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Down by the Riverside

A Change in Plans

Laura & Barbara playing in Silvermine Creek by one of our campgrounds
 

     When our daughters were three and four, we went on a month-long camping trip along the Appalachian Mountain range from Georgia to Maryland. Our plan on this "Month of May" adventure was to canoe as many spring-running whitewater rivers as we could before the girls were in school. Multiple factors had to align for our plan to succeed: weather, water level, shuttle, child care, and appropriate degree of difficulty for our skills. 
     When we were at Harper's Ferry, for example, we hoped to canoe the Staircase section of the Shenandoah River. We found a reputable day care that would accept drop-ins, so childcare was arranged. But the Shenandoah was near flood stage. Seeing us look longingly at the rollicking current, a ranger told us they'd rescued a kayaker by helicopter from that section the day before.

     Okay. Maybe not.
     He suggested we try Antietam Creek, a Class I-II stretch that went through the Antietam National Battlefield. Sigh. Being adrenalin junkies, we'd hoped for a more challenging run.
     But Antietam Creek turned out to be one of the most interesting trips of our month. Paddling through the green fields flanking the river, thinking of the soldiers who'd fallen here, we were filled with sadness and reverence. 23,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded here on September 17, 1862, in the single bloodiest day of the Civil War: part of the awful cost of ending slavery.
     We floated under Burnside Bridge in silence.    

     However, later in the trip, after we sluiced through the remains of an old dam, we got our adrenalin spike anyway. When we eddied upriver behind the dam to look at the stonework, we saw a sudden blur of motion on the rocks.
     "Backpaddle, backpaddle!" Ed shouted.
     Dozens of snakes were waving their heads on the jumbled stones where they'd been sunning themselves. Some slipped into the water. Yikes. We were glad the girls weren't with us.
     We learned two quite different things from our change in plans. The first lesson was easy: Don't mess with snakes. The second lesson took more thought: Honor the fallen. Remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Their example will help us fight injustice where we see it. For the sake of all the children.

"Go to Pharoah and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord: Let my people go.'" Exodus 9:1 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Deep River," Marian Anderson, The Very Best of Marian Anderson, 2009.

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Eve in the Garden

Unidentified Spiny Object, Lakelands Trail, Pinckney

     Besides lifting my spirits during the pandemic, daily hikes provided another benefit: the pleasure of learning new things. As I walked through the woods, I saw many plants and trees I did not know.
     So, I decided to identify something beautiful or interesting each day. I started with wildflowers because, unlike birds, flowers don't move. Over time, I got a kick from identifying less popular flora like fungus, ferns, lichen, and vines.
     I felt like Eve in the Garden of Eden, gesturing grandly and saying the names of things as I passed by: Scarlet Cups. Christmas Fern. Wrinkled Shield Lichen.
     This September, I saw a spiny green fruit hanging from a vine that had five-lobed leaves and curly tendrils. "What the heck is that?" I asked Ed. He shrugged.
     This is my method for identifying flora and fauna:

1. Look carefully, Note color, shape, size, habitat.
2. Ask random people walking by. "Do you know what this is?" Most don't, but I get some interesting looks.
3. Take a picture with my cell phone.
4. Once home, consult the nature guidebooks on my shelf. The color-coded sections of the wildflower book are particularly helpful, although the placement of entries is sometimes confusing. Like Blue-Eyed Mary in the purple section.
5. I go to the internet only after these steps don't work.    
     "Why don't you use an app right away?" someone said. "I just point my phone at it and use an image search." His expression conveyed what he was thinking: You dinosaur.
     Well, I learn better when I pay close attention. And I retain the knowledge longer. Most of all, I have the thrill of discovery. 
     Curiosity helps keep me alive and moving in the dreariest of seasons. When I found some cute little yellow mushrooms in the moss along the Huron River last November, it chirked me up no end. Their name? Waxy Cap.  
     And the spiny fruit on the vine? Wild Cucumber. Though it's related to domestic cucumber, it has no fleshy fruit, and with those spines, you wouldn't want to eat it anyway. But it's fun to know.
     May you learn something new today. And may that discovery bring you joy.

"The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals." Genesis 2:20 (CEB)
Playlist: "Morning Has Broken," Cat Stevens, Greatest Hits, 1975.

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Dark

Tree Reflections, Paved Trail, Hudson Mills Metropark

     The last Monday of October gave us a sneak preview of what was coming. Cold. Damp. Gray.
     "My favorite Michigan weather," a friend of mine grumbled. "39 degrees and raining."
     The Scots call such weather dreich. "It's pronounced dree-xch," Rev. Derek Webster explained on a preaching website. "You have to gargle the last sound in the back of your throat, '—ahch.' Just saying it, you feel it: Dreich."

