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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ At Your Table: New Room Deconstructed

“What’s that song you’re humming?” my five-year-old asked as we sat parked in the ATM line.

“I’m gonna feast at the table of the Lord…” I sang more loudly.

“FEET? What does THAT mean?”

“It means to eat a of really nice food as a celebration, like a party,” came my made-up-on-the-spot-parenting reply.

What does it mean to feast at the table of the Lord? A good question, really. The song has been on repeat in my head – in a good way – after hearing a soulful, throaty, acoustic rendition by a couple of talented Nashville singers/songwriters/producers on Thursday night at the second annual Seedbed New Room Conference.

I won’t hunger anymore…at your table.

There were a lot of hungry people gathered in Franklin, Tennessee last week. Some had the drawn faces of tired pilgrims – or refugees. Others surprised me with their surprise. “There are so many young people here!” I looked around. It wasn’t odd to me; I knew many of them. Others had shoulders almost visibly bowed with burdens.

In other words, you could almost see the tired prophet Elijah collapsed beneath some shrubbery, only awaking from his exhausted slumber to eat the food of angels so that he could have the strength to travel to the mountain of God.

You can read United Methodist Bishop Mike Lowry’s reflections on New Room here.

What should I mention in a summary? Dr. Jo Anne Lyon’s spellbinding presentation on social justice and sanctification? Mike Breen’s opening talk on the power of the Wesleyan tradition illustrated by sociology of religion? Dr. Stanley John’s review of current global church dynamics and the unfolding reality that the world is in your parish?

It feels criminal to mention those without mentioning every other speaker, because what conference participants quickly discovered was that there was no filler, no weak link in the line-up. On the opening day Dr. Andrew Thompson and Dr. Kevin Watson – regular contributors to Wesleyan Accent – went back-to-back with perspectives and styles that complemented each other so well they should take it on the road. I’d never heard Lisa Yebuah before but now I want to hear everything she preaches or writes. Dr. Sandra Richter, as she so magically does, somehow combined “The Hunger Games,” the book of Isaiah and the psychology of hope. Dr. Tim Tennent revealed fascinating movements of the Wesleyan tradition around the world with statistics and charts that somehow made it seem more interesting, not less (no mean feat from an academic).

And one pastor from Cairo, bringing accounts of relief work in Iraq among ISIS survivors, of a refugee approaching him with the words, “can you explain my dream to me?” and proceeding to tell him of a dream featuring the cross, of a 15-year-old convert being pushed from a fifth floor balcony by her family.

And always, people greeting each other in hallways, seeing each other from across the room and waving, deep in tearful conversation in a quiet corner. United Methodists, Free Methodists, Wesleyans and more. (The hallway soundtrack, aside from the worship music floating out of the main gathering space, was the flow of constantly fresh hot coffee from strategically placed carafes that seemed magically to never empty. Manna indeed.)

All of this makes for a great conference, but people weren’t hungry for a great conference, refreshing as one is. They were hungry for what only God can give.

And God showed up.

How can you tell?

Well, tools and models and statistics and great public speaking skills are methods, and they’re methods the Holy Spirit can use, but they’re not identical with the methods of the Holy Spirit.

And Wesleyan Methodists from varying backgrounds experienced the methods of the Holy Spirit last week.

So what do the methods of the Holy Spirit look like? (This isn’t an exhaustive list systematically analyzed for dissertation-level profundity. It’s the result of initial reflection and anecdotal observation. I think it’ll hold water.)

1. The pronounced claim that we cannot depend on any method for our salvation or sanctification apart from the methods of the Holy Spirit. There was a resource book store, sure. I think it was maybe mentioned once or twice. But it’s not for-profit. Many conferences I’ve been to seem primarily like marketing vehicles for the publications of the featured speakers. This was not “12 Easy Steps to Revitalizing Your Ministry.” This was a searching, a recognize of our need for the Holy Spirit. Oddly enough, that’s counter to many Christian resources, which market themselves as needed for vocational success. Again, they may be great tools, but they’re not identical to the tools of the Holy Spirit. It’s a subtle distinction that ends up making an extraordinary difference (and illuminates that a great way to quench the Holy Spirit is to engage in casual simony – “the making of profit out of sacred things”).

2. People apologizing to each other. If you really want to see something odd, attend a gathering where people apologize to each other for things that were said or done years ago. When that happens, you know the Holy Spirit is teasing out the deep places of peoples’ souls. At that moment, pastors and laypeople are willing to lay aside the desire to be perceived as in the right. On an interpersonal level, this means setting aside ego (and mind you, we’re talking about a roomful of leaders, here) and extending trust.

3. A global focus. Repeatedly and deliberately the work of God around the world was celebrated, with accounts, stories and pictures from Kuwait and Egypt, from England and South Korea. This is bigger than you, it seemed to whisper. But no one is too small to be a part of it.

4. The constant return to the necessary appreciation of the inspired Word of God. Regardless of subject or denominational background, each speaker assumed that the Christian Scriptures were not an albatross around our neck making us find ways to explain away our embarrassment, but rather were beautiful, a gift, a profoundly good revelation of a good God of love.

5. A call for ongoing, honest accountability among clergy. If you want to clear a room, ask a group of church leaders to engage in the practices of historic Wesleyan classes and bands, including the uncomfortable question, “what do you wish to hide?” In the wake of Ashley Madison, this was all the more poignant. Only it didn’t clear the room. Kevin Watson held it spellbound with his quiet intensity and wry, self-deprecating humor.

6. Specifically answered prayer for qualities Scripture tells us to pray for. I wasn’t the only person present who’s been praying over specific words, phrases or challenges that have plagued my spirit for weeks, months or years. These aren’t “help my loved one’s shoulder surgery to go well” prayers. They were prayers for things like restored or refreshed perspective on God’s character. They were questions that have nagged me for months (like what’s the difference between holy discontentment and unholy discontentment?). Over and over again, in hallway conversations, break-out groups and plenary sessions, I found myself awed by the specific nature of repeatedly answered heartfelt query. And it wasn’t just me.

7. Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit beyond the printed agenda. Make no mistake, there’s no false dichotomy here: the agenda itself was flavored with prayer, anointed, set apart. Beyond that, though, leaders had made room for organic flexibility in ongoing response to the unfolding work of God.

8. A call to hard things. Not just the popularly hard things – the often overlooked hard things. The last speaker of the gathering brought his discovery and challenge to listeners in the form of a portrait of travailing prayer: the kind of prayer that contracts in birth pain, the soul crying out – the prayer that has historically gone before great awakenings. Travailing prayer isn’t cheap prayer, it’s costly prayer. And it’s a method of the Holy Spirit. These words of challenge and beauty were followed by a profound time of celebrating the Lord’s Supper and couched it in terms of Gethsemene prayer. Are you willing to travail in prayer?

Last week, Seedbed laid out the tablecloths and cups, the chipped china and wildflower centerpiece.

The result?

I won’t hunger anymore – at your table…