On the UMC and the Real Way Forward

Well, let’s give up on the illusion that I’ve been able to maintain any significant degree of professional (or personal) distance from the whole UMC situation.

The things I have said that have been meaningful to people have not come from that place anyway, so I’m just going to talk about pain and promise as I understand it. I have written elsewhere of the depth of my lifelong personal connection to the UMC, so I won’t rehash it here. 

Like so many issues, this battle is situated in a particular setting, but reflects a much larger cultural struggle between those who seek to widen the circle of care and belonging and those who seek to preserve their own power for their own benefit.

So . . . as it turned out, yesterday as the global body of the UMC gathered for its final day of General Conference, I had agreed to be a part of a 5-hour community conversation hosted – of all places – at East Lake UMC, a congregation to which I belonged at the time God called me to seminary.

The folks at East Lake and their brilliant pastor have never been anything less than 110% supportive of me and my calling – and the group gathered yesterday were community-engaged folks from all over the city, BUT STILL. . .

I drove over there mumbling about how it was the absolute LAST F—ING PLACE I wanted to be on that day.  And that was the God’s honest truth.

I walked in doing my feeble best at a game face and after registration turned and ran into my friend and brother, Ali. He innocently said “Hey! How are you?”

I promptly started crying and mumbling uttering incoherent things. Ali, baffled but enduringly kind, just hugged me, a perfect gift of peace in a wrenching moment.

It was a shaky few hours, but I was lifted up – as I always am – by the kinship of good people, some of whom knew it was a hard morning and others who didn’t have a clue.

meandli.jpg Me, hanging in there, and Ali

I took a couple of breathing moments in East Lake’s sanctuary, which I consider the most beautiful traditional sacred space in the city (go ahead, fight me).

The smaller stained glass windows that feature the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents are my favorites. They sit in what used to be my line of sight when I sang in the choir there and I would often go at other times and just perch in front of them.

stainedglass

The lessons of those parables remain as important as they always have been – perhaps all the more so. And the shattered shards of East Lake’s beautiful current altar setting felt especially fitting.

meandaltar

After East Lake, I moved on elsewhere to  a difficult but restorative conversation with someone with whom I’d had a conflict – and then on to drinks with good, hurting UMC people, followed by conversation with good, kick-ass queer clergy friends.

It was the people who made the difference. Therein lies both the pain and the promise.

For many of us, church is family.

Yes, you can worship God anywhere because God is everywhere.

Yet worship in isolation nearly always tends toward our cultural narrative of self-preoccupation, this noxious attachment to ego gratification and capitalist manipulation of desire.  

Following Jesus – as with other religious traditions – is (blessedly) a communal endeavor.

No wonder the rejection hurts so much for so many people, including me.

It cuts to the deepest parts of the safety we find (or ought to be able to find) in family and community.

It is a devastating refusal of the God-given gifts we offer into family and community.

We are formed in faith and then violently ejected from its circle of care.

It is a sinful, human-driven, patriarchal-power-rooted, grievous misinterpretation of holy Scripture.

(okay, now please DO NOT oversimplify any of what follows. Hear it through before you decide what you think I’m trying to say)

I was given this UCC emblem when I was installed as pastor at Beloved Community Church. I’m not a big accessories person, so it mostly stays in a drawer. I took it out yesterday and slipped it in my shirt pocket before I went to East Lake.

uccpendant

Its weight there served as a tangible reminder of where I have landed – and how I have found a place to use my gifts and honor my calling.

I was trying to say something last night in a text reply about my adopted church and accidentally wrote that the UCC had adopted me.

And once I wrote it I knew that phrase got to the heart of the matter.

The UCC adopted me and loved me. (ain’t nothing perfect, but hopefully you can grasp the grace extended there – that’s the point).  I have learned that one does not have to be a United Methodist to be a Wesleyan. 

To those outside of such a relationship of love and care –

LGBTQIAP CLERGY AND LAY PEOPLE OF THE UMC –  I completely get why you would choose to stay – especially if you feel a particular calling to do so.

