The Pachydermic Problem

I passed the huge billboard every day when I walked to the Convention Center in Portland, Oregon for General Conference. At first I didn’t get it. But as I became accustomed to the traffic gridlock in downtown Portland and noticed all the bikes, the billboard began to speak to me about the pachydermic problem in The United Methodist Church; namely, three elephants in the road.

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The Elephant in the Road
How long are we going to pretend this isn’t happening? Inching our way to and from work, a half-car length at a time, arriving already tired, returning practically dead. Let’s face it, rush-hour commuting is a pachydermic problem. But it can be dealt with by the tiniest buttons. Push it and you’ll see. Getting to work can be
a lot less work.

RIDING IS THE NEW DRIVING

The first elephant in the United Methodist road was finally named last week. We are not of one mind around human sexuality, and unless we change the way we address this issue, we will surely separate and perhaps die. We have faithful United Methodists who will not budge from their conviction that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and scripture. And we have faithful United Methodists who will not settle for anything less than full and immediate inclusion of all LGBTQ lay and clergy in the life of the church.

For far too many years our bishops, clergy, local churches and General Conference have all hesitated to do the hard work of listening to one another’s stories and opening our hearts to the possibility that we may not know the entire mind of God, the one who fearfully and beautifully created every last one of us. How long are we going to pretend this isn’t happening?

While individuals on both sides of the human sexuality debate decry the decision of General Conference to follow the Council of Bishops’ lead in creating a commission to develop a way forward (Read), the majority has decided that being right is not as important as being in community. How ironic that cultural competency and freedom for contextual ministry are current buzzwords in The United Methodist Church…until the subject changes to human sexuality, whereupon the elephant reappears and blocks the way forward.

My hope has always been that we will find the collective (if not unanimous) will to compromise in a way that honors all. Now is the time, for we are already tired, returning to our places of ministry practically dead. The gifts of every person in The United Methodist Church, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are desperately needed in order to fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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The second elephant in the United Methodist road was the need to complete our collective repentance for the Sand Creek Massacre. Last week Gary Roberts, author of Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre; A Historical Review of Methodist Involvement, Influence and Response, spoke to our General Conference about this ugly time in Methodist history. On November 20, 1864, in the midst of the horrific Civil War in our country, a tragedy equally as brutal took place at a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment in Colorado.

Colonel John Milton Chivington, a Methodist Episcopal Church pastor who joined the Union Army, led a surprise attack by 675 soldiers on a chief’s village that had been promised security. About 230 people were indiscriminately slaughtered, two-thirds of whom were women, children and the elderly. Their bodies were mutilated beyond description, and strings of scalps were publicly displayed.

In addition to Chivington, a prominent Methodist layman, Col. John Evans, was responsible for the policies that resulted in the Sand Creek Massacre, for he wanted a railroad to be built through Indian lands and force Arapahos onto reservations. The US Congress as well as public opinion strongly condemned the Sand Creek Massacre, but there was little response from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which chose to follow the US policy of manifest destiny rather than the gospel teachings of Jesus.

An act of repentance for healing relationships with indigenous people took place at the 2012 General Conference, but we did not fully include descendants of the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre. Last week William Walks Along, a Northern Cheyenne descendant of the massacre, addressed the conference by saying, “As descendants we choose not to be disinterested. Nor will we engage in bitter denunciation. We have developed trust, respect and honor with The United Methodist Church and now extend our hands to them. How we live today as humans will demonstrate what we value the most. We will not forget, but we can share our humanity.”

It was a profoundly moving moment at General Conference. We confessed our collective responsibility for the atrocities our Methodist ancestors committed against the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, and all of us received grace from the healing of historic wounds.

Roberts concluded his talk by emphasizing that the massacre is not just a historic relic.
Rather, Sand Creek reminds us that elephants of the past roam our roads yet today. The United Methodist Church has much work to do as we still struggle with racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, bigotry and white privilege. But it can be dealt with by the tiniest buttons. Love, grace, deep listening, respect, confession, repentance. Push them and you’ll see.

