Friday, December 6, 2019

Saint Nicholas

Today is Saint Nicholas Day
celebrated in many countries
with presents and parades
which influenced our own
traditions of stuffing stockings
and passing out gifts.
Today I am remembering
that before Nicholas morphed
into Jolly Old Saint Nick
the chubby, laughing
red suited Santa Claus
he was an early Christian bishop
who saved three sisters
by throwing sacks of gold
through the windows
of their house so that
their destitute family would not
sell them into sexual slavery.
That first St. Nicholas was
someone who noticed children
noticed the suffering of
girls in particular and used
his privilege to help them
to give them a chance
at a safer and better life.
Today I am wondering
who Nicholas would notice
in our current world
which children suffering
which injustice. The thousands
of children locked up
in cages and tents and prison cells
separated from their parents
at our southern border?
Kids who turned away
at school lunch counters
because their parents
can't pay their lunch bill?
Children who suffer with
pain and illness because
they don't have access to
adequate healthcare?
Families across the world
traumatized by violence
or addiction or war or
the devastating effects
of climate change?
Girls like those Nicholas
once saved who are being
trafficked for sex?
Today I will think about
Saint Nicholas and remember
that the heart of his story
was not that we should
give gifts to our loved ones
but that we should notice
the children and the injustices
they suffer and then do something
to help change their lives.

Friday, October 18, 2019

National Coming Out Day Service Musings

Last weekend I was part of a special church service to honor National Coming Out Day, a holiday I discovered only recently. National Coming Out Day is a day set aside to honor and celebrate the courage it takes to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other part of the LGBTQ spectrum. As a straight, cisgender woman, I have never needed to come out, never needed to explain my own gender or sexuality. But people I love have come out, have needed to to share their vulnerable truths to themselves and their families and friends and the world at large. For some people, coming out leads to rejection, discrimination, even persecution and for others coming out is a naming of true self, a celebration. No matter what the reaction, coming out takes tremendous courage and that is what National Coming Out Day and this service honor.

Churches everywhere, and my own United Methodist denomination in particular, have long struggled with public and private stances on LGBTQ inclusion. The United Methodist Church officially states that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching", words that are intentionally hurtful and certainly seem at odds with Jesus' teachings. A special General Conference was held last winter to reexamine that wording and other issues, including marrying same sex couples and ordaining LGTBQ pastors. The resulting decisions of the General Conference were to uphold the wording and expand the restrictions and create harsher punishments for those that broke them. My reaction to these decisions was anger and hurt and grief. Many of the United Methodists I know had similar reactions. This is not what we believe. This is not what we think the Church should be.

Out of the anger and hurt of last winter's outcome and frustration at how little has been accomplished over decades of arguing, many individuals and even entire congregations are in open resistance to the hurtful practices of the official Church. For many of us, following Jesus' commands to love one another and his practices of reaching out to, advocating for, and uplifting those on the fringes of society is a huge part of our faith and we see full inclusion of LGTBQ people within the Church and in society as following our call as Christians. One of the ways that United Methodists in my conference and others choose to resist the harmful practices of our denomination is to celebrate the LGTBQ people in our congregations, to give them leadership, and to name the gifts that they bring us. Holding a National Coming Out Day service was one way to do this.

The service I went to was held at a large church in a nearby city. It was a Reconciling congregation, welcoming all people and celebrating the gifts and talents of everyone on the spectrums of gender and sexuality. There were pastors and lay people from seven areas churches helping with the service, including mine. People came from all of those churches and more, alone or in groups, babies to people in their 80's. There were at least twenty clergy there, both active and retired. I saw people from my church, a friend from college, pastor friends, friends of my parents, and a friend who helps make schools more LGTBQ friendly. This rainbow bedecked sanctuary was a safe place and we all felt that.

The service was full of prayers and music. We heard the audience's answers to written prompts, words like "I felt at home when I felt loved and accepted for who I am" and "I breathed a sigh of relief when my child could go public with her 'secret'." We read litanies that acknowledged the Church's role in homophobia and the discrimination queer people endure, as well as the love and hope that churches can bring. We sang songs, including one with the lyrics: No matter what the world says/says or thinks about me/I am a child, I am a child of God. My dear friend Roger read a poem about coming out that left me in tears and another young man read poetry also.

