At this year’s Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was blessed (cursed 🙂 ) with serving as the co-chair of the Worship Team. In our division of responsibilities, my role was determined to be not only a creative engine, but also the “stage manager” during the worship proceedings. This included, among other things, being on stage and telling people when to sit, stand, and kneel…including the Bishop…which, as a provisional elder, was not exactly the most anxiety-free position to be in (shout out to Bishop Easterling for just being awesome!).
As mentioned earlier, the heavy task of fostering a creative and memorable worship experience that left room for the Holy Spirit to spread wings and shine fell partially on me. This year, we decided to begin worship using the song, “We Are One,” (by Pitbull and J-Lo, nonetheless!) and pass out multi-colored streamers (representing the eight districts of the BWCUMC) for people to wave and praise as we entered into the theme for the year – “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” Much to my joy and delight, opening worship was a pure celebration of unity, love, and commitment to our collective calling from Jesus Christ, and our connection to one another through the United Methodist Church.
Then, just a few weeks out from conference, it was made clear to my co-chair and I that there was a desire to have a separate Closing Worship service immediately following the intending final service of the conference, the Service of Appointments. The hope was to wrap everything together and send us out in the unity we had been proclaiming throughout the conference. So, I decided we would bring those same streamers back, the streamers that represented the eight districts of the BWC, and we would tie them together as an outward and visible symbol of our inward and invisible unity through Jesus Christ. What happened next was one of the most organic and authentic worship experiences I have ever been a part of, as the entire conference, from end to end, over a thousand people, begin stringing their streamers together to create a cord of love and unity that stretched way further than the duration of the incredibly powerful rendition of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” that our music team was playing. It was everything we had hoped for, it was a moment saturated with the Holy Spirit, it was a grace-filled display of hope that I pray stands as a representation of this conference for years to come.
And then, as we carried the ribbons to the stage to lay them before the altar, I realized, there were extra ribbons. I would know, after all, I placed the order for over 75 yards of eight specific colors of ribbon and then spent and evening cutting 1300 one foot streamers (I even learned what pinking shears were!). But no…amidst the chain of blues, greens, purples, and oranges – there was an extra shade of green present in the bonds that were carried and placed before the altar. And I could tell it was different because it wasn’t the grosgrain pattern that I had purchased!
So I thought to myself…how appropriate. For a conference that is still wrestling with the definition of who should and who should not be included; how appropriate! For a conference that, year after year, hears the arguments from positions of legality and tradition and exclusion against traditions of love and grace and inclusion, how appropriate!
I had a plan for closing worship. It included eight specific colors and ribbons that had already been selected, chosen, and approved. We had a specific outline for how that service would look. We had specific criteria for which ribbon would and would not be included…
But somebody had the audacity to include a different ribbon! Somebody had the prophetic voice to proclaim that we can’t say “We Are One,” unless this other ribbon is included too. Somebody had the bold courage to use their mind and their fingers to knit this ribbon into the fabric that created the unity of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, even if, according to all of our planning, our organization, and our intentions, that ribbon wasn’t supposed to be included. It looked different, it felt different, it made the chain aesthetically lopsided in color…but…it was still ribbon! And not only that, it made for a longer chain, it made for a more authentic worship experience, it helped multiple people in that ballroom experience the presence of the Holy Spirit opening hearts and minds to the desires of our loving, gracious, and merciful savior, Jesus Christ, and most of all, it may have been the truest, and most overlooked, testament made throughout all of Annual Conference.
And so, my final reflection on Annual Conference, a conference that, for me, was stressful beyond belief and spirit-filled beyond imagination, is this prayer: may we always allow room for the other ribbons to be a part of our chain – a chain of love, a chain of mercy, and a chain of grace – a chain that connects us in covenant with ties that will bind us together, all of us together, now and forever. Until we ARE one, this is my prayer. Amen.
EDITORIAL NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that the ribbons were created out of necessity from a spare pillow cover available and shared in the ballroom (the Holy Spirit works in amazing ways!) – those who created them would like to be clear that there was no theological intention to the use of the additional ribbons – in fairness to those involved, please be advised of this editorial comment, and may God bless us all.