When I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I had a vision. I wrote about it once. I think of it as a resurrection experience. I was at another ordination recently, and it happened again.
Ordination in the United Methodist Church takes place within regional gatherings called Annual Conference. These are our yearly gatherings of about a thousand people in a huge convention hall where budgets are set, retirees are honored, churches are closed, resolutions and statements are debated and passed, minimum salaries and healthcare for clergy are set, and those joining the guild of clergy within the denomination are brought forward for their final approval and vows.
The road to ordination in the United Methodist Church can take years. I graduated with a three-year Master of Divinity degree in 2006. I was appointed to full-time ministry immediately thereafter, but I wasn’t ordained until 2010.
My official journey toward ordination began in 2001, when I told my pastor that I was interested in exploring becoming a pastor. He, a retired pastor, and I met for lunch to talk about what that meant. From that moment, I was an exploring candidate. Really though, my process started when I was 15 years old and my Mother told me that I was going to be a minister someday. I didn’t’ believe her at the time. The road from that conversation in the backseat of her Honda to kneeling at the railing in front of the Bishop and a thousand fellow Methodists took many twists and turns.
It has been eight years since my own ordination. The service then, as it does now, includes the celebration of Communion. Every year at Annual Conference, the ordination service is a highlight. I always tear up at the vows they take as the gravity of “take thou authority” hits me anew. I can’t help but remember my own resurrection experience from when I was ordained. I love to go to Communion with one of the newly ordained Elders or Deacons. After they have been ordained, the Bishop leads us in the liturgy for Communion, and the newly ordained take the bread and the cup out into the large crowd gathered. Communion is always special, but it feels like a particularly holy moment when they break the bread for the first time as an ordained clergy and say, “This is the body of Christ.”
For years, Annual Conference was one of my favorite weeks of the year. It was a chance to see old friends, gather with fellow clergy and be empowered by fellowship and worship. Yes, there has always been the boring business of resolutions and amendments and (heaven help us) amendments to the amendments. I’m not a Robert’s Rule of Order wonk, but I’ve always sincerely loved Annual Conference.
This year, however, felt different. There has been growing discontent within the church over how we can continue to be the church amid disagreement over human sexuality. Rehashing the history of the UMC’s position on homosexuality would take more time than I care to take right now. It has been done by more prolific bloggers than me. Check out Chris Ritter’s and Jeremy Smith’s blogs to learn more about all that from two different sides of the inclusion debate.
Let me just say though, that this year was tough. There was nothing particularly controversial on the docket. I just felt, for the first time, that I was surrounded by people that kind of wished I wasn’t there. That feeling may have been more in my head, but it placed an inescapable pall over everything I did this year. I have long known many clergy with whom I disagree on inclusion. I have always felt though, that we shared something that would keep us together despite the disagreement. I have always been hopeful, but it is growing more difficult to be so.
I’ve grown skeptical about motivations of interest groups. I’ve wondered about the legitimacy of the process. I’ve wondered about the money trails that lead to voting devices. I don’t like these feelings, but this year on my drive to the conference I felt like I was on my way to a funeral, not a reunion celebration.
So I sat through most of the proceedings with my introvert dial turned up to 11. I avoided small talk. I sat in the corners of the giant room. I participated fully in body, but not in spirit. I had a hard heart, and while singing “For All the Saints,” with 400 other clergy at the beginning of the week felt good, it didn’t move me like it usually does.
Then it was time for Communion with the newly ordained. Once again, I heard the vows to “take thou authority to preach the Word of God, to administer the Sacraments, and order the life of the church.” I reflected on that awesome authority to which I still submit. I thought of the people in my little congregation in Rock Island, a diverse, aging, youthful collection of hopeful and spirited people who want to love the world. They embrace refugees, warmly welcome the homeless and mentally ill in worship, feed thousands every year, open the doors of the beautiful ancient fortress to children and community, and seek creative ways to share the love of Christ. They’ve been through so much as a people, and are still growing and struggling and reaching. By the grace of God I have been trusted with the awesome responsibility of guiding these saints to the Kingdom. I owe them more than a hard heart.
And then it was time to receive the bread and the cup. Slightly thawed by the grace of the people of Two Rivers Church, I went forward. I got in line for one of the young women who had just been ordained a deacon. As I waited for the piece of soft bread and grape juice she came to me again.
