Friday, May 17, 2019

Who Hears the Screams of Women?

A mission program we developed at Glide was a relationship with a school and clinic in one of the largest slums of Nairobi, Kenya. We returned to Kenya every 18 months, bringing new and returning mission team members as our commitment to our friends and their work deepened. We spent much of our time listening to our Kenyan friends share stories about their lives. We were always moved by their resilience and joy in the face of stark poverty and disease.

One story has haunted us every since it was shared. One of the women told us of the sexual violence women faced in the slum. Nighttime rain brought with it fear, because under the cover of rain and darkness, assaults increased. The heavy downpours created a cacophony of clatter as the rain pelted the tin roofs of their homes. This din masked the noise of men using machetes to cut through the corrugated tin walls and muffled the screams of women as they were raped.

The first time it rained while we were there, no one in our team slept. All we could do is think of this story, our dear friends, and the violence they faced.

It is raining in the United States. Who is hearing the screams of women?

Who hears the screams of Native American women?

Across the United States and Canada, Native American women and girls experience a violence at a higher proportion to the general population. There is an epidemic of missing and murdered Native women and girls (MMIWG), yet most go unfound, their cases unsolved. In 2016, there were 5712 reports of MMIWG yet only 116 cases were logged in the Department of Justice data base. The true number of women and girls missing and murdered is unknown. The forces of colonialism, sexism, and racism all conspire to prevent accurate reporting and response. The reality is these are mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, friends. These are family members whose loved ones live with dreaded, heartbreaking questions.

Who hears the screams of trans women of color?

Trans women of color experience unemployment, homelessness, violence and homicide at alarming rates. Again, the intersections of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia) push these women to the margins where they are left vulnerable to exploitation and violence. While alive, society scorned them. In death, scorn and dehumanization often continue to happen, as they are misgendered when brought to a morgue. Identities  disregarded. Humanity ignored.

Who hears the screams of migrant women?

Women who flee violence from Central American countries find that violence often follows them. Many women are sexually assaulted as they journey to sanctuary in the US. Some are kidnapped and sold to sex traffickers. Once at the border, their children are often ripped from their arms and sent to separate ICE facilities. 

Who hears the screams of women who experience abuse in their own homes?

The fact is that many homes look more like battlefields, and women and children are often the most impacted. Some studies show that up to 30% of women experience violence in the home. Three women a day in the US are murdered by intimate partners. Many instances of domestic violence go unreported, as women fear to report because of the threat of more violence, homelessness, or death. 

Who hears the screams of women as our reproductive rights are stripped away?

In recent weeks, there has been an unprecedented attack on women’s reproductive freedom. Several state bills were passed that highly restricted—if not totally denied—access to abortion. Georgia passed a bill outlawing abortion after 6 weeks of conception—before most women even know they are pregnant—and Alabama even removed exceptions due to rape or incest from an anti-abortion bill. There is a steady and focused attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade which provided women the right to safe and legal abortion at a time when abortion is at an all time low. Currently, statistics show that 1 in 4 women have had an abortion. As a pastor, I know women who have struggled with the decision to have an abortion. They did not make the decision lightly but after much discernment and prayer. Making abortion illegal won’t end abortion, for there will still be situations which women will find it impossible to carry a fetus to term. What will happen is that women will turn to unsafe methods and places to have their abortions, and that poor women’s health will be especially impacted.

It is raining hard in Nairobi, on reservation lands, on treks to freedom. It is raining in homes across this country. It is raining hard in Georgia, Alabama, Ohio…women are crying out in pain, in mournful laments, in screams of suffering.

Who will hear?

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Perhaps God is Doing a New Thing, Right Before Our Very Eyes

This is a time of tremendous anxiety in our denomination. The fallout from General Conference and the Judicial Council decision continues to roil through The United Methodist Church like seismic aftershocks, each one creating more damage and trauma. Many of our colleges, universities and seminaries are considering disaffiliating with the UMC, unable to live into the discrimination that has been even more deeply codified in our Book of Discipline. Young people are rejecting confirmation, being unwilling to take vows of commitment to the UMC. What has happened to us? What does the future hold for us?

