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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Something to Celebrate in the United Methodist Church

In a time when many believe very little is coming out of the United Methodist Church I am happy to say nothing could be further from the truth. United Methodists are passionate about welcoming immigrants to the United States and about defending and supporting the rights of immigrants.

Thanks to the leaders of what we call Rapid Response Teams — folks passionate about defending and supporting the rights of immigrants and who are mobilizing churches in their conferences to do the same — the lives of so many immigrants will never be the same.

Here is a brief snapshot of what our Rapid Response Teams have accomplished recently:

  • Within a span of just a few weeks two young United Methodist students, undocumented immigrants who are leaders in their local churches, were detained and faced possible deportation. Both were released and returned home safely where they belong, thanks in large part to United Methodists throughout the United States who jammed the White House phone lines urging their release.
  • After discovering that The United Methodist Church owned nearly $1 million in stock in private-prisons corporations, Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group, United Methodists from across the world signed petitions, sent emails and made their outrage heard. This led to total divestment from CCA and GEO Group in January!
  • This past fall, United Methodists worked with other faith groups in a series of Sundays called DREAM Sabbaths, to raise up the unjust situation affecting undocumented students brought to the Unied States as children. Out of the 500 DREAM Sabbath events, United Methodists hosted 250 of them!
Over the past two-plus years, led by Rapid Response Team leaders in their conferences, United Methodists have engaged in over 570 events of public witness, demonstrating their support for just, humane immigration reform. And those are just the ones we know about! we kept a record of all the events in our Immigration Grassroots Journal!

Our goal is to build vital movements among United Methodists defending and supporting the rights of immigrants. You want to see vital churches? Then you need to be a part of a Rapid Response Team in your conference! We have teams in close to 40 conferences and we are focusing the rest of 2012 on building teams. We are calling this focus "TEAM 2013 or BUST!"

Here is what the rest of the year looks like:

June-August: Working with Rapid Response Team (RRT) leaders, 7-10 churches — and there could be more — will host an educational event or biblical study sometime during the summer. RRT leaders will provide resources. We will end the summer with a nationwide call to celebrate the events.

September-Thanksgiving: The same 7-10 churches — and it could be more — will join with other congregations that are part of the Rapid Response Team to host a joint potluck, what we call a Breaking Bread & Barriers event. They will invite a DREAM Act student in their area to speak. This is a great way to continue to build necessary relationships with immigrants forced to live under the U.S.'s broken immigration system — a system we are determined to fix!

December: An end-of-the-year call will celebrate Breaking Bread & Barriers events. We will also share the plan for 2013 actions to support passage of just, humane reform.

This is the plan. I want you to participate. To find out if your conference has a Rapid Response Team, please let me know. I can connect you with RRT leaders! It is time now to get ready for 2013.

We need you to be involved. Much has been accomplished, and together we can do so much more!

Let me know if you want to be a part!!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Seeing Memorial Day through the Lens of Pentecost

In a strange convergence, this weekend the Church celebrates Pentecost at the same time that the United States celebrates Memorial Day. I usually tend to skip church on a Sunday preceding a nationalistic holiday as all too often worshipping Jesus gets fused with worshipping the United States. But as I sat in church yesterday morning during a powerful worship service (at Culmore UMC!) where my pastor did an amazing job of remembering both Memorial Day and Pentecost, I could not help but wonder how churches were handling remembering these two events in the worship services across the country.

Just a little history, Memorial Day first began just after the Civil War when flags were laid upon the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington Cemetery. It was 1870 when New York became the first state to observe Memorial Day. Interestingly enough, it was not until after World War I that the South joined in celebrating this day, choosing instead to memorialize it’s dead from the Civil War on another date. I find it intriguing that it was the devastation of another war that brought about the South’s willingness to share a day of remembrance. Strangely, death, even more than the occurrences of life, always seems to find a way to unite and heal.

