The Camino Provides/ You Carry Your Worries in Your Backpack

Like many experiences that have any age on them and help give shape to meaning, The Camino is often spoken about in metaphor or aphorisms.

One of them “The Camino Provides” is part of what captivated me about the whole endeavor. The thought goes something like this—walking on the Way of St. James, you really only need to take the things you absolutely need. For one, who wants to schlep across the Iberian Peninsula with something that you might only use twice–a travel pillow, for instance. Every ounce you can take out of your backpack means that much less wear and tear on the legs, knees, ankles, and feet. Also, many of the Camino Routes–especially the Frances and Portuguese–are resourced enough such that anything you need and isn’t in your backpack can be purchased. More than likely, though, there’s another pilgrim walking with you or staying in an alburgue with you that is more than willing to share. So in a very real sense, “The Camino Provides” applies to tangible items.

But the aphorism also points to the lyrics from The Rolling Stones…. you don’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you find you get what you need. There are countless pilgrims tales of folks walking all day, coming into town late only to find that the alburgue they had highlighted in their book was full and they had to stay in another one. That, or, folks had to sleep on the floor. Desirable? No. Did they get a place to stay? Yes. One such story that I read (and can’t find) was that all the alburgues were full in the town and the pilgrim was told there was a restaurant in the next village that could put her up. The pilgrim was imagining that they would be spending the night sleeping on a table or the floor…. maybe some chairs ganged together. That she discovered was the restaurant had just finished building an alburgue. She got to stay in it and, because the CO was yet to be given, the owner could charge. So it was free.

The Camino Provides. Yes it provided lodging but it also provided an opportunity for hospitality, to trust, and an invitation to adventure. In our work-a-day lives where everything is structured, everything is predictable, and everything is double-checked and verified–the Camino invites you to consider opening yourself up to a little ambiguity.

You Carry Your Worries in Your Backpack

I heard about this aphorism in the later stages of planning for my Camino. Again the saying in multi-layered. If you are really worried about not having enough clothes, you overpack on clothes. If you are afraid that you will run out water, you’ll carry multiple water bottles. If you are afraid that you’ll get blisters, you’ll carry boxes full of your favorite blister pad/ barrier.

But it works on another level as well. Confessionally, I’m embarrassed at my relatively paltry Spanish. While I didn’t carry my best friend–rather fluent in Spanish–around in my backpack, every time I ran into something that required more than muttering 2 or 3 words I would defer to my friend to translate. I also hate being the cliche. One of those cliches was that American pilgrims are always the ones to arrive last at the alburgue and the last to leave the alburgue. Well, we were the last folks leaving each morning. Why did that matter to me? I said it was because I didn’t want the alburgue hosts thinking we were ungrateful or get in their way cleaning up. But, if I’m honest, I just don’t like looking like I’m not “in the know”.

So What Was in My Backpack?

Folks always want to know what you carry on the Camino. If you search YouTube, you can find a plethora of packing lists and gear reviews. Here’s mine:

Backpack: REI Flash 45 (2018 Model). This pack was more than enough room. You really only need 35 Liters in your bag. 45 was overkill. But the pack fit my long frame and (slowly diminishing) gut better than others. The pack cover was useful on rainy days but the travel lock was not used. In my top pocket was my Brierley book and a waterproof bag with my wallet, my phone, my credencial, and my passport.FIrst Aid, Sewing, and Emergency TP:

