Social Justice

Rural Communities Are Not Mayberry Tales

In a statement from Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church I read this paragraph:

“In Iowa, we’ve been pretty evenly split around human sexuality, but the landscape is changing. Do you know what I’ve learned? Our rural farming communities tend to be more theologically conservative than our bigger cities. However, in smaller churches, there is usually someone who is either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Or they know someone who is. And our LGBTQ friends are accepted for who they are because, after all, they’re part of the church family. They belong. In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then we will have recovered our heart—that we are all connected with one another in love.”

<sigh>

Dear Bishop Haller,

It makes me feel sad to read in your blog the stereotype that people who live in rural communities are more backward than their enlightened neighbors in bigger cities. Embedded in these dismissive sentences is

a) Surprise to find open-minded, well-read, caring, compassionate people with sophisticated Scriptural critique and life-giving practices of faith in rural farming communities. It seems from what you write that you believe members of those communities are blank-slate Christians whose perspectives and theologies are merely imprints of black-and-white fundamentalism and aphoristic repetitions of “what the Pastor says.”

And

b) Revelation of the unconscious assumption that identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer is some sort of culture-driven fad that has simply failed to reach the hinterlands. Obviously, rural communities and small churches have people who identify as LGBTQIA+-because our “LGBTQ friends” are people. That means people across an entire spectrum of gender and relational identity are born, raised, live and die everywhere there are people. Your sentence shows that you, like those more conservative siblings you keep referencing, believe that LGBTQIA+ identities are learned “from the culture.”

People who live in rural farming communities are not more un- or undereducated, isolationist, inflexible, close-minded or literalistic than their big city neighbors. Your flippant dismissal of the Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience resources that any United Methodist can bring to their theological task stings. Me and my leftist, eco-feminist, sex-positive, Social Gospel perspectives on God, the Bible, and human relationships were fostered and nurtured in one of those small, rural churches you assure me will catch up to our fine city cathedrals by 2032.  To suggest that rural, farming communities do not have the capacity for higher criticism, social progressivism, inclusion, diversity, and grace is demeaning and trivializing.

Perpetuating the myth that violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Black, Female, Muslim, Iranian, Disabled, Different, or Other is somehow more socially located in rural communities puts a mask on the violence that forms us all-city and country dweller alike. Violence stalks our pews, pounds on our pulpits, dominates our workplaces, and makes life in most American schools unbearable. Violence is the unquestioned rule for order in national policy, business organization, and family structure. What’s more, violence is the way almost all of us have been taught to discipline our inner selves. Tying a ribbon named HOMOPHOBIA onto the neck of a goat and setting it loose to roam in the countryside doesn’t make it a country problem. The capacity to brutalize other people has a seat in every human heart, and is enacted in every social setting.

It is January 2020, and the United Methodist Church is a mess. The Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is a mess. Highly-placed people are scrambling to salvage some semblance of an institution out of the changes in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that were voted into being last February. They write essays, like the one I am critiquing here, insisting on the future by trying to proclaim a hope they cannot possibly feel. Yet I contend that all the plans and protocols in the world won’t make much difference to what is failing in Iowa.

What is failing in Iowa is the Church itself.

It has failed and continues to fail its people and its communities by refusing to do its heart work. It refuses to question its assumptions about the sacredness, value, worth, and salvage-ability of naked human beings; people as they come without labels, stereotypes, or socially constructed viability for citizenship. In an effort to avoid responsibility for the hates and harms it has perpetuated, the Church insists on promoting social norms over Gospel inquiry and social order over moral integrity. And over and over and over again, it opts for platitudes and Mayberry tales over any kind of truth that might possibly set us all free.

Social Justice

I See

So many United Methodist ministers walking around today with edges that cut like broken plates. The strong and weighty wrongs they have been done by their creation, in which they placed their livelihoods and their trusts, have broken them.

I have small gifts for healing. My stronger gift is seeing. I see fractures in your faces, the nerve endings raw and pulsing as space opens between you and other members of your fellowship. I see you hunch over while pretending not to care. I see the porcelain make-up masks you put on, the deep, encouraging breaths you take before you say you are resigned to the split in your denomination, blithely. I hear bravado in your posts as you try out ways to speak your truth. I see the love you still feel even as you let go and turn away.

The world is breaking open around us. The limits of our ideas, and the smallness of the imaginations that conceived them have proven insufficient for the challenges of this day. The things to which we gave our allegiance and ceded our authority have forgotten that we made them for human use, not to use humans, and they fight with all the ferocity and violence of living things so as not to die.

