The Other Side

Do you like to experience new things? Are you always up for an adventure, or do you like to play it safe, not wanting to risk or put yourself out there? Have you ever attempted to go to “the other side”? One of my favorite scriptures is Mark 4:35-41 (CEB), where Jesus is spending the day teaching along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are there, and people are responding. Later in the day, Jesus says, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” The words are casual, but the meaning is deep. The other side is often where those who are “other” live – those who are not like us. Jesus invites his disciples to let go of the familiar shores of Capernaum, take a risk, and head toward the foreign shores of the Gerasenes.

Other boats follow along, but soon gale winds arise and waves crash against the boat, threatening to capsize it. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus? He takes a nap! Finally, the frantic disciples wake Jesus, saying “Don’t you care about us?” Jesus says to the waters, “Be still!” and immediately the wind settles down. Then he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you have faith?” And they reply, “Who is this man, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Do you ever travel to the “other side?” Do you ever risk searching for new ways to reach out to others with hope and grace, or would you rather play it safe? One of my favorite quotes is from Andre Gide, a 20th century French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

In this story, Jesus has a fruitful ministry at Capernaum on this side of the shore where he teaches parables, casts out demons, and calls Levi, the tax collector. The disciples experience a transformation and give up their old lives. But now Jesus is asking them to leave the familiar shores and go to the other side and advocate in a place where the least, the last, and the lost live.

For many years, the Iowa Annual Conference has had a presence in the Iowa State Capitol during the four months that the legislature meets. Our Advocacy Team uses the Book of Resolutions, 2016; The Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Book of Resolutions, 2019; and our United Methodist Social Principles, 2016, as the basis for our advocacy work. The Iowa General Assembly (IGA) is the legislative branch of the government of Iowa. We have a part-time legislature consisting of the Iowa Senate (50 members) and the Iowa House of Representatives (100 members).

The Advocacy Team determines the bills upon which we will focus, with our goal to be a voice for those who have no voice. The word “advocate” comes from the Latin advocare, which means “to add a voice.” An advocate is one who pleads the case of or adds a voice of support to a cause or a person, especially those considered “other.” I am deeply grateful to Brian Carter and all other members of the Advocacy Team who add their voices of support for legislation that aligns with our Book of Resolutions and Social Principles. 

Our six legislative priorities for 2021 are the same as for the year 2020, and each one is vitally important. As the Iowa legislators go about their work, we are called to be their conscience by bringing to their attention:

  • The degradation of our environment and how we only have one earth for which we are called to care
  • Gun safety – balancing the right to bear arms with necessary precautions around that right
  • Poverty – especially seen in the light of massive job loss due to COVID-19
  • Human Rights – raising awareness around diversity, inclusivity, and equity and responding with advocacy and justice for all who call Iowa home
  • Criminal Justice Rights and celebrating that Governor Reynolds signed an executive order last year granting convicted felons the right to vote after they complete their sentences
  • Mental Health is especially important right now. Particularly concerning is the cumulative effect of COVID-19 on the mental health of children and adults throughout Iowa.

The process that our Advocates use as they track legislation includes:

  • Set priorities in consultation with the Bishop, Assistant to the Bishop, and Director of Connectional Ministries.
  • Review Iowa Annual Conference Resolutions, General Conference Resolutions, and our Social Principles.
  • Review the list of bills being presented for consideration by legislators.
  • Declare either “For” or “Against” on bills presented if there is a clear resolution stating The United Methodist Church position either from the Iowa Annual Conference or the General Conference.
  • Issue Action Alerts to ask United Methodists to talk to their legislators about bills we have declared on and share our concerns as the bills move toward passage.
  • Attend Iowa Legislative sub-committee and committee meetings in the Senate and the House of Representatives to present our United Methodist view and submit suggestions for changes.
  • Review bills that are passed by the sub-committees and committees and make adjustments to the United Methodist Declarations: For, Against, Undecided.
  • Thank legislators for their time listening to us.
  • Thank United Methodists for contacting their legislators.
  • Make a report to the Bishops Office about the results of our advocacy.

I am deeply grateful to our Advocacy Team for their tireless work during legislative sessions:

Brian Carter: Team Lead – briancar@dwx.com
Rita Carter – ritaac@mchsi.com
Gary Nims – gary.nims@gmail.com
Bobby Jo Paige – bjpdaisy@gmail.com
Robert Mulqueen: Consultant – robert.mulqueen@gmail.com
Deb Streff: UMW Liaison – debstreff@gmail.com

If you would like to sign up to receive Action Alerts, please click here. From the early beginnings of the Wesleyan movement in America, Methodist clergy and laity reached out to all people with the love and grace of Jesus Christ, especially those who were considered “other.” Our Advocacy ministry in the Iowa Annual Conference invites you to travel to the “other side” with us as we continue to advocate for health and wholeness for all, not only here in Iowa but around the world. “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

