Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Annual Conferences are Coming!

“The people of God… must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.” - Paragraph 130, 2012 Book of Discipline. 

“Our best days are still ahead of us. I really, truly believe it, and I’m going to keep saying it until it happens. Our theology and DNA is perfectly poised to reach the next generation.” - Pastor Adam Hamilton

Annual Conferences are beginning.  It's that time of year, when around the world the people known as United Methodists will gather to evaluate, reflect, and change for the future.  I read this report from the Detroit Annual Conference and it really made me think.  Because, Detroit is one of those places in America where everyone is getting out.  Just like my home conference, people are fleeing to warmer weather and better jobs.  My adopted conference is in the fastest shrinking country in the world.  

Adam Hamilton explained that the United Methodist church will bottom out in the next ten years.  Bishop Bickerton as referred to it as a church decline tsunami.  In ten years we will have to weigh all of the facts and figures and make the decisions that need to be made.  

As a young person, I'm not much for waiting.  After our tragedy, our wise and humble bishop sat me down and told me that nothing would look or feel normal for at least a year.  My boss at GBGM sat me down and explained that real recovery wouldn't begin for at least a year.  I didn't want to believe them.  I wanted to fight that notion and press full steam ahead.  As almost always happens, wisdom won out over impatience.  I still have the occasional four hour conversation with a student from our ministry who is trying to sort out the theological and personal implication of the tragedy.  Every month I feel that things are moving more and more in the right direction, but I feel that we still have a few months to go before we will be back to "normal."  

But what is extraordinary, what is the life blood of this moment, is that in this "tsunami" - in this "bottoming out" - we have grown, and developed, and changed.  When things were going great and attendance was up, we didn't have to ask the hard questions.  We could rely on easy sermon topics and momentum to carry us through.  We weren't constantly stretched and pulled from place to place.  

It is in the crucible of death, that change can become a reality - and it is in the reality of change that we may find our hope in Christ and not ourselves.  

As I think about the future of the United Methodist church, I am filled with great hope.  I've had the unusual privilege of worshiping with United Methodists in eleven countries.  I've worshiped with Methodists from far more countries than that.  In my lifetime, I've probably worshiped with more than 500 congregations.  And in those contexts and ministry settings, I have seen the challenges and problems.  But I have seen the warm hearts of the worshipers and the swift movement of the Holy Spirit.  I have seen the tremendous hope of the future.  

And at Annual Conferences around the world, we will gather and discuss our challenges, failures, successes, and opportunities.  And hopefully we will see and heed the need for change.  And hopefully in all of this mess we will find the living Christ who is our hope.  


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Can a country die?

Today I read a very interesting article about the slow death of a country.  Go ahead and read it.  I'll be here when you get back.

It was interesting, right?

Now, I consider Ukraine a very unusual choice of country to highlight.  With "only" 43 million people is my adopted homeland really on the verge of extinction?  Many Eastern European countries have fewer than 10 million and have a similar shrinking problem.

On Sundays I sing with the older adults who gather near the monument of Ukraine's great bard.  I love the way they sing.  It's much throatier and meaningful than the way young Ukrainian's sing.  There's this one woman with platinum blond hair who might be 50 might be 80 - and she opens her mouth so wide when she sings.  I follow along with her, because I can always tell what word she is singing.  This group grows smaller and smaller and there are no other young faces to take their place.  I ask my friends - my truly patriotic friends - if they know these songs, and they don't.  And I wonder who will sing these songs when they are gone.

Oh, the cancer gets many.  It's a symptom of a below average health care system and a possible side effect of Chornobyl.  The scientists say that there was no rise in cancer risk associated with the meltdown, but no one believes them.  Death is a fact of life here.  Working with University students, I see mostly the deaths of grandmothers and grandfathers.  In the gypsy village, most only live into their 50s - many don't reach the retirement age in Ukraine: 55 for women and 60 for men.

