As I watched the video feed of the 2012 General Conference, I kept thinking of this song by MercyMe:
I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by Your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see, when Your face is before me!
I can only imagine. I can only imagine.
Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You, Jesus? Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing, “Hallelujah”? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine! Yeah. I can only imagine!1
How humbling it is to imagine seeing clearly, being face-to-face with God, and knowing everything perfectly. How awe-inspiring to imagine such perfection. And, how daunting to glimpse into that full and perfect knowledge, knowing that with such knowledge comes responsive action.
As I watched the video feed and as I read about the process of our General Conference, I wondered if The United Methodist Church was humbly imagining God’s perfection. Did our Church find itself awe-inspired, and so daunted by the task of acting accordingly?
Or was our Church, in its General Conference, as is written in 1 Corinthians 13:12, bogged down in “see[ing] things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror” (NLT)? Was the General Conference stuck in “see[ing] through a glass, darkly” (KJV) or “squinting in a fog, peering through a mist” (MSG)?
While The United Methodist Church continues amidst prophetic and transformational ministry in our world, including efforts to eradicate malaria, support theological education, and partner ecumenically, it is also full with issues that are “puzzling reflections,” or images blurred by “seeing through a glass, darkly.”
It is no secret that The United Methodist Church, in its diversity, differs greatly on various and important issues. One United Methodist Church media source reported on these differences, saying, “As storms on the Sea of Galilee alarmed the disciples, so too, conflicting stands on structure and social justice issues troubled the delegates.”2 However, the General Conference delegates were not the only ones who were troubled. I was troubled . . .
When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, he was troubled too. Visitors, members, perhaps even the Staff Parish Relations Committee, sent Paul word that the church in Corinth was being inattentive to those in need. Reports were that the church was immoral, unjust, and inappropriate in its practice of ministry.
Of course, the apostle Paul spoke to the long list of issues. At one point, he even said, “Your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Cor. 11:17). But Paul never said, “It’s over. Close your doors.” He did not decree, “You are losers. Stop pretending to be the church.” Instead, the centerpiece of Paul’s message was this: “You need love.”
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul said that whether you invest or divest; whether you are open and affirming or not; whether you structure your organization loosely, strictly, inclusively, or exclusively; whether you have the correct metrics to be a vital church or not; none of it means anything unless you have love. Paul emphasized the need first to have and to hold love. First “be clothed in love” (Col. 3.14). Then there is ability to glimpse into God’s will, and then, to work towards God’s perfection.
At the 1976 General Conference, Rev. H. Sharon Howell (now president of Scarritt Bennett Center, Nashville, Tennessee) and Rev. Phyllis Tyler (now retired in Kauai, Hawaii) were two of the ten clergywomen seated as delegates. This was the first time any clergywoman had ever been elected as a General Conference delegate. Reverend Howell said, “It was a gift to be able to sit at General Conference.”3
Both pastors knew their presence was not an immediate, instantaneous gift. They avow the love, encouragement, and support; the partnering and networking of many caring and prophetic female and male clergy and that of the United Methodist Women. They remember that in years before, these were the disciples who “clothed themselves in love” and saw glimpses of God’s will, and then worked toward that perfection without knowing its complete result.
Once at General Conference, Reverend Tyler remembers seeing this historic time as “an opening for people of color and for women. I actually could see the door opening. . . . I knew our presence was important.” 4
Reverend Howell commented, “I felt in awe of my clergywomen colleagues. . . . I could see there were extra-gifted colleagues, and so I became committed to working for their election to the episcopacy. I could see the opportunities that were unfolding.
As the unfolding has continued, these sightings, these glimpses, continue for these clergywomen. “I see hope now,” Reverend Howell continued. “I see the women at Vanderbilt University Divinity School who are committed scholars, ministers . . . who cannot be contained. What does that mean I see? Hope for the world.”
“Today, I can see that we are in a global world,” said Reverend Tyler. “I see glimpses that—though we are in a time of massive change, I don’t feel discouraged because the gospel is unending. I see it.”
The 1976 General Conference was also the first time youth and young adult delegates were seated on the General Conference floor. John Hildreth, a layman from Austin, Texas, was one of those young adult delegates. He said, “At that General Conference, I could see the church being on a threshold. I was twenty years old and I could see that the complexion of the General Conference had changed. Everyone could see that more change was coming. While there was fear in some circles, there was excitement in others. I could see that a church can be more a reflection of everyone.
“But,” he continued, “now I worry about the things that are holding us back. . . . And yet, I see change continuing to happen in the area of episcopal leadership.”5
In this new quadrennium, is there humble, awe-inspiring imagining continuing to take place in our denomination? Is God’s will making itself known in vision given to new generations of leaders?
Yoshiro Nakajima from San Jose, California, one of the 2012 young adult delegates, described what he experienced at General Conference. He said, “The young adults met informally on the first night of General Conference. We talked about the restructuring plan. What we found was that though we didn’t agree on this, we could still communicate with each other. This communication was different from the communication we heard on the General Conference floor. We realized that we communicated to project vision and not just words. We wanted to speak in this new way on the conference floor.”
Nakajima said that he and the other young adults could see the denomination’s need and desire for more youth and young adult leadership. Even though the structure of the church might no longer assure guaranteed spaces for youth and young adult representation, still, he said, “I can see younger delegates being elected to the next General Conference. We are committed to that. I can see the vision of our denomination really changing. I can see God calling us to help make our Church more relevant to the needs of this world.”
Amidst these strong testimonies, the hand of God, the blessing of God’s holy love, shows up, not giving up on us or demanding that we close our denominational doors. Instead, through these glimpses, these visions, these testimonies, God’s perfection is made evident. These are the visions “to prosper and not harm . . . To give us a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11).
Knowing that God’s perfection is real and accounted for makes all the difference.
May we move from imagining such a Church to being such a Church.
1. © 2001 Simpleville Music ASCAP (admin. by Simpleville Publishing, LLC). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Used by permission.2. Rick Peck, “GC2012: General Conference wrap-up,” May 5, 2012, United Methodist News Service.
Spinning the Sacred Yarn