Monday, April 28, 2008

Live from Fort Worth Texas… IT’S GENERAL CONFERENCE

I have now been in Fort Worth for the General Conference of The United Methodist Church since last Wednesday. This is my third trip to General Conference (which meets every four years) as a delegate. As with other years, my favorite experiences are worship and connecting with people (old friends and new). I recognize many people from prior years, and that has been a joy. Two General Conference friends from Fort Worth and I had a wonderful dinner on Friday night. We ate on a fourth floor deck on a beautiful evening – when it was snowing in Minnesota! I have already spoken twice at the Conference session, about as many times as the other two years combined. I have had these opportunities because I am on the rules of order committee and we made some changes in the rules this year that needed a little ironing out.

Two more profound events/insights have come to me since arriving. One evening, within the Faith and Order Legislative Committee, one committee member shared his experience at a local restaurant. This person is from New York state, but his roots are Afro-Caribbean. He speaks with a marvelous accent (and I have been reminded that we all have accents when others hear us!). Anyway, this man had gone to dinner with others from his delegation, and they ordered food. He ordered the same thing as another person, but his food did not arrive. For forty-five minutes, his food did not arrive. When he finally asked about it, he received a polite apology, but it still took some time to get his food. The others from his delegation who were served more promptly were white. It felt like a racial slap in the face, and the man wept as he sat down after sharing his story. In the midst of our work, we gathered around this person to pray for him – all of us, with our different ideas and experiences, with our different backgrounds – came together to pray for a hurting friend. That’s the church at its best.

The second insight I’ve gained is this. I am on a committee which has debated one petition dealing with homosexuality, specifically a petition which would delete language in our Book of Discipline that prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained. As I was thinking about this petition, and the kinds of arguments I anticipated hearing about it, something struck me. Within my committee are people who speak French, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, and various dialects of English. As we have at times struggled to make sure that we were understanding all that was going on, I was again stuck by the beautiful complexity of language. The meaning of words can be shaded this way and that, sometimes simply by their sound. And the words Paul used to discuss human sexuality were difficult words. Scholars debate just what Paul was trying to say when he seemingly condemned homosexuality. Did the words he used mean what we mean today by homosexuality? Certainly Paul was upset by some of the sexual expression of his time, but what upset him? In at least one instance during the debate on this petition, Scripture was used a bit like a weapon, wounding many in its path. The person doing so did not mean to injure anyone, but we would all be helped by a deeper consideration of the mystery, beauty and complexity of language, especially as we talk about the Bible.

The petition to change our standards on ordination with regard to homosexuality was defeated in committee and will be reported to the plenary session next week. For certain, it is tiring, and I need to get some sleep.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, April 21, 2008

This week I head to Fort Worth Texas for the United Methodist General Conference. General Conference is the every four year gathering of United Methodists from around the world to make decisions for the church. We revise the denomination’s Book of Discipline and pass resolutions on current issues. We worship together, talk together, pray together and get to know others from around the world. The difficult and controversial conversations make the news. Most of the other decisions don’t. Each Annual Conference elects delegates based on a formula. Minnesota elected eight delegates – four clergy and four lay people and I was honored to be one of the elected clergy. This will be the third time I have been a delegate to General Conference.

One needs to pack well for this gathering, and among the necessities, I think, are humor and hope. The following video links contain each.

For a little humor:

Lyle Lovett, "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)"

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” (Emily Dickinson) - - - it also perches in this song by Garth Brooks:

"We Shall Be Free"

Pray for us and with us – and enjoy the music.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, April 14, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008. I drove from Duluth to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul if any are reading from outside Minnesota) for a denominational committee meeting. A blizzard warning had been posted for Duluth beginning at 7 p.m. that evening and the storm was supposed to be coming from the south, so there was a bit of foreboding in the air. I knew I would be back in Duluth well before 7 p.m. and was not terribly concerned about the pending storm. Forgive my skepticism, but forecasters are mistaken often enough about the weather to make me take each prognostication with a grain of salt.

Driving to the Twin Cities, I engaged in some typical activities. I spent some time in prayer. When I was a district superintendent in Northwest Minnesota, driving 35,000 miles a year, my car became a great vehicle for prayer (poor pun intended!). I listened to Minnesota Public Radio, our state’s version of National Public Radio, and a very good one. Again, when I was a district superintendent, I knew just when I had to change from one MPR station outlet to the next – from St. Cloud, to Bemidji, to Fargo, and I knew the station location. My children thought that was a sad commentary on my life at the time. Listening to the world and praying are two vital activities for my life and faith. I listened to a cycle of the news on “Morning Edition”. Then I popped a CD into the player – Led Zeppelin IV. It is one of the great rock and roll records of all time. It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled…Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. You can hear hard-driving blues, melodic rock, and the hauntingly beautiful “Stairway to Heaven.” By then I was in the metro area and tuned into the local jazz and traffic station.

