General Conference 2019: Notes from the Front


"I Know You Go Before Me..."

Posted by Rev. Dr. Mark A. Fowler on

Friday morning, February 22, 2019

“I know you go before me…”

I am grateful for the sunshine today. The weather will not be a distraction from a journey toward the unknown future of The United Methodist Church. Five hours ahead is St. Louis and the global gathering of delegates, bishops, General Secretaries and staffs of the general agencies of the church and thousands of others who have an interest in the future of our denomination.  My role is as it has been in General Conferences past. Seminary students will gather with their professors along with deans and presidents to immerse themselves in the decisions about the future of the church that they have been called to serve. Daily briefings and de-briefings with luminaries of the church will convene in the early morning and the late evening to process the events of the day and prepare for the agenda that remains.

There is an air of foreboding and grief that pervades the conversations and prognostications surrounding this General Conference. Although the Council of Bishops was tasked to find a “Way Forward” for our denomination that focuses on navigating the question of full inclusion of LGBTQA+ persons in the full life and ministry of the church, the path seems murky at best and impossible broken in the most skeptical view of the reality that paves a difficult way to St. Louis.

Yesterday I took some time in deep prayer to prepare. Joyful memories of “going to conference” came to my mind. Although it was not the global gathering of General Conference, the annual event of going to conference stretches back into my childhood as far as I can remember. My dad and uncle were pastors, my grandparents were lay leaders in the Annual Conference and we knew many people that would attend these gatherings. The grand celebrations of worship, especially ordination and the memorial communion service became as important to me as Christmas and Easter. They marked the great mission and faith of the church. And, then there were the countless mission projects, schools, universities, seminaries, hospitals and the vast ministry of the church beyond my own little life and experience that I eventually embraced as the spiritual center of Conference. “And are we yet alive to see each other’s face! Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” (UMH, #553)

I look forward to being with many friends and colleagues in faith that I will see in St. Louis. General Conference has been a joyous reunion, despite the difficult issues that have been part of the gathering. There has always been a sense of our common mission and ministry and the deep bonds of love divine and the inclusive ministry of the church. I pray for some of that this time. One friend observed that this Conference may feel more like a funeral. Maybe so. But, even so, we are a resurrection people. That Easter morning began with both the fear of death and the frightening possibility of resurrected life, something altogether new.

This United Methodist Church has guided, challenged, frustrated, abandoned, embraced, led me and sometimes lagged behind along the road it indicated I should take and prepared me for that journey. I know that the road has led me to stand on a rock of faith that the ministry and mission of Jesus is an inclusive one with an ever expanding understanding of the power of love and the invitation to a place at the table. I cannot conceive of a United Methodism that teaches a limitation on the invitation and embrace of the grace of God to “everyone born.”

Psalm 139: 1-18  has led me in these last hours. I invite you to pray it with me as

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end[a]—I am still with you.