…and to the ends of the earth.

Two nights ago, General Conference 2008 wrapped up. And despite all the work the Conference has been–those of us on church staff were pulling 12-16-hour days, and I can’t imagine delegates themselves were any less busy–it was bittersweet to see it all end.

Due to lethargy brought on by sleep deprivation over the previous days, I wasn’t able to write about the final evening service on Monday night, but this blog would simply not be complete without it, so here goes!

Opening the night was a consecration service, held for Nate Yoder, the new bishop of the Atlantic Conference; Rebekah Basinger, the executive director of congregational relations; Chris Sharp, the executive director of BICWM; and Gene Blessing, the chief financial officer (CFO) of the General BIC Church of North America. As the group prepared to pledge their commitment to their work and the Lord, Warren Hoffman offered these words: “The  Brethren in Christ Church has expressed confidence in you–in your character, your devotion to Christ and His cause, and your ability to direct and promote the ministries and interests of the entire church.”

We also got a broader picture of what is happening in the BIC Church worldwide as Bijoy Roul (South Asia Coordinator), Danisa Ndlovu (bishop of the BIC Church in Zimbabwe), Felix Curbelo (treasurer of the BICChurch in Cuba) came to share about the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA), an emerging group of international BIC leaders from nations across the globe. Though Thuma Hamukang’andu, bishop of the BIC Church of Zambia and president of the IBICA executive committee, was not able to be there in person, he sent his greetings and support through a letter. A video of international leaders speaking about the importance of IBICA was shown to introduce Conference attendees to the newly-formed organization.

“We are at a unique juncture in our church’s history,” stated Warren Hoffman as he explained how BIC denominations begun by BIC missionaries in different regions of the world are now so mature that they have organized themselves under national leaders from their own countries. “These BIC churches overseas are peer churches. We need to learn how to connect with them because we’re across the world from them.”

An offering was then taken for IBICA, which will be funded by having each denomination provide 1% of its budget to the organization. This offering brought the total of all three night’s offerings up to over $26,000! A round of applause broke out as Warren announced this astounding total.

As the applause died down, the stage at the front of the room cleared until only Jeff Hardin, one of our worship leaders for the week, remained, softly singing Mercy Me’s “I can only imagine.” Slowly, thoughtfully, the members of the Leadership Counsel came onto the stage, bringing a table, candles, a basket of fruit, a bright bouquet of flowers, plates, napkins, goblets, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of grape juice to the front. Before I knew it, they had set a beautiful spread–a communion table. Brian Bell, bishop of the Canadian Conference, then shared about the joy of taking communion as a community of believers whose faith “paints our passion and compassion” for this hurting world. After taking the sacraments together, we watched as members of the Leadership Council washed the feet of our international BIC church leaders and missionaries. It was a beautiful time of humility, service, truth, and fellowship.

Finally, Charles Price , senior pastor of The People’s Church in Toronto, shed new light on the oft-mentioned Acts 1:8 verse. Over an almost-silent crowd, Charles reminded us about the the dynamic power Christ bestowed upon his disciples following His resurrection and encouraged us to take the baton of our faith in order to pass it to those in our neighborhoods and world. He acknowledged that we are a broken people, imperfect and full of failings, but that we are ministering to those who are faulted along with us, a commonality which provides us with an instant bond. He also pointed out that it was a broken–though perfect–Savior who died and rose for us. With this power, we have the call and ability to move outside of ourselves and into the world around us. With this power, we can see Jesus worshipped in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and nations.

A healthy vote

Guest writer Rebekah Basinger is director of congregational relations. This morning, she sponsored the recommendation on a church-wide healthcare plan.

When it was suggested that I be the one to sponsor the healthcare recommendation, my first thought was, “Thanks a lot.” But on second thought, I was pleased to be able to speak on behalf of a topic that is near and dear to my heart — the care and nurture of our pastors. And so I found myself looking out at a sea of faces, some of which didn’t appear all that happy to be talking about health insurance. But I plunged on, and in the end, it went better than I dared to anticipate.

It’s been a long year for all of us who have worked on re-introducing a denominationally sponsored health insurance plan, so the very strong vote (263 yes/69 no) in support of the recommendation was a very welcome outcome. We know that there is a lot of hard work ahead of us as we work church by church over the coming months, but today’s positive vote puts some wind into our sails.

We’ll rest a bit and then it’s back on the road. Thank you to everyone who helped get us this far, and thank you in advance to everyone who will be part of the conversations going forward.

