Bishop Laurie Haller opened the 2018 Annual Conference Session with an Episcopal Address that challenged the Conference to wade into uncharted territory with hope instead of fear and to also find a way to remain united in the midst diversity in the church. See an album of images from the Saturday morning session of the 2018 Iowa Annual Conference.
Drawing from Mark 2:13-22, the passage of scripture concerning Christ eating with sinners, and from specifics of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the bishop also challenged the Iowa Annual Conference to not be afraid to “go off the map.”
She offered the analogies of sewing cloth onto old clothes and pouring new wine into old wineskins. Each case is problematic, the bishop explained, because the patch will tear away from the new cloth with a worse tear, and the new wine would burst the old wineskins.
Bishop Laurie took Conference Session attendees back to April 1805 with the account of how Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery set out into territory no white person had ever entered.
Things were looking good at first, according to a letter from Lewis to President Thomas Jefferson, she explained. The letter detailed how their party was in good health, and spirits, invested in the journey and anxious to get going, Lewis noted there was harmony among them, saying, “With such men I have everything to hope, and little to fear.”
This statement would form the premise for much of the bishop’s message.
After much preparation, Lewis and Clark and their expedition were eventually ready to go off the map expecting to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean with their canoes, and trusting that the Missouri and Columbia Rivers were somehow connected or not too far apart.
When they encountered Lemhi Pass, en-route to the Continental Divide, on the present-day border of Montana and Idaho, they expected to see a vast plain to the west, with a large river flowing to the Pacific, but instead what they encountered were more mountains.
This left them at a standstill with canoes as their mode of transportation.
“There is no map, and canoeing through or over the mountains isn’t an option. How will the Corps of Discovery adapt?” Bishop Laurie asked. “In many ways, you and I at the same point today, aren’t we? Our country and the world are changing so fast that it’s virtually impossible to keep up.”
“And guess what?” the bishop continued. “The United Methodist Church faces the same dilemma. How are you and I going to adapt to the changing religious landscape of our world?”
“On top of that, we’re struggling to figure out how we can live with each other over different views around human sexuality,” she said. “The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops have been leading us, but there is no map. At the same time, I am convinced that we have everything to hope and little to fear.”
“As far as I know, Jesus never used a map,” she told Annual Conference Session attendees. “But he did understand that God was calling him to do a new thing.”
Bishop Laurie said that Jesus knew what his mission was; to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
“He had everything to hope and little to fear,” she said.
The bishop then shared the story from early in Jesus’ ministry when Jesus encounters Levi collecting taxes. Levi’s profession means he is out of grace with the Jewish leaders, she said, and he is considered impure and ritually unclean.
Jesus gave Levi the direction, “Follow me.” We don’t know what Jesus saw in Levi, the bishop said, but Levi gets up and follows him, and Jesus sits down to eat in Levi’s house surrounded by tax collectors and sinners. Levi had a shameful past, she explained, but he was excited to host Jesus and his colleagues and Jesus accepted them though they were among the marginalized. Many of them would become Jesus’ followers that day.
“Jesus defies the ancient purity laws about who should sit at the table with whom,” said Bishop Laurie. “Why? Because God’s table feeds everyone, just like we say at communion, 'The table is open to all.'”
“In Jesus’ eyes, disciples are those who don’t try to separate themselves from others,” she stated. “If we think we’re more righteous than other people, we exclude ourselves from the table.”
The scribes and Pharisees are peeking inside the window, the bishop pointed out, unhappy and asking Jesus’ disciples why he is eating with sinners and tax collectors.
She also noted that three times in two verses Mark says that Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors.
Bishop Laurie said, “And Jesus replies, 'Hey, I go where people are sick. I don’t stay away for fear I’ll be contaminated. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners. These are my people too.'”
The bishop explained that inverse to Christ dining with sinners, his followers are to fast when he is gone, not in his presence.
“Disciples of Jesus are like guests at a wedding banquet, she said. “They’re an inclusive group of saints and sinners bound to each other by their love for Jesus.”
“Other religious people may keep to the rules and fast, but Jesus’ disciples discern the times, adapt, and practice a new lifestyle while Jesus is with them,” stated Bishop Laurie. “They celebrate God’s presence and grace in a way that goes far beyond the boundaries that you and I create between people.”
Illustrating what a new community of faith looks like, she said it is like new cloth that hasn’t been shrunk.
“If you sew it onto an old cloth, the new cloth will pull away and the tear will be worse,” said Bishop Laurie. “In the same way, wine was stored and left to ferment in animal skins. New wine put into an old wineskin will expand and burst the wineskin and create a huge mess.”
“In other words,” she added, “Jesus is saying to you and me, 'You can’t patch my teaching onto the old Jewish law. Your new life with Christ will overturn the vicious cycle of violence, alienation, prejudice, assumptions, and one-upping each other. New wine needs new wineskins.'”
This story isn’t just about wine, the bishop said.
“What Jesus wants us to know is that the new and the old are incompatible,” she told the Conference. “The new thing to which God is always calling us as disciples and as the church cannot be contained in old forms and old ways of doing things.”
The Todd Bolsinger book, Canoeing the Mountains, compares the Lewis and Clark Expedition to where the Christian church is today, the bishop told the crowd, and some in the conference, district operational teams, as well as some bishops, are reading the book.
“Just as Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery found themselves on top of Lemhi Pass with no map for how they were going to reach the Pacific Ocean, so, too, the Christian Church and we as disciples of Jesus Christ who call ourselves United Methodists find ourselves at a crossroads,” Bishop Laurie said.
