Cindy Gregorson on faith and life

We are in gridlock.  I see it in our government and it frustrates me no end. Partisan politics, lobbyists, and getting re-elected trumps working across the aisles to solve some of the most critical problems of our day. Maybe it has always been that way, but it seems so much worse these days.  I am desperately looking for courageous leadership, and I define that in a way that might surprise you.  To break out of gridlock, we need leaders who are willing to risk re-election by being willing to compromise and collaborate in order to make progress on the pressing issues.  It feels like we have way too much high minded rhetoric and too little pragmatic action.  More self-preservation that striving after a common purpose.   And who is paying the price: the people.  The frustration is building.

I have also been known to disparagingly compare the structure of the United Methodist Church to the US Government.  It is patterned on that model…we have a legislative branch which I am experiencing at General Conference this week.  And it feels eerily similar to congress.  We are in gridlock.  But we have an added complication which makes it even more challenging.  Many of the delegates, up to 40%, come from other countries.  They bring different world views, unfamiliarity with legislative processes and Robert’s Rules let alone the issues of language and interpretation.  I love the beauty and idea of being a world wide church,  and because of that I just don’t know if our legislative model can work for us anymore.  When you bring people from all our the world, who do not have shared experiences and understandings, and virtually no time to build relationships, how can they be  expected to exhibit the courageous leadership of collaboration and compromise which is the premise of a democratic, legislative process.  Our loyalty will be to those “back home”, wherever home is, instead of being willing to risk those relationships and commitments for the sake of doing something new.

We have pressing issues as the church, and those issues are very different in the US and in places like Africa, Russia or Vietnam.  Editing and modifying a Book of Discipline is not going to get us closer to resolving them.  We saw that at General Conference 2012 and we are getting a repeat at 2016.  When something is not working, trying harder at the same thing is not the answer.  So what is my brilliant suggestion for breaking the gridlock we find ourselves in?

I  know it might be a crazy idea but I think it starts with the Council of Bishops.  This is a smaller group of people, who come from all over the world, who meet together, worship together and work together.  I would charge them not simply to manage, to not only give spiritual and temporal oversight, but to lead and lead collectively.   I would even go so far as to say they need to go to some place, and meet together for as long as it takes….and I really mean as long as it takes even if it is weeks or months…to build the relationship and trust required, to seek a vision from God, to come to a shared understanding and agreement to the pragmatic action we need to take as church to move forward, and then they need to go, and lead: lead with one voice and a common purpose, in their individual annual conferences and through the boards of the general agencies which they chair.   If not them, then who?  They have the power of agenda and influence in every part of our church and if they can show us how to collaborate and compromise, and I know I am idealistic here but I think we are hungry for a way forward, and if they can develop one, agree on it, and work together to help us claim and live into it, then I believe we will follow.   We are ready.

We are in a sea tide of change, and I am convinced that what we need in this time is more leadership and less legislation.

Advertisements

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?