20160523-3The third elephant in the United Methodist road is the danger of placing God’s Word in a box of our own making. All of the General Conference delegates received a set of prayer beads that were specifically made for our time in Portland. At the end of the string of beads was a wood pendant with a cross carved out of the middle. At closing worship each day, we were asked to hold and finger our prayer beads as we prayed for God’s guidance and grace to make the most faithful decisions we could. The tactile effect of holding my prayer beads every day in worship reminded me who I am and whose I am. The beads also kept General Conference centered and hopeful in the midst of difficult conversations on the pachydermic road.

Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr shared these words in his daily meditation for May 19, “Isn’t it instructive that the spiritual formation of the original disciples happens with Jesus on the road? In effect, the disciples learn by doing. They grow into an understanding of this God of love, this God of compassion, this God who loves justice, this God who makes all things new, by participating as active observers and agents of compassion, justice, and newness. And, yes, necessarily, they pause with Jesus to reflect, ask questions (sometimes stupid questions), and pray. But the spiritual adventure described in the four Gospels does not happen in the sanctuary; it happens on the road, in the company of beggars, prostitutes, and lepers.”

Could it be that The United Methodist Church will find its hope in the very midst of our pachydermic problem? Could it be that by tending to our own hearts through practicing the spiritual disciplines of self-examination, prayer, sacred reading, worship and the sacraments, we mitigate the need to judge others and insist on winners and losers? Could it be that we will discover our future by actually riding our elephants on the road together? Could our pachydermic problem lead us on a new path to unity? I pray so.

Laurie

What Keeps Me Awake at Night

 

It’s the faces that keep me awake at night at General Conference. I see the faces of millions of United Methodists around the world who are praying for the 864 delegates, that our holy conversation and discernment would be surrounded with grace, hope and Christ-like humility. I see the faces of people across the globe who suffer in the midst of poverty, war and oppression and yearn to live whole and healthy lives. And I see the faces of my fellow delegates who bear the weight of the decisions that face us this week.

I was kept awake one night last week by the faces of the seventy members of my legislative committee. We were electing a chair, vice-chair, secretary and three sub-committee chairs to organize our work and lead us in making decisions about our assigned petitions.

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As faithful United Methodists, we were very conscious of the need to elect a diverse group of people in regard to age, gender, ethnicity and country. There were more non-US delegates than US delegates in our legislative committee, and more than one white male declined a nomination in order to ensure diversity. I was so proud of our church.

As we were waiting for votes to be counted for the election of officers, we sang songs, some of them Sunday school songs and others from various countries. One of the songs was:

Who is the king of the jungle (gorilla movement) Whoo! Whoo!
Who is the king of the seas (water flowing) Bubba Bubba Bubba
Who is the king of the universe and who’s the king of me? (point up to Jesus)
I’ll tell you: J-E-S-U-S; yes, he is the king of me. (point to me)
He is the king of the universe, the jungle and of me. Bubba Bubba Bubba

After exhausting all of our songs and starting to sing “Who is the King of the Jungle?” once more, an African-American male stood up and gently said, “I don’t want to be mean, but I need to speak from my heart. The song we sang, nicknamed “The Gorilla Song,” is very hurtful to African-Americans. If you are white, you may not realize that the gorilla sounds in this seemingly innocent song bring up painful images for African-Americans and my brothers and sisters who are delegates from Africa.

“The Simian references to apes demonstrate the remnants of racism in America after the Civil War. In the same way, comments made in recent weeks about President Obama and his wife and daughters as apes after it was announced that Malia will be attending Harvard University are a painful affront to African-Americans and all of the African delegates who are in this room. Fox News listeners even referred to Malia as a ‘little monkey.’

“I know that you may not be aware of this history and did not mean to wound us, but it is an example of how pervasive racism is in our world and in the church. I pray that all of us will be as sensitive as we can to each other at this conference.” An apology was extended, and we prayed for all who have been hurt by racism as well as for the work that lay ahead. It was a sacred and defining moment for our committee, which completed its assigned petitions with grace, mutual concern and passion.

What kept me awake at night is the faces of my brothers and sisters whom we had inadvertently harmed through our insensitivity. The cultivation of cultural competency is a life-long journey for each of us.

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It’s the faces that keep me awake at night. Twice a day, when I walk back and forth to the Oregon Convention Center, I pass dozens of homeless men and women at the Portland Rescue Mission. I also encounter many homeless when I am out running. They are lying on concrete, grass, park benches, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, tarps and under overpasses. Their faces haunt me. As I “do the work of the Lord”, I am well-dressed, have comfortable walking shoes and sleep in a warm bed at night, yet I don’t know how I can best help my brothers and sisters. One night I saw a volunteer hand out bag lunches after which a fight broke out because some people didn’t get anything.