Be Kind, for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Great Battle

Like schools across the country, the Yale University School of Music has been deeply affected by COVID-19. Figuring out how to perform ensemble and orchestra music or even teach lessons has been an incredible challenge. On May 18, 2020, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker stood in an empty Morse Recital Hall on Commencement Day in front of an online audience and said, “The disappointment among and between us all is palpable. Despair is a place where hopelessness resides. It is the destination for those who have been completely broken by the world and its relentless disappointments. The artist must summon the courage to take a different, unmapped route, and that detour around the destination of despair enables us to push forward.”[i]

Taking that detour around the destination of despair is a challenge for all of us as we continue to adapt and innovate during this Pandemic time. I am reminded of a quote that has been attributed to Plato and also to Philo of Alexandria, but there is no clarity about its origin. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” As we approach the one-year anniversary of our world-wide struggle with the Pandemic, I wonder, “What has COVID-19 taught us?”

I have vivid memories of sending an email to clergy and laity in the Iowa Annual Conference on March 12, 2020, saying, “With fourteen cases of COVID-19 reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health (as of March 11) and an additional 126 being monitored, the Iowa Annual Conference is canceling or postponing all upcoming events for the months of March and April 2020. The evolving situation is being closely monitored and information will be updated frequently.”

Just two days later, the evening of Saturday, March 14, I sent an email to all clergy, advising them to cancel in-house worship for the foreseeable future. I wrote, “As it has become clear, the coronavirus will get worse before it gets better. That has entailed changes in our everyday life and work, as we all seek to avoid exposure and infection with the virus.”

I chuckle at my naivete. Lament is the word that best describes where many of us sit right now. Hopes and dreams have been dashed for many over this past year. We are out of synch, feeling unmoored, untethered, uncertain, and forced to take a different, unmapped route. Will the Pandemic ever end? When will I be able to see my grandchildren? Will the day ever come when we can all gather together for in-person worship without wearing masks or social distancing? Will I be able to hug my church friends again? I have only met one time in-person with our Iowa Annual Conference cabinet since last March, and we were masked and socially distanced across the room. There are so many things we cannot do. But one thing we can do. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. We are literally all in this together.

There has been a lot of talk over these last months about COVID fatigue. We are worn out from one virtual meeting after another. We desperately miss our family and friends whom we cannot see. And many people have lost jobs and are literally living on the edge. The stress of COVID can manifest itself in different ways, including feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration; changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; trouble sleeping; physical reactions such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes; intensification of existing health conditions; and substance abuse.

At the same time, we are beginning to emphasize the importance of COVID-resilience as the Pandemic continues and we wait for the time when everyone will be vaccinated. Resilience is the ability to recover or bounce back from difficult situations and challenges. Resilience is not something we are born with but is a skill that is gained as we learn how to cope with adversity and challenges. How can you and I learn how to be kind and live fully and joyfully in the midst of a pandemic that has turned our entire existence upside down?

Shortly after the Pandemic began, Psychology Today published an article, “Seven Skills of Resilience: Practical Ways to Enhance Well-Being in These Trying Times.” I share them as suggestions for how we can all learn how to be kind in these trying times, for everyone we meet is fighting the same battle.

Principle 1: Cultivate a Belief in Your Ability to Cope

Knowing that there are so many things outside our control, how can we learn how to focus on the resources that we do have? They could include a warm home, a phone, and a computer that provides ready virtual access to family; good neighbors; friends who provide a listening ear; the ability to stay connected with our church by worshipping online and attending virtual Bible studies; eating healthy foods; and getting enough exercise and sleep. Acknowledge that everyone you meet is fighting a great battle and be kind, especially to yourself.

Principle 2: Stay Connected with Sources of Support

Make phone calls. Send emails. Write letters. Do a Zoom Bible study through your church. Maintain contact with your neighbors and friends. Stay in touch with your children and grandchildren.

Principle 3: Talk About What You’re Going Through

Assemble a group of friends who meet regularly. Do a weekly check-in with family members. Talk with your pastor, and if things become more difficult, find a counselor.

Principle 4: Be Helpful to Others

Focusing on others shifts attention away from our own fears and concerns. In our neighborhood, we have connected by taking turns every month providing a soup supper for each other. When we are able to help others, we help ourselves. Pay special attention to those who are the most vulnerable. Reflect God’s love in everything you do.

Principle 5: Activate Positive Emotion

Listen to your favorite music, watch comedy shows that make you laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Take on household projects you would not have time to do in normal times. Use some different recipes. Get out and walk in the woods. Take up a new hobby. Save a turtle. Do the things that give you joy.

Principle 6: Cultivate an Attitude of Survivorship

A positive attitude goes a long way. Yes, we have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. But at the same time as we are not completely in control of our circumstances, neither are we completely helpless, either. Many of us underestimate our own power to adapt and thrive in difficult circumstances. It is possible to summon the courage to take a different, unmapped route, and that detour around the destination of despair enables us to push forward. We can survive this!

