In Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, he writes, ” . . . everyone has an inner teacher whose authority in his or her life far exceeds my own.” (pg. 127) I read that, and it seemed significant enough that I wrote it out on the whiteboard I have on my refrigerator. When I make toast in the morning, I can look up and see that phrase, along with the words, written in Hangul, which mean I love you.
These two statements act as anchors for me, as so much seems to be cast adrift-from the future of an American democracy, to the future of a United Methodist Church; from my identity as a teacher and musician to my identity as a called and sent christian witness to the world.
The ambiguity of the future is enough to make me wonder sometimes whether I am sane. This ambiguity is actually an uncertainty of the now rather than any real sense about tomorrow. After all, none of us knows what tomorrow brings, not even Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. He prayed for a different outcome than the one he feared was looming on the horizon. He was hopeful, or at least prayerful, that some sort of different ending was possible.
So his distress that night was not really about the uncertainty of tomorrow so much as a kind of deep questioning of himself. Am I on the right path, or did I somehow stray into this place of impending conflict? Could I have spoken up differently or brought my concerns to someone else? Did I try hard enough to convince the leaders of my community that something has to change?
Not actually Jesus’ questions obviously, but my own: Why can’t they see it all as clearly as I do? When did these become our values? How can I possibly trust everything will be alright when I don’t even know what principles we hold in common anymore?
In an effort to hear a hint of the Still, Small Voice, I keep saying no to opportunities to teach and to lead. I keep saying no to making music or submitting myself to worship in my church. In tuning in to an-other frequency, I criticize leaders in my denomination. I question their motives. I question their sanity. I question their right to lead. By any common interpretation of action, I am defiant and disobedient, disrespectful and dismissive.
The Apostle Paul writes, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8 NIV) Church-y folks like to talk about Jesus’ obedience like it is some sort of obvious virtue formula: Jesus obeys God; we obey Jesus; all is well. Worse, we seem to think our own churches are close enough copies of Jesus, we can simply adjust the formula: Jesus obeys God; the church obeys Jesus; we obey the church; all is well.
Yet, what if this verse from Philippians is not about Jesus’ obedience so much as it is about his faith in himself? Jesus was obedient to his inner teacher, and he trusted that guide so much he didn’t turn aside even when faith in that true self caused him to be assassinated. In that light, Jesus’ whole life appears to be a story about how obedience to this inner teacher was disobedience to the community and to religious leaders. He was told, straighten up, get in line, shut up and go home. Stop making trouble for yourself and for your friends. Stop creating so much chaos and division. An obedient person would have stopped, but Jesus didn’t stop.
These days, I wake up and feel the spin of history de-centering me. Political, religious, economic, and existential changes are pulling at every bond and glue that sticks me to the people around me. The assurance I used to have that tomorrow will probably be a lot like today only a little bit better is gone. The urge to fix something is incredible. The desire to solve the fundamental problem can be overwhelming.
So, when I make my toast in the morning and read again these two ingredients for keeping faith, Trust yourself and I Love You, it sometimes feels like betrayal. In social groups that pressure me to either conform or reform, what does it mean for me to look inward for direction? Am I separating myself from relationships to avoid drama, or am I differentiating myself from relationships that have become unhealthy? Is this a faithless abandonment, or is it an audacious new venture I happen to be undertaking alone? What will happen to those people I leave behind?
Yet, deeper inside than my worries, my inner teacher tells me that the war won’t be lost or won by me. My inner teacher tells me the war is itself the losing, and that tomorrow needs people who stayed true in themselves more than it needs another hero. My inner teacher tells me it is OK to let go of what has been, even if that means I fly apart. My inner teacher even tells me it is OK to lose faith in causes and institutions because the true work of GOD is not in fixing or in fighting. The true work of GOD is primarily the work of saying, over and over and over again, “I love you.” I love you. I love you. I love You. I LOVE you; until that liberating someday when “I love you” is not simply something I say, but the somebody I am.
Monday, February 12, 2018
This has been a season of loss and reconstruction. If ever I believed the delusion that I am solid ground, this last year or two has successfully exposed that as a lie. I suppose the the writing tells us we are dust and ashes, which is to say: flimsy and floaty bits and particles of lives gone by gathered and held together for only a very little while by the animating principle which is the Holy Breath of GOD. So it really should not surprise me to see how easily big things come apart. Big things for me being an ideal of American Democracy, and gender equality, and human rights, and the goodness of the Church.
If I am made of space and dust, am I truly all that disturbed to see that mere dreams like faith and equality can dissolve so completely into mist? Is it actually a surprise that American Democracy is so skewed we actually elected Donald Trump to the Presidency? If it, like me, is a thing made up primarily of emptiness, no wonder it has moved so far from where I thought I left it anchored, or even more likely, that it never really existed at all.