I have written before about the holy moment of my ordination. When the Bishop laid hands upon me and I took my vows, I had a holy vision of resurrection, and it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. A few moments later I took a loaf of bread and went out into the crowd gathered and shared Communion with all who would come.
One of my strongest memories of that day was placing the bread of life into the hands of my Mother. It was her prophetic word that began me on my path to ordination. It was her love that guided me to find Christ. It was her love that made me into the man I am today, and I miss her terribly. She died nearly years ago. My grief is not as sharp as it once was, but it is still profound. I remembered that moment from years ago when I placed that bread in her hand, looked in her eye and said, “Mom, this is the body of Christ which is broken for you.” I remember her eyes above all else. I could see the tears welling up. I could see the joy in receiving this thing she had received so many times before, but never quite like this. I remember the pride in her eyes as she saw a baptized infant, a confirmed teen, a married man, a new father, and an ordained Elder all in one moment of infinity.
I moved forward in the line as the tears started to flow. Then the bread was placed in my hand and I dipped it into the cup. The Holy Spirit washed over me as I was forgiven by Christ’s blood and was unified by Christ’s body. The sweet and tangy grape flooded my mouth and in one moment of infinity she was there. I knew her joy in sharing this meal with me in this moment. Her pride in the pastor and father I am. Her sadness over my pain. Jesus’ grace for my sin. It was all there. His arms rested upon me. Her eyes fixed on me. Her cool, soft, refreshing hands touched my face and I knew resurrection again. Through the locked doors of my heart, she appeared, and I wept.
I went back to my seat and found an old friend sitting where I had been. She and I share a similar struggle with the church, and I said to her, red-eyed and sniffling, “sometimes I wish I didn’t love this place so much. It would all be so much easier if I didn’t care.” She laughed and agreed.
Then I remembered one of my last conversations with my Mom. General Conference of 2016 was over, and anxiety among Methodists was high. She was in bed, and we talked about it because I needed to know. I needed to know how she felt because she had once made it very clear to me how she felt.
Twenty years earlier she and I had a conversation where she made it clear that she agreed with the likes of James Dobson, who was highly influential at the time. She did not think it was “okay to be gay.” When I first contemplated seminary, she warned me against “those liberal seminaries.” I heeded her warning for a while, and put off seminary altogether for a few years. Later I did pick one of “those liberal seminaries,” but neither of us really knew it at the time.
She changed a lot over the years. We had many talks about the Bible and church and books she was reading. She had a pastor she loved who helped open up the Bible to her in new ways. She called me after she read Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, by Adam Hamilton. She called again after she read Love Wins by Rob Bell. She didn’t always agree with what she read, but she started to see gray. She started to wrestle with her faith, with her old ideas and conceptions of life and death and heaven and hell. Somehow through it all I had helped guide her, which always felt like a tremendous privilege but also a little trippy. So there, literally on her deathbed, I needed to know.
I needed to know for my own heart. I needed to know for the sake of her grandchildren. I needed to know she would celebrate them no matter whom they fell in love with someday, even if she wouldn’t be alive to see it on earth. I needed to know what she thought about the church we loved so much. I needed to know what she thought about the United Methodist Church, which she loved with her time, talents, and treasure for many years. She was too sick to be following the church politics closely, so I explained to her what had happened. I told her there would be a commission to try to figure it out, that it might result in a split. She sighed and wondered, “Why can’t they just love each other?” I pressed her. “What do you think, Mom?”
She answered, “Love is love.” Those were not her last words to me, but they were pretty close. She died only a short time after that. “Love is love,” she said to me. She spent 38 years on earth with me, and I can think of no better final words than those. She taught me so much, but “Love is love” may have been the most important of them all.
So I sat there next to my friend and in the real presence of my Mother, and we all wondered, “Why can’t we just love each other?” I left that service with my heart powerfully warmed. I don’t know what the future holds for the people called Methodists. I do not know what kind of pain lies ahead for the denomination, or even for my congregation. Regardless of what happens in convention centers with voting devices, people are going to be hurt.
You may agree with me about affirming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, or you may think I am leading people astray. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything with this post. I hold onto my mother’s naïve wish that we could all just love each other. All I can do is be faithful to the expression of love I have found through the Bible and through Christ. I still wonder about what the future holds, but I have seen transformation. I have seen healing. I have seen resurrection. I know that love is love, and I will keep doing everything I can to tell, show, and spread Christ’s love.