The Conscience of our Country

It was a strange coincidence. The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, took place the same week as the inauguration of President Donald Trump. In preparation for the meeting, Oxfam always publishes a report on the state of world poverty. Oxfam is an international confederation of 19 charitable organizations working together with partners in 90 countries for the alleviation of global poverty.

According to Oxfam’s January 15, 2017, report, eight men own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, leads the way with a net worth of $75 billion. At the same time, according to CBS News, seven of President Trump’s cabinet nominations are worth a combined $11 billion, admittedly much more modest than the eight richest men but wealthier than any other cabinet in America history.

The Oxfam statistics take my breath away. The richest people are accumulating wealth so quickly that the world could have its first trillionaire in just 25 years. Imagine spending one million dollars every day for 2,738 years. That’s a trillion dollars. The gross inequity of wealth affects people the world over.

  • In the US, 1 percent of the people control 40 percent of the wealth.
  • Between 1988 and 2011, the incomes of the poorest 10 percent of people in the world increased by just $65 per person, while the incomes of the richest 1 percent grew by $11,800 per person: 182 times as much.
  • Women are often relegated to low-paying jobs, experience discrimination and are usually at the bottom of the pile. If current trends continue, it will take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men.

 

Oxfam interviewed women in a garment factory in Vietnam who work twelve hours a day, six days a week. They earn $1 an hour producing clothing for some of the biggest fashion brands whose CEOs are among the wealthiest in the world.

  • Poor countries lose at least $100 billion every year through corporate tax dodging by the rich. This money could provide an education for the 124 million children who aren’t in school and fund preventive health care that could save the lives of six million children every year.
  • Oxfam’s calculations are based on data from Swiss bank Credit Suisse and

According to Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when one in ten people survive on less than $2 a day. Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty. It is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.”

Donald Trump is now our 45th President of the United States. The well-being of our country, as well as the entire world, is invested in his leadership. As I listened to President Trump’s inaugural speech on Friday, I was convinced more than ever that we are all in this together. Unless you and I also take up the mantle of leadership by committing ourselves to creating a world where every person’s voice can be heard and can reach their full potential, we cannot change the world.

In the divided country in which we live, what role can and must the church play? We are not without hope. These words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 sermon Strength to Love come to mind. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men (and women) everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”

 

People of faith are the conscience of our country. The United Methodist Church has a word to say to the United States, for we take our marching orders from the words and witness of Jesus and express them in our 2016 Book of Discipline.

  • From Our Doctrinal Heritage, “Scriptural holiness always entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.”
  • From our Social Principles, “Every person has a right to a job at a living wage.” (163.C)
  • And, “In spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, the majority of persons in the world live in poverty. In order to provide basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world…. As a church we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” (163.E)

What can people of faith do to be the conscience of the state? We must encourage our government to eliminate the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to get away with paying very little taxes. We need to advocate for raising the minimum wage so that working families make a living wage. We need to resist discrimination of any kind and insist on a social safety net that is available for everyone. We must demand affordable and quality health care and education for all people.

 

We can advocate through letters, phone calls, and our presence. A half million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday as well as millions in Sister marches around the world. The protesters were the conscience of the state, raising awareness of women’s rights and other civil rights that they hope will not be taken from them.

In the Iowa Annual Conference, we have a Legislative Advocacy Team. The two houses of the Iowa legislature meet from January through April, during which members of the Advocacy Team are present every single day. For the past 30 years, United Methodists in Iowa have advocated for social issues that are addressed in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline. As official lobbyists, they have voice in the legislative subcommittees and can testify.

On February 7, we are sponsoring a Legislative Advocacy Day in Des Moines where United Methodists from around Iowa can become informed and trained around issues that will be up for vote in the legislature as well as observe our state government in action. Our UM Advocacy Team is focusing this year on four priority issues: The Environment, Mental Health, Poverty, and Gun Violence. We are the conscience of the legislature.

In his inaugural speech, President Trump said, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”

I understand President Trump’s sentiments, yet the church is called to be the conscience, guide, and critic of the state whenever we turn in on ourselves or fail to serve the very least in our midst. Our country was founded on ideals that include welcoming all to our shores, moving beyond our borders to seek justice around the world, and ensuring fullness of life for each person on our planet. The United States was never destined to be self-serving and isolationist. Rather, as John Wesley proclaimed that the whole world was his parish, so the entire world is our country’s concern as well.

