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GC3: The Purple Dress

To my brothers and sisters in Liberia:

 

When I was pastor at South Lyon First United Methodist Church, we prayed for you every Sunday, and trusted that you were praying for us. We rejoiced with you when the clean water wells we helped dig stopped old people and children in your village from dying of "running stomach." We poured over the photos of you brought back from our mission team, photos of the hand pump and the John Dean Town midwives and the Gretta Moffatt schoolchildren. I placed the photo of your church leaders beside my desk so that I could see it every day while I worked. I spoke from the pulpit about how God was doing great things through our relationship. I wore the beautiful purple dress you sent back for me with joy.

 

Then the Special General Conference happened.

Afterwards, rumors flew that the Liberian delegation had voted for the Traditional Plan because their bishop told them to. "Vote the way I tell you – they'll send money anyway," he supposedly said. Rumors flew that the coalition of traditionalists was "playing hardball" to get their opponents out of the church. An email was leaked in which a leader in your delegation called supporters of the One Church Plan "heretics."

With all the rumors, it was hard to know what was true. With all the rumors, it was hard to know what to do.

I felt bewildered and betrayed.  

I understand that you serve Jesus in a different culture than mine. I understand that many of you interpret the Bible differently than I do. I had hoped the One Church Plan would allow us to do the ministries our own settings require. Gay Christians are members of my family, my church, and my community. They are faithful to Jesus Christ. The Traditional Plan that is now in place would expel me for performing their weddings or welcoming them as colleagues.

 

How will we be in ministry together if I am kicked out of the church?

I need you to know that this really hurts. Some of my friends are saying it is time break the long-standing covenant relationship between our two annual conferences. They're saying that it's time to cut you loose.

 

I've been praying for months about what to do.

 

The answer came from a leader in my conference, the Rev. Paul Perez, who supports human rights for everyone. He told us that now is not the time to withdraw from our mission relationships. "Discontinuing international giving or ending relationships will not undo the Traditional Plan or further the cause of justice for LGBTQIA persons," he said. Instead, United Methodists should "struggle to dismantle the interlocking systems of oppression" (the traditional word for this is "sin") that threaten human survival. "When it comes to missions, institutions come and go," he said. "It is relationships that matter, relationships that embody God's healing, redeeming, and liberating grace."

 

Yes.

I look again at the purple dress you gave me, I think about the person who stitched its seams. I think about the schoolchildren in their blue and yellow uniforms I think about the midwives in their bright head scarves going from village to village to instruct mothers in newborn care. I think of the women and girls coming, day after day, to draw water from that well….

We all drink from the same well, the living water of Jesus Christ. (John 4:10,14)

Here it is: I can't imagine being a United Methodist without being part of a worldwide mission partnership. I need you to hold me accountable. And you need me. I can't imagine life without you. And the children, who always suffer the most when adults fight, still need clean water, medicine, education, love.

Though it will take some time for our broken relationship to heal, I will keep the purple dress. May God speed the day when I can wear it again with joy.

 

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Summer

I know I owe you a post about whether to keep supporting global United Methodist missions, but today I just want to talk about summer. I took a walk last night at sunset along Mill Creek on the Border to Border Trail that goes through Dexter, Michigan.

Oh, it was beautiful: the slantways sun haloing the grasses along the creek; the glug and burble of water over rocks; the gray clouds piling up in the north and west; the red-winged blackbirds swinging on cattails with their demanding trill, "Look, look at me!" Bicyclers sped up the trail toward the fireworks display at Hudson Mills Metropark. One group was pulling a child's trailer, packed not with a baby, but with gear. "Looks interesting up ahead," one man said. "Just so we've got our rain gear and beer," the other replied.

I was glad to be walking the trail alone, free to pause and look at whatever I wanted. I could scan for racoon tracks in the mud, admire the perfect sphere of a milkweed blossom, anticipate the plenitude of ripening black raspberries. Summer! Afterwards, it was fun to come home and tell Ed what I had seen, to report how a few people had lined their cars and lawn chairs in the parking lot of the township hall facing east toward the park. I had asked them if they could see the fireworks from there. A young father with blond hair said, "So we're told."
"How clever of you," I said to him.
"Are you going to watch?" he asked me.
"I don't think so – I'm not much for crowds."
"Me neither," he said. He swept his hand to indicate the row of their chairs. "That's why we're here." He smiled. "We'll see you if you come back."
What a nice invitation! The clouds darkened, though, as we spoke, and I doubted I'd return. I was tired, and wanted to go home.

