You know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Culture is always emerging.
You get what that means, right? That the world and ways around you are always shifting — always innovating. The introduction of new things and new methods continues to happen every moment of every day, whether or not we are willing to embrace it. The larger question lies in how we choose to respond. Do we welcome the uncomfortableness of the new or do we double down with a comfortable existence in the world?
Regardless, shift happens.
Am I allowing this shift to happen in me? Always for the good? Always letting go of the old me in order to make room for the new, less comfortable me? I have to be honest with you for a moment: Every morning, I wake and have to check myself because it feels like the ground beneath my feet continues to shift. I feel compelled to regularly address the question: Who am I?
Around our country, overt hate and xenophobia have stepped out from behind a thin veil in a sprint to become the new norm. It’s bolstered by unapologetic fearmongering and outright lies. And, it’s insane. I refuse to allow it to gain a foothold among the space Christ calls me to steward in the world — a place of peace, hope, and justice. I simply refuse. Being a United Methodist demands that I “do no harm,” “do good,” and “stay in love with God.”
How do I allow myself to be undone and recreated by the grace of God? There’s enormous value in the process of unlearning my cultural identity as an American Christian and relearning what it means to be a follower of a rogue revolutionary, un-American, Middle Eastern-born person of color, represented in Jesus the Christ. Secondly, how does my personal undoing become a part of a corporate rebirth — shifting from individual to community?
I am always drawn to Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, which you can read in chapters five through the beginning of seven in the Gospel of Matthew. There, you have this 30-something newcomer, sitting on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, with disciples, followers, and the curious gathered around. Among people who have been shaped for generations under the Law of Moses, Jesus calls into question everything that had defined their perspective of the world. He basically said in varying ways, “You have heard the law that says _______________. But now I say _______________.” Jesus was rewriting the Torah on the fly! Surely people were reflecting (maybe even out loud), “Who does this guy think he is?” Can you imagine the internal struggle going on within those listening to Jesus? He called into question their cultural formation and challenged them to see the world — including the “other” — through a new lens. The lens of Christ.
This unlearning and relearning process can be painful, but it is a necessary part of spiritual growth and re-formation. It inescapably remains at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And if the statement “culture is always emerging” is true (and it is), then how are you I emerging as part of the Body of Christ within the neighborhood, community, region, nation, and world? How are our individual actions creating space for a fresh, communal voice to rise up above the bombastic noise we (and others) are hearing?
As we move toward a CrossOver Year in the Greater Northwest Area, beginning this Advent season, these questions could never be more important than they are now.
Shift happens. While making room for others, how will you respond in the midst of it and cross over to life? A new season is dawning. Let’s make the road by walking into the new.
Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson serves as Director of Innovation for a New Church for the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area including the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Annual Conferences.
My mother passed away earlier this month. And while she had not fully recovered from the stroke she suffered almost two years ago, her death was sudden and completely unexpected. The last time I talked to her, she was full of life and happy to report that she was making good progress in learning to walk again. That was three weeks before she died. Phone and internet lines had gone down after the devastation of Typhoon Mangkhut, preventing us from making wi-fi calls. Perhaps I should have tried harder to find other means to connect. It’s too late now.
No matter how hard we prepare ourselves and our loved ones for it, death still comes with an impact that shakes us to the very core. We who are left behind are left to pick up the pieces from the life that has ended while dealing with the void created in our own lives and the deep sense of loss.
So many details. So many matters to think of: planning of the wake, the funeral; what to write in the obituary; what to write on the epitaph for the tombstone; volumes of paperwork that goes with reporting the death so that pension benefits may transfer to the surviving spouse; more paperwork for bank accounts to be transferred; the care of my aunt, Mama’s younger sister, who is mentally handicapped and has been under Mama’s care since our grandmother passed away. I could go on with this list…
And then there’s the grief. The deep sense of loss. Even if the aforementioned logistical details were all taken care of, the painful fact still remains – our Mama is dead. And she has left a gaping hole in our hearts. She will no longer be there to answer when I make a video call. She will no longer call me with a joyful report about how many more steps she has taken today. She will no longer be there to watch with pride and joy as her grandchildren play the saxophone, piano and guitar or cheer for them as they run, swim, play volleyball or taekwondo. She will no longer be there to give encouraging words for my ministry…
I have been on the phone with my Papa Joe more frequently these past few weeks after Mama’s passing. I’ve been on the phone with my brother Noel almost everyday since we got back from the Philippines for Mama’s funeral. This is something we’ve not done as much as we would like to since my family and I moved to Alaska almost 10 years ago. Even in death, Mama has her way of keeping her family close and connected as she did when she was alive. We are supporting each other in our grief. We are crying together, and laughing together as we remember our beloved Mama Rhona. We are journeying together and figuring things and details out as we go. We are “making the road by walking” and we are trusting that God is walking with us.