     November is my least favorite month. And people know it. My parishioners used to tease me, "Here comes Sondra's annual I-hate-November sermon."
     My father suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive condition brought on by shorter daylight hours. Perhaps I do, too. Like a bear preparing to hibernate, I just want to eat sweets and sleep.
     I always dread the coming dark.
     And yet.
     When I remembered on that Monday how daily hikes helped keep my spirits up during the pandemic last fall, I decided to go for a walk. Even though the sun had already set. When I pulled into the parking lot of Hudson Mills Metropark, there were only two other cars. And they were leaving. I had the whole 2.7-mile paved walking trail all to myself.
     The wet trail shone in the dim light. Feeling smug and protected in my raincoat and rain pants, I strode through the puddles. Unseen leaves rattled over the pavement. Acorns skittered away from my boots. Faintly silver, the Huron River flowed alongside me in the dark.

     I came home happy and glowing warm. Like it says in the old spiritual, I had laid down my burden "down by the riverside." I scrolled through my phone to find this photo from last November. I never would gotten the photo had I stayed home.
     May comfort come to you in the dark.

"Even the darkness is not dark to you." Psalm 139:12 (NRSV)
Play List: "Down by the Riverside," Etta James, Oh Happy Day, 2003

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Scissors

On Monday morning, while waiting for my tea water to boil and struggling to re-assemble the kitchen shears we'd taken apart to clean, I saw the headline on the article my husband was reading: "Quiet town of Chelsea divided amid calls for racial justice, support for police."[1]

The scissors wobbled in my hands. With morning-fog-brain, I couldn't get the knobs on the post on one blade to line up with the corresponding hole on the other blade. I felt instantly frustrated.

Not only could I not put together the scissors, I had to deal with arguments before I had my caffeine.

The town of Chelsea was where we worshipped. The grandmother of some of the Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth belonged to our church. When she'd signed up for an anti-racism discussion group I was leading, I asked her why. She said that her grandchildren were involved in the protests. And there were three police officers in her extended family. "I just want to understand," she said.

It struck me that the two blades of the scissors were like the opposing views described in the article. "We need both sides," I told my husband. "We need justice for people of color. But we can't do away with the police."

"I haven't heard anyone [in the Black Lives Matter movement] say we should get rid of the police," my husband said. "But why are police showing up in full riot gear when people are peaceful? Why are they armed at all?"

In February 2006, my husband and I had visited Dublin, Ireland, where street riots had broken out following a political march. Though the Irish economy was booming, many citizens had been left behind. Building cranes spiked the city skyline—office buildings could not go up fast enough—but there was a severe shortage of affordable housing. People were waiting years to get a two-bedroom apartment, let alone a single-family home. In downtown Dublin, rioters had picked up bricks from the building sites and hurled them at the Gardai, the Irish police. Fourteen people, including six Gardaí and a small number of journalists and photographers, were hospitalized. But there were no fatalities. In Ireland, police officers on patrol do not routinely carry guns.

Though protestors and counter-protestors had shouted at each other, most of the subsequent violence, looting and arson were attributed to persons unrelated to the political march.    

One of the other members of our church discussion group, the father of a high school junior, said, "I am afraid. Of white people. I am afraid that a white person with a gun will shoot my son. Or one of his friends." A participant at one of the first Chelsea protests said she saw a white bystander openly fingering his handgun while watching the marchers. 

As a nation, we're fumbling to find solutions to the intractable problem of centuries-old systemic racism embedded in the laws and attitudes of our country. Lack of affordable housing also happens to be an issue in Chelsea, just one of the reasons that community is not more diverse. Those who oppose low-income housing in Chelsea cite fears that their property values will decrease and the historic flavor of the community will change.

How can we reassemble the divided halves of our nation? Perhaps we should look for the things that hold us together, like the knobs on the post in my scissors. All of us want to live in safe, prosperous, and just communities. Before exploding in frustration at each other, perhaps we should name the values we share. Like life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

It may also be helpful to look beyond binary thinking, to go deeper than the either/or positions often presented to us by the media. A post I saw on Facebook showed three intersecting circles. In one circle was the caption, "Supports Good Police Officers." In another was, "Believes that Black Lives Matter." In the third, "Upset at Police Brutality." Where the three circles intersected was the word: ME. It's okay to believe all three.

And, let's be patient with ourselves and one another. Particularly since we all have moments of "fog brain," trying to eradicate racism at the same time as we're fighting a pandemic. As one youth quoted in the article said, this work will take a long time.

But each of us can do something right now: talk respectfully to family and friends with whom we disagree; learn about one another's experience with racism; advocate for de-escalation training for police.

