Diary of a Delegate: End– or Beginning– in Sight

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

It’s my last official day of work before General Conference. The phone is ringing constantly with church work and with people calling delegates for last minute legislative pitches. It’s actually kind of fun in a strange, stressful way.

Here online, I want to give another thanks to UM Insight for reposting my thoughts on bullying (my original post). Nice to be once again sharing space with my buddy Jeremy, too. Looking forward to seeing you in Tampa!

On the home front, my 21 month old son has a massive infection in his eyes, ears, and sinuses. Nothing like leaving one’s partner with a sick kid. I guess Will thought that his dad needed a bigger challenge at single parenting. He’ll have some grandparent assistance, but it really takes a village to raise kids, especially when they keep getting sick, and Mommie is jetting off to Florida for a couple of weeks.

The next person who tells me to “enjoy the vacation” is going to get laughed at in a most cynical fashion.

Extrovert that I am, I am mostly looking forward to connecting and reconnecting with friends from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t met me before, in heels I’m almost 6′, and I’ll be carrying a bright red laptop bag and whenever plausible wearing hot pink ally-fabulous Darren Criss sunglasses, hanging around the MFSA tabernacle, and advocating tirelessly for justice, inclusion, tenderness, and love. I should be hard to miss.

At least that’s my intention.

Inspiration and Hope: Why I am part of MFSA

I am part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action because it both inspires me and gives me hope. For me, MFSA lifts up the greatest strengths and addresses the greatest areas of weakness in my denomination.

One of the biggest things that drew me to The United Methodist Church as a college student was the denomination’s commitment to mission work that equips and empowers, and never uses assistance as a bait-and-switch conversion tool (read more about the UMC’s values with respect to relief work here). So many times, I hear people who are skeptical about organized religion say things like, “Christians talk a good game, but they don’t actually try to live like Jesus.” I believe that the UMC and MFSA stand in counterpoint to this view. Although not an official board or body of the UMC, for me MFSA has functioned as the heart and soul of our denomination, inspiring us to continually seek peace and people’s rights, to address systems of poverty, promote progressive initiatives, and work for justice in our own church. Foremost for me, I appreciate a strong witness for pacifism, as I believe that organized religion has too often been used to sound the drums of war.

MFSA inspires me by holding my denomination to a high standard in seeking peace and justice, which I understand to be at the heart of the Reign of God as Jesus proclaimed it. That witness calls the UMC to be the best representation of Christ’s body that we can be.

And yet, we are far from perfect.

Like any human institution, my beloved denomination struggles to be a faithful witness to the vast and encompassing love of God. We fall short in our pacifism; we do not stand strongly enough in defense of the natural world, which we have been told to care for; we botch our inclusivity. We have not fully broken free of– let alone repented of– the racism and Anglo-North-American privilege that saturates so much of our movement. We cut couples off from the blessing of the church and deny the call of God to ministry in persons based on sexual orientation. And we spend so much time arguing about these things– particularly the last– that we neglect our call to be Christian community and extend the love of Christ to the world for its (and our!) transformation.

There are days when that list of shortcomings makes me want to give up.

But for the witness of MFSA, which reminds me that I am not alone. I am not the only one who wants to see a stronger pacifist stance. I am not the only one who weeps when I have to tell a couple I can’t marry them.

I am not the only one who believes that we cannot tend souls without tending bodies, and we cannot preach a just and inclusive Reign of God unless we work for a just and inclusive human society.

MFSA gives me hope by naming the places where The United Methodist Church needs to become more Christlike, and building community to lovingly call us to that work. None of us needs to carry the weight of our brokenness alone, nor shoulder the burden of our need for healing as a denomination.

And that’s why I’m part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Why are you?

Why are you part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action?

Since 1907, the Methodist Federation for Social Action has worked to mobilize clergy and laity within The United Methodist Church to take action on issues of peace, poverty and people’s rights within the church, the nation and the world. This mission has attracted a diverse cross-section of United Methodists, for a variety of reasons.

Why are *you* part of MFSA? How does it speak to you as a United Methodist? A Christian? A person of faith?

