The Noise of Worship at General Conference

Nearly every day at General Conference, when lay and clergy delegates from all over the world meet to renew and reset our direction as the United Methodist Church, we are treated to magnificent, creative, high quality worship services. We sing, marvel, listen, stand, bow our heads and even applaud, opening the day in the most fitting way possible, in worship of the God whose Church we truly are.

I for one have harbored a little resentment though. On quite a few days I’ve wanted to skip. I’ve even wished (only in my own mind, not out loud) that we wouldn’t do it at all. My reason? In the worship, we sound so God-focused. We smile and sing how we are one in God, that we are filled with grace and love, that we seek nothing but the movement of the Holy Spirit. But then worship ends, and the rancor begins. The power plays that commenced in backroom breakfasts resume. The love, unity, and openness to the Spirit rush right out the door.

It’s the dissonance, the hypocrisy, the hollowness of our gestures. The Lord must be up there reciting the words of the prophets: “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:21); “These people draw near and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

There are prayer vigils leading up to General Conference. And there is a lot of praying going on at General Conference. Delegates are led in prayer, and pray on their own. The observers in the gallery close their eyes and lift their hands in intense supplication. But we know what they (and we) are praying for: that my side, my take on this issue will win. We most certainly want the Holy Spirit to move – on them.

The children in my congregation have cut out construction paper and colored little prayer cards for General Conference. I’m glad we shelter them from what the meeting really is like. I am entirely sure that the praying they have in mind is of a different sort – and it might help us actually to ask them. I’d guess they would offer something simple, like that we would be safe, that we would love, and that God’s will would be done.

Any prayer for God’s will to be done latches us on to Jesus, who taught us to pray this way. What is intriguing is that right before Jesus, in agony, said “Not my will, but your will be done,” he’d said “Let this cup pass from me.” Jesus had his druthers on the outcome – and he is the holiest person ever to pray. But his preference, his wish for what should happen, had to yield. Jesus offers God the Father a yielding, a willingness to be surprised, however unpleasantly. This is the very nature of love, which “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). My theology professor at Duke, Dr. Bob Cushman, defined faith as “the conversion of the will through the crumpling of pride.” And my friend, the evangelist Leighton Ford, says that in John 17 “Jesus didn’t tell us to pray that our party would win; he prayed that our oneness in him might be seen, so that the world may believe.”

What if General Conference delegates actually engaged in what our children, and even so many of our grownup United Methodists around the world earnestly assume we are doing – praying, in the sense of being willing and even eager to yield our preferred way, to have pride crumpled, and our wills converted? Not to win, or to grieve losing, or to finagle things so the vote turns out right, but a profound emptying, a suspension of judgment, a deep waiting on what God might stunningly do.

Yes, you are snickering by now. But really: if you are praying anything else, or if you just aren’t bothering to pray, then let’s be clear that God takes no delight in us, and we will never be swept up in the miraculous New Creation God has promised to the Church.

Since we can’t (or shouldn’t want to) continue the hypocrisy of sunny worship as a prelude to ugly business at General Conference, it seems to me we’re left with only two options. We could pray as Jesus prayed, and expect and engage in genuinely transformative ways of doing business. Or, we could simply worship and pray, and not do any business at all, renewing the old idea of the Moravian Pentecost. Zinzendorf summoned all the quarrelling, divided delegates together in 1727 for a conference, and conducted no business whatsoever. They just worshipped, fasted, sang, washed each other’s feet, shared in love feasts, and Zinzendorf didn’t let them leave until they learned to love one another. They found themselves moved by the Spirit; then they went back home, and set their communities on fire.

We can be very sure this is God’s will, this New Creation, which isn’t my way or your way, but God’s way. God’s even big enough, and humble enough, to move genuinely open hearts during a conference where we worship and vote.

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