The Truth is Like a Torch

“The truth is like a torch. The more you shake it the brighter it becomes.” When David spoke so eloquently on Friday night in our table group, I finally found words to describe what was happening. The Holy Spirit was blowing through our Fellowship Hall like a wildfire, pointing the way to grace, truth and hope.

On Friday evening, a hundred and fifty people from Birmingham First United Methodist Church and the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, Michigan began a journey together. It is a journey of discovery, a journey of repentance and a journey of solidarity. Birmingham First and the Islamic House of Wisdom are entering into partnership with each other to build bridges of understanding between Christians and Muslims in the Detroit Metro Area.

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Nearly 3.6 million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country, according to the Arab American Institute. Southeast Michigan has the largest Arab community in the United States and is one of the largest Arab communities outside the Middle East. Arab immigration took off at the beginning of the twentieth century as the exploding auto industry in Detroit attracted immigrants from all over the world.

Imam Mohammad Elahi first gave us an overview of Islam, in which he adamantly denounced Muslim extremism. Then we divided into sixteen table groups for conversation around the beliefs of Islam and Muslim culture. It was made clear from the beginning that our purpose was not to debate or judge but to learn from each other. It is impossible to describe the energy, the buzz, the passion, the “aha” moments, the respect, the smiles and the love of God that was in the room. We were all students together.

On Friday night I learned from my new Muslim friends that we are more alike than we are different. Muslims believe that Mohammed is the last messenger of God and the Quran is the last revelation of God, something Christians do not accept. However, the Imam repeatedly emphasized that Muslims love and respect Jesus. They believe that Jesus was a man of vision and that whoever follows Jesus should have his light.

Like Christians, Muslims want to be good neighbors, raise their children in a safe and peaceful environment and be contributing citizens to our country. One woman from the church told a story of how wonderful her Muslim neighbor is. They look after each other, and one recent afternoon her neighbor sought out Cynthia, offering homemade food, and saying, “I haven’t seen you for a little while. Are you okay?”

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When asked which tenets of the Muslim faith are most important to their daily living, our Muslim tablemates David and Jehad said, “We try to be honest and do the right things all day long. The prophet said that if you want to be better, stop lying. To say you are Muslim or Christian means nothing if you do not show it by your actions. The only way to judge people is by their character.”

Jehad added, “Praying at prescribed times during the day is also important, even though some Muslims are embarrassed by praying in public places. I try not to hide my faith.” I wondered how our Christian faith might be deepened if we also had a custom of stopping everything at prescribed times during day to pray. By shaking the torch of truth that our differences do not preclude relationship and friendship, our common humanity shone bright.

On Friday night I also realized anew how stereotyping and generalizing about Muslims causes great harm. Imam Elahi reminded us that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. They are peace-loving people who live in a way that models the word “Islam” itself. “Islam” is derived from the root word “salam,” which means “surrender” but also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Imam Elahi explained that the American Muslim community is caught in the middle between extreme Muslim radicalism and American Islamophobia. Muslim terrorists blame the US for all the problems in the world. At the same time, American extremists promote Islamophobia by inciting an irrational fear of all Muslims, not just the very small minority that are terrorists.

Ironically, Muslim extremism and American Islamophobia help each other. Some Americans revel in terrorism because it justifies their Islamophobia. And Muslim terrorists urge Islamophobia in the US because it justifies their hatred of America. The result? Neither side is convinced of the validity of the millions of peace-loving Muslims who are model citizens of our country and contribute in significant ways to the health, prosperity and well-being of our nation.

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It was painful to hear stories of how Muslims are often the target of religious and racial bias, including being physically attacked simply because of their accent, appearance or name.

According to the Imam, radical extremism is not found in either the Bible or the Quran. Those who justify killing supposed “infidels” are taking passages in the Quran out of context. In fact, in the Quran, God asks Muslims to sacrifice their lives to save places of worship — churches, synagogues and temples and mosques — rather than destroy them.

Unfortunately, extremists don’t discriminate according to faith. They declare war on all religious freedom, which is against the spirit of our Constitution and the intentions of God. By shaking the torch of truth-telling, the more revealing it becomes that no human being is justified in generalizing and showing bias toward those who are not like them.

The third learning I came away with is that we change the world one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one kind word and one good deed at a time. By sitting at table together on Friday night, we began a dialogue that will have ripple effects across the Detroit metro area and around the world. By mutually supporting each other, Muslims and Christians witness to the world that we are united in our desire for peace and harmony among all people.

