Cindy Gregorson on faith and life

I have been out exploring Portland.  Gotta enjoy the sunshine before it starts raining.  It is an interesting city of constrasts.  I have happened upon public squares with fountains filled with small children splashing around  while parents look on. I have walked by homeless upon homeless persons who have setting up sleeping bags for the night, or simply walking the streets asking for change.  I have been passed by countless bikers, the pedaling kind.  I have been helped by Trimet (the public transit) staff, friendly locals, and seen every kind of fashion, tattoo and piercing, and enjoyed the coffee and food truck scene.  It is a city that embraces weird…being unique, individual and something of an iconoclast.  And they all get along and co-exist.  It seems like an easy-going, friendly kind of place.  I am not a big fan of the word tolerance, because it has a sense that I put up with something distasteful instead of actively loving someone, but there is an aspect of “live and let live” in this city that I find appealing.   

Bishop Sally Dyck preached a powerful sermon this morning with a charge to go, learn mercy.  She aimed at the heart of the divide in the United Methodist Church about how we name homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching in our Book of Discipline, and that is the only category of person with whom we do that.  She was preaching on Jesus eating with the tax collectors and how in Jewish law, that tax collector, to collect taxes from the Jews and giving them to the Roman oppressors…well, according the Pharisees, was completely incompatible with Jewish law, and Jesus should have no business with him.  Jesus’ response: go, learn mercy.  Why is not our response to whomever we meet the same as Christ: go, learn mercy.  There is no person outside of God’s love.  No person incompatible with Jesus Christ.  Bishop Dyck lifted up Pope Francis who declared this a year of mercy for the Catholic Church.  Bishop Dyck said she would love for the United Methodist Church to have a year of mercy, a decade of mercy!

We live in close quarters.  Our world is bigger and yet smaller all the time.  We have never been more interdependent on one another for our very survival….whether it be not shooting one another, not hacking one another’s identity, not using up the created resources so the next generation can breathe, and drink clean water and species don’t die off.   We will not have a future unless we can embrace our diversity and the very sacredness of human life.   

One of my explorations took me to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park.  There was a quote on the granite wall describing the events that led up to the Holocaust.  As the war progressed, Hitler was emboldened to turn his attention to the most helpless of victims: “those deemed unworthy of life…the handicapped, deformed infants, the chronically ill and people in nursing homes.”  They were killed with a form of euthenasia.  There were protests.  But not enough.  And so began the gas chambers where at Auschwitz alone, 10,000 Jews a day were killed.  This is what happens when we do not learn mercy.  We begin to believe we have the right to choose who lives and dies.  Who is in or out.  Who is worthy of love and respect.  That is a world based on fear.

I am sure Portland is not a perfect city.  But in this, I think they are on to something.  Keep it weird.  Appreciate the differences, the quirkiness and for goodness sake, practice a little mercy and grace.  It makes life so much more interesting and fun!

So how do you feel about technology?  Most days I am a fan.  Love my smartphone.  Texting is a great invention to stay connected with people.  Using images and videos and screens can add a lot to worship.  So this year at General Conference, they are trying to use technology to manage the debate and conversation at General Conference.  If someone wants to speak to an item, they enter their name into the iPad on the table, and they go into an electronic queue for the presiding bishop to call on.  The problem is the technology is not flexible enough to keep up with moves of the debate.  People entered their name to speak on a item and all of a sudden the you have an amendment, and now you need a new queue but there is no way to do that without clearing out the old queue.  And that is presuming that the iPad at your table is working!  So dealing with the technology has actually clogged the process, to the point where one delegate stood and simply asked, “what are we doing here?”

I keep wondering what John Wesley would be thinking about all this.  I doubt he ever envisioned the legislative process in the way it is unfolding.  And yet, John was an early adopter of technology.  He was willing to use whatever means possible to spread the word about Jesus Christ.  Whether it was having his brother Charles writing new words to current music to teach the theology, to the creating of a publishing house to fund his ministry as well as publish his writings, and going to the masses to preach in the field, if it could help him reach one more, he was not afraid to try it.

I am glad we are willing to be technologically innovative, but sometimes the simple way works a whole lot better.  Instead of emailing, step away from your desk and walk down the hall and have that conversation with a coworker.  Instead of seeing the world through the camera of your smartphone, and posts on Facebook, put it down and just soak in the beauty of nature.  Technology should serve us and not the other way around.  I applaude the effort at the General Conference but it might be time to let people simply line up at a microphone and get called on there instead of managing the conversation through an electronic list.  

