Trust, hope and mercy at General Conference

May 13th, 2016

Yesterday was my 15th wedding anniversary to Rachel Shepard Armstrong. While I worked as a delegate to the 2016 General Conference, Rachel went on a hiking trip with some friends back in Tennessee. We can debate later who had the better day. It was strange, though, to not be with her on the anniversary of our wedding ceremony. Separated by thousands of miles, we texted back and forth a few times, left a couple voicemails, and read handwritten notes that we had left each other for the day. While we wouldn’t have chosen to spend our anniversary that way, our relationship will survive. It is strong. It is steeled by years of shared laughter and tears. It has been deepened by intimacy and arguments. We made a covenant and covenants have a way of persisting across distance and time. Rachel and I live in covenant even when we don’t want to be, even when we forget it, and even when we don’t act like it. The covenant is bigger than us because God is in the covenant.

While Rachel hiked one of our favorite trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, I sat in a windowless convention center hall with 800 other United Methodists with whom I live in covenant. In one day we laughed and we cried. We had deep intimacy in worship and heated arguments in debate. I live in covenant with my brothers and sisters in Christ even when we don’t want to be, even when we forget it, and even when we don’t act like it. The covenant is bigger than us because God is in the covenant.

I noticed in the 2016 global gathering of United Methodists, though, that something was lacking. Something that if lacking in my marriage covenant would lead to devastating consequences. Trust. Covenants are built on trust and we in the UMC don’t trust each other right now. I’m not the first to point this out. It was talked about in the hallways and has been articulated well in the blogosphere. It was easily seen in the multitude of points of order, felt in the interruptions of the presiding bishop, and heard in the trembling of angry voices.

But a lack of trust should not lead us to lose something that always exists in covenants founded on Jesus Christ. Hope. I wrote in my last blog that I came to General Conference with hope. Last night one of my mentors texted me a simple message. “Still hopeful?” My response: “Um, sort of.” His question caused me to wonder why I had hope in the first place. I realized my hope was not in discerning bishops, a book of discipline, and certainly not Robert’s Rules of Order. The hope is found in Christ, the true covenant keeper. This hope keeps us coming back every four years, it requires that we hang tight when we want to bail out and it calls us to stay engaged with those whom we covenant especially when we have stopped liking them and their opinions.

And so I’m still hoping on day four of this conference and was reminded this morning of what is required of me in covenant. It is what Jesus has offered to us. Mercy. It’s the reason that Rachel and I are still married. She has offered me mercy over and over again. We have not settled every argument with consensus or resolution. Many are ended with plain old mercy. Some nights there are not enough hours to stay up till we come to a solution we both agree on, instead we settle on mercy. We do not agree on everything theologically, but mercy allows us to serve God fully and recklessly.

Most of the time I am separated from my United Methodist sisters and brothers by much distance and time. I pray that despite this, our covenant will remain strong. I pray that the covenant would be steeled by years of shared mission and ministry, deepened by the intimacy of the Spirit, and strengthened through the honesty of our arguments. Today at General Conference I am holding onto trust, holding out hope and mostly, handing out mercy.

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