Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wrestling and the New Year

2011 has been a year of wrestling. We have seen revolutions arise across the world, we have lifted our voices in support of them and positioned our bodies in solidarity with them and to echo their demands for our own lives. But many of our writers on this blog have articulated another kind of wrestling, not wrestling to make our voices heard, but a wrestling to find God amidst all of this. I still get goosebumps thinking about Michael Airgood talking about taking communion with wrists bruised from handcuffs, Karl Kroger's reflection on his helplessness when he realized Troy Davis was going to be murdered; I still feel warmth reading Jamie Michaels talking about Sing a New Song as a coming together of family, and I am excited about the work Mallory Naake is doing in Peru around food justice. The warmth, the excitement, the helplessness, the confusion--- how do we narrate these feelings? How do we make sense of this past year so we can try to figure out what to do in 2012?

The story of Jacob wrestling from Genesis 32:24-31 is one that has stuck with me as I think about this year:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The story of Jacob has been particularly poignant after reading Black Liberation Theologian James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree (read the book but if you don't have time right now, check out this interview with Bill Moyers here and a lecture about it here). There, he speaks of black religious experience of wrestling, wrestling with trouble, wrestling with doubt, using this story from Genesis. It is a story I don't understand, but I am still drawn to because of the intimacy and the violence all wrapped up together. That is what I have seen this year. I visited Occupy Wall Street in New York right before it was evicted: the intimacy in living all together in tents, under tarps, playing music sitting on the sidewalk, was so beautiful. And yet, there was such violence, as we all saw in that horrifying picture of the police officer pepper spraying the UC Davis protesters.

It is about resistance against the odds. In the face of the increasing militarization of police, in the face of re-encroaching apathy of young people (we thought Egypt and OWS might have been the end of that), in the face of continued occupation of Palestine, in the face of the prison industrial complex, in the face of continued homophobia and heterosexism...God is there, alongside us, wrestling. I think sometimes God is also wrestling us when we can't see the joy in the struggle or when in the struggle we continue to support systems of oppression, or we are wrestling God when we just cannot see God's presence through the pepper spray--- there is this mess of arms and legs flailing about that we can't always separate out and understand. But as we continue into 2012, let us think about this wrestling and know that 2012 will be a year of continued wrestling. Where will we see God face-to-face in this year? Where will we strive with God and with humans for justice and prevail? And where will we find joy in the struggle?

Jacob Wrestles the Angel by Arthur Sussman (see more of his work here)


Shannon Sullivan is a seminary student at Drew in Madison, New Jersey, and is pursuing ordination in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. She is also a member of the OnFire leadership team. She blogs at You'll Never Guess What the Heathens Did Today.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day

To YOU is born this day...
Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

Like many serving churches in some way or another these past few weeks leading up to Christmas have been anything but restful. We often tell our congregations that Advent is about waiting and preparation, that it is a time to be introspective and to slow things down despite societal and consumerist impulses to over-indulge, over-schedule, and over-spend. I find myself even more over-scheduled than usual, as Christmas parties get penciled into my calendar along with pageant rehearsals, special choir rehearsals, additional services... If I am waiting, it is a very busy type of waiting. I tell myself that at least I am preparing myself for Christmas, as I am supposed to during the season of Advent, but what kind of Christmas am I actually getting myself ready for?

Last Sunday I found myself running around the sanctuary (following the two worship services that had been held that morning) trying to help herd hungry children together for the final rehearsal before the annual Christmas pageant, which is performed on Christmas Eve. It is a typical pageant; older children play the role of narrator, reading the familiar words we find in the gospels of Luke and Matthew that, when combined, provide us with the Christmas story many of us know by heart. Mary is a pretty girl wearing blue, the innkeeper is played by an awkward, pre-pubescent boy, and there are three kings. It is the same script from last year, and the year before that, and the year before that; and although there are grumblings that perhaps it is time to rewrite the script, everyone knows that will not happen. People come to Christmas Eve services to hear these familiar words, and if there is one thing worship leaders often learn the hard way it is to not mess with Christmas.

However, I wonder if we do not only the Christmas narrative, but also our congregation members, a disservice in our annual display of adorable children dressed in bath robes. I am all for embodying the W/word, but when it comes to the Christmas narrative God has already done the embodying for us. We are celebrating and remembering the incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). I do not think we can truly begin to grapple with or understand the radical message found within Luke’s text unless we remove the cherubic faces of children from our nativity scenes and search for the faces and stories of those who are placed within that ancient world and our world today.