During the 10-day period from April 25 to May 4—one year in advance of General Conference 2012—you are invited to answer that question on your blog, your Facebook page, or your Twitter account (#whyMFSA).  Tweet-o-holics are invited to summarize their thoughts with a Tweet-up on Wednesday, May 4.

Help us give thanks for the ministry of MFSA, and bear witness to the work of justice for the transformation of the church and the world.

(We want to make sure we have at least one person covering each day of this synchroblog. If you are interested participating, please drop a note in the comments!)

April 25- Becca Clark
April 26
April 27
April 28
April 29
April 30
May 1
May 2
May 3
May 4

You’ve got to be carefully taught

The other day, my daughter asked me about Abraham Lincoln at breakfast.

I explained who he was, and why he was important, which led to a conversation about slavery. I don’t think she believed me when I described that people had once bought other people to do work for them. I didn’t even get into questions of race and power, but merely the idea of buying and selling and owning people like things. She giggled at me and said, “Mama, that’s the silliest thing I ever heard. You can’t own other people. That’s mean. You’re not making sense.”

While I applaud her faith in humanity, I did explain that sometimes people do things that are very very mean and do not make any sense. I love that her world is one where the very idea of something like slavery is so bizarre she assumes it’s unreal.

We still haven’t really had a conversation about race. A couple of years ago, when Obama won the nomination for president, she asked who he was and why he was important. After his name and the position he was running for, I tried to explain why he was special in this moment in history. I said something like “see how his skin is a different color than mine?” She just looked at me with these big confused eyes and said, “I have skin. I like skin.” I shut my mouth tight. I’d be damned– pretty literally– if I was going to instill that in my daughter.

So now I watch her with her friends, and although we live in the whitest state in the country, there are some kids in her class and her church whose skin is darker than alabaster. And she seems not to notice. I even ask her what she likes or doesn’t like about a classmate, or what makes a friend special or different, and she doesn’t mention skin color. She doesn’t mention if they have one or two parents or if those parents are the same gender. She doesn’t mention how people dress or what part of town they’re from or whether or not lots of other people like them.

Her judgments are restricted to “she’s nice to me,” “he’s on my bus,” and “she took my crayon.”

Which is as it should be. Would that we all saw each other like kindergartners do, and the only judgments we made were based on relationship and behavior.

When I commented about this on facebook, a friend reminded me of the lyrics from South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
…It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

That’s true, and I am so honored to have the opportunity to teach two children something different, to raise a generation that can maybe look past race and sexual orientation and whatever else. But I can’t ignore these issues either, because I am not my daughter’s only teacher. Soon peers and classmates will have a huge pull in her life, and even if I have taught her otherwise, they get to have their say. Some of them may try to convince her to look down on others because of the color of their skin, the gender of their parents, their sexual orientation, their economic status, the clothes they wear, the way they talk, how much they weigh. Some of them may try to make her the victim. Kids can be nasty and bully each other for any (or no) reason. We’ve been seeing recently how deadly that can be, but it has always been vicious and violent.

Parenting is a huge and fearful responsibility. Because as much as I believe you have to be taught how to hate, I also believe you have to be taught how to stand up to those who are hateful.

(sermon uploading is stalled while I figure out why Audacity is quitting without saving projects)

In honor of National Coming Out Day, and to honor those who have lost their lives, and to share a message that I believe everyone should hear about bullying and our responsibility for it, I invite you to read a sermon by a friend and colleague of mine, Rev. Bri Desotell.

Becca Clark

Of Connection and Commandment

“A new command I give you: Love one another; as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

That’s how Jesus sums up his message to his disciples in John 13:34. But sometimes it’s unclear how to best live out that love.

I was contacted today by Mary Jacobs, who works for the United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, TX. It seems that the Westboro Baptist “church” plans to visit Dallas soon and picket at some public places, including the Holocaust memorial. As I had done last fall, Mary is wrestling with what a loving and compassionate response might be in solidarity with her friends who may become targets of hatespeech and picketing, but not wanting to give attention and fuel to the nastiness that is the WBC. We chatted today and I shared with her some of my own struggle when the same group came to Montpelier, and how I ultimately decided to make a personal appearance in the counter-protest movement in addition to my “professional” response as a member of the local clergy community.