The growing city of Portland is very open to the presence of the homeless, but there is a huge shortage of permanent housing and emergency shelter space and low-end housing units are not being built. Estimates are that every night four thousand homeless people sleep on the streets, in shelters, in cars, in transitional houses or on couches of relatives or friends in the Portland area. The Portland rescue shelter provides 330,000 meals a year, 75,000 nights of safe shelter, 780,000 pounds of food clothing and toiletries, safe 24-hour restrooms for men, women and children and nightly chapel services at 7 p.m. and on Sunday morning.

While the city of Portland is growing, citizens are open and welcoming to the homeless and illegal camping is overlooked, low paying jobs are not readily available. CrossBridge, a new experimental United Methodist faith community, is engaged with the homeless in Portland. Discipleship Ministries staff members, who are also walking to and from the Convention Center, have encouraged us to collect toiletries from our hotel rooms and also contribute funds to CrossBridge for their transformative ministry. What keeps me awake at night is the image of a homeless teenager, sitting on the sidewalk, staring into space, cell phone in hand.

It’s the faces that keep me awake at night. They are the faces of our young people, who are deeply engaged in sharing Christ’s love and are already leaders in our church. The Young People’s Address on Saturday was an inspiring example of how young adults around the world are able to be united in love and service despite their differences.

Two speakers shared the address. Peter Chibuabua of the Central Congo Conference grew up as a Muslim but converted to Christianity because of the influence of the Christian school he attended in his village. Chelsea Spyres is a US-2 serving at the NOAH project at Central UMC in Detroit, which empowers low income and homeless Detroiters to achieve stability.

Chelsea and Peter expressed hope for “more representation in the church of the people Jesus actually hung out with.” Young people around the world embrace the Wesleyan understanding of grace and community, and they desire all people to be fully welcomed into the life of the church. Our young people challenge us to be honest about ourselves and our differences but still proclaim the kingdom of God together. They believe it is possible to keep our own identities, yet live, serve and learn above and beyond what threatens to divide.

IMG_0522What keeps me awake but also ultimately helps me to sleep at night in Portland is knowing that even when we get it wrong, grace abounds. Jesus never said that we have to change before Jesus will love us. No, Jesus always says, “I love you no matter what. Now, follow and learn from me.”

God never gives up on us, so I will never give up on others or my own capacity to learn and be transformed. When I see the faces of those whose voices yearn to be heard and whose hearts long to be understood, I am convinced to keep on keeping on. My prayer this week is that each of our delegates will bring their best selves to the process of leading The United Methodist Church into God’s future.

Unfreezing The United Methodist Church

In the midst of typing a sentence on my new computer last week, the screen all of a sudden turned upside down. Just like that! I sat there for a few moments in astonished wonder.Therefore Go-color logoI tried to turn my computer upside down to continue reading what was on the screen. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to move the cursor or type anything when the keyboard is now in the air. I shut down my computer, hoping a good night’s sleep might unfreeze the screen and restore it to normal. When the screen was still upside down in the morning, it was time to call in the tech-busters!

Like most people, I don’t like it when my world turns upside down and I have to readjust my worldview, priorities and attitude. I prefer to remain in my comfort zone, frozen in time, where things stay just the way I want them. Yet our God is One who continually pushes and prods us to venture into the unknown of a faith that is always adapting to the new thing God is doing in our midst.

I am in Portland right now, preparing for the start of General Conference tomorrow. The task before us is immense. At this critical juncture, it’s time to take steps to unfreeze The United Methodist Church, to catch up to the reality of the rapidly changing world in which we live by giving ourselves away, thus freeing ourselves to become all that God created us to be. The challenge is that the only way to unfreeze ourselves is by embracing the upside down world that Jesus taught us is the kingdom of God.

The 2013 movie Frozen is the fifth highest grossing movie of all time and the highest grossing animation film in history. Frozen appeals to all ages precisely because the themes are complex and the plot is completely upside down. The person with magical powers is good, the dashing prince is evil and women are the heroes.