When you can answer well the question, what are we doing here, then you are better able to discern what means will most help us accomplish that, and know when something is working or not, and it is time to find a better way.  That could well be a metaphor for this entire General Conference.  Do we have a clear and shared understanding of what we are doing here?  I am not so sure about that.  We have many agendas.  And that is what is making this General Conference so muddy and clogged in its process.  Make it so simple and clear, O God, that we cannot mistake your word and desire for us, and may we abandon anything and everything that does not lead to life and your purposes for us!

It was just after the stirring episcopal address given by Bishop Greg Palmer that I saw her walk by.  It was a mother carrying a young boy.  I had Bishop Palmer’s words echoing in my ears, stating what we need to be doing here at General Conference is listening to God for the next faithful step we are to take as the United Methodist Church in our mission and ministry, when I saw that mother and child.  And I thought, what kind of church will be for this child?  Twenty years from now, when this child is a young adult, will they claim the name Christian?  Will they tell stories of how they were shaped by the United Methodist Church, and will this United Methodist Church still be a vibrant force for Jesus Christ?  Will they talk about how they were at that historic General Conference where the Holy Spirit moved and we got over ourselves and our debates over Rule 44, and simply embraced being the church.  When Therefore Go…wasn’t just a conference theme but our practice and commitment?

That afternoon I decided to escape the convention center for some Portland sunshine.  I am sitting on a bench outside of VooDoo donuts indulging in an afternoon treat.  Two young women ask if they can share the shade of our table.  Absolutely…there is room at the table for everyone.  Since I don’t need a Rule 44 to have permission to engage in holy conferencing, I strike up a conversation.  Turns out they are recent college graduates giving themselves a celebration trip before graduation.  I ask them their plans for the next year.  One wants to work on bat research…did you know that there are 12 species of bats but you only find a couple of them anymore?  There is trouble in the bat world.  Anyway, she is off to Kentucky to pursue her work of making the world a better place for the created order.  The other is going to graduate school.  Wants to work in the area of public policy around energy.  Two people, who paths I crossed, who have a commitment to do good in the world.  It was a good reminder to me that ministry most always happens out there, and there are lots of people who care about the world and making a difference.  So what kind of church will we be for these two young adults who are clearly on a mission?

What gives me hope is that God is so much bigger than General Conference, and our legislative maneuvering.  God is showing up, doing stuff in people like the ones I met today.  We just need to get out there and see what is possible.  Therefore Go!

They are working on the “rules” to govern the conversation at General Conference. It is taking forever and we are going deep into the weeds. So you have to wonder if John would think this was trifling away time and he did not have patience for trifling away time. Of course, back in John’s time, he just made the rules, so no need for laborious debate on a particular rule. And isn’t it ironic that the rule being most debated is whether to allow for “holy conversation” which allows for the setting aside of Robert’s Rules so people can share and listen in a different way. I am not a historian, but I do believe that the original purpose of the Conference was for the clergy to conference, to confer where and how they saw God at work and how God was leading the church forward and then to receive their assignment to go back out to the mission field. The theme of this year’s General Conference is Therefore, Go…but it is hard to see that spirit evident in the debate so far.

On to Portland

I am heading to the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I am not a delegate so I have not taken the time to wade through the more than 12oo pages of legislation being proposed.  I am going to learn how we can best host General Conference when it comes to Minneapolis in 2020.  And what I want to know the most, is how do you create an environment where people can be at their best?  

I remember Mayor RT Ryback addressing the General Commission as they were considering Minneapolis as a future location.  He said Minneapolis is the kind of city where people can come and have important conversations.  I loved that he understood what we needed to be about as a church.

There are some significant conversations that need to take place in the United Methodist Church, and most have to do with what kind of church do we want to be and how will we love, learn and live together?  To be honest, I have been dreading General Conference 2016 because I have found the legislative process to not always be helpful in trying to find a way forward and there is a building pressure cooker around declining membership, full inclusion, and the challenges of being a global church.  Some days I despair that we will make any progress at all!   And yet, nothing matters more to me than we learn how to live together in this global, diverse world of ours.  We have never been more interdependent on each other for our well being.  And what I have come to realize is that the ten days of General Conference is a microcosm of the world we live in.

