Human beings are the only animals who are aware of their own death. We know we are going to die. As a result, we construct elaborate rituals to prepare for and celebrate our death. We’ve even determined, with the help of organized religion, what our existence after death will look like. The transition from mortality to death is also a primary concern of our species. Yet, despite this unprecedented gift of awareness, one unique in the history of creation, unknown to any other plant or animal, some of us live beyond death. What do I mean?
It is too easy to maintain the fiction that the status quo will self-perpetuate itself into eternity. Why must we bother ourselves with death? We know death is a kind of reality. United Methodists sing hymns about death, power in the blood, and resurrection on a weekly basis. Our lip service to death in undeniable. Death and resurrection are part and parcel of our identity. These are not Wesleyan concepts, they are Christian. Being Christian and living as a United Methodist in the 21st century are two different propositions. (When we confuse the two, we look like a political party or a multi-national corporation, not the body of Christ.)
American Methodism mirrors the culture in which it lives. Obsessed by delegates, agendas, committees, reports and voting; General Conference will be a microcosm of the political conventions later in the year. Cloaked in the sacred liturgical language of Wesleyan Spirituality, we will fool ourselves into believing God’s work is being done, the Holy Spirit is present, and someone’s agenda has won. Our process is every bit as political as those sponsored by the major political parties. We lie to ourselves when we pretend it’s not. Among the reports, debates, and ballots; the most basic questions of life and death will not be asked. Are we living? Do we know we are dying? It is impossible to know you’re dying if you’ve yet to discover you’re alive. Are we already dead, because our vital faith is no more than taking pictures for newsletters, going to leadership workshops, mission trips, and attending meetings? Surely some delegates may be counted among the walking dead? In this sense, the “walking dead” know the value of death because they fully appreciate that life isn’t a self-serving journey from one quadrennial to the next. The walking dead are the people and pastors who work diligently day after day in churches you’ve never heard from and towns you’ll never see.
Does salvation look like General Conference or even the world beyond General Conference? Are we arrogant for using the term “world”, given our status among Christian traditions and the rise of other faiths? Is the world beyond, a multi-layered paradise full of factions, content to accept their place in a post-apocalyptic General Conference mandated quadrennial? We are privileged to ask such questions. As humans are share cognizance of their mortality, we have also created elaborate ideas of what lies beyond death. Millions of years ago, when we realized we would die, the seeds of immortality were planted in our brains. The last book of the Bible makes an attempt at revealing eternity. Revelation 7:9-10 says, “There was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands.” John goes on to write about “angels circling the throne”. These images have shaped our picture of heaven for the Christian era. We believe “this” is what it is supposed to be like. National, ethnic, and linguistic harmony before the throne of God while the angels sing continuous praises. In other words, death should look like everything life is not.
My final question is this: will General Conference move Methodism closer to our shared image of death and eternity beyond death; one of joy, harmony, praise, and unity? Or will we hold fast to the soul killing lives with blinders some are so happy to lead?