Later, rain came down heavily, straight down in sheets, in pillows and blankets. I imagined them scrambling for their cars, and was even more glad I'd gone home. Still, the fireworks watchers would have stories to tell their co-workers in the morning about their drenched clothes, and the puddles, and the mud. Maybe the mother would be cross, saying, "This was a stupid idea," but I like to think that the children laughed and danced as they got spattered by the warm rain, exulting in being out late with their parents, steam rising from the pavement and the green scent of wet woods billowing toward them.

Being at the park earlier that evening, alone, had brought out the kid in me – choosing my footing with care, balancing my weight, I had hopped on stone after stone into the fast-moving current, getting as close to the whitewater as I could. A man walking his dog laughed to see me – a grandma playing in the creek.

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GC2: Leave?

A clergy colleague said to me, "I'm not staying in a church that is harming my daughter.  I'm not giving it my money, either." A former parishioner told me, "I'll give it one more year. After that, I'm gone."

 

I look at the baptismal collage hanging in my office beside the photo of the water well our congregation helped dig in Liberia. The collage contains my baptism certificate, a print of a dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the words of John Wesley, "Do all the good you can…" The well photo is captioned with my favorite Bible verse, Hebrews 12:1-2: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

I was baptized as an infant on November 20, 1955, in the church where my father grew up, Hayes Methodist Episcopal, a small church in farm country in the Thumb of Michigan. My father was baptized there as a youth on October 1, 1944, an event recorded in my grandmother's diary: "We all had to go up to the front and stand while the boys were baptized. A Solemn Service." Her aspiration that her third son be a preacher was coded in his name: "John Wesley Smith." I think of all of the generations of parents and preachers and Sunday School teachers at Hayes Church, and so many churches like it, a great cloud of witnesses.

 

Should I leave the church in which I was baptized, raised, married, and ordained?  Should I leave the church I served as a pastor for more than 35 years?

Nostalgia exerts a powerful pull, but nostalgia isn't enough. I care about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our two daughters are still Methodists, though its official stance on LGBTQIA+ persons judges one and offends the other. Their young clergy friends worry about their careers in a church that will punish them for ministering to all of their congregants. With my daughters and their friends, I long for a church in which all are fully welcome. I long for a church in which one of my preaching students, the descendant of circuit riders, could be ordained, too.

The new punitive clauses in the Discipline to enforce the UMC's forty-year stance declaring homosexual practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching puts me at a crossroads. Is it time to leave? If I perform one more gay wedding, they will kick me out anyway. Should I leave before they do?

 

Stay or go?

 

Here's what I say: I'm not going anywhere. This is my church, too. It takes more than General Conference legislation passed by a slim margin to make a church.

The blood of Methodists flows in my veins. Another piece of memorabilia that survived multiple moves is my copy of a Methodist class meeting ticket from Newcastle, England, dated 1843. It belonged to one of my father's great-great-greats, Mary Smith, and was passed from my grandmother to my father to me.

It's more than a piece of paper. It represents my connection with the pragmatic and indomitable spirit of John Wesley, who witnessed to the transforming love of God in the face of persecution, whose spiritual and organizational genius created small groups to help Methodists grow in faith and keep them accountable to each other. I am accountable to those with whom I disagree. And they are accountable to me. The mean-spirited legislation of GC2019 needs to be changed. I'm going to stay to help change it. Stay and disobey.  

 

How, then, do I remain in covenant relationship with those who want me gone, particularly some Liberian colleagues? That's a question for my next blog.

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GC1: Lament

To my fellow United Methodists,

 

General Conference was more than two months ago, and I've been struggling with what to say about it. I didn't want to write out of hurt or anger. I didn't want to say something I'd regret, which can happen in family arguments. I hoped I'd have a clearer perspective as time passed.

But I'm still hurt and angry – and bewildered. Because some in my church have targeted people I love. And they've targeted me.