Pastors worry about their future: how will they be able to live out their call to ministry if the church splits? How can they live with integrity if the church doesn’t? Lay and clergy LGBTQ persons feel waves of trauma as the church they love and committed themselves to has rejected them, again and again and again. Lay people decry the ways GC has further alienated their lgbtq loved ones as well as their children and grandchildren—they worry if their churches will have a future if succeeding generations want no part of it. It  seems as if the future of the UMC rests in rigid uniformity and punitive practice, far from the wide expressions of faithfulness that spring out of experiences of God’s generous grace.

Anxiety brings with it suspicion: we wind up projecting our anxiety on anyone doing anything to consider ways to navigate the future. We are torn by paralysis and an aching compulsion to do SOMETHING.

We aren’t the only ones who hold such feelings. Following the resurrection, fear, anxiety and suspicion were in no short supply amongst the disciples following the death of Jesus. They denied knowing him, hid behind closed doors, and refused to believe in the risen Christ even when he was staring them in the face. Time and time again, they were stunned when they encountered the reality of the resurrection.

I believe we are in a similar moment. Perhaps God is doing a new thing, right in our very midst. Do you perceive it?

Prior to General Conference, we in the Mountain Sky Conference (MSC) called together a task force to help our conference prepare for the aftermath of the GC. We thought that either the One Church Plan or the status quo would be the outcome of the February meeting. We were clear we wanted to have plans in place to help conservative pastors and churches know that even if they were a minority voice in the MSC and in the denomination, they would still be valued and have an important place in the expression of Methodism in our conference if they chose to stay. We were not prepared for the adoption of the Traditionalist Plan, which now puts the majority of our MSC churches at odds with the decision made by the GC delegates.

That one task force has turned into seven (Core, Triage, Safe Harbor, New Places for New People, Communications, Fundraising, and Legal) as we look at ways we can maintain the values of the MSC and continue to build strong and vital congregations as we move into the future together. We will be sharing more about these groups and their work, as well as ways you can get involved.

Additionally, we are working with leadership of the Western Jurisdiction. The Western Jurisdiction has long been committed to a church that reflects the diversity found in God’s beloved children and is continuing to explore how we continue to do so in this new era of Methodism. As well, last month Rev. Kent Ingram and I were invited to attend a meeting in Atlanta hosted by Rev. Adam Hamilton. Following that meeting, we were invited to submit nominations to have 10 people from each legacy conference attend an upcoming meeting of 600 United Methodists in Kansas City. Thirty lay and clergy names were submitted. Additional names were self-nominated or nominated by others. From that list, Rev. Hamilton sent out invitations for the meeting. Invitations continue to be sent as space opens up due to responses from folks unable to go. Other members of our conference are attending the UM-Forward meeting in Minneapolis. Still others continue to work with the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

I share these things not to increase anxiety, but to let you know that there are many conversations happening within our annual conference and beyond it. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know who holds our future.

In these days of anxiety, fear and suspicion, reach out to others. Reach out to your pastor, your conference lay leaders, your district superintendent, your conference staff, and me. Ask your questions. Share how the Spirit has been speaking to you as you ponder the future of our church. Seek to maintain relationships. Consider what faithful witness looks like these days, both within the church (and even more importantly) beyond it.

Stay alert and on the lookout. Even when death feels as if it has the upper hand, God is at work, in a tomb, in our hearts, in our world, and even in our church. Perhaps resurrection is already revealing itself. May God grant us the eyes to see it.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Reach For Resurrection!

During the past three days we gathered around a table to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, remembered his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion, and then sat in the stillness and silence of Holy Saturday. We imagine what the disciples must’ve felt: the deep grief of the loss of their teacher, the death of a movement that held so much promise, the hopelessness of it all as they thought about returning to their former lives.

We, too, sit in this liminal space. However, unlike the disciples, we know the rest of the story: how on Easter morning the women discovered an empty tomb and later, the resurrected Christ. Mourning is turned into dancing as Love’s redeeming work breaks the power of sin and death.

I have seen the miracle of resurrection happen again and again and again. Have you? Resurrection happens each time someone reaches for recovery. Resurrection happens when broken hearts discover the flame of love leaping up again. Resurrection happens when relationships that had frozen over and become lifeless grow once more. As sure as the seedlings that sprout forth in a burned-out forest, resurrection happens. As sure as the night turns to dawn, resurrection happens. As sure as those who dare to rebuild even when nature did its best to destroy what once was, resurrection happens.

Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we learn that God will never break solidarity with us: God’s love for us is constant. In this love is always and forever the promise of new life. 

“Woman, why are you weeping?” first the angel asks Mary, and then later Jesus asks the same thing. Didn’t she believe all Jesus had told her? 

