It is the night before I leave my quiet hotel room surroundings (although I am not here very long, just a few hours at night to sleep) to return home. By the time I leave tomorrow afternoon I will have spent a very meaningful three days in what we United Methodists call "covenant community." In this community we make promises with one another to support our mutual ministry (of both lay and ordained people). This mutual ministry is not confined to those who already know in churches we are already a part of, but our task as God's people is to share our experience of Christ with the rest of the world. It is always a provocative reminder to me of my vocation as, first of all, Christian and, second of all, ordained minister.
It has been a day of many reminders of the value of such a community of faith.
Our morning began with a memorial worship service, in which we remember those pastoral leaders and spouses who have died during the previous year. When I first began attending Annual Conference more than fifteen years ago, I thought I had no need to be present for this particular worship service. After all, I reasoned, I didn't know any of those who had died (I was new to the system and young enough that death of those I knew seemed another lifetime away), so why would I bother going. After the second or third year, though, I changed my mind. Having experienced the grace and welcome of a Christian community that warmly embraced me (at that time as a perfect stranger to all 1,000 others there), I decided the least I could do would be to remember "their" dead. It didn't take long for me to move into the experience of remembering "our" dead, even if I had not known them personally, their lives lived faithfully and in covenant with others. So I have been attending the memorial service every year for more than a decade, shedding a few tears each year as I recognize that one day it will be mine or Claudia's name called forth during the service. I am hopeful that there will be those present on that day in the future who, while not ever knowing me, will perhaps shed a tear of gratitude with my remaining family members and friends. This is an evidence of a beloved community.
The remainder of our day was spent in plenary sessions dealing with various legislative issues, ranging from the mundanity of the annual budget approval to the complexities of addressing needs of poverty in society and how to act justly on behalf of coffee growers in Central America. As an Annual Conference we have authorized a group whose task it is to pray with and for, and to contribute on a regular basis, toward ministries that work on the front lines with those that society calls "poor." We wrestled with how to name the issue -- poverty -- without demeaning the human people involved. How do we find ways to reach out to those in desperate situations without the paternalism of historic religious efforts to provide care? While we struggle with the semantics, it makes me proud to be part of a Christian movement that cares about those at the margins of society. This is another evidence of beloved community.
Our day ended with the ordination service, always a highlight for me. Those to be ordained (this year one man of Asian heritage and four Anglo women) lead our procession, followed by those of us who are already ordained. Friends, family members and laity are seated in the congregation as nearly 200 ordained process in liturgical dress. It is a rather impressive moment, not because of the pageantry (although there is that), but because of the reminder of how much is done for good in the course of a year's time as the result of committed servant leadership across the state of Minnesota. Tonight I sat next to a colleague who last year retired after 40 years of ordained ministry. When we sang I heard his voice blend with mine and hundreds of others. His hair is now grey, his gait slower, his hearing more muted, but his joyous disposition and Christ-touched heart continue to shine. I look around and amongst the white and black robes festooned with the red stoles (liturgical reminder of ordination) are colleagues in ministry who are older than I and younger, who are males and females, who are Anglo, Hispanic, African-American and Hispanic. There is a sense of mutuality and shared purpose that connects us together, another powerful evidence of beloved community.
I am a blessed person. I have a community who shares my deepest spiritual passions, that reflects my thirst for justice in the world and that reminds me of the glorious diversity of God's creation.