ephesians 2).  And our work as a United Methodist General Conference is shaped by our understanding of the grace of God.  Some in the body expressed a theology that included prevenient grace and social holiness, and little else.  Others grounded their speech in justifying grace and personal holiness, and little else.  We were each convinced that we knew the mind of God, but of course our knowledge was and is incomplete (I Corinthians 13).  And of course we were usually talking past one another.

Some have asked if we did in fact mimic the political divisions of our cultures and the answer must be yes.  Our default way of being together was primarily sociological:  we saw and heard each other first in this way.  This was reinforced by much of the worship, whose dominant theme was ourselves in relation to each other, with relatively little place for the transcendent, the One who stands in judgment upon us and is at the same time the source of abundant grace and blessing.

Our sociological divisions were sometimes cast in theological terms---for a time we struggled with an interpretation of the prodigal son--- but at times they were blatant, as with the request to see the skin color of a petition's author, as if identification as a child of God, or membership in the United Methodist Church, or authorization to serve as a delegate were not sufficient.

Still, the theological inadequacies are of greater concern to me, and they are an obstacle to any movement beyond our present impasse.  The one thing necessary is a full and complete embrace of the grace of God---present in every person, regardless of belief or practice, yes; calling forth our humility, repentance, confession and profession in One Lord, yes; bearing fruit in holy personal lives that do not conform to the world, yes; and breaking down walls of prejudice and bigotry, yes.

Yes to all of God's grace. That we cling to the piece of the whole that satisfies or justifies us displays a lack of faith in the One to whom the church really belongs, and leads to a lack of trust in each other, especially across the red and blue states that compose the cultural map of the U.S., not to mention God's wider world.

Until we begin to reflect on, rejoice in, return to the grace of God and sense that this gift is our only hope, we will continue to do violence---and there really is no other word that fits here----to each other at General Conference. Until then we will choose our issues----structure or sexuality, representation or resources---and see ourselves in the role of victim, and that is a logical outcome in a political process where there are inevitably winners and losers.  At General Conference 2012 there were no winners; only losers.

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.


Blogger Raymond Foss said...

Thank you for this post. I too hope it is helpful. It needed to be said.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Dave Gingrich said...

We must first love God with all our hearts and souls and minds.

Following Christ, we must also hear and do the word of God. If this means resisting attacks on the Scriptures, we must resist in love.

If we fail to do this, we sin.

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