Live from the Conference Floor: Health Insurance Plan for U.S. Congregations

In the almost three years since the denomination’s Brotherhood Health Plan was discontinued due to declining participation, BIC churches (or pastors themselves) in the United States have been on their own in securing health insurance, and for many churches, this has been a difficult thing.

After several months of planning, coordinating, and discussing the topic, delegates gathered today to vote. Rather than debating the minutiae of the proposed plan, delegates contemplated the philosophy behind such a decision: do we, as a church body, have a Scriptural mandate to honor and provide for workers who direct the affairs of the church?

A selection from the recommendation:

Whereas, as we Brethren in Christ take seriously our commitments to live in community, care for our brothers and sisters in ministry, and are willing to share the costs of making health care available across all U.S. congregations; and

Whereas, this necessarily involves a health plan that makes provision for guaranteed insurability, national coverage, stability in premiums, flexibility and compatibility with our values and mission; and

Whereas, to be sustainable a plan with these necessary provisions requires the full participation of our congregations;

The General Conference Board . . . recommends:

(1) the adoption of a health insurance plan for all qualifying employees in congregations in the United States; and

(2) participation by all (U.S.) congregations (except those with a valid waive) in order to make the health insurance plan feasible.

Rebekah Basinger, director of congregational relations, sponsored the recommendation. (Calling affordable and accessible healthcare a “thorn in the side” of politicians, businesses, and churches in the United States, where more than 15% of individuals do not have access to health insurance, Rebekah quipped “Churches in Canada can thank your lucky maple leaf that you don’t have to worry about this difficult situation.”)

Doug Sider, whom Rebekah called the “evangelist for the health insurance plan” (having conducted a two “whirlwind” tours of the U.S., speaking to pastors and explaining the proposal), answered some frequently asked questions about the plan.

With tensions in the room running high (and pages running notes back and forth between delegates), some addressed concerns regarding the implementation of the plan, while others spoke to the importance of its adoption.

One delegate, admitting that he has been without health insurance for four years, admitted his hesitancy to vote for the plan, suggesting that the issue of insurance is a governmental issue rather than a church issue and that the money spent on the healthcare plan could be better used in the church’s missional work.

Another delegate expressed his concern about the fiscal requirements of the healthcare plan, suggesting that it might prove problematic for smaller congregations.

Speaking as a nurse in favor of the denomination’s proposal, one delegate indicated the need for affordable and available healthcare, acknowledging our “responsibility to take care of our pastors and their families - body, soul, and spirit.”

After breaking for lunch, delegates returned to the floor for further discussion and debate.

One delegate articulated his support for the healthcare plan on the basis of brotherhood, stating that the compassionate work of the church requires sacrifice: “brotherhood and the Kingdom of God are being advanced, even if me and my church aren’t.”

In reaction, another delegate suggested that the healthcare recommendation feels like “forced brotherhood” rather than gracious community.

Speaking in support of the plan, one delegate said that he’d “heard the horror stories of other pastors” whose independent health insurance plans have failed them in the past. Supporting one another as a brotherhood is an important component of Christian faith, he said, and the emphasis on that interdependence is “why I love the Brethren in Christ.”

“Participating in a plan is different than agreeing with compassion as a principle,” said one delegate. “I’d like to support the plan if it’s going to be around for a long time,” he added, referring to the Church’s now-defunct Brotherhood Health Plan.

One delegate called for an amendment to the motion, intending to separate the “brotherhood principle” from the specific plan (from Mennonite Mutual Aid). The amendment read: “This is a motion in principle only and does not endorse a specific plan.”

Assistant moderator Craig Sider, recognizing the amendment, called for discussion on it specifically. One delegate argued that such an amendment would complicate the process of voting for the healthcare plan. Another delegate stood against the amendment on grounds of redundancy. One delegate, supporting the amendment, suggested that it would help delineate the principle from the specific plan.

The vote on the amendment was lost.

The delegate body returned to discussion of the original recommendation (without the amendment). After some additional words, the motion was brought to a vote.

With a vote of 263 in favor and 69 opposed (with 7 abstaining), the motion passed overwhelmingly.

This is your spiritual act of worship.

Last night, Bishop Danisa Ndlovu of the BIC Church in Zimbabwe joined us at the evening service, no small miracle given the current situation in his home country.

“Shops are empty; inflation is at 2,000,000%. This is meaningless to me! Unemployment is at 85%, and fuel is extremely hard to come by,” Bishop Danisa shared when asked about what he was seeing in Zimbabwe now.

Though his country and its people are experiencing great suffering and pain, Bishop Danisa is far from losing hope. “In all situations, I think God is in control,” he stated with conviction shortly into his message.