They are scoring claw marks and gnawing fatal wounds into their own fleshless flesh. Rick Deckard sets a caution-something in our empathy connects us even to systems and simulacrums that have no capacity to compassion us back. We writhe and weep as they pull the legs from us, one by one, thinking it is these ideas into which we have poured our souls that are God.

I have small gifts for healing, but I see your hurt. I see your bleeding. I see your three-legged wobble, and the damage you do to yourselves week by week in trying to preach a Gospel in your Church while the Nazis spray violent, pornographic graffiti all up and down its walls and the roof creaks, dismayingly on fire.

The other thing I see is a web of connections. These connections run backwards and forwards through time. They pass through walls without a flicker, and cross playfully between the barriers separating the living from the dead. They are made up of words and actions, and they pulse and stab with comforts, betrayals, and the sounds illusions make as they die. I wish you could see it, too.

There is a thing out there people call The Connection, and they are scrambling with everything they have to hold it together. But that thing is a clunky replica of this other thing. Worse, the replica is brittle with rust and moth-eaten decay, and while the earnest faithful work so hard to keep it from crumbling to dust in their hands, their knifeblade edges threaten the delicate strands of relationship that build that other web, that other Connection, the one that runs between every you and every me.

I think Macbeth saw a glimpse of that actual Connection behind him when the armies of MacDuff marched to bring him down. He saw it drenched in blood and pain, and realized what it would cost him to repair it. He glimpsed his culpability and his courage finally failed him. He could not find the fortitude to face the possibility of forgiveness. He chose instead to let his false vision guide him, to put his trust in the system, the simulacrum of power and position his people had designed. By then, he knew it would have no mercy, but it was so much easier just to let it have its way.

I wonder what the story might have been, might still be, if he had chosen to let go of Fate even if with only one hand, so he could attempt repair of one single strand of that web. What breach caused by breach of trust might have been crossed? What betrayal might have been transformed? What relationship might still have held him at the end?

I see you. I see how much you hurt. I have no great gift for healing. I would offer it if I could.IMG_2765

Faith

Who Are You, Really?

One of the neat things about my life is that I am relatively free to attend worship whenever and wherever I want. I am constantly curious about how other groups of people worship.  I am always on the lookout for something new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, inclusive, expansive, and transformative.  Specifically, I want to know how Christianity lives in different places, so that I can bring those experiences back to my own worship home.

So, here’s the thing.  In order to decide what church to attend, I do what many people do.  I searched the internet for churches in my town.  I scanned their sites for worship times and locations.  I also looked at faith statements, staff configurations, activities and events in an effort to get a feel for their identities.  This is what I learned:

There wasn’t anything new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, expansive or transformative going on.  Instead, I saw a rather universal and monolithic Christian presence expressed through many websites.

Though each church promised,“We are Different,”  they didn’t express difference.*  Each church wanted me to know I was welcome.  They all wanted me to know I can wear whatever I want to church.  They also wanted to make sure I knew what kind of music to expect-because God-forbid  I enter a worship service expecting guitars and find myself surrounded by hymn-singers led by a belching organ at the front of the church.

Some churches had columns.  Some churches had carpet.  All of them were going to share something “relevant” from the Bible, and each church had a charter mission to love everyone and to have special consideration for the poor with an emphasis on service.  In some ways, it is comforting to know that Christianity has a skeleton; that its bones are shared by all denominations: welcoming, loving, serving, Bible-educated, family-friendly and engaged in the material betterment of “the poor.”  Let me say, however, that the United Way, minus the Bible-educating part, has a pretty similar skeleton.

After surfing those sites, I chose not to go anywhere else for worship that morning; not because of anything offensive, difficult, or challenging that they had shown me, but instead by a conviction that I wasn’t likely to experience anything different at all; by a conviction that my faith in Jesus Christ, my belief in the Gospel and my experience of the Holy would not be uniquely enriched by worshipping in any of these communities.

I don’t go to worship to predict the message.  I tend to expect a challenge to my understanding.  Honestly, I have worn shorts and jeans into very proper churches, and no one has ever given me the evil eye strong enough to make me decide to go home and change because of shame.  I don’t care about those things.  I want to know whether I am likely to experience a filling of my soul.  I want to know whether God is likely to show up.  I want to know whether this is a congregation of people so committed to Christ, they cannot hold themselves in.  I want to know whether this is the kind of place where not everyone will feel comfortable or welcome.

Are you Dutch Protestants still worshipping in gender-segregated pews?  Are you Quakers, sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak?  Are you United Methodists, known for picketing outside the local casino in moral opposition to gambling?