She questioned the Conference Session attendees, “In order to reach new people for Jesus Christ and model for them how to be difference makers in this new world in which we live, how are we going to proceed in our local churches and our denomination? My friends, we have everything to hope and little to fear.”
The Bolsinger book has five lessons that guided the Lewis and Clark expedition and are also instructive for us as United Methodist people of faith, she said.[i]
The first lesson is that the world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.
With no maps, Lewis and Clark assumed that where they were heading looked just like where they had been, the bishop said.
“They had no conception of the height and breadth of the Rocky Mountains over which they would have to cross. After seeing the grand array of mountain peaks from Lemhi Pass, I suspect nothing would surprise them anymore, In the same way, you and I as United Methodists cannot witness to our culture and share Christ’s love until we let go of the good old days, chuck the outdated map, and do a new thing.”
This what the Commission on a Way Forward has done, she continued, “by recommending a plan to the Council of Bishops that will let go of the old map for our past and create a new map for the future of The United Methodist Church.
A summary of the One Church model has been previously communicated, with details to be released in early July.
The second lesson Bishop Laurie spoke about from the book is that no one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map, explaining how Meriwether Lewis gained the trust of the Corps of Discovery through the group’s, incredible hardships. This was accomplished through mutual trust, personal knowledge of his followers, his having standards and being fair, competency, building relationships with others outside the group, personal accountability, optimism and a sense of unity and purpose.
“How are we in Iowa cultivating trust in our leadership and ministries as we move off the map?” Bishop Laurie asked the Conference crowd. “How can we create a culture of permission-giving where we can be imaginative in starting new ministries, forming new communities of faith, and reaching out to our towns and cities with grace and a passion for difference-making?”
The third lesson from the book was that in uncharted territory, adaption is everything, and Bishop Laurie detailed how Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery learned how to adapt every step of the way.
“Has your congregation finally given up reciting the eight last words of the church, 'But we’ve never done it this way before!'?” she asked. “God is continually calling you and me to experiment and try new things to engage our communities with the good news of Jesus. What is the last new thing your church has done?”
The fourth lesson she talked about from the Bolsinger book was you can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage, explaining how Lewis was patient but firm in dealing with his men when they became discouraged in the difficult conditions.
“Any time we try to put new wine into old wineskins, someone is going to be irritated because we love the old wineskins, right?” she told the crowd. “We like our comfort food, don’t we? We like Iowa potlucks with ham balls, potato salad with bacon, jello, and chocolate cake. We don’t want new people to come into the church with their new ideas and new ways of doing things. And most of all, we’re highly offended when someone sits in our pew.”
“You and I need each other in the church in order to move beyond the sabotage of nay-sayers to inspire, equip, and connect communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ.” Bishop Laurie continued. “Yet we also know that it takes time to bring everyone along and perseverance to stay the course.”
The last principle the bishop shared from the book was that everybody will be changed, especially the leader.
“Friends, as you and I move into uncharted territory here in Iowa, we have everything to hope and little to fear.” The bishop stated. “We have this beautiful vision here in Iowa of being God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people.”
She listed Conference actions related to moving forward in ministry, including a major structural alignment emphasizing congregational and clergy excellence, making the formation of new faith communities a priority, and a new mental health initiative in which we hope to engage and partner with our communities and the state to provide the necessary resources to address the mental health crisis in Iowa.
“Now it’s time to pray, to engage one another in holy conversation, enter the new world that is ahead of us with excitement and hope, and continue to be difference makers in our local churches, districts, and conference.” Said Bishop Laurie. “As we approach the called General Conference in 2019, to what is God calling us?”
She then posed a number of questions to Conference members present:
Is God calling us to leave known territory, to go to the margins where it’s uncomfortable?
Is God calling us to see our own community with new eyes, reach out to those who need to hear about the love of Jesus, and humbly discern where we ourselves need new wineskins?
Is God calling us to continually start new faith communities in places where people are yearning to hear the good news of the gospel?
Is God is calling us to embrace failure and loss and let it strengthen us?
Bishop Laurie also asked those present, “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form of The United Methodist Church in 1968, is God calling us to find a way to remain united in the midst of our diversity?”
“My brothers and sisters, we have a chance to cross our own Continental Divide right now in the Iowa Annual Conference,” she said. “Are you ready to go off the map? Are you willing to take the risk? Are you eager to embrace both/and? Will you approach this new world with opportunity and excitement rather than fear?”
“Are you willing to engage hope for a church that embraces more than one viewpoint?” continued the bishop. “Are you willing to lean into the world in front of you as United Methodists? Will you witness to the power of this new thing that God is doing among us by renewing your commitment to sit at the table together with the One who invites all to come?
“Will the Iowa Annual Conference create new wineskins for the new wine of whatever God has in store next for The United Methodist Church?” she queried. “Dare we catch a vision of God’s reign where we teach each other and learn from each other and work together to be difference makers?
In concluding her message, she offered a reminder that Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me,” and Levi got up and followed him.
“Will, you, too get up and follow Jesus into the future?” the bishop asked. “For, my dear friends, we have everything to hope and little to fear.”
Bishop Laurie then sang the prayer, “O Christ, I cannot search my heart through all its tangled ways, nor can I with a certain mind my steadfastness appraise. I only pray that when you call, “Come, follow, follow me!” you’ll give me strength beyond my own to follow faithfully.”