Saturday, June 1, 2019

Animal Conference

When Harper was little, she called the annual gathering of clergy and laity of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference “animal conference”. We did correct her, though gently and with humor,  because it was adorable and funny.

Just this week, Harper informed me that she knew it was called “Annual Conference” now. She could pronounce it correctly. If we jokingly tried to get her to say “animal conference” again, she’d roll her eyes and remind us of how old she is now and how she’s learning and growing every day.

This week we’ll be traveling to Peoria to participate in the 2019 Annual Conference. There’s much work to be done, much to be celebrated, many friendships to renew, and deep conversations to have. Our conference is large and covers a lot of ground, so sometimes Annual Conference is the only chance we get to see certain pastor friends and their families. We look forward to it every year, kids and adults alike, even though it can be an emotionally and physically demanding time.

I’ve been reflecting on church a lot this week, as I’m running for a lay spot in our conference’s delegation to the 2020 General Conference in Minnesota. This is a big responsibility, as the delegation will be voting quite literally on the future of the United Methodist Church. After the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis was called to decide on the UMC’s policies on human sexuality, many have wondered if they can stay in a church that actively excludes beloved children of God. Some have left, unable to stay part of an exclusive and harmful system. Some are staying to try and repair, restitch, or revision the big tent that has long been the UMC—people who are challenged by full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers working alongside those that are not because our contexts may be different but we still love Jesus and work for the transformation of the world.

The Christian church in the US (and elsewhere) has been in decline for decades. Fewer and fewer people are opting to raise their families in church. There are many reasons for this: Sundays are no longer sacred, and many folks have to work or attend kids’ sporting events that day; churches may not offer the programs families are looking for; in rural areas, churches can be few and far between; churches can be insulated and unwelcoming to newcomers; people not raised in a church themselves are less likely to raise their own kids in church; church can be seen as hypocritical and antiquated in modern society, failing to feed the hungry and minister to the stranger while holding fast to white supremacy and patriarchy; or simply because people don’t see the point of church anymore.

The United Methodist Church is facing hard decisions. These decisions are not limited to what to do about human sexuality, but those are the ones getting the most attention. To me, it comes down to what our vision for the future will be: will we work toward a just and sustainable Church, where we prioritize care for the earth and each other? Or will we continue to maintain the status quo, which is doing harm to people everywhere?

Much like Harper learned to correctly say “Annual Conference” after patient guidance from those who love her, are we making space for the young members of the church to lead us in a different way? Young people raised in the church, like Todd and I, have been nurtured and challenged in our faith and are feeling a need to lead differently than in the past. Will we trust these emerging leaders? Or will we retreat to how things have always been done hoping our comfort will save us? What would Jesus do in the face of broken systems of oppression that are doing harm to his children?

Church has a terrible history. Church has a deep tradition. Church can have a beautiful future that recognizes these realities but tries to keep moving forward with love and justice as our guide. That’s what I’m praying for this week. I invite you to join me.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

An invitation to a deeper conversation

Through my grassroots interfaith environmental advocacy, I’ve gotten to know lots of men and women in rural Illinois, which is very different from where I grew up in suburban Detroit.

I was raised Catholic, went through 12 years of Catholic education including an all-girls high school. And then I went to a United Methodist affiliated college and met a boy brought up in the United Methodist church. 

We started going to church together, and I started looking at the gospel in a different way. I saw women able to preach and lead congregations for the first time. I learned more about social justice in our first years of marriage than I’d learned in all my years of catechism.

This didn’t create tension in my family, but it did generate some deep discussions about how our faith informs our ideas and our politics on the environment, health care, reproductive rights, economics, and human sexuality, to name a few. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t always agree with my parents. Sometime I don’t entirely agree with my husband. But we’ve been able to develop some ground rules over the years:

  • You can always find common ground
  • Assume one another's best intentions
  • Look for nuance—not everything is black and white
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Ignoring it won’t make it go away   
  • I’m a beloved child of God and so are you
I’ve learned that not everyone goes through this kind of transformation. Not everyone learns how to engage in difficult or political conversations with grace. And some of us opt to stay out of it entirely in the interest of avoiding conflict. This rarely works and only reinforces that we simply don’t know how to TALK with each other about important issues.