 

I performed the wedding for my youngest daughter in 2016. I disobeyed the Discipline on this one matter because she's my daughter, and she's a United Methodist. Before performing the ceremony, I informed the bishop and the leaders of my congregation. While everyone did not agree with my decision, we continued to do ministry together. When I was brought up on charges, and went through a just resolution, I kept the contents of the resolution confidential, as I'd promised.    

Now, some of my colleagues, with whom I've done ministry for more than 35 years, want me to leave. If I perform another gay wedding, they will strip me of my orders.  They will take down from the wall of my office the ordination certificate signed by Bishop Edsel A. Ammons that has hung there since 1984.

 

It doesn't seem to matter to these colleagues that I've honored their work, praised their successes, and refused to speak evil of them, as John Wesley commanded. It doesn't seem to matter to my colleagues in Liberia, whose photo sat beside my desk every day, for whom I prayed during worship every week, for whom I raised money to dig wells, start clinics, and support schools.  


They want me to leave. Because, on this one thing, I disagree.

 

It seems to me that across the spectrum of belief, United Methodists are doing what the apostle Paul said the body of Christ should not do: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" (1 Corinthians 12:21)

 

We are dishonoring each other. And it is breaking my heart.

 

The prouder you are to be a United Methodist, the deeper it cuts. The more you believe in our shared mission, the more you value the genius of our founder who combined vital piety and social holiness, the more it hurts.

Theologically diverse congregations, like the one I served in South Lyon, who worked hard to stay together – praying, studying, worshiping, and serving alongside people with whom they disagreed – will be hardest hit.

 

I don't know what to pray for.  

My husband suggested I pray the psalms of lament. In Psalm 3, it says, "O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!" Or Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?" At the end, the psalmist says, "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation."  

Help us, Lord.

 

Should I leave my church? Or stay and disobey? Should I continue to support missions in Africa? Those are questions for another day.

 

All I can do now is grieve. And pray.

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Eulogy for My Mom

Mary Blanche Inwood Smith

In Memory of Mary Blanche Inwood Smith

April 4, 1933 – April 10, 2019

 

There's a brick in the walkway to the remodeled library at Adrian College that's inscribed "John and Mary Smith, 1955."  (Adrian College is where they met.) There's a collection of Native American arrowheads from the Inwood family on display in the Nature Center at Stony Creek Metropark, and sign that says, "Inwood Trail," due in large part to my Mom's efforts. (She picked huckleberries there as a child.) There's a new surface on the parking lot here at Shabbona United Methodist Church repaved with Mom's generosity. She helped her grandkids with the educational and other expenses. She lived simply and gave generously. I learned stewardship from my Mom, watching her give to charities and churches and people all her life.

From my Mom I also learned to love the earth – the scent of freshly-turned soil in the garden, wildflowers blooming in the grasses beyond, birds at the feeder, different kinds of apples, some of which no longer exist. She didn't scold me for roaming the fields and bringing critters into the house – spiders in a glass jar covered with netting, beetles, ant farms. She gave me curtain sheers to make a butterfly net. She actually bought a butterfly collection that I made to display in her classroom at Loon Lake Elementary School.

From my Mom I learned hard work – Lord, Lord. What she accomplished from a wheelchair after polio paralyzed her legs at 21. Cooking, cleaning, canning, laundry, lesson plans, weeding, pushing that wheelchair through the soft dirt of the garden.  Driving the car with hand controls to get her Master's Degree in Education at Oakland University.  She taught school for 22 years, even on days when the parking lot was ice and Dad put nails in the tips of her crutches so she wouldn't slip. She was really smart, too. When I told her recently that she had a beautiful mind, she said, "The devil is that it's in a pain-ridden body." But she was a fighter. She had that Inwood stubbornness, I mean tenacity.

I also learned to love the Bible from my Mom. It was hard to pick just four scriptures for her service because she loved the whole thing. When she went into the hospital, she had four different bookmarks in her Bible – Second Chronicles, Psalms, Acts, and Ephesians. Second Chronicles!!! She taught Bible classes with Dad at Milford and Shabbona United Methodist Churches. She attended Bible studies faithfully at Country Gardens. She was the one who inscribed the Bible my parents gave me for my ninth birthday – her familiar block print, which was a lot better than her handwriting.