Mary’s blog post highlights her wrestling and some of our conversation. It was a blessing to talk across the Methodist connection about these things and my prayers go out to her and the Dallas community as they discern how best to live the command and challenge to love in the face of all else.

That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.

I’ve been pointed to a fantastic discussion on Newsweek’s website about disbelieving clergy, and a corresponding study from Tufts University about clergy who have “lost faith in their tradition.” Friend and fellow blogger Jeremy has a great exploration of this article in his blog post on the subject, playing on the questions of how clergy should respond to the doubt they experience, and how we might be honest and authentic in leading congregations from various places of lost faith. I was going to post a reply, but it became an entry in itself…

I find that I “lose faith” in my tradition in three ways:

1. The Dark Night of the Soul. This is temporary, but that temporariness has varied in length, the longest stretch for me being about ten months following 9/11. I didn’t know if I could believe in humanity, much less a loving God or a purpose for life. Fortunately, I was not leading a congregation at that point. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been. As Jeremy says, there needs to be a balance. A couple sermons about the angst and questioning might have been fine, but after a while, I’d have needed to find a way to preach faith in the midst of doubt or something. Still, having been through these periods I believe makes a pastor stronger and better able to minister with those who inevitably face their own dark night, without giving fast and hard answers that sound more like condemnation than help (“What do you mean you doubt you feel God’s presence? God is real and that’s it! You just have to believe a little harder!”). And I think of Mother Teresa, who it seems conducted most of her ministry from within a place of doubt. It doesn’t seem to have diminished the power and faithfulness of her witness, bless her.

2. Loss of faith in the denomination and its policies. I love Wesleyanism and I love the United Methodist Church. I was a denomination shopper, coming out of the Catholic church and seeking a place where I could be in ministry, and I explored a lot of traditions. I think the UMC, of all the specific traditions I tried, is the closest and best expression of the Christian faith for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Sometimes our polity, our way of forcing there to be a majority vote when there is a strongly divided body, and the way some of those decisions shake out (mostly I’m talking about positions on human sexuality, yes), frustrate the hell out of me. I begin to wonder if we as a body really are seeking God’s vision, and begin to question my ability to be an authentic *United Methodist* Christian leader. I think it’s okay to be honest about this too, while leaving room for other United Methodists who are equally frustrated and disheartened with our denomination for exactly opposite reasons, and lift instead the challenge and struggle to be faithful as a human organization, seeking to live into a divine vision.

Those are the kind of easy ones.

3. Lack of adherence to supposedly orthodox theological positions. Most of these, I haven’t lost, but never had to begin with. You see, I believe, but I have been asked (sometimes by myself) whether what I believe is enough in line with my tradition. In the early 1900s, a movement arose to name the ‘fundamentals‘ of the Christian faith, and while the fundamentalist movement has sprung in large part from that, many if not most mainline perceptions of Christianity have also been influenced by it. And so many people think it’s impossible to preach “the Gospel” and *not* believe in a seven-day creation story or a talking snake. Even for the people who get past that, many raise their brows when I say things like “I don’t believe in original sin… at least, not at all in the way it is usually described” (I believe it has more to do with the fact that we are trapped in a destructive narrative [see B. McClaren, Everything Must Change], or that we are in the impossible position of trying to live into our commitments and what is asked of us, which we know we can never achieve [see R. Neville, Symbols of Jesus, I think]). I don’t think God is a being with hands and feet (and gender) and locality in time and place. I don’t place much stock in whether or not the Red (or reed) Sea parted, and I completely doubt that there was ever a prophet swallowed by an enormous fish. I don’t cling to the idea that Mary was (or had to be) a virgin. Doesn’t so much matter to me where Jesus’ DNA came from; I still believe he’s the son of God. I don’t need the the Bible to be infallible; it’s okay for me if it’s a human story of divine encounter. I don’t believe God demands a blood atonement for sin, and inflicts divine child abuse to exact it. I don’t believe suffering and violence and death are redemptive. I’m unsure about whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical and bodily; again, for me I care about what it means– that his life, his love, his oneness with the Divine transcended the grave, was more powerful than death, and we too when we live for him and as he did will find life and love and grace that are stronger than death– but I don’t really bother with the mechanics of it. If we suddenly dug up a body in Judea and proved it was his, that would not make the resurrection one ounce less true for me. I don’t believe that Jesus will come again in a cloud, or that anything described in the book of Revelation is intended to be revelatory of anything beyond the people of God living in faith in the face of the Roman Empire.

