At the end of worship last night we were asked to lay hands on and offer prayers of healing for one another. With my seat mate I asked for prayers for all those in our world who are experiencing disappointment, despair, oppression, and hurt. I was thinking especially of the personal privilege granted during the evening plenary to Mark Miller, a gay man and delegate. Miller expressed deep pain resulting from small group holy conferencing the day before. During dialogue around homosexuality, several people experienced rejection, shame, and even bullying by others. After Miller invited delegates to stand who have loved ones, family, and friends who are homosexuals, Bishops Robert Hayes offered a beautiful prayer.
My heart was pierced to think that some of our brothers and sisters might feel disenfranchised from the body of Christ. I was also remembering the previous night when Rev. Adam Hamilton described that one of the primary goals of the Call to Action is to raise up and invest in a new generation of clergy, specifically 2,000 young clergy in the next 10 years. Certainly, the health of our denomination is directly related to the effectiveness of our clergy. However, I have always been convinced that the power of The United Methodist Church is in the laity. Laity are our most under-utilized resource. We will rise or fall as a Holy Spirit-led movement because of laity who witness, model, teach, and encourage others by their grace, faith, and spiritual courage.
Every vital, healthy church that I have ever experienced is filled with laity who are trained, equipped, and empowered to use their spiritual gifts to grow the church. Those laity are pastored by clergy who are willing to adapt their leadership style to share ministry. Energized laity who envision new ministries that align with the church’s mission, find others to join them, and make a difference in their community and the world are the lifeblood of the church. How is it, then, that we speak of redirecting so many resources to young clergy development when the nurturing and equipping of laity, both young and old, will likely yield far greater results? Why do we keep alienating tens of thousands of highly gifted and faithful GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) lay and clergy by inviting them into leadership only if they promise not to make a commitment to love another for life? And why is it that some of our United Methodist pastors will not permit partnered gay persons to become members?
The truth is that we can no longer afford to hoard ministry to ourselves and exclude those who are different, whether it’s gender, sexuality, skin color, socioeconomic status, or anything else. Obviously, it hasn’t worked for the last 40 years. Where might we be today if everyone was welcome to eat and drink at the table in the kingdom of God?All of that was running through my mind when I left the plenary hall after worship and witnessed several hundred people wearing rainbow stoles and lining both of the main exits of the convention center. They were young, old, men, women, homosexual, heterosexual, lay, clergy.
Instinctively, I laid my hand on the first person’s head and said, “God bless you.” I went all the way down the line of 40 people and moved over to the other side. Even longer lines of rainbow-stoled children of God stood at the other exit. Compelled to go there, I could not stop without blessing each one. Just as Jesus healed by touch, so touching their heads was meant to be a sacramental act of healing. When I touched heads, some smiled, some looked into my eyes, others looked straight ahead, and still others remained with heads bowed. Some had tears in their eyes or streaming down their faces. “God bless you.” “God bless you.” “God bless you.” All were fully present to the moment, including me. I was transformed.
The next moment I was heartsick. Watching delegates and visitors stream out of the exits, I saw some people totally ignoring those wearing stoles, as if they were invisible. Others wore steely or annoyed expressions on their faces and would not make eye contact. Several were chatting with friends and appeared not to notice. Some seemed sympathetic but did not know how to respond. A few stopped to interact. Years ago I decided that Jesus does not allow any of us to make exceptions about whom to love. Every day I struggle with the implications of that decision, but I am more clear than ever that if God can love a person like me, then I will covenant to love and honor everyone, with God’s help. God bless you.