Dare we as United Methodists and all people of faith covenant to support President Trump and his administration by our prayers and encouragement as well as by serving as their conscience? Dare we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny with people around the world and with creation itself? Dare we work for the day when our nation and world will look like God’s reign, where the poor will go first with the eight richest men bringing up the rear, those earning minimum wage will sit at the places of honor as well as have their wages increased, and those who are rejected because of their skin color, immigration status, or sexual orientation/gender identity are welcomed with open arms? Dare we move from praying, “God, make our country great again; America first!” to “God, use us as your servants to make every corner of our world safe and whole again”?

O God, lead us into the future with humility, grace, and hope. Amen.

 

Leading from the Heart: Climbing into the Skin of Others

Forty-nine years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, President Barack Obama gave a stirring farewell speech. I was particularly challenged by the truth Obama spoke about progress toward racial reconciliation.

“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do…

“But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I give thanks for the way in which both Dr. King and President Obama acted proactively rather than reactively to encourage you and me to climb into and walk around in the skin of people who are not like us. It reminds me of an experience last month when several conference center staff were driving to lunch. When I remarked that the roads seemed all wet, even though there had been no precipitation, I was told, “The Department of Transportation trucks are covering the roads with liquid brine in anticipation of snow and ice tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t you just put salt on the roads when it’s icy?” Traditionally, rock salt has been applied to roads after snowfall because it lowers the freezing point of any water with which it comes into contact. However, this strategy only works when temperatures are above 15 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, placing liquid brine on the roadway surface prior to a precipitation event helps prevent the snow and ice from bonding to the pavement.

In recent years, there has been a growing transition from reactive strategies like de-icing to proactive strategies where brine is applied before the weather event occurs. According to Wilfrid Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa and international road salt expert, the Iowa DOT is a world leader in “prewetting roads” with millions of gallons of brine every winter.

Be Proactive. It’s the first of Stephen Covey’s seven habits from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, which has sold more than twenty-five million copies since its publication in 1989. One characteristic that sets humans apart from animals is our self-awareness and freedom to decide how we will respond to stimuli. You and I can choose to react to our environment by accepting that there is nothing we can do about our situation, or we can decide to be proactive by using resourcefulness, initiative, and character to determine our response and find creative solutions.

I learned this lesson the hard way. In March of 2008, while running in the dark of early morning before an appointive cabinet meeting in Michigan, I slipped on some black ice and landed directly on my left elbow. After thirty years of accident-free running, I guess I was due for a bad fall, so it didn’t really surprise me. What shocked me was that a metal plate and five screws somehow climbed into my skin to put my shattered elbow back together.

It’s a story of two sets of hardware. I should have been proactive in using Yaktrax, which are ice/snow cleats fastened to the bottom of running shoes to improve traction. Of course, I thought it would never happen to me, so I didn’t bother protecting myself. The result? I had another set of hardware inserted into my elbow in a reactive effort to rebuild it. Plus weeks of physical therapy. Plus no driving for two months. Plus lots of out-of-pocket costs. Plus another surgery nine months later to remove the hardware so I could regain full motion of my elbow.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that how we prepare for and then respond to events affects us more than what actually happens. Proactive people by Martin Luther King Jr. prioritize the things over which they have influence and in the process often expand their area of influence. On the other hand, reactive people often focus their efforts on areas of concern over which they have no control.

One of the most insidious afflictions of local churches is the temptation to be reactive instead of proactive. Time and again, I have witnessed clergy and lay leaders sabotage their effectiveness by not anticipating and responding non-anxiously to concerns that subsequently explode into serious conflict.

  • Churches would be healthier if leaders acted proactively rather than reactively by watching, assessing, and then promptly responding to situations before they get out of control.
  • Clergy and laity waste too much energy reacting to crises rather than proactively formulating policies, procedures, and processes to prevent those crises from happening in the first place.
  • When congregation members act in reactive ways by name-calling, raising their voice, or personalizing an issue, self-differentiated leaders climb into the skin of others and demonstrate a calmness of spirit that de-escalates potential conflict.
  • It is not unusual for some of our best pastors and lay leaders to be so worn down by the reactive behavior of others that they give up and ask to be moved or resign from their position.

