Like so often in life, our 2019 General Conference in St. Louis was an experience of both woe and blessing.
I experienced woe in the extreme disappointment, sorrow, and anger that the One Church Plan, recommended by the Council of Bishops, was ignored and not even given the respect of an opportunity for consideration in the plenary session of the conference. There was sorrow and grief when LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters were spoken of as issues and sinners; as though non-persons. There was frustration when some delegates (and even outside influencers) manipulated the conference rules of order to shut others out and stall our valued democratic process.
The legislative/disciplinary outcome of the Conference in passing the Traditional Plan has not moved our UMC forward, but rather backward.
Why an olive branch as a symbol for today? The olive tree is hardy. It can withstand freezing temperatures as well as heatwaves and droughts. It is a tree which endures the tests of the environment in which it lives. We United Methodists, in our Desert Southwest Conference, must persevere and endure many challenges in these days. We must be resilient and hardy as the olive tree.
Why must we hold out the olive branch as a sign of peace and hope in this time?
First, because we do not find our peace and hope in the actions of humankind and conferences, but rather in our God, who always saves us from the threatening flood waters.
Second, woes can help to clarify. They help me to see who I am and who I am not. They help me to prioritize and know my true values and beliefs. In the midst of the woes of the General Conference, I witnessed who I do not want to be, which is predominantly expressed in the Traditional Plan of judgement and exclusion.
Third, disciples of Jesus Christ are a people of peace and hope. We look for signs of blessing in the midst of the woe.
While experiencing the woe in the actions of our church at the General Conference, there were clarifying and confirming moments in which the blessings came to light in the darkness.
I was holy-moved by the words and passion of a young man from the NE Jurisdiction who stood on the conference floor to share his story of being gay and excluded from the church. He moved the conference body in that St Louis Dome. As he spoke, a pulse of electricity was experienced across the gathering. I would even say that all present, no matter how they voted regarding the Way Forward, experienced the truth and power of the movement of the Spirit. It was a moment in which the Holy Spirit was unleashed among us and we rose higher. It was a moment in which the gathering was lifted beyond Roberts Rules and the order of the chair. It was a moment in which the people were empowered and broke out in song – a simple Sunday School song about the essence of who we are in heart and soul – Jesus Loves Me.
That evening, the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, led by Bishop Hoshibata, met to pray and review the events of that day. They then expanded their meeting to include the mission cabinets of our Jurisdiction, and further expanded the gathering to open the room to all others who were waiting to enter.
This expanding gathering was in a separate room off the hotel restaurant. The private dining room is designed for 25 people. When the door was opened to invite the others of the west into the room, it was seen that there were well over 100 people overwhelming the larger restaurant as they were waiting to enter room. Our bishops received all who could squeeze in. There was prayer and song and declarations that we will continue to faithfully move forward as the Spirit of God leads.
That Private Dining room became like a Pentecost where the Spirit moved freely. I moved out so others could move in. While I waited outside the door, every so often a server would enter back into the room with refreshment. When the door briefly opened, the music and the prayer and the power of the Spirit rushed out into the larger restaurant. We could feel the energy of the Spirit moving. Eventually all who waited, were able to enter and be blessed in the Spirit.
The Spirit has continued to move in and through our United Methodist Church, emboldening persons to speak of a church in which persons of all gender identities are welcomed and valued as members and leaders.
I perceive that the Spirit is calling us into a radical future in which something new is being created out of nothing but the breath of God across the turbulent waters and an olive branch of peace and hope. O how it seems the roots of this old tree called Methodist have become so twisted and tangled that it can no longer grow as the Spirit needs. May a graft from the olive branch of peace gift us a new hope; a new life.
Let us hold out the olive branch for others to take hold and also to give us new vision for a new day in the life of our United Methodist Church.
In Christ’s Peace and Hope,