I have actually been shocked to discover that white supremacy (of the neo-nazi, ku kux klan variety) is such an integral part of my community; that it isn’t buried as deep in us as our compassion is. It has been terrible to suddenly see it in family, neighbors and pew friends, such that they have become enemies I can’t bring myself to even recognize anymore. How can you possibly say that? I wonder, and stand silent with my jaw hanging low.
Yet, all these people I love and trust told me it was so: Anna, De’Amon, Alejandro, Sandra, Dan, Jackie, Maziar, Al. I just couldn’t make myself believe them. I held on to some sort of faith in the solidness of the people I saw around me. I didn’t believe the witnesses and so discovered in myself the very same white supremacy I am trying to reject in others. It is a part of me-as close and as supportive as a limb. What kind of amputation must be done and what kinds of pain will I have to endure to heal? I am afraid.
Then I think, What right have I to fear or to even expect healing for myself without attending first to these others whose lives and loves are tortured and held hostage by my race? What of their fears? Do I love them and care for their wounds with the same commitment I make to my own self? Such grand thoughts are easy to write, and such sentiments cost me nothing. The question then becomes How much do I actually value the lives, loves, and bodies of these friends of mine? Am I willing to dissolve and be remade, or do I merely want to wave a hand at repentance and hope for the best?
How much easier the answers to these questions are if I accept how much of me is made of space and time and how little of me is actually meant to be fixed in place and solid all the way through.
It seems there is a part of me that seeks this leaving-ness, this breaking-ness. I enjoy the creativity of redrawing my own lines in the mirror. I love the fire and energy it releases and the life I find looking at the remnants of the life I am leaving behind. What’s more, I am really good at this: redefining self and staking new territory in which to live my own life. Not that it feels good or is easy or anything, but I find in it a real sense of doing something at which I excel.
So, to the real reason I wrote this letter to you. I realized last week that I am going to have to cut off communication with some people I love. I am going to have to let them go for a while. Not forever, I think, but for a season anyway. This seems foolish when everything I read and watch wants me to believe that relationships are the way we save the world. What kind of nonsense am I practicing to let go of a single one? Still, some of those closest to me and some of those institutions and structures I have relied on so heavily are more committed to holding everything together than they are to being Alive. They are more committed to the shape of their dust than they are attentive to the Breath.
So I could really use you right now: your wisdom, your love, your sense of silliness and play. This next step is really going to hurt, and I am worried that I might not be up to it. I am worried I may give up and turn back; back to the relationships and schedules and dreams and ways of believing that held and formed these ashes for a while. I am afraid to let go of myself. I am afraid of the responsibilities and sacrifices a new shape will ask of me. To be honest with myself, I am most afraid that I won’t take any kind of new shape at all.
In the coming months, you will likely hear a lot about abundance and scarcity, luxury and lack. We, as a culture, are obsessed with these things. We are obsessed with who has what, who has not, and how each of them got there. We take investment courses and offer classes in our churches designed to help individual people reduce their debt. We drive our children towards careers that will make them economically successful, and we think in terms of profit and loss when it comes to our support of camps, campuses, Appalachia Service Project, McCurdy School, or the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. We tell ourselves stories about what we can and cannot afford and turn the power of our disdain upon those who can’t seem to find a way to get by.
President Barack Obama said that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” In his TED talk, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, public health researcher Richard Wilkinson claims that the wider the gap between the richest people and the poorest people in any given group, the more instability there will be in society. More violent crime. Higher infant death rates. More women dying giving birth to children. More children giving birth to children. Lower math and literacy scores among children. Overall life expectancy. It even shows up in intangibles such as trust and social mobility, satisfying relationships and how much bullying someone will experience in her lifetime.
And that is simply the difference in income between the poorest and the wealthiest within a group, not the amount of money (land, investment capital, etc.) that either the poorest or the richest have. In many instances, poorer nations have better social health than wealthier nations. The wider the difference, the less healthy the society is, if Mr. Wilkinson’s data and interpretation are accurate. [I highly suggest that you click the link above and invest the time to watch his TED talk.]
United Methodists like to trace our family tree back to people who believed that Salvation is not just for each individual soul, but is also the gift of Jesus for the whole world; it is an idea that the Good News is made visible where social ills begin to fade. Historically, those ills have included unjust work conditions (including subsistence wages, unregulated work hours and the use of children in the workforce), intemperance (the abuse of alcohol, specifically) and games of chance (gambling, cards, and casinos).