I thank God that the simple things we learned about each other will enable us to shake our torches more strongly so that the truth of our brotherhood and sisterhood will shine brightly. For example, a Muslim custom that can make others uneasy is a woman wearing a hijab or head scarf. While some may assume the hijab to be a sign of submission or consider it dangerous, our Muslim sisters explained that the hijab is an outward sign of faith, similar to a Christian wearing a cross. The hijab also shows honor and respect to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is the only woman mentioned in the Quran and appears thirty-four times. Unfortunately, as one woman explained, she is treated in two completely different ways depending on whether she is wearing a hijab or not.

Imam Elahi provided the strongest witness to the deepest desires of those who were present on Friday night by saying, “We want to be respectful and loving from our heart. If I hurt anybody, let me know. What unites us is our faith in God, our love for Jesus and our belief in revelation and human dignity. Our differences are minor, and the way we live out our faith is individual. The details we can figure out for ourselves.”

The next time we gather, Birmingham First will travel to Dearborn Heights to meet with their new friends from the Islamic House of Wisdom. Not only will we continue to shake the truth together so that the torch of grace and hope shines brighter, but we’ve also been promised some Lebanese hummus! Thanks be to God!

Blessings,
Laurie

Ten Years of Leading from the Heart

In January of 2006, I was appointed by Bishop Jonathan Keaton as a district superintendent in the West Michigan Conference. Both excited and terrified at the thought of what lay ahead for my ministry, I went away on retreat to St. Simons Island in Georgia, a holy place for United Methodists. During this time of solitude, I walked the beach for miles every day, pondering my call and God’s grace.

A major discernment from that week away was to regularly communicate with the clergy and laity on my district once I became a superintendent. I did not want to send out a newsletter filled with information, however. I wanted to share my heart. On July 11, 2006, I published my first blog and have written almost five hundred weekly essays since.

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Now, ten years later, I am a bit older and, hopefully, wiser. But, again, I am both excited and terrified. Last week I was one of four clergy elected to be a bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church and have been assigned to the Iowa Conference as of September 1. As I transition into this new role over the coming weeks, I will be posting some of my favorite blogs from the last ten years. I anticipate retooling Leading from the Heart as a way of communicating my heart as a United Methodist bishop.

My first blog was published on July 11, 2006. “In the summer, I have a practice of taking a walk every night that I am able. It is a time to let God speak to me through the beauty of God’s good creation. I don’t power walk. I simply saunter along, opening my eyes and heart to all that surrounds me. At times, I will replay the events of the day and ponder issues of concern. However, I attempt to quickly clear my mind so that I can make room for God’s presence to surround me with joy.

“Tonight I was walking after 9 p.m., just as the sky was beginning to turn yellow and orange. As I gazed at the sunset, I thought to myself, ‘These are the most amazing clouds I have ever seen!’ Wispy, swirling, dancing, grace-filled clouds, beckoning me to come out and play, reminding me of the promise of a Holy Spirit that blows where it wills, urging me to rest in God’s love and then go out to serve.

“Please take the time to rest and savor the very best that Michigan has to offer this summer. Walk, run, play tennis, hit a few golf balls, fish, feed the birds, sail, swim, eat an ice cream cone, read a good book, enjoy a picnic with friends. Most of all, remember that God saw everything that God had made and called it good.”

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As I prepare to begin my ministry as an episcopal leader, I offer the words that I shared with the delegates shortly before my election as a bishop last week. “The heart of my ministry is modeling the radical, suffering love of Jesus for all people as experienced around the table of the Lord. It’s the Heavenly Banquet, the Peaceable Kingdom.

“Suffering love is not just the foundation on which we build everything, but it’s also the energy with which we proceed, and it’s the final goal toward which we strive. The spiritual writer Richard Rohr says that love has two lovely daughters, twins called grace and mercy. Like identical twins, they are often indistinguishable. Grace is the inner freedom to be merciful, and mercy is grace in action. Both are children of love. Radical, suffering, unconditional love.

“Can we United Methodists create a church that will witness to everyone that we not only love the world but we actually love each other as well? Are we willing to let go of self, ego, pride and our tightly held convictions in order to see God in the face of someone who is not like us? Can we stand firm that God’s love is also found in the very least of God’s children and that God’s call is to transformative action to bring in God’s kingdom on this earth through Jesus Christ?

“This is the challenge and the task of The United Methodist Church. And it is the challenge and task to which I have offered my life and ministry.”

Wherever you live or serve, may you find ways this summer to feed your spirit, lead from your heart and be a walking witness to the radical suffering love of Jesus.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
— Linda Hogan

Blessings,
Laurie

 

The Black Eye

You know people want to ask, but they are too polite to risk it. Others just come right out and say it. “What happened to you?”

