By Roger Ross
It’s on. General Conference 2016 came out of the chute yesterday with 4,000 people caught up in a grand worship experience involving persons from nearly every continent. Every four years, this global gathering of United Methodists seeks to worship the God we know in Jesus Christ, discern God’s will on vexing social issues, and order the life of our world-wide fellowship.
The diversity of this Methodist mish mash is breath-taking: a teenage girl from the Philippines, a graying male Bishop from Germany, a middle-aged woman from Zimbabwe, a young man from Cuba, and a 92-year old native American woman from Oregon gives you a little of the flavor. Such diversity, when it is united in Christ and sold out for making world-changing disciples, is a sweet aroma to God.
But ironically, unity has not been our strong suit in this United Methodist Church. Strong, opposing opinions on issues of Scriptural interpretation, the nature of the church, and issues of human sexuality have been tearing at the fabric of our fellowship for decades.
In today’s Episcopal Address, our former Bishop in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Gregory V. Palmer, hit those issues head on in a brilliant sermon that challenged the thousands of church leaders gathered in Portland as well as thousands more watching it by live stream around the world.
Bishop Palmer shared many inspiring insights. I want to lift up two. He began with the one word the Spirit had deeply impressed on him from the moment he started to prepare that message: humility. He called it the cardinal Christian virtue and urged members of the Conference to practice it diligently with one another, counting others better than ourselves, as scripture instructs. Humility is the foundation for trust. When we refuse to assume we know better, and humbly listen to one another, we are much more likely to hear the voice of God through others.
As humility builds trust, it also brings hope. It opens the door to believe that God can make a way when there seems to be no way. Bishop Palmer then staked this claim, “There are signs of hope in every direction in this great church, but we have become captive to an attitude of Mutually Assured Destruction… I want you to know that I will not succumb to discouragement and cynicism. We are to be prisoners of hope.” As he said these words, people began to clap, some stood in support, and the Conference was lifted, even if just for a few moments, from a jaded battleground to a beloved community.
Somehow humility and hope broke through. If that could happen during a sermon, could it also happen during a discernment and voting process?
God only knows.
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV)