Diary of a Delegate: Who are the Bullies? (a call for repentence)

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

Last week I mentioned on facebook/Twitter that I was wearing pink as part of Pink Shirt Day, a movement to help raise awareness about bullying (here’s one article that gives a little background about why pink shirts). At the time I wrote that wearing a pink shirt was not all I planned to do to combat bullying.

As a member of the Church and Society B legislative committee at General Conference (convening in one week +1 hour, but who’s counting?), I will have the opportunity to discuss a few pieces of legislation seeking to update the UMC’s resolution, “Prohibition of Bullying.” There are some strengths to the various proposals offered (naming the often fatal consequences of bullying, encouraging a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying, expressing the church’s stance through sermons and printed materials). However, I feel that across the board, the resolution could be stronger.

I’d like to see our denomination have a special Sunday devoted to combating bullying. We have a Creation Sabbath (this Sunday!), and a Children’s Health Care Sabbath; I’d like us to have a Sunday once a year– or at least once in the next quadrennium– devoted to being a sanctuary from bullying.

However, I think we need to go further, and this is tough. I believe that as a church, as members of the global body of people called Christian, we need to take a long, hard look at how our words, actions, and lack of action have contributed to a culture that allows bullying.

We are not the only ones to blame, by any means. Perhaps it is part of human nature, going back to our pack/tribe instincts, to pick on or ostracize those “not like us” or those who we think represent weaknesses or characteristics we would rather not see. While the most obvious cases of bullying these days are against persons who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, people get bullied for every reason and no reason. I have no idea, really, what made me such a great target in middle school– Was it being a bit, er, pudgy? Hitting puberty a little earlier? Loving school, learning, and teachers to the point of being a “nerd” and a “geek” long before those things were cool (they are now, I promise)? Having less than zero skill at kickball? Was it that I stood up for others, thereby allying myself with the rest of the “losers”? We didn’t even have a glee club to join together (not that I sing).  In any case, I was on the receiving end of vicious, demeaning, dehumanizing gossip and joking, often sexual in nature. In sixth grade.

None of what I experienced fell within the purview of the church per se. None of what I experienced, I would also argue, was anything like the scope of what some of my glbt friends endured and endure. While I would say I was teased and harassed and shamed and bullied and degraded, it was kind of generalized. The bullying and harassment directed at individuals who are glbt have a sort of organization about them; they spring from a shared narrative. I was teased because I was uncool. I believe that glbt individuals are bullied because people believe they are unnatural.

It is my strong belief that the mistreatment of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender in our society arises from a narrative about “those people.” They are somehow broken, wrong, vile. They are not natural. They are inherently less than “us” (although of course, recent studies show that the “us” doing the bullying are often not so different from the “them” selected as victims).

Here is my challenge: the Christian church needs to seriously examine our role in supporting and perpetuating this narrative.

I won’t go further into the narrative. We know how wrong it is, how fatally brutal. I won’t go further into our support and perpetuation of it. We know what churches, denominations, and movements have historically said about gay and lesbian people, what we say now, and how we “justify” our words. But I will say this: unless we seriously examine and repent of our role in perpetuating a narrative that dehumanizes glbt persons, we cannot wash our hands of the bullying, harassment, shame, and torture unleashed upon them.

We have to admit that we have been wrong– wrong to label people as unnatural, wrong to build a narrative of immorality around loving actions, wrong to keep silent when people have been “gay-bashed” in the name of Christ. I will admit that I don’t exactly know how we do this if we are going to hold on to the claim that homosexuality is unnatural or immoral (nor do I think it’s my job to do deep theological reflection for positions that I feel are wrong and untenable). But for those of us who believe that bullying, harassment, and dehumanization are wrong, we’d better find a way to say that any part we have played in them is wrong too. I call for a call to repentance for our complicity in the narrative that supports bullying.

Then, and I do believe only then, can we model zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, create safe spaces for those who have been the targets of bullying and harassment, and say with any integrity that we are committed to combating this evil in all its forms.

Sermon: Unsporting Conduct

“Unsporting Conduct”

(April 15, 2012) We love to celebrate Eater with great fanfare and language and images evocative of military conquest. But Easter is a victory not of might, but of peace. Can we leave our touchdown dances behind, and listen to message of forgiveness? (Luke 23:33-43)

This sermon is heavily indebted to Roger Wolsey’s blog post, “A Kinder, Gentler, more Grown-up Easter.” Thanks, Roger! With apologies to Queen, CeeLo, Lenard Cohen, and anyone who had to hear me sing. Also, if you love the f-word play on words, this video should give you a laugh.

Link love abounds

Welcome, readers of Ministry Matters as well, where my blog was linked today.

It’s great to have so many folks engaged in conversation about what keeps us together and what drives us apart. It’s different for each person, as is the balance of which force (the keeping together or the driving apart) is stronger. For me, I’m still here toughing it out. How about you?

More link love

Thanks, UM Reporter, for reposting my reflections on the death penalty.

(here’s my original post, and one that’s specific to the UMC).

Diary of a Delegate: in Opposition to Disaffiliation

… or, Why I Remain United Methodist

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

In the midst of my preparations for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday this past week, I received a mailing sent to delegates of General Conference. It was a pamphlet entitled “In Support of Disaffiliation for Reasons of Conscience,” speaking to a particular piece of legislation that arises in one form or another every four years.

As we know, the United Methodist Church is deeply divided over its own position on homosexuality, with many of us seeking to overturn the church’s policy that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching, and that the church cannot officiate marriages/unions for gay or lesbian couples, or appoint and ordain pastors who are in relationships with a person of the same gender. And so, in response to this division, the question arises each General Conference: are we really the “United” Methodist Church? Should we split along lines of opinion on this matter? Can what we have in common hold us together when compared with the depth of our disagreements?

This particular legislation would give local churches the right to disaffiliate from the denomination, becoming, I presume, non denominational churches (something with which I have whole other levels of issue– much as I may resist over-focus on metrics, accountability is a very good thing!), and would allow clergy to withdraw from the denomination (something I thought I could do anyway), all based on whether or not we agree with the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Personally, I don’t find this a compelling course of action. It suggests that the depth of Methodism is agreement with the Book of Discipline in whatever its current iteration is, or even worse, agreement with a handful of paragraphs.

I am often asked, given the outspoken passion with which I disagree with my denomination’s policy on this point, why I don’t withdraw my status as a United Methodist clergy person and affiliate with a denomination that I find more agreeable.

The reason is that there is so much more to being United Methodist to me than our current language about gay people.

Don’t get me wrong; how we treat others is vitally important, and as I have said, our language and position on homosexuality represent, in my opinion, our gravest sins of commission. However, I did not choose the UMC as my denomination based on whether or not I agreed with the Discipline.

I grew up Roman Catholic, and so upon feeling called to pastoral ministry, I went denomination shopping, learning as much as I could before intentionally affiliating with one denomination that I felt was most faithful to how I understood the call to live as the Body of Christ. I chose the United Methodist Church for four reasons:

  1. An understanding of grace that gives voice to both the journey and the love that surrounds us before we even know it,
  2.  Mission that does not seek conversion, but empowers people by working side by side, and a historical commitment to social justice in all levels of mission and minsitry,
  3. “The quadrilateral,” which is a misnomer, but for me means that we are never asked to check our reason or experience at the door, but continue to engage with the history and context of our faith as we understand and apply scripture, and
  4. Strong support of women in pastoral leadership. This includes the fact that, because Bishops make appointments, women cannot be refused as pastors by local churches, based on their gender. Neither can persons of color. One day, when we ordain gay and lesbian clergy as I believe we will, neither can they.

I now add the itinerancy as something I find invaluable about the UMC. I hate it when it’s time for me to go, but I do honestly feel that the Methodist practice of having clergy appointed by the Bishop for a shorter (ie less than 20 years) period of time keeps congregations and clergy fresh, promotes congregational identity that is separate from the pastor (resists cult of pastoral personality), and frees clergy to preach, teach, and administer with sometimes difficult words and actions without fear of direct retribution from the personnel committee (now, whether one can critique the denomination or conference without reprisal is another matter… ;) ). And, above all, I love the people called Methodist.

So I remain. The United Methodist Church is not perfect. We are slow in “moving on to perfection” in trying to be who we say and envision we are. Still, I believe we are on the path to being as faithful a people as we can be. We engage difficult conversations, and it takes us time to resolve them, because we are a global and diverse body. We are a deeply passionate people, and we care far more about following and serving Christ than perfecting doctrine, so we quibble incessantly, because following Christ is hard to figure out faithfully.

Reuters photo-- but we all know it's just cool to text with Methodists.

I believe there is room for everyone in the United Methodist Church.

Dick Cheney is United Methodist. So is Hillary Clinton. So is Rush Limbaugh. So is Sandra Fluke.

So am I.

And as strange as it may be, and as hard as it is to see sometimes, I believe there is more that keeps us together than can keep us apart. We believe in Christ. We strive to follow. We believe that social justice is vital to ministry and mission and theology itself. We walk grace as a journey before we even know it and long after we have had our “hearts strangely warmed.” We sing. We pray. We eat potluck like nobody’s business. We value relationship and connection– with God and with each other. We confess our sins of racism and discrimination, and try, albeit imperfectly, to repent. We have a network of mission across the face of the earth in more places and in longer deployments than nearly any other charity in the world. We say our hearts and minds are open, and we pray it might be so.