I also fully understand why you would leave (that’s what I did  – and it was utterly necessary and second only to coming out as a liberating action in my life). If you need help figuring out where to go, I’d be glad to help. I’m partial to Beloved of course, but not at the expense of wanting people to find places that truly resonate with their spirit – that is my primary commitment.

If you stay, please send out those who leave with your blessing as they seek to follow God’s call on their lives.

If you stay, please understand that you are in an abusive relationship. No matter how good your congregation is (and there are some fantastic UMC congregations locally and globally), as long as it remains in the UMC connection, it is not autonomous.

The relationship of the UMC to LGBTQIAP people is abusive.

So stay if you need to, but protect yourself.

Protect yourself.

Please.

Because you are loved fully by God and God wants your wholeness and your well-being so that you may walk in your calling, so that you may be God’s hands and feet in the world.

If you ever need safe space to talk, pray, grieve, or just be, let me know.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC CLERGY – I begrudge no one the necessity of making a living.

I am heartened by the solidarity and care I have seen expressed over the last couple of days not just by the usual bold souls, but by people whose positions make it harder to make those affirmations publicly. I dearly hope that you have glimpsed God as you have pushed the boundaries of your own courage.

Please remember that there is no neutral here. If you do not side with the marginalized, then you are siding with the oppressor. And when you compromise for the sake of unity, you are compromising the lives of LGBTQ+ people within your congregations (and there are more than you know) and far beyond those walls.

Please remember that in the days ahead and let that knowledge be reflected in your actions.

And if anybody is looking for an exit strategy for themselves or their churches, I’d be glad to connect you with good people not only in my denomination, but in other affirming denominations and with good non-denominational folks who can talk about their experiences.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC LAY PEOPLE – Many of you are dedicated allies in the struggle for justice – and many of you are hurt and angered by what has happened.

You too have the choice of staying or leaving. If you are leaving and you need a place to land, I’ll be happy to talk to you about progressive churches in the area, including but not limited to my own.

If you stay, please take care of your hurting queer church folk – and please understand that your hurt and anger are a fraction of what they are feeling. Be there for them, but don’t make it about you.

The heavy lifting of change in the days ahead remains with you. If you don’t change the UMC, it will not change.

That must be an active process. You all will have to organize and act to match and surpass the organizing and action strategies of the WCA-types.

Otherwise it will get worse and not better. It may get worse anyway. We do not control the outcome, but we do control our own efforts.

It’s up to you.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN THE UMC – please just go sit down. If you (or not you personally, but your church) are satisfied by the triumph of homophobia and transphobia in the UMC, I don’t care to hear about it. I think you’re wrong and causing great harm to vulnerable people (which is a sin), but you probably already know that and there’s no point in our discussing it.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN THE UMC – yes, we are more progressive. Some of us are handling our solidarity and shared pain on behalf of our UMC friends and neighbors with grace and skill. Others of us are being rather heavy-handed in our too-blatant efforts at recruitment or expressions of superiority. The first is good. The second, not so much. If you’re struggling with the difference in your efforts to reach out, give me a holler and maybe together we can figure out a way to word it that sounds loving not sheep-stealing or smug.

I have been writing throughout this experience from my own pain of exclusion from the church of my deep roots, so I have an odd insider/outsider dynamic that informs what I say – and that gives me some legitimacy to speak into the conversation (I argue – not all agree). When in doubt, try love and leave it at that.

Concluding lessons as I see them –

The pain is real.

The situation is heartbreaking.

The call to solidarity can take many forms. We are one body in Christ – and there are many ways we can be one body and in solidarity with one another. Those relationships can be – and I’d argue should be – more creative than those we’ve devised in the past.

Justice for the oppressed matters more than unity.

Oppressors are very skillful with the gathering, hoarding, exercise, and manipulation of power. Those who would dismantle oppression need to be equally sophisticated – though more ethical – in their relationship with power.

People make all the difference.

None of us is free until all of us are free.