Do we believe the Gospel’s Good News? Really?

Woman, why are you weeping?

Man, why are you weeping?

Friend, why are you weeping?

The Good News of Easter is meant for all of us. How would our living change if we believed that we, too, can experience resurrection power in our own lives? What would happen in your congregation if you believed that resurrection is being offered to you all? And what is happening even in our United Methodist Church right now: how is God’s Love breaking out of the tomb of despair to offer new life?

Tomorrow, enter into the Easter story fully, for it is something that not only happened one early morning in Jerusalem. We are called the Easter people for a reason. Reach for resurrection!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Palm Sunday Eve

Laity, here is a secret many of you may not know: tomorrow morning is probably the Sunday your pastor most agonizes over: Is it Palm Sunday? Is it Passion Sunday? Is it Palm/Passion Sunday? Do we march around the church, around the block, through the neighborhood waving our palm branches in a holy parade of joy and keep the emotion of the service up and happy or will we sink into deep despair as we journey with Jesus from the betrayal of a last supper to judgement, walking with Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem as he carries a cross like a common criminal? Will we make the crowd squirm as the details of his execution are described, until there is nothing but silence as he is taken off the cross and sealed in a garden tomb?

The struggle is real.

The movement between Palm Sunday and Easter is filled with shocking twists. The King’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem quickly sours. There is a desire in so many of us to skip those pages in the Gospel story and run to—and then from—an empty tomb. Keep the joy alive!

But Holy Week calls us to not turn away but study what happened to Jesus, how those in political power were so threatened by his teachings that they bribed one of his own followers to entrap him for arrest, to be subject to mockery, disdain, shame, and death. 

Between the packed church tomorrow and then again throughout Easter morning, there will be other services, with smaller crowds. Like the women who refused to leave Jesus as he hung dying on the cross, they will come to listen to the story, to take their parts in the Passion play. They will mourn as they sing with trembling voices, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

As a child, my mom had us save our palm branches until the next Palm Sunday. We would come home with those waxy palm fronds and sit at the kitchen table and turn them into crosses. They were nothing fancy, like some palm weavers I have encountered. We used kitchen scissors to make two slits through which a piece of the palm frond was threaded. The cross was placed above a little picture of Jesus that was hung above my bedroom light switch. 

I give thanks that at such an early age I was taught of the solemn connection between Palm Sunday and the cross of Good Friday. 

Enter into the joy of Palm Sunday. But don’t turn away from the events that followed. There are important lessons for us all to discover: that life can take unexpected turns; that betrayals happen; that the powers and principalities that be will forever be threatened by those who stand with those on the margins; that too often, death feels like it has the upper hand over love. 

But that’s not the end of it. God still has more in store for us. When all seems lost, when the story seems like it is over…

(to be continued…)

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Legacy We Leave Behind

After a week of meetings in Grand Junction, Robin and I travelled to southwest Colorado. Our route took us through Moab where we took in some of the amazing scenery. At one spot, we saw a bunch of petroglyphs etched on a single big rock: there was bighorn sheep, feet, centipedes, a birthing scene, horse and rider and birds. The variety of images were etched at different dates: anywhere from 1 AD to 1880!

What is it about we humans that cause us to want to leave our mark somewhere? Petroglyphs, graffiti, a stone fence, children, a building, a piece of art or book—the drive to leave something that will live long after we are gone is strong. 

Our life is but a small speck in the great expanse of time that humans have existed. 

James 4:14 reminds us of that fact: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”

What is the legacy you will leave once your brief time on earth is done? Will you be remembered by the material things you left behind, or by the lives you touched and changed? We all live in social circles: families, neighborhoods, work teams, church groups. What mark are you leaving? Do you love others in ways that help them live into their best selves? Do you work to break down the divisions between people? Are you working side by side with others so justice can be realized for those without it? Are you offering tenderness and compassion in places where harshness and apathy seem to have the upper hand?

Perhaps you will never leave behind an etching on a rock that someone will gaze upon hundreds of years later. But may the seed of love you plant in someone’s heart bear fruit for generations. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

From Death To Life

It has been two weeks since the vote at General Conference. I watched in the days after as churches and pastors in the Mountain Sky Conference received flowers and casseroles from mainline denominational neighbors. A friend from San Francisco sent Robin and me flowers. A neighbor came to the door (we had only met once) with a plate of cookies. She could not control her sobbing as she passed them to us.