The speaker for the evening was Elizabeth "Liz" Evans, who grew up in the area and is now a provisional Deacon in Illinois. She also lives openly as a member of the LGTBQ community. Liz preached a beautiful, hopeful sermon based on the story of Lazarus. She compared Lazarus coming out of his dark cave of death, still wrapped in his burial clothes, into the light of resurrection with LGTBQIA people stepping from the darkness of being in the closet to the light of coming out, asking the allies in attendance to help loosen the bonds of homophobia and white supremacy. It was gorgeous imagery and will forever change how I read a story I thought I knew.

The service ended with more prayer and music. We reached across the aisles to hold hands with our neighbors, all of us assembled, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersex, straight, cisgender, transgender, non-binary, questioning, queer, ally, into a giant interconnected circle of hope. Then the band played We Are Family and we all danced. It was all so moving and meaningful and profoundly hopeful.

Afterward, we went to the Fellowship Hall to eat cupcakes, paint rocks, make tie-dye, and visit. It was a wonderful celebration. I was so grateful to be there. Grateful for my fellow United Methodists and their resistance. Grateful for the LGTBQ folks there who shared their stories. Grateful for all of the LGTBQ friends and family members who make my life so much richer.

As I drove home. I thought about all of the hurt that the Church has caused and continues to perpetuate. I thought of the warm and wonderful pastors I have known, the the hundreds more that I don't, who were forced to leave the Church when they came out and of the enormous loss of their leadership. I thought of the pastors who live closeted lives, hiding their true selves from their congregations and the people they love because coming out with mean the end of their calling and their ministry. I thought of all the people who hear God's call to ministry and turn away because they know they are not allowed to serve because they are LGTBQ. I thought of the thousands of queer kids in congregations everywhere who never see someone like themselves serving as clergy or whose church's celebrate their births and baptisms, first bibles and confirmations, and then push them away when they come out. I completely understand why people have left the Church because of this pain. And I also know why I stay, despite it.

I wish every queer kid and older gay couple and transgender woman and frightened parent could have been at the National Coming Out Day service. I wish everyone could see that there is nothing to fear from our LGTBQ siblings. I wish that services like this happened every place and far more often that once, or once a year. I wish that everyone had a church home where they felt safe and loved. And it is this vision of a Church that welcomes everyone, one that sees all people as children of God, that keeps me tied where I am. I want more of what happened at that service. I want my kids to have more of that, and all the other people I love.

I'm petty certain that there will be a National Coming Out Day service next year, too. I know that I will work to make it happen. I hope that next year the pews are overflowing with people and that there are services in other churches, too. I hope that all of you come, because it is an awesome experience. Resistance is holy. And so are rainbows.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Anxiety and Antidote

Sometimes it seems
that the world is collapsing

with the courts deciding
if queer people have 
full human rights
or perhaps not

and my Church
doing much the same

and the President 
on a rampage to destroy
the Constitution and 

inflict cruelty
at every chance

and the most powerful
of the world's leaders
actively involved
in the destruction 
of the planet

and innocent lives
being taken
in the name of power
or money or the idea
that one group is 
more worthy of life

and the self-evident truths
of all that I value
are being erased
faster than I can
keep up 

and there aren't enough
votes or resources
or helping hands
to end the insanity
and tame the chaos.

And so I escape
to the countryside
to drink in the views

walk among the grasses

admire the sky

to slow my breathing
and calm my heart
and remember

that the seasons roll on
in a never ending cycle

that flowers and grass
and chirping crickets
live on despite
human dramas

that there are people 
everywhere quietly working

to make their communities
and countries and world
better to live in

 that sunsets are as
 glorious as ever

and that there is far more 
good in the world than
we ever think to notice

and that God is still here
still listening

and that I still have
will always have
the courage to
keep on fighting.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bread of the World

The table is set
with bread and juice
a cross and a globe
to remind us that
our siblings far and near
are sharing the ritual
of communion today
the blessings are read
in English and Spanish
and French one at a time
and the Lord's Prayer 
is spoken aloud
with languages mixed.

And then we line up
to carry out the ancient
sacred ritual of
eating bread and wine
in remembrance 
of our history and
of our faith
the beloved faces
of church friends
filing by our pews
sharing the sacraments
in quiet solidarity.

But after the service
the true communion begins
as people gather 
at the altar to taste
all of the bread 
that is left over
sampling tortillas
and croissants
pita, sourdough, naan
the spongy tang of injera
smiling and tasting
remembering meals
and countries and friends
and the universal joy
of gathering with others
to break bread together.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Leadership Institute 2019, Day 3

The last day of Leadership Institute began with hymns and praise music. Once again, music was an energizing force and a great way to wake everyone up a little.