All I used here was the Compeed, Triple-Antibiotic and Advil. Everything else was superfluous.Sleeping Bag: I took an REI 50F Bag. I also used the gray waterproof compression stuff sack. Worked like a charm to shrink the sleeping bag down as much as possible. The green thing on the left is a sleep sheet. It didn’t get hot enough to use that instead of the sleeping bag. If I ever go back I’ll take one or the other, not both.Electronics kit (kept in a mesh stuff sack): the international travel charger with 4 USB ports was a winner (and friend maker!!). The earbuds were useful for music. The headlamp I used once. I’d take all three again. The cord that came with the charger worked on Lightning and had an adaptor for USB micro. Not pictured is a small lithium-ion battery that I used to keep my Apple Watch charged.Hard wear: Extra carabiners, extra trekking pole tip covers, diaper pins and bulldog clips, compact day pack, clothes line, laundry soap. Only ever used the day bag. But the rest was there just in case. And its all light.Toiletries and pack towel–’nuff said. I did like the Dr. Bonner’s peppermint bar soap and the tiny “dry bag” for the bar.Foot lotion, sunscreen, Peppermint foot powder. While all this stuff made it to Spain, everything but the three items I identified didn’t make it out of the airport.Socks and underwear. Gross confession–I have sweaty feet. I took 2x the socks as I did outfits. And I changed my socks every time we stopped for a break. I think that’s why I didn’t have too many blisters. Base layer/ underwear? I doubled up as well, not knowing about accessibility to washing clothes. It wasn’t an issue. Extra clothes items: glove liners, toboggan, flip flops, wide-brim hat, extra boot laces, rain jacket, 2 buffs. I used all of these except the laces. Flip flops were for the shower and walking around without my boots. So you really only need 2 outfits–today’s clothes (the ones on your back) and tomorrow’s clothes (the ones in your backpack) . Both outfits were zip-off quick dry pants. The shirts were wicking/ quick dry shirts. I also brought a pair of soccer shorts and 1 cotton shirt to wear after I showered/ as pj’s. I rarely used them. Instead, I just went ahead and put on “tomorrow’s clothes” after my shower. Not pictured: I took a down jacket that folded up into one pocket. The idea was it could double as a pillow. I used the jacket in the mornings a couple of days. Never used it as a pillow. Also, trekking poles. I used them almost all the time. They were amazing. Shoes? I wore Merrill MOAB2 low-cut, ventilated. They served me well. Ankle height boots are overkill for many and trail runners, so I understand, aren’t enough support for cobblestone sections. Lastly, I had a copy of St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. It was amazing to read her in her own country.

Are You a Pilgrim or Are You on Holiday?

What a great question.

It was our second night on the Camino and the only night where we had to do a little bit of searching of beds to sleep in.

Before continuing this story, a little background. There’s a distinct rhythm and etiquette to Camino life. When you’re done walking for the day, you find where you are sleeping that night. Once secured, you check out your bunk for bed bugs (rare but unpleasant), roll out your sleeping bag on your bed, head to the shower, clean your clothes (usually with a wash sink and clothes line; occasionally in a washer/ dryer), and rest. Somewhere in there you check out your feet, evaluate your gear (is there anything I can get rid of), catch up with fellow pilgrims and figure out dinner. After dinner there’s further socializing with fellow pilgrims and potentially attending a pilgrims’ mass. Lights out around 10—something I graciously welcomed each night.

Back to the really great question.

I was sitting there on the edge of my bunk, my hand buried deep in my pack. I was looking for my travel towel and toiletry bag. I wanted a shower as soon as possible as we had just walked 27 kilometers. Across the room were these two British retired nurses. They were a few steps ahead of us in the evening albergue liturgy. After exchanging pleasantries–where’s home, small talk about the weather and condition of the roads (really? What was this,a Jane Austen novel?), and discussion as to whether or not to eat the community meal in-house or seek out a meal elsewhere–one of the ladies asked my friend and I, “So, do you consider yourself a pilgrim or would you say you’re on holiday.” We replied,”pilgrim” to which questioner replied, “how refreshing”.

A little more explanation:

The Camino de Santiago has experienced a dramatic increase in participation. In 2007 114,000 people walked the Camino. By 2018 the number had grown above 300,000–surpassing best estimates of pilgrims walking to Santiago during the height of its popularity just prior to the Reformation.