All of this was on full display during the 2016 presidential election process and continues to color our country’s political discourse. And in February 2019, my heart broke as I watched my beloved church begin down a path of pain and exclusion.

When the hosts of a podcast I listen to wrote a book this winter, I Think You’re Wrong But I’m Listening: A Guide toGrace-Filled Political Conversations, I read it in nearly one sitting. I had been craving a new way to engage my friends and neighbors in difficult conversations, and this was it.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is this:

“We do not demonstrate love toward our neighbors by demonizing them over how they feel about tax policy or reproductive rights. We do not turn the other cheek when we treat politics as an insular sphere in which fighting fire with fire is the only way. We do not live as the hands and feet of a loving creator when we opt out of the processes that dictate roads and bridges, school curriculum and water treatment, war and peace. Neither stridence or apathy is a virtue.”

The book outlines many of the above rules I’ve employed over the years, and added a few more:

  • Take off your team jersey: ever get between a Cubs fan and a Cards fan? We need to learn to prioritize our relationship with the person we’re disagreeing with rather than our team. That also means prioritizing deep understanding of a topic of disagreement rather than winning, which brings us to #2:
  •  Get curious: does that thing you read on the internet seem completely unbelievable? Does it make you angry? Well…maybe it’s designed to. Do some research. Ask questions. If you’ve been watching the news lately, I think we’ve learned that social media has been used to manipulate our emotions and quite possibly our votes. Know that the truth might challenge your beliefs, which brings us to #3:
  •  Exit the echo chamber: Balance your news outlets and consider the source. If it’s not being shown on several major news outlets, that should give you pause. Time to get curious again and do some research. Take the opportunity to discuss the drama du jour with someone who might think differently than you. And again, make it your goal to deeply understand the topic, not score points for your side.
As people of faith, we’re called to be leaders in doing this well, or at least to try.

That's why I'm running to be a lay delegate to General Conference 2020. That's why I participate in the IGRC Unity group.  And that's why I want to be in conversation with you, dear reader, especially if you're a voting member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church. 

We have much to decide in 2020. The special General Conference rulings on human sexuality are only a small part of the things I'm passionate about: I am deeply concerned about our disregard for and abuse of creation, our reconciliation with our Native American sisters and brothers, and the status and role of women. I believe God will work with us in our decision making and will use our pain and our joy for good.

What is your hope for the United Methodist Church? Where is the pain? The joy? How are you being called to ministry? Who isn't being heard? 

I'd love to have these conversations in person or on the phone. I want to listen. I want to understand. Email me at if you want to talk.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My #oneword for 2019

It's my favorite time of year (where my Enneagram 1's at?). Time to get organized! Finish projects! Lose weight! Tidy up (looking at you, Marie Kondo)! But also time to chart a course for 2019 by choosing one word to guide me.

I've done this for the past few years, and I've found it very helpful in setting the tone for the year. For example, last year's word BOLD was a theme in many of the things I accomplished. I continued my work at Faith in Place and transitioned to full time. 2019 will likely bring some bold new changes as I discern becoming an outreach director for our proposed southern Illinois office. 

I spoke and preached. I marched. I organized. I lead. I advocated. I raised almost $600 for Dressember. I traveled. I devoured books, blogs, and podcasts. I learned a lot about myself through the Enneagram. But I started noticing something I needed to do more of: listen.

Since moving to southern Illinois this summer, I've learned that our new community has different needs from the last one. I like to fix things, or at the very least connect people with resources, but sometimes it's best to just listen. So through face-to-face conversations and social media, I've started doing just that. But I see patterns and behaviors that challenge me and my faith: being stuck in black and white thinking or partisan politics. 

