Today starts General Conference 2016. For months, years maybe, I have heard our church, my church, the church I love so much is broke. That we are weak and lost and maybe beyond repair. I have heard all the negative awful stories of decline, seen them with my own eyes, and felt it in my heart. In the days leading up to today, I have felt, like so many of my friends and colleagues, a tremendous pressure on my heart, a pressure we are laying very firmly on the shoulders of 864 delegates.
This morning however, I woke up praying. I hardly ever wake up praying as I am not a morning person and I do not have the peace of mind to talk to anyone in the morning, much less God. But this morning, before I even knew I was awake, I was forming words of prayer around General Conference. And I was lighter.
As I came in to the office, the thought struck me that perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church is not worse off today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are not in as terrible a place as the ubiquitous “everyone” wants us to believe. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is our own panic and need to have things the way we want them that has made us forget how to hold in perspective where we are now with where we have been. I am not saying we don’t need to improve. I am not saying that there are not changes we as a church need to make. There are. But maybe we are making death inevitable by seeing only death instead of celebrating the death we have cheated to get to where we are today.
When I came into the office, I pulled out my 1956 copy of the Book of Discipline. (I was given this by a male colleague when I started in ministry who told me every clergy woman should own this BOD. I think there may soon be more UMC clergywomen then there are copies of the 1956 BOD. What a thing to celebrate!) Sometimes I like to just hold this book in my hands and remember how far we have come.
In 1956, as General Conference prepared to meet, there was no United Methodist Church. There was a very divided Methodist Church. There was a Methodist Church. There was a United Church of the Brethren. There were African Americans who were segregated into the “Central Jurisdiction”, regardless of where their churches were located geographically. There were no clergy women in full connection. Sure, we had pastors who were going to new Methodists who move into the community and making sure they stayed Methodist. Sure, had a million committees that did a bazillion things that reported at a quarterly conference so everybody better look busy. There was way more accountability that, at least on paper, seems better. But we also has trials for church members who bought, sold or made liquor. Shaming people for their sins was the order of the day. Excluding people, lots of people, was accepted and expected, not just in the church but in the world.
In 1956, I don’t know what the delegates were feeling or thinking. I am not sure what pressure was on them. We don’t have blog posts or tweets or emails to tell us their every thought. What we do have is a forward thinking decision to include women as full members of the clergy. What we do have is a courageous decision to remove the Central Jurisdiction and allow African American Methodist churches to join the geographical jurisdictions to which they should belong.
Are we a better stronger church today? I believe so. When I can name more women clergy that I know than men, I say so. When I see the global reach of the United Methodist church, not as missionary outposts but as churches that are part of the communities where people live, I say so. When I listen to former church member tell me how much her Korean pastor has changed her life, I say so.
Do we have much work to be done? Yes.
Are there more people to be included? Yes.
Do I pray that the General Conference of 2016 will be as courageous and bold and visionary as the General Conference of 1956 was? Yes.
In all things God works. Whatever our delegates leave us with, our church, my church, will remain the church through which God worked and works in my life and in the lives of many people I know and love. We cannot let the work of Christ stop. It goes on, regardless. And I am convinced with God and with the people of God committed to doing kingdom work where they are at, the church will only be better each year than the one that has past.
You know it is Ash Wednesday when the nail clippers come out and my thumb nail gets cut down as short as I can handle it. This is not only so that I don’t stab people in their heads while putting the cross on their forehead but because after my first Ash Wednesday I was bothered by the number of days the ash stayed under my nail. Really it does not matter how long or short my nail is, the black of the ashes stays for days.
I dislike dirt. I especially dislike dirt under my nails.
I was the kind of kid who wanted a washcloth outside with me…I would have done really well as a child of today with the baby wipes and handsanitizer.
I want things to be clean and tidy and as much as I can control them to at least have the appearance of perfection.
Life is not clean or tidy or perfect.
God does not use clean or tidy or perfect people as much as dirty, messy, on the verge of death people.
I am struck that in Isaiah 58, God’s people fast, thinking that as long as they appear to do what God wants of them they will make God happy. They miss the point. We miss the point.
The dirt is important. The ashes are important. Looking death in the face, feeling our own mortality, our weaknesses, our failures, the messiness of our life is important. It is only then we call out “Help me.” It is only then we hear God answer “Here am I.”
Only in the ashes, in the dirt, in the stains, do we move away from appearances and into truth.
God offers us a life that is more than “the yoke of oppression with the pointing finger and malicious talk.” We are given love. Grace. Help in the midst of our very real, very messy, very broken life.
