This 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.
• 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.