Proactive thinking by climbing into the skin of others and seeking to understand their point of view is preventive medicine for the church. Not only does it bolster the congregational immune system, but it also empowers us to change the world around us. As the appointive cabinet of the Iowa Annual Conference begins the appointment-making process for 2017, our eight district superintendents and I vow to be proactive in our work as well.

  • We vow to undergird all of our work by prayer, climbing into the skin of our congregations and clergy and seeking only God’s will.
  • The Field Outreach Ministers and District Superintendents vow to coach and mentor our district churches and pastors to create a healthy church climate by “seeing ahead” rather than reacting to events that have already happened.
  • We vow to gain as much knowledge as we can about every local church and every pastor so that we appoint clergy where they and congregations can learn, grow, and thrive.
  • We vow to place primary emphasis on our strategic priorities in Iowa: creating world-transforming communities of faith, equipping clergy and laity as transformational leaders, and aligning our resources toward our common goals.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Rock salt or liquid brine? Reactive or proactive? A plate and screws or Yaktrax? Lamenting the state of our world or climbing into the skin of others and walking around in it? All of us have more work to do. Hearts must continue to change. Thanks be to our proactive God who took the first step and sent Jesus into the world to show us how to love.

The Roadmap

“Siri, navigate to 2301 Rittenhouse St.” Ten days ago Gary and I left the hotel early in the morning to meet the moving van at my new office in the Iowa Conference Center. We had no trouble finding our way, yet I said to Gary, “I really want to stop at AAA this afternoon img_9510and pick up maps for Des Moines and Iowa. It’s not that I don’t trust Siri. I know that the episcopal residence is in Clive and the Conference Center is near the airport, but I’d like to be able to see how I am getting from one place to another.”

 

As I settle in to my ministry as the episcopal leader of the Iowa Annual Conference, three words describe my first days: wonder, grace, and perspective. I am filled with wonder as I explore a new part of God’s amazing world. I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country near Philadelphia. During college and graduate school, I lived in Ohio, West Berlin, Germany, and Connecticut. Since graduating from seminary, Gary and I have served as United Methodist clergy in his home state of Michigan.

My initial impressions of Iowa are of beautiful skies, clouds, and sunsets, roads without potholes, acres of corn, and bacon in just about everything. Life revolves around agriculture in Iowa whereas, in my previous home in the Detroit area, cars rule. I’m also getting used to gas stations with names that are different than national brands such as Shell, Mobil, and Amoco.  Kum and Go, Hy-Vee, and Casey’s are common here.  And I img_2760really love the prospect of exploring the six hundred miles of bike trails in the greater Des Moines area. Where else can you find an exercise station in the middle of a multi-use trail along the prairie?

Did you know that Iowa has the highest literacy rate (99%) among all states in the US? Cornell College, which is one of four Iowa colleges affiliated with The United Methodist Church, is the only college in the US to have its entire campus listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among all fifty states, Iowa is not only the largest producer of ethanol, but it’s also the largest producer of pork, corn and eggs. And my hunch is that the Iowa/Iowa State rivalry is every bit as “friendly” as the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry. I have declared myself nonpartisan, but Iowa’s victory on Saturday was pretty impressive. Moving is filled with one wonder after another.

Grace has also accompanied me over these last several weeks in the midst of the inevitable hassles of moving. Two of the wardrobes containing my clothes collapsed during the seven days in which our “stuff” was in transit and storage. The clothes were in a wrinkled mess at the bottom of the wardrobes, so everything had to be dry cleaned. I was pleased to hear the employee at the counter declared the total cost of $270.24 to be a record for this dry cleaning establishment. Not only am I in the record books, but I also experienced the grace of a moving company willing to cover the cost.

img_2715Grace has been everywhere. It was fascinating to observe the movers cheerfully carrying heavy boxes on their backs down the stairs to the lower level of the house numerous times and still have a smile on their faces when they were done.

For all of the cards and expressions of welcome, I am deeply grateful. Each conference staff person has gone out of their way to make me feel at home. They set up my new laptop and phone, decorated my office, have been patient as I learn names and acquainted me with this amazing part of the kingdom of God called the Iowa Conference. They even commiserated with me as I have literally spent hours making several dozen phone calls between Michigan and Iowa doctors’ offices, trying to get a simple medical record transferred so that I can make an initial appointment.

Finally, I have been accompanied over these last ten days by perspective. That’s really why I needed the road map. I want to see things in context and figure out how everything fits together into the big picture.