Sisters Elsa and Anna live in the royal household of the kingdom of Arendelle where Elsa has been given the unusual power to freeze as well as create ice and snow. One day Elsa accidentally causes harm to her sister through her powers. Then her parents die when their ship sinks. Elsa is crowned Queen but deliberately stays away from Anna for fear of losing control over her ability to freeze individuals and things.

713bb580f182cb41ce7bc8b627ebd77cThe power of Frozen is found in the depth of relationships and stereotypes turned inside out: a flawed Queen who struggles to harness her power, the intensity of Anna’s desire to reconnect with her sister, the decision to forego a villain suitor and the purity of a blossoming friendship between Princess Anna and the peasant Kristoff. Only an act of true and selfless love can ultimately thaw a frozen heart and save Arendelle.

How can The United Methodist Church be unfrozen in the next two weeks, thus freeing us to embrace organic and transformative ministry around the world in the name of Jesus Christ?

  • We unfreeze The United Methodist Church by acknowledging the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

God sent Jesus to earth to show us the nature of God’s love by shaking things up. Jesus’ mission was to unfreeze the Jews from their complacency by proclaiming that the first will be last, we win by losing, the very last seat becomes the place of honor and true life is found by taking up our cross. The way up is always the way down.

It was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience that unfroze him from bondage to salvation by works and living by rules, thus opening the door to boundless grace. Are we willing at this General Conference to confess our reluctance to unfreeze the United Methodist Church because of our own agendas and reluctance to bear the cross on behalf of the very least in our world?

  • We unfreeze The United Methodist Church by locking arms despite our differences.

What kind of witness could The United Methodist Church make by proclaiming to the world that even though we are not of one mind, it will not stop us from having one heart and one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Rather than mimic the political, social and economic divisions of our world, what if we were to model sacred conversation, shed our preconceived notions and make a conscious decision to compromise on deeply held beliefs for the sake of Jesus and the church?

HIT-Executives-Locking-ArmsOur willingness to suffer in love for one another and escort those who differ from us to the places of honor will impact our world more than any other decisions we could make at General Conference. What might happen if we passed this simple resolution, “Being one is more important than being right.”

  • We unfreeze The United Methodist Church by staring down our fears.

Disney took a bold risk in making an unconventional animated film. By turning story lines upside down and focusing on flawed heroes and relationships that are real, Frozen has connected with millions of viewers around the world.

In 2014, BabyCentre, the world’s number one site for the top 100 boy and girl names, reported that the name Elsa moved from 331 in 2013 to 88 in 2014, a jump of 243 spaces. Parents are recognizing that Elsa represents the qualities they would like their children to emulate: a strong, sensitive, confident young woman who recognizes her growing edges and fights to overcome her fears through love.

The power of evil held sway over Elsa as long as she stayed away from her sister. By finally letting go of fear and embracing Anna, Elsa found the true source of her power and could use it to love as well as unthaw her own frozen heart. In the same way, we can unfreeze The United Methodist Church over the next two weeks by embracing each other without hesitation, knowing that perfect love casts out fear.

  • We unfreeze the church by letting go.

In Frozen, Elsa flees to the mountains when her magical abilities are discovered. Eventually, however, Elsa realizes that it is possible to let go of her past. She doesn’t have to hide her powers anymore and can use them for good. Her hit song, Let It Go, has given hope to people the world over who struggle to release into God’s hands whatever holds them back from fullness of life.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small,
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all!
It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through…
Let it go, let it go; I am one with the wind and sky.
Let it go, let it go; You’ll never see me cry!
Here I stand and here I’ll stay; Let the storm rage on!

What do we need to let go of this week in order to unfreeze The United Methodist Church?

  • Can we let go of our righteous-side up kingdom in order to embrace the upside down kingdom of Jesus?
  • Can we let go of the conviction that there is only one way to interpret the living, breathing Word of Scripture?
  • Can we let go of our reluctance to admit that God can speak to us through movies, music, people who are not like us and inverted computer screens, if only we are humble enough to listen?
  • Can we let go of our desire to make The United Methodist Church into our own image and free the Holy Spirit to roam wherever it wants, blow freely and spark into flame in the most unexpected of places and people?
  • Can we, like Elsa, claim our power to unfreeze The United Methodist Church?

A strangely warmed heart can unfreeze us every time.

Blessings,

Laurie