On the evening of Thursday, June 13th I posted these words to my facebook timeline: “The kitten of fear and anxiety has curled up and taken permanent residence in my chest. Occasionally it stretches and claws it’s way up my throat.” It was a bizarre thing to post, but I was feeling a bizarre kind of fear. Most of the time my nerves take the form of violent trembling, light-headedness and rapid breathing I have to fight to slow. Not Thursday evening. Not the entirety of last week, actually. Instead I was unable to sleep, the pain in my chest a distraction only from my nausea. I’ve been to the New England UMC Annual Conference almost every year since I was twelve years old but I had never felt like this before.
When Allen, one of our pastors at Hope Gate Way in Portland, ME, asked me to think about trying out the contest to give the Laity Address at this year’s conference I wasn’t nervous. This was the first sermon I had written since I was fourteen but old habits die hard. I began to do copious amounts of research, relearning old stories and discovering new ones. I read John Wesley’s journal entries, I read about the Moravians, I read Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans in both English and it’s original German. I dug up my old study bible and researched the historical background behind the two scripture passages that had been chosen for 2013’s conference materials. And I began to have thoughts. A lot of them.
Here’s the thing when I have thoughts: I like to share them. Particularly my thoughts about the church. Most of the time I settle for ranting to my husband, or being cynical to one of my in-laws. Frustration spent, I’m able to move on. But when I’m working on a message, a sermon, ranting isn’t an option. I know from experience that a message that comes from frustration isn’t going to connect with anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. So instead of snarling and waving my arms about I began to pray. A lot. I prayed as I read, I prayed as I wrote down notes and crafted an outline, I prayed as I pieced the whole thing together. My prayer was for my message to be what God wanted me to say to the NEUMC, not what I wanted to say. Every word was considered very carefully. (This made things difficult when I decided to memorize the sermon, but I still think it was what I needed to do.) Some lines that I wanted to take out because they felt a bit too controversial I found needed to be left in. I realized that if what I was writing was not completely honest then it was not worth doing. I could not change anything to make anybody more comfortable, not even myself.
I have been to a lot of Annual Conferences. And though we call it Holy Conferencing it often feels instead to be Angry Conferencing, or Hungry Conferencing, or Boring Conferencing. I think it’s very easy to lose God in all the business. I always appreciate when there’s a call for prayer during session, even if it means pushing off lunch that extra few minutes, because it always re-centers my focus. It reminds me why we are there. Yes, we need to discuss resolutions and budgets and committees, but the point of doing it all is to ultimately do God’s work in our world. The reports and the debates should revolve around this focus: we are here to further God’s plan. In the moments we manage to keep this fact to the forefront, we are a holy conference instead of just a bunch of people really sick of low-end college food. And that’s why I ultimately keep going back.
When I put on my microphone and got ready to head backstage on Friday afternoon, my fear pretty much vanished. I suddenly felt incredibly excited. I had prayed my way through my terror the entire morning and up until that moment, asking that my words would be God’s and not my own and that would God would be with me the whole way. Suddenly, finally, I felt sure and confident that I wasn’t alone in this. And before I went onstage the nice man who had guided me through the doors to get there looked at me and said with complete sincerity, “We’re all praying for you.” In that moment I was truly able to feel those prayers.
It wasn’t a perfect conference. It never is, but as United Methodists perfection is what we work toward. It is my belief that the more we work to be like our Creator, the more keep our focus on God, the better Annual Conference and our conference will grow.
Photo taken from Hope Gate Way.