It’s tricky, though. On the one hand, we need roadmaps to guide our journey. All organizations do, including the church. We cannot fly by the seat of our pants, although I’ve seen it tried many times during my years as a local church pastor. We arrive at the church for a meeting, and the chair says, “Well, what do you want to do tonight?” No minutes, no agenda, no forethought, no goals, no ministry.

Last week was filled with meetings, including learning about the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and Spiritual Leadership Inc. (SLI). I am excited at the ways in which these programs function as roadmaps that will impact the life of the Iowa Conference and encourage our local churches to better serve their communities and grow in wonder, grace, and perspective.

I’ve always been a planner and an organizer, not wanting to leave anything to chance. Congregations that prayerfully discern and execute transformative and sustainable ministry are more fruitful than congregations that wander aimlessly in the proverbial wilderness.

In the end, however, a roadmap is much more than a strategic plan on a piece of paper.  The big picture is a way of living and being as disciples who are on fire for Jesus and are eager to reach out to their communities with new eyes of wonder and grace. Sometimes we just have to head out on faith, leaving room for the Holy Spirit to work, not even sure of the destination but always asking the questions, “How can our world become more just, forgiving, and merciful? How can the hungry be fed, the lonely be cared for, and the oppressed set free? How can every person be affirmed and equipped to be God’s agent of reconciliation?  How is God calling me?”

I am still getting settled, but I will always be “on the road” because of the call. May the roadmap of wonder, grace and perspective empower all of us on the journey to bring in God’s reign on this earth. And just so you know, I’m still keeping my Iowa map with me at all times.

Blessings,

Bishop Laurie

 

Guiando del Corazón

12 septiembre, 2016   El Mapa de Carreteras

“Siri, diríjame a 2301 Rittenhouse St.”  Hace diez días Gary y yo salimos del hotel temprano por la mañana para encontrarnos con el furgón en mi nueva oficina en la Conferencia.  No tuvimos ningunos problemas en encontrar la ruta, pero le dije a Gary, “De
img_9510verdad quiero pasar por la AAA esta tarde y rocoger mapas para Des Moines e Iowa.  No es que no tengo confianza de Siri, ya sé que la residencia episcopal está en Clive y la Conferencia está cerca del aeropuerto, pero me gustaría poder ver cómo voy a ir de un lugar al otro.”

Como me acostumbro a mi ministerio como líder episcopal de la Conferencia Anual de Iowa, tres palabras describen mis primeros días: maravilla, gracia, y perspectiva.  Estoy llenada con maravilla como exploro una nueva parte del mundo increíble de dios.  Crecí en la parte de Pennsylvania donde viven los descendentes de los inmigrantes alemanes cerca de Filadelfia.  Durante la universidad y la escuela posgraduada, viví en Ohio, Berlín Occidental, Alemania, y Connecticut.  Desde que me gradué del seminario, Gary y yo hemos servido como pastores metodistas unidos en su estado de Michigan.

Mis impresiones inciales de Iowa son de cielos hermosos, nubes, y puestas de sol, caminos sin baches, acres de maíz, y tocino en casi todo.  La vida revuelve acerca de la agricultura en Iowa mientras que, en mi casa anterior en la área de Detroit, los coches reinaban.  También me acostumbro a gasolineras con nombres que son diferentes que las
img_2760marcas nacionales como Shell, Mobil, y Amoco.  Kum and Go, Hy-Vee, y Casey’s son más comunes aquí.  Y me encanta la expectativa de explorar las seiscientas millas de bicisendas en la área cerca de Des Moines.  ¿En qué otra parte puede encontrar una estación de ejercicio en el medio de una senda para muchos usos en la pradera?

¿Sabía Ud. Que Iowa tiene la tasa de alfabetización más alta (99%) entre todos los estados en los Estados Unidos?  Cornell College, una de las cuatro universidades en Iowa que es afiliada con la Iglesia Metodista Unida, es la única universidad en los Estados Unidos que tiene todo su campus en el Registro Nacional de Lugares Históricos.  Entre los cincuenta estados, Iowa no solamente es el productor más grande de etanol, sino que es el productor más grande de puerco, maíz, y huevos.  Y tengo sospechas que la rivalidad entre la Universidad de Iowa, y la Universidad Estatal de Iowa es del mismo grado de amabilidad como la rivalidad entre la Universidad de Michigan, y la Universidad Estatal de Michigan.  Me he declarado imparcial, pero la victoria de la Universidad de Iowa el sábado pasado era bien impresionante.  El mudarse es llenado con una maravilla tras otra.