While “back in the day” everyone walking to Santiago was doing so because of their Christian faith (seeking a plenary indulgence for themselves or on behalf of someone else, seeking intercession for a health concern, or even a criminal sentenced to make pilgrimage to atone for their crime) the modern resurgence of The Way of St. James does not find everyone walking to Santiago doing so because of or in response to their faith. I’ll write more on the phenomenally explosive growth in interest in the Camino–and what the church might be able to learn from it–but for this post’s purpose it is good to note that people walk to Santiago for many reasons, not all of them religious. And this fascinates me.

In fact, to receive a Compostela certificate from the pilgrim office (an extension of the Cathedral) you must attest that your are walking for religious or spiritual reasons. You don’t have to be baptized, profess faith, be Roman Catholic, or consider yourself a Christian. You can be a seeker, a questioner, or even someone of another faith or no faith. If you can’t honestly say you are walking for religious or spiritual reasons, though, you receive a different kind of document from the pilgrims office–a Certificate of Distance. Those receiving a Compostela can also receive a certificate of distance, if they like.

So what’s the difference between being a pilgrim and “on holiday”? Intent, expectation, and disposition seems to have something to do with this distinction. Not that all pilgrims a somber, pious persons while those on holidays are the happy go lucky, half-drunk through-hiker. But there does seem to be something about approach. Do you receive each new day as a gift? Are you in a posture to receive whatever the day brings you–the terrain, people with whom you’ll be walking, the person serving you your 2nd Coffee 2 hours in on today’s walk towards Santiago, the weather, the conversations, the silence? Or is each day simply something to be tolerated, something to be rushed through in order to check another day off an itinerary of cheap accommodation, cheap food, and plenteous libation?

Not that these are mutually exclusive, mind you. I thoroughly enjoyed cafe con leche and my morning postre, bocadilla for lunch, and the evening’s pilgrim menu (more on food in a later post).

In life beyond the Camino de Santiago, do we think of ourselves a pilgrims on a jourmey–do we understand ourselves as on trajectory towards the source of our life with God? Or do we think of life as something nihilistic–void of meaning and simply to be endured or everything is so subjective that there’s no sense of a common life? Are we pilgrims or simply on holiday?

Why Compostela?

This is as good a place to start as any: Why take time away from work and family to head to Santiago de Compostela. I mean, there are plenty of ways to spend a week’s vacation, including:

  • burying your feet in the sand at the nearest beach.
  • If you want to spend a week hiking there’s always section hiking part of the Appalachian Trail.
  • If it’s Europe and backpacks you want, making your way through Europe, you can find a plethora of hostels–youth or otherwise–in any major European city.
  • For visiting sites considered holy to Christians, there are vastly more important Christian sites in Israel/ Palestine, Rome… even Turkey.

But why Compostela? A week after standing in front of the Cathedral built to house St. James’ remains, I can’t give a sound bite answer. Not yet, maybe never. But, like many things in life, my interest began with a story.

Eight years ago, I was part of a clergy group that made pilgrimage to Israel/ Palestine. One of the participants was a campus ministry. As we were getting to know each other, she recounted he story of having taken a group of college students to walk this as-yet-unknown-to-me trail in Northern Spain. She described what has now become familiar and endearing to me–the cash economy, albergues aplenty, cafes in almost every hamlet, and the aphorism that “the Camino provides.” When I asked for an example she shared the story of a college student coming from a privileged background–the student was well-traveled upon entering college. As such, this student felt like they knew everything there was to know about world travel–especially Europe.

One of the throw-back parts of the Camino is that, by and large, the Camino is a cash-based economy (more on that later). With this knowledge, begin to paint the picture of this well-travelled teenager from whom every scenario could be solved by paying with their credit card, of which parents paid the bill. This expectation crashed into the reality of the Camino when it came time to pay. I honestly don’t remember if it was for a meal or for lodging. At any rate, this student learned the lesson of the Camino provided early on. All along the way others not in her group, having heard her surprise and desperation when her cards were not accepted as payment, paid for all of her expenses. And when an ATM finally appeared along their way, none of her benefactors would accept payment. They simply said, “Buen Camino!”

