MUSINGS OF “AN OLD MAN” The followings "Musings", numbered in anticipation of my writing many of them during General Conference, have a bit of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." He wrote a public letter to two United Methodist Bishops and 6 other clergymen who wanted him to "get out of Birmingham" in order for him to cease "stirring up" the Birmingham community.
This is my way of "being present", although I am not in Tampa. I expect a "United Methodist Pentecost" in Tampa. This is my way of adding my voice to the voices in Tampa that will make possible the gifts of "listening, hearing, understanding and acting". Speaking in tongues is a gift that some have. My hope is that more of us will have the "gift of hearing" (maybe for the first time) and then acting.
There is an excitement created by the anticipation and then the arrival of a United Methodist General Conference that I still have, even though I remain in Asbury Park, NJ while the people called United Methodists gather in Tampa. I frequently compare myself to the "old men who dream dreams" that Joel "speaks of" in the Hebrew Bible. But, just as you and I sometimes have difficulty remembering the specifics of our dreams, I cannot at 78 remember all that I want to remember about my General Conference experiences.
I do remember that my first visit to a GC was as a page/usher. I remember with great clarity that the delegates were asked to contribute financially to us for our expenses, and what we received, although deeply appreciated, the contributions did not allow us to fly home first class. I remember also that I once was the clergy leader of an annual conference delegation to General Conference. I chaired one of the Legislative Committees at a General Conference. I made a presentation from Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) about the Black Church, and I was arrested at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland.
1. Bishops: The Catholic Bishops a few weeks ago, sought to highlight the tradition of separation of church and state, but in the process trampled on the rights of women to make their own choices. They out of conscience, and possibly out of a need to offer an alternative to their earlier outcry, have in the last day spoken against the cutting of programs that service the poor. Our democratically elected United Methodist Bishops-for-Life have such rich insights, experiences and gifts individually and collectively. Many of us are looking forward to what they will publicly say and share, not only for the benefit of United Methodists, but also for the nation and the world.
2. "The World is (our) Parish": John Wesley said it, we believe it, and the meaning of these words will be actualized as delegates gather in Tampa for the GC from all over the world. There are those of us who believe that the continuing "internationalization" of United Methodism requires a "decentralization" that hopefully will emerge from the gathering in Tampa. I discovered in my first visit to Africa (Tanzania) for an African and African American consultation of church and government leaders in 1971, that the priority needs of Africa, and the priority needs of the USA are different. "One size does not fit all" (nor should it). UMC mission and ministry that reflects "different strokes from different folks", does not weaken connectionalism or unity. Instead it meets the different needs that exist all over the world. We say that about the Book of Discipline and Central Conferences. Why not "be for real" and say it about all United Methodist Conferences, regardless of where they are?
3. Why do any of us feel that authentic faith means, "We screen some people out, while we screen others in?" At one time we "screened out women, blacks, divorced clergy, clergy who drank alcohol and now we "screen out" clergy who are open about their committed same sex relationship. (The military has decided that the practice of "Don't ask, don't tell" compromises the integrity of its soldiers). When will the UMC cease requiring that its gay clergy continue to compromise their integrity?
4. The weakening of Scripture by being unwilling to acknowledge that our interpretations of it deepen and mature as we allow the God who was and is in Christ, continue to open our minds and hearts: Over the years I have talked with many perceptive young people, and those not too young who have said to me; "Once some people were enslaved, women were viewed as second class, and black people were segregated, because Christians felt that the Bible provided support for these actions. The Bible has not changed, but Christians have on these matters. How and why, and why not "fess up" and admit the truth of this?"
I have, in an effort to respond in a way that connects with the questioner have said: "Of course there is a great difference between the Bible and the Constitution of the United States. We do not amend the Bible as we have amended the Constitution. But, we do amend our interpretations of Scripture, even as Scripture does not change. When we fail to do that, we allow the Bible to continue to be simply a book that collects dust on the coffee tables of our lives." Young people, (and those not so young) then become excited about "The Book of Books" that becomes a book that "lives", rather than a book that loses its relevance and thus its power, when it is made merely "literal"
5. "The Laughing Jesus": I was with other United Methodists on a trip to the Philippines when I saw for the first time a picture of "The Laughing Jesus" on the wall of a Professor's office. At first I was stunned, surprised and uttered those other 7 last words of the Church; "We have never done that this way". (In that case, "I have never seen Jesus this way"). My hope is that at the "United Methodist Pentecost in Tampa" there will be moments when the delegates and visitors experience the universality of laughter. If John Wesley's heart was truly "warmed" on Aldersgate Street in 1738, he must have smiled and laughed a bit. He may not have known; "Jesus, you're the center of my joy", but if you and I have any semblance of "fire in our bones", then sometimes the fire comes out in the form of laughter.
See all of Gil's blog posts about the United Methodist General Conference while the UMC legislative body meets in Tampa April 24-May 4.