We have split in the past (over slavery), and there are those who have walked away because of matters of conscience (over homosexuality or discrimination, or other reasons we may not know). We will continue to wiggle and wrestle and fragment, I am sure.

But I’m not leaving until and unless we lose what holds us together, or until and unless the day comes when the church no longer wants me because the denomination sees not enough in my ministry that keeps me Methodist when compared to the areas of my disagreement. When I criticize my church over homosexuality or idolizing metrics or anything else, I do it because I love it, and because I believe my voice matters– in the pulpit, in the committee rooms and on the floor of General Conference, and yes even on this little blog– when it comes to engaging the church as it is and calling it into what it needs to be.

We are a great denomination, but I believe we can be yet more faithful. I want to be part of that conversation and growth, as we are made perfect in love and witness by the one who calls us to life, to faith, to work.

Preparing (to go away) for General Conference

Christ is Risen! I hope Holy Week was a powerful and prayerful time for those of you who observe it. My experience, while exhausting, was rewarding and filled with Spirit.

2/3 of what I'll miss while I'm in Tampa

And now, with out much further ado, my countdown to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2012 begins. We’ve got two week to finish getting ready– whatever that means.

I neglected to reblog the link last week, but I was one of three people highlighted in a United Methodist Reporter article about what delegates are doing to prepare. I won’t be too miffed that they dropped my title in the article; I’m very glad that they kept what I had to say about the pressure it puts on my husband and our support network to be spending so much time away from home and family. I think that’s a real issue as we ponder why more young people don’t run as delegates.

Sermon: Now What?

“Now What?”

(April 8, 2012 – Easter) The story of Christ’s resurrection is a good one– but it is only a story if we don’t let it change us and change the world. It takes courage and faith to live in hope, to live as if the resurrection is real. It is, however, the only way to live the resurrection (John 20:1-18).

This sermon draws heavily on this post by Carl Gregg, citing, as he does, Wendell Berry, Clarence Jordan, and Peter Rollins (quote used earlier in the service, but referenced in the sermon). I also mentioned, but did not play, this scene from “The Hunger Games.” Finally, I was influenced this week by Diana Butler-Bass’ column in the Huffington Post, where she suggests that the church needs to answer new questions (ah, this is so very much what I’ve been waning to say and didn’t know how to articulate!), and while I did not reference her, I tried to present my answer to these questions in the content of the sermon.

Happy Easter!

What’s wrong with this picture?

UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this telling picture from a recent United Methodist News Source story, and the way it captures the heart of the problem with the restructuring proposals coming out of the Call to Action (which I’ve critiqued here and for which I offered a different approach). The flip chart reads “Denominational Goal: 1. Stop Decline. 2. Encourage Growth.”

Now, I’m going to grant that there are times when we need to have strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth, and thinking and praying about planning about how to do those things is not wrong. It’s probably better described as the goal of this particular brainstorming session, but the title “denominational goal” is particularly telling in a Freudian sort of way.

That’s what we’re worried about.

And that’s what we’ve made our focus.

When I came to my current church, this is the exact question that was presented as the congregation’s central concern. We are losing members. We are not growing. Help us stop losing people and encourage growth. Of course in a way, that’s what needed to happen, and we measure our success in those efforts by counting how many people come in or out of the church. Fine.

But we did not develop a church growth strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth. We did one very simple, very difficult thing.

We refocused on our mission.

No numbers. No statistics.

We did our ministry, and let go of the numbers for a little bit.

The decline stopped almost immediately, because there was something about which people were passionate, and they wanted to be a part of it, so they stuck around. The growth is slow and patchy, I admit. But it’s there. Not because we have a goal to increase in number, but because we have a goal to be as faithful as we can be to our mission. Do you know what helped us do that? The strength and connection of the UMC denomination; consultants from the Annual Conference, resources from the Board of Discipleship, connecting back to mission through the Board of Global Missions, the list goes on and on. But that’s what kept us going: our mission.

It reminds me of a story entitled “Panic” in the fantastic book Friedman’s Fables. To paraphrase, a ring of dominoes finds itself in a pickle, as one by one, the dominoes fall. Each domino tries to hold its neighbor up, to stem the tide of crashing dominoes, but to no avail. Finally, one domino manages it; the crashing stops and the dominoes right themselves. The others ask how in the world that one domino was able to stay up, and it replies, “while you were all busy trying to keep others from falling, I just focused on keeping myself from going down.” This one domino held fast to its own strength, its own principle, rather than reacting to the instability around it.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we really tried to figure that out and commit to that? What’s a disciple? How do you “make” one? How do you know you’ve got one?

Instead, we are focused on stopping the crashing around us, on preserving our institution. Has survival of the institution become our denominational goal?