As my meeting ended, rain was falling, and the winds were blowing with tremendous gusts – but no snow. I turned the radio on and listened again to MPR/NPR, this time to “All Things Considered.” I drove out of the rain, and as the cycle of stories began again on the radio, I put in another CD – Count Basie and His Orchestra, April in Paris. This probably isn’t a classic jazz record in the way that Led Zeppelin IV is a classic rock album, but I enjoy this record a lot. It starts with the cover art – the cool Count Basie, beret fashionably tilted on his head handing an older Parisian woman a bright red bouquet of flowers. “Flower power” a dozen years before it caught on in other quarters! The music itself is thoroughly enjoyable. It lifts the spirits and brings a smile. At the end of the title track, “April in Paris,” Count Basie encourages the band – “One more time,” and when that isn’t quite enough, he calls out – “one more once.” This is the kind of record I could listen to one more once.

When I arrived back in Duluth, there was not a snow flake in sight, though the winds were continuing to howl. If and when the snow falls it will blow fiercely. I stopped by my office and checked mail and e-mail for the day and went home to share dinner with my family. I always enjoy this, though it is too infrequent given our respective schedules.

In the evening, I spent some time reading the Bible and working on my blogging through the New Testament. I am on the last leg of a journey to read the New Testament with my congregation, five chapters a week for a year. Along the way, I have been blogging about the passages for the week.

The Twins game was cancelled for the day due to poor weather in Chicago. As evening turned to night, I turned to baseball in a book. I read Roger Angell’s essay on the 1965 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins from his book The Summer Game.

At 10 p.m. the snow still had not fallen, though many institutions were closing for the following day, given the forecast. The snow finally arrived hours later than predicted, and it turned into quite a spring blizzard.

But this day before the blizzard was pleasant, enjoyable and symbolic of some of the important elements in my life – family, faith and prayer, concern for the world, music from Led Zeppelin to Count Basie, a little reading, a little baseball.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, April 7, 2008

MLK and Inner Voices

This past weekend, our nation recalled the fortieth anniversary of the killing of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. – April 4, 1968 in Memphis. The life of one of this nation’s great citizens and of Christian faith’s great prophets ended tragically when he was only 39.

For me, King’s voice is one I carry in my head and my heart. As I think about what it means to be a Christian, an American, a human being, I hear his voice echo in my mind and heart and soul. I was only 8 when Dr. King was assassinated, but I have heard his words and they echo inside of me. I treasure the records and cassette tapes I have of his voice, and the books I have that record his words. Those who have heard the speech he made April 3, the night before he was killed, will never forget how haunting are the words, and how relevant they remain.

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; its nonviolence or nonexistence.

We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

In two and a half weeks, I head for the United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. I will carry with me Martin’s voice. As I think about what it means to be the church in our day and time, his words will echo in my heart. As I think about poverty and racism and the church, my soul will be stirred by his example.

I will also carry with me the voice of another killed in that same year – Bobby Kennedy. The words he spoke the night Dr. King was killed are elegant and eloquent, and they stir the soul and inspire the spirit.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

I am grateful for the voices that echo in my heart and mind and soul. And this week, another voice was added. This is not the voice of a great speaker, a famous person, an elegant elocutionist. It is the voice of a woman I know, a grandmother, a member of a church I once served – a small church in a small, quiet community in Northern Minnesota. This week she wrote me a letter as a delegate to General Conference.

I’m sure that there will be many very important issues coming up with decisions to be made. We are grandparents to a very loving grandson… who is gay. While I don’t know if I support gay marriage – I really want to encourage a partnership where one could make decisions for each other like a husband and wife. Also, I would like gays and lesbians to be encouraged to become members of The United Methodist Church. [Our grandson] has said he’d never wish for this, but, he was born this way, and, he, like all of us, should embrace his being a child of our most High God. As for those who judge others – there is only one Judge. I hope this is okay for me to express to you – while I’ve never looked down on gays – I find myself trying to speak up now.

I know some African-Americans who bristle at the suggestion that the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King, Jr. has anything to do with the struggle of gays and lesbians for inclusion in the church and in the society. I make no correlation here, respecting their point of view (though perhaps not agreeing with it). I am simply sharing that among the voices I carry with me as a Christian, as a human being, as a delegate to General Conference, are voices famous and eloquent, and voices quiet but also eloquent in their own way.

With Faith and With Feathers,