To honor the mathematician that Mama was, we came up with an epitaph that describes her life in mathematical terms: “a finite life lived in infinite grace.” As we make the road by walking, we pray that this road be one that would honor her memory, keep alive her legacy and ultimately glorify God.
What about you, dear friend? What shifts or changes, great or small, are you, your family, your group or your community going through right now, throwing your life into a complete tailspin and causing you to lose hope and sense of grounding? Is a way forward yet unknown? Is the road ahead yet unseen? How can I journey with you so that together, we might make the road by walking? And more importantly, how can we together trust that God is journeying with us, even as we walk through the valley of life’s deep and dark shadows?
Let’s talk. Let’s journey with God. And together, let’s make the road by walking.
Your fellow disciple,
To the one who first taught me how to walk, physically and spiritually, and I know walks with me still.
Teofina “Rhona” Axibal Rapanut
August 8, 1947 – October 4, 2018 A finite life lived in infinite grace
Rev. Carlo Rapanut serves as Conference Superintendent for the Alaska Conference of The United Methodist Church.
The late Phyllis Tickle had a broad historical theory that assumed that every 500 years the Church went through an epoch-changing transformation, a crossing-over from one way of life into another.
Christianity began as a minority movement of dissidents who claimed that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord and demonstrated their allegiance to Jesus through lifestyles of compassion, generosity, nonviolence and deep bonds of solidarity with each other. But after 500 years this movement had grown so rapidly that it had transformed into the very Empire that had arrested, tortured and killed their Lord. Christianity went from an outside minority, to a culture shaping dominant majority. And with that, its virtues of compassion became political calculation, generosity became institutional tithing, and solidarity shifted from the least of these into a common good defined by an authoritarian Church. Christianity had crossed over from clarity into complexity.
500 years later Christianity rid itself of its nonviolent lifestyle and became the sword of an aggressive, conquering Empire that seized and ruled all of Europe. In the name of Christ, Christians imposed religious doctrinal beliefs on all citizens, made alliances with the uber-wealthy, and instituted itself, with military force, as God’s kingdom on earth as in Heaven. Obedience to the Church rather than the following of Jesus’ ethics and teachings became the norm. Christianity left its simplicity of solidarity and entered the complexity of enforcing conformity and obedience upon all.
Around the year 1500 Christianity again morphed with the “protesting Re-formation” that essentially proclaimed that every person was their own Pope. In other words, the conscience of the individual became the throne of authority and guidance. The notion that Europe was God’s kingdom on earth was not disputed. Rather, God’s kingdom became a far more complex negotiation between God’s kingdoms and the citizens of those kingdoms who increasingly needed no king.
Each of these revolutions were a “crossing over” from one way of life into another. Indeed, each was a transformation in how God was understood, and how Christians were to relate to culture. Each crossing over was from a tradition that had worn itself out requiring increased novelty and imaginative innovation so that the power of the new might be given birth. In other words, just as each of us must evolve through toddlerhood into teenagers into adulthood into maturity and elderhood, so too Christianity as the good news of God’s love and liberation must evolve up the ladder of complexity and responsibility.
Today we are in the midst of another epoch changing cycle of complexity. On the one hand Christianities have so mutated that our central message of Jesus has become incoherent. Which Jesus are we talking about? The Jesus of Franklin Graham, of Joel Osteen, of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Each Jesus has a different version of God with a vastly different governance of ethical guidance. Which God are we talking about? The God who stands outside of history, intervening every now and then. Or, a God who is inside of history as the unfolding power of evolution itself?
On the other hand, a new cultural god has emerged that increasingly displaces the role of religion itself. This power is the rapidly changing scientific-technological milieu that uses technology to redesign what it means to be a human being. Indeed, we can now see the inevitability of the creation of a silicon-carbon based form of life. What is the image of God in such hybrid forms of humanity? What is the need of God when humans can control evolution’s future? And what is the Gospel good news in an age of technological control, political centralization and authoritarianism?