Principle 7: Seek Meaning

Stay connected with your faith community. Churches as well as individuals can become resilient when we determine that no one will slip through the cracks. Use phone trees to check in with each other. Offer to help others make use of technology so they can worship online at home. Host a weekly virtual gathering of seniors. And, most of all, remind each other to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Thank you for your continued kindness.

[i] Music at Yale, Fall 2020/Winter 2021, p. 11.

Unrevealed Until Its Season

It’s sunset in Clive, Iowa. My home office faces west, and I watch the brilliant red, orange, and yellow colors fade into darkness. I sing to myself:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;

In cocoons a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free.

In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be,

Unrevealed until its season, something alone God can see.

“Hymn of Promise,” United Methodist Hymnal, #707

It is the season of winter, and I am deeply grateful that out of the isolation of life confined mostly to home, blessings still abound. Unrevealed until its season, Lent beckons us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In the midst of the fear of contracting COVID-19; depression because we can’t go anywhere; worry about elderly parents; anxiety about our children; grief because we cannot cuddle grandchildren on our lap; and sorrow that so many are suffering financially, emotionally, and relationally – there’s a spring that waits to be. God with us even – especially – in the dark places.

God of all seasons, in your pattern of things

there is a time for keeping and a time for losing,

a time for building up and a time for pulling down.

In this holy season of Lent, as we journey with our Lord to the cross,

Help us to discern in our lives

What we must lay down and what we must take up.

What we must end and what we must begin.

                                    (The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland)

I recently discovered a diary that I kept from 1974-1975. It was my junior year in college, which I spent at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School) in West Berlin, Germany. Growing up, I never adjusted well to new circumstances and always experienced homesickness when away from my family. Yet learning German at the Goethe Institute in West Berlin for two months and then fully immersing myself in studying organ, choir conducting, composition, and voice was exhilarating. In this highly intense and competitive music environment, I asked myself every day, “What am I doing here?” Still, I was able to bloom and grow. Unrevealed until its season.

Fortunately, my college roommate at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio happened to be studying in Basel, Switzerland at the same time as I was in West Berlin, so we decided to spend the Christmas break together. I took a train to Freiburg, Germany, where Jennifer was staying with her host family at their summer home in the Black Forest. We attended a packed Christmas Eve mass, which was totally foreign, fascinating, and deeply moving. A few days later, Jennifer and I boarded a train and headed off to Milan, where we would catch another train to Rome.

The scene remains vivid in my mind these many years later. I wrote in my diary, “It’s 1:15 a.m., and do I have a story to tell! My passport case was stolen an hour ago, as Jennifer and I were walking from car to car, trying to find seats on the standing room only train from Milan to Rome. I realized the inherent danger in the situation and was holding on to my passport case tightly.” Oh, well.

Once I realized it was gone, we quickly got off the train and were directed to the Polizei. I filled out all the necessary forms so that I could get a temporary passport the next day at the American Consulate in Milan. But the loss was so much greater than my passport. In the passport case was my International Student Identity Card, my Social Security card, an eight-day train ticket for Italy and return ticket to West Berlin, a credit card, police papers from Berlin, cash, and traveler’s checks.

There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody.

There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.

From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Jennifer and I spent a sleepless night in the Milan train station, with numerous creepy men checking us out. We were cold, hungry, and bone-weary, yet we had to stay awake. After I was able to secure a temporary passport the next day, we decided to pack it in and return to Basel, Switzerland, where Jennifer was living with her host family. After a few days, I took the train back to Berlin and was ready to stay put for a while. Two months later, I received a letter from the American Consulate in Milan, returning a few of the stolen items that had been recovered, minus the money.

At our next school break, I planned to travel to Vienna to visit a high school friend who was studying there. The night train would take me from the West Berlin train station to an East Berlin train station, where I would transfer to another train that would overnight me to Vienna.

Unfortunately, I got off at the wrong station in East Berlin. After waiting for a little while, I became uncertain about the transfer and approached an East German guard. Yes, this was at the height of the Cold War, and I was terrified. After he told me it was too late to make connections to Vienna, I made my way back to West Berlin and tried again early the next morning. It ended up being a wonderful trip. Unrevealed until its season.

I was ultimately not called to be a professional church musician, although I still love music. From the past will come the future. It was music that led me to discover that my real call was pastoral ministry. And it was music that led me to The United Methodist Church, unrevealed until its season. While studying for a Master’s degree in organ performance at Yale, I not only met my husband, who was a United Methodist, but I also served as the director of music at a United Methodist Church in Connecticut for five years.

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;

In our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.

In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

During this season of Lent, what endings, some yet unrevealed, will lead to new beginnings for us as individuals, as United Methodists, and as a world? How will COVID-19 continue to teach us that we are one global family and that the choices we make have a ripple effect that affects all of us? How will the anti-racism movement change us? How will our local churches innovate, grow, and flourish because of the challenges we have faced? How can we love and care for one another even when we disagree on important issues? To what do we need to die as individuals and as a denomination in order to walk boldly into a future with hope that is unrevealed until its season? Once again, in our end is our beginning.