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Hard realities and beautiful dreams

Light shines on dreams

We may be exhausted, but United Methodists can still dream dreams of new life.  The Rev. Paul Perez, new Director of Connectional Ministry for The Michigan Conference, offers hope.

PAUL PEREZ
Director of Connectional Ministries

October 1 was my first official day as Director of Connectional Ministry (DCM) of The Michigan Conference. Over the past two weeks, I have been sharing with Conference staff and leaders about how I intend to approach the work:

  • Grounded in my call as a United Methodist deacon to connect the church and the world in ministries of compassion and justice
  • Guided by the gospel values of collaboration, both/and thinking, abundance, and transparency
  • Focused, day to day, on Conference-wide strategy, systems, and staff supervision.

During the same time, I have also been thinking about the tremendous challenges we are facing. We are exhausted living through seven months in a global pandemic, the impact of renewed struggles for racial justice, a deeply divisive election season, and continued uncertainty about our denomination’s future.

Last week’s account of six men arrested for allegedly planning to kidnap the Governor and start a civil war in Michigan was shocking and deeply disturbing development for this life-long Michigander. For me, it, sadly, encapsulates the fragility of our historical moment. A symptom of our “factionalized” nation; where collective anger and despair seem, each day, increasingly and dangerously more combustible.

These challenges are on my heart as I begin my work of DCM in the Michigan Conference. I know they are also on the hearts of many Michigan United Methodists as well. Each of these challenges deeply affects the morale and common life of our local churches and ministry settings. We are all living and leading through difficult and exhausting times.

To keep one foot in front of the other each day, I balance these profound challenges with the hope and dreams I have heard across our Conference, especially over the past year and a half. When I ask people about their dreams, repeatedly I hear variations of these four themes:

  • a church growing in relationship to God, especially through contemplative spiritual practices, and in relationship with communities around the corner and around the globe;
  • a church reaching young people, especially those disaffected or ambivalent to the church and institutional religion;
  • a church honestly struggling with its internalize racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and transphobia — to be a faithful, trustworthy and compelling witness to the seeking, forgiving, healing liberating gospel of Jesus Christ;
  • a church willing to make substantial, if not radical, changes to itself to achieve these three.

In short, I heard dreams of a renewed Methodism that is relational, evangelical, justice-seeking, and innovative. To meet the challenges ahead, we will need to be all four.

Beautiful dreams tempered by the hard realities of the changes to which we are called. We were already feeling the pain of necessary and disruptive change. We’ve been feeling it for a while. The pandemic has only amplified and accelerated this change. We are tempted to despair that what we are feeling are death pangs; the end. However, our faith suggests these may be birth pangs, just the beginning—the labor of a new thing being birthed by God in our midst. As we turn toward Advent, we do well to remember God’s gift of new life, God’s promise of a world about to turn.

Walter Brueggemann offers this prayer in his recent book Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. It speaks to those, myself included, who benefit from the way things were and need the courage to face the new normal to come.

At the Edge of a New Normal

Our “normal ways” are reassuring to us:
It is our normal way to slot people for wealth or poverty;
It is our normal way to classify people as “us” and “other”;
It is our normal way to prefer males to the other gender;
It is our normal way to distinguish heteros and the “other.”

Our usual normal make us safe,
make us happy,
leave us certain.

Only now our normal ways are exposed as constructs of privilege
that cover over the reality of neighborly situation.

In the midst of the virus, we notice that the others are very much with us,
and we are all vulnerable together.

We sense the disruption, the loss, the dis-ease among us,
and we want our old normal to be “great again.”

Except we cannot!

Except that you summon us to new futures made sober by the pandemic;
You require us now to imagine, to risk, and be vulnerable
            as we watch the new normal emerge among us:
the blind see, lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news;
students have debts canceled, the poor have health care,
workers have a living wage, the atmosphere breathes fresh air.

We want to return to the old normals that yield (for some) safety and happiness,
but you dispatch us otherwise.

Your new normal for us requires some adjustments by us.
            And adjust we will. We will live and trust and share differently.

“All things new” is a huge stretch for us.

But we know it is your good gift to us; with wistfulness, we receive it,
we embrace it, and
we give thanks to you. Amen.