So, I also learned about faith from my Mom. "How do you pray, Mom?" I asked her once. "It's like floating," she said. "You let the water hold you up." Some measure of Dad's success in ministry was due to her – she taught confirmation class, listened to parishioners, and climbed those stupid steps at Commerce UMC every Sunday in her long braces. Grab the rail with one hand, lift the inside leg with the other, and swing the outside leg around. Step by step. I stood behind her, holding her purse. Just watching her live her life was an inspiration to so many. "If Mary can do it, so can I," people would say.  

She was amazing, but she wasn't perfect. The constant pain often made her anxious and cranky. She wasn't easy to care for. It drove me crazy when she played the martyr. The same thing I said about Dad in his eulogy I could say about her – she was equal parts inspiring and infuriating. But the two of them – they had a deep love and loyalty to each other. Sometimes I wished she'd stood up to him more.

None of us are perfect. Don't we all know that. We all are mixtures of strengths and weaknesses, faults and virtues. But still God uses us for his work in the world, to love the people around us. She taught me about that, too.

Listen to what she told me in the hospital after she made the brave decision to go into hospice care. "I'm glad I'm a Christian," she said. "God is good. He loves us so much. He weeps when we weep. I'm so proud of all my children. I've had a rich and blessed life. So many good folks – fellow teachers, church people, especially in Wisconsin who cared for my family when I was in the hospital with polio."  I imagine all of those good people lining the streets of heaven to welcome her home.

Thanks, Mom, for what you taught me: generosity, delight in this beautiful world, hard work, tenacity, faith, and love. I hope I can fight half as hard as you did. Now you can rest from your labors, free of pain. May all of your good works follow you. 

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Unbind Me

To my brothers and sisters in Christ in Liberia,

This is my second letter to you on my blog. Two months ago I wrote apologizing for President Trump when he called nations in Africa “shithole countries.” He does not speak for me. I feel privileged to be a partner with you in ministry in the United Methodist Church. By working together, we’ve dug wells, built churches, provided health care to mothers and babies, and supported schoolchildren. God is good.

This letter is more difficult. I’m writing to ask you to consider voting to change the United Methodist Book of Discipline as it relates to homosexuals. We serve the same Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But our cultural contexts are very different, and we interpret the Bible differently.

I believe that sexual orientation is not a sin or a choice, but something determined from birth. I could no more ask someone to change their sexual orientation than the color of their skin. Nor can I, who have enjoyed the love of my husband for 42 years, ask gay Christians to endure a lifetime of loneliness by insisting they remain unmarried or celibate.

There are gay Christians in my “village” who need to be fully welcomed into the United Methodist Church. They’ve been baptized. They pray, they read the Bible, they sing and raise their hands in praise. They tithe. They serve their churches with the spiritual gifts God has given them. I want to able to perform their weddings. I want to serve alongside them as pastors when God calls them into ministry. I believe the United Methodist Church in the United States needs their leadership.

Please. Unbind me from the prohibitions of ¶161.F, ¶ 304.3, and ¶341.6.

I take the Bible very seriously. When I come upon a difficult passage or issue, I try to read it through Jesus’ central teaching that we shall love God and our neighbor as ourselves. John Wesley used the “law of love” when he addressed the issue of slavery in the 18th century. Though the Bible permits holding of slaves, Wesley said, slavery is inconsistent with the teaching and practice of Jesus. So he told Methodists to free their slaves and work for abolition.

Regardless of what happens in St. Louis next February when the General Conference meets, I will continue to pray for you and continue to send money to Liberia, as I have in the past, for wells, churches, health clinics, orphanages, and schools. Please continue to pray for me and for my faithfulness in caring for God’s people here.

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Sondra Willobee
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I'm sorry

To my brothers in sisters in Christ in Haiti and Liberia,

I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m embarrassed for my country. I want you to know that President Donald Trump does not speak for me in calling Haiti and nations in Africa “shithole countries.” I am appalled at his racist rhetoric.

I have not had the privilege of travelling to Haiti or Liberia. But all of the church leaders, pastors, and mission workers I’ve met as part of our covenant relationship in the Michigan Area of the United Methodist Church have been nothing but gracious, courageous, dedicated, and spirit-filled.