This seemed so familiar, but how? Then it hit me:

This is what we do for each other when there is a death.

Grief hung heavy over The United Methodist connection following General Conference. I had the privilege of serving communion at St. Andrew United Methodist Church the Sunday after GC. The entire youth choir lined up to take communion with me. Some had tears in their eyes. Others were sobbing. Many fell into my arms, yearning for comfort.

What, exactly, died on February 26, 2019?

While the headlines read that the UMC has doubled-down on its anti-LGBTQ stance, the harm of the vote extended far beyond LGBTQ United Methodists to include their families, their friends, their mentors, and so many others. It has cracked the connection not only between conferences, but also our United Methodist-related institutions, who now wonder how they can remain a part of a denomination that has firmly institutionalized discrimination. But even more, it has caused The United Methodist Church to reject essentials that make United Methodists methodists:

OUR THEOLOGICAL TASK: The Book of Discipline reminds us that the theological task of United Methodism is critical and constructive, contextual and incarnational, and essentially practical. It includes “the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’” But by a slim majority, the ability for United Methodists to engage the theological task across our various cultural contexts was restricted and thereby our ability to spread scriptural holiness has been hampered.

THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION: Wesley drew from his Anglican tradition a method for theological reflection (Scripture, Tradition, Reason), but added a fourth, Experience. While we first turn to scripture for a foundation for theology, it is held in conversation with the other three. However, at General Conference, this methodology (which has enabled us to live with the wide spectrum of theological perspectives and honor each as faithful) has been rejected to a biblical literalism that is far from our Wesleyan roots.

GRACE: Perhaps what has distinguished us from other religious traditions has been the Wesleyan focus on grace: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. As I used to tell my United Methodist Doctrine students, we really are about grace, grace, and more grace. This grace has enabled us to experience the wideness of God’s love, which leads us deeper down the path of holiness. This grace has been reflected in how we conduct ourselves in community, in particular when we disagree or have experienced brokenness: how can grace help us build up not only our individual relationships, but mend the places broken by sin? However, GC 2019 replaced grace with rigid rules and punitive punishments. Instead of seeking restorative justice grounded in an understanding of God’s grace, GC 2019 has banished the centrality of grace from the way we order our common life together.

This is why the decision at General Conference is creating such backlash and dissent—it is no longer a Progressive-Traditionalist disagreement about the role of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the church. It is a struggle for the very ethos of Methodism itself that crosses the theological spectrum found in our church.

This is the season of Lent. How appropriate that we take this journey with Jesus at this time. In Lent, we confront the reality of mortality and death. Yet, we also know that death is never our end. God will roll away the stone. New life will be offered. Resurrection is within reach.

I am not sure what will spring forth from this death, but I know that God is not through with us yet. May we be open to what God has in store for us, for “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Entering Lent

Due to last week’s weather, Sunday will be the first time some of our Mountain Sky Conference churches have gathered since General Conference. Enter the sanctuary with hearts full of tenderness for one another. There has been a wounding of the Body that has impacted all of us. Come together with all your emotions and bring it to God in prayer. 

Psalm 91 reminds us: “If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says God,

    “I’ll get you out of any trouble.

I’ll give you the best of care

    if you’ll only get to know and trust me.

Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times;

    I’ll rescue you, then throw you a party.

I’ll give you a long life,

    give you a long drink of salvation!” (Psalm 91: 14-16-The Message)

I give thanks that we have entered the season of Lent. It is a rich spiritual journey from brokenness and death to healing and new life.  May we fast, study, pray, serve, and listen for God’s still small voice. Even though we might feel bound in a tomb of death, may we trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will offer us and our church the same. 

Since General Conference I have found myself drawn to the hymns of Charles Wesley. I offer this as a prayer for these days we are living:

Jesus, Lord, we look to thee;

let us in thy name agree;

show thyself the Prince of Peace,

bid our strife forever cease.

By thy reconciling love

every stumbling block remove;

each to each unite, endear;

come, and spread thy banner here.

Make us of one heart and mind,

gentle, courteous, and kind,

lowly, meek, in thought and word,

altogether like our Lord.

Let us for each other care,

each the other's burdens bear;

to thy church the pattern give,

show how true believers live.

Free from anger and from pride,

let us thus in God abide;

all the depths of love express,

all the heights of holiness. (Charles Wesley)

With love,

Bishop Karen