My time at General Conference is half over, and I, like all the other delegates, am already utterly exhausted. It’s a grueling schedule, for every day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 11:00 p.m. In addition, those of us who have to take buses to hotels out of the city have to factor in another hour of transportation each way. At the same time, I am exhilarated at the sheer Holy Spirit energy of this gathering of 1,000 delegates from 5 continents and 50 nations around the world. There is so much to tell.
There is a sweet, sweet spirit in the Forth Worth Convention Center, which has been transformed into consecrated, holy space. Daily worship, led by Marcia McFee and Mark Miller, engages all of our senses through a variety of worship styles, drams, dance, and visuals. Wood from the hurricane-ravaged shores of Mississippi was used to create the altar, communion table, baptismal font, and candle stands. Ordinary glass was made into a mosaic cross. Seeds planted months ago in anticipation of General Conference have now have bloomed into plants gracing the chancel area. The Word is preached with conviction and power.
A Future with Hope
A Future with Hope is the theme of the 2008 General Conference. I hope because, in the midst of a pervasive anxiety in our denomination due to continuing membership loss in the United States and doctrinal differences, our bishops are leading us into a bold future. We have made a commitment to 4 focus areas: calling, training and empowering principled Christian leaders; creating new and transforming existing congregations; engaging ministry with the poor; and advocating for global health by fighting the killer diseases of AIDS-HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
I hope because we have turned a corner in the United Methodist Church by aligning resources at all levels of our denomination in these four areas. We will not go back to Egypt! Most encouraging is that we are no longer just talking, we are acting. Specific goals have already been named for the 4 focus areas, which I have included in the external attachment.
The Young People’s Address
For the first time ever, six young people delivered an address to the General Conference. Among them was our own Becca Farnum, a teenager from the West Michigan Annual Conference. The youth challenged and prodded us to take seriously our call to reach out with the good news to a new generation by modeling Wesleyan grace. They also reminded us that seeing Christ in others is more important than any belief we may have.
A critical part of General Conference is enacting legislation to change the Book of Discipline. Only General Conference can speak for the United Methodist Church. I am once again in the Ministry and Higher Education legislative session and chose to be a part of the sub-group working on concerns related to local pastors. You can track legislative action and see living steaming video of worship and plenary sessions by logging on to www.gc2008.umc.org
At least 20% of our delegates are now from outside the United States. What a joy it is to interact with United Methodists from different parts of the world. We speak a different language and have a different culture but share the same language of love. It has been a particular joy to work with a young man from West Angola, Africa, who chaired our legislative sub-group. I have much to learn from my brothers and sisters in our Central Conferences.
Inspiration to Transform the World
Last Thursday, we were introduced to Katherine Commale, a 7 year old girl who heard about Nothing But Nets through her local United Methodist Church. I’ve been a big fan of this joint partnership with the United Methodist Church, Sports Illustrated, the National Basketball Association, the United Nations and other secular organizations to eradicate malaria in Africa by providing $10 bed nets. In just 2 years we have already raised $20 million for this wildly successful ministry.
In the past 18 months, Katherine Commale has single-handedly raised $40,000. Hearing Katherine describe her passion for saving lives through bed nets was one of the most touching moments of General Conference for me. Someone in our world dies every 10 seconds from malaria. Katherine has already saved 4,000 lives.
How appropriate that the next day, Friday, April 25, was World Malaria Day. It was also the day that two of our children graduated, one from college (The University of Michigan), and one from graduate school (Florida State University). I was feeling sad and not a little guilty on Friday because I was not able to share in the joy of their graduations. Then I heard Bishop Tom Bickerton testify about how we take for granted that our children will grow to adulthood and how, for just $10, we can assure that children in Africa also have a future.
I am proud of my children. They are hard workers, and they care deeply about the problems and issues facing our world. They are also healthy, educated and were raised in United Methodist congregations that value servanthood. They understand why I am in Forth Worth and were willing to give up my presence so that I could participate in the life-changing work of General Conference.
And so, when Bishop Bickerton challenged the delegates to make their own contribution to Nothing But Nets, I walked to the communion table and laid a $20 bill on the altar, sending 2 nets to Africa in honor of Talitha and Garth. As their adult lives are beginning, they saved the lives of two children who, I hope, will also one day graduate from college. At the next break, I called Talitha and Garth as they were busy preparing for their graduation ceremonies. Through my tears, I shared with them the gift that I had made in their honor and let them know I was with them in spirit. They understood and said they loved me.
- What goals will you set in your local church related to the 4 focus areas?
- How can your congregation, wherever it is located, become a mission station for saving lives and souls?
- Can you, too, move beyond negative thinking to hope and action?
- How will you involve children and youth in ministry and outreach?
- How can the United Methodist connection become a means of grace for you and your church?
- Will you inspire your members to be catalysts for transforming the world?