Reading from Romans 12:1-2 & 9-21, he went on to talk about this Conference’s theme of Jesus Worshipped in the Nations. “When we talk of worshipping Christ, it does begin by dedicating ourselves to Christ, giving ourselves to Christ,” he began. “In the midst of suffering, in the midst of challenges, God is calling us to offer your bodies as living sacrifices. This is our spiritual act of worship.”

Bishop Danisa was not afraid to probe the most distressing implications about this committment, asking, “Where is God in our suffering? Where is God when it hurts? There is pain in worship.” Nor was he afraid to tackle answers to those questions. “But God is challenging us to come to Him, for He is the Healer of our lives. He will make us the relevant witnesses to the circumstances . . . we are called to submit ourselves to God so that something new can come.”

Being relevant witnesses, however, is not easy. “What does it mean to be one with a sister who has nothing to eat?” he asked. “What does it mean for me to share with others in need, especially when food is in such limited supply? Do you tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we weren’t planning on having you today?’”

Bishop Ndlovu ended by emphasizing the fact that worship is active. “God is calling us to act, and act to love. Love unites, it does not divide . . . Love reaches out. Love embraces what cannot be embraced. Love builds. It encourages. Love honors other people.”

Powerful words coming from a man who has been called to love those who take food from the mouths of his family, those who terrorize his neighbors, those who are so viciously reject the way of peace and justice.

As the house lights came on and folks started filtering out into the hall, Bishop Danisa’s words continued to hang in the air: “Worshipping God, worshipping Christ begins in the family . . . We are members of one family. We have the same Father. We belong to each other.”

Peace be with you, Bishop Ndlovu.

Quizzing Update #4

In a two-match contest tonight, Nappanee beat Fairview Ave. to clinch the 2008 BIC Denominational Quiz Finals.

Elizabethtown secured 3rd place , and Blue Mountain took 4th. The rest of the final lineup includes Grantham (5th), Harrisburg (6th), Mooretown (7th), and Manor (8th).

(See more quizzing photos here .)

David Feister of the Manor team received the Quizzer’s Choice award, an honor conferred by his fellow quizzers and the quiz masters who preside over each match.

Quizzing Update #3

Fairview Ave and Nappanee will compete for the top spot in this year’s denominational quizzing finals TONIGHT. You can watch the final match on the live video stream beginning at 6:30 p.m.

(Final rankings for all teams will appear on the blog later tonight, so check back for results.)

Speaking of Shalom

This afternoon, I joined over 150 other viewers on the BIC live video stream for the dialogue between Jay Smith and Shabir Ally. It was amazing to watch these two intellectuals and experts on biblical and Qu’ranic exegesis–one, a BICWM missionary to London, the other, an Imam here in Toronto and the president of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre–engage each other on the topic of peace.

After watching the opening presentations and rebuttals from both sides online, I made my way down to the ballroom where the debate was being held to see the Q & A portion of the conversation in person. I guess I was expecting to encounter an atmosphere of tension (perhaps even hostility??) in the room. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Rather than tension, I found trust, openness, amiability, and even warm acceptance. Muslims and Brethren in Christ sat side by side, each listening respectfully to the other, each appreciating the knowledge and passion exhibited by the two presenting sides. What I saw was a love. What I saw was Christ.

In the wake of the potentially numbing distrust and fear–two specters that threaten to overwhelm the imaginations of so many of us living in North America–this dialogue reminded me of our common humanity and our common Creator. Suspicion was banished, and our differences were acknowledged with respect and intelligence.

After the debate ended and individual conversations began, I was overjoyed to see people from the BIC not just turn to each other to talk, but to the Muslim next to them as well. A conversation has begun. I pray it continues.

Quizzing Update #2

Today, quizzers participated in the first round of their double elimination tournament. Check out the tournament bracket below. (Click the thumbnail to see the full version.)

Final results will be announced tomorrow.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

Live from the Conference Floor: Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions

This post was written during on-floor debate earlier this morning. Due to a number of complications, we were unable to share them with you until this time.

As Bible quizzers began their second day of quizzing, the delegates of General Conference 2008 entered into the first of two business sessions this morning. After adopting the agenda for the conference and hearing moderator Warren Hoffman’s message on the theme “Jesus Worshipped in the Nations” (with special appearances by BIC pastor Al Frank, BIC layperson Sandy Musser, and Souteast Conference bishop Eduardo Llanes), delegates opened debate on a number of topics. Lois Saylor, a member of the BIC Findings Committee, outlined the importance of renewing the Church’s statement supporting healthy marriages; the statement was accepted by the body.

