Pentecost at the Crossroads

African Central Conferences worship service“The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads,” Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa told the more than 500 assembled for the African Worship Service on Pentecost Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Nhiwatiwa welcomed the international congregation and made it clear that the church in Africa and its bishops must play a pivotal role in helping The United Methodist Church take the right road. “The church has been here before” he said, and African bishops such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine led the church at other key crossroads.

Nhiwatiwa, the president of the African Council of Bishops, concluded with the message that the Holy Family sought shelter in Africa, the Word was kept safe in Africa, so that it would shine as a bright beacon for all the world. “As it was 2,000 years ago, God said, ‘Take the baby to Egypt’ [Africa].… With worldwide hostility to the cause of Christ, we say again today: ‘Take the baby to Egypt!’”

The congregation erupted with cheers as it gave Nhiwatiwa a standing ovation before being led into worship by the dynamic Africa University Choir. Participants in the worship service hailed from numerous African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, and Nigeria.

The modern day reality of United Methodism is that nearly 5 million of our 12 million members are found on the African continent. In Portland, that new reality explains why 30 percent of the 864 delegates were Africans – with 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. That number will increase exponentially as membership continues to skyrocket in Africa and descend in North America. Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within Methodism is found in different time zones, nations, and languages than the solely American name brand Methodism of yesterday. The shift is epic.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.5 million) than in the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined (2.4 million).

• More United Methodists live in Nigeria (457,959) than the entire Western Jurisdiction (322,939).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (327,706) – one of our largest annual conferences.

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (108,322) than in Northern Illinois (90,820).

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is in African cities such as Harare, Abuja, and Kinshasa. These urban epicenters could end up being the Londons, Bristols, and Epworths of the next wave of Wesleyan resurgence.

The fiery tongues of angels were manifest on Pentecost in the book of Acts, but the tongues of Methodism’s next chapter may be in French, Portugese, and Swahili.

“Today is Pentecost Sunday, and so we celebrate the birth of the Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. “This historic day, the day on which the Church was born, is also the first time in the history of General Conference that the Central Conference of Africa conducts a worship service that celebrates Jesus Christ.

“As bearers of the Good News every second there is a message to offer to the world,” said Kulah, one of the leaders of the Africa Initiative that prepared delegates for the General Conference in Portland. “The Initiative is a movement of African leaders both clergy and lay people committed to partnership. We need to raise our voice and pray to seek God’s face to train and develop leaders so that the African church will be empowered with men and women who know the truth, and who live the truth, and who proclaim the truth.”

Kulah repeated the theme of the crossroads confronting United Methodism. “I’ve come to realize that on our life’s journey, there are always crossroads to encounter,” he said. “And at the crossroads of life, it becomes our responsibility to carefully identify the path that leads to our destination. If we fail to take the path that leads to our destiny, we eventually will take a road that leads to our dead end.”

Preaching from Jeremiah chapter 2, Kulah spoke about the political and religious leaders of the nation of Judah abandoning God. “Their priests were preaching lies, their prophets were prophesying lies. They were preaching peace when there was no peace,” he said. God sent the Prophet Jeremiah on the difficult task of declaring His truth to a wayward people.

“The crossroads is a place of decision making. At the crossroads, you choose to take a new direction or the wrong direction,” Kulah said as individuals from the congregation stood in affirmation of his message. “At the crossroads, God asks us what path will you take. Will you take the path that leads to what is good?”

Great biblical characters such as Abraham and Esther had to face their own crossroads, said Kulah. God chose them to make difficult decisions with faith. “I don’t know how long we will be at the crossroads, but eventually we will move on,” he said.

“Look to the future and see the church. Do you see a growing, vibrant church? What do you see? God’s invited all of you to look into the future,” Kulah told the assembly. In the interim, he said, we are to “walk in justice, walk in mercy, and walk in righteousness.”

Kulah concluded by quoting Jesus: “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No one, absolutely no one, comes to the Father except through me.” When we come to our crossroads, the rest for our soul is found in Jesus Christ.

The service concluded with the Lord’s Supper being served by the African bishops to the congregation gathered from around the globe. The morning message soon seemed to crystalize: With a shared cup and a broken loaf of bread we will approach the crossroads together with one faith, redeemed by one Lord, and empowered by one Spirit. It was, after all, Pentecost Sunday.

Portlandia at General Conference

wandedThis was my seventh United Methodist General Conference and I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be like trying to ride a tornado. There are, after all, 162 marijuana dispensaries in metro Portland and one of the top tourist destinations is Voodoo Donuts. Dropping several thousand United Methodists upon the newfangled bohemian utopia of the Pacific Northwest promised to be an interesting venture.