Late in the evening on July 1, Gary and I were on a commuter plane from Chicago to Detroit. We boarded, stowed our hand luggage and sat down. As other passengers streamed on, I started to read a magazine when, out of the blue, something whipped across my face and whacked me near my left eye.

I felt excruciating pain, lowered my head and began to breathe deeply. What struck me could have been a strap from someone’s backpack, but the person continued down the aisle, most likely oblivious to what happened.

My cheek rapidly swelled up and turned black and blue, so I made my way to the front of the plane, explained my predicament and asked for some ice. Both attendants were very gracious, offering ibuprofen, water and snacks as well as ice. They also called for paramedics to take a look at my eye, delaying the plane.

The arrival of three burly Chicago paramedics dressed in firefighter garb was a bit embarrassing, but they did their job very well. My eyesight did not seem to be affected, and I really wanted to get home. So I signed a waiver, refusing to go to the hospital for treatment, thanked them for their kindness and off we went.

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Of course, my journey with a shiner was just beginning. A black eye is a bruise or discoloration caused by broken blood vessels under the surface of the skin as a result of blunt force trauma. The slang name for a black eye is a “shiner,” which describes how the skin around a black eye may appear shiny.

The good news is that black eyes eventually heal and the colors disappear, but it takes a while. Most people with shiners, however, have one overriding concern. What are other people going to think or say when they see this hideous black eye? And how can I cover it up? After ten days with a shiner, I can say with confidence that many people are uncomfortable around me because they’re not sure how to respond.

Some will ask about it right away. Others will avert their eyes, ignore the shiner and act as if I look perfectly normal. Still others (it happened numerous times to me) will attempt a weak joke about domestic violence, “Who hit you?”

At first glance, this last response may seem offensive. Why would someone automatically think that I was the victim of domestic violence? But the reality is that domestic violence is a huge problem in our world, and it is everyone’s responsibility to protect and support the victims. According to the most recent statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • Nearly twenty people per minute on average are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than ten million women and men and one-fifth of all violent crime.
  • On a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
  • One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.

When you see someone with a shiner and have reason to be suspicious, ask them, “Are you okay? Has someone hit you?” I have occasionally asked that question of parishioners over the years when a person comes to church with unexplained bruises all over their face. I have also called domestic violence hotlines to seek help for them.

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is socially shameful, so many people will not volunteer the information unless asked. In fact, one definition of “black eye” is “a mark or source of dishonor or shame.” Not only do victims of domestic violence live in the shadows, without much support or even sympathy, but they are often the focus of blame. “Well, you must have done something to provoke him.”

An attempt to cover up my black eye for a video interview the day after the accident lasted only a few minutes. Realizing that there was no way to hide it, I decided to let those blue, purple, yellow and green colors shine in all their brilliance. I also explained what happened at the beginning of the interview in order to dispel any uneasiness.

My shiner has become a teaching moment. I’ve learned that not covering up my black eye symbolizes the transparency and honesty that I hope to convey in my life and faith. I am far from perfect but believe that my flaws and wounds can become a source of healing for others.

With my shiner I stand in solidarity with those who are victims of domestic violence and pledge never to cover up the tragedy of abuse. In addition, my shiner is an acknowledgment of people of faith who have been bruised and battered black and blue by clergy, laity or “the church,” whether because of theological, moral and ethical differences or simple “church fights.”

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My black eye also exposes the “black eye” of political, social and legal systems and structures that systemically alienate, reject or unjustly treat others, especially minorities. The tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, shot and killed on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police officers, and Philando Castile, shot and killed on Wednesday in Minnesota by a police officer after a routine traffic stop, remind us that these killings need to stop.

Then the shooting deaths of five law enforcement officers by Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas last Thursday at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally. Each new tragedy is a black eye on our inability to address the underlying anger of ongoing racial tension in the Unites States. It’s not someone else’s problem. All of us are called to bear the responsibility to break the cycle. We have unfinished business.

What witness can we United Methodists make in the face of such continuing violence? Henri J.M. Nouwen shared this story in his classic book on the spiritual life, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. “One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.

“The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’ Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.

“And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’”

What is our witness in The United Methodist Church in the face of so many black eyes and such violence? What will it take for us to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters who are victims of domestic and racial violence, oppression, terrorism or prejudice and see grace and hope? What will it take to stop covering up our fear and step out in faith to advocate for justice and reconciliation? What will it take to engage in conversation and listen to one another as we address the issues that precipitate violence? What will it take to recognize our own shiners and use them to bring redemptive, healing love to every corner of our world? What will it take?

Blessings,
Laurie