It seems to me that if we are so busy trying to save our (institutional) life, we are sure to lose it. Only when we are willing to die, really die, when we are ready to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, will we find our life saved and worth saving. Death is not a restructuring, and certainly not a consolidation of power. Death is a surrender, a release, a return to those things that have birthed us and carried us, a loss of self in the wholeness of God.

And if we can’t hear that story, today of all days… well, then perhaps we are already entombed.

Seeking Easter Inspiration

Here is my deep confession:

It is hard for me to get inspired to lead worship on Easter.

I face this every year. In part, I think the expectations I place on myself are too high– I want to do something “cool” or “relevant” to get the attention of the visitors; I want to lift up a different part of the story to appeal to the questioning; I want to go deeper to inspire the regulars; I am confronted with the centerpiece and cornerstone of our faith.

On the other hand, I just don’t know what to say. Retelling the story doesn’t seem to be enough (it is for me on Thursday and Friday– the messages of servanthood, connection, commitment to ones principles, courage, loss, violence– these speak for themselves). I personally don’t get enough out of Easter if it’s just a line-by-line reading of the Gospels. Does this make me a bad pastor? A bad believer? I hope not. But it’s not enough for me to read about the empty tomb. So what? What do we do now? How does this change us?

This may be the best thing I have read all season, all year, in all of my ministry when it comes to Easter inspiration. I won’t just preach that, but at least I have a place to start. Thank you, Carl Gregg. That was what I needed to hear, to find what I need to say.

Race and Assumption in “The Hunger Games.”

Rue in "The Hunger Games" (from The New Yorker)

So apparently, there’s a large segment of the Hunger Games fan base that doesn’t read very closely.

This excellent article from The New Yorker follows one man’s efforts to compile racist and angry responses to casting choices for the movie version of “The Hunger Games.” Apparently, several people were upset to learn that Rue and Thresh (and most of the people from their district) were black.

That’s pretty clearly stated in the book. Not only are both Rue and Thresh described as having dark skin and dark hair, but just as Katniss’ District 12 is described as Appalachian coal country, the details of District 11 make it sound like a throwback to the old southern plantations. I thought the whole thing was a pretty obvious depiction of slavery played out in all the Districts, really, based not on race but on economic status and power. I remember being surprised that there weren’t more explicit references to people of color in the books– surely a futuristic America would be more ethnically diverse and not less. I viewed it as a glimpse of hope in the midst of a dystopia that Katniss and her fellow characters seemed far less aware of ethnic differences– perhaps since everyone is oppressed together, the subcategories don’t matter quite as much.

But where I think readers may have been confused is because Katniss frequently says that Rue reminds her of her sister, Prim, who is quite clearly a fair-skinned blond-haired child. And this begs a question that I think we need to confront as part of our conversation about racism.

Can a person remind you of someone else, or bear a strong resemblance to someone else, if they are of a different ethnicity?

The answer to me is obvious: yes. I’ve said before that I neither grew up nor live in the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, but even moderate exposure to a diverse group of people will cure one of the notion that “all black people look alike” (or all Asian people, or Latino people, or white people). Not only do people embody similar characteristics and mannerisms (Katniss lifts up Rue’s timidity and gentleness as similarities with Prim), but there are shared physical traits as well (in the case of Rue and Prim, their size is similar, and I believe Katniss mentions their eyes). If someone totally unrelated to you has your grandmother’s smile, why is that any more or less likely if their skin is a different color?

The underlying assumption, I think, is that a person is reduced to their race or ethnicity (or other minority status). Well, not any person. I’m not reduced to being a white person or a white woman. But that’s the privilege I receive. Someone else can be reduced to being the black person or the Asian girl or the gay kid. This is not okay.

And yet, it seeps in, and I’ll be darned if I know how to pull it out by the root. In earlier blog posts, I’ve celebrated the relative innocence of my daughter’s assumptions about ethnicity. But now at seven, she has started pointing out skin color as one of the first traits she recognizes in people. It’s discouraging.

My husband, who I married for a reason (many, in fact), sent me an email with a link about Trayvon Martin, lifting up the challenge of raising African American boys to be safe. My husband’s comment was “I read this and thought, how about ‘how to not raise your kids to go around shooting people because they look suspicious’?”

It’s harder than it sounds, and harder than it should be. But I think part of it lies in questioning assumptions, lifting up heroes and heroines in literature and life who embody all sorts of diversity, drawing comparisons between people that may not be as obvious, and naming the places where we’ve had our own assumptions challenged. We can’t as a culture shy away from conversations about racism– our silence and discomfort can be fatal. We need to speak often, and loudly, about the assumptions and prejudices we find in ourselves, in our books and films and media, and celebrate the times and places where they are challenged.

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