The other event we remember this weekend, Pentecost is the celebration of the birth of the New Testament church in Acts 2. In considering the history of Memorial Day and the refusal of the South to join the North in remembering their dead on the same day, I am immediately struck at the thought that one of the realities altered by Pentecost is that of social relationships. It is Pentecost when the words of the prophet Joel are remembered and spoken as a description of the new reality ushered in by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

The Church was birthed by the power of the Holy Spirit and it was marked by the inclusion of all people. The people were not just passively present, but were included to speak and lead. Both men and women will prophesy. No matter what walk of life, no matter what gender or economic status – hence, “even among my slaves” – God’s Spirit is available to all and for the purpose to lead God’s people into mission to the world. It is commonly believed that this passage, for the writer Luke, is to foretell of God’s offer of salvation to be opened up to Gentiles – to the whole world in other words. We celebrate Pentecost as the time when the Spirit is poured out in order to call the Church to witness to the world.

Further, as the Spirit is poured out, people begin to speak in all kinds of tongues. Again, this gives a clear picture that God’s mission to the world is not limited to just one nationality – it is meant for all peoples, all nationalities, all ethnicities, all tongues and tribes. Indeed, the story of Acts is the story of the gospel refusing to be held captive by one nation, but instead, becoming indigenous to all people – God is God of all the earth.

What an interesting convergence of these two events – Memorial Day and Pentecost! I do not want to convey that we must choose between these two events; that we can only remember or celebrate one without the other. I actually think this is an opportunity to see a nationalistic holiday such as Memorial Day through the lens of Pentecost. But in doing so, I should say I do not intend to lessen the importance of remembering the lives of people who died in battle – either in service to the United States military or on the opposing side (or the many who died and weren’t on a side at all).

In seeing Memorial Day through a Pentecost lens I think we can reflect even more deeply about the many people who died in battle. Pentecost can sheer away some of the nationalism that clouds the deep sadness and grief that accompanies the tragic loss of life. It is the nationalism that sometimes prevents us from remembering the people and instead, we focus on someone else’s political agenda. Remembering Pentecost as the birth of the Jesus movement helps us see that just as the Church started as a struggle to separate itself from the culture and maintenance of the national of Israel, we must faithfully commit ourselves to continue to struggle to separate ourselves from the nationalism of the country in which we live. Seeing Memorial Day through the lens of Pentecost, we can honor those who died in battle, shorn away from the often politically dubious reasons why most wars are fought.

I believe it is important that we remember all who died in battle and that the Church serve as an agent of God’s healing presence in the lives of the families who have been left behind. At the same time, I do think Memorial Day can be problematic for Christians in the U.S. – particularly as we celebrate Pentecost – if our remembrance takes on an uncritical acceptance of U.S. empirical foreign policies. To celebrate the birth of the New Testament Church – a movement of Jesus followers that often challenged or even undermined the Roman Empire that was dominant at the time of its birth – means that we must likewise question the hegemony of the current Empire we are living under. We serve all those who grieve the tragic loss of life, but we must also question the reasons for why those lives continue to be lost.

My hope is not to stop people from observing Memorial Day. But I do hope as we remember the members of the U.S. military who died in battle, as well as those who died on the opposing side (and again, those many people who died without ever choosing any side), that we will not celebrate the battles. Let us remember the people who died without celebrating the often horrific policies which sent them to their untimely death. Because it is Pentecost, we must also remember that the Church was birthed in the real power – a power even greater than that of an Empire. In celebrating Pentecost, we can experience that power again – we must! Above all, Pentecost is the power not to destroy, but to heal, the power not to kill, but to resurrect, the power not to hate, but the power to love. I believe it is through Pentecost that we can safely ensure that the tragic losses of life become more and more rare.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

General Conference Reflection: The Year of the White Man

Ok, ok, I know, General Conference (GC) is over, and I should just let whatever is on my mind go. I want to. Lord knows, the moment they adjourned GC in Tampa I was praising God. But I also cannot let this thought alone. Or it can’t let me alone.

