Monday, May 21, 2018

Recommended Readings on Staunen! European Methodist Festival

European Methodists assemble every three years for a festival titled "Staunen!" ("Amazement"). As the event's website states, "It's not a training course, not a church retreat and also not a group holiday: it's a bit of everything and yet something completely different."

Staunen! 2018 ran May 9-13 in Cuxhaven, Germany. The UMC/EmK in Germany carried several stories reporting on the festival. Reading through the stories gives a sense of the flavor of European Methodism across many countries.

The stories (all in German) are as follows (with English translations of their titles and description):

Traumhafter Auftakt - Dreamlike Start: Pure sunshine and a great festival area frame the beginning of the "Staunen!" Festival.Bishop Rückert invites attendees to "dream."

Schlaglichter der Vielfalt - Highlights of Diversity: The diversity of life is reflected in the program of the European Methodist Festival in Cuxhaven

Eine große Familie - A Big Family: An international festival thrives on encounters and a special flair. Visitors to the "Staunen!" Festival talk about their experiences.

Schritte Wagen - Dare to Step Out: The penultimate day of the European Methodist Festival had two highlights: the open-air worship service and the music evening.

Runter vom Berg! - Down from the Mountain!:The "Staunen!" festival in Cuxhaven ended with a sending church service. The accent on this Sunday was the return to everyday life.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Journeying Compassionately with Our Buddhist Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

On March 21st, 2018, Global Ministries’ Mission Dialogue Forum invited Ven. Panamwela Wajirabuddhi Thero, the Abbot of Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Lithonia, to offer an educational session for our staff on the basic teachings and expansion of Buddhism.

He was born in Sri Lanka and wanted to engage in mission work in the US. After completing his education in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Wajirabudhhi Thero came to the United States of America in 1994 and stayed with the Cambodian community in Los Angeles for a few years. He learned Cambodian culture and language.

In 1999 Ven. P. Wajirabuddhi moved to Atlanta, Georgia and in June 2000 established the Georgia Buddhist Vihara. He is currently a regular visiting instructor to the Emory Buddhist Club, Emory University. He impressed Global Ministries as a well-read teacher in global issues and as a promoter of the teachings of the Buddha for world peace, global compassion and community harmony. He has engaged in this work while also taking care of his Sri Lankan Buddhist community in metro Atlanta, which is primarily of the Theravada tradition. The monk said all religions should engage in dialogue with the other religious traditions for peace and common good.

There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world today belonging to the three major branches of contemporary Buddhism. These branches are Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. Some consider Vajrayana part of Mahayana.

Unlike in Christianity there are no baptismal membership rolls maintained in Buddhism, though it is estimated that the Buddhist population in the America reaches as high as 3.5 to 4 million. ("Reflections on Buddhist Demographics in America: An Initial Report on the First American Buddhist Census," by J. Gordon Melton and Constance Jones. A paper presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture meeting in Washington, DC, April 2-4, 2009). California stands out as a state that has the most Buddhist centers, with approximately 650.

Compassion – The Heart of Buddhism
Ven. Wajirabuddhi Thero highlighted the core aspects in the Buddha’s teachings: Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha (in Pali language). Metta is understood as “Loving Kindness”, Karuna is “Compassion”, Mudita is “Sympathetic Joy” (or vicarious joy, the opposite of jealousy), and Upekkha is “Equanimity”. Together, these are called the “Brahma vihara bhavana” which occupy a central position in the field of personal heart-mind formation in Buddhism.

Karuna (Compassion) is characterized as promoting the removal of others' suffering. Its function is manifested as kindness. Its proximate cause is seeing helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside, and it fails when it gives rise to sorrow.

We could engage in a comparative exploration of ‘compassion’ (Metta and Karuna) in Buddhism with Christian teaching of ‘love’ (Agape). This learning is of critical contemporary importance and might help us engage in a common struggle for Peace in the world today. Christians can most certainly work with Buddhists in developing interfaith friendships for a more compassionate world.

Four Noble Truths
Ven. Wajirabuddhi Thero also summarized The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in the simplest terms as:
1. The truth of the existence of suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukkha Sathya)
2. The truth of the origin for suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka Samudaya Sathya)
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka Nirodha Sathya)
4. The truth of the path to cessation of the origin to suffering/dissatisfaction in life (Dukka nirodha gamini patipada Magga Sathya)

Given that suffering is a core concern in Christian mission, there is a fine opportunity for Christians to engage in comparative reflection here. Christians often reflect on two basic issues related to suffering: why do righteous people suffer, and how are we to reduce suffering in the world (including things like hunger, poverty, victims of violence and injustice, refugees etc.). Buddhist concern for extending loving kindness to all living beings posts a real and relevant challenge to Christians in the missional context of today’s environmental crisis.