The work to enact God’s transformative justice and God’s abiding mercy in the world goes on.

Amen

 

Ash Wednesday

With Lent approaching, memories of a different year –

I sat with a
suddenly dead man
for three hours
beside his partner of
28 years who
doubled over
like the doctor
had just
punched him
instead of
offering apologies and
soft words.

‘I had someone to die’
I had to
tell the
homeless man
I couldn’t
drive to get
his phone
though I said
I would.

Texted the lost child
gone home
to her
hateful parents
because
she still
craves their love
so bad she’s been
snorting heroin
as a substitute.
Don’t worry,
she said, I didn’t
inject it.

One man had a stroke
and didn’t tell me
but he’s home I hear.
Another I went to visit
but couldn’t see
past the swarm of nurses
torturing him
to re-place the
feeding tube
his wandering
hands found.

Ashes and dust
water and spirit.

Another school shooting.

No poetry there.

Only blood that
drowns us in our sins.

Create in me a clean heart,
O God

So I can do it all again
tomorrow.

Amen

On Identity and Wholeness and the Gifts We Bring to the World

I haven’t been posting much on here lately, but I’m aiming to do a better job of at least including here some of the longer format things I write for other spaces (from sermons to Facebook posts).  On that note  . . .

During last week’s concert at Beloved, Gaelynn Lea took some time to talk about disability, artistry, and identity.

She spoke of not wanting the label of ‘disabled musician’ in that the qualifier somehow sets her apart (generally meant in a diminished way) from being a ‘musician.’ And yet at the same time, she explained how her disability is also a defining gift of her humanity and of how she engages with her music and with the world.

Her points echo with a post I shared yesterday about women pastors (worth a read if you missed it – great piece). Women pastors are simply pastors. Yet for nearly all whom I know, their gender is a part of what makes them so very good at walking in their calling.

I definitely see it my own experience. As an out lesbian, to the extent that I am skilled at being a human being and a pastor, it is because of who I am – and my embrace of who I am – not in spite of it. Ideally, there is a dual, entwined respect for me for my own particular (queer) expression of humanity and yet also for the universality of me as (among other things) simply a pastor.

It’s simultaneously an appeal to universality and to particularity. Neither alone captures the whole of the experience – and it’s a reductionist (even violent) move to try to make it do so.

The problem is with the norm – we talk about a man and a black man – or a pastor and a woman pastor – or an musician and a disabled musician – or a writer and a trans writer – or . . .

With such a move, we posit a norm around gender, race, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on. Reinforcing norms of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, biological essentialism, ableism, and so on is the daily practice of the dominant discourse, in which we all often participate.

At the same time, tropes of color-blindness, erasure of LGBTQ+ identity, glossing over disability status, and other refusals to acknowledge difference reinscribe that same norm. So – ‘ah you black people are really just like us white people’. Or ‘you queer people are really just like us cis-het people’.

Umm . . . no. It’s not true and it’s not a kindness to assert it – because it disregards the gifts born of diverse experience (and of course it does – because the dominant discourse does not see those gifts as gifts, but as threats).

Undoing this is hard. The tendency to frame a universal goes back as far in Western thought at least to Plato. And we are constantly soaked in our culture’s intentional racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, and so on – because that’s how the culture makes money and preserves power. Assimilationism is the same move in a different guise.

Let us do better.

Let us recognize the universal humanity of each person, while at the same time understanding the markers of identity that form their own particular being.

Let us interrogate the norms rather than accepting them as a given (let alone a natural or God-inspired given – because they are neither).

It will make us better people and grant us a better world. And it is work that we can do daily, both in decolonizing our own thinking and in creating a more genuinely inclusive practice in the world.

Amen

An Invocation for a Liquor Store

A friend had put extraordinary heart and energy into creating a lovingly curated liquor store in her home neighborhood in Birmingham – years after she had been forced out of a similar community endeavor by rising rents in Brooklyn.

Community ministry involves showing up, so when she invited me to bless the store at its public opening, I offered the following:*

Creator and Creation,

We come to this place in a spirit of blessing.