You see, when GC started I fully expected that the theme of GC 2012 would be that this would be the year of the African. The African Church is the fastest growing part of the UMC and so the African delegations were considerably larger this time than last. And they certainly had an impact in the debates and discussions that were part of every decision made. But as an observer, a staffer at a general board who resourced the legislative committees, I believe that this was not the year of the African. The theme of this GC was the year of the White Man.

Though all of the debates and discussions had greater involvement of people from across the globe, the debates, and more importantly, the very structure of the debates, were largely shaped by White Men. For example, in the debate over the always contentious issue of sexuality, of the 23 people who spoke, 18 were men, many of them (though I am not certain exactly how many) where White. Two motions to provide substitute language to provide language on sexuality that could build the bridge between the two opposing sides were both raised by 3 White Men (all clergy of large churches as well). In one of the committees I helped to resource I could not help but notice that one of the most consistent voting blocks on legislation were almost all White Men from the South. They almost never voted against one another.

The fact that this voting block in one particular legislative committee almost always lost in the end almost didn’t matter. What mattered to me was how they shaped the debates that took place and how they will continue to function in an increasingly global church.

But let me illustrate this in the story of one particular delegate, a White Man from the South. I will not mention any specific pieces of legislation or quotes he made, though I wrote them down, because I do not want to unnecessarily embarrass anyone. But at the beginning of the 3 day period when the legislative committees met, it was clear to me that there was going to be little of the discussions that this one delegate did not have something to say. He talked a lot. And what he said was very persuasive, at least at first.

He talked often about values that were important to him and that he claimed were biblical in nature. I could not help but reflect on what he mentioned that were, in fact, quite consistent with what George Lakoff writes of when he describes the Strict Father Morality. Essentially, for Lakoff, the Strict Father values self-discipline and obedience to current systems because that will result in success. And the inverted argument of this holds true as well. If self-discipline and obedience lead to success, then the reality of success shows that the person was self-disciplined and obedient. And the lack of success in a person means that the person was not self-disciplined or obedient.

This was persuasive at first in much of what was discussed and this delegate gave ample examples, himself included in those, to argue that the Church should not punish the successful or do much to defend the unsuccessful. In other words, the affluent should not be restricted in their pursuit of wealth (i.e. success) because their success is evident of their self-discipline and obedience. This is what biblical fidelity is all about, according to this delegate.

Further, the poor or marginalized should not be coddled because they simply could become successful through following Scripture and becoming self-disciplined and obedient to the current systems and structures. They could be like him in other words. Because this is such an air-tight worldview, a box, if you will, with very fixed and identified lines or boundaries, this worldview can be very persuasive. It is simple and easy to understand. It is easy to identify those who are inside the box and those who are on the outside.

However, it works usually for only a short while. Over time, even a very short amount of time such as three days, we begin to think of numerous people we know who are on the outside of the very rigidly drawn box, but yet, who behave as if they are inside the box. These are the poor or vulnerable in our society who are self-disciplined and obedient, but yet remain poor and vulnerable. And, on the other hand, we all know, with even more frequency, very “successful” people who are very un-self-disciplined and disobedient and yet remain very affluent and powerful; but yet, who are seen as successful. Thus, there is something beyond the rigid lines of the Strict Father morality keeping good people out and bad people in.

But this delegate kept talking and kept arguing that this worldview was true; that this best reflected the values of the Kingdom of God. Sadly (or not so sadly, depending on where you stand), this delegate, by the end of the 3 day period, had become a clanging cymbal and banging gong. He made much noise but carried very few people with him. You could almost hear people roll their eyes and shake their heads as he rose to speak, again and again and again. His arguments seemed less and less persuasive and started to sound defensive and dogmatic. His unquestioned attachment to his worldview, shaped partly by a superficial reading of Scripture and largely by an individualistic and detached affluent Western culture, had so marginalized him by the end of the three days that I could almost feel people waiting to see where he voted so that they would vote opposite of him. He galvanized the vote against where he stood. It honestly was a little sad to watch.