My Buddhist Pilgrimage
As a Methodist, my journey of learning about Buddhism started with having a wonderful relationship with my Buddhist friends in my childhood school. It was a dialogue of life - meeting people from sister faiths in the market place, on the playground, on train and bus, and in the city. But my real educational encounter as an adult started through my ministerial formation at the Theological College of Lanka, Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist monk from a nearby temple served as a visiting faculty member.

It was in 1990 that I first met Ven. Bullumulle Sumanarathana Thero as my guru in Buddhist philosophy at the Theological College of Lanka. He had a very broad understanding of Christianity and the Bible and so was able to communicate with the young seminarians who were preparing for the ministry and mission in Sri Lanka and beyond. Ven. Sumanarathana Thero was honored for his long-standing service to the ecumenical Theological College of Lanka for fulfilling 30 years of ministry in 2014. At that time, I was blessed to be the Principal of the college.

Students who studied Buddhism in the seminary also had the opportunity to visit the temple very often, and to build long lasting missional friendships not only with the monks but also with the Buddhists who live in villages around the college.

As a Methodist who grew up in a primarily Buddhist cultural context, I have experienced growth in my own faith through these encounters, which have helped in my missional praxis and witness in an increasingly pluralistic world. My relations with Buddhism and other sister faiths has been a journey that has strengthened my own faith and my commitment. So many of my friends join me to testify that these relationships have resulted in producing both interfaith friendships for a better world and spiritual growth within ourselves.

Towards New Missiological Insights
Modern Christians should encounter people of sister faiths with the attitude of developing a greater understanding, harmony, and building peace in the society where God’s mission takes place, the world where God has called the Church to serve. Catholic Theologian Hans Küng wrote:

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions” Hans Küng, Islam, Past Present & Future (Oxford: One-world Publications, 2007), p. xxiii.

In the traditional missiology, Christians tell Buddhists “who Christ is.” But in new the missiology framework, my Buddhist neighbor tells me who Christ is for them. Thereby the uniqueness of Christ is understood in a fresh way by encountering the Buddhist other.

Global mission is not exclusive to Christianity. Historically, Buddhists have many more years (nearly 2500 years) of experience in world mission than Christians, so it is humbling to learn from our Buddhist friends about their missional experiences of Buddhism’s contextualization and how it resiliently stood up to challenges over time.

The other challenge would be for Christians and Buddhists to compassionately journey together and work for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation.

“A person is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving, and fearless, then he is in truth called wise.”
“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”
― Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Filipina Theologians on UMC Gender Amendments

There have been many responses thus far to the recently announced non-ratification of two amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution regarding gender justice.

I am honored to share four more responses, reflections from Filipina theologians. The Philippines was one of the areas of the UMC with the strongest support for the amendments.

The four theologians are as follows:

JENNIFER FERARIZA-MENESES, Executive Secretary, Board of Women's Work, Philippines Central Conference, "In the Imago Dei, We Shall Rise!: A Mother’s Day Reflection for May 13, 2018"

LIZETTE TAPIA-RAQUEL, Assistant Professor, Union Theological Seminary, Philippines, "An Open Letter to The United Methodist Church: On the Rejection of Amendments on Gender Equality and Inclusion to the Book of Discipline"

DARLENE MARQUEZ-CARAMANZANA, Program Secretary, Program Unit on Ecumenical Education and Nurture, National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), "An Unwelcome Gift"

NORMA DOLLAGA, Kapatirang Simbahan Para a Bayan (KASIMBAYAN) / Ecumenical Center for Development, "On the Rejection of an Amendment for Women's Equality: The Never, Never Sweet Sound of Rejection: Now a Parable"

Each piece is published separately on this website and accessible through the title links above. This post serves as a central linking spot for all four posts.

Lizette Tapia-Raquel: An Open Letter to The United Methodist Church: On the Rejection of Amendments on Gender Equality and Inclusion to the Book of Discipline

This post is by Lizette Tapia-Raquel, Assistant Professor, Union Theological Seminary, Philippines. The post is written as a response to the recently announced non-ratification of two amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution regarding gender justice.

On April 18, 1968, my mother and father, Lydia Galima and Jose Tapia, along with an entire community of family and friends, mostly from the United Methodist Church, celebrated my birth as the first child of the union. On 23 April, 1968, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church likewise celebrated their union to become the United Methodist Church. Thus, our Church and I are both celebrating fifty years this year.