And let me get to the point-if our Christian identities across the spectrum are so similar as to be indistinguishable, we are participating in the worst kind of segregation there is: the blind separation of human being from human being by cultural markers of race, social status, gender, education, age, material wealth, and location. If the message from our Lutheran pulpits,  the worship from our Vineyard stages, the mission of our Ladies’ Aid Societies, and the prayers from the lips of our congregants are not central statements of our identity, our difference within the wider Christian community, we are only in different buildings, with different hymn books, divided along lines of personal preference and our level of tolerance for differences of opinion in doctrine, politics and lifestyle.

God is bigger than that.  Religion is more important than that.  Salvation is more evident than that.

*It would be dishonest not to mention Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, whose website expressed a Christian identity that is clearly different from the rest.

Social Justice

Am I Fit?

I have an amazing ability to push down my feelings, but as I get older, I am finding that keeping them down is much harder than it used to be. They keep popping up for air and intruding on whatever else it is I am doing. This morning, I wanted to simply enjoy the silky feel of after-storm air and the lightness of really having nothing to do with my day but read a good book. Worry, fear, anger, and dismay kept surfacing and for no obvious  reason, I found my mind full of clouds, my stomach a roiling, boiling mess of toil and trouble, and my breath caught high up in a chest clamped down prepared to hold its breath until I was past the worst of it.

I don’t know about you, but I keep coming across all these little aphorisms that say things like, “do not worry,” or “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” On days like today, those kinds of helpful phrases infuriate me. I am trying to take joy in the day, but worry won’t leave me alone, and I apparently haven’t been doing my willpower sit-ups so the iron-hard mental muscles needed to keep it at bay have gotten all soft and flabby. I end up feeling like a loser and failure as well as suffering from whatever it is that ails me.

Except, I know better. I know that these feelings (worry, fear, anger, dismay) I am trying to push down are actually gifts, guides, and helpers. They are not unwanted intruders. They are the black sheep of the family, and they are telling me that something important is going on inside that needs my attention. What’s more, they and I all know there is no good purpose served by flexing those will-power muscles to lock the door. Everybody in the family knows right where we hide the extra key.

So, instead of ignoring the feelings, I sat down and I journaled, and what started to come out was a lot of self-talk about how I need to “work harder,” “buckle down,” “suck it up,” and “accept facts.” Even though everything is very stable in my life right now, my household is preparing for significant change, and there are a lot of unknowns. Our baseline security is being upended, and that generates serious apprehensions.

One of the greatest of these is that I have real doubts about my ability to provide for us financially. My current job is barely adequate for meeting our standard of living. What’s more, it is not satisfying to me on so many levels. However, this job provides both health insurance and the assurance that mortgage payments will be met. And also, there is this piece of me that believes I am barely adequate. When I start to look for other work, that piece tells me things like, “So that’s why this particular job landed in your lap. This is the best you can do, which is why you need to stop whining, and make the best of it.”

This part of me believes life is a subsistence, survival-mode kind of thing. It believes that only the strong survive and that only the fittest deserve to be. I believe it developed to cope with some situation in my past. I think it got me through difficult challenges, but it is the part of me that killed my life in my mid-20’s, and it is built out of lies.

I am not the fittest in any kind of way, and were life the Jurassic Park fairytale I imagine, I would not be one of the people who makes it through. I’m the one in the diabetic coma you all are trying to carry while you run. I am the one who gets tragically left behind when hard decisions have to be made. If I am heroic, I take that choice on myself by disappearing into the jungle one night while the rest of you are sleeping so no one has to feel guilty about not staying with me until the end.

And while it is my nature to make light of this, I have spent an awful lot of creative energy trying to be worthy of life: to deserve to be; to have a right to exist; to pay the appropriate dues, and to provide the appropriate amount of work; to add equal value for all the resources I consume. To have a net-zero impact on this world.

Those lessons we learn first, they are so hard to leave behind. Yet, this lesson is one I leave behind and leave behind, and leave behind. It is a life-choking weed of a lesson-a soul-sucking parasite of a lesson. Whatever value it may have added has long since passed away.

Our lives are not won by strength, merit, accomplishment, or valor. They are not competitions, games, tournaments, sports, attainments, or inheritances, and despite every delusional power that tries to tell us otherwise, no single life being lived has earned its place.

Our lives- my life, your life-are inexplicable packages given to us to be opened for our own discovery, delight and pleasure. They are infinitely precious because nothing like them has ever been before and they will never happen again.