I was hooked.

I had to find out more about this Camino thing. I mean, what was is about that place and journey that moved people to that kind of generosity to give–and humility to receive!

For years timing was never right–not enough time, not enough money, language barriers, family responsibilities… the list goes on and on. But when my best and longest-serving friend (since 1987!!) was ordained a priest in May of 2018–his 3rd career–I told him on the morning of his ordination “let’s celebrate your 1 year anniversary of ordination in Santiago de Compostela.”

And we did.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing lessons learned on The Way and reflections as the journey continues back at home. I’ll also… probably early on… share the resources that were helpful to my preparation and what, if anything, would I do differently.

St Louis Day 4

I keep saying this… it was another long day.

In what seems like Groundhog Day, everything that was approved and voted upon on Monday also had to be voted upon on Tuesday. The same people voting on the same things… twice.

By now, you probably have read what happened:

  • The petitions related to the pension plans passed.
  • The traditional plan passed (405-395). There were a few amendments made but It still seems problematic.
  • The “Taylor” Disaffiliation Plan passed.

The question for us all, now, is “what does it all mean?

Before we adjourned, the Traditional Plan was referred to Judicial Council. That referral for declaratory decision (is it Constitutional) will happen April 23-25, 2019. The Committee, Chair, and Parliamentarian refused to let the Traditional Plan be divided for approval (divide the question). When it comes time to be reviewed by Judicial Council that becomes a pretty good argument for making the entire Traditional Plan inseverable. If any of it is unconstitutional, all of it is.

I cannot help but imagine that the disaffiliation plan that passed will be brought before Judicial Council, too.

All that means that we’ve probably just spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to learn a few things:

  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to operate in a global context without every part of our church having the freedom to adapt for context.
  • Our polity was written to keep us together, not break us apart. It was also written in a time that assumed a US-majority church with minor global representation.
  • It also assumes that people would come to the table with good intentions and a desire to move forward, together.
  • The people who have been bringing the major petitions for the past quadrennia–traditional plan, Plan UMC, etc keep having their plans ruled unconstitutional. Maybe it’s time to read our polity, especially our constitution, before submitting major changes to our polity. Also maybe it’s time to pay attention to the names that keep appearing on petitions that wind up unconstitutional.
  • Finally, for the record, we need to own that a flawed, incomplete plan for unity that could not make it through the Commission nor the Council of Bishops on its own merits is what became the petition that passed (and presumably will be declared unconstitutional a 4th time). It’s well-documented elsewhere how this sketch was included as a third proposal from the COWF.

So, what’s next? I think we wait and see, from a denominational perspective. There’s a conservative group that is meeting in a week. They said prior to St. Louis they are exiting unless the traditional passed unamended. It passed but amended and with questionable constitutionality. We’ll see. The Western Jurisdiction read a statement that says a lot without saying anything definitive other than they will continue doing ministry as they have been. Adam Hamilton has also said via Twitter that he is speaking with Bishops and other church leaders about what happens next. He suggested a meeting would happen after Easter.

I also think it is worth watching what the church does with the referral motion regarding alleged unethical activity–vote buying and bribery. I’ve heard rumors of this off and on since I was in seminary. Is there evidence? Can any connections be made? Who knows.

From a local church ministry perspective, all I can say is continue to serve God, see the world as your parish, and care for each other. Love and worship God. Tend to those who are hurting, especially those who sting a little more sharply today. Also, pay attention to help any who feel vindicated by the decision of this week–that we help remind folk of our essential unity in Christ. There were no winners this week.

Our bishop said it better than I: https://vimeo.com/320071023

Also, I witnessed and was moved by this singing last night. Check it out.

Singing post- GC

Finally, watch how you are investing your time. A dear clergy colleague had a birthday yesterday. While I missed that we were having a delegation meal, I went with others and celebrate her life and ministry after we concluded. It was life-giving.

