This past Sunday was April 22, Earth Day. It was also the birthday of a dear friend who just turned 70 (happy [belated but public] birthday greetings, Carolyn!). And it would have also been my own father’s 70th birthday.
April 22 was also just a few days before representatives of my “tribe” – The United Methodist Church – began to gather in Tampa, Florida, for our quadrennial General Conference. Now, as social media begins to bring me news, updates, ideas, inspirations, and snarkisms from those attending General Conference, I’m sitting here pondering my father’s last words and their poignant meaning for our Church.
Another blogger pointed out that in their new book Jesus Insurgency, Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank point out early on that the Church has been lingering at the “crossroads of Graveyard and Decision Street for a few decades.” That image lingered with me, if only because we personally were there so recently; struggling through a significant pneumonia infection, my father had to choose whether to be intubated a third time in two weeks or transfer to hospice care. I had sat with him for weeks in hospital ICU rooms, and now sat and walked with him through his last few hours as he transferred on a Thursday afternoon and passed away on a Friday evening.
I try to hope that he kept the events of Thursday evening in his mind through his final hours on Friday. Lynn brought our two children up that evening – they had only been able to Skype into his hospital room the weeks before – and the five of us were all together for a while. Lynn and my father sat together and talked – briefly, as weeks of infection and intubation had left him barely audible – while the kids and I sat and read and played at the foot of his bed. That evening, for the first time in a very long time, my father smiled. Watching his grandchildren, there was a look of contentment on his face. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had actually seen him happy and smiling in the last several months, as the life he had built crumbled around him, many of his greatest fears coming to pass: divorce, financial distress, abandonment.
My brothers and mother were there some that evening, and would return late in the morning the next day, too. And so we were all together for a time, but the only moments in those last few days where I saw even the glimmer of joy on dad’s face were when Will and Kate were rampaging around the room and lounge chair. He smiled then, and for that I am immensely grateful.
When I returned early the next morning, dad’s condition had already quickly deteriorated. And that morning he spoke the only words he would speak that day. As he looked at me and clasped my hand his last words, said three times before additional medication helped ease him into a fitful sleep, were simply “it hurts…” I’ve never felt so impotent, unable to do anything or help beyond just sitting with his hand in mine. Dad didn’t wake or smile again that day, but even so I was again touched when, as my son was leaving grandpa for the final time that morning, he said his own last words to my father: “I love you grandpa.”
It is hard even to retell that story in print today – almost five months later – but the images and events of those last few days with dad have been coming to mind as metaphor for what our Church is experiencing as we enter our General Conference. (Other churches are facing crises, too, but here I’ll just reflect on what I know about our tribe.)
First, I don’t want to overly push the idea or metaphor that we are dying. Many would argue that the Church is on life-support; yet, even if our denomination is struggling in some ways, in other ways – and particularly other areas of the world – there is great life and vitality. But there is a strong sense of imminent death, many have used the metaphor, and the very term is even used in reference to the upcoming “death tsunami” that the church is about to experience. I don’t know whether our current situation is terminal or not, but it is clear that it is untenable to continue what we’ve been doing institutionally…
As it was happening to my father, so to our tribe and her churches are many of our “fears” are coming to pass. The buildings and legacies that many of our older, existing congregations have striven to secure and maintain are facing their end. The financial support of our general agencies and the ministries and missions they accomplish throughout the world have been faced with great crisis in recent years. And what some would call “denominational loyalty” has waned so greatly in recent decades that most mainline or Protestant Christians today easily shift from one tribe to another without pause. The same emotional responses one might feel related to divorce or abandonment are real experiences for our brothers and sisters: some clergy, members, or even local churches feel abandoned and/or driven away by the actions of their general agencies, annual conferences, clergy, or church leaders.
We vacillate between moments of hope and joy – celebrating the birth of new churches, the missional success of conferences in other parts of the world, the rise of young leadership in our local congregations – and the pain that our current situation seems to cause our beloved Church. At times we are looking at the world hopeful and with contentment that the ministry of Christ and our heritage will continue to make an impact for generations; and at others we feel as though we’re bedside, unable to do much more than commiserate with the Church in its pain.
And – in different words and ways – I’ve heard others wonder, question, or outright suggest that one day some progeny or legacy of ours will say to us, “I love you,” but then move off into the world to live it’s own life for Christ.
Unlike the events of this December past in my own life, I do not believe the crises we face as a United Methodist Church need be terminal. Even if it might be, I am reminded of the story of Ezekial in the valley (Ezekial 37:1-14). Ezekial was a mighty prophet, and responded to God’s call. He prophesied to those bones, and they were raised up; but that was only one step. At God’s direction, he also had to prophesy to the breath to enter those bones. I like to think that if we are on the way to being “dry bones” – or already there, as some might suggest – we can listen for God’s direction, and heed the steps toward new life. And I’m no prophet, but maybe those two steps are already before us.
I do believe radical change is necessary, and I would suggest such changes need to be the most radical in our hierarchical structure. The annual conference may be the “basic unit” of The United Methodist Church, but our conferences or agencies do not do much to make disciples; I believe it is through the arena of local churches/groups where we will have our lasting impact. We need to encourage, equip, and then free our clergy, laity, and churches from the despair of idly sitting by the dying Body. We need to inspire and enable one another so to live that the “scriptural holiness” that was once our rallying cry might begin to soften hearts and transform communities. Although it may be true that our organization/institution needs radical reform, our local churches need saints more than we need reformers. We need individuals so touched by and committed to the love and grace of God that they are seeking to “live missionally” (as the Inspire network would encourage us!); we need to love of God once again to so fill us that it spills out to bless others.
My hope as our brothers and sisters meet in Tampa for General Conference 2012 is not that any specific legislation or action will be approved. My greatest hope is that we will in some prophetic way recapture the spirit that drove John and Charles Wesley as they led a movement (not a church!) of people to live after the example of the earliest (“primitive”) church. My hope is that rather than continuing to feel as though we are at the bedside of a dying Body we love, we can hear the voices sharing God’s word and direction that will truly revive that Body. My hope is that my son, nurtured within the Church, will not one day feel the need to say “I love you” and then move off to be closer to Jesus in some other arena; but that he will know a vital Body that is actively connected to and moving with Jesus.