I've worked very hard to try and embrace both/and thinking, especially with challenging topics like health care, immigration, gun control, human sexuality, and climate justice (just to name a few). It's possible to hold complicated feelings about these issues that challenge our faith and our politics. I received an advanced copy of I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations and it has absolutely lit a fire in my soul. With every page I turn, I find myself nodding (or yelling) in agreement. And in one of those late-night reading jags, my word became clear: NUANCE. 

Nuance (noun) nu·​ance | \ˈnü-ˌän(t)s
sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value). 

I should say that this word is extremely hard for me. I'm an Enneagram 1. We're not so good at grey area. We are, "Conscientious with strong personal convictions...have an intense sense of right and wrong, personal religious and moral values." But the good news is, we also "...wish to be rational, reasonable, self-disciplined, mature, moderate in all things." So this year, I'm going to try strengthening those parts of me that want things to always be certain or or settled. As a person of faith, I need to learn to embrace (or at least try to remain open to) mystery, uncertainty, and grey area. I'm also hoping to work on finding shared values with those I disagree with and prioritizing relationship over rightness.
While we were visiting family in Michigan at the holidays, we attended worship at our old church in Warren, MI. I scribbled some notes in the margins of the bulletin to think about later, and as I was cleaning out my purse when we returned home on New Year's Day, rereading these notes told me I was on the right track with my word.

Pastor Melissa Claxton said that the new year is, "not about getting back to normal, but about starting something new." She's so right. I want NUANCE to be the new normal in my life. I hope I can make my work and personal relationships stronger by listening more. But most of all, I want my hard work to help me be a new creation, not just a thinner or tidier version of my old self.

What's your one word for 2019?

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Hope Candle Burns the Longest

I spent the first days of Advent in warm and sunny San Antonio, to meet and strategize with my fellow Jurisdiction Guides about the UMW Climate Justice goals for 2019.

This year we brought together several community organizations for a UMW event in Rio Texas Conference.  We introduced our Just Energy 4 All campaign, which focuses our advocacy and action around decarbonization of the transportation and energy sectors. We are doing corporate engagement with Ford and Chevron, advocating for stronger environmental standards at the EPA, and educating our members on our 13 Steps to Sustainability. We do these things together--big policy and systemic change in addition to small personal change--because there is no silver bullet to solve the climate crisis. We need all of it.

We heard about the dangers of oil and gas industry from many perspectives. We heard from Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, who has concerns about oil and gas workers and the lies they've been told about the health impacts of their work. She understands that the poor, rural residents of Karnes County, TX have been taken advantage of, promised tax revenue and jobs in return for leases to their land. Instead, drinking water wells have been poisoned, habitats destroyed, and the promised profits never materialized. Being good, neighborly folks, though, the residents don't want to make any trouble. So they allow the fracking to continue. But as Sister Elizabeth says, we're all children of God and deserve to live with clean land, air, and water.

We heard from Adelita Gonzalez Cantu from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. She shared the health impacts of the oil and gas industry in Karnes County, TX. It's true that unemployment has decreased since fracking arrived, but health issues like rashes, cancer, STDs, respiratory problems, crime, and pregnancy complications have increased. Another little known effect of fracking: increased traffic, noise and light pollution, insomnia, and stress. The fracking pads run day and night and are brightly lit. This makes it difficult for residents to sleep. And people who don't sleep well can suffer a host of other issues--addiction and marriage and family problems most notably. As one of her patients told her, "I know we can't make them [fracking companies] go away, all I want is for them to be good neighbors."

We also heard from Eloisa Portillo-Morales from the Office of Sustainability in the City of San Antonio talk about their Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Efforts to retire coal plants, increase solar, plant trees, and welcome climate refugees have been largely successful and ongoing. Their goal is an, "equitable, environmentally resilient, and economically viable future."

The UMW attendees listened and asked questions. They prayed and reflected. They participated in a Climate Justice Simulation Experience using a scenario from the Little Village community in Chicago that suffered environmental injustice from some dangerous coal and industrial plants. This was perhaps the most impactful part of the event, as participants were asked to assume the role of a member of the impacted community. Tears were shed and anger and despair were expressed. 

