General Conference: A Time to Listen?
GROWING IN GRACE
“The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity.” (Acts 15:12)
It seems like the lead up to our General Conference every four years mirrors that of each presidential election cycle – it gets loud, divisive, angry, and ugly. I think much of that is due to the fact that there’s a direct correlation between the two events. Both events seem to ask us to “take sides.” Both events lend themselves to a spirit of competition because they require votes where someone “wins” and someone “loses.” Both events try to call us to our best angles, longing for high, moral, and even holy things.
And yet this pursuit for something seemingly good tends to be expressed through our worst demons like anger, bitterness, and division. Every four years, whether it’s General Conference or a presidential election, it seems we’re led to believe that we’re on the brink of death and destruction.
Sometimes I wonder what God thinks of it all. Is this really the way God would have us pursue the higher good for our country or, in the case of General Conference, holiness of heart and life through our denomination?
All the noise seems to be vying for our attention: “Support this stance…Stand up for this issue…Don’t compromise!” It’s exhausting sometimes. At some point we have to make a point to unplug the computer and television, sit, and try to listen to God in the deepest places of our soul. And this doesn’t come easy in a world that values talking over silence and arguing over contemplation.
In Acts 15, we find the apostles holding a general conference of their own. Word has gotten out that Paul and Barnabas have been a part of some incredible, Holy Spirit stirrings among Gentile believers. The believers who come from the Jewish tradition take issue because they find out that these new Gentile believers are not following the tradition of being circumcised first. Jerusalem serves for the early church in Acts 15 what our modern-day Portland will serve for United Methodists – a venue where law, polity, and faithfulness in ministry is debated.
Now this may also be the point where readers are expecting me to follow the predictable trail of “just as the early church bent their laws for mercy and inclusion, so must we United Methodists do the same”…only, not so much. I’m not a delegate to General Conference. And the longer I live out my ordination through service in ministry, the more I admire those who are called and elected to serve. What a tough job!
The most striking part of Acts 15 for me is twofold: 1) Peter’s acknowledgement that it is God, and God alone, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires (Acts 15:8) and 2) the church’s response to hearing this – they “fell quiet and listened” as Paul and Barnabas told them about the “signs and wonders” God was doing among these people who fell outside of the typical church crowd.
It’s God who is our ultimate authority in how we relate to and love others. And we should, from time to time, fall silent and listen for the voice of God because God is usually always working in the most unexpected places and in the most surprising ways.
Among my prayers for General Conference 2016 is that we learn to listen more and talk less. And maybe even more, I pray we learn to have eyes to see and ears to hear the mighty work of God taking place is surprising places among unexpected people. More than winning arguments, I pray we search for where the kingdom is breaking in and breaking down walls of division we’ve established (walls BOTH SIDES work way too hard to keep up). And most of all, I pray for wisdom – wisdom for our delegates, wisdom for me as an elder leading a local church to be more faithful, and wisdom for our denomination that we learn to let go of our stances and let God lead us to new life.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.