Monday, March 11, 2019

Some Kind of Revival: Reflections from a delegate on General Conference 2019

 I was sick the moment I got on the plane to St. Louis until the very last day of my return.  I hardly ever get sick but as soon as I landed and headed toward my hotel room, my body was aching and the fever began.  I thought to myself "could this be a sign of something and what is my body trying to tell me?"
Armed with cold medicine and plenty of Tylenol, I headed to the convention center for a first day of prayer and listening. I sat with my delegation, all of whom are sisters and brothers that have a passion for God and for God's church.  In front of our delegation was a delegation from Cote d'Ivoire who were wrapped from head to toe in winter gear clearly not anticipating the cold of St. Louis in February nor the cold inside the building where we all now sat. I befriended one of the delegates, named Valentine and commented on her loving name.  She invited me to pray and talk about the importance of our unity as a body of Christ and how we had to stay together. I agreed and thought perhaps there is hope.
At one point in the day we were reminded of Wesley's prayer for forgiveness for sins:
Forgive them all, O Lord:
our sins of omission and our sins of commission;
the sins of our youth and the sins of our riper years;
the sins of our souls and the sins of our bodies;
our secret and our more open sins;
our sins of ignorance and surprise,
…..and our more deliberate and presumptuous sins;
the sins we have done to please others;
the sins we know and remember,
…..and the sins we have forgotten;
the sins we have striven to hide from others
….and the sins by which we have made others offend;
forgive them, O Lord, forgive them all for his sake, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, and now stands at thy right hand to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In earnest repentance we turned to one another and asked each other for forgiveness. I remember because I specifically went up to a person in our delegation who has been demonstrably on the opposite side in this debate, a colleague I respect, and asked him to forgive me and I added "My husband really does care for your friendship, let's please get together." 
I left that day feeling free.  I left that day feeling confident that whatever happened God had been reminding me through a Travis Greene song:
Everybody's moving
Everyone is going somewhere
With everything they're trying 
Just to make it
To a place where I am not there

But when the noise is over
A still small voice you will hear
I hope that you believe me
when I tell ya
That I will handle all of your cares
Just wait on me

