I’m almost afraid to admit it, but I think I came away from Portland if not quite “surprised by joy,” to quote C.S. Lewis, at least somewhat cautiously optimistic. For even amidst all of the anxiety and acrimony that a General Conference usually produces, there were signs of something else happening this go-around, as well.
You could hear it in the delightful diversity of dialects that filled the Oregon Convention Center for two weeks. For not only were the proceedings simultaneously translated into nine languages, when the Africans among us broke into song at one rather critical juncture, in their singing there was a sense of the Holy Spirit moving among us, too.
All throughout the meeting, in fact, it was impossible to ignore the reality that our church is indeed changing. Not simply because four out of ten United Methodists are now French-speaking Africans. But because in the global voices of our church one can clearly hear as well the Bath Qol, or voice of God who reminds us now as He did the prophet long ago: “Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth–do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19)
To be certain, we have enormous challenges facing us still as a denomination, for in many ways we are at a place similar to that of a crab who is ready to shed its old shell but who is not yet in the safety of a fully formed and hardened new one. Whether it makes it vulnerable or not, however, the process of molting is not only necessary for a crab to grow, but it also helps to get rid of parasites, barnacles and other critters nesting on the shell, and even the bacteria that degrades the exoskeleton from within.
Don’t get me wrong: I still think that instead of meeting for ten days every four years, we might do better to flip it around and meet for only four days every ten years. For if we really are the salt of the earth as Jesus once said, we’re probably most effective when we sprinkle ourselves out upon the society around us, rather than gather together as an enormous salt dome and then expect the world to be impressed.
Still, my hope is that we at least managed to do some good and, equally important for the heirs of John Wesley, to not do as much harm as we’ve certainly shown ourselves capable of doing in past such gatherings.
Maybe that’s why despite all of our differences, our bishops are trying to find a way to keep us united. While we’re in that tenuous time between shells, however, perhaps it’s a good idea for all of us to stick together indeed.