In this story we find characters that seem incredibly distant, and yet we are surrounded by people just like them each and every day. We think of Mary, a “pure” virgin, who has found favor with God, but who is also an unwed mother whose partner almost abandoned her and who could have been easily ostracized by her community on account of her unplanned pregnancy. Her fiance, Joseph, is a man who works with his hands and does what he must for his family, including traveling an incredible distance because of a government decree. We find a family far from home, without access to health care or support, struggling to find adequate shelter not only for themselves, but for the new life about to be born. Surely, there are Marys and Josephs among us?

In this story we find shepherds, but we do not understand who shepherds were. We envision pastoral paintings and hear the sounds of lutes and harps blending with the gentle baa’s coming from grazing sheep. We do not realize that the shepherds found in the gospels were some of the lowest of the low, men who could not find any other form of work, who lived away from the towns and cities guarding sheep and goats from predators. It was a dangerous job, an undesirable job. It is to these laborers that the angels first come; not to kings, not to white-collar workers, but to the graveyard shift; and the men who fight off wolves and lions are terrified. The angel’s message turns their world, and ours, upside-down: to you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. To you, shepherds, and you, day-laborers; to those who are cast down and aside, those who are oppressed, those who are the least, the last and the lost... it is to you that the Lord has come.

Christ continues to dwell among us, and we are called to celebrate the incarnation not only at Christmas, but each day. We find Christ among those we consider to be the least of these, among the sick, impoverished, and oppressed. May we also be Christ, serving those around us, giving voice to the voiceless, as we join the voices of angels and shepherds alike as we celebrate that, for unto us the Son is given.

Amanda Rohrs-Dodge is a third year MDiv student at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey and is the student assistant pastor at The United Methodist Church in Madison.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 4: hope for peace

Text: Luke 1:39-56

Earlier this year, St. Matthew in the City church in Auckland, New Zealand commissioned this painting, entitled "Mary in the Pink" for an annual billboard campaign. The media release statement about the image says:
"This billboard portrays Mary, Jesus’ mother, looking at a home pregnancy test kit revealing that she is pregnant. Regardless of any premonition, that discovery would have been shocking. Mary was unmarried, young, and poor. This pregnancy would shape her future. She was certainly not the first woman in this situation or the last... Although the make-believe of Christmas is enjoyable - with tinsel, Santa, reindeer, and carols - there are also some realities. Many in our society are suffering: some through the lack of money, some through poor health, some through violence, and some through other hardships. The joy of Christmas is muted by anxiety." (via)
St. Matthew's church got it exactly right. Advent is a time of hope, love, joy, and peace, to be sure, but these are also muddled by fear, pain, injustice, and yes, anxiety. We hear it in so many advent carols sung in minor keys. Like my favorite, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Throughout Christian history, we have known that the reason we hope for a savior at this time is because there are places in the world that need saving. Or perhaps more accurately, we feel like there's nothing we can do on our own; we need God's help to sort it out.
I traveled recently to Palestine and Israel with an interfaith group - a reform synagogue and a UCC congregation, plus a Roman Catholic monk, a Sufi teacher, and me, a United Methodist Seminarian - to talk with peace activists on all sides of the conflict. We visited refugee camps, picked olives in the West Bank with Palestinian villagers who had been tormented by Israeli settlers, toured the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron where worshipers were gunned down by a fundamentalist Zionist, and met with Israelis who live on the border with Gaza, facing daily fear that their home will be bombed. As we prepared to come home, our group was met with a profound sense of helplessness.
We need a savior, I catch myself thinking. And it's true, Christian theology tells us that Jesus is the hope of the world. But what happens when we put our hope in Jesus, and pain still exists?
Maybe we are expecting the wrong things from Jesus. I think that much of our rhetoric tells us that Jesus, and in many ways God, will come to fix things when we muck them up, sort of like a cosmic nanny. It can be comforting to hope for a God who is all powerful, who will come to cast the mighty down and uplift the humble of heart. But the reality I have seen is that justice movements take a long time, and they take lots of concerted effort, lots of struggle, and lots of sacrifice from committed people in order to succeed. And in the meantime, there can be setbacks, and physical and emotional pain.
In the Magnificat, sometimes called "Mary's Song," we hear the mother of Jesus glorifying God for the gift of her pregnancy. It's often spoken of as a statement of obedience and submissiveness, but I wonder if Mary didn't speak it with a little hesitation in her voice. I wonder if it was a statement of courage, and of a special kind of hope. Not a hope that God would make everything okay; I think Mary would have been pretty clear that telling her fiancee that she was pregnant with God's child was not going to be "okay." But a hope that she would have the strength to endure the pain and struggle, that she would have the courage to do what is right and just, and that she would have the wisdom to be a good mother to this King-to-be.
Perhaps the kind of hope we need this advent is hope that through Jesus, our co-journer, we would have that same strength to endure, that we would have that same courage to do justice, that same wisdom to be what God has called us to be.
Thanks be to God, for helping us to say "yes" to the call to work for peace.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hope and Love from Palestine