There were nine bishops at Institute from around the country. Great Plains Conference's Bishop Saenz was not among them. Several of the bishops had spoken earlier and four were asked to speak to us that morning on their hopes for the Church of 2032. As with the others, they were positive and encouraging, but vague. The bishop from New Jersey talked about how the United Methodist structural system served us well when the Church was largely within the U.S., but it does not work well in a global Church. We need to change this system. No group should be able to control everything - the U.S. shouldn't hold control over global churches and the Central Conferences [conferences outside the United States] shouldn't be able to dictate how U.S. churches function. "We have to rise up as congregations and conferences to make the change", he encouraged.

At the first break, I headed for the giant indoor slide that connected children's classrooms upstairs with the main floor. I'd been eyeing that slide, thinking of how my students would love it and wondering what it would be like to go down it. I thought of David Brooks speaking on the importance of joy in our lives and decided this was the perfect time for a little joy. So I climbed the stairs and ducked into the slide entrance. A couple of women stopped to ask if I was really going to go down and when I said, "Yes!" they admitted that they'd thought of doing that too, but weren't dressed appropriately or were not brave enough to try. I turned my cell phone to video and pushed off, laughing the whole bumpy ride down. In a time of such serious work, I really needed some lighthearted play, some unrestrained joy. It was such fun!

After the break, all 2,500 of us divided up by conferences to share information and discuss forms of resistance. Some conferences had just a handful of people and others had lots. Not surprisingly, the Great Plains had the most. Several hundred Kansans and Nebraskans gathered in the youth center. It had been the original building of Church of the Resurrection and now was set up entirely for youth. There was a climbing wall, foosball tables, and sleek comfortable chairs. We sat at round tables in the huge room that had once served as a sanctuary. I was at a table with Pastor Maddie and a few other people I knew, as well some who were complete strangers. We were asked to introduce ourselves and share our hopes for the future.

When it was my turn, I gave my name and a little of my story. Then I shared a photograph I had carried all week. It was a picture of me and my sister and some Conference Council on Youth Ministries friends holding protest signs and advocating for LGBTQ rights at Annual Conference in 1991. I was 19 then, still new to the idea of protest and just beginning to see the myriad ways that queer people were discriminated against, both in the Church and out. That picture was almost 30 years old and we were still fighting. It is time for change and I am committed to helping create it.

The annual conference break out sessions were being led my UMC Next, the group created last May to organize resources and resistance to the Church policies we see as harmful and unjust. Lora Andrews was leading the Great Plains discussion, with the help of a few other pastors. Each table was encouraged to share some of our discussions of hopes for the future. The answers were interesting: We want and need more leadership from our bishop, Bishop Saenz, We needs allies to have hard conversations about the harm we are doing to our queer family. (And allies must be the ones to do this, we should not expect queer people to shoulder this burden.) We need more intergenerational relationships, because younger people need their elders' wisdom and older people need the vision of the youth. We need older adults to do less talking and more listening, especially of youth and young adults. We need more people to publicly proclaim their views about the harm of the Traditional Plan and its harmful language and punitive actions. We need something like Story Corps, so people can share their stories in other congregations. We need to empower laity, because pastors come and go, but lay people are in congregations for the long haul.

Next we discussed, at our tables and then with the whole group, ways to resist. UMC Next is busy organizing events large and small for a Season of Resistance, but there are many ways to focus our "holy anger". The one year anniversary of the General Conference 2019 decision happens to fall on Ash Wednesday, so protests are being organized all over the country. Pastor Maddie is part of the team working on this.  National Coming Out Day is in October and churches are encouraged to acknowledge and celebrate the day. (Wichita area churches, including some folks at Grace, are having a National Coming Out Day service at College Hill UMC on October 13th.) As the tables shared ideas, I was struck by the creativity and scope of some of the ideas: Multiple pastors volunteering to officiate same sex weddings, because it will be much harder to bring charges against a whole group of people than a single individual. Creating small groups in local churches to teacher LGBTQ vocabulary, more progressive interpretations of biblical texts on sexuality, stories of queer folks and their families, etc. Teaching our Methodist history in church, including our evolving views on women and people of color. Creating a two tiered church trial system, one for LGTBQ charges and one for sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, and other serious offenses. Creating a fund to help support clergy that are put on trial for LGTBQ offenses. Hiring LGTBQ people as associate pastors or other positions of importance. Hiring pastors on trial for LGTBQ offenses to serve as associate pastors.

