In the Shadow of the Cross…

As many of you know the 2012 General Conference is in coming to a close for the United Methodist Church.   Yet, many of you who might be less than familiar with the structure and administration of the UMC might be wondering – and even asking – what was the big deal?  Why the hype?

For those of you were not glued to the live stream at the very cost of job, family, and overall mental health, once every four years the General Conference or the top legislative body of the church gathers and sets policy and direction for the full United Methodist Church.   

As a rule, the General Conference is the only entity that officially speaks for the UMC, and it is a huge political, theological, and worship event.    It’s a big deal when it comes to the gears and workings of the UMC, and the projected cost of the event being held in Tampa is expected to come close to, if not surpass, $9million dollars.

At the close of its two week span, delegates from all geographic regions of the church will have proposed, opposed and voted on revisions to our Book of Discipline, which we United Methodists know as the collective regulations on all matters pertaining to local churches, conferences, and agencies of the church.   All matters of membership, ordination, administration and jurisdiction are contained in this book and open for debate over the next two weeks.  

Delegates also voted on revisions to the Book of Resolutions, which is the authoritative book on the United Methodist Church’s stances on a wide range of social justice issues.    Covered in the Book of Resolutions is our stance as a church on poverty, immigration, and all the other hot button issues facing the greater Church today.

Hopefully the answer as to why the past two weeks was such a big deal is becoming clearer.

This is the only time in the next four years where the United Methodist Church where we talk about changing, reinforcing, updating or doing away with issues that cover all the business of the church.   There was voting on the church stances towards Bishops, Finances, Disability Awareness, Human Sexuality, Practices of Ordination, divestment, Statements on War and on Peace, and even on our public witness towards Bullying.  For our church it has been the biggest of deals.

As we reflect on the events in Tampa, It is worth noting that at times the United Methodist Church is more like an Aircraft Carrier than a Speedboat.   When the crew desires to change direction in a carrier, they begin an incredibly long and labored process of turning.   Due to the size of the ship, it takes a long time to do just that.    It is made exponentially more difficult in the UMC because on many issues there is no consensus whether we should be turning right, left, or remain travelling straight.

Although I long for many changes in the UMC, I know –deep down in my heart – that the church turns slowly and all the changes I dream of are unlikely to occur on my desired timeframe.   I do believe over time they will, but in the interim it seems that sometimes the most I can do is add my voice to mix as to which way I think the church needs to go.   I guess that it is that passion that has had me stuck to Twitter for a week now.

Simply for the edification of those who don’t know (and you know who you are), Twitter is an intensely stripped down version of Facebook.   Twitter users post “140 characters or less thoughts” about any given subject or the status or state of their day.   What is neat about twitter, is it takes no time flat to mentally digest hundreds of tweets, and tie yourself to the conversation that results from those tweets.

Since 2010 Twitter has also had something called “hashtags” which classifies your tweet.   As a result another user can search on all related tweets with that set of keywords.    During General Conference posts related to the events in Tampa have been tagged with “GC2012”.    By searching for that tag, I have access to an endless stream of blog posts, pictures, random thoughts, editorials and links to all things General Conference.   The communicative power, total reach, and the potential for changing the conversation that Twitter possesses far and away exceeds Facebook or any other social network that I know of.

Anyways, in 2008 when the last GC occurred, I was nowhere near this involved in the story or the happenings.    Now, I can’t get away from it and I blame Twitter for that.  Out of equal parts concern for the church, cyber voyeurism, and a desire to be in the know, I have found myself in a constant reference to my twitter account on my phone.

I have seen posts tagged with the “GC2012” that have been hurtful while others were overflowing with compassion.   I have heard United Methodists of all flavors and regions kick people in their posts for having different views.   I have seen faith pour forth from all sides of the debate.  It is certainly a spectacle worth watching.   Yet, as I do just that from the real world two thousand miles away from Tampa, I found myself my more heartbroken than ever.

It’s been hard to put words too.   It’s been hard to say exactly why some of this talk and this back and forth has upset me so greatly this round.    Why wasn’t I as upset in 2000, 2004, or 2008 when I followed as best I could back then?    Is it because everyone’s thoughts are so front-and-center and unfiltered?  Can I blame Twitter or the hash tag for that?

While stewing on this question with one eye on the twitter stream, I found myself returning to the job of preparing a message for this past Sunday.    I was my desire to be deliberate in staying with Easter Story longer than the Lectionary has us staying.    So, I began the process of rereading the 4 Gospel accounts of Easter for the hundredth time this season…in search of one more Easter message.

( Side note:  I have come to believe that if it is the true pinnacle moment of our faith, then we need to dive into deep each year; REALLY DEEP.   We need to spend time in the crucifixion, the resurrection, the trial and the betrayal.   We need to focus on the Good Friday and the darkness of Saturday.    We need to focus on Peter’s betrayal, and Judas’ for that matter.    We need to be so deep into this story it becomes ours…BECAUSE IT IS OURS!)

These next few words were the original start of that sermon … or at least the key moment of it…

“When we see Peter in the Courtyard, we need to see ourselves choosing to say “No, I don’t know him.”

When we see Thomas refusing to listen, we need to see our own doubt.

When we see the soldiers at the foot of the cross we need to see ourselves and others so willing to wager on the insignificant that they miss the divine.

When we hear the words;  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” we need to hear the same words said in our world.   We need to hear them and listen for them in our hospitals, in our living rooms, in our rehab centers, and in our soup kitchens.

