After spending two weeks at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida, I took a much needed date night with my husband on Monday night. We watched The Avengers. And because my brain is still in United Methodist land after two intense weeks of watching, listening, tweeting, and engaging – I couldn’t help but think about GC2012 in light of The Avengers.
While at General Conference I had many a friend and colleague talk about GC2012 in relation to The Hunger Games. And I get that. I get that in some ways it seemed like people were just out for themselves trying to slaughter the opponent so that they could move on to be the victor. I get that those references came from a place of frustration, of anger, of fear, of disillusionment.
One of the joys of this General Conference was the effect of social media and multiple voices being lifted up in a type of call and response. It was powerful and gave great voice to many. But in kind, one of the great hurts of this General Conference was social media. It’s easy to be snarky and give one-liners when you’re not face to face with people. And it’s easy to jump on the wave of criticism and complaint even in the midst of prophetic voices as people sharpen their favorite knives of choice.
Part of the beauty of The Avengers is that they’re all superheroes in their own right. They’re each bringing gifts to the table. The hard part is to get them to work together, valuing not just their own power/place in the world.
In describing General Conference to a clergy friend this morning, it’s hard to explain. There were times when you could visibly see the presence of God and the beautiful tapestry that is our church. There were other times when there were so many power plays and undercuts and self-interests that it was hugely discouraging.
I don’t doubt any of these people’s conviction. Captain America in the movie talks about each of the Avengers’ conviction and it’s not that they don’t have it, but sometimes it’s different. They believe strongly in something, but that something is not always the same. We each have those non-negotiables. We each have those things that are hard limits. I’ll agree to restructure, as long as… I’ll agree to support this piece of legislation, as long as these words are used…
It’s not that they lack conviction, it’s just that they’re not on the same page because they’re bogged down in their own egos, opinions, hang ups, and contexts.
No matter which restructure plan you were for, where you stand on language on homosexuality, or your thoughts on pension, guaranteed appointment or a set-aside bishop, there’s no doubt in my mind that the people at General Conference love The United Methodist Church. There would be no reason to come and be in the hard work of holy conferencing if you didn’t care. Whether we agree all the time or not, whether we acknowledge or gloss over some of our divisions and cracks, whether we shout and point fingers or just wash our hands of it, we should all be committed to at least some of the same things.
I don’t like using soldier/fighting language, but what united the Avengers, was a common cause – something they each believed in as a whole. What are those things that hold us together? Do we believe as Wesley said, “In essentials, unity…in non-essentials, liberty…and in all things charity.” What are our essentials?
I know it may be a crazy place to find hope, but watching The Avengers made me feel a lot more positive about the future of our church – and more than that – the kingdom of God. Over the past four years we’ve heard a lot about death tsunamis, the cancer of the church needing oncologists to come in and diagnose us, and other doom and gloom, and I don’t know about you, but scaring people and taking our ball and going home has never worked to inspire people in my mind. My dream for the UMC is that we don’t spend the next four years wringing our hands and talking incessantly about our decline or the lack of relevance, but that we actually start preaching and living the Gospel and let the rest come. It can’t just be a structure for a few big church pastors or vocal bishops or a handful of radical church plants or even awesome campus ministries that try to “save” our church. It has to be each of us – each pastor and lay person – not just looking out for our own interests or own needs, but actually living as Christ in the world.
So maybe you’re mad about how things went down at General Conference this year. Go for it. The whole add a sticker to the 2008 discipline that says “2012” is funny and snarky and there’s a bit of truth in there. Use that frustration, disillusionment, and unsettled feeling to get started with you. Don’t just point at particular conferences or jurisdictions or parts of the world and lift them up or tear them down. Start with you. Because we each have a common heritage, not just as United Methodists, but as children of God. Sometimes this heritage calls out for prophetic witness and sometimes it calls out for some non-negotiables, but even in the midst we have to remember the things that unify us. And we can’t just wait for the general church to give us permission to grow because of the latest nifty research or plan.
May we come together as one – all of us – with our gifts and graces and instead of hurling critique and distrust may we be intentional in actively asking the Holy Spirit to pour down on all of us – our communities, our churches, our world. May we unite not just against a common enemy, but for a common purpose.