But will we practice what we preach?
I’m still processing my first Annual Conference here in the Texas Annual Conference.
There are 3 things that have been weighing on my heart since the Annual Conference, and all 3 things have made me ask, at one point or another— in a genuine panic, for the first time since moving here — “Where the hell am I?” followed by its first cousin, “What the hell have I done?”
For the first time since 2003, I’ve truly felt like a minority walking the halls of Woodland UMC. The Texas Annual Conference is nowhere near the place where they want to be when it comes to diversity. I mean, I knew in my head that this was true because there are only 5 second generation Asian clergy in this conference. Five. (And yes, we all know each other…) But knowing it and experiencing it was different. Twice, I was mistaken for my friend who was going to be ordained. I figure, this year, I’ll let it pass. It’s my first Annual Conference after all. But next year, Imma call you out on it. Look, it’s one thing to ask me, “Are you John Smith?” That’s fine. Ask. Even though my name tag says, “Joseph.”
But don’t come up to me assuming I’m John Smith and say, “Congratulations on being ordained.” I hope you are able to realize the difference between the two scenarios.
Also, speaking of my friend getting ordained — congratulations to him! No more jumping through the hoops of ordination. However, he was the only person of color that was ordained as a full member this year. Sure, many of you might think this is nothing, that I’m making mountains out of molehills and that I may be unnecessarily bringing race into this conversation. Think what you want. But this experience did have an affect on me.
But unlike my previous experiences with Annual Conferences, not only is the Texas Annual Conference saying it wants to bring in different voices and experiences and cultures into their conference, but actually attempting to. They are putting their money where their mouth is.
A part of our Annual Conference is seemingly convinced that God is a man. And as they were arguing that point, I couldn’t help but think that for those individuals, God was not only a man but a white man. I had a hard time digesting the fact that God’s gender was a point of contention. But that’s my fault for assuming that this issue was a non-issue.
I’m no longer naïve to think that we all have the same definition of the word “all.” Hell, I don’t think we’d all agree on what “love” is. Our Bishop had us say the phrase “We love all the children” various times emphasizing a different word each time. (We love all the children. We love all the children. We love all the children. We love all the children. Sadly, we did not get to say: We love all the children.) He was leading us through this chant to help us realize that loving the children of our neighborhood is one of the best ways for our churches to be missional. Agreed. 100%. Can’t nobody argue with that.
However, while going through this annoying exercise, I couldn’t help but think — we’re not on the same page. The first troubling word: all. Because for some “all” may simply mean: all the kids we know. Or even, all the kids that look like us and live in the same street/neighborhood as us.
What about the refugee children?
What about the children who may have crossed the borders undocumented?
What about children who are gay?
What about transgendered children?
Are we thinking about them when we say “all”?
(Hell — I bet the definition of children might differ, too.)
Then there is “love.”
What do we mean by “love”?
Are we saying that we will love them unconditionally; loving them and urging them to be the best version that God created them to be? Loving them towards fullness and wholeness and completeness? Loving them no matter how different they may be from us — and at the least, trusting in God and trusting God that the difference we may see and experience and feel has nothing to do with their worth and usefulness in God’s eyes? And that their difference does not affect our personal relationship with God? Are we to lean on grace and love as we love these children into the kingdom?
Or is that “love” more of an “un”conditional love — where we love them to be the best version we think God intended them to be? When we are called to love gay children — does that love involve loving the gay out of them?
When we love the children that may look different from us — does it come with conditions implied or assumed? Like, sure we’d love them, but they have to be members of our church first; they need to speak English first; they need to be dressed appropriately first…
Sure, we’d love them but they need to ___________ first.
This struggle might just be my own internal struggle. And that’s fine. I’ll chew it, digest it, walk with it, pray with it and for it, reflect on it and so forth.
I do know this, though.
I don’t put my trust in the conference or the denomination. Because on that large scale level, there’s a need to maintain status quo, whether we admit or not. Often, the decisions that are made on that level are decisions that — and I quote Triple H —are Best for Business.
And sometimes what’s best for business is not the best for persons.
No, my trust is not in the Conference (or the denomination), but it’s in how God is moving through our local churches. My hope lies in what God is doing with/in/through my colleagues and the lay members and the conference staff members and the lives that they are touching and affecting and transforming through God’s grace. Because, it wasn’t the Temple or the Temple system that changed the world, but rather the world was changed by a handful of uneducated folks whose commitment to Jesus and Jesus’ mission drove every fiber of their being.
As much of a culture shock last week was for me — ultimately, I walk away filled with hope. That hope doesn’t come from legislations and rules and politics that accompany Holy Conferencing. It comes from the personal conversations that I had and relationships that were formed and connections that were made. It comes from us sharing our hopes, dreams, failures, disappointments — yet still holding fast on to God and being committed to our calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
God’s not going to use empires to change the world. That’s not really her MO. God’s going to use you and me to bring about God’s kingdom.
May it be so.