St. Louis Day 3

After a long, painful day, let me begin this update by sharing how I ended it—praying, singing, and worshipping with young adult seminarians. I was invited to listen, console, and maybe inspire but they were the ones who inspired me. These young adults, sensing a call to Christ’s Church but unsure if that church will even be around for them, continue to push on. Yes, there’s sadness, frustration, anger, and even fear. But there was also faith, boldness, and courage.

Amazing. Thank you, folks. Y’all rock.

Now to the day. Today was a long slog-through-the mud kind of day. There are other reports that go into detail but we know the highlights:

  • The Traditionalist Plan passed out of committee.
  • 2 of the disestablishment (gracious exit) plans passed out of committee, as well.
  • The One Church Plan and Simple Plan did not pass.
  • Everything else was bundled in a rejection proposal and the committee’s work was done.

A few highlights. Please find a way to check out Byron Thomas’ speech on the floor. In a session that began with an invocation from a CME Bishop (a reminder of another time when we failed to hit the mark and the church suffered schism) Byron invoked Bishop Leontine Kelley, reminding us of the sin of creating a Central Jurisdiction that segregated black and white churches.

At the same time, please look up J.J. Warren’s speech on the floor. Simply amazing. https://youtu.be/CmleAvUz3sM.

So, what’s left?

  • The Judicial Council is to rule on the Constitutionality of everything the Committee voted to the plenary. Remember, the Traditionalist Plan did not get perfected and still have many, many Constitutional issues. Who knows if they can be fixed in one day.
  • The One Church Plan will be submitted to the plenary as part of a minority report. It will be there as actionable in case it is needed. Interestingly enough, the One Church Plan did get perfected in committee. There was a will among the body to work with it. There was simply a resistance to move it forward. The fact that the body worked with it showed there was enough votes in the body to pass.
  • The Stand Committee on Central Conference Matters will report on their work.

Will the plenary have the will and time to perfect any unconstitutionality still in the Traditionalist Plan? If not, will the body switch to the One Church Plan as a minority report? How does the Standing Committee’s work impact the plenary? Do the disestablishment plans live up to constitutional muster? If so, will the churches pressing for a way out leave regardless of what else passes tomorrow?

Pray, my friends, for our Church, for those making decisions. Pray especially for those who ended this day feeling wounded, ignored, unloved. Please know that you are seen, you are heard, you are loved.

St. Louis Day 2

What a day.

Reflecting before sleep just a few thoughts…

There was a longer wait this morning to get in… much longer. From no crowd to this:

Please watch Bishop Carter’s sermon from this morning. It is simply amazing. The text is here. There’s so much here and these words remind me why I’m a United Methodist and why I am an elder of the church.

Following opening worship, we heard three women share, each about one of the plans. I’m thankful for my friend, Jasmine Smothers, who shared abou the One Church Plan. Following the presentations, delegates began their work in earnest as they began prioritizing the different petitions. You can see the final rankings in the gallery below:

A couple of notes on the voting. First of all it made perfect sense that the WesPath petitions got the highest preference. They lobbied all groups to get their petitions heard. Now as for analysis on the ranking. I think the only thing that is certain is that the Simple Plan and Connectional Conferences Plans are both undesirable in the eyes of this General Conference. We’ll see if that proves to be the case. Also, the only thing that these preferences indicate is order in which the petitions will be taken up. They do not relate to a any vote as to what goes before the plenary session.

Once the preferences were set, there was the election of the officers of the One Legislative Committee. A little background…. normally, a scheduled General Conference will have multiple committees. As many as 13. As each committee processes its work, they send their approved petitions to the whole body or plenary session to vote on. Most items, especially those overwhelmingly supported in committee, go on a consent calendar that lets delegates approve many petitions at one time. The more controversial ones can be debated on the floor one at a time.

For this called session, there is only one legislative committee of the same 800 and something delegates as the plenary. Also, there will be no consent calendar. Everything will be heard by the full plenary.