Junius Dotson spoke about the energy and commitment that has come out of the pain of General Conference 2019. There was certainly a lot of energy and excitement and commitment in that room! He told us that this is a time for prophetic witness, of saying "This is who I am and what I believe." We also need to offer a compelling "why". We need to talk about the ways that God calls us, to talk about how queer people have brought us closer to God, to talk about our calling to full inclusion comes because of our faith and not in spite of it. "Defending is exhausting," he explained, "Defining is energizing." We need to define who we are and proclaim it. It was so good to look around that room and see how many allies we have, how many people are willing to stand with us, fight with us, hold us up when we are hurting.

Leadership Institute ended as it had begun, with worship. Adam Hamilton preached, reviewing our time together and reminding us of how hard and exhausting the coming days would be. We are birthing a new Church and that is unimaginably difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. He reminded us that Jesus called people of opposite views to be his disciples. Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans and Simon the Zealot was involved in plans to commit violence against the Romans, yet they managed to work together and love each other. (But imagine the political conversations they had when Jesus wasn't around!) We need to love and work with people with differing views, too. He also reminded us how much we want to be a part of a Church that includes everyone, a Church honors and elevates everyone. We saw a video clip of the song This Is Me, from the movie The Greatest Showman. Most of us knew this song and this show, but the beautiful lyrics and the images of outcasts being empowered to claim themselves was still so moving. We were all on our feet, clapping and singing and imagining ourselves that empowered and brave.

Like most of the people at Institute, I had come hoping that we would leave with some sort of map for the future. A vision to take us from now to the future, perhaps marked with bridges over jagged places and secret tunnels to avoid conflict. But there is no map and no clear path of what comes next. How do we change? Do we split away from United Methodism or find a way to mold the UMC to a better fit? What do we do about finances? How do we pass new policies? What do we do about congregations that are split on what to do? There are't any clear answers. There may never be. What I did learn this week is that I am not alone. That my church is not alone. We are surrounded by a an enormous network of allies willing to do whatever it takes to create a beloved community. I learned better ways to connect my faith and my conviction. I was reminded again and again that resistance is holy. I remembered that we do not get to decide who God loves. We don't have a map, but we do have a vision. And that will be enough to lead us.

The bishops led us in communion, blessing the bread and the juice with queer United Methodists helping at the altar. Serving stations were set up all over the sanctuary and as I watched 2,500 line up to share the bread and juice I felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was such an emotional, overwhelming gift to be a part of this group, to help lead my Church to the future. By the time a I held out my hands to receive the bread from a lay volunteer and dip my piece into the chalice held by a young pastor with eyes full of compassion and a rainbow shirt, I was weeping. Climbing the steps to my seat, I caught the eye of a young woman wearing a shirt like mine and tears running down her cheeks. She gave me a little knowing smile and raised her fist in solidarity. We were in this together, tears and all.

After communion, Adam Hamilton showed a different This Is Me clip. This one was in a rehearsal room, without costumes or makeup or props. It was a video of the cast trying to convince the producers the take on the show. The singers started out tentative and unsure, scared of singing too loud or messing up. But little by little  they found their voices and their courage, gathering strength from each other and claiming their rights to be themselves. This video wasn't smooth or flashy, but in many ways it was even more powerful. This was us, scared and unsure and afraid of messing up, but finding our strength from each other and from the vision we shared.

There was a final blessing, with all of us sent to go out into the world and create change. We were meant for a time such as this.

As I left the sanctuary, I paused at one of the black marble fountains that were placed at every exit to remind people of their baptisms. I had been trailing my fingertips through that cool water all week. This time I placed both palms on the smooth black stone, thinking about my baptism and the vows written in rainbow letters across the front of my shirt. Resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I thought of the work ahead, the pain and the joy that are to come. And I lifted my hands, water dripping, to anoint my forehead, my lips, my heart, my hands. I was ready to put feet to my thoughts and prayers, and hands and voice and mouth and teeth. It was time to do what I had been called to do. Love and resistance. Love as resistance. It was time to go home and become the Church.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Leadership Institute 2019, Day 2

There were over 2,500 participants from 52 conferences and almost every state at the Leadership Institute. Finding a single person in the crowd was almost impossible. But I was constantly running into people I knew, some that I had not seen in decades. And all around I saw others doing the same thing. United Methodism is a very small world.