Bless it from roof to floor,
from wall to wall,
from its foundation to the sky.

May all harm be banished,
all disturbance cease.
May the spirit of joy and kindness and protection
and abundance and well-being
dwell within these walls.

May love be shared here.
May peace be shared here.
May all who work here be grounded in goodness.
May all who come here find friend, haven, and resilience.

We pray for wisdom and clarity for
all who are in business – and especially for LeNell –
that their talents may be used for prosperity
not only for themselves,
but for the world.

May blessings abound in this place.

In the name of all that is sacred,

Amen

*this blessing takes an initial cue from a house blessing in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and riffs from there.

The Time It Takes to Decide

I left a homeless man across town

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him and I gave him bus fare in case he needed to get back

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him and I gave him bus fare in case he needed to get back and a small red umbrella because it
started
to
rain.

This Moment/Life in Justice Work

the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

that’s the ideology of this country – and that is nothing new

dehumanization in service of exploitation is nothing new. Western (ahem) civilization – and the U.S. in particular – was built on blood and bones woven with self-centered ambition and the quest for material wealth

this heinous ideology manifests every single day in many ugly, destructive ways — and it’s really smart, in part because it’s had so much practice and so much success

if we want to accomplish anything more than feeding on the scalding fuel of outrage (making ourselves feel simultaneously awful and righteous), then we have to do better

concentrated power plans decades, even generations ahead, while we do well to figure out the next step

concentrated power is ruthlessly proactive, while we are consistently reactive

its moves fit consistently with its innovative strategies, while we rise up in furor, get (understandably) exhausted, and settle back into letting guilt and anxiety dance in our dreams

It’s made harder by a commitment to ethics and grassroots power, in that our ends do not justify just any means – but to compromise this means that we become like them. That’s ethically problematic – and beyond that, it just doesn’t work in terms of actual social change.

This is not a critique of anyone. It’s a critique of the contemporary movement for justice and freedom for all people and the planet, by someone who has been in that movement for 35 years.

we have to do better.

Let it begin with a clear understanding that what we face daily is the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

Let it be understood that we must constantly examine the dynamics of power in every relationship (personal and political, our own and at every level).

Let it continue in a daily dismantling of the ideology of patriarchal, white supremacist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, earth-destroying, xenophobic practice at every level. We must see and make the connections.

Let us ask – always – “who benefits from this?” (at any level – and whether the actions are theirs or ours) – and continually refine our analysis and our actions

Let us understand that the struggle for justice and liberation is a life-long way of living – and that we must sustain ourselves in joy and community and resilience and courage even as our hearts are continually broken open.

Amen

The Truth

Midweek I sat
fingering purple plastic
prayer beads strung
by the faithful
for those passing
through a hospital
chapel, who slip
them in a
coat pocket so
as to find
them by touch –

sitting in a
county courtroom populated
by shackled black
men in faded
prison stripes –
irony feasting on
the wall portrait
framing an old
white man in
his impeccable regimental
striped tie and
gleaming cufflinks –

A repeat felon,
facing new charges,
urged to plea
lest he face
mandatory life without
parole –

“No, your honor,
I ain’t going
to plead to
nothing
I
didn’t
do.”

But the moment
that makes us
all bow our
heads –

the young blonde
prosecutor clears her
throat,
hesitates,
before explaining that
no, they can’t
reschedule for Monday
for a man
trying to keep
his job because
it’s the
Jefferson Davis
holiday.

One-Time Shot Logic

death
smells like poisonous gas
feels like fire from
bombs dropped
between busy hours
of laundry,
bathing children,
signatures on significant
documents,
dollars trading
hands for bread,
medicine,
safety,
a promise.

death
tastes like Flint’s water
scalding the skin
mirage of clean
burned to bone
thirst quenched by
dangerous illusions
sounds like self-checkout registers
turning jobs
into vapor

death
looks like hell,
run by callous men
But really –
You know death
when you see it.

