When my mother, a United Methodist pastor, asked me in 2008 to be the lay delegate to Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference* for our charge,** I was so excited to be part of such an intensely United Methodist event. When my mom told me she wanted me to go because she felt bad about asking people in church to be bored with church politics that usually did not speak to the realities of our rural churches, my excitement was only slightly deflated. That first year as a delegate was maybe not quite what I had hoped, but because it was new I was still giddy. Since then, two subsequent experiences as a delegate in 2009 and 2010 have left me question the beauty of Methodism that had caused me to get a tattoo of the cross and flame when I turned 18.
When my mom first came to our charge, a wonderful couple Libby and Stanley Butler, who have since passed away, were the lay delegates. Then, conference was held at universities big enough to house delegates--- which many annual conferences continue to do today. The Butlers used to take their RV to the campus and camp out with some other delegates, which is just a beautiful picture to me because camping together fosters a much deeper connection than what we do now, which is stay at the exorbitant Marriott in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Jesus is not at the Marriott, no matter how loudly we worship. How can we as Methodists reach out and connect with one another in such an embarrassingly opulent space? We follow this guy who was born in a barn: how dare we praise his name from underneath enormous chandeliers in the Marriott ballroom?
Such purposeful forgetting of Jesus' origins is not a new thing, of course. Gathering in a Marriott is not the most egregious thing we who call ourselves Christians have done to deny the gospel we claim to follow. However, as Baltimore-Washington United Methodists, changing our venue to someplace less opulent would be a step back towards that vision of the gospel. I'm sure we could find a barn or something in Maryland big enough for everybody.
But suppose we did move to a barn for annual conference? We would still be plagued by another piece of Annual Conference that seems to very far away from what a connectional system means: our legalistic bickering. We don't listen to each other. We fight about particular passages,whether or not we know what we're talking about, forever, and then, more often than not, still vote to pass the original, untouched legislation. People propose ideas that should not be legislated (ministry needs to happen without a mandate that just add more bulk to an already obese bureaucracy). As I sat there with my voting card this year, I just kept apologizing to God for our behavior.
So sometimes I do ask myself why I'm doing this, why I can't disentangle myself from the United Methodist church. I told myself when I got the United Methodist cross and flame tattoo that, even if I stopped being Methodist, the tattoo on my back shoulder was a reminder of my roots. I think today it is more than that: it reminds me that wherever I turn around, constantly pushing me forward, is the United Methodist Church. I can't get away. But as I spent time with my friends both clergy and laity, as we reconnected, I knew that the United Methodist Church is my home, in all its dysfunction and in all my dysfunction. I got to see and talk to a bunch of amazing uppity preacher women who I really only see once a year. I reconnected with friends from mission trips past, from my district, new friends from Baltimore Washington Area Reconciling Methodists (BWARM). I met a woman who showed me pictures of her granddaughter, and told me about how her daughter struggled with giving birth because she did not want to get her partner, who is a woman soldier, in trouble as Don't Ask Don't Tell is still in effect. Sharing such an intimate part of your story with another human being is a real God moment. I ate dinner with another woman I had not met before the first day of conference who saw me on the last day and gave me a huge hug as though we had known each other forever. I sang a beautiful song, "For Everyone Born" (you can listen to the song and others within the praise book of the same name here) with beautiful friends during the ordination service for people I did not know but rejoiced to share such a special moment of their lives with them. I hung out with my mom. These are the connections that matter, the connections that make up the picture of a connectional system.
The beauty I saw at 18 is still there, but different, complicated. Still, can anything uncomplicated really be all that beautiful?
*For those of you non-Methodists, Annual Conference is the annual meeting of lay delegates (determined by size of the church, I think) and all clergy. Here we vote on legislation and worship together.
**A charge is more than one church put together as one unit, usually for financial reasons. It is different from a cooperative parish, which seems to be more popular in Washington DC, basically in the number of delegates to annual conference: cooperative parishes get one per church but charges get one total.