Throughout the two weeks of General Conference, I have witnessed some of the best, most beautiful, and most challenging aspects of ”churching“ together. I say "churching" because General Conference is one of those places where I see "church" most as a verb. While on a day-to-day basis we "church" through acts of kindness, justice, and discipleship, at General Conference we also "church" by deliberating our denomination direction in conversation together. This involves a lot of prayer, paper, time, and sometimes tears as we struggle to bridge diverse cultures, theologies, and languages to discern God's call.
Sometimes it is hard to hear the voice of God amid the wilderness of parliamentary procedure. While we are highly attentive to the needs of linguistic translation, we don't always remember our need for spiritual translation. We are speaking across not only differences in race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, class, and age, but—I think most importantly—differences in life experience.
I first met God in rural Minnesota. I have felt God's presence in moments of joy and sorrow, from the loss of my grandfather to my first visit to the Grand Canyon. Those I have befriended here at General Conference have seen Christ in refugee camps in Nigeria, on the streets of Manila, in the embrace of their grandchildren, and on Bible pages worn ragged with reference. God has called to us all, uniquely, and in many directions from the depths of those diverse life experiences.
I trust that God has given each of us the spiritual lessons we need most to make sense of our different contexts and experiences. I also trust that the spiritual lessons we have learned are so unique to us—so unique to our special trials, pains, sorrows, and temptations—that maybe they can only be fully understood between God and ourselves. That said, it's our Christian duty to listen and learn from the way God teaches each of us in our seemingly incomprehensibly different contexts. The gospels show Jesus with rich leaders, poor beggars, disreputable women, soldiers, children, Samaritans, and fishermen. They certainly didn't understand each other! The parables, however, teach by example of how God uses the diversity of our backgrounds and experiences to teach us—and to help us teach each other.
While here, I often find myself thinking of Thomas Merton's words: "The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image." When we only have a short 10 days to discuss thousands of pages of petitions and business, it can be tempting to twist others into our own image. We get impatient with each other. We get impatient with the time it takes to come to agreement. We get impatient with the time it takes to understand each other—if we even try. Our discussions of schism this week reflected that impatience. Let us not forget that we are already made in the image of God: a God who lives in the refugee camps of Nigeria, the streets of Manila, a dying man's song, the wonder in our grandchildren's eyes, and the words of the prophets and teachers who have come before us. How dare we conform the image of God to a glance in the mirror?
I keep hearing the words "if.... then." "If we all read the Bible the right way, then..." or "If we all really prayed like we meant it, then..." These sentiments don't magically dissolve our differences. One glance at the creation narrative shows that if God makes anything well—it's diversity. Even an eternal, all-powerful God had to take a break after filling the universe with such an array of plants and animals that scientists are still discovering new life in the depths of the seas and forests. There's a lot of pride and fear in the words "if...then..." I hear, "If we don't pass this, then the church will split," and "If we pass this, our numbers will dwindle." Who are we to know? The Holy Spirit wedges itself between the "if" and the "then." Miracles grow between the cracks of our best plans and worst fears. An eternal, timeless God cannot be bound by the fearfully short-term and future-oriented words "if" and "then."
God surprises. God creates. God challenges. We have a lot to teach each other through the differences that sometimes feel like barriers to progress on the plenary floor. If we open ourselves to the lessons of each others' experiences, our vision of what God is capable of will expand way beyond our fears of an institutional divide. We must tear down the idol of our anxiety and turn back to the wild and mysterious God of creation, who calls us across all difference and eternity.
Sara Swenson is a lay delegate to General Conference. She is currently living in New York and working on her Ph.D. in religious studies.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church