Be still and know that I am God
I'm in control I am still...God

This song became my mantra from the moment I arrived and still to this day.  I entered into that space knowing that this was true and still believe it. 
And then came the next day.
Things began to point in a different direction.  The clarion call for unity in the midst of our diversity was beginning to be lost as we did our legislative committee work together.  The call for the One Church Plan that was accepted as a compromise on behalf of me and my more progressive colleagues was ironically seen as divisive and destructive by those supporting the Traditional Plan, especially those from the Central Conferences.  We were accused of trying to destroy the witness of the Church in many places of the world, and yet the One Church Plan had nothing to do with Central Conferences and their Book of Discipline, which is already contextual for their own needs and ministry implications. Everything that we do in General Conference often times becomes changed and interpreted to fit their particular needs. 
Methodists have always engaged in contextual ministry. From the moment they arrived on my island of Puerto Rico to the way we engage in Latinx ministries here in the US today has all been contextual ministry. This has been my experience.  And although what is contextually relevant for a congregation in Puerto Rico may not be contextually relevant for a congregation in the midwest of the US, we know that we are united in our missional focus to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, to do no harm, to do all the good w can, and to stay in love with God.
I've heard colleagues say that it was only the progressives that were making statements that were divisive and offensive.  However, as I sat patiently waiting for my name to be called in the queue so I could speak at the microphone, I thought that the very petition that was presented by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and others, the Traditional Plan, was the very one that was punitive, destructive, and divisive.  Calling me to decide between my family and my church, calling me to reject faithful LGBTQ Methodists who have given their tithes and offerings, who have supported the work of the global church with their time, presence, and gifts.  In fact, this plan was asking me to reject even my own conservative sisters and brothers who I wanted and still want to be in communion with. 
In case that wasn't divisive enough, the second petition that gained momentum was one that called for disaffiliation.  Let that sink in for a moment.  None of the petitions presented by One Church Plan supporters or the Simple Plan supporters ever considered for a moment a plan for disaffiliation.  In our understanding through the witness of Scripture that would be against biblical obedience. We are called to unity, not because we agree, not because we think alike but because we are loved alike!  The fact that as progressives and moderates we stood up to disagree, to call out the incongruence and discrimination of singling out a group of people and holding them morally accountable without including a broader scope of human sexuality was evidence that we were not there to discuss human sexuality but rather homosexuality using the worst possible environment and language and mainly without our LGBTQ siblings being part of the conversation.  If pointing that out was deemed as divisive, then we have not learned our lesson about what it means to be a family.  Nor have we learned the lesson that no oppressed group will stay silent for long if they have a boot on their neck choking their very existence.  If that was not apparent when Richard Allen walked out of Old St. George's then we have missed this lesson in our own history. 
When Tuesday rolled over me...
I remembered this feeling.  Nov 2016 the night of the election.  I pulled the covers over me and thought this can't be happening.  I was devastated to think that a thrice divorced, misogynist, racist would become the 45th president of the United States and that many white suburban women voted him in.  Some of the same women who probably were part of some of the congregations that I have served in the past.  Many of the so-called evangelicals who now made up the demographic that was part of this very moment in our denomination's history. 
These are the ones who refused to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions accountable for implementing the harmful and hateful family separation policy at the border.
These are the ones who continue to refuse to hold the denomination accountable for the practice of racism in its own structure and policies that have been detrimental to congregations of color since before the 1968 merger.
And yet we have never seen a plan to end police brutality.  We have never seen the body raise its voice to implement a plan to end the demonization by this administration on immigrants and refugees. 
I have yet to see a special session dedicated to the high number of incidents of inappropriate behavior, abuse and sexual assault from within the church, even though we know that we are in crisis, hence the need for an I-Care team dedicated to this pervasive behavior in the church.
I left that Tuesday with my heart broken.  I thought we lost the opportunity we were given by God to show the world how a community of faith can disagree and still come together.  To witness to the world that just because we are not in agreement over this particular issue, we are not like the world which allows itself to be polarized and letting us enemies of one another, but rather we could have shown the world that in the end the most important thing is that we love one another as we are commanded to.   But we didn't.  As my brother, Rev. Tom Berlin put it, we infected our church with the same virus that has infected the world and thus destroyed the very global witness we so desperately tried to protect.
I'm in control, I am still....God.
As I left the convention center to cry and gather with my colleagues in order to find comfort and support, I put my earphones on and turned on the Travis Greene song to remind myself that somehow this was not over. Besides the fact that currently this plan stands once again before the Judicial Council, I promised myself and my congregation that I was United Methodist going in to GC and I would be United Methodist coming out and nothing was going to change that.
That next morning, after a night of wrestling and answering emails and texts from parishioners and young adults that I mentor, I gathered with my sisters and brothers that were convened to worship together by LYNC (Love Your Neighbor Coalition), which is a coalition of various ethnic minority caucuses and other justice seeking caucuses in the church. My dear hermano, Mark Miller, had asked me to collaborate with him in leading worship that morning and so although my voice was still not at 100% and my body and my soul were weak, I found myself sitting in front of congas that morning.  As I looked down at my hands on the skin, I saw them.  I saw my ancestors reminding me that they gathered to play the drums, called barril de bomba in spite of the oppressors on their back and as a way to sustain the community.  The drums and the rhythms were a combination of the inheritance from West Africans who were brought as enslaved people and the Taino native people who had long been all but extinguished whose instruments such as the maraca and the güiro are still a part of our tradition to this day.
My ancestors that day reminded me that song and rhythm are still alive and in fact are stronger than ever.  All this time I have been praying for revival in our church, revival in my heart, revival in our streets, revival in our cities and towns and now it was here right in front of me.  This group of ostracized and rejected, were the revival I have been praying for. We are brown and black, white and bicultural, queer and straight, abled and disabled, rich and poor, young and old.  We are not perfect by any means, but we are convinced that neither height nor depth nor anything in between can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
If the WCA, Good News, Confessing Movement or any other group thought that we were going to go quietly into the night, guess again.  We have become emboldened as at Pentecost, to speak up and speak often, to stand in the light of God's presence and declare as Peter did "we must obey God rather than man."  This isn't a threat.  I'm still captured by love.  I still believe in Unity.  But it cannot be at the cost of others, it cannot be at the oppression of others.  I know what that feels like as a woman of color.  Internalized oppression has often made me reject my own feelings and the realities of racism in my life so that others do not feel uncomfortable or don't feel that I am "ganging up" (that's a direct quote from many of my white colleagues).  That same oppression causes one to become invisible and I refuse to be invisible any more.
My truth is simple and is only as complicated as we decide to make it.  That's the only choice. In the meantime...
I'm here, I'm queer and I am a United Methodist and I ain't going nowhere!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Day Jesus called a Woman a Dog! Matthew 15: 10-28