I treasure our partnership in ministry, and prize the knowledge that you pray for us and we pray for you. It’s been a highlight of my ministry to help raise money to dig wells, provide health care, feed schoolchildren and spread the good news of Jesus’ love for all people.

I ask your forgiveness and pray a fulfillment of Ephesians 4:29 by all national leaders: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Please continue to pray for us that we might be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Sondra Willobee  Read More 
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Gratitude

I’m full of gratitude last night and this morning. I felt so good yesterday evening after a day of work inside and outside – the whole afternoon in the yard, clearing brushy plants from the perimeter so we can blow leaves more easily into the woods. The air was cool and golden light shone through the leaves.

After dinner I sat on the patio, drinking tea and eating gingersnaps, watching clouds move overhead and dusk creep into the recesses of the yard. I went to sleep on a bed made for a queen with dark polished wood, curved posts, and intricate knobs. Pleasantly tired, I lay awake looking forward to the next day of rest and writing.

This morning Ed made us mushroom omelets with swiss cheese – and orange juice and fresh strawberries and good hot tea. I again felt like a queen. Though we call ourselves middle-class, we live like royalty used to – in a spacious home that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, eating elaborate meals with fresh fruit from far places, having many choices of clothing in beautiful colors and fabrics. Many people of lesser means serve us – waitresses, store clerks, parking lot attendants, the young woman in a light blue uniform at the hospital wiping the fingerprints from the shiny glass stairwell.

“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” the psalmist asks in Psalm 116. “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

I want to lift up the cup of my life in gratitude, and pour it out so others may be blessed. One of the things I will do today is write a check so a student in Liberia has tuition for the year (an amount not much more than Ed and I spend for a nice dinner out.) I will resolve not to covet, enjoying what I have, remembering Jesus’ warning that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I will put what I have at his disposal – time, energy, goods – and work for a more just distribution of the world’s resources.

I’ll lace up my hiking boots and walk in the CROP walk for hunger this Sunday. I could call or write my representatives in Congress to say that everyone needs access to basic things – clean water and education and health care, to name a few. Americans like me, wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, need to share – not hoard – what we have. Guide me, O God, as I live in gratitude today.
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Learning from Women

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. –2 Timothy 1:5-7 NRSV

I’m sitting at the feet of women who are long dead. “Sitting at the feet of” is the posture of a disciple with a rabbi. “What can you teach me, Mother?” I ask these women. I need wisdom as I enter a new phase of my life in an uneasy season in an uneasy world.

The first woman is my grandmother, a farm wife in Huron County, Michigan, at whose kitchen table I sat as a child, eating apples from the cellar and listening to stories of her life. Only later would I realize what terrible things went untold, held behind her pursed lips and pale blue eyes. I have some of her diaries, the earliest from the years of World War II. Her entries are maddeningly brief. She reports the barest of facts – rarely how she feels about them. If I read between the lines, try to understand her heart, perhaps I can understand, and learn how to live my days.

“What can you teach me, grandmother?” I ask. I live in a time of polarized leadership, violent prejudices, calamitous disasters, even the threat of nuclear attack. Yet in my small sphere, I’m incredibly fortunate: newly-retired after a difficult, but rewarding career as a pastor, I’m able to spend luxurious amounts of time outdoors and at my writing desk. I’m free to wander fields, name wildflowers, and slip my canoe in the water on a Monday afternoon. I’m free to be with family and friends, eating and drinking and talking and playing, preparing to welcome our first grandchild. I’m free to write where the words take me, free to make mistakes, following the words until the trail ends or grows over, and I must turn around and find a new way.

The other women are in a devotional book, Meditations for Women, published in 1947, given me by my mother-in-law in 1979. It’s been on my shelf all these years, unread. When she gave it to me, I thought it quaint and dated. Now it interests me because it coincides with the time of my grandmother’s diary. When I open it, the binding cracks and a piece of the cover breaks off. The prose is more flowery than ours, but the insights ring true. And perhaps these women who raised children and rebuilt communities and reflected on the life of the spirit in those strange post-war years can help me as I care for my daughter and grandchild and try to resume the odd life of writing.

I claim the promises of these who have gone before me, who laid hands on me literally or figuratively, and ask for their blessing. Through the re-kindling of the Holy Spirit, may I live a disciplined life, speaking the truth in love, with freedom, boldness, and power.  Read More 
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