Shortly afterward, bishops Perry Engle (Pacific/Midwest Conferences) and Brian Bell (Canadian Conference) sponsored a recommendation for the General Conference Board on same-sex marriages and civil unions. The bishiops recommended that:

As Christian believers in North America in the first decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves in societal context that is fundamentally redefining marriage by promoting, sanctioning, and permitting same-sex marriages or unions.

As Brethren in Christ, we believe same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s plan for marriage between a man and a woman. God’s order and design for marriage is clearly outlined in the opening chapters of Genesis; in the New Testament, Christ affirms this everlasting “one flesh” relationship as being between a man and a woman (Mark 10:5-9); and the beautiful image of a groom and bride is given as the ultimate example of Christ’s relationship with the church (Eph. 5:21-33).

Therefore, the General Conference Board is recommending the insertion of the words “or recognize” into the article in the Manual of Doctrine and Government which pertains to the privilege of credentialed pastors to legally perform marriages within our society. Applying the dictionary definition of “recognize,” this would mean that we do not acknowledge the same sex marriage and or suggest this is acceptable within the life of the body of Christ.

Clarifying the implications of the word “recognize” in the recommendation, Perry Engle stated that such a caveat could involve churches not inviting same-sex couples to marriage retreats and/or creating special considerations for church membership for same-sex couples.

Members of the delegate body spoke in favor of and in opposition to the recommendation.

One delegate suggested that the recommendation isn’t a “message of morality” but a statement that refuses to accept the validity of a same-sex couple’s union, and one that hopes instead for God’s will to be done in that relationship.

Speaking as a pastor, one delegate stated that “ministry is messy.” Does printing the photograph of a gay couple in a church directory, the delegate asked, “sanction” or “promote” the relationship? And how are the words of Paul concerning reconciliation reflected in language like “or recognize”?

One delegate expressed his concern with the Church using the term “civil unions” in its recommendation, suggesting that civil unions—by definition—occur outside the religious or church sphere, and exist to provide legal rights and government recognition for gay couples.

Another delegate opposed the recommendation on the ground that the phrase “or recognize” complicates the relational terms of engaging gay couples as attendees of the church—will this phrase lead to members of the church distancing themselves from gay couples for fear of “sanctioning” their relationship?

The word “officiate” is a strong word, according to one delegate, but the word “recognize” is a vague word—and for that reason, he opposed the bill. Does the word “recognize” mean “ignore,” or does it indicate “loving without validating”?

After some discussion about tabling the recommendation (for later debate during this General Conference) or referring the recommendation back to the General Conference Board for additional clarification, the delegate body was instructed to vote on whether or not the words “or recognize” should be included in the Brethren in Christ Manual of Doctrine and Government.

By ballot vote, the usage of the words “or recognized” passed by two-thirds.

Amazing grace: A grand jubilee

Amazing grace,
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, Amazing grace

These were the words that opened General Conference 2008. Though such familiar ones to me–and so many of us–they always bring a sense of renewed humility and vision to me. They set a beautiful tone for our time together.

These words also evoked memories of General Conference two years ago as we met in Miami. Although I was not there for that Conference, I think it’s safe to say that the same passion, spirit, and vivacity that characterized us in Miami was present here in Toronto last night. Joined by Francisco Martinez, president of the BIC Church in Cuba; his lovely wife, Iris; and Felix Rafael Curbelo, treasurer of the BIC Church in Cuba, we were able to hear about how God is increasing the work begun by early BIC missionaries in the island country. The Church there is reaching out to its community in such tangible and powerful ways!

Following an offering taken for our brothers and sisters in Cuba, Mirta Colloca (prounounced “co-YO-kah” for our non-Spanish-speakers out there), who serves as the co-pastor of Vida Abundante in Miami, Fla., shared a message from Leviticus about the Jubilee of Christ. I hope you were able to tune in to the celebration online. (Even the most eloquent of writers would have trouble capturing the enthusiasm and joy of Mirta’s message.)

If you weren’t able catch the service, though,  here is my best attempt at a summary:

Mirta spoke about the tradition of the Jubilee from the Old Testament. Every 50 years, all debts among the Israelites were settled. Oftentimes, when unable to pay a debt with money, land, or possessions, the Israelites would have to offer themselves or family members as payment by becoming slaves to their debtor. However, in the year of Jubilee, when all debts were forgiven, people were freed from their slavery. Mirta’s point here was that we are much like these Israelites who have become enslaved. But we have been freed by the ultimate Jubilee-Christ’s death and resurrection.

And this is the Jesus who we join with the world in worshipping. As Mirta would say, “Hallelujah!”