I don’t remember all the times I might have been referred to as a dog or better yet, a bitch, but I do remember the first time someone who I thought I love and that I thought loved me used it.  It seemed to echo in the air as the word came crashing into my heart and mind and soul. At that moment, I knew that I had become another statistic and my relationship was over.
So the first time I allowed myself to really encounter this text, while in Seminary I was devastated.  Devastated because I was reading Jesus responding to a desperate mother, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There it was – there was that bitch word again.
Did Jesus just call that woman a bitch? Where was Jesus’ mother? I know had it been my mother, a shoe from out of nowhere would have come flying, so perhaps she wasn’t there, or perhaps she would not have said anything.
See, here’s the thing.  In order for us to talk about Jesus’ divinity, we have to talk about his humanity as well and I mean all of it!
Paul makes it clear in Philippians 2 that Jesus being in the very likeness of God or rather fully God become flesh, took on our form and our condition, becoming a slave, a slave to what? A slave to the human condition with all it foibles and sinfulness, and even yes, even its biases, prejudice, sexist, misogynist, patriarchal, racist and exclusive condition.
Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew, raised by a Palestinian Jewish mother and father, who had their fair share of knowing what it meant to live under great prejudice and racism, and a long history of persecution because of their ethnic identity and so at times in an effort to protect we internalize our own oppression, and we build a narrative of exclusion and fear, of prejudice and bias against the other, especially if that other has been your life long enemy since the days of the Judges.
Canaan was the ancient land that fell under the curse of Ham, the son who looked upon the nakedness of his father, Noah.  These where all the people that the Hebrews were told were to be part of the conquering prophecy, the Hittities, Arameans, Moabities, Ammonites, Midianites and Edomites.

They were all descendants of the curse and they were all despised as the enemy.   During the time of the Moabites, it is reported how they inflicted a lot of damage on the early Hebrew people after the time of Moses and were responsible for the famine, rape and capture of many of the Hebrew people leading up to the time of Jonah.  That’s why its ironic that God would send the prophet to Nineveh, one of the capitals of the Moabites to offer a message of a second chance and mercy.  But that's another story.  Jesus would have heard the stories of what the Canaanites did, who they were and how unclean they were.  Jesus would have heard how good Jewish boys were to keep away from these foreign women. After all we know what happened to King Ahab when he got with Jezzabel, and Samson when he hooked up with the Philistine which was another name for Canaanites, and Solomon’s numerous affairs with all those foreign women and that Black Queen of Sheba!
Jesus was a product of his culture, his environment and the people and community that raised him just like all of us are products of our own community and environment, not all of it was bad and not all of it was good, but all of it was formative.
And yet, when we are sensitive to the Spirit, when we are aware that the one who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it, when we have given space for the spirit to begin the process of a new creation, and we allow the old things to pass away, like Paul says in Corinthians “therefore if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, old things have passed away behold all things have become new.” Paul also reminds us in I Corinthians 15: 45 that the “first man Adam became a living soul, through Adam we all experience death, but the second Adam, that is Jesus we experience life and life eternal.”
This means that there will be times when we are face to face with the worst part of us, all of us go through this—even Jesus, especially Jesus.  Why do I say especially Jesus? Well Athanasius of Alexandria, one of our early church fathers, said it best.  “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” By this he meant human nature, with its bias and prejudices, all of it has been assumed or taken on by Christ, so that God, in Christ can redeem it.
Its hard to imagine but Heb. 4:15 says that Jesus experienced every one of our sufferings and our temptations – or else the incarnation would have been incomplete – because that which has not been assumed cannot be redeemed.  So Jesus assumes it all, even our fears about the other, even the way we demoralize and demonize and bully the other in order to keep our own security and dominance intact.
Calling a woman, a dog has a long racist and sexist past.
It implied and continues to imply property of the lowest kind.  Dogs were meant for work, dogs were savage beast that could be tamed for ones’ purposes. It implied that one was without control and for a female it implied that one was likened to a female dog in heat, penetrable and given over to all kinds of lust with uncontrolled passion. It was always associated with promiscuity and for slaveowners it meant that she was hard working like an animal and easily bedded.
We all watch movies, tv and so we are not too shocked anymore to hear this word, in fact woman have used it on other women, so we should not have been too surprised that it has come from the White House, just ask our Native American sisters and brothers, they have heard worse.  Its just now its instantly in our faces. It’s no wonder that we have become a little desensitized by its common use. But when we hear Jesus refer to this Syrophoenician woman as a dog, it is not only jarring, it is downright confusing?  We ask, Jesus, did that just come out of your mouth?
Just prior to that, we hear Jesus say “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart is evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defiles a person.” (I think this should be the criteria for using Twitter these days)
So then, what gives Jesus…by using this phrase are you showing us what is in your heart?  I think it’s hard for us to imagine, but for this historical, real flesh and blood Jesus, who walked our streets and lived in our neighborhood, the answer unfortunately is YES!

