Church on the verge

Sitting riverside in Tampa, as worship launches the 2012 General Conference, everything feels so new and shiny — the church just out of its box. There’s anticipation and hope. It’s God freshly re-encounted.

I think of the quote: “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits,” or some such pep-rally inspiration. At this moment, the church seems big enough, smart enough, creative enough, tolerant and bold enough to make a significant difference in the world.

In the nearby town of Ybor, a tour guide at a local museum invited visitors from Germany to return for a more in-depth tour. “We’ll be busy these next two weeks,” they told him. “We’ll be at General Conference, we’ll be saving the world.”

The tour guide laughed, so did the United Methodists, but they were also earnest. The signs on Tampa’s lampposts promote the denomination with the slogan, “Change the World,” but I suspect there’s more than one United Methodist who believes God is calling us to really transform the world, or at least significant pieces of it.

The conference opened with the traditional hymnodic question, “And Are We Yet Alive?” and ancient ritual made the space sacred.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster preached about Jesus calling his disciples to leave their fishing and follow him. Every four years, he said, the church gathers on the shore to mend its nets and tend to business. “But will we hear the invitational call of Jesus,” he asked.

Responding to Jesus’ “follow me” brings “a fundamental transformation of life and work,” Goodpaster said.

For me, on this first day, that transformation was glimpsed in small moments –Bonnie Marden of New England receiving Communion bread from her father Bishop Clifton Ives; the Rev. Laura Easto reminding the mayor of Tampa that The United Methodist Church ordains women; the Rev. Conrad Link whistling with a generous kind of joy as the choir sang and the nearly 1,000 delegates wrapping themselves in prayer stoles made by people throughout the connection.

On the large screen in front of the 3,700 people who gathered for worship, there was a photo of a sun rising. Only the image was on a loop, so the sun never really rose. I’m hoping the real horizon will be different. I’m anticipating a new day and some nurturing, clever, and important change.

Nothing springs more eternal than hope and the church on the verge.

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