I have had the joy and privilege to attend two events recently that have been designated as “continuing education” events, though I think I find them valuable for reasons even beyond this appropriate classification.
The Leadership Institute hosted by The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, took place in late September. Keynote speakers offered teachings focused on leadership within the faith setting, and workshops were available for more specialized topics. Keynote speakers this year included host Pastor Adam Hamilton; Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School; and Rev. F. Willis Johnson, senior minister at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri.
The L.A. Conference on Bible-Based LGBT Inclusion was hosted in Long Beach by The Reformation Project in late October. Keynote speakers included Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Garrett- Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois; Dr. James V. Brownson, the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan; and Rev. Winnie Varghese, Priest and Director for Justice & Reconciliation at Trinity Church in New York City.
While I find these learning opportunities invaluable in ways that will surely impact my leadership and preaching, I have also learned that these continuing education opportunities have even more to offer: the opportunity for building relationships and growing community.
Here’s one example of what that looked like recently. I had arrived within the hour at the Kansas City airport and was picked up by my good friend and colleague, Matt, who had driven in from Nebraska. We had been chatting on the drive, and arrived to check in to the hotel. Before even getting in the door, I noticed another friend named Jason who specializes in worship design and digital storytelling. In the space of a few minutes of conversation and introduction, I learned that Jason would be presenting a workshop, and Matt and I immediately agreed to attend. Later at the workshop, a colleague from California joined our table and suddenly this multi-state and multi-faceted conversation was made possible.
These kind of connections and relationships are important to nurture and maintain. As an extension of the connections and workshop we shared together, Matt and I began talking about how we could collaborate on a sermon series even though we were serving churches in different states. Informed by yet another connection from the conference (an editor from Abingdon Press), we were introduced to a book that parallels our traditional Advent story with the timeless story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol. Look forward to a fun series leading to Christmas!
All this is to say that relationships are critically important to all we do – and especially in our faith community. I would suggest that if we look at the entirety of our Biblical texts, we will see a strong theme of relationship. When Jesus is asked about the most important commandment, he teaches about the importance of our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbors. When Jesus tells the story about the Samaritan, he encourages relationship beyond the cultural norm of the period. When early Christians gather together in early Acts, they are building relationships. When Paul writes to the various churches in his letters, he often invites them to think about the way they treat others – a reminder about relationships.
This time near the end of the calendar year, this time that includes Thanksgiving and Christmas, is important to us personally, culturally, and faithfully. I submit that in all of this, a common priority is the nurturing and maintenance – and perhaps even creation – of relationships. Make connections. Learn from one another. Love one another. Support and care for one another. Experience joy together. Laugh and cry and learn and frolic and cause trouble together!
I believe that Christ invites us into a relationship, both with the divine and with creation. Let us do so with all the passion and hope that we have to give.
May you be filled with grace and peace…