The United Methodist Church has a long tradition of conferencing, ‘holy conferencing.’ We value our connectionalism and our global character despite our diversity as a people of faith. Thus, we gather, time and again, to be in conversation, to intentionally understand and deliberate on issues affecting the Church and our society, to define who we are as a community of faith and to raise our prophetic voice to transform our broken world. This we do because we believe “there is no holiness other than social holiness,” in the words of John Wesley.

The recent rejection of two amendments to the Book Discipline pertaining to gender equality and inclusion exhibits a crisis of faith for many of us called United Methodists, as well as our sisters and brothers in other denominations and faiths. Thus, I feel a need to ask these questions:

How do we understand our Christian identity? Who is this God we believe in and the Jesus we follow? How does it define us as communities of faith and as a Church?

What are we communicating to the women, our daughters and granddaughters, wives and sisters, our women bishops, pastors and deaconesses of our church? What are we teaching the men, our sons and grandsons, our husbands and brothers, our male bishops, pastors and lay? When we refuse equality between women and men, can we honor the women and girls in our churches and value their contributions and participation in our corporate lives?

How will our rejection of equality affect relationships between male and female clergy and bishops, female deaconesses and male pastors, between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, male and female youth leaders in our churches and societies? How can we give testimony to a just and loving God when we cannot be just and love equally ourselves?

Who is truly welcome in our churches when we vote against inclusion? Can we truly live out our message, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors?” How do we authentically advocate for the migrant, the refugee, the suffering and oppressed when we exclude those we have nurtured in and belonged to our own churches because of tradition and rules? By whose standards do we deny others inclusion into our faith community, God’s?

Are we saying that women are not equal to men? Are we saying that not everyone is welcome in our churches? Are we saying that we do not believe that we are all created in the image of God? Are we saying that we cannot live out Jesus’ greatest commandment of loving our neighbors?

I have been raised in a family of United Methodists and have always been affirmed as a female. I grew up with the Church as my second home and learned of love, equality, inclusivity and justice in its Sunday School rooms and big sanctuary. Now, I am fifty years old and on Sunday we celebrated Mother’s Day in churches in different parts of the world. But can we truly celebrate as women and as mothers in our churches?

If we cannot affirm the equality of women and men, and cannot commit to the inclusion of all into the United Methodist Church on its 50th year, what is there to celebrate?

Norma Dollaga: On the Rejection of an Amendment for Women's Equality: The Never, Never Sweet Sound of Rejection: Now a Parable

This piece is by Norma Dollaga, Kapatirang Simbahan Para a Bayan (KASIMBAYAN) / Ecumenical Center for Development. Ms. Dollaga is a deaconess in the Philippines Central Conference. This piece is written in response to the recently announced non-ratification of two amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution regarding gender justice. It originally appear on Ms. Dollaga's personal blog, patentero, and is republished with the permission of the author.

“If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, ¶ 4 would read:

"The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ.

"The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or another organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.”

Unfortunately, the amendment on women’s equality did not get enough vote to legislate that very important provision. However, the failure of the church to consider the said amendment does not define the totality of the church. It becomes a parable of the Church’s failure to celebrate grace, inclusive community and a welcoming church for everyone.

The parable goes like this:

“There was once a church who longs to fulfil and live out the message of Jesus Christ. It kept on proclaiming about how Jesus welcomed everyone in the table of communion, including the outcasts and the despicable ones. That Jesus welcomes those who, according to the standard of the empire, are deemed as problems of society. He welcomes even the sinners who discriminated and exploited the people, as long as they are willing to repent and join him in his cause. Jesus loves the children. He welcomed the women as his disciples and entrusted to Mary of Magdala, the most important news of resurrection becomes the theological basis of being church today. Jesus commissioned and sent her out: GO AND TELL. She was an apostle par excellence.

"Yet, as the church lives and ages, it looks like it has forgotten by heart the gift of humanity in female and male persons, in women and men. It has failed remember that our faith impels us to protect each one’s dignity, and nourish the gift of equality given us by God. The church becomes comfortable in accepting the poisonous normalcy of patriarchy that breeds inequality and discrimination.

"But there is a spirit ponders upon the gifts and this spirit that cannot be silenced within the church. This spirit cries out against the church system when the church becomes accustomed to the practice of patriarchy that marginalizes, discriminates, and promotes inequality. Thus, in a practical and humble action, this restless spirit tries to call the attention of the church and offered a proposed amendment. It takes only a practical and logical sense, and deep spiritual eyes to discern the value of the amendment. But lo and behold, this envisioned bequest did not translate into a vote that would make it truly a gift to the next generation!

