On Forty

I’ve been thinking about 40. What it means to be forty. About the memories, the early memories of my life, the early moments of remembering.

Memories are interesting things, we tend to think that we have clear understandings of them and tend to think that those understandings, the moments that we are recalling, are perfect recollections of the past. Truth be told, all of us make sense of those memories and shape them, shape them to make sense of our lives, to make a narrative of our lives. I am sure that I too, like other human beings look back and provide a revised version a “revisionist version” of my story.

Remembering As Identity Seeking

I think what strikes me as I look back, is that as a child my parents would call me a “peacemaker.” I think what has happened throughout the years is that I’ve been living into that label, that identity. The work of peace making in this world is difficult and it takes different forms for different people. For me it meant always connecting and thinking about new ways to connect, thinking about all sorts of things, and finding ways to bridge.

I think at my core, as I learn a year or so ago, I am a person that is taken by and who lives—in some ways permanently—in border places and spaces. So I’ve been thinking about it because living in these spaces is messy work. At times it can be very traumatic, but I think about the ways that my story has been shaped over time and maybe I’ve been made for this, I’ve been gifted for living in the border.

I think my relationship to Jesus Christ, my encounter with Jesus–at times very alive, real, and concrete, at times very far away, at times magical, at times scary and mysterious–has shaped my imagination and continues to do so. I remember early on being so fascinated by the stories of scripture and by the Church with its gathering of God’s people to sing songs, pray prayers, to greet each other with love and joy, to hear a word for us (an ancient word, a new word), and gathering around simple things like crumbs of bread and sips of wine. So it has been the shaping and reshaping of memory.

I see deeply in my own story how long I’ve been in this work. But I do recognize that this world that I have created for myself, this world that I have imagined, this reality, this idea of myself, who I am, took a huge shift, turned (or re-calibrated maybe) when we decided to leave Puerto Rico and come to the United States.

I remember feeling lost in the new language and culture and struggled with my new reality. In some ways a part of me died then and little did I know that it would be reborn much later in my heart. This reclaiming would compel me to live differently. It turns out that the event, the movement, the diaspora, has changed me and shaped me, in ways unimaginable at the time, and not just because because there is no way to really know but because when you are a few months shy of 14 years of age, there is much that you do not understand, nor know about life, yourself, and the future.

The Bible as Battle Ground

Early on I fell in love with the text of scripture. I had all these questions about life, God, and meaning. I began to dig deeply into it and I loved it, loved the stories, loved the encounters I had in that text, and it has been part of my life since I began to read. Since then I have read it on my own so many times. Each time new discoveries have been made, new questions have emerged, and the Holy Spirit has come nearer.

The Bible has shaped me deeply over the years. It continues to amaze me, and surprise me. It continues to give me life, and I am more convinced today than I was then that it contains “all things necessary for salvation.” That it shapes me, changes me, and convicts me.

My love for the text, for the way that it tells me about Jesus as God’s revelation, for the way that it shapes me by the power of the Holy Spirit is the reason that I struggle with what is happening around me today. The many arguments about the nature of the body called the church and the ways we continue to argue with one another about how we interpret the text and what the text might mean for us is an example of the current struggle. Another example is the continued ways in which we have these discussion with one another as people of God, ways that do not demonstrate the love of God towards our brothers and sisters, with whom we have disagreements.

I recognize that the conversation is not easy, that some of these conversations are deeply emotional conversations that come out of a love for God and for what we believe to be true. But I still struggle with how often we dehumanize, question if those we disagree with are believers or not and we do not witness to the love of God in the ways we disagree with one another.

I recognize that I too have my way of thinking about the text, out of love of that text, our of my encounter with Jesus, and out of the shared reading, reflecting, and hearing among and with the community of believers. But I am surprised at how narrow we read the biblical text.

As a native Spanish speaker who learned English and continues to do work of translation, I can say that translation is always, always interpretive. The fact that we have a sacred text that is to be translated into the languages of the people, that in and of itself says that this is the kind of text that begs for interpretation through the continued movement of the Spirit, in and through the Church. The same movement that inspired the body of believers to recognize the story of their encounter with God among the writings that we now call the bible, is the Spirit that has guided and will continue to guide the body of Christ in the continual interpretation of the text for us today.

I struggle while recognizing the difficulties. Through the years as a pastor I have attempted to bring the body of God’s people, the body of Christ, to learn and to engage in the interpretive work. This way we can have these conversations together, conversations that ask the questions: What is God up to in my life? What is a way of living that witnesses to the way of Jesus? What does love of God and neighbor look like in light of my current circumstance?

We ask these questions while recognizing that it is not about me, myself, and I. On the contrary it is about the body.  Seeing our relationship to God as a communal relationship is the reason why the body needs to learn about the work of the Spirit, about discernment, and about how to allow the Spirit to inspire us as we engage the text, so that it goes beyond us. Engaging the text together opens our eyes to our connection to the body, and to all of creation. Being inspired as we read the text helps us recognize the ways that we are allowing our own brokenness, our own sin, to get in the way of what God is communicating to us through the text.