It seems that those who beat death up until that point are excessively good at tricking it.  Like the obituaries in the Mission Monthly (Gertrude Elizabeth Oglethorpe, ___insert impossibly advanced age___ almost died of cholera and dysentery as a missionary in Africa in her 20s, but after surviving that, nothing was going to take her out.) it seems like those who survive truly thrive.  The elderly here have the edge on many things.  Not just singing.  Shoveling snow for example.  I don't think you can legally shovel snow unless you are 80, or at least look it.

The birthrate here is lower than any other country on earth I've been told.  1.3 children for every married couple.  They literally pay women to birth children here.  They pay you to raise your children.  They give you years of maternity leave.  And yet it seems that multiple children are a sign of great wealth of terrible planning or both.  When multiple families share a one room apartment, I wonder how children happen at all.  There is no economic certainty, and few people see a way to get their heads above water.  Even though many of my friends have stable jobs, none of them have more than one child.

And every time another friend leaves for the states, rumors swirl that he or she is planning to immigrate.  It causes me great pain to see the best and the brightest run away from an impossibly broken system to try to make their way in another broken system.

A true patriot will have many children (for Stalin, for Hitler, for whomever is in charge of propaganda) but this case falls apart in Ukraine for political reasons.  I wish the article would have explored these political forces in more depth.  They are powerful, and at least for Western Ukraine, they hold the answer to this riddle.

But, this country is filled with life.  Economic growth is a little slower than inflation, but it is happening and will speed up soon.  My married friends talk about having babies in the plural.  Some want three or four.

At a picnic, they asked those in the circle if they could only have 10 children or none which they would choose - and every Ukrainian answered 10 children.  It was purely hypothetical (and, to be fair, there were more Ukrainian men than women answering the question!) but it is telling.  I think that our young people see a way forward.  Yes, they want jobs and careers and to be successful, but they care deeply for the families they will create - and they care deeply for the country they will live in.

They give awards for families with many children.  In a televised acceptance, a haggard mother of eleven brushes her gray hair away from her eyes and squints into the light.  How does one prepare an acceptance speech for such an honor as this?  Her brood fidgets in a line from tallest to shortest as she tries to sound educated in front of people who seem to think she's an idiot.  In the end it seems she is only defending her alternative lifestyle.  This is her choice, and she is happy with her decision.

Long gone are the large farm families where each child is an insurance policy against poverty in old age.  Only gypsies and the truly devout eschew birth control and the choices it ensures.  But perhaps, as Ukraine finds its financial footing, more and more women will make the choice to grow a large family.  In support of their beloved country.  In deference to their own mothers who just want more grand-babies.  Or, perhaps, because that is just what they want to do.          

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The move

I'm one of those people who believes in filling a home with lots of laughter and good memories.  I have loved the apartment I've had for the last year and a half.  When I think about it, I remember the 1AM Ukrainian lessons Nazar and I had when I was suffering from jetlag and he was suffering from a Master's thesis back in my first months here.  I remember when Mefodyi was a kitten and crazy.  I remember sitting in the hammock and watching the day fade into night.  And dinner parties with friends, and staff retreats, and Masik showing up on death's door and being brought back to life, and Thanksgiving fun, and all of the other good times.  

But it was a hard year and a half.  My home was filled with frustration and hurt and sorrow as well. There were problems with the house,too. The bathtub was too small, and the hill too steep, and the walk to the grocery stores very far, and the neighbors were mean and sullen, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing.  

I'm good at making a house a home.  It broke my heart that after so many months, it still just felt like an apartment I was renting.  When the landlord came with lots of excuses and wanted to raise the rent - I knew that I could do better.  

My realtor is really wonderful.  She puts up with so much from me - this is the third or fourth time she's helped me find something for different reasons; and she always finds something just right.  I told her I wanted something that cost less than I was paying, was near the center, and could handle a dog and cat.  She usually finds three options very quickly - but this time she found only one option.  