The second day of Institute I was walking towards the sanctuary and literally ran into my friend Beth. She's a pastor in Virginia now, but we met when she did a summer internship in Johnson, Kansas while she was in seminary. I was home after my freshman year of college, feeling a little lost and missing Southwestern. Beth made that summer a whole lot happier and more interesting. We had not seen each other in nearly 30 years. Finding each other again and catching up on each other's lives was such a joy. And knowing that we were both a part of the creating of a new and more inclusive Church was an added gift.

The morning started off with hymns and praise songs. We sang often, both traditional and contemporary Christian songs and the sound of 2,500 people singing in unison was amazing! Singing together was both calming and energizing and was always welcomed.

The whole morning session was dedicated to examining the uncomfortable truths of United Methodism's history of exclusion. Bishop Cater, who serves in Florida and is the president of the Council of Bishops, that living traditions change and that while we protest the Traditional Plan, we are "following the path of tradition to the Church of inclusion." This path to inclusion is not just for LGBTQ folks, but also for women, for Black and Asian and Latino and Native American people, for those with disabilities, and for anyone whose voice is not heard.

Rev. Junius Dotson, who is from the Great Plains Conference, led us through the shameful history of our denomination's exclusion of people of color. He began with prayer, directing his words to "God of our weary eyes, God of our silent tears." We learned about how our Church kept Black people and Black churches segregated, how we continue to discriminate against Black and Korean and Hispanic churches, and how our whole Church system values and protects Whiteness. It was all very sobering. Rev. Dotson reminded us that, "History is more than our noble history. It is also our painful truth that we need to examine intently." We have a long way to go before people of color are truly included in our denomination.

Next, Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, who is the senior pastor at a large church in Washington D.C., and Evette More, who was speaking on behalf of UMW, talked about the United Methodist Church's long history of discrimination against women. Ms. More described how UMW grew out of a desire for women to serve within the church and how their leadership has guided the Church to be more missional and welcoming. They shared the statistics that women make up 64% of United Methodist churches in the U.S., but only 36% of the delegates to the 2020 General Conference are women. Then they showed a video clip of male pastors in North Carolina reading comments that female pastors have had people in their congregation say to them. Many of the comments were shocking and appallingly sexist or cruel. And every single female pastor has heard similar things. Rev. Gaines-Cirelli said, "Policies and structures can't change ridiculous attitudes, but they can provide equity." Clearly, we have a lot of work to do in this area, too.

Then we heard from a panel of people about LGBTQ issues. We were all painfully aware of our Church's ongoing history of discrimination of queer people, so this group just shared their stories and perspectives. One man talked about his experiences teaching at the university level and the information he had gathered about what people wish pastors and churches would do. (Statistics say that people want pastors to talk about and help lead them through LGTBQ issues, but most pastors are afraid to do so because they think their parishioners don't want that.) The director of Reconciling Ministries talked about how congregations can become reconciling, or fully inclusive of LGTBQ people. My favorite speaker on the panel was JJ Warren. He is a student at Boston University, studying religion and being called to ordained ministry. He is also openly gay. JJ was the young man who spoke so eloquently at the special General Conference last year and videos of his speech have circulated widely. He was a passionate and inspiring speaker, calling on all of us to create a Church that will celebrate people like him. He said he is often asked why he chooses to stay in a Church that is not inclusive and he replies, "The reason I choose to stay is because I've seen the people before me who had the vision to see what the Church could be, to see what I could be."

We then heard from people working with UMC Next, the group created to resist the Traditional Plan through organizing and educating local churches. They are planning resources and events for churches to utilize, including a five month series of actions called Season of Resistance. Grace folks, we will be hearing a lot more about this!

During one of our breaks, I met up with Jeremiah Thompson. Jeremiah did an internship at Southwestern during the 2003-04 school year and attended Grace. We'd been in the same Sunday School class. Jeremiah is a pastor in Indiana, now. He and his wife, who is also a pastor, have a daughter and son in elementary school. Jeremiah has fond memories of Grace and asked all sorts of questions about how our congregation is doing. It was such fun to catch up with him again!

There are multiple plans that are being developed to present at General Conference in protest of the Traditional Plan that goes into effect January 1, 2020. These plans cover things like the dissolving of the current United Methodist Church (or not), dividing resources, reparations, and laying out outlines for what a new Church could be. All of the plans are confusing and unwieldy and in their early stages, and it's impossible to know what will make it through to a vote at General Conference 2020. None of them have financial backing. None of them can be passed right now, because we do not have enough progressive delegates. We heard proponents of three different plans give a quick overview of their plans, although I was more confused afterward than I had been before. This dark, deeply political part of the Church is hard for me to understand and makes me anxious and a little afraid.