We are always crossing over from what is to what is coming. The question that faces us as a Church is Bonhoeffer’s question: are we still of any use?
O God our help in ages past, our Hope for years to come, Return us to the wisdom of Jesus and restore within us the fullness of Human Being. Make us to be the Body and Blood of Christ, so that this world might have new life. Bread for the hungry and a cup of everlasting joy.
Rev. Rich Lang serves as SeaTac Missional District Superintendent in the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here…” – Ephesians 2:17-19 (The Message)
I have yet to hear any mention of “crossover” that does not immediately cause me to think of immigrants. Caring for and about immigrants is not only part of our Judeo-Christian faith tradition, but it is a somewhat new and very particular part of my call.
Recently, I stumbled across another crossover story online. (What follows will be far more meaningful if you read that original post.) It grabbed my attention because the author/guest blogger, Bob Ekblad, happens to have connections to our region. The story he begins with takes place on Fir Island, near the Skagit River in Washington. It’s a story of agricultural workers that could easily have come from many places, including places very near my own home.
Ekblad describes a conversation with an undocumented worker who has been condemned by many people who tell them they speak from a place of Christian faith. Ekblad responds, “…I believe that in the Kingdom of God there are no borders and that God views us all as beloved children. If salvation were about obeying the law, then all of us are damned. I tell him that I’ve been seeing Jesus more and more as our Buen Coyote. Jesus crosses us over into the Kingdom against the law, by grace.”
I was—and I still am—especially struck by this idea of Jesus as el buen coyote, the one who breaks some laws in order to fulfill the Gospel.
I put a significant amount of effort into seeing various sides of issues and different perspectives on matters that come to my attention, but there are plenty of circumstances where there is a clear line. With so much talk about crossover, I am paying extra attention to how I respond to those lines.
Immigration requires crossing an international boundary line, and there are many ways to do that. When it comes to matters of safety and wellbeing, for instance, I refuse to cross lines that will put children at risk. But when there are terrifying risks on both sides of the line, then what?
I don’t know how a parent ever makes the choice between staying in la patria (the homeland) where their children are in grave danger and crossing an international border into the land of opportunity that is riddled with countless other risks. Church polity and biblical obedience present another line.
It is not always so simple as right and wrong, at least not as I see it. Sometimes there is a choice between being right and doing right. Other times, it is still far more complicated…and often heartbreaking.
Recently I have found comfort, hope, and new perspectives by referring to worship resources from other cultures. I have several favorites from Fiesta Christiana: Recursos para la Adoración (Resources for Worship), including “The Immigrants Creed” by Jose Luis Casal. (Spanish and English text available here. Video with Spanish and English available here.)
Since coming across this idea of Jesus as el buen coyote, my prayer has been this: May the only lines I ever cross be those that Jesus, El Buen Coyote, leads me across.
Rev. Karen Hernandez is Sage District Superintendent in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Don’t be fooled by the name—she’s una gabacha (a white girl) who seeks to confront privilege and racism, beginning with her own.
Starting this Advent, the Greater Northwest Area will begin a CrossOver year study together. Groups and individuals will work their way through short readings of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking over the 12 months that follow. This study will be complemented by short reflections and creative pieces offered regularly throughout the year, like this one republished with permission from Steve Garnass-Holmes.
As we consider the journey ahead in this CrossOver year, how will we bring Jesus with us? That is a question Garnass-Holmes’ piece begs of us. What else does it evoke in you?
In a couple of weeks I’ll invite United Methodists and friends in the Greater Northwest Area to join a year-long devotional study beginning with Advent 2018. I hope many of you will form small groups to engage in this study together, but individuals can do it on their own. I hope that together we can renew our faith for the challenges we face in our lives, the Church, the nation and the world.
In We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren introduces us afresh to the principles of Christian faith and bible teachings. Each week, in 3-4 pages, he invites us to revisit biblical principles and our lives of faith. We’ll create a blog to go alongside the study, with reflections and prayers by leaders of our Conferences, and a place for comments and conversation.
Some of you may already have your plans for Advent and beyond. If you can, I hope this Christian practice will fit into your other plans — especially since it will carry through this entire CrossOver Year. The CrossOver Year begins December 2, 2018 and ends November 24, 2019, with the special General Conference in February. I hope this notice is coming early enough that you can start encouraging participation now.
Watch for more information in the roll-out of the CrossOver Year — coming soon!