I believe that as your churches spend more time with MissionInsite data via the Healthy Church Initiative and as individuals challenge themselves to truly look at the social conditions which surround them, those social ills, along with many others, will become readily visible. To test Mr. Wilkinson’s theory, how wide is the gap between those with too little and those with too much in your town, neighborhood or county?
So, what does this mean for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? I think it means that we need to look a little bit sideways at the mission and vision of our church. Are we a church obsessed with economic success? Are we focused on our profit margins, investment returns and the self-sufficiency of our ministries? Are we collecting and hoarding resources? Are we building bigger barns and burying our talent under six feet of topsoil and a crop of King Corn?
Or, like Joseph, is the United Methodist Church in Iowa bringing God’s abundance into storehouses so that it will be ready to give away to those wiped out by famine and flood? Are we bringing together all that we have so we can share it back out to the world around us in a more just and kindly manner? Are we leveraging the power of our government to level the opportunity gaps around us? Are we ourselves living sacrificially in an understanding that by having less others can have more? Are we using our money power to lift up those in need, to rebuild that which has been destroyed, and to invest in a more equal society such that it may be accounted a glory to our God?
I believe that the Church’s storehouses are meant to be perpetually empty. The only reason resources come in is so that they can go back out again. We succeed when we spend more than we have to clothe, feed, educate, visit, empower, liberate, and heal. Christ’s economy is a budget perpetually in the red. So, affluent churches, affluent Christians, affluent people: what are our storehouses for?
When I began writing this piece, I was stopped abruptly by the amazingly weird sensation of the right side of my belly leaping upward. I’m currently thirty weeks pregnant with our first child, a daughter. For years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for women and girls, but now as a soon-to-be mom of a daughter, my passion has deepened in ways I never imagined.
Very early in my pregnancy I was reflecting on the story of Hagar (Genesis 16). The slave of Sarai and Abram, Hagar has no agency over her own body. When her owners struggle with infertility, she is used as a surrogate, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai becomes so abusive toward Hagar that she runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. In the midst of my own pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue, I thought about the enormous amount of inner strength Hagar must have had to venture out alone into the wilderness.
But Hagar is never really alone. Along her journey an angel of God appears to her, calling her by name and assuring her that she and her child will survive. Strangely he also tells her to return to her masters’ house, but he does not do so without first delivering a message of hope and survival.
Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name, “El-Roi” meaning the God who sees. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar knows that her masters do not define her identity. Ultimately she is not a slave; she is a precious child of God.
In our world today there are so many women and girls like Hagar who are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health. How many of them are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?
The question that I ask of each of us is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? This question is not meant to be rhetorical or theoretical. It is a call to transformation! Our calling as the body of Chris is to follow the example of the one who reached out with hands of healing and compassion; who saw women as full human beings worthy of his time and attention; who came that all might experience abundant life here and now.
In my work as director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the General Board of Church & Society, I work to ensure that women’s sacred worth is honored through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Tragically every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman loses her life while bringing new life into the world, Most of these deaths could be prevented with basic medical care and access to safe, voluntary family planning methods.
The Church is called to respond to this needless loss of life by ensuring every woman and girls has the tools and information she needs to experience the life of abundance that Christ promised all. One place to begin is ensuring every girl and boy, every woman and man has information about their bodies, sexuality, and how to care for one another with respect and dignity. I invite you to join Healthy Families, Healthy Planet and the General Board of Church & Society on August 27th for a webinar focused on the intersections of faith, sexuality education, and your congregation. Please visit the registration page to sign up and for more information.
Through the power of Christ’s spirit, all things are possible. We can become places where all are affirmed as children of God with sacred worth. As I prepare to birth a baby girl into this difficult, beautiful world, I could not hope for anything more.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She was named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. For more information about Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, please visit umchealthyfamilies.org
I’ve had a hard time sleeping this week. It started on Monday after a long drive from North Central Iowa to Southwest Iowa and 3 hours of Vacation Bible School in the Coin United Methodist Church. I was spending a couple of days with Cherie Miner, the new director of MUMMS (Mobile United Methodist Missionaries), and my sleeplessness started with the excitement and passion which Cherie brings to her position.
She brims and bubbles with love for the rural churches MUMMs serves. One of the things she and her Senior Summer Assistant, Alison Engel, do is bring Vacation Bible School supplies, curriculum and support to churches in the three southern United Methodist Districts of Iowa. The VBS in Coin was a joint venture of a seven-point charge under the pastoral leadership of James Buckhahn, or Pastor Buck as he is known in the Iowa Annual Conference.
Using Cokesbury curriculum and providing the supplies for arts, crafts, service, and creative learning projects allows MUMMs to help jumpstart Vacation Bible School, after school meals and activities and other programmatic outreach to the sparsely populated towns and counties it serves.
