General Conference 2012 is approaching. Petitions are submitted; delegates are elected; travel arrangements are being made; reimbursement accounts being tapped, as we speak. One might get the illusion that it’s a big deal.
I was part of the illusion. Three times in the past twelve years, I applied to be a Page or a Marshall at General Conference. Never expecting to be elected as a delegate, I assume that is the only way I’ll get that close to the action. This year, I was accepted. “Congratulations on being accepted to serve as a Page,” the letter said. All of a sudden, I get to join the throngs in Tampa. My family is excited. I’m looking for money (Pages serve at their own expense). I have an lead on free lodging. It is the chance of a lifetime.
Except for how it meshes with my calling.
On the one hand, if ever a place in General Conference was built for a guy like me, it would be as a page. I like politics, even church politics. At heart, I am a servant, not a politician. So doing the dirty work of @gc2012 sounds like a job for me. (Okay, the janitors have the really dirty job, but I digress.) I am fit, organized, focused, independent, disciplined: all things you need to be a Page. I would get to see the church in action on a global scale. I would be in the room when really important decision are made. Being a vote-less, voice-less witness…well it just feels like me.
Who is ‘me’ anymore anyway? Is what I am becoming at the expense of what I have been? In terms of sin, let it be so. In terms of righteousness, that’s another story. Several occurrences have led me to a real conundrum about going to General Conference.
The first occurrence happened within the context of my appointed charge. In attendance at our mission committee, an envelope was passed around from West Virginia Volunteers-in-Mission. The envelope contained 20 different offerings of mission service. Some as close as 45 miles away, others across the continent, others across the globe. It’s been so long since I’ve done deliberate, hands-on, face-to-face-with-suffering kind of work. As I seek a diagnosis for my intermittent spiritual malaise, this has to be it. I have a craving for sacrifice, one that hits me personally. I began thinking of the cost of going to General Conference. Ten days in Tampa will not be cheap. My continuing education funds are going elsewhere. Chance of a lifetime? Meh.
The second occurrence came to me via Facebook. An invitation to submit my contact information, as 2012 marks the 60th Anniversary of the US-2 program. My service through the US-2 program is still shaping me, over a decade later. I have no regrets about the current contours of my life. Mission service was such a big part of my life. In completing paperwork for ordination, my two years in a children’s home kept coming up. It shaped my approach to seminary. It was a background factor in my biggest pastoral failure. My US-2 classmates are still my best example of Christian community. I doubt if I can make it to the reunion. The spark of memory wasn’t really about the reunion anyway. It was about recalling an important time and the importance of purpose. It’s not that there is no importance in my current vocation. In fact, things are going swimmingly. It’s that mission service contains a sense of urgency that is unmistakable. The stakes are higher; failure is more costly. It’s about the urgency.
The third occurrence came to me during this week’s sermon preparation. Our Epiphany process has been an exploration of the seven “I AMs” in John’s gospel. While exploring the “Good Shepherd,” I looked up various occurrences of shepherds in the Old Testament. Of course, Psalm 23 first comes to mind. But then I found a recurring shepherd motif in the prophets. I knew of Zechariah’s prophecy regarding the shepherd that gives over the sheep to a shepherd that will devour them. I came across a companion prophecy in Ezekiel 34.
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
As I struggle to get my weight under control, these words have struck me. I learned that shepherd was a common metaphor for royalty in the Ancient Near East. I’m no king, but I am a pastor, a leader of people. I haven’t devoured the fatlings. But neither have I unfailingly strengthened the weak or bound up the injured. The specificity of the Lord’s claims have convicted me. I don’t want to devour fatlings nor any widow’s houses. I want to be a good and faithful servant.
I know that General Conference will feature new legislation around the Call to Action. I know that it may very well have abiding impact on my career. But it’s not poverty. It’s not flood relief. It’s not orphans.
I learned a valuable lesson as a US-2. During our mid-term evaluation, many of my classmates were struggling with various matters in their places of service. Many were struggles related to culture shock and the process of acclimation. Then one classmate shared of her experience in ministering to the impoverished children in her neighborhood. Her struggle was genuine compassion for the kids. Their pain hurt her so bad that she cold hardly speak. Their pain and struggle in life affected her personally, spiritually. Another mentioned that that was the experience all of us were hoping for as US-2 missionaries–the experience of costly, compassionate, sacrificial service…a glimpse of Christ-likeness.
The struggle and pain of General Conference may be genuine. Those still hoping the doors of the Church will open for them will genuinely struggle at General Conference. May God’s mercy be upon them. But from a purely personal perspective, I get a sense that I need a different struggle than paging at General Conference can provide. For the money, I could help clean Joplin or pick olives in Bethlehem.
Furthermore, the most important work in the United Methodist Church the last week of April will not be the competition for votes at General Conference. The most important work will be done by people at Glide Memorial or Mary’s Cradle. It will be done in places of violence and crippling poverty. It will be the dispensing of food and the time taken to comfort the bereaved. It has always been this way and it has been this way through scores of various conferences. It’s not that General Conference isn’t important. I fully believe that it is. But its importance pales in comparison to the ongoing dispensing of mercy and grace that is the primary purpose of the Church.
I don’t know what I’ll do. I tend to hold on to tension longer than I ought. Regardless of ultimate actions, my ultimate belief is that service is the calling card of the true Church. That was God’s call to action to Ezekiel centuries ago. Perhaps it still is.