But watch what she does? She has been here before.  She plays his game and puts back in his face the very name she has been called, so that he can hear it. “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Its like she said, “A dog (bitch), oh yes I am, when it comes to my family, hell yes I am! When it comes to my dignity! Yes I am! When it comes to protecting who I am and my community, yes I am!”
You know that saying, Hell knows no furry like a woman scorned, but when that woman is a mother, you best believe something is going to happen.”   She said, “Oh, no, not today Satan!” This is why we hear of women who have overcome great adversity, who were probably called a bitch every single day of their lives and yet did not let someone define who they were.  Women who overcome domestic abuse, who overcome economic abuse.  Women who work twice as hard and get twice less pay.  Women who were beaten and thrown into prison but came back again to demand the right to vote.  Women who have been dragged on the street, attacked by dogs, had food thrown at them but return the next day and sat in a lunch counter.  Women who continue to cross the border, who stand up to ICE and demand justice for their children escaping poverty and violence. Women who speak up about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace even after they lose their jobs.
Women who hustle everyday of their lives in order to put food on their table.  Women who hear the words of society saying that they are not enough to raise kids in a single household, and that if there is no father involved that child is less than.  Tell that to Barak Obama.
For all we know, this Syrophoenician woman was a single mother, protecting her daughter because in her society, were female children were not valued, no one else but her would be able to protect her.  If you have not had a chance to read a good book this summer I invite you to read Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime.  For all intended purposes his mother was the Syrophoenician woman.
Behind her answer to Jesus, stood countless of women and she was determined to stop Jesus in his tracks.  And she did.

And this is what Jesus’ teaches us.  We can change!
Jesus hearing the words of the woman responds: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Jesus teaches us that we can either be trapped by our prejudices, biases and fears, by our sexism, misogyny and bullying behavior or we can allow the Spirit of God to strip away the past, the chains that bind us, the blinders that we have over our eyes and hearts and begin to see people for the spiritual sacred beings that they are.  Jesus recognized that this woman, who represented all that he ever knew about Canaanites, she was a person, a mother, a woman of faith and that “no” was not an acceptable answer for her.

Throughout the Gospel, this is what we see of Jesus.  Jesus teaches us how to respond to children, in appropriate, safe ways not as a predator, unlike what we have recently heard in the news. 
Jesus teaches us how to respond to those who are sick.  Jesus teaches us how to respond to those who are struggling with disabilities.  Those who are poor, those who are marginalized.  In fact, the Gospel is not so much about how we get saved and how we get to heaven, but rather how we live here on earth and what are ways that we respectfully respond to all.
And Jesus teaches us how to say, “I am wrong, I need to change”. Jesus teaches men both in his day and in ours, that you do not need to respond with bullying and become louder and more vociferous when you are in the presence of a strong, confident, intelligent woman. They are not a threat to your masculinity, they are very foundation of any functioning community and your greatest ally. Jesus teachers us, how to change our way of thinking and respond to faith that has no cultural bounds – faith that reaches and surprises us by challenging us to reconsider our implicit biases, thoughts and actions.  
After this encounter, both Matthew and Mark have Jesus change his message, it becomes a message of inclusion and for all nations. In fact, Matthew ends his Gospel with the great commission, making disciples of all nations!  Could this woman have made that change in Jesus? 
Maybe this woman, with her tenacity and persistence, her moxy and her consistent presence taught Jesus a valuable lesson that day that changed his life:  She taught Jesus that Syrophoenician Lives Matter!

If you’ve forgotten who you are…take some advice from the Syrophoenician woman.
If you’ve fallen prey to the temptation of sexism, chauvinism, misogyny…take some advice from Jesus who allowed himself to be transformed.
For any of us who find may yourself victim of the names, victim of the slander, a victim of those who only respond to your very existence with fear and hate, I say embrace it! Embrace all of it!  And the next time someone or the world calls you a dog or something similar, maybe we can rise up and say “hell yes I am! Deal with it cause I’m not going anywhere!”