Yesterday marked two years since a group of Palestinian Christians gathered in the wounded city of Bethlehem to address the world. On December 11, 2009, fifteen men and women released what they called the Kairos Palestine Document, subtitled “A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering.” Their document followed in the tradition of the South African Kairos Document, written by pastors in Soweto in the midst of apartheid in 1985. Both use the Greek word “Kairos,” which means “a time when things are brought to crisis” and also “an opportune time.” The Kairos Palestine document is part testimony to Christian faith in the midst of the Palestinian crisis and part call to action.

The Kairos document was written with a number of audiences in mind, one of which is us – the global church. The authors – as well as the more than 2500 Palestinian Christians who have signed on – ask us to listen to their words and to respond, not only with our words but also our actions. On this second anniversary, as I re-read the Kairos Palestine document in the midst of Advent, I was particularly struck by their words about Hope and Love.

They write:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

Every week during Advent, we light a candle representing hope. In the cold and increasing darkness of winter, we ritual ize through a flame the hope expressed in Jesus’ birth. This flame can be an expression of warmth and comfort, of a light breaking through the shadows of despair. But the writers of the Kairos document challenge us to also look at the shadows honestly and directly. The hope they describe is poignant, not at all triumphant. The flame is small, and it flickers. But it survives.

Hope in this document is filtered through the experience of occupation. They are writing from within the midst of constant violence and oppression. Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall that separates its residents from their families and their farmland and cuts off access to Jerusalem. Every morning, long lines form at the main checkpoint at 3 and 4 am, and workers wait 4 and 5 hours to be herded through. Since the start of the so-called peace process 18 years ago, the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank has doubled to more than half a million. Because Israel controls the aquifers that lie under the West Bank, Israelis are able to use 4 times as much water per capita as Palestinians at heavily subsidized rates. Palestinians, on the other hand, spend up to 1/3 of their income on water in the summer months, and still use less than World Health Organization recommendations. Meanwhile, daily life is colored by the humiliation of checkpoints, and the trauma of bombings and night-time raids. Since the start of 2004, 4324 Palestinians and 249 Israelis have been killed.

Surrounded by this suffering and devastation, the Kairos Palestine Document, on the one hand, affirms the idea of expectation that circumstances will get better. It affirms a vision of the Spirit at work in the world. But on the other hand, it reminds us that hope is not fantasy. It doesn’t close its eyes to pain and failure. Mere optimism in this context is too foolish to really be hopeful. Instead, hope must move beyond sentiment to action.

The authors frame this work toward change in terms of “resistance,” and they understand resistance as an expression of love. They write this:

“Love is the commandment of Christ our Lord to us and it includes both friends and enemies. This must be clear when we find ourselves in circumstances where we must resist evil of whatever kind. Love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister. However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression… We say that our option as Christians in the face of the Israeli occupation is to resist. Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic.”

On some years the text for the Second Week of Advent – the week that we light the candle of love – is Isaiah 11. Verse 6, familiar to many of us, is a beautiful vision of harmony within creation. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” This vision of peaceful coexistence is a comfortable one for this season. It’s the verse that my imagination grabs hold of whenever I hear that passage.

But perhaps the writers of the Kairos Palestine Document would tell us that we are jumping too quickly to the end of the passage. Before Isaiah gives us this scene of perfect harmony, he gives us this: “But with righteousness shall he judge the poor and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And he will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”

Could this, too, fit into our understanding of love? The authors of Kairos Palestine say yes, while stressing that confrontation must be non-violent and carried out in love. Cornel West has famously said that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Isaiah’s pastoral scene of predators and prey lying down together is impossible unless the dynamics of their relationships are fundamentally changed. The Kairos Palestine Document adds to this idea that justice is not just about being loving toward those who are oppressed; it is also about loving the oppressor. If we truly love someone, we don’t enable their abusive behavior. We can’t allow the wolf to approach the lamb until it has been cured of its appetite. And if we truly believe that ALL beings benefit from living in peace with one another, then we will acknowledge that changing the wolf’s behavior is as much for the wolf’s sake as for the lamb’s.

