Conjectures from this Guilty Bystander — Part II
Overwhelming – Exhibit A
Colin Murray, stood before me holding the elements for Holy Communion. He was one of the fifteen newly confirmed on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018. I didn’t anticipate having a soul-shaping experience on that Pentecost. Not in this is formal, traditional worship service. Does the Holy Spirit move in United Church of Christ congregations? Even on Pentecost? Even with a pipe organ playing Bach? It was overwhelming. I took several deep breaths. They didn’t seem to help. So, I let the tears flow and reached for a handkerchief. Tears of joy, of hope, of transformation. The young man, Colin, standing at the end of the pew sharing the body and blood of Christ with us, was my grandson. This extraordinary moment was more than grand-parental pride. Scales were falling from my eyes, new insight, awareness of the ways God works beyond my limited understandings of the Jesus movement.
What were the odds? One in fifteen? Who arrived with the communion elements at our pew? I melted. Gratitude? Yes. So much more — I thought of Isaiah 43 — “I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?” It was more than a passing of generations. Much more. It was more than a septuagenarian grandpa’s delight. A burning bush? Nope, no voice from heaven; but it was certainly an awareness of a transforming love that was always ready to bring a change in me — let’s call it an overwhelming.
The temptation for us all, especially those of us in ordained ministry, is to believe that our work, our point of view, our plans, our strategies, our voice will somehow figure it all out, be a difference maker in the church and the world. More often than not, we fail to know that God’s purposes and actions are far beyond our activities or ideas or speeches.
We are instruments to be sure — but weak reeds, frail passing voices in God’s realm. I was aware that each of these young confirmands was a part of a family much larger and more gifted by the Holy Spirit than I understood upon entering that sanctuary that day. I understood that God’s family included the youth being confirmed in the Black churches on the south side of Chicago and the Hispanic youth on the west side. Or the young Poles, or Serbians or Chinese or Koreans all around town who were stepping into a new place in their baptismal identity. Sadly, we are still separated by culture and language and tradition. Centuries of racism, the building of enclaves, and the impoverishment of our social and political systems still separate us — but, “Can you not perceive it? I am doing a new thing,” says the lord.
An Overwhelming – Exhibit B
One of the best known passages from Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” is this:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.” Page 153.
My re-reading of Merton in 2019 helps my spiritual vertigo. The ups and downs of United Methodist conferences befuddle and depress. They can confuse and offer such a small horizon on the realm of God. Today (mid-June 2019) my spirits and aspirations are on the upswing.
All across the nation in recent weeks a new generation of persons are being elected as annual conference delegates. Many of these folks are young and committed to a more open and inclusive denomination. It is a youth driven revolution — young clergy are saying “NO” to the harmful decisions made in February 2019 United Methodist conference. The Febraury so called “Special General Conference” enacted mean-spirited legislation to exclude LGBTQI folks from ordination or same-sex marriages in the denomination. Further, it was designed to punish anyone who acted in ways that disagreed. Something as marvelous and no less surprising than a grandson standing beside you bearing the sacrament was underway. Still, it is a miniscule part of the Holy Spirit’s handiwork. The Holy Spirit can surprise us still — (S)he is already at play in the church, even within a broken and disoriented part of the body like United Methodism just now.
Overwhelming – Exhibit C
As news continues to come in from around the United Methodist Church in the United States, it is clear that change in almost every corner is underway. I do not know that it will be sufficient to bring about an apology for the damage done or begin to mend and redirect a denomination into patterns that do not do harm to our gay siblings. However, as I attended the California- Pacific Annual Conference (a place I consider my second ecclesial home), I was again overwhelmed. Again I took deep breaths and reached for my handkerchief. There was newly ordained deacon, and my colleague this past year, Melissa Spence. She is serving the sacrament with an elder, former student, fine pastor and friend, Brian Parcel.
Looking around the Chapel at the University of Redlands on this day, I see others. They are, I now understand, my spiritual grandchildren, my grandnieces and grantnephews. The great gift of the California-Pacific Annual Conference is its ability to welcome a wide and blessed cultural diversity. Oh, the Tongan choir sings as communion is served. Words cannot capture the glory of the harmonies that surround us.
There they are — former students, colleagues, friends and a few foes, persons who have taught me and who mostly learned without my aid, persons I do not know — all sharing in the holy meal. There is my long-time friend, Bishop Charles Jordan among those presiding at communion. There are other bishops at table… the host bishop has been generous in his invitations and his words. And there he is, Bishop Grant Hagiya, on his knees calling on us all to be repentant for the ways we have held hostility toward others. Bishop Hagiya said it well in his sermon on the first day — “there may be irreconcilable differences… still might we not stay together in mission and give space to be contextual in governance? Perhaps divorce is inevitable — and certainly separating can be a gift to both parties — still must we make the only a best option a complete separation?
This family, all of it, all around, shines with the glory of God. We may have to divide, I grieve it. At the same time, I join Bishop Hagiya in seeing a New Church where compassion for one another is the currency used toward creating a future of mission.
Dear God — grant me the gift of years so that I might witness more of these youth revolutions. Grant my colleagues who now feel left behind or unappreciated the gift of knowing that the contribution they have made to bring us to this place are used by the Holy Spirit in unsuspected ways — whether the renewal is inside or outside the familiar structures. I pray we are given the time to see this unfold in ways that bring transformation for our world.
More deep breaths and stifled tears, the Tongans continue to sing. In the pew alongside me are many of the friends from First United Methodist Church in San Diego. They are a wonderful group of fellow disciples. I will be leaving them soon — returning to Indiana, one of the sites of the your revolution in the church. I may not return to my beloved California-Pacific Annual Conference in this life but I will remember a bishop on his knees, a people of many hues and languages, together ready to serve and a Spirit at work among us all. It is OVERWHELMING.
Of the work of the Holy Spirit Merton writes; “Yet the air of the outside world is not fresh air. Just to break out and walk down the boulevards is no solution. The fresh air we need is the clean breath of the Holy Spirit, coming like the wind, blowing as He pleases. Hence the window must open, or be able to open, in any direction. The error is to lock the windows and doors in order to keep the Holy Spirit in the monastery.” (Conjectures, p. 7)