This post, also appearing on the emergingumc blog, is a bit of a departure from my usual contributions to this blog.
Today, I want to bear witness to ways I saw the Holy Spirit move among us at worship as I experienced it from my peculiar vantage point as one of the developers and co-laborers with the General Conference worship team.
In doing so, I do not wish to come across in any way diminishing those occasions where it seemed General Conference was in the grip of “another spirit.” There is good reason that so many commentators and “post-mortems” on this General Conference describe it with words like “tough,” “cantankerous,” “mean-spirited,” “fear-motivated,” “untrusting,” and even “traumatic.”
But I bear witness to this. I have never before encountered the Holy Spirit moving as dramatically, powerfully, palpably and in so many different ways as I did at this General Conference, especially, though not only, through worship. Often, I came away simply astounded.
At opening worship, the Holy Spirit brought order out of chaos.
Chaos is the only word to describe where worship seemed to be heading 30 minutes before it was to start.
A full-day delay in installing the rigging put every other element of our work more than a full day behind. No rehearsal of any element of opening worship worked properly the first, second, or even the final time. Sound, lights, graphics, video– everything was consistently off, and even into the final cue-t0-cue– often off by a long, long way. We were seeing the very real possibility that over two years of planning, gathering video and graphics resources, creating a band, developing musical repertoire, designing liturgy– two years of work and solid preparation, plus the hours of rehearsals on site– could turn into a complete disaster. Every indication was that it could.
I remember saying to Marcia and a few others of us after we got backstage after that “cue-to-cue from the nether regions,” “We’re going to have to walk by faith, and not by sight.” That is what we did. It was truly our only choice. If we were to walk by sight, we’d have to consider cancelling the service. Really. Things were that bad. Anyone who was at the cue to cue or the previous rehearsals could tell you that.
We had to walk by what we trusted the Spirit could do as we offered it, despite what we knew it was just 30 minutes prior: chaos, still.
For those of us on the worship team, it meant simply letting go, trusting the Spirit to do what the Spirit could do, and running with it, come what may. For those in the sound, lighting and graphics teams, it meant running their scripts with the tools they had, focusing on trusting the tools and their skills the best they could, moment by moment (and, I presume, for some of them at least, trusting in God!).
And the outcome was– beautiful, remarkable, moving, powerful. Perfect, no. There were still glitches here and there– but nothing, nothing to the degree that we had encountered every prior time we tried to rehearse any of it. It was indeed order out of chaos. The call to discipleship was sung, spoken, heard, embodied, felt, celebrated and tasted, clearly and richly, even at that chaotic place we call “shoreline.”
The next night, the Spirit brought life and joy out of a fearful and emotionally flat-lined assembly– dramatically and immediately.” Immediately” (euthus in Greek) is a word that shows up a lot in Mark’s gospel, indeed with greater frequency than in any other gospel or book of the Bible.
I have to admit I was always a bit skeptical of all of the “immediatelies” Mark claimed. Immediately, Peter, Andrew, James and John responded to calls from Jesus, left everything and followed him. Immediately, storms were stilled and calm reigned. And on and on. Immediately.
But in what I saw happen with the assembly on Thursday night– immediately is the only right word I can find to describe it.
In what I am about to say, I am simply trying to recount what happened and how the body language and posture of the plenary session indicated the people were responding. I am not trying to offer any judgment– negative or positive– on the presenter or the value of the content presented. The business agenda that evening was a presentation about the necessity of passing a particular plan for restructuring and overseeing the work of the general agencies of the denomination. The presentation recounted many statistics pointing out the dramatic declines of the denomination in the United States. It stated that failure of this General Conference to take the kind of action suggested by this restructuring plan at this session would lead to an even more rapid demise of the denomination. One of the final illustrations in the presentation was a video telling the painful story of a congregation that had failed to seize its opportunities for change and had closed.
The presentation was intended as a sobering wake-up call. It did have a sobering effect on those in attendance. There was nearly zero positive energy left in the room just before worship was to get underway.
I need to say that in planning worship for this night, we had known that something would be said about restructuring, but we had no idea what kind of effect it would have or affect it would leave people with.
But the affect was obvious when it was over. It was like a darkness had descended on the crowd.
And worship then began in near actual darkness, with a slow dance to the Queen’s Prayer by Pacific islanders moving toward the center table, bringing with them with tropical fruits to cover it. That opening synced with where many people were emotionally at that time. If we would offer anything to God at that time, it would be done slowly.
And then everything turned– dramatically– in the course of a prayer offered by one of the Pacific Islander delegates. The “pitch” of the offering of worship shifted from somber in the course of a few words, boldly prayed, so that by the end of it everyone was not only ready, but bursting, it seemed, to sing with joy, “For Everyone Born.”
It was a joy that only continued to build– through the verses, through the elements of worship that followed, and then taken to new heights by the sermon of Bishop King who greeted us all with the words, “Beautiful people!”
From a place of uncertainty and darkness– emotional and physical– to a continuing and increasing release of joy. I had never before seen a whole room of people make that kind of dramatic turn with that kind of authenticity more rapidly and completely– ever.
It was the Holy Spirit, bringing joy out of uncertainty and pain… and doing so immediately!
There are more stories I can tell. But this post is long enough already. I will spare the details. But I will say that the next night, a healing service, was a time of profound healing for many of us, myself included. The night after that, the Spirit came with convicting power in the Act of Repentance, and particularly (though not only) in the words of George Tinker, who spoke hard, painful truth but with a loving spirit that never inflicted harm. In both cases, we had hoped in our planning that we had made room for the Spirit to act in such ways, but we had (and could have had!) no idea just how powerfully the Spirit would actually move.
It was beyond, far beyond, what any of us could have asked or imagined.
That is why I speak of these happenings as the visitation and work of the Holy Spirit.
And I can only say, “Thanks!”