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what happens at a conference

Part of the crowd at Vineyard Columbus
Last week I attended the Vineyard Church USA national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Around 60 nations were represented and over 4000 people were present. I won't try to give you a rundown of the week or the speakers or their talks. Check out the video archives of the main sessions if you want to get a glimpse (only available for a limited time, I am told). The highlights for many of us were Thursday morning's talk by Dr. Charles A. Montgomery on breaking down barriers (it starts at 1:35) and the worship led by David Ruis and Noel Isaacs from Nepal on Thursday evening (a particularly poignant lament song starts at 1:03).

The stuff that happened on the platform, in many ways, was just a small part of the experience. God doesn't need a microphone to speak nor does he require a crowd in order to be present. Our loving God is with us in so many ways if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. I came to the conference believing that I had something to offer; whether it was a kind word, a smile, a word of wisdom, money, or a prayer. The idea that I was there to give more than I was there to receive meant that I had no expectations, really. I did not need anything supernatural and significant to happen, I did not need to meet any of the big name speakers, I did not need to get prayer for any troubling situation, I did not need to sit with all my friends, I did not need to see the sights of Columbus or stay up late or go to bed early. I was there to encourage, to help, and to say yes to others. I was there to be truly present to God and to others and felt no pressure to have the most awesome experience ever.

I brought gifts for our hosts, I distributed cards signed by our faith community, I stroked the dog, two cats, and numerous horses at the place we were staying. I greeted complete strangers throughout the week, I asked volunteers how they were doing, I said thank you over and over and over again, I directed people who were lost, I saved seats for people who were late, I told people they were beautiful, and I prayed for people. One of the most touching moments for me was when I discovered that a friend from Chicago (whom I had only met once when she visited Montreal a few years ago) was sitting two rows behind me. We found each other in the middle of the worship time and wept as we embraced tightly, our hearts overwhelmed by the spirit of Jesus so present and so precious in the other. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to give a 2 minute talk at a Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting on Thursday morning and of course I said yes. At that same meeting, I listened to people around a table sharing their most important theological questions. One confessed that there was virtually no theological discussion happening in his church. Another said he wanted to know how to engage with Orthodox Christians. A woman thought it was important to make room for the voices of children. It was an honour to hear what was on their hearts; seeing total strangers open up to each other in that setting humbled me. I had several people ask me about theological education and I tried to offer them encouragement and a possible way forward. The topic of same-sex attraction came up and I tried to listen well because everyone has a personal story. I also tried to keep the discussion from getting polarised around a few issues, but sought to bring it back to Jesus, back to God's story, back to our call to surrender all our desires to God, back to walking together in humility. I spoke to people who were discouraged and I listened, I prayed, I shared their burden in a small way, and I offered what little wisdom I had.

I received much as well: some people bought me chai tea and ice cream, other people provided yummy food and drink. People prayed for me, people spoke many encouraging words to me, a teenager gave up her bed for me, and people invited me to hang out with them. I ended up in unexpected and pleasant situations like backstage talking to musicians, in a horse barn watching a young girl practice her riding, on a patio late at night listening to Noel tell me about the situation in Nepal, and in the airport hearing a stranger's experience in Jerusalem. 

My goal in going was to give something of myself and to share the riches with which I have been blessed. Conferences like this can be a bit of a challenge to introverts like me, but most of the time I felt like I was floating on grace, able to joyously embrace each person I encountered and accept each situation which came my way. Giving is a richness in itself, it seems, because I never felt depleted or exhausted. Whether we are the ones who give or the ones who receive (or both), the goodness of God never runs out.

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