This three-year journey with Mom and her illnesses which are making her weaker and more frail has been intricately linked with my journey with the 2016-2019 United Methodist General Conference cycle. Mom’s first health crisis came in June 2015, the same time I was elected to the 2016 Virginia General Conference delegation and ended up having this role of chair of the delegation. Two days before the first delegation meeting in July 2015, my cousin, Regina, and I took Mom to the ER at Roanoke Memorial. Mom was hospitalized and it became clear that she couldn’t return home to care for herself. The move to Culpepper became one of not just a short-term rehab stay but a long-term care situation. Yesterday morning, Mom was sure I was Gina and we were in the Roanoke hospital.
I left the hospital in Roanoke late on Friday afternoon that July weekend to return to Glen Allen for our first delegation meeting to prepare for the 2016 General Conference. I’ve walked these journeys with one foot in both worlds. Since beginning this reflection Thursday night/Friday morning on these past three years, I have seen very clearly once again the beautiful, amazing connections of this denomination that I hold so dear.
The very first person who took communion to Mom when she arrived in Culpeper is very involved in the Wesleyan Covenant Association. One of the first people I heard from on Friday is the spouse of a staff person from our UMC General Board of Church and Society. Those of you who are United Methodist automatically know that those two groups are pretty much always at odds with each other because of our differing understandings of what it means to be faithful in living out our Wesleyan call to holiness of heart and life, works of piety and works of mercy.
Folks who have called, emailed, posted messages and sent texts this weekend have been from churches large and small across the Virginia Conference. They are folks with very traditional and very progressive understandings of marriage and ordination – and everywhere in between. They are not churched and of every church. Expressions of love and care have come from people that I have loved and valued from very early in my life until today, people who represent every part of the spectrum of understandings of our relationship with God and of how we are called to be Christ in the world today.
Some of those who have sent expressions of concern this weekend have traveled with me since second grade when our schools in Henry County were integrated. That ‘s when my friend Ronnie was the first to walk me home from school – the original inspiration for the title, “Walking Martha Home.” That day we were black and white 7-year olds, each living on the edges of the color dividing line of our little village, walking together with no recognition of why people were looking at us strangely. That journey took many turns over the years, including 3 friends who died from complications of HIV/AIDS. Among those who have reached out this weekend are friends who have strong feelings about the cause of those illnesses and friends who have dedicated their lives to ministries of compassion in AIDS clinics.
Among those who have reached out are women whose journeys took them through ordination and into pastoral church leadership at the same time I was being told there would be no support for me to enter that process. And there was love shown from churches where sadly I know a female would still find great challenge toward acceptance.
There are people who have reached out and loved our family who will never be able to understand how I reached a point in my faith journey where I believe certain things that are so very opposite their strong held beliefs. There are people who have reached out this weekend who would never walk in the same places that I walk, who would never reach out to some of the same people with whom I love to spend time. There are people who called and cared for us over the last few days who will never change their minds on anything – from presidential politics to what to have for dinner, but I love them all just the same. The one thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to be a part of the church where all those voices are not represented.
Unique people from all places and backgrounds with different understandings of who God is and what it is that Jesus calls us to model in the world today are what has made me who I am. All this has made the United Methodist Church the place I love, the foundation that has shaped and formed me. I can’t imagine being a part of a church, a meal table or a family gathering where the variety of voices, the divergent opinions, are not present.
I would not be the person I am today if all of the different voices had not been a part of my learning and understanding. I wouldn’t be the person I am if it hadn’t been for the potluck dinner offered by a Pentecostal Holiness group when I was a teenager which included a very long prayer in a variety of tongues before we could eat. Of course, all of us teenagers opened our eyes and looked at each other like we were totally scared to death but that’s a part of my faith journey. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if my world religions professor in college hadn’t made us go visit in the home of a Hindu family, participate in a Buddhist retreat and a sent us off to experience a variety of other religious traditions. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t followed one of my social work graduate professors to River of Life Church for a conversation about releasing the demons of addiction from persons who were dealing with alcohol and drugs. Yes, an authentic conversation about releasing demons. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if my mother hadn’t told me over and over as I was growing up to – and yes, this is totally politically incorrect but I’m going to say it just as she did – to “be nice to the drunks, the prostitutes and the mentally retarded.” I still can’t figure out the prostitute part of that….
I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today if God hadn’t seen fit to point me in directions where I have had wonderful relationships and opportunities to be with people in all kinds of faith communities, in all kinds of places. So I cannot see this three year journey of concerns around Mom’s life and the future of our United Methodist church as separate. They are woven tightly together.
This weekend was to have been spent with fellow Lay Servants at the Conference Academy focusing on lay pastoral care and with the congregation at Grace UMC in Manassas celebrating Older Adult Sunday. An awesome clergy and lay team took over the Lay Servant course. Late last night I received a note from the class letting me know they were thinking of me and our family. They practiced what they learned very well! The team at Grace UMC cared for today’s message while one of them reached out to me multiple times to let us know we were covered in prayer. As I drove back to Culpeper very early this morning – going by and thinking about all of those gathering later in United Methodist Churches along my route – I offered God thanks for how my life was connected to each person in those pews and all the saints before them.
When I was given the opportunity to suggest hymns for the service at Grace today, I chose a favorite. Every time I hear the words I am called once again to the Great Commandment and my understanding of Jesus’ instruction to love God and neighbor. It calls me to the community of believers that I want to be part of and gather with around the world.
Mom cried earlier when her doctor of Indian descent told her she could go home. I cried when I read a note from one of my elementary school friends from the “other side” of the Fieldale color dividing line. I pray that our understanding of church can grow wide enough that we can all continue to journey together as faithful disciples with differing understandings but so much to learn from and offer to one another. I’ll cry then when that decision is made…or when it’s not.
Much love and thanks to all who have cared for us these past few days and in the words of that hymn sung at Grace and in many other places this day…
Here in this place new light is streaming
Now is the darkness vanished away
See in this space our fears and our dreamings
Brought here to you in the light of this day
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken
We shall arise at the sound of our name
We are the young, our lives are a mystery
We are the old who yearn for your face
We have been sung throughout all of history
Called to be light to the whole human race
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty
Gather us in, the proud and the strong
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song
Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters
Call us anew to be salt for the earth
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Give us to eat the bread that is you
Nourish us well and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true
Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day
Gather us in and hold us forever
Gather us in and make us your own
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones
“Gather Us In” by Marty Haugen