As part of my preperation for ordination, one of the workshops I attended at a provisional retreat was on cultural barriers. I don’t remember much about the workshop except that the person teaching it gave us all a copy of a long passage of scripture in Spanish and told us that we were to all read it aloud. I asked if I could pass, as reading aloud unprepared that amount of English in front of fellow preachers is intimidating but to read in a foreign language is terrifying. No. At 25 years old, I struggled through a lengthy peice of Spanish scripture. It seemed no one else did. I certainly was the only one who had tears of frustration as they read.
In college, I learned that not everyone had to read a sentence three or four times before they understood it. I learned when I was 18 that it was not normal to start reading in the middle of the sentence or have the letters all of a sudden make no sense on the page or be really sure you know how to spell a word but also sure that it doesn’t “look right”. I was blessed in some ways to grow up in South Carolina where the educational system was not so stringent. I was never identified as anything but a poor speller and weak math student. I had great teachers who worked with me. Unlike many people with dyslexia, I was never put in special education classes or identified as unable to learn.
I worked hard. I never wanted anyone to treat me differently because of the way my brain absorbs information. Really I never wanted anyone to know I had a “disability”. I had to read my books twice in seminary. I had to listen to lectures on the road to and from school. I didn’t have straight A’s but considering the two babies I had in seminary and the toddler I had at home, plus the two churches I was serving at the time, I feel fortunate both to have accomplished what I did but also to have learned what I was able to.
It does not matter how intelligent you are, when you announce hymns and you flip the numbers you feel dumb. Or when you are reading a passage of scripture and the words suddenly don’t make sense, you feel like the biggest idiot in the room. Every time my brain freezes when I am in the role of pastor I think of Bishop Kammerer saying to me “Take thou authority” and I wonder if I should have really been entrusted with that authority in the first place.
It is a vulnerable and scary place to lead with a learning disability. Because I learn the way I do I think I know something, I am so sure of it, and then I find out it’s true of one thing and not the other. That is so confusing in church polity. It’s embarrassing to always have to look things up but I cannot recall either paragraphs from the Book of Discipline nor chapter and verse from the scripture. I have to talk things out. And sometimes I talk through are ideas that are crazy and make no sense but I usually get to a simplified version that does make sense. It just takes me a little longer. I constantly have to apologize because time glides away from me and I don’t know where it goes expect that I do because it takes me so much longer to do brain tasks than it seems to take everyone else. And I always have to apologize because I miss things, or I think I know something and I don’t, or I “take my authority” on something I know to be best for the church but the change is not communicated in the clearest way.
Leading with dyslexia has taught me humility. It has taught me to be willing to step back and examine my shortcomings. It has given me the art of the apology. It has taught me how to shake of the dust from my feet.
I also suspect that like me there are a number of clergy and laity who struggle every day with a “hidden” challenge that makes them feel limited. The more I have talked about being dyslexic the more I have heard not only surprise but others struggles with learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, and more. Things we try to keep silently in the background that profoundly effect how we lead and who we are.
I think if I can claim the uniqueness of how my brain works and celebrate it, instead of constantly apologizing for how God made me to be I can focus on the many blessings it brings. Even more, I can help those whose journeys with dyslexia have led them to believe that the church, and perhaps even God, could never call them as a leader because they have nothing to offer.
I long for the day that I stop being ashamed because I was sure of something and I didn’t pour over the BOD or the history books or the whatever to triple check it. I long for the day I do not feel less than because I “cannot” like someone else but instead can celebrate the things I can that are unique to me because I was fortunate enough to have a brain that sees the world differently than everyone else.
When did it happen that we became afraid to talk to each other?
All of us have different life experiences that lead us to interpret events, what people say, politics, and even the gospel differently. Even “knowing” someone does not mean that we fully know how they may interpret something that happens or that is said. More and more in my personal life, professionally and from other people, I keep hearing of instances when someone is upset because they have interpreted someone else’s words, thoughts or actions one way when they actually meant it in a completely different way all together.
When did we become so afraid of each other?
Jesus tells us that perfect love casts out fear and yet we have somehow decided that the loving thing is not to go to someone else when we are upset by what they have said or by what has happened and listen to understand. Somehow we have decided the loving thing is to stay silent, to remain offended, to let things fester that never should have been a wound in the first place.
I have not trusted where I should. I have allowed my perception to prevent me from meaningful relationships. I have missed the chance to love because I have feared rejection and deeper brokenness too much. I have much to repent of.