So the election of the legislative officers happened—three people who have served and been trained as legislative committee officers were elected and immediately went to work on their jobs.

  • We heard that Judicial Council made a ruling on a declaratory decision had been decided before (nothing to see here).
  • There were two petitions related to Pensions—one that churches leaving from the denomination must pay the tail on their pension. Also another petition freezes and quantifies a pension, flipping it into a 403b.

One of the interesting rules in the Plan of Order is for all business to be done by 6p in time for worship and 6:30 adjournment. As so once these two WesPath petitions were approved, with about 15-20 minutes remaining, the chair tested the body as to whether or not they wanted to take up the Traditionalist Plan (with all of its Constitutional issues, per Judicial Council) or adjourn. The body overwhelming chose to adjourn early.

Do you want to know how the afternoon felt? Take a look at the floor below. The tables are supposed to be full. Instead when the committee adjourned for worship to begin, no one really stayed around.

Folks just left. Maybe they were worshipped out… we did have several 20 minute long singing breaks to figure out technology. Or, maybe, people were tired and needed to retreat.

There’s a lot of work to do tomorrow. Anything going to the plenary has to be handled by the committee tomorrow. I understand that the Standing Committee will be reporting on their work in the morning. Blessings, folks.

St. Louis General Conference Day 1

Coming into this General Conference all the preliminary conversations around today’s Day of Prayer was something of a head-scratcher. There were not a whole lot of details about what would go on… other than that prayer would happen. And I’ve got to say, I was really impressed with how boldly our leaders embraced investing a whole day to pray for guidance, wisdom, healing, and vision.

It was truly an inspired act to divide the day’s time into representative prayer times reflecting the diversity of our church—a denomination whose roots are in the United States but now has a footprint across the globe. Bravo.

I was in awe of the vast amount of times we as United Methodists repeatedly sat silently asking the Spirit to guide our words and actions in the coming days. We United Methodists are not exactly known for our ability to sit quietly. We’d rather roll up our sleeves and join God’s activity in the world, doing our part.

We closed with Communion.

There were a few things that caught me off guard. First of all that we are in the former home of the St. Louis Rams threw me. The space is so big… but the acoustics were remarkably good! I imagine that they have more than a few concerts in the space. The audio crew knew what they were doing. Also, being that we were in such a big space there was a large gap between the delegates on the floor and “gallery” in the 100 level seats (see photos below).


I’m guessing the reason for the gap was to ensure that the proceedings of the General Conference could go on uninterrupted. A couple of thoughts/ notes:

  • Those round tables outside the bar are for the delegates to be able to have their meals on site and not at the same place as their workspace.
  • Those same tables would be excellent places for reserve delegates to be allowed to sit in case called upon to serve.
  • You might see that the last row of tables inside the bar are set up for members to be seated but they are empty. You’ll be glad to know that delegates were not skipping out. Those tables were not assigned anyone. They are extra.

I found the above printed on the back of our name badges interesting. Maybe they were there before but this time they seem more prominent. I felt safe… but it also felt a little weird… a little militant.

The afternoon was spent going over parliamentary procedure. Boring? Yes. Informative? Definitely. I think I agree with someone I saw on Twitter who commented that after the presentation on proper parliamentary procedure a) we as a body don’t understand parliamentary procedure and b) there’s probably more than one legislative strategy that is going back to the drawing board because we’re going to a “by the book” with a professional parliamentarian.

A lot of folks have been messaging me today asking a form of “how’s the spirit in the room?” Truthfully, I can say I do not know. First, the size of the room makes it difficult to get a sense of how people feel. I think another part of that is that everyone is anxious. We’re not overly joyful—folks understand the seriousness of the reason we’re here—but there’s not any mean-spiritedness either. At least not that I can see/ hear. Yes, the politicking is present and caucus groups are busy doing their work but we haven’t done any legislative work, yet.