La gracias también me ha acompañado durante estas semanas en el medio de los problemas inevitables de mudarse.  Dos de mis armarios conteniendo mi ropa se derrumbaron durante los siete días en que nuestras cosas estaban en tránsito y en almacén.  La ropa estaba arrugada al fondo de los armarios, así que hubo que limpiar toda mi ropa.  Me encantó oír al empleado declarar que el costo total de $270.24 fue un récord para este establecimiento.  No solamente estaba en los libros de récords, también experimenté la gracia de una compañía de mudanzas que pagará el costo.

img_2715La gracia ha aparecido en todas partes.  Fue fascinante observar a los transportistas llevando alegremente cajas pesadas en las espaldas bajando por la escalera al nivel abajo de la casa muchas veces y todavía tenían sonrisa en la cara cuando estaban terminados.

Por todas las tarjetas y las expresiones de bienvenida, estoy profundamente agradecida.  Cada personas que trabaja por la Conferencia se ha esforzado para darme la bienvenida.  Ayudaron en instalar mi computador portátil y mi teléfono celular, decoraron mi oficina, han sido pacientes conmigo mientras que aprendo sus nombres, y me han ayudado a conocer esta parte maravillosa del Reino de Dios llamada la Conferencia de Iowa.  Aún compadecieron conmigo como he pasado literalmente horas haciendo docenas de llamadas telefónicas a las oficinas de médicos entre Michigan y Iowa, tratando de conseguir un record medicinal transferido para que pueda hacer una cita inicial.

Finalmente, durante estos diez días he sido acompañada por la perspectiva.  De verdad eso es porque necesitaba el mapa de carreteras.  Quiero vera las cosas en contexto y averiguar cómo todo cabe en la panorama general.

Es complicado, sin embargo.  En la primera mano, necesitamos los mapas de carreteras para guiarnos en nuestros viajes.  Esto es verdad para todas organizaciones, incluso la iglesia.  No podemos simplemente adivinar, aunque he visto esto muchas veces durante mis años como pastora en la iglesia local.  Llegamos a la iglesia para una reunión, y el/la jefe dice, “Pues, qué quieren hacer esta noche?”  No hay actas, no hay agenda, no hay planificación, no hay metas, no hay ministerio.

La semana pasada fue llenada con reuniones, incluso aprendiendo acerca la Iniciativa de Iglesias Saludables (HCI en inglés) y el Liderazgo Espiritual, S.A. (SLI en inglés).  Estoy emocionada acerca de las maneras en que estos programas funcionan como mapas de carreteras que tendrán impacto en la vida de la Conferencia de Iowa y animarán a nuestras iglesias locales a servir mejor a sus comunidades y a crecer en maravilla, gracia, y perspectiva.

Siempre he sido una proyectista y organizadora, no quería dejar nada a la casualidad.  Congregaciones que disciernen rezadoramente y ejecutan ministerio que transforma y que es sostenible son congregaciones más productivas que congregaciones que andan sin rumbo en el desierto proverbial.

En el fin, sin embargo, un mapa de carreteras es mucho más que un plan estratégico en un papel.  El panorama general es una manera de vivir y de ser como discípulos ardiendo por Jesús quienes son entusiasmados para alcanzar a sus comunidades con nuevos ojos de maravilla y de gracia.  Algunas veces simplemente tenemos que salir confiando en la fe, dejando espacio para que el Espíritu Santo pueda trabaja, ni siquiera seguros de la destinación pero siempre haciendo las preguntas, “¿Cómo es que nuestro mundo puede ser más justo, más compasivo, y más clemente?  ¿Cómo pueden ser dados comida los hambrientos, cómo pueden recibir cuidado los aislados, y cómo pueden ser librados los oprimidos?  ¿Cómo es que cada persona puede ser afirmada y equipada para ser agente de la reconciliación de Dios?  ¿Cómo me llama Dios a mí?

Todavía estoy acomodándome, pero siempre estaré “en el camino” a causa del llamado.  Que el mapa de maravilla, de gracia, y de perspectiva nos dé poder a todos nosotros en la peregrinación para traer el Reino de Dios a esta tierra.  Y para que Ud. sepa, voy a tener mi mapa de Iowa conmigo todo el tiempo.

Bendiciones,

Obispa Laurie