It's much smaller than my current apartment - but it feels a bit like home already.  The yard is filled with fruit trees and gardens.  My hammock is hung between two trees.  Masik runs outside all day and Mefodyi is quietly stalking every corner of the house.  It is really just outside of the center - and most of my friends live much further out.  It's on the road to the biggest suburbs and is surrounded by dormitories.  It's the smallest house on the street, and is surrounded by monstrous mansions.  There is a big stone patio out front which has already been filled with great people. 

Moving has been an extreme inconvenience - especially over the Easter weekend.  My brain is just fried from trying to remember where things are, but it is slowly coming together.  

And I believe that this will soon be a home.   

Thursday, May 2, 2013

I continue to wrestle with all of the new things God is teaching me about the Roma people.  I signed on to joining a team of Americans to explore Roma ministries in Slovakia with some reservations.  While I love traveling, I hate crossing borders.

In an official first world problem post, I have no more room for stamps in my passport.  The thought of crossing into and out of Ukraine in the same week makes me exhausted.

But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to travel with Diane Miller again.  Diane is the reason that I ever had the chance to start traveling, and the reason that my family had the courage to send a 15 year old to Russia.  Diane led my sister on a trip to Russia the year before I went, and helped organize many of my travels.  Mom and I traveled with her to Nicaragua, and I was thrilled to travel with her to Slovakia.

Our goal was to learn more about the ministries that work with Roma people in Europe - and we certainly did.  I think deep down I also had the goal of getting answers to some of my harder questions - in that goal I failed miserably.  I ended up with many more questions than when I started.

  I was surprised to meet anglo pastors serving Roma congregations.  I guess that it is certainly no more strange than my own appointment to a community of a different tongue and culture than my own.  But, it felt strange and complicated.  Part of working with Roma communities is banishing unfair stereotypes.  This goes for the people who work with them as well.

Pastor Svetlana is young by United Methodist clergy standards.  It's an odd thing to write about a United Methodist pastor, but she is refreshingly United Methodist in her theology.  One might be surprised by the number of clergy in Eastern European UMCs that exhibit almost no signs of Methodism.  Svetlana has worked to bring stability and order to a number of mission sites spread out around Slovakia.  She has a sharp mind, and an authoritative tone to her voice.  Her husband acts a bit like Mr. Bean until it's time to pray, and then he's dead serious.

Svetlana merged one congregation into two.  I don't want to use the term "church split" because our new church plants in Eastern Europe take so much time to firm up into a real community - I think that Svetlana saw that there would be problems in the future, and corrected mid-course.  She saw fear and trepidation among slavs about worshiping with gypsies, and she saw a hunger for a different worship style among the gypsies.  She is still actively working on planting the Slovak speaking congregation - but has successfully planted a Hungarian speaking Roma congregation.

We worshiped with a Roma congregation that Svetlana had pastored and handed off to a new local pastor.  It was wonderful to worship in the Roma style.  It was good to see so many children and a clear love between pastor and congregation.  Svetlana has visited the church 3 or 4 times in the four years since she left to plant new churches.  The congregation is only 12 miles away from her new church plant site.

Pastor Svetlana has invited short term American missionaries to start English language programs.  The last one had to to teach in a bigger city 40 minutes away because the schools just weren't open to having an American from this strange Methodist church come and teach.  When they heard that I guest lectured at a university, they were willing to let me come and teach.  By the end of the day, they promised that the Methodist church could send any American they had to teach.  It helps to not be crazy, I guess.

My most interesting conversation of the trip came with the vice principal of the school.  She is also the head of the English department, and it was interesting to get her very honest opinion about the Roma people.  During the class, I asked students what they enjoyed about their town.  One student loudly said, "It's a nice place, but there are too many gypsies."  I waited for the teacher to quite him down, but I found every head nodding in unison in agreement.  I followed up and asked some hard questions, and got some very interesting information from the teacher.  We talked a lot about opportunity and laziness.  It was a challenging but fruitful conversation.