We heard four bishops give a "30,000 view of General Conference". They were positive and supportive, but also pretty vague. All four clearly want a welcoming and inclusive Church, but don't have the power to create that on their own.

We were served box lunches for our mid-day meal. There were huge tents set up outside with tables and chairs to seat hundreds, but the weather was so beautiful that I opted to picnic on the grass. Half way through my sandwich, I looked up and saw my dear friend Jeff. He lives in Colby, Kansas and we became close during my high school church camping days. I moved over to sit with Jeff and we struck up a conversation with a couple from New Jersey about gun control in our respective states (New Jersey has much tighter gun laws, most of which make sense to me.) Interesting conversations with total strangers were one of the coolest parts of Leadership Institute!

 I was amazed at the small army of volunteers that helped make Leadership Institute happen. Members of Church of the Resurrection were each given one of our names to pray for during the week. Members volunteered to assemble snack and lunch boxes, to pack the food, and to pass it out. They made coffee by the gallon and handed out bottles of water and cans of soda. A program for disabled adults made homemade cookies for our meals. Volunteers drove carts around the parking lots, ferrying people closer to the entrances. Smiling volunteers in blue shirts greeted at all the doors, passed out flyers, answered questions, and ushered people to seats. Hundreds of people volunteered their time and skills and energy to make this even happen, because they saw that what we were doing was important. I am so grateful to all their unseen, loving work.

There were special presentations and talks during the lunch break on a variety of topics. I tried to go to an information session on the Reconciling Ministries Network, but the room was packed to capacity, with people standing outside the door listening. I was able to pick up contact information and add my name to the long list of people interested in helping their congregations become reconciling.

After lunch their was a speaker on Spiral Dynamics. He was personable and funny and what he said was interesting, but I struggled to see how it all fit in with LGTBQ issues or the work toward inclusion.

During a long break, I ran into Lora Andrews and was able to catch up with her. It is always good to see Grace's former pastors. I still claim them all.

By this point, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Just being around so many people wears out my introverted self. And my brain was overflowing with information. I found an empty classroom, dropped my bag, and spent twenty minutes lying on the floor in silence. I felt much better afterward.

The last speaker of the afternoon was David Brooks, the conservative political columnist. While I have seen the shift in his writing in recent years, I had misgivings about him speaking at a very progressive event. He turned out to be great. He is cerebral and bookish and tends to mumble, but he had great stories and was surprisingly funny. Brooks spoke on the importance of connection and the effects of isolation in our culture. He praised the "weavers" who connect people to the social fabric of life and described how isolation leads to fear and a sense of scarcity, which lead to xenophobia and fundamentalism. His stories and descriptions applied to both the social and political landscape of America and to the struggles within our denomination. At the end of his speech, Adam Hamilton sat down with him and they had a great conversation about the importance of Neighboring. It sounded SO familiar!

Several of the pastors and bishops who spoke during the conference used the phrase "putting feet to our thoughts and prayers". I loved the action this adds to what has become trite words!

After the afternoon session ended, I went to an impromptu prayer service for the 19 transgender women, most of them people of color, who have been murdered this year. There were prayers and a litany and public lament. There were a hundred or so of us there, standing in a circle on the grass. Gay and lesbian, transgender, non-binary, queer, and a bunch of cisgender heterosexual allies, all of us longing for a day when all of God's children are loved and welcomed and celebrated for who they are.

On my way to my car, I noticed the license plates on vehicles in the parking lot. There were lots from Kansas and Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. But also Georgia, Florida, Washington, Tennessee, New Jersey, North Dakota, California. I thought about the dedication it took to drive all the way from Washington or Florida to Kansas City, in order to learn how to make your Church a better place. The yearning for God's beloved community is a powerful.

After supper, I returned to the Church of the Resurrection to hear David Brooks speak again. Walking in from the parking lot, I struck up a conversation about tie dye with a guy from Georgia. He was wearing rainbow colored swirls and I had on one of my Love Your Neighbor shirts. I told him the story of how our youth had made these shirts to raise money to send to migrants at the border, of how we had made more shirts at a Pride event, and how we would soon be tie dying at a National Coming Out Day service. It was another of those wonderful little unexpected moments of the week.