So my hope and prayer as I wing my way to Portland: that we can truly be a community of love and forgiveness, and by doing so, will be a witness to the world on how diverse people who do not think alike are committed to loving alike, and treating one another with mutual respect.  And as that peace ballad says: let it begin with me.  As I go to learn the tasks of hospitality, I will seek to be a person of peace, grace and hope in the midst of what I suspect may be some very anxious times, trusting that how I and others show up and are present to one another matters deeply in creating the kind of environment where we can be at our best and allow God to be God and lead this church into the future that God would have for us.

Passion and Obsession

So how does passion become an obsession? Passion is a good thing from my perspective. I want the people I hire to wake up each morning with passion to make a difference, to bring their best to their work, to care about what we do as a church and who we are. The opposite of passion is apathy…and there is not much worse than apathy for any organization but especially the church. When we don’t care, we don’t engage, we don’t invest and we waste the talent, resources and gifts God gave us.

But passion to the extreme is not a good thing either. It can become an obsession or a form of fanaticism. That kind of passion runs over other people and can take over your life in a way where you no longer have perspective. It can actually harm and destroy relationships and life itself.

I have met those persons. They are so passionate about their cause or their opinion that they just wear me out, and it seems like there is no room for me to disagree. Instead of convincing me, and engaging me in their cause, I become resistant. It does not add to life, it diminishes it.

Where I see this show up in my own life is I can get fixated, passionate about “my way” whatever my way happens to be. A particular outcome, or my way of viewing the world, or being right. I don’t want to give up my passion for it is what drives me to work hard, to create, produce, dream, persuade…it is one key ingredient in my being a strong leader. But what I need to remember is that the goal is not about me winning…it is about the whole team, and God’s purposes getting accomplished.

Jesus says that we if we are not willing to take what is dearest to us, whether plans or people, and kiss it goodbye, we can’t be his disciples. (Luke 14, MSG). That is a shocking statement. What are we so attached to that it has become more important to us that following Christ? Where is my passion, and how is it giving life or harming life?

I am getting a first hand reminder how much passion and energy are connected. I am on day 25 of the sinus crud. I have been to the doctor twice. I have done the round of antibiotics. And still I keep blowing and coughing. Now in the scheme of things, I realize this is not really such a big deal. People being killed at a marathon and a fertilizer plant explosion, that is newsworthy and truly tragic. At some point, this sinus crud will be done…and my prayer is tomorrow would be good! But in the meantime, what I am noticing is how little energy I have, and how that affects everything in my life.

Before this sinus crud hit, I had started training to run a 10K. Ok, I am not passionate about running, but it is a goal I had set for myself, and something I would like to accomplish. But getting to the gym has been a real chore. It is hard to run when you can’t breathe. Sleep or exercise? No energy? No brainer. Sleep.

Some say passion is the fuel that allows us to do great things. But what I am learning this month, passion is really the kindling, or the starter…you do need something to get the fire going…but the fire needs oxygen, energy for it to have life, to burn, to create warmth and heat. Passion and energy go hand in hand.

So why does this matter? Well, much of my work is about cultivating passion in congregations about reaching new people, about sharing the gospel, about being the church God has called them to be. Frankly, it is a challenge. But after my sojourn this month, I am beginning to wonder if the issue is not so much about passion: we do care and do desire to see God’s Spirit move in and through our congregation; but rather is the issue lack of energy? Is just getting through the day and managing what has to be done taking all our energy? You can’t run when you can’t breathe!

If that indeed might be the case, then how do we renew our energy? I have been forced to consider my limits this month. To take a sick day. To not get by on my usual 6 hours of sleep during the work week. To pace myself. And mostly, to heal so that I can run again. And to trust, this malaise I am feeling is at the heart not about a lack of passion, but about needing to restore my energy. Both are essential to fueling my life.

So, have you ever felt a call, deep in your soul, to do something with your life that makes a difference in the world? Have you ever had that moment where you knew you were doing exactly what you were put on earth here to do? So, how did you discover that call, that place where as Frederick Buechner has said, your deep gladness meets the worlds deep needs? Was it trial and error? Probably some of that. But if you look back, do you see people who were encouragers, equippers who called forth gifts in you that you did not even know you had?

As I think about my calling as an ordained clergy, I could talk about the religion class I took my senior year of college that shifted my path away from the world of business. I could tell you about my grandmother who loved me in a way that gave me a taste of God’s unconditional love. I could reflect on my parents who gave me a faith by making church a part of our lives. I could speak of pastors who were wonderful role models of what it means to be a person of faith and to be real and human so that I did not think they were so set apart, I could never be that!