After all, “Oregon’s Finest Cannibas” – a huge emporium – sat across the street from the General Conference venue. This had all the makings of a quirky episode of Portlandia, the five-year-old snarky comedy lampooning the occasionally absurd progressive dogma in Portland written by liberals with a sense of humor. (Insert joke about delegates sneaking across the street during extended Rule 44 debate.)

I’m not gripping: I love Portland, every funky and redeemable inch of it. Two weeks in a city where new restaurants spring up like chickweed in your lawn seemed like Shangri La to me. It just seemed like an ironic place to throw a legislative hoedown for an international denomination.

Looking at the event with a sense of humor (it helps), there were a few zany moments at General Conference that could have been scripted in Portlandia.  

• Everyone was body-wanded by the faux TSA agents outside the Convention Center. They were good sports, however, and let us keep plastic containers exceeding six ounces.

• One of the funniest moments occurred when a delegate deadpanned, “Trust me, I’ve dated plenty of Jews…” in order to speak against a resolution addressing anti-Semitism. It was wobbly rationale and it seemed more fitting for Seinfeld, but it created waves of laughter.

• A delegate publicly accused a presiding bishop of using hand signals to sway votes like a baseball coach uses hand signals to steal second base. Oy vey.

• Indie band Indigo Girls did a concert for LGBTQ activists.

• Methodists spent three days, 23 parliamentary procedures, and two handfuls of Rolaids to decide to defeat one rule.

• One delegate announced, “I believe we are confusing God at this point” during our debate over the rules. I believe she was technically correct.

The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary, wisely calmed those who were ready to set their hair on fire while tuned into the live feed and seeing the parliamentary procedures and the protests: “Let your view of the Church be determined by what you see week-to-week in your local church and not once-every-four-years at General Conference.” Truth.

Learning to be grateful

It has been noted that expectation is the root of all heartaches and I have learned to curb my expectations for General Conference. For the last seven months, I was frequently asked, “What do you think is going to happen at General Conference?” The still, small voice of God reminded me: “Dude, you have no idea.” Which was true.

At the same time, the issues we dealt with are very important and our differences of opinion matter – all our opinions. Our varied perspectives should not be papered over in merely insincere Methodist politeness. They should be acknowledged with charity and dealt with respectfully.

I flew to Portland with the modest declaration in my heart that “prayer matters.” Win, Lose, or Delay: prayer still matters. St. Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” (Page 4 illustrates this beautifully.) My blood pressure needed to meditate on that word.

Thanksgiving

• A big “thank you” goes out to Bishop Grant Hagiya, the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Western Jurisdiction for being such tremendous hosts. In whatever ways we may think differently, certainly all United Methodists would testify that the hospitality in Portland was generous and a blessing. Many thanks.

• Thank you, Grace Avenue UM Church Ukulele Choir from Frisco, Texas, for donning the Hawaiian shirts and spreading the spirit of aloha. Mahalo, ya’ll.

• Thank you, Dr. Tom Albin and the Upper Room crew who prepared our Protestant prayer beads. Methodists don’t really have any cool and kitschy trinkets except the John Wesley bobblehead (sitting between my Johnny Ramone and Elvis). These prayer beads have a customized wooden medallion with the United Methodist cross and flame and a mountain sheep –signifying that we are called by Jesus to go in search of the lost sheep.

• Thank you, Bishop Warner H. Brown for leading us in the Zimbabwean song “Jesu Tawa Pano” – “Jesus, We Are Here For You” – during the opening worship service. I thought of that throughout conference: “Jesus, we are here for you. Not any other agenda. We are here for you. Therefore, let us go!”

• Thank you to the beautiful staff at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, United Methodist News Service reporters and photographers, Kinko’s, Pine State Biscuits, Uber, The Screen Door, Frank’s Noodle House, Prime Rib and Chocolate Cake, Tasty ‘n Sons, Le Bistro Montage, Cadillac Café, Biwa, Tin Shed, Imago Dei Community, Renata, Russell Street BBQ, Radio Room, Zeus’ Café, Salt and Straw Ice Cream, Pok Pok, Lincoln, Ox, Blue Star Donuts, Jake’s Grill, Lardo, Noble Rot, Sizzle Pie, Reverend’s BBQ, and the Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grill.

• Thank you, Maria Thaarup and the KEFAS gospel choir from Copenhagen – yep, Copenhagen – for your soulful rendition of “Blessed be the Rock.”

• Thank you, Bishop James Swanson for preaching on the devil. I know that you made a ton of folks sweat it out, but you preached the truth.

• Thank you, Bishop Gregory Palmer for this benediction: “We have everything we need – all fear, doubt, and controversies notwithstanding. We have nothing less than the promise of the Risen Christ that he will be with us.”

Even when we land in Portlandia, that’s what we’re counting on.