The Bible and LGBTQ+ Persons

In this particular season of the church’s life and in our cultural life we are focusing our energies discussing the place, role, identity, and place of a particular group of people, made in God’s image and likeness, in this case who are LGBTQ+. We go to the text and we see there that their identity goes against what the text says is God’s will, against what some might call God’s natural design for the created order, then making a claim to this being a settled matter.

jordan-mcdonald-766295-unsplash
Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

I find it fascinating  that we are still arguing (and in the case of United Methodism close to dividing) about these persons. I struggle because many believers have dug deeply, have prayed, read, studied, encountered, discerned, gathered, and thought about all of this, in doing so we have come to the conclusion that the text does indeed speak about these issues in about five places, that the text in those places does not really tell us about God’s response to people who want to have healthy, whole, intimate relationships with persons of the same gender. These relationships are rooted in God’s love, in the desire to “not be alone,” a desire to live life in community, to make families, and to do so for the glory of God. People who want to live lives of holiness of heart of life, who demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, who want to live life within, among, and belonging to the community of believers, a life that honors God and neighbor, in and through who they have been created to be, LGBTQ+. The reality of their identity, including the natural and God given human desire for companionship, intimacy, and life together, does not make them unable to be full members of the body of Christ.

It is fascinating to me because we have been down this road before. I grew up in a Christian religious tradition that did not ordain women to pastoral ministry. This tradition believed that divorced people could not be pastors because Jesus says that to be divorced and remarried was committing adultery, believe that women should not wear pants because this meant that they were wearing “male clothing.” A tradition that believed that Christian people should not eat blood sausage because the bible says that we should not eat blood.

In American history we know that slave traders, government leaders, and slave owners would use scripture to sustain and support and justify the slave trade, we know that women have been subjugated and kept from being seen as fully human by the scriptures that speak about women’s lower status to men and in the Old Testament, property. We know that scripture tells us that there are many things that we should not eat because eating them would be an abomination to God. Early in European history when the church became a tool of the empire we conquered, destroyed, and pillaged in the name of Jesus. We broke the peace among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all in Christ’s name with the bible as the weapon of justification. During the colonial expansion of European powers we witnessed religious leaders using scripture to justify the genocide and/or indentured servitude of native peoples, the forced baptism of said people, and the continuation of systems that kept people of color in “their place,” the place that was “ordained by God.” In the America’s early settlers used scripture to justify the dehumanization of Native Americans, due to the ways that they thought of themselves, their land, and the world. White Christian settlers, identified the natives as “savages” so that they could take their land and conquer the new world.

Even after the Civil War white churches used their pulpits to fight against the reconstruction, to encourage the growth of Jim Crow legislation, to spread the myth of the pseudo-science called Eugenics (in many ways rooted and fueled by “biblical examples), and to sabotage the efforts of the Civil Rights movement. I could go on but I want you to keep reading.

The same Spirit that guided the early church to go against the Hebrew Scriptures and welcome gentiles into the way of Jesus, the same Spirit that guided the church in the 300’s to discern what writings should become our sacred text, the same Spirit that moved the Eastern Church to go their way, the same Spirit that moved John Wycliffe to translate the bible into English against the wishes of the Church and Martin Luther to recognize the Church’s abuses, the same Spirit that guided the founder of Methodism, John Wesley to preach outdoors, to set apart lay leaders, to allow women to lead, and to break the “scriptural understandings” of the church in his time in order to ordain leaders for America, the same Spirit that inspired African Americans to learn to read the bible and through that reading to recognize their identity as God’s own, the same Spirit that guided abolitionist, women fighting for suffrage, and black and white leaders to fight Jim Crow, the same Spirit that reminds us that all people are of sacred worth . . . is the same Spirit that continues to guide us as the body of Christ continues to discern the ways that the Word called Jesus Christ is at work in our lives and adjust, recalibrate, and change to be more like Jesus.

So what?

I am a United Methodist for a number of reasons but a primary one is that we have from the very beginning said that our encounter with Jesus Christ is one that moves us, propels us, into the world to be the life transforming and healing presence of Jesus in the world. We have from the very beginning been a Matthew 25 kind of movement. Even when it went against the scriptural understandings of the time. When factory owners used the new technology of distilled liquors to keep workers inebriated so that they could take advantage of them we initiated the temperance movement, when people of color were seen as property and as less than human we fought for the abolition of slavery, when women were seen as property, as extensions of their husbands, and/or as agents of procreation we fought for the rights of women, including the right to vote and their equality before God and the community of faith, including becoming Pastors and other leaders, when children were being used as labor we fought for laws against it, when Jim Crow continued slavery under another name, and when the Civil Rights movement began we stood alongside those fighting for justice, those wanting to come alongside the Spirit in making the world more like God wants it to be.

I am not claiming that I have it all together or that I am right. I do struggle as to why we continue to argue with one another as the body of Christ, continue to put each other down, and continue to question our faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Gospel that tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves, that Jesus is the “Lord of the sabbath” not scripture, that they would know that we follow Jesus when we love.

Our differences should not divide us! Those of us who have what some might call more progressive (I would maybe called them ‘non-traditional) positions love Jesus too and our impetus for our discernment and action is our encounter with the Risen Lord, scripture, the tradition of the Church, and our continued work at communal discernment.