The Kairos Palestine Document asks us, as Christians throughout the world, to support and participate in their non-violent resistance. They call on the international church to “say a word of truth and take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.” In particular, they ask that we ensure that we are not financially supporting the occupation.

Since 1968, the United Methodist Church has spoken words of truth, opposing the occupation and the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and calling for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. But we have yet to take a position of truth. Despite our statements, our denomination’s financial resources are invested in companies that profit from the occupation. We hold stock in Caterpillar, which produces armored bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes - 24,000 of which the Israeli military has destroyed since 1967. We invest in Motorola Solutions, which provides surveillance systems to Israeli settlements and communications equipment to the military in the West Bank. Hewlett-Packard, also in the church’s portfolio, produces biometric scanning equipment used in checkpoints on occupied land.

In May, delegates to General Conference will vote on whether the church should remove these companies from its portfolio. On the one hand, selling our stock is about consistency and integrity. It doesn’t make sense for us to invest in activities we oppose.

But on the other hand, as I reflect on Advent and the words of the Kairos Palestine Document, I also see this step as a profound expression of hope and love – hope that in the face of suffering and despair we can participate in positive change, and love for all people in the region, whom we pray will one day soon live in peace.


Emily McNeill is a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the Project Manager of United Methodist Kairos Response. For more information about the movement to align United Methodist investments with resolutions on Israel/Palestine, visit

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent Week 3: take time to simply be

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. ( Matthew 6: 33-34 )

We've all heard the saying “be present in the moment”.  Sometimes this phrase catches me off guard because by nature I am a worrier.  I am constantly worrying about the “what ifs” in life.  I n also a procrastinator which doesn’t bode well with my worrying.  Though I worry all the time, it doesn’t motivate me to complete things until the last moment such as homework.  I like to say that I work well under pressure, but let’s be honest, everything could benefit from a little more time.  My schoolwork could be better, time with God, and many other things in life, could benefit from a little more time.
This passage in Matthew talks about always striving for the kingdom of God.  As long as we keep the Kingdom (or Kindom as I prefer) all will be given unto to you.  This doesn’t mean that just because you think of God throughout the day and the rest of the Kindom, then you will get everything you want.  God is not a magic genie nor Santa Clause.  I think that it means to always have creation and Gods children in mind when you take action.  Who will this action affect is a good question to keep in mind. 

During this busy holiday season remember to take time and enjoy the day.  Enjoy the person you are with, really listen.  Avoid looking at your phone,  thinking about your to-do list, emails to return, and the house that needs to be cleaned.  Revel in the moment.  Call someone you’ve been meaning to reach out to, make someone’s day by smiling or stopping to say hello,  Stop and smell the roses if you will.
Really take time to be in the moment.  Be in the moment with God.  When was the last time that you set aside a moment for God, and just folr God.  God will always be there and ready, but we have to take and make the time to sit and be.  Take time to really listen.  I had a friend who said “I hate when God talks to me because it usually means that I have to do something”s
Take time to sit and simply wait.  We are all wanting Christmas to come and Jesus Christ be born, but take the time to sit in the in-between, the unknown.  He will get here soon enough, but now is our time to wait.  Waiting is uncomfortable, but take the time to do the waiting and reflection.

This is my challenge to myself and to my community.  I will be present in all the different aspects of my life.  The current moment is the only one that I will get and can never be repeated.  This time is time we are never going to get back 

These are my responsibilities today and are what I can focus on today.  Tomorrow will come soon enough and will bring its own set of challenges, but what is right in front of me can be solved today.  BE PRESENT!!!!!!

Tomorrow will bring challenges all on its own, but today is the only today we are going to get.

Candie ODell hails originally from sunny California, but is currently living in snowy Chicago.  She earned a Masters of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 2010.  She is in the ordination process in the California-Pacific Annual Conference to be a permanent Deacon in the area of social-justice and social-change.  Currently she is earning a Masters of Science in Nonprofit Management from Spertus in Chicago.  She hopes to combine both of her degrees and open a progressive, faith-based, nonprofit, coffee-shop.  She loves to read, make music, is a political junky, and an all-around rebel rouser.