The truth is that Jesus was self-disciplined and obedient (most of the time – ask the Pharisees or Pontius Pilate if he was obedient entirely). But Jesus was, even more, loving and compassionate. He incarnated himself among even the lowest forms of humanity (“that of a slave” it says in Philippians), and from that position he identified with the struggles of all of humanity. God did not just choose to become human, God chose to become the very picture of unsuccessful humanity, a vulnerable and struggling humanity in need because self-discipline and obedience does not always bring about greater uplift (“I was thirsty…I was naked…I was in prison…I was a stranger…” from Matthew 25:31-45). There are larger forces working to keep some people out and some people in. Jesus came to destroy those lines, those fixed worldviews and dogmas that prevent us from following Jesus and loving others – incarnating ourselves among those the world neglects and even hates – especially when those others are vulnerable and unsuccessful.

Though much was made at GC of the fact that conservatives in the Northern Church were in alliance with the many theologically conservative delegates from the Central Conferences, especially Africa, in order to continue to marginalize the GLBT community, I am not sure this alliance will necessarily last. It certainly will not last if the basis of the arguments used are similar to what this one delegate used – the Strict Father morality.

Any serious undertaking of Scripture will, in fact, seriously undermine the Strict Father morality which lifts up the status quo and blames the poor for their situation. This is blatantly heretical and cannot coexist with serious biblical exegesis. Theological allies can quickly become foes when the theology is not based ultimately on Scripture, but rather, a worldview intended to ensure dominance and detachment rather than to missionally follow the Jesus who challenged oppressive systems and structures and did so from the position of incarnation among the most vulnerable. Thus, any attempt at building bridges that has Scripture as the center of its discussion actually benefits the work of inclusion. In the end, it is the Strict Father moralists who have cause to worry about their future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

General Conference Reflections: The Strange Life and Death of Plan UMC

The words, “United Methodist” and “unpredictable” are rarely used in the same sentence. But for anyone who attended or closely followed the United Methodist General Conference of 2012 in Tampa, Florida, to call it unpredictable is clearly an understatement. It was, quite literally, crazy.

Everyone knew, coming into General Conference 2012 (GC), that it was designed to do one thing: restructure the church. The plan to restructure the United Methodist Church had been laid out, studied, celebrated, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, debated slightly (a few random articles critiquing it followed by numerous articles crying out for change of any kind at any cost), endorsed once again by prominent church leaders, and lobbied strongly for months prior to General Conference. Only a few details needed ironing out, but it was already a sure thing.

But then GC happened. Despite the fact that one of the first evening plenaries was almost solely dedicated to a slick and quite expensive video/live person presentation about how sad and decrepit the UMC is and how restructuring will save us, despite the near universal outcry that “something has to change” that was heard ringing throughout the hallways and meeting rooms, and despite the heavy-handedness of the idea of restructuring being pushed so hard by church leadership, not a single plan made it out of legislative committee after three days of debate and discussion.

That was not the only time the wheels came off the tracks during the two weeks in Tampa, but it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. When the legislative committee work was done and the leaders backing the plan were trying everything they could do to get the committee to adopt at least one of the plans, you could feel the desperation in the room and throughout the conference. You could almost hear people thinking, “If restructuring the church is the main point of why we came to Tampa, how in the world could the legislative committee tasked with proposing a single plan of change not be able to come to any agreement on anything?”

But, despite the chaos, the focus on creating a plan went forward. When you have committed so much time, so much messaging and so much money to an idea whose time supposedly has come, you don’t let something so small like complete disagreement on what that restructuring should look like get in your way. When you have railroaded something this far, you railroad it the entire way!