These are not temporary doubts for me, nor are they political debates. These are things I actually believe are theological and spiritual positions held by some that need not be held by all in order to live and believe an authentic Christian spirituality. And I will preach them. Again, leaving room for those who do believe that Mary was, by necessity, a virgin, and that Jesus’ blood did indeed avert the deathly wages of sin being extracted from humanity. But I have often said that if one need believe that God demands blood sacrifice in order to be a Christian, count me out. If one’s faith hangs on whether Jesus was a resuscitated corpse versus a spiritual being come Easter morning, I’m out of the club. I hear sighs of relief; I hear people give thanks, that they can now consider themselves Christian, when before they thought they were excluded. I also hear murmurs. Okay, then, what *do* you believe?

I believe God is; transcendent and immanent, Ground and Source of all Being, and that we are in God as a sponge is in the sea. I believe the Bible is the story of humanity’s relationship with God, filled with truth and beauty and adventure and sacrifice and chaos and anger and doubt and triumph, and that this story is true, regardless of whether it is factual. I believe that Jesus was, more than any other wise prophet or old soul, one and the same with that Divine, that to see him was to see God, to live the Way he taught is to live God’s Way. I believe that the consequence of confronting power and corruption and violence and domination, the cost of articulating God’s vision in the face of humanity’s greed is deadly. I believe that the life and love of God, and God in Christ, and now God in us as we are in Christ, is yet more powerful than the deadly force of Empire and fear and greed and corruption. I believe such life and love is eternal, and so Christ was and is alive beyond death. I believe that this Divine One, this God, is present with us even now, that we feel movement through Spirit and in community, that we are still called to be and build and participate in a new way of being and living, God’s realm, come to earth. I believe we are invited to make this new Way, together with God, and live as a people connected to God, to one another, to all of life, part of what Brian McClaren calls “God’s Sacred Ecosystem.” When that happens, we will see face to face, we will live as the Body of Christ, fully restored. We will see the fulfillment of all that needs to be.

These are my fundamentals.

But they are not sufficient for everyone. I have been told many times that I should renounce my wicked ways and confess before my congregation that I am not fit to be their pastor because I do not believe in the true tenants of Christianity. I have been told that I must have lost my faith, and that I must repent and seek the assurance of the infallible Bible, the inflexible answers, because to question is to doubt and to doubt is to deny God. I think to question is to invite deeper faith, to seek to know God more, to admit that I don’t have or need answers, only ideas and a direction to begin and begin again on the journey of faith that leads, as it must, to the Holy.

And so here, I reject the premise that this could be considered a loss of belief. I believe very strongly. I would challenge that simply because what I believe is not the orthodoxy from an older age or the post-intellectualism ideas of fundamentals, that doesn’t mean I question the deep truth of the Gospel. I would not count myself among disbelieving clergy, although many have pointed their fingers at me with just such an accusation. To my congregations, I say simply that I am on a journey with them. I have deep truths, and deep faith in God on which I stand. And if we differ from there, or you wish I articulated more solid answers, then perhaps your faith is in a stronger or wiser– or maybe just different!– place than mine. But if you question too, then be not afraid. I’ll hold your hand through the dark night of the soul; I’ll rage with you when our human institutions fall short of the Divine justice and truth we strive to live into; I’ll listen and hear and hold your questions about God and truth and Christ and existence, and share my own and maybe together where us two are gathered in Jesus’ name, we will find his presence with us. I’ll preach that: what I believe, what you might believe, what others might believe, because more than anything I know we all see God only in part, and only together can we begin to piece together how massive, how mighty, how all-encompassing, how grace-full, the Divine truly is.