What You Can Do

I’m hearing a lot of overwhelmed from people right now – and understandably so. Here’s what I’ve got to offer – take it to the extent it is useful:

Keep speaking truth to power with love.

Keep doing works of mercy.

Keep learning so that you gain ever more clarity and ever more skill in those tasks.

Rest as you need. You are allowed to rest. All living things require it.

Pay attention – and discern when it’s useful to speak and when it isn’t. Both issues and people reveal themselves – and are changed in and by – the stresses of the world.

Remember that this work (all of this work, wherever you are) is a long haul. There are acute moments, but it is most certainly a (life-) long commitment to a better world. It was here before you. It will (sadly) be here after you. Each of us is but a small part of that work.

You are called to do what you can. You are not called to do more or less than that. Work on discerning what is within your control and what is beyond it.

Be kind when you can – for the sake of your own heart as well as those around you.

There are contextual variations on these principles. And I’ve got more thoughts for my fellow Jesus followers (and that’s what I preach on each week). But I’ve found that these notions hold true in most contexts and for most people.

Peace and blessings for the day, friends.

The Clash of Interdependence with the Ideology of Power

I am staring at the news of the world today and especially at the tragic, infuriating deaths of Nabra Hassanen in Sterling, VA and Charleena Lyles in Seattle and at the effects of the devastating creep of climate change.

In this world where our hearts are continually broken by such wrenching tragedy, I am pondering today some key questions within the following context –

(and these are not actually new questions – I have been asking them and seeking answers to them for 30 years now, but this musing represents the refinement of my framing of them in today’s moment)

I affirm that the well-being of all living things – including me and those dearest to me and the body of the earth – is interconnected.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr explained that “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”

Buddhists (wisely) frame it in terms of the concept of interdependence (pratitya-samutpada).

I get to it in Christianity by (a) seeing the face of Jesus in all around me, particularly in those whom our culture marginalizes, (b) acknowledging that we are all created in God’s image, and (c) affirming that the Holy Spirit dwells within us all. These are central principles in my theology.

I understand interdependence as a simple fact of existence. We are interdependent as living beings and on that basis we ought to care for another.

That is both an ethical stance and a pragmatic one.

We are confronted with a culture – and plenty of people within it – who view living as a game of accumulation of power and material comfort in which the goal is to protect their own well-being (which they believe deserves to be protected even at the expense of the well-being of others).

I admit that I and other well-meaning folk of relative privilege (whatever that relative cultural power is in any immediate moment) are not immune to the lure of this thinking. We are soaked in it and sold it daily, so it takes constant work to scrub it off.

This view renders the majority of the population as disposable beyond their economic value as consumers and as threats to the extent that they are construed to infringe upon the perceived right to accumulate power and material comfort.

These two perspectives cannot exist side-by-side merely as different views of the world.

The second perspective attempts to obliterate and obscure the first – by violence and by constant seduction.

The first perspective floods the second with a demand for justice for all, mercy toward all, equity, care, and compassion. Those who seek to protect the second rightly assess that accepting the fact of our interdependence erodes their fictive claim to deserved superiority.

This is a life and death struggle. Make no mistake about that. It is also a struggle for our souls and the soul of our culture.

Those who would accumulate power in service to their own privilege are prevailing. They have been and continue to effectively shape the world according to their image of it and to their benefit. They adapt quickly and strategically to new challenges.

They are not only not afraid of their own power, they glory in it.

My question is this – how do we who believe in the reality of our interdependence effectively change the game without becoming like those who serve their own power and privilege?

As it stands now, pitting their strategies and worldview against ours, we are losing this life and death struggle.

And yet if we adopt their methods and methodologies (even with different ends in mind) and their tight grasp of power, then we become like them. Or do we?

Surely these are not the only two options – (1) continuing to lose in the struggle for the fully recognized dignity and intrinsic worth of all human lives and all of Creation or (2) becoming like those who so willfully destroy the earth and its people ( or at least callously stand by and allow it to happen).

How do we get beyond this trap of choices?