But when I think who most influenced my calling, I would have to say it was the whole church, the saints of Cleveland Ave. United Methodist Church. I came to this church as a pre-teen. It was a small church, and for a young person who was experiencing those awkward teenage years, they were definitely a community of love and forgiveness. And even more, they saw gifts in me and allowed me to lead. I taught Sunday school. I served in leadership roles. I was engaged in youth ministry and through that learned how to work as a part of a team. Interestingly enough, I don’t remember any one person saying to me, “Have you ever considered ordained ministry?” but in everything they did, they were saying you are a leader, and the church needs your leadership.

It took me awhile to put two and two together and realize that the combination of my gifts and my love of the church was indeed a calling by God to lead God’s people, the church, into its mission. But I finally got it, and when I shared this calling with the beloved people in my life, and those saints in the church, they simply said, “of course.” They had seen it all along.

Cleveland Ave. United Methodist Church closed it doors several years ago. The numbers had dwindled to the point where it did not make financial sense to keep trying to be church in the way they were, so they made the faithful and difficult decision to merge with Fairmount Ave. United Methodist Church. Today, many of those saints continue to be encouragers, equippers, and influencers. And I want to offer my own shout out this day, giving thanks for their influence in my life, and for them to know their ministry is living on in future generations because of people like me that they sent out into the world.

Listen to your life, my friends. Listen to the people in your life. There you may find your calling. And if God might indeed be calling you to lead God’s church, then go to explorecalling.orgto learn more about the United Methodist Church and the ways you can bring your gifts to the world through the church to make a difference.

A Crowd of Sorrows

It is hard to linger in suffering. This is Holy Week in the Christian church. We like to go from the parades of Palm Sunday to the resurrection celebration of Easter and skirt by the agony and suffering of the Garden of Gethsemane and the journey to the crucifixion.

In our American culture, we have the reputation of seeking to medicate away our pain. Have a problem, take a pill. We don’t like to dwell in sadness and grief. We don’t tolerate pain well.

Then this writing from Rumi:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes from an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them in the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

I have always been a serious person…even as a child, and a little prone to melancholy. I have always seen that as something to overcome. I have longed to have a more light hearted spirit, to be a more joyful person. I have lots of reminders in my life to choose joy, to laugh…trying to counteract my basic nature. But this writing from Rumi gives me pause. Perhaps the melancholy is gift and it teaches me something as well as creates a more empathetic spirit in me.

I would never advocate suffering for the sake of suffering. And clinical depression does require medication. But sometimes, we are just plain sad, and life is bringing us pain. And perhaps the way through, is really to go through it. To feel it, to see what it is teaching us, and instead of trying to fix it, to see it as God is working in and through it….and indeed clearing us out for some new delight.

So this is Holy Week. Let’s not rush through it. Can there really be resurrection if there is not death? And does embracing death, gives us a new perspective and attitude about life?

Trust does not come easily to me. Having been single most of my adult life. I have had to rely on myself. Because of that I do not easily hand off tasks or responsibilities. I have this is little voice in my head that says if it is to be, it is up to me. I expect competence from myself. I need to manage my life.

And yet, this article in our Soul Leader’s materials from Warren Christopher where he talks about how dependent we are on each other causes me to think. He talks about driving down the road and how much he is counting on the driver in the other car coming at him not to fall asleep or be distracted by his cellphone or crossing over the yellow line.

My well-being is premised on a basic social contract we have made as a society about how we will live. The social contract is as mundane as you stop at red lights and go on green lights, to as complex as you pay taxes for civic and social services so that all of our quality of lives can be better. It is as simple as clean up after your pet when you walk them in public places to as complicated as the conversation we are having as a society about gun control and the right to bear arms. My well-being depends on your living within and keeping this basic social contract. We trust one another to do the right thing day in and day out because when we don’t, we all lose.

So the question I am pondering today is if each day when I go out in the world, even though we all know times where things can and do go wrong, I have to trust that I will make it to work safely, that I will not be harmed in my daily activities, otherwise I would paralyzed, how can I apply that principle to that little voice in my head? Is it really all up to me? Have I left God out of that equation? Are there not people in my life who I can trust to share the load, to help me in a pinch? I am not looking to suddenly become incompetent and needy…that would be my worse nightmare!! i don’t want to swing in the opposite direction of not trusting myself and my own abilities to accomplish things and make my way in the world. But as Warren Christopher says, how can I rely more on the good faith and judgment of others. Sharing the load, the responsibilities, the decision making…that sounds like a whole lot more fun.