A few things to pray about this evening and tomorrow:

  1. Pray for the election of committee officers tomorrow. The outcome of that process will literally make or break this General Conference. That should happen rather early in the day.
  2. Also, pray for the polling of the body on the priority in which petitions are taken up by the body. This will be important.

Lastly: Judicial Council ruled on 2 more petitions tonight. Petition 90052 and 90078 have been declared unconstitutional. You can read the story (with links to the ruling and petitions here.

St. Louis, Here We Come Pt. 3

On my third trip to St. Louis, a mission trip, I remember hanging out downtown–where the old train station had become a downtown mall—the 90’s analogue to today’s “food halls”. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that this was the first place I saw a shop where they “made” the fudge in front of you. A few of things I reflect on:

  1. You’ve got to pour it all out of the bowl before you start.
  2. You’ve also go to work quick before the fudge cools, otherwise it doesn’t fold. It just breaks.
  3. If you do it right, you’ll wind up with something yummy.
  4. The culinary arts are more of an art than a science.

For us in the Church and those at General Conference:

  1. I don’t think the average United Methodist, lay or clergy, realize the amount of politicking that has gone on in the run up to St. Louis and will happen. Informal sidebars, strategy luncheon, and daily briefings. They’ve already started and the conference doesn’t begin until Saturday! Rather than invite only meetings, secret deals, and strategizing why don’t we do all of our conferencing out in public, before the body of General Conference and the world? Get it all out on the table. Sure, go into executive session if you want but “the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.”
  2. Four days is not a long time to conference—three when you realize that Saturday is a day of prayer and preparation. Three days to try to get 50% + 1 to agree to a way forward for The United Methodist Church. Just like the fudge will cease being malleable and foldable once it cools. The closer General Conference gets to Tuesday night’s adjournment, the more rigid I think folk will become.
  3. This is a precious opportunity to truly discern how the Holy Spirit is guiding us. I remember reading about the year General Conference voted to ordain women. It came as a surprise to the General Conference and when it came to the floor, no one thought it would pass. It wound up passing overwhelmingly.
  4. There has been a lot of time and energy spent trying to read the tea leaves—straw polls, surveys, and research performed. I’ll let others proclaim the gift of divination but it seems to me that there are ways for the people called Methodist in America (and the world) to stay united and do faithful ministry in their various contexts. We just need to trust God and each other, believe that God is in the midst of all this, and have the courage to lead and let others lead, as well.

St. Louis Here We Come, Pt. 2

My second visit to “The Gateway to the West” was an ecumenical college student gathering. It was a great event but the one thing frustrated most is that when it came time for New Year’s Eve worship with Communion, we had to gather as different branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics gathered in their respective spaces. The Episcopalians and Lutherans gathered in another space. Everyone else–including United Methodists–were herded into the “Reformed” worship service.

Reformed!

Someone didn’t do their homework. We are the spiritual children of Wesley, not Calvin and Zwingli!

So more than of few of us United Methodists crashed the Episcopalian/ Lutheran service–the service that represented better which branch of Protestantism we descend from.

I remember talking with some fellow “crashers” of that service and they talked about how uncomfortable they felt in that worship service. I think that was the first time I ever felt a sense of mourning that we as a tradition were drifting away from our uniqueness and into , as the military calls it, “General Protestant” territory. We have an amazing story, and wonderful tradition, and have added much to the mosaic of Christian strains. Do we mourn the fragmented nature of the church? Of course. At that event where we did everything as an ecumenical body but the brokenness of the humanity meant that we could not gather around the same table to celebrate the Eucharist–the very symbol of our oneness with Christ and each oher.