David Brooks' evening lecture was open to everyone, not just Leadership Institute folks and about half of the people there were Church of the Resurrection members. His evening speech was even better than the afternoon session's had been.  He spoke of how our society tells us that the harder we work and the more we have the better we will be. "Meritocracy isolates and numbs us", he said. "Our culture creates a sense of disconnection." He talked about how success doesn't make us happy, connection to other people makes us happy. Brooks spoke of how valuing time over people and control over acceptance leads to isolation and loneliness. He pointed out that people become workaholics to distract themselves from crisis and emotional pain. He described how brokenness leads to tribalism and a scarcity mindset and how "our hearts desire connection to other people". And finally, he spoke of the importance of joy. He described physical joy, emotional joy, and spiritual joy and the need to give yourself over to joy. It was such good stuff!

It was a long, exhausting day, but I had learned so much and was so grateful to be there.

Leadership Institute 2019, Day 1

I spent three days at the Leadership Institute this week at Church of the Resurrection, near Kansas City. Leadership Institute has been an annual event for a number of years, with speakers and workshops on religion and spiritual issues and has been open to people of all faiths. This year's conference was a little different, though. After the decisions made on LGTBQ inclusion at the special General Conference last February, the United Methodist Church within the U.S. has struggled to find ways to respond to the hurt and division in our congregations. Adam Hamilton, the pastor at Church of the Resurrection and organizer of the Leadership Institute, made the decision that this year's Institute would be limited to just United Methodists and that the focus would be to organize and train progressive and centrist clergy and laity to resist the harmful new policies and to work towards making the United Methodist Church a more inclusive place for ALL people. Pastors and clergy from every annual conference were invited to come and learn together and then take their knowledge back to their conferences and local congregations. Pastor Maddie asked if I would like to go and I jumped at the chance.

I left for the conference not having any idea of the schedule or most of the speakers or what it was all about. I hoped for a clear vision for a way to move forward, but knew that no matter what happened I would learn a lot and get to spend time with lots of other people who have similar dreams for our Church.

I had heard about Church of the Resurrection, but had never seen it before. I was not prepared for how absolutely enormous it was. There are three buildings, multiple parking lots, and more classrooms than I had ever imagined. The youth space alone was larger than the sanctuary at my medium sized church. There were two cafes, daycare spaces, a Christian bookstore, a toddler play space, commons areas, and a giant indoor slide. It looked and felt more like an airport than a church. I spent most of the first evening gawking at everything and thinking "They have THAT in the church?". I knew that this was Pastor Maddie's home church and seeing that huge, sleek, modern space made me wonder how on earth she had made the transition to our little creaky, quirky building and an entirely different concept of "church".

There had been pre-conference workshops during the afternoon, but Leadership Institute officially opened Wednesday evening with worship. 2,500 of us gathered in the arena-like sanctuary for music and prayer and scripture. It was a typical worship service, only on a massive scale. There was a big praise band and a full orchestra. The choir had around 100 members and took a whole song to process in to their seats. There was a professional sound board, with two technicians and multiple TV cameras filming the event. At first, it seemed like more of a concert or grand spectacle than a worship service. But then Adam Hamilton welcomed us and somehow made everyone feel at home. There were enormous screens at the front of the sanctuary where video, photos, quotes, scripture, and more could be projected. Even though I was sitting at the back of the sanctuary, under the balcony, I could see and hear everything and it felt like Adam was talking to just a small group. It turns out that worship is still worship, even on a giant scale.

The front of the sanctuary was dominated by an enormous stained glass window unlike any I had ever seen. Adam began the service by explaining it. There are rivers and trees and animals and a gigantic Jesus (his face is 5 feet tall!). There are also many, many figures of our faith from Moses and Abraham and Sarah to Mary and the Disciples. There are religious figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Mother Theresa, and John Wesley. Martin Luther King, Jr, is there, and Mamie and Emmett Till and Rosa Parks. It was utterly fascinating and every time I looked at the window I saw something new.

Adam had us take a survey on our phones to see how all of us assembled would describe ourselves in terms of progressive/traditionalist and compatibilist/non-compatibilist. Not suprisingly, the vast majority of us, myself included, were progressive compatibilists. We are hurt and angered by the exclusion and discrimination of our Church' LGBTQ policies, but are committed to staying in the church and working to make it fully inclusive. Then we ranked our local churches, which led to different results. There was still a progressive compatibilist majority, but there were also a whole lot of churches who were traditional compatibilist. This is where the challenge lies. The non-compatibilist churches and members at either end of the spectrum will leave the United Methodist Church. We know that. But the vast majority of us will stay and we must find a way to live together.