But the challenges that face us are too deep. I do not see how we can keep risking building up the kingdom of God in love because of our fear. And friends that’s what is happening. Families are being torn apart because they think they know things that they don’t know. Employees are leaving companies without feeling like they were valued or heard and returning to kill their former co-workers. Racial tensions are high and mistrust between communities is so low. The allure of the rich is drowning out the command of Christ to take care of the poor. The more we think we know what is going on in other people’s heart and heads and lives without talking to them directly, the more tension and violence we are going to see not just out in the world but in our families. This tension is exploding around us. This lack of community and connection and willingness to risk is costing us the brightest and the best of our generations.
Gods kingdom, the movement of the Holy Spirit, calls us into relationship. It calls us to look at one another not as demographics or focus groups or what we can gain from each other, but as Gods children, with individual stories and struggles, and to remember that no matter how well we know one another, we should not presume we know one another’s perception. We may find that we were wrong and we had been holding onto hurt and pain when we could have been filled with the love Christ wants for us.
If you are upset by the actions or words of someone in your life and you have not done as scripture says, go to them with humbleness and love and tell them you are hurt and listen to understand, not to respond, but to understand their perspective. You may find you were right to be upset. But you may find that there is another angle from which to consider the issue.
We are called to be a people of love, not a people of fear. God willing, every day I am striving to do better at this.
There is a meme that has been born in various manifestations in the last 24 hours. It may not be entirely true on your facebook feed but I suspect it is at least half true. The skittles half.
If you happen to be my friend, you will notice my face is the same Irish pale it usually is. I invite you not to read too much into this. Or maybe read alot into this but read into it specifically.
Last week, when I returned home from Annual Conference I was joyful to learn that our last written ballot results were:
Results of voting on Petitions 2, 11 and 14
Petition 2 calls for “Additional Definition for Self-Avowal.” Petition 11 asks for a “Mandatory Penalty for Violation of Par. 2702.1(b).” Petition 14 states: Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to delete the sentence found in ¶ 161F of the 2012 Book of Discipline that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The results are:
Petition 2 — 838 yes; 961 no; 96 abstentions. (1895 total)
Petition 11 — 811 yes; 994 no; 96 abstentions. (1901 total)
Petition 14 — 989 yes; 868 no; 40 abstentions; (1897 total)
Four ballots were ruled to be invalid.
I say I was joyful because Petition 2 made no sense to me. I did not see a need for it other than to cause more chaos and division. Both of which are frankly not the work of Christ. Petition 11 asked for mandatory penalties to essentially force Bishops who are not currently punishing clergy to punish them. Clergy in conferences such as the Virginia conference who violate church law by marrying same gender couples are being punished. Two have been punished here in Virginia. Again, I see that this is merely going to cause more problems and I do not see those Bishops who are not currently enforcing church law being willing to enforce this anyway. More time, more money, more heartbreak for our church. Why would we do this.
The last, petition 14 is where all the real debate lies. This is a sentence I long to see gone from our Book of Discipline. But before I tell you why I want to go back to the rainbow colored filter. Bear with me while I jump around.
When I was ordained, I realized something that I did not take so seriously in my ministry to that point. There was something about Bishop Kammerer asking the historical questions in front of a room full of clergy that included clergy that I both admire and am challeged by that made me stop and consider that I am no longer my own. I have thoughts and opinions. Those come out more than they should. But as much as I am able I need to be able to minister to all God’s people. In a public arena like facebook, we are asked to splash rainbow colors across our faces or share news articles of controversial subjects. And we can assume when someone does or does not do the same it is because they do or do not feel the same.
Sometimes I do not “take a stand” because taking a stand means I do not know how I will be able to minister to those whom God has entrusted to my care who do not feel as I do. Because
sometimes my personal opinion, all the time in this calling, my personal opinion must matter much much less than the ability to love as Christ loves. I have to set what I think aside, so that I can minister to those who see the world as I do and those who do not. My liberal friends have sometimes accused me of being too conservative on issues I am truly liberal at heart on and my conservative friends have accused me of being a liberal when I am truly much more conservative than I appear. The gospel at times calls us to stand with love, not law and love will lead us to some interesting places.
I don’t think its just the calling of clergy to do this, but the calling of all Christians. But as a clergy person I certainly have to do a better job of modeling it.