It is this lesson I want to lean on, because it is this lesson that led someone to search for a cure for diabetes and gave people like me additional years of life. It is this lesson, searching for the why behind leukemia, that discovered that the difference between life and death is something we carry in our bones. It is this lesson that means I live in a world that learned from Stephen Hawking, and it is this lesson that laughs at survival of the fittest as the best possible outcome for the human condition.

Human beings (and dogs and houseplants) are capable of surviving really tough conditions, horrible situations, and terrible cruelty. Sometimes, life asks us to step up, buckle down, and suck it up. Sometimes, all any of us can do is endure. Yet, human beings (and dogs and houseplants) truly thrive when we expect better than mere survival from ourselves and others: when we create environments of care for those whose health is failing; when we slow down and wait for everyone else to catch up; when we offer a shoulder to the weary, and carry each others’ burdens for a while.

When we–when I–remember the vulnerable, fragile, impossibility that is my life, it gives me courage to simply be. And to know. And in being, in knowing, I find I don’t need some iron-willed discipline to banish worry, fear and dismay. All I need do is breathe and remember. It may be it is the fittest, the worthiest, who survive, but it is us meek ones who truly inherit the earth.

Social Justice

A Confession

The United Methodist Church, which I have considered my church, succumbed to a ruthless and effective political strategy and to the meanness of human imagination. It fell because hearts failed, courage failed, and because too many of us cannot tell the difference between hate and love. It fell because we have relied too much on wealth, power and the prestige of our white American identity to sit at the heart of the church.

Living in faith community is always about living in the problem of hypocrisy and hope.

However, the United Methodist Church told me this week that I am no longer welcome at its tables, in its worship spaces, nor in its puffy cloud heaven. It said this hurtfully, harmfully and with the clear intent to destroy the souls of some within our gathered community.

Churches are very good at singling out people to group into unworthy villains that must be excluded even unto their death. In their history, the Methodists have been no different, as it was a Methodist minister who uttered the phrase “nits make lice” and blotted out the lives of ~148 people.

Since 1972, it has been pulling particular people out of its community and telling them to go stand in the corner. It put a name on a placard and placed that label around each person’s neck. It then started pointing its fingers and calling its names. The UMC aimed its hate, its fear, its aggression, its domination, and its control at those people-creating of them a targeted and vilified people group.

Some of us have held hope that this abuse and shame could be transformed and redressed in our lifetime and maybe even by our own hands. Repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption are all church-y words we like to throw around, and more than that, they are tenets of faith some live by.

An act of repentance from me is to recognize that I never really had claim on that hope, and it takes a certain kind of hubris to believe that it is up to me to set anyone free. I have participated in joy with United Methodist faith communities and been treated as beloved, significant, and worthy. Many people have not. I failed to see them-I have failed to see you. I did not move soon enough, fast enough or with enough conviction into the corner where you have been kept.

I offer this confession into your hands.

If this kind of declaration matters to you: I am not a United Methodist. You don’t have to fear me in that way. I am not always safe, and I often don’t get anything right. But I am committed to an ethic of love, and to an active resistance to evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, including when that form is what has been my church.

Social Justice

Letting Go

I started this post in 2017, and now I don’t remember why, but am come around again to it.

That place where you have finally decided to leave a bad relationship, but it isn’t officially over yet. All the streams and eddies of “I care for you” that you have to let flow past your feet. All the little deaths as you let go of strand after strand within the networks of relationship that you share. It can become hard to believe that what’s on the other side of this is so much better than simply staying in. After all, you’ve developed a mad set of skills for making allowances and compromises, of finding common ground and of tucking yourself away when those parts of who you are rub against the other in some negative way.

Abundant Life, Social Justice

For the Dead

We used to
Ring bells
Sing songs together
Walk in a slow parade
Ululate
Clean & dress & bundle & wrap our arms in loving, losing circles
My mythic ancestors knew how to
Drink and swagger their way past the dead one propped up in a coffin in a corner across the room
I woke this morning
Drunk with anxiety, ready to swagger my way past the dead ones propped up in display cases across my screen
Shut out of the rooms where cleaning & dressing & bundling & wrapping in lost, loving circled arms meet
Shamed
Silent
Feeling it inappropriate
An unworthy desire to mourn
For a moment, I believed any of this has anything to do with me
The sun through maple branches spoke a secret to my soul:
Bells are ringing birds across the sky.
I have a trail to take and if I’m tender,
Can place my feet with somber care
To find a gathering of strangers
Who sing songs together.
Ceremony abounds
Rituals stalk the day
Your dead are in company.
I will join you in your mourning,
If I may.
-Written Sunday, October 28 2018