Tomorrow I leave for General Conference in Forth Worth, Texas. General Conference is the only body that officially speaks for the United Methodist Church. Like the thousand other delegates, I’ve had 1,560 pages of petitions to read as well as a myriad of books, essays, pamphlets and commentaries that have been sent to my house over the past several months.
After organizing all of the materials over the past several weeks and wondering how I was going to lug everything on the airplane and avoid charges for extra weight, it gradually dawned on me. What’s going to matter most at this General Conference is not all the stuff I take but the relationships I build and the love I carry in my heart. What is most important is not the number of petitions we pass but the formation of a unified focus and direction for our denomination as we make disciples for the transformation of the world.
My journey to General Conference actually started a week ago Saturday. I had a conversation with one of my children in which I lost my patience. I became frustrated because I felt as if my child was heading down a wrong path and wasn’t listening to reason (i.e. my reason). Although I like to think I meant well, I offered destructive, not constructive feedback, and it caused immediate hurt. I apologized but could not shake the feeling of intense remorse. “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” I Thess. 5:14
The next day I went to church, and wouldn’t you know it, the title of the sermon was, “Zip It!” The preacher talked about the power of words to either build up or destroy, which reminded me that many of the things I say flow out of my own ego needs. He quoted Ephesians 4:29, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” (The Message)
God continued to prod me during my devotional time. I am working my way through Jesus in the Gospels, one of the second generation Disciple Studies. Last week was chapter 12, “The Choice,” which focuses on the conflict between the necessity of making moral judgments and Jesus’ insistence on not condemning other people and excluding them from God’s grace. Undergirding Jesus’ teaching is the assumption that we are all sinners and therefore in need of repentance. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” Hebrews 12:13
In today’s world we value tolerance and attempt to understand those of different cultures, religions and belief systems. At the same, our faith calls us to seek moral truth as well as speak out against poverty, oppression and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves. How, then, do we know when to speak up and when to be silent? How do we advocate for God’s shalom in a pluralistic world? As General Conference begins, how do we make decisions as a denomination that will affect the course of our future? Just as important, how will we listen carefully, speak gently and be patiently persistent in our care for the other delegates? We do have the choice to make the law of love primary. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” I Peter 3:13
As if the sermon and Jesus in the Gospels wasn’t enough, God also spoke to me through the book, Three Cups of Tea; One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Three different people highly recommended the book, and when a friend checked it out of the library and said it’s due on April 15, I figured I’d better get started.
Greg Mortenson is a former mountain climber who became lost in the Karakoram Mountain Range of northeastern Pakistan after attempting to climb K2, known as the world’s deadliest peak. After finding himself in the isolated village of Korphe, where he was nursed back to health, Mortenson felt called to build a school, for the children of Korphe had no opportunity for an education. 10 years later Mortenson had formed the Central Asia Institute and had built 55 schools serving Pakistan and Afghanistan’s poorest communities. It’s a must read; an incredible and inspiring story about the power of one person to effect change in our world.
One day, when Mortenson expressed frustration at the continual delays in building, his friend Haji Ali took him aside. He said, “These mountains have been here a long time. You can’t tell the mountains what to do. You must learn to listen to them.
Chill out. You’re making everyone crazy… If you want to thrive in Baltisan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.”
Mortenson reflected, “Haji Ali taught me to share 3 cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.” My prayer for General Conference is that thousands of cups of tea will be shared over the next ten days. My hope is that we will move from strangers to honored guests to family. My fervent desire is that we focus first on building relationships and then on building the kingdom of God.
Our Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church and the General Commission on the General Conference have laid the groundwork for tea drinking by issuing a brief document last year called, “What God Expects of Us.” The document is meant to help delegates to General Conference participate in “holy conferencing,” to seek God’s truth together by how we listen and talk with one another. It is an external attachment to this article, and I encourage you to share it with your congregation.
Having participated in past General Conferences where our conversation with one another was, at times, painful, divisive and deliberately hurtful, I have great hopes that this General Conference will be marked by faithful listening, constant love and bridge building. Yes, we will have to make decisions, and not every decision will be to our liking. However, when we seek to understand rather than be understood by sharing a cup of tea together, our denomination will grow into the likeness of Christ.
When we learn to say only what helps, each word a gift, then we become family. When we stay at the table with each other long enough to share three cups of tea, we not only learn how to make disciples, but we also transform the world.
My bags are packed. I’ve got my computer, my materials, my running clothes, my Bible, a box of tea bags, and love in my heart. I encourage you to check out the website, www.gc2008.umc.org. Next Monday I’ll give you a report from Forth Worth. Thank you for your prayers.