The crafters of the plan came together once more and created another plan – Plan UMC to the rescue! It took a day to resurrect FrankenPlan, which gave everyone else less than two days to read it, unless you spoke a language other than English and then you didn’t read it at all. I got the feeling that adopting this plan was merely a formality for those pushing this through the process so frantically, because when it came to the floor of the plenary it was adopted with less than three hours to debate it – all done before lunch! Plan UMC was 79 pages long and we passed it in less than 3 hours. I sat in a subcommittee that took nearly an hour to debate the word “capricious,” but yet, the plan to restructure the entire United Methodist Church was passed – more like railroaded through – in 180 minutes. The main business of GC had been accomplished.

But these are strange days we live in. Though the idea of restructuring had been all but adopted by all the major powers of the church for months, it all amounted to nothing when, on the last day of GC with just a few hours of time left, the Judicial Council of the UMC ruled the entire plan was unconstitutional. The Council went even further though and said no part of the plan was salvageable. Months of work, tens of thousands of dollars (for a conservative estimate) down the drain, all the forces of the UMC behind it, and the plan to restructure the church was torpedoed before the idea had fully settled in. There was chaos when the decision was announced because everyone realized the purpose for what we had come all that way to do was lost. It felt like we were purposeless people in a purposeless Church.

Some folks were angry with those who crafted the plan but who had not thought ahead of possible obstacles such as constitutionality. Some folks were more philosophical, giving thanks for the process and for what was learned throughout. Some, me included in this group, were more mystified as it seems that there is nothing that we cannot screw up if we just give ourselves enough time (or just 3 hours apparently). Since the debacle of GC 2012 I have even heard that some folks are angry at people for pushing against the idea of restructuring, with one Bishop saying that the “wrong people” were elected as delegates. I guess the thought is, “why didn’t people allow themselves to be railroaded more easily!”

My take on this whole failed effort is this: if you have church leadership on your side, if you are given 40 minutes of a plenary and tens of thousands of dollars to make an incredibly persuasive presentation, if you have been lobbying for this plan for months leading up to GC, and if you have the voices of the entire Church echoing the familiar phrase, “well, something has to change!” and you still are not able to implement your plan, then perhaps the problem is the very plan itself. Perhaps the problem is not us, not the “wrong people” elected as delegates, not the agencies and board that are routinely used as piƱatas for all that ails us. Maybe your ideas are just not good ones.

I work at a General Board and I should be against restructuring the church as much as anyone. Restructuring could very well mean my job is done. But I am not against it. I am very much for it, job be damned. We need to change or we will die. I have known that for years – years before I arrived at GBCS. Now, I am not arrogant enough to believe I know how the entire UMC should be structured – that’s beyond my comprehension to be honest. But I do know one thing. Plans fail not because of a failed process or the “wrong people.” Plans fail because no one catches the vision of what the plan is supposed to do. While everyone is debating structure, I cannot help but think, we need to think and act missionally. We need to do the work of loving and welcoming people. We need to evangelize and plant churches, but not out of some weird urge to save a denomination, but rather, out of our love of a Savior who saved and transformed us. We need to love more, and make super plans less.

Again, I do not know how all of the agencies should look, or where they should fit on some organizational chart – those things give me a headache to even think about. But I do know that if we restructure and we remain uncaptivated by the love of Jesus for us and for the world, then restructuring will not give us new life. There is a very real chance that we can restructure all we want and we still might die.

As old school as it sounds, perhaps we were saved from our own plans and from a misconstrued and arrogant belief that if we move the deck chairs around enough on the Titanic, we can prevent the inevitable from sinking. But I choose to believe that we were given another four years, not for more study (God forbid!), but for more action, not for more lobbying and power plays and internal political moves, but for more sacrificial love, greater risk-taking, and radical mission. We already have the super-uber plan that will save us. It has already been instituted and we just only have to implement it. And that plan is simply this: love God, love others. After two wasted weeks in Tampa, I am ready to get on with it. I hear a motion, do I hear a second?