We need to stay in the Easter Story and suck it all in.   We need to be talking about this moment, and learning from it, all year long.”


It was my original plan to return the church to that infinitely ugly but divinely beautiful moment on that hill we call Golgotha.   I wanted to point to the people on the fringe.    I wanted to say to the church do you see this, or do see that?   I wanted to point to the people on the fringe and remind others that their story is our story.  

And as I turned to the scripture, the light came on.    I realized along the way, just why I was so drawn to the great and potentially historical events occurring in Tampa.   Just as I look for and expect it at Asbury, I wanted and I have been waiting to see – via the news, Twitter, Facebook or whatever – the moment of the Cross at General Conference.   I wanted those who made the sacrifice to be there to see the cross, and remember the story.   I wanted them to see the people who stood outside the “business bar” of the conference and see people on the fringe.   I wanted them to see their story as they stood with Mark Miller.   I wanted them to see their own story as people marched on the floor with Protestors.

I know that God is there and active and front and center in Tampa  (“Where two or more are gathered”), but I wanted – from the safety of my living room with that thousand plus miles providing an undeniable sense of security – to see people who realize they are living –at least for a moment – in the shadow of the cross.   I wanted those delegates to realize they were standing on Holy Ground and remove their shoes.

Maybe I was looking for my faith to be renewed right alongside those who are finding refreshment and renewal worshiping with thousands of others.   Maybe I am growing tired of what seems like so much endless arguing.

Maybe from my vantage point of being removed via physical distance and cyberspace,  all I could see was the ugly (the betrayal, the missed messages, the broken heartedness of our God), but I wanted more.   I want more.   I want it out of my friends, my brothers and sisters, and my church in Tampa.   I want it out of Asbury Church.   I want it out of myself.  I want it out of those who either hear this message today or stumble upon it in the future.

I want to be able to hear the screams of someone who feels as if God has left him and not hear an attack or something that risks their status quo.   I want to hear the sobs and see Jesus.   I want to see Jesus in the girl who believes God has left her all alone –forsaken her – and drowns her pain in food.  

I want to see Jesus in the cries of the man who can’t say no to the bottle.   When I hear someone cry out that God has forsaken them in their divorce, or in their marriage, or in their workplace, or on the convention floor of General Conference in Tampa I want to see, and I want others to see the face of Jesus.

 I wanted to realize that they stood on Holy Ground.

I want to see people of faith act like Simon of Cyrene*.  I want to see a man not run away when asked for help.    Instead I want to see a man who is willing to step forward and carry the cross of another, and to not ask questions, not make demands of the man who is struggling, and not require a theology test before they are willing to help.  

I want to see that in my church, I want to see that in my neighborhood, my work, my school, and on Main Street.  I want to see it in Tampa.

I want to see people of faith act like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus; Big Wigs in their faith, who know exactly what will happen if they chose to stand alongside Jesus, but do so anyways.   

Not only do they stand up for Jesus, but instead of coming in the night when no one could see them and which was their practice for so long, instead they go straight through the royal court and meet face to face with the man who ordered the crucifixion. 

I want people who are willing to take a risk even if it means making their world a little less comfortable, or even if it costs more than think they can bear.   I want people who act like Nicodemus or Joseph and are willing to say “to hell” with him in the pew says, I want to do for the Him in heaven.

 I want to see that in my church, I want to see that in my neighborhood, my work, my school, and on Main Street.  I want to see it in Tampa.

I want people to have the faith of Mary who found that empty tomb and realized that everything from that moment on changes.   I want to see people who see the screams and the hurts of others, and because their faith burns from every pore, know that everything changes.    I want to see people who weep at the empty tomb because of the sheer scope, fear, and joy of it. 

I want to see that in my church, I want to see that in my neighborhood, my work, my school, and on Main Street. I want to see it in Tampa.

In the end, I have been called to be a pastor in a small town.    That just means we have all the problems of the world outside our borders, there just spread among a smaller number of people. In the end, you may be called to sit in a small, medium, or mega church week in and week out.   

Yet regardless of where we find our butts each week, too often we feel small, or that our voice or the clout in this world is not the same as others seem to have.   

But our voice is not small everywhere.   It’s not small in our communities.   It’s not small in our neighborhoods.   Look around and you don’t need me to tell you it needs to be heard.   Just as I need our brothers and sisters in Tampa to be my voice, I need to be voice for the forsaken in our own back yard.  We need to be the voice of this community.

There were 1000s meeting in Tampa, all with the hopes of stopping the bleeding in the greater United Methodist Church.    Countless pastors and laity went there to be healers for a church in need of healing.   I respect them, their commitment, and their desire to make their faith alive.

Sadly, and I guess a bit morosely, I  think there is a real risk that none of it will make a difference.   It won’t make a difference unless all of us in the United Methodist Church are willing to stand up, stand beside, stand behind, or stand for those who hurt and who feel forsaken.

It won’t make a difference unless we become new Simon’s and bear the crosses of others. It won’t make a difference if we don’t stand with the Mark Millers or alongside the Protestors.  It won’t make a difference unless we become a new Joseph, and take that risk.   It won’t make a difference unless we make it.  That’s my prayer for Methodists in Tampa, Florida and Methodists in Chesterfield, New Hampshire.     Thanks be to God, Amen.


More on Mark Miller:

More on the Protesters;

*Special thanks to the Reverend Toby Whittier who first challenged me (in a service of worship) to see my story in the unnamed man who ran to Jesus with a sour wine filled sponge.  

*Photograph by Mike DuBose,of the United Methodist News Service

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