Which brings me back to petition 14. And why I so hope it is removed at General Conference. I am ashamed as a United Methodist it is in the Book of Disipline. These words “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” are beneath us. If we want to know the truth the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There are so many parts of me that are incompatible with Christian teaching that I cannot begin to look at the speck in my neighbors eye. If this sentence were to say, gossip or not feeding the poor, or refusing the children, or neglecting the widow, or rejecting the outsider, all practices Jesus himself says are incompatible with Christian teaching we would not bat an eye at their removal.
Apart from Jesus Christ and his saving grace, the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There is nothing in us apart from God that desires love, or truth, or grace, or goodness. All that Christ teaches us that brings us to a new life in him, comes not because we are compatible but only because Jesus Christ offers it freely to all.
Remove the language. Removing the language does not open the flood gates to every church pastor performing same gender weddings, or ordaining openly gay clergy in married relationships. Those are debates we still have to have. Removing this language simply affirms that there is a place in the church and in God’s heart for all of his children. And if there is a facebook filter for that I would be all over it.
A life well lived once ended means for the family many, many people come to share stories. Moments, some known, others unknown become precious glimpses into a life that is now living in another realm. For countless families, I have held hands, offered prayers, been the support as they have told and listened to these stories. Last week, I learned what it is to be the family who recieving.
All I can think is thank you. Thank you to those who came and stood in line last Friday night to share with us stories of the ways that Susan touched your life. Thank you for the extraordinary and the ordinary. For the words that flowed out and for the words that you could not find. For holding our hands, letting us cry with you, for showing us that the woman who is so precious to us, is so precious to you.
On the way home, my girls kept talking about “when we lived in Iowa…” and I kept thinking “thank you”. Thank you to Bill Poland who let me lean on my relationship with his daughter and through his place on the Iowa cabinet found us a place to serve in the Iowa Conference for four years. Thank you Renwick and Goldfield United Methodist Churches who loved us strange southerners like family so that we could have precious, precious time with our mom and Nana. Without our church, I don’t doubt the sorrow we feel in this loss would be much deeper. We knew but didn’t know how much those four years would come to mean.
At every funeral as part of the prayer of commital, we pray “For all that our beloved has given us to make us what we are, for that of her/him which lives and grows in each of us, and for her/his life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.” Our time in Iowa was fraut with illness, surgery, and a profound sense of homesickness for me. But it was also filled with so many moments where Susan gave herself to her granddaughters and to me. I look at my girls and I see in them the truth of this prayer, the ways that their Nana poured herself into them and I know that she lives and grows in us. Her life will not end, not just because we carry her on in all she taught us, but because we know that she knew the One who gives everlasting life. In a truly profound way she will continue to grow in us as we continue to grow in faith, following her discipleship, learning to love God and our neighbors as she did so very well.
Of all the thank you’s that I have to say it is a thank you to God who in wisdom, gave me Susan as my mother in law. It is not easy being a daughter in law but it is even harder being a mother in law. Together we learned to both give and accept forgiveness. She always made sure to tell me that I was a good mother and that she was proud of her granddaughters. She took time to talk to me about what was going on in my churches, always asking about what the sermon series or bible study was. She always wanted to know, not just out of politness, but because it was a chance for her to learn and grow. We had wonderful conversations about scripture and faith and through them I was able to learn what my congregation heard and points that needed to be brought out. Her faith encouraged me to think broader, to love deeper, to push the bound of forgiveness beyond where my head wanted to go.
And yet. And yet our faith tells us, we will continue to live. We will continue to have hope and a future. We will continue in the light of love. And so will she. This tension of grief and joy is so hard and so real. Although I have stood with many families and told them that we both weep and rejoice and that is okay, I never really understood the fullness as an adult the tension of both: rejoicing because you know with all joy and happiness that the person you love is in that place of perfection where grace has made them completely without sin and without shame to stand before the Lord without blemish, and yet selfishly so grief stricken at the loss you know is yours.
We will make Nana’s ice cream each summer like she taught us to, and occasionally burn the bottom of the grands biscuits, we will teach our girls to be friends with children who have special needs and hopefully support Special Olympics. We will occasionally let a half gallon of milk spoil in the fridge to “bake” a cake. Well…maybe not. We will plant tulips everywhere we live. We will take time to be with the people we are with. And we will always, always start a load of laundry before leaving the house, even if it makes us late, because you ought to have something working while you are gone. Mom is not dead, she is merely on an extended vacation until we can catch up to her.
This bench is now located in the middle school in Indianola, Iowa where Susan taught special needs children for the last 15 years. It was donated by her fellow teachers for her work with the Special Olympics program.