Another way in which these Mobile United Methodists are in Mission is to supply and coordinate volunteers for “hammer and nails” projects for churches across the region. Especially as hail, floods, and storms have taken their toll on these counties, this mobilization of United Methodist resources is particularly needed. Cherie is looking for someone with both passion and expertise to help design, implement and manage work projects throughout the three Districts. If you sense this may be a niche you are called to fill, you should drop Cherie an email.
Yet, the work MUMMs is doing is not really what kept me jazzed up for the few days I got to spend in Elliot, Coin, Clarinda, Corning, and Grant dodging road construction and learning songs in the Workshop of Wonders. It was the white hot energy of Cherie Miner, passionately describing all the directions in which MUMMS outreach can grow. It was the no-nonsense assessment of church longevity and mission potential given by the kitchen volunteers and the lay leaders who showed up to support VBS. It was the power that School for Lay Ministry has to stoke a fire in people. It was the humble gratitude of a pastor whose call was finally recognized by the United Methodist Church, a gratitude which gives thanks for part-time employment and three churches who were willing, for a time, to join as one in worship to give her the time she needed to heal.
United Methodist mission is mighty in this Southwest corner of Iowa. Age, gender, population, distance, and local affiliation play no role in peoples’ willingness to serve-to be available to serve-whether as musicians, cooks, chauffeurs, preachers, knitters or visiting messengers of peace and good will. Connection is flourishing-as people roll up their sleeves and step up to the challenges of dwindling populations, physical limitations, and resource scarcity; as people decide they are the ones who have to do a thing if it is to get done.
So, I had a hard time sleeping this week because I was so energized by the people I met, the places I saw, the possibilities laid out before us, and the absolutely monstrous amount of work it is going to take to get it done; the hope we will need to reach out to the people in our communities who are not us; the faith it will require of us to believe in ourselves and the good will we have to share; the call that is upon us United Methodist Christians to not only serve, but to transform; and the deep concern I carry that economics drives more of our decisions than it should.
In two separate entries for the definition of the word “reconciliation,” I think I see the seeds of one of the biggest issues facing American Christians today. There is an entry which says that reconciliation is the “restoration of friendly relations,” and the next entry says “reconciliation is the action of making one belief or view compatible with another.”
Interestingly, when looking up the word irreconcilable, I found a similar set of definitions, but in reverse order. The first entry says that irreconcilable indicates “ideas, facts, and beliefs representing findings or points of view that are so different from each other that they cannot be made compatible” while the second entry reads that irreconcilable, when used to describe relationships between people, means “implacably hostile to each other.”
As I read blog articles, eavesdrop on conversations in the diner, and engage in pretty intense one-on-one conversations with people about topics like abortion, contraception, sexuality, gender, war, gun control, foreign aid, environment, labor, or incarceration, what I find is people who have somehow made the two definitions of reconciliation (or irreconcilable) the same.
Yet one definition is a definition of subjects. It is a description of relationships between people: people who have successfully re-established friendliness, and people who cannot and will not decide to get along.
The other definition is a definition of objects. It is a description of relationships between things: ideas, beliefs, and facts. Some ideas can be made compatible with one another: I am a Christian and I am a United Methodist, for example. Other facts cannot be made compatible with one another: hot and cold, for example.
It seems, as I read, listen, argue, converse and engage, that we all too often fuse the two. “I hold ideas or beliefs that cannot be reconciled (made compatible) with your ideas or beliefs, so that means you and I must be implacably hostile to one another.” Or, more commonly, “Because you and I cannot find agreement on this issue, one of us has to leave, or both of us have to stop talking about these ideas and beliefs, and not just with one another, but at all.”
This confusion-that the full compatibility of ideas is necessary in order for our relationships to be friendly, for you and I to be reconciled to one another, is not only ridiculous, it is also dangerous. What’s more, it casts doubt on Christ’s ability to have reconciled the world-because Christ’s primary work of reconciliation was a work of subjects: God with people, people with God, people with people, people with creation, creation with heaven, the living with the dead, men with women, Muslims with Christians, deviant with conformist.
In John Wesley’s sermon The Character of a Methodist he opens with this phrase: “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his [sic] opinions of any sort.” The Methodist is “a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He [sic] is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He [sic] thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His [sic] soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he [sic] so walks as Christ also walked.”
Apostle Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.
* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;
As we humans continue to argue the compatibility of ideas, beliefs and facts, I think it is imperative that we Christians live seriously into this other ministry with which we have been entrusted: the ministry of restoring friendly relationships between all God’s children on this Earth.