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

The Language of Jesus

I could see that she was struggling. An elderly woman was shuffling down the hall carrying two big boxes in one arm and dragging a huge bag of clothing behind her with the other arm. I asked her, “May I help you? Where do you want to go?”

She said in a thick accent, “Down,” so I walked her to the elevator. “What’s in your boxes?” “Christmas decorations.” “Wonderful! Are you going to check out?” “Yes. I change doctor’s appointment to come here.” “I am so glad you came to our Rummage Sale. What is your native language?” What she said next sounded like “Babylonian.” I said that I wasn’t sure what language that was, and she replied, “Jesus language.”

IMG_0477As another volunteer appeared to guide her through the checkout process, I said to her, “This is our language, too! We all speak the language of Jesus here. God bless you.” “You, too,” she smiled, and we parted ways. I still don’t know my new friend’s country of origin, but it doesn’t matter because we understood each other. Our language is love for all.

For sixty years our local church has been sponsoring twice a year Rummage Sales that attract thousands of people from all over the Detroit Metro area and even adjoining states. Led by a ten-person team from the United Methodist Women, twenty paid workers, forty managers in twenty-seven departments and seven hundred volunteers, the Rummage Sale raises thousands of dollars for mission. Except for the sanctuary, chapel and staff offices, our entire campus is transformed into a department store for six days. Approximately five thousand volunteer hours were devoted to the Rummage Sale last week, with a preacher’s estimate of one hundred thousand items donated, from sofas to stuffed animals.

How does a Rummage Sale speak the language of Jesus?  By empowering others to be generous.
20160424-IMG_6130On the first day of set-up, I wore one of my Rummage outfits over my clergy robe in worship to encourage people to donate, volunteer and buy. At the last service, I issued a challenge for someone to purchase my funky multi-colored sweater jacket for $500, even after one youth in the choir shouted out, “That jacket is ugly!” Within minutes of the end of the service, a man stepped forward and said, “I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters who will love this!” When the check arrived a few days later, it was for $1,000, quite a bit more than the average price of a Rummage Sale item, which is one dollar.

Any church can put on a Rummage Sale, whether large or small, and any person can find a way to be generous by donating, volunteering or buying. In order to help our donors, we send drivers out in trucks to pick up large pieces of furniture. Men in the church parking lot are ready to unload cars. Whoever volunteers five hours or more is permitted to shop at a pre-sale where there is a 30% mark-up. Teenagers are encouraged to volunteer, and children can help their parents. Sitting jobs are given to our older volunteers.

A Rummage Sale is a wonderful way to model for our children and youth what it means to have enough and to share what they have with other children whose families cannot afford to buy new clothes and toys. It’s also an opportunity to teach children who have money to recycle, upcycle and appreciate things that aren’t new.

How does a Rummage Sale speak the language of Jesus?  By becoming a melting pot of people from different nations, languages, ethnicities and incomes, with varied needs and desires but united by our common humanity.

Our Rummage Sale is like a mini United Nations where we are continually learning about cross-cultural sensitivity, not making assumptions about others and treating every shopper with respect and grace.

During the Rummage Sale, people speak many different languages, wear distinctive clothing and are often looking for particular items. On closing day, when shoppers can stuff as much as they can into a bag for $10.00, one woman was buying clothes to send to her family in Mexico. Another woman was shipping her clothes to Pakistan and another to the Congo.

Still another was picking out suits for her daughter who teaches at a college in Wisconsin, where many of the graduates don’t have enough money to purchase suits for job interviews. A funeral home director was purchasing suits so that elderly men who have died in nursing homes can be buried in nice clothing. Prices are so low that everyone can leave with beautiful clothing. A gorgeous men’s sweater on the rack still had the price tag attached, $500. It sold for $2.

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The Rummage Sale speaks the language of Jesus by demonstrating that we live in a world that is far more diverse than our own communities often indicate. We are reminded that for some, Rummage shopping is a hobby where we love finding deals, meeting new people and supporting mission. But for others, Rummage Sale shopping is for survival, and there are few other options. The opportunity to interact with and get to know people who are not like us enlarges our borders. Welcoming, honoring and learning from all of our shoppers is a necessary part of our faith.

How does a Rummage Sale speak the language of Jesus?  By reminding us that the love of Jesus for our world and our love for Jesus and others motivate everything we do. During the Rummage Sale, we all speak the Jesus language, whether we claim Jesus as our Lord or not. We honor other religions and expressions of faith at the same time as we acknowledge that the Jesus language of love crosses all boundaries.

Mission is our purpose, mission is our goal and mission is our lifeblood. Every aspect of the Rummage Sale is a response to our love for Jesus and our desire to serve our community and world in multiple ways.

  • We encourage church and community members to recycle their clothing and household goods instead of taking them to the landfill.
  • The Rummage Sale is a doorway into a community of faith for unchurched or de-churched people in the area. Non-members are able to volunteer when sponsored by a church member.
  • Theological reflection on materialism, stuff and the meaning of “enough” abounds.
  • We sell items at inexpensive prices so they are affordable to all.
  • We invite local non-profit organizations to come after hours to take whatever they need, free of charge.
  • An inexpensive café run by volunteer cooks provides wonderful food for volunteers and shoppers.
  • Department managers are encouraged to creatively arrange their rooms and secure helpers.
  • A post-Rummage Sale meeting is devoted to evaluation and suggestions for improving all aspects of the sale.

Hours after the sale is over, everything is packed up, several local ministries take everything that is left and the church building looks as if nothing ever happened that week. We are tired, but God has been glorified. We made new friends, bought some good stuff, modeled crazy clothes and had lots of good laughs. Most of all, we spoke the language of Jesus, people were served, each one felt valued and our rummage is on its way to the far corners of our world: a sure sign that the Kingdom of God is in our midst. After expenses, every penny raised from the Rummage Sale is given to missions at home and around the world that serve and empower women and children.

Any church can offer this powerful ministry! All you need is some stuff, a few volunteers and the love language of Jesus.

Blessings,

Laurie