Then we talked about LGBTQ statistics. 4.5% of the older adult population in the U.S. identifies as LGBTQ. 8.1% of the Millennial population identifies as LGBTQ. Younger people have a greater awareness and vocabulary to describe the broad spectrum of gender and sexuality. The suicide rates of LGTBQ youth are skyrocketing. At least 19 transgender women in the U.S. have been murdered this year. Our failure to welcome and affirm LGTBQ youth has turned kids away from the Church and away from God. And it has even led to their deaths.

We watched a video clip of a family from Church of the resurrection whose gay son died of suicide. We watched many similar videos over the days of the conference, from families whose LGBTQ children died, of gay and lesbian couples who wanted to marry in the Church and could not, of queer people turned away by the Church, of families yearning for change. Some of these videos were difficult to watch. All were terribly moving. These were the faces of real people who are deeply affected by the United Methodist Church's decisions. This was exactly why were were gathered.

When the video ended, Adam said, "I don't want to be a part of a Church who says 'you are less than' or 'we love you, but...' . I don't want to be a part of a Church that hurts people." I don't want to be a part of that Church, either.

Much of the rest of the evening was spent talking about ways to combat Traditional arguments for LGTBQ exclusion. For many of us there, this was helpful. We know that we are people of faith and that we love the bible and try to follow Jesus's example, but we often don't have the words to defend our positions. We have come to our stance on LGTBQ inclusion because of what the bible says, not in spite of it but we often have difficulty explaining that.

All of us who have read the bible have found parts that touched us deeply and parts that angered or frustrated us. The bible is complicated and strange and various parts contradict others. Questioning what it says does not make us less faithful or less Christian. Adam said a line I loved, "To love the bible is to agree to wrestle with the contradictory and complicated parts of it."

Adam called the bishops of Louisiana and North Georgia, both of them women, to come up and read scripture. They read verses commanding women to be silent and not to lead or question. It was painful to watch, all of cringing with discomfort. Adam commented on the phrase so many of us hear each week  - "This is the word of God, for the people of God, thanks be to God." Is this really God's word? Or is it the words of Moses or John or some other chronicler? And should we thank God for such hurtful words? Perhaps not. I found this so thought provoking.

United Methodists have never interpreted the bible literally. Even the most conservative factions of our denomination ordain women and welcome their leadership. They have changed the literal readings and interpreted the texts in a broader context. We have all done this. Things that made sense in Jesus or Abraham's time don't always make sense now. If there are verses in the bible that hurt people, then we should reexamine them. Adam describes this as "This is a place where the text does not capture God's will for all time."

Adam went on to use the analogy of three buckets. There are things in scripture that are timeless and eternal, stories and songs and prayers and people that continue to lead and inspire us. These make up most of the bible and they go into a big bucket. Then there are parts of scripture that were obviously important at some point, but are not really for us. Things like dietary laws and circumcision requirements and directions for building a tabernacle. These things things go in a small bucket. Lastly, there are things in scripture that you can't imagine God ever wanted. Things like killing children and stoning people and murdering all the inhabitants of a place. These go in a tiny cup. All of these buckets are part of the bible, but we all know that the biggest bucket is the most important. These are the verses that guide us and this is where we turn to structure our lives and our Church. Jesus hung out with outcasts. Jesus elevated women. Jesus broke the laws and challenged the system. Jesus commanded that we love our neighbors. Jesus is in the biggest bucket and that is where we should base our faith.

Just like our reading of scripture has changed over time, people's views on LGTBQ inclusion continue to change. Adam shared his own transformation from just tolerating gay folks in church to becoming an ally and devoting himself to full LGTBQ inclusion within the Church. Then he introduced a speaker named Steve Harper. Rev. Harper was a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary (the most conservative UMC seminary in the U.S.) and taught for many years there. He was well known and respected in conservative evangelical circles and for most of his life he condemned LGTBQ folks and taught his students to do the same. Five years ago, at the age of 66, he began to question his stance, particularly of how Jesus would treat LGTBQ people. Soon he was a vocal ally of LGTBQ folks and began calling for full inclusion within the Church. He spoke of how he became "a man without a country", shunned by his colleagues and ignored by the institution where he had spent his life. At his lowest point, he was welcomed and embraced by the queer community, the very people he had once scorned. Steve Harper's story is one of hope. If he could change, others can, too.

The first night of Leadership Institute gave me a glimpse of just how intensive and overwhelming this conference would be. But it also showed me the tremendous energy and commitment of people around the country to change our Church for the better. I was so grateful to be there.