It's better than throwing bricks.



[1] https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/09/06/chelsea-residents-protest-racial-justice-support-for-police/3435474001/

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Not Enough

Eleven weeks ago I thought it was enough to survive the COVID-19 lockdown with my health and sanity intact. I set a goal of hiking every day. I worked to keep my spirits up. I contacted friends and family to make sure they were okay. I finished a book proposal and tackled long-delayed household projects. I stayed at home and wore a mask and tried not to pick fights with my husband with whom I was sequestered 24/7.

 

Then George Floyd died on May 25 after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes, even though Floyd kept saying, "I can't breathe." In the aftermath, during protests and commentaries, people of color shared story after story of how they lived in fear of police brutality every day.

 

I thought about black colleagues and mentors who told me they were afraid for their sons. I thought about our daughter's friends at Southfield High School, amazing scholars and athletes and human beings. I thought about how I've had to struggle against the inclination to ignore the experience of people of color as long as I and my family are safe. In the 1890's sociologist W.E.B. Dubois noticed our nation's "peculiar indifference" to the suffering, poverty and poor health of black people. I've noticed that indifference in myself, and had to repent of it over and over again.

 

So, it's not enough just to survive the pandemic. Although given the relentless downward spiral of bad news, it remains crucial to cultivate love and joy and hope and gratitude. More than surviving, though, I need to do what is in my power to make a difference: to pray, march, write, teach an anti-racism class at my church. I need to help create a nation in which all people are valued. As we emerge from our houses, blinking in the sunlight, that's the only kind of "new normal" worth coming out to claim.

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Easter 2020

One of the projects I've been working on while we're isolated at home is to go through old files and photos. I found a letter I wrote 11 years ago to the congregation at South Lyon First United Methodist Church. Some of you may remember that time, the recession of 2009. People were losing their jobs. They worried about paying their bills and wondered what the future would hold. We need some good news, I said in the letter.

 

This pandemic is even worse. We cover our faces with masks. We're afraid to go outside. Health care workers, food providers, and first responders risk death just to do their jobs.

 

But what I said in April 2009 is still true:
Easter morning tells us that there is good news:  Love wins. The world did its worst on Jesus. He was arrested, mocked, scourged and crucified. His terrified disciples went into hiding. But God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus appeared to his disciples, alive! He spoke to them, touched them, ate with them. His presence restored their faith that God was with them. The disciples had thought that evil had won, but they were wrong. Goodness is stronger than evil and God's love is stronger than death.

 

In these days when it takes all our energy not to give in to fear, if we look, we can see signs that love still wins. I heard this morning that more than 900 masks had been sewn for health care workers by the Chelsea-based group, Material Girls. Church members are stocking food pantry shelves and delivering Meals on Wheels. On balconies and porches around the world, people are singing and shouting in gratitude for the courage of health care workers and others who serve us.

 

This is the message of Easter: no matter how hard it gets, in the end, love wins. "I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus told his disciples. "I will come again, and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also." We are not alone in our struggles. God holds our future in loving hands.

 

So, I send you my warmest wishes for a joyous Easter in the midst of the pandemic. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed.

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The Gift of (Virtual) Worship

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25.

 

This morning I cried at the beginning of the worship service that was live streamed from my church. The pastor, three musicians, and two other leaders from Chelsea First UMC led more than a hundred viewers in worship via Facebook Live.

I didn't expect to react so strongly – I didn't know how hungry I was for comfort and for community. And this is just the second week of quarantine!   

As I sang the first hymn in my living room, I realized that I've taken corporate worship for granted. Obsessed with doing it certain ways, pre-occupied with my own or others' "performance," hyper-critical of my own or others' mistakes, I had forgotten a simple truth: We need worship.

We need to hear the scriptures read aloud by a beautiful human voice. We need to sing songs of faith that lodge spiritual truths deep in our hearts. We need to pray for each other's joys and sorrows and anxieties and fears. We need to be encouraged by one another to obey Jesus' commands and to show love in tangible ways to the people around us.


Thank you, God, for the gift of worship. Thank you for isolation if it reminds me  how much I need others and you. Thank you for the creativity of worship leaders who fashion new ways to praise you. Thank you for how you are at work for good in the world through nurses and doctors and first responders and grocery store workers and so many others we don't even know. Thank you for civic leaders who make difficult decisions for the sake of us all. Give them wisdom and humility and courage as the crisis continues.

Bless and comfort those who are suffering. As we hunker down for the long haul, give us patience and strength and humor and resilience. Make us truly grateful for what we have. By your grace we will make it through; in Jesus' name. Amen.

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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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