Though I have these convictions I do not claim superiority over my brothers and sisters who disagree with me. And so I wish there was more room in the church and in the world. I grieve how in my own ministry over the last 13+ years this openness (or the lack thereof) has been a stumbling block for so many people. Yet God continues to call us and sending people our way who struggle with their identity, with their addictions, with their doubts, with feeling alienated from religious communities, who do not feel safe.

In my pastoral ministry I strive to help create spaces that are safe and open to be people who are at their most vulnerable. People who might feel lost so that they can find life again. I have this passion because in my encounters with the Risen Lord and through scripture I see and hear that this is our call as people who follow Jesus. That from the beginning of the story of our faith we have been called and set apart (made Holy) for the work of being a light to the world. A light of love, reconciliation, justice, forgiveness, new life, and transformation. Into God’s “shalom,” into God’s completion, peace, and wholeness. All of us, all people, together. All the created order.

I have this passion because the people of God set me apart over a decade ago for the work of leading them into ministry in the world. As the vows I took at my ordination say:

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church:
to preach and teach the Word of God
and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion;
to lead the people of God in worship and prayer;
to lead persons to faith in Jesus Christ;
to exercise pastoral supervision,
to order the life of the congregation and the connection,
to counsel the troubled,
and declare the forgiveness of sin;
to lead the people of God
in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world;
to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people;
and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church
and in service in and to the community.
This is the rule of life and work of an elder.

From “Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2017-2020” as Revised by Action of the 2016 General Conference

The Next 40+ Years

At 40 I am doing a lot of thinking about what it means to live the next 40 years of my life. If the age expectancy of someone my age in this time is 80 (give or take a few years) then I am in mid-life. So what does it look life? How do I want to live? What adjustments do I want to make?

I want to live them in a way that most closely follows Jesus’s call for me to love, especially when it is difficult, for me to come alongside those who feel the most marginalized, forgotten, pushed away. For me to stand up to the powerful on behalf of those who feel powerless, for me to remind the community of believers of that call, that if we do this together, by the power of the Spirit, we would see the kingdom of God appear in our midst, we would see a glimpse of what God will do at the end of time. I believe this!

I know that this is difficult work and at times it is full of Joy. But as I lean into the second half of my life I do not want to waste my time in other things. I want the Spirit to give me the courage of people like Oscàr Romero, someone who is a saint for me, a model for what it looks like to follow Jesus, especially in difficult times. To have the courage to roll out of bed in the morning and speak on behalf of those who have no voice, and love the ones who are hard to love, to speak to power in ways that honor their own humanity at the same time reminding them of what it means to follow the way.

The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, “You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.” It is to say exactly the opposite, “You are valuable.”
So I am inviting those who read this, many of whom are people that God has called me to shepherd to come alongside me in this journey. Because God is calling the church into this way, into the continuation of the work begun long ago by apostles, God’s people, leaders, founders, and other servants.

Oscár Romero

What I have found by struggling with all of this is a deeper love and dedication to the bible as sacred text that guides the church’s life and my life. This journey pushes me to continue to study it, reflect on it, proclaim it, engage it, struggle with it, and allow it to convict me. I’ve also found that I am humbled time and time again by the stories of faith, by how little I know, and how beyond my comprehension God is.

So . . .

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a Puertorriqueño – a colonized person, a descendant of African Slaves, Indentured Taínos, and Spanish Colonizers. A part of a people, of el barrio, la gente, and los caminos.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a follow of Jesucristo – a jewish folk rabbi who proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that kingdom was kinship with the least, the poor, and the powerless.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as Husband – to a white anglo-saxon protestant southern woman who took my name and continues to take the prejudice against my people.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as father – to “mix children” who continue to ask questions of identity, who are proud that Puerto Rican blood runs through their veins, and whose future in a more just world is uncertain.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a presbyter/elder in the Church – a church that has a sad history of encounter with people life me. A church that continues to struggle with where my people fit in, and who I really am. A church that needs to face the difficulty of its white supremacist identity.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as one in diaspora – one who is a stranger is a strange land, one who will never belong and yet will make home, grow roots, and work towards the betterment of my adoptive home.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as one who does not know – the mystery of life and faith will never be solved but through Jesus we are able to receive a glimpse of divine life. Not all is clear, sin and death are still at work in us and in the world, I only see through a glass darkly.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as kin – to all people, at all times, to my fellow people of color, and to those who live on the margin, to the forgotten, rejected, and deported, to trouble makers, resistors, and rebels, to the relentless, hard headed, and misunderstood.

At 40 I reclaim my identity as a human being whose image is the image of the creator, a child of God, committed to being the incarnate presence of the divine in all places. A human being who is a committed hearer, sojourner, and follower.

At 40 I continue, begin again, and do so with the many who come alongside me to dream dreams and see visions. I continue in the company of my ancestors, the community of saints, the blood relatives, and chosen family.

At 40 I recomitt to la lucha para mi, para mis hijos, mi gente, y para el pueblo the Dios!

Con mucha gratitud, paz, y amor . . . let’s go!

 

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