Reflecting in that event all these years later two thoughts come to mind:

  • We need to remember our roots–we are the spiritual children of the Wesley’s. We are, at our roots, a renewal movement within the broader stream of Anglicanism–the home of the via media, a church both Catholic and Protestant. We will spend the next week as a denomination trying to do what no other denomination has done: maintain a global denominational structure, embrace representative democracy as a valid expression of collective wisdom, and find resolution to questions of unity and ministry with people identifying as gay or lesbian. To successfully navigate this next week, we’ll need to lean into our roots and origins.
  • I still reflect on the yucky feeling of the brokenness we felt as we gathered around our various denominational tables for that closing worship service. How many people would come to a relationship with Christ but because of an impoverished visible witness of unity in Christ, they think the Church is nothing but a room full of hypocrites? How many times do folks leave church because we seem to do too good of a job fighting over things that do not ultimately matter instead of practicing hospitality in Jesus’ name and encouraging one another in practicing our faith?

St. Louis Here We Come, Pt 1

Well, General Conference is drawing nigh. Three years of prayer and hard work (and angst-ridden discussion and let’s not forget the politicking and posturing) all draw to a close… or at least find their next articulation… this next week.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking about the other times I’ve been in St. Louis–a family vacation, a mission trip, and an ecumenical young adult conference. From these, several images come to mind. Here’s one. I’ll reflect upon the other ones, later.

Gateway Arch

Of course, the first time anyone is in St. Louis, they are transfixed by the arch. It. Is. Big. How does it stay there? How does it keep from tipping over or sinking into the banks of the Mighty Mississippi?

Traveling with my family as a 5th grader, I could not fathom how to get to the top… to those windows. Who knew that there was an elevator that could move diagonally! I remember laughing with my mother that I thought I could see the Rockies from that outlook. Of course, I couldn’t. But I remember these childhood images and fragments of conversations. The span of years makes them begin to blur. But a question I had then, I still have:

Why is the Arch of St. Louis the gateway to the west and not a stylized bridge spanning the river? This seems to fit better the story of westward expansion.

A gateway is a break in a fence or wall. Anywhere anyone can cross the Mississippi River could be considered a “gateway to the west”. Why not make the arch across the river–a modern day Pillars of Hercules? If we were trying to tell the story of westward expansion wouldn’t a bridge be a better symbol?

In my mind, I’ve been thinking about church and the metaphors of gate and bridge. Do we think of the church as a gate… a guardian… of faith? Or do we think of the church as a bridge… that which connects a someone to a life with Christ?

Gates can be good–when well marked, they provide clear points of entry for people seeking a way in or through. But they can also be considered control points–keeping people out unless they pass muster. This begs the question–does the Spirit and Christ’s Church need check points and bottlenecks that regulate entry and exit? In some sense it seems the answer is “yes”. We have Scripture and the Creeds that create a well delineated boundary for us. They tell us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Where the metaphor of gate fails the church is when we place ourselves in the position of the gatekeeper. It is powerful temptation to feel it is our ultimate power to decide who is in and who is outside the Body of Christ. Yes, 2,000 years of Spirit-guided tradition has given us what Wesley would say are the “usual” ways God and the Church operate .I find it precarious and not a little bit dangerous to put myself in the role of ultimate arbiter of who is in, who is out; who can pass through the gate and who cannot.

Bridges seem a little bit different. Yes, bridges are located in specific places, thus they are their own point of control. But the metaphor is that of helping someone get across a chasm, not blocking someone from passing. Sure, there will be more than a few trolls under bridges that try to exact a price in order to cross but at its best, bridges are just there silently serving their roll as people pass. If we think of the church as a bridge of faith–helping someone get from where they are to where they need to be in their walk with Christ–then we are not the gatekeeper as much as we are the conduit for the Spirit to move.

Looking forward to this called General Conference, one of the things that has kept surfacing in my prayers has been this–how are we helping to connect people to a life with Jesus and how are we inhibiting it? Yes, I direct that towards questions before the General Conference but I also direct that at all of us and our demeanor, at our motivation, and at the way in which we view one another. In social media, in news accounts, in public and private conversations–can we be the bridge and not the gate? Can we be the conduit of God’s love and grace and let God be God?