Thursday, May 3, 2012

Much Ado About "Nothing"

“For I am convinced neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” -- Romans 8:38-39
When all is said and done, I will have added “nothing” to General Conference 2012. That is, the preamble to our Social Principles in the Book of Discipline will now say, “Nothing can separate us form the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” based on Romans 8:39. With tremendous help from my delegation, I made an amendment to an amendment in an attempt to move us from political posturing to a Scriptural statement about the God we worship. 
Here’s what happened: A majority report from Church and Society created a lengthy addition to the preamble of our Social Principles, which express our stand on difficult issues like abortion, the death penalty, and homosexuality. Many of the more liberal delegates supported this report because it specifically stated we are not of one accord on these issues. We voted for the more terse minority report favored by the more conservative delegates. This report said we affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel. In an effort to compromise, an amendment was proposed: We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all and that neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
When this amendment was proposed, I mumbled at my table that Romans 8 says “nothing” can separate us from God’s love, not simply beliefs or practice. My fellow delegation members urged me to make an amendment to the amendment. At first I had the wrong color card, so the presiding bishop wouldn’t call on me. Finally, I got the white card and started jumping up and down by my seat to be recognized. When I made the recommendation for “nothing,” we took a vote. It passed by only 56 percent. 
Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up that only 56 percent of conference delegates believe Paul’s words that “nothing” can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. While I’m aware there was tremendous political posturing happening, I’m also troubled by the notion that we can’t even agree on this important verse of Scripture. At the start of our lunch break, I spent 20 minutes conversing with a delegate who believes that sin does, in fact, separate us from the love of God. I stood firmly on the prevenient grace of Jesus that comes before we’re even aware. 
It seems so small to have added “nothing” to the Book of Discipline during my 15 seconds of General Conference fame. One of my seminary friends joked that I’d soon be signing advanced copies of the 2012 Discipline for my fan club. But in all seriousness, that “nothing” may really be something. It may somehow be the gracious word of God’s love we all need to hear. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Dem bones

"As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." -- 1 Corinthians 12:20-26

I cast my first real vote today. We were deciding whether to amend our constitution to create a set-aside bishop who would not be assigned to a specific geographical area so as to have the freedom to concentrate on leading the Council of Bishops. The legislation failed to receive a two-thirds majority vote. 

The most difficult part of being on the floor is keeping track of what’s called the consent calendar, where we bunch legislation together and vote on it en masse. Once I figured out where we were, I tried to help the Congolese delegation at our table track the legislation and use the electronic voting devices. The instructions for the devices kept changing. Plus, they were listening to the instructions in Swahili, tracking with a French copy of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, and looking at an English version of the consent calendar. Oy vey!
Last week I grew weary of being part of a global church with the cultural differences, the language issues, and the different social realities, especially when it comes to the treatment of women and people who are homosexual. I still struggle to see how we can go forward together, especially on the issue of homosexuality. In some American churches, our stance of “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” prevents people from being part of our churches because they find us hypocritical and judgmental. Our Asian and African delegates have begged us not to pass open and affirming legislation because homosexuality is illegal or condemned in some of their cultures. One man even said his church told him not to come back if we voted to ordain people who are gay or lesbian. 
Tonight we broke into round table conversations about the global nature of the church, and I reflected on the people I’ve met so far. I remembered the Ivory Coast pastor who’s only been to one year of seminary because she can’t afford the other two. I recalled the superintendent from a “poor corner” of the southern Congo whose pastors earn $10 to $20 a month. I can’t imagine these realities either, and yet we’re called to be part of one Body of Christ. We can’t start cutting off eyes and feet just because we think we don’t need each other. 
There is no easy way to be a global body, just the reassurance that God has arranged us, one part connected to the other -- toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the leg bone, leg bone connected to the knee bone -- so that all of us dry bones may one day get up and walk around together. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Big Leagues

I was called up last night to be seated on the floor. I felt like a minor league baseball player who received a call from a major league team. I substituted for another delegate who needed a break, but before you get too excited, I didn’t get to cast any votes. It was a worship service of repentance for the way we Euro-Americans have treated indigenous people. Today I went back to my minor league role as a reserve delegate. 
From what I can tell, the big league is a mixed bag. Yesterday I observed a hair-splitting legislative session where negativity and cantankerous talk spread like a rash. A subcommittee spent close to an hour discussing the placement of commas in a petition, and a procedural point was debated for 90 minutes before the secretary of petitions could clarify. As it turns out, a delegate from the Congo had been correct in questioning the way the chair was handling the voting. I truly believe his concern was dismissed initially because he couldn’t articulate it in English. At the end of the day, this committee was so stuck that they had only addressed six of 96 petitions. 
Now I am a rule-follower and a grammar queen (often to a fault), but I couldn’t help but wonder in a global church if this were the best way of doing things. We have very real issues before us about the structure, inclusion, shape, and future of our church, and we’re getting bogged down in this minutia. As Pastor Mike Slaughter tweeted from another session during this debacle, “Our theology is great but our methodology sucks.”
Yet one of my colleagues in a different legislative session had a completely opposite experience. He was incredibly grateful for the deeply thoughtful and respectful responses that delegates exchanged. Even while they were debating a very sensitive and emotional petition dealing with one aspect of our stance on homosexuality, delegates were very kind to one another. They prefaced their statements with phrases like, “I hear you, but from my perspective ...” or “I understand what you’re saying, but in my country we believe ...” Likewise, I sat in on two more sessions today where humor and kindness prevailed in the wake of really difficult issues. 
It seems the difference between a positive, constructive experience and a negative, unproductive one in the big leagues may be as simple as a kind word, as gentle as a laugh, or as patient as listening to the other side. I’m not sure how we begin to heal the rash of negative talk in our denomination, but I trust that somehow, a joyful heart is good medicine. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

We Are the World

“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” -- Acts 2:3-4
Serving at General Conference has made me long for a return to Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit allowed the early disciples to understand each other, regardless of which languages they spoke. This year 41 percent of the delegates are from other countries (up from 25 percent in 2008), and most of them do not speak English as their first language. As you walk through the convention center, you can hear a beautiful mix of Swahili, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean, just to name a few. Yesterday’s opening worship featured a plethora of languages, and we were always encouraged to respond in our native tongue. What a gift to be surrounded by Christians from around the world!
Unfortunately, most of the time our interactions feel more like the tower of Babel. Having spent time in other countries, I know how challenging it is to follow what’s happening around you, let alone when communication gaps occur. Aside from the Daily Christian Advocate, much of the conference literature is not reproduced in these other languages. Today a verbal announcement was made about a change in the schedule, but some of the international delegates followed the printed schedule, meaning they ended up in the wrong rooms for the afternoon session. 
Even when our international colleagues can understand the words, the cultural context is often so dramatically different that it’s hard to explain. Yesterday I sat in on an orientation for female delegates and helped to translate for two women, one from the Ivory Coast, the other from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had to describe some nuances in the definition of “pornography” in our Book of Discipline. Let’s just say I was using words I don’t often use in English, let alone French. At the end of our session, the leader of our small group announced she was a lesbian and encouraged us to vote in the way of inclusion. The women with me had never met someone who was openly homosexual, let alone a woman who was a federal judge and a faithful member of the Church. 
At one point during a legislative session today, the delegates were arguing procedural points and trying to take a vote. Everyone was getting frustrated. A man from Korea in the back of the room started singing, “God is so good,” and everyone joined in, each in his or her native tongue. 
And I thought there just might be hope for us yet.