As the Michigan Annual Conference gets closer, Bishop David Bard asks us to hold the gamut of emotions we will experience there and remember to look for Jesus in our midst…
One of the traditional Gospel readings for the Sundays immediately following Easter is the story of the two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is three days after the crucifixion of Jesus, and they discuss all that has happened—death, and now reports that he is risen have circulated among some disciples. A companion joins them on the way, and they share their story. The companion is Jesus, but they do not recognize him. Jesus places their story in a broader theological context. Food is shared. Jesus, still incognito, blesses, breaks, and shares bread. In that moment, they realize it is him, and then he disappears. Then the disciples utter this beautiful line: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, NRSVUE).
This is a beautiful and poignant story filled with an incredible range of emotions. Imagine the two disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed companion. Just days before, their teacher—one whom they witnessed offering healing, one in whose presence they had experienced God—had been killed, crucified by the Roman authorities in collusion with some of their own religious leaders. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). Their hopes were dashed. Their dreams had died. But now there was more. Women from their group had gone to the tomb but did not find the body of Jesus. They reported, though, a vision of angels who told them that Jesus was alive. Grief and confusion, sadness and anxiety.
Later this month, we will find ourselves on the road again as we gather in the Traverse City area for the 2023 meeting of the Michigan Annual Conference. We will come with a range of emotions, and we will experience a range of emotions.
We know that among the items we will vote on will be the disaffiliation of a number of congregations. These congregations have followed the proper processes for leaving the Michigan Conference and The United Methodist Church. Though such separation may be necessary given where The United Methodist Church is in its history, that necessity does not erase feelings of hurt, pain, or disheartenment. There is pain among the congregations that are disaffiliating. I know how heavily disaffiliation has weighed on our district superintendents. I see the heaviness and discouragement among bishops and feel it myself. We are but three years into the life of the Michigan Conference, and we are shrinking. We are reducing staff and districts. Grief and confusion, sadness and anxiety.
Other, very different feelings will also be part of annual conference. Ministries will be celebrated. There will be deep gratitude expressed for the ministry of those retiring. We will celebrate the completion of licensing school by some of our local pastors. There are those to be commissioned and those to be ordained. We will participate together in worship. There will be joy in seeing each other face-to-face, as there always is.
Here’s the hope. Here’s my hope. Together in our journey through annual conference, with the gamut of emotions experienced, we will find Jesus in our midst, and our hearts will burn within us. They will burn with passion for sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ in new ways, burn with passion for doing the work of creating beloved community, burn with passion for creating more vibrant congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, burn with passion for justice and a newer world, burn with passion for freedom from patterns of behavior that are harmful.
Annual Conference will not be easy this year. Yet, we are people who trust that Jesus shows up along the road. We are people who trust that God’s love is new every morning. We are people who trust that God still has work to do through the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church. May we leave Annual Conference this year with a burning passion for continuing that work.