To be honest, though the event was a success, I felt weary. I'd heard and seen the health impacts of oil and gas this very same week last year in Pennsylvania. It was upsetting to know that these injustices were not isolated and that they were continuing.

I arrived back in southern IL tired from my travel and missing my family and routines. In my attempts to set things right, I unpacked our Advent wreath and Jesse Tree devotional. In our move this summer, our Advent candles were damaged (or perhaps melted from the heat) and replacements were needed. But as I held the lumpy purple and pink wax in my hands, I noticed the difference in size. One purple candle was quite small in comparison to the others. Having grown up lighting an Advent wreath, I knew why: the first candle of Advent, the Hope candle, burns the longest.

I was immediately comforted. When I feel like the world is falling apart and I alone can save it (LOL), I'm reminded that Christians were made for such a time as this. We've long been on the front lines of social change, and we can be here at the peak of the climate crisis, too. Sometimes that will look like testifying at an EPA hearing, as I did on behalf of UMW in September. Sometimes that will look like encouraging our churches to stop using styrofoam or starting to compost. We do all of this because we hope--hope to change, hope to save, hope to create a better world for our children.

The hope candle burns the longest. It will burn all throughout Advent. And it can burn in us well after. My prayer is that it might kindle our hope into action, and that those actions will catch fire in our churches and communities.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hungry Ghosts

 "There once was a man who was giving and kind. One day he was about to leave his house when a monk came by begging. The man instructed his wife to give the monk some food. After the man left his house his wife was overcome with greed. She took it upon herself to teach the monk a lesson, so she locked the monk in an empty room all day with no food. She was reborn as a hungry ghost for innumerable lifetimes." (source)

A few months back I heard a Buddhist teacher use a term I'd never heard before: hungry ghosts. In Buddhist and Taoist tradition, hungry ghosts are the wandering souls of people who endured particularly violent or unhappy deaths. Hungry ghosts can also emerge from neglect or desertion of living ancestors--that is, when they've been forgotten by their living relatives. According to tradition, desire, greed, anger, and ignorance in life are all factors in causing a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost, because these behaviors cause people to perform evil deeds.  

Ultimately, hungry ghosts are unable to take in what they desperately need. The problem lies in their constricted throats, which cannot open for nourishment. They wander aimlessly in search of relief that never comes.

This idea keeps coming back to me, especially as I watch the news these days. Desire, greed, anger, and ignorance are in seemingly unending supply. Though I'm a Christian and don't believe in reincarnation or karma based on my actions--good or bad--during my lifetime, I do believe that I will answer for my actions when I die, and I do think the behaviors of previous generations can impact future generations.

I've been learning about and reflecting upon the recent IPCC Climate Report, which states that we have 12 years to limit a climate catastrophe. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that an increase in temp even half a degree beyond 1.5C will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The half-degree difference could also prevent corals from being completely eradicated and ease pressure on the Arctic.

The root causes of this catastrophe? Over-consumption, greed, and a general lack of care for the poor. We have forgotten that the earth is a gift and caring for it reflects our love of creator and neighbor. And our children will bear the brunt of our mistakes.

As we enter the season of Advent, I'm trying to focus myself and my family on the birth of Jesus and not presents and busyness. I'm trying to teach them to be content with what they have and thoughtful about what they give. I'm hoping to show them how to take in the nourishment they need: family time, rest, good food, quiet. Most of all, I'm teaching them to care for others, like we read about today as we celebrated Christ the King Sunday:

"Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" (Matthew 25:37-40)

For me personally, that means participating in my 4th Dressember, where I'll wear a dress every day in December to raise funds and awareness for the millions of women and children impacted by human trafficking. For my family, that means coordinating and giving to our church Angel Tree and being mindful of our consumption at the holidays--decreasing our food and paper waste, recycling all we can, and keeping to our Want Need Wear Read gifts rule (even asking the grandparents to join in this year!). 

How are you and your family fighting for what you really need this holiday season?