"Today’s generation could have taken this historic moment to make a decision to truly affirm women’s place in the United Methodist Church’s constitution. Sadly, today’s generation made instead an oversight in perpetuating inequality within the church."

It continues the parable of ingratitude and the inability to celebrate to the gift of community, humanity, and solidarity. The church has become complacent and has let go not only of its priestly role, but also its crucial prophetic task.

The dignity, beauty, grace of LIFE and humanity is God’s gift to us. The protection, nourishment, and solidarity are our ways to honour these gifts. Today, it is not included in the church law, and so we wonder if the church could even speak of it within the ambit of love.

Those who voted for the amendment, and all who voted against it are part of the body of Christ. There are internal contradictions within and amongst us. Paul reminds us that we have to strive to make the greatest gift of love in concrete terms.

One thing is sure: the daughters of Zelophehad of modern times will continue and keep on knocking at the doors of justice and equality. They will not stop until strands of I justice and discrimination in church whether implicit or explicit will be dismantled. This we will do in memory of our foremothers who did trailblazing in eradicating discrimination and exclusion of women from the church and society. There is no other option but to pursue the dream of justice and equality.

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana: An Unwelcome Gift

This post is by Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, Program Secretary, Program Unit on Ecumenical Education and Nurture, National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP). Ms. Marquez-Caramanzana is a deaconess in the Philippines Central Conference. The piece is written in response to the recently announced non-ratification of two amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution regarding gender justice.

On Sunday, United Methodist churches paid tribute to mothers for the observance of Mother’s Day. Once again, the church proclaimed its praise to women (be it that some are just expressions of tokenism) – for their love, for their nurturing, for their care, for their strength amidst suffering, their resiliency and many more adjectives that one may think of.

On May 18-20, United Methodist Women throughout the whole connection will gather and celebrate women’s historic role in the church in Columbus, Ohio. While the assembly aims to foster fellowship among women, it is also meant to equip women for service and collectively experience God’s call to mission. Women of the United Methodist Church are faithful in service, diligent in study and compassionate in doing mission.

These two historic events are about to take place in the context of the church failing to ratify two constitutional amendments: One was on gender equality which declares, “men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God.” The other was pertaining to inclusion which declares that no member will be “denied access to an equal place in the life, worship and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status or economic condition.

We failed to be the church.

We failed to remember that as a church, we stood up against slavery, against forced and child labor, against Apartheid.
We failed to remember our foremothers in the faith who trail-blazed new paths of mission and service.

We failed to be the church.

We failed to honor the dignity of women, the image of the Divine in each and every woman and girl.
We failed to honor the sacredness inherent in each of women’s lives.

We failed to be the church.

We failed to recognize women’s painstaking labor of love for the church and its mission; of their generous giving and sharing of resources till it hurts; of their kind deeds and acts of mercy.
We failed to recognize women’s contribution in their efforts to live out the pastoral and prophetic work of the church.

We failed to be the church.

We failed to affirm the diversity of women’s ministries, of their varied expressions of faith and service, of their deep love for humanity and for the church.
We failed to affirm women’s significant place in the church.

We failed to be the church. We failed before God. We failed the generations that are yet to come. We failed in our mission to be in solidarity. We failed God’s will for the church to have its doors, hearts and minds open.

No thanks for the gift. It certainly is not a gift but a failed mission.

And we, women shall rise. We will not be discouraged nor defeated.

We will persist until discrimination is but a thing of the past.

We will persist until inclusion is a reality.

The non-ratification of the two amendments is an act of injustice to women and the most vulnerable. It is an act of injustice done against the dignity and honor of women. We will be held accountable by the generations that will come.

In the ultimate, the Divine, the giver of life, the author and finisher of our faith, will hold the church accountable.

Jennifer Ferariza-Meneses: In the Imago Dei, We Shall Rise!: A Mother’s Day Reflection for May 13, 2018

This post is by Jennifer Ferariza-Meneses, Executive Secretary, Board of Women's Work, Philippines Central Conference. It is written in response to the recently announced non-ratification of two amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution regarding gender justice.

As the world celebrates Mother’s Day today (even earlier this week), a big portion of my being a woman, a mother, a lay member of the United Methodist Church in the Philippines, is lamenting over the recent news about the failure (by required 2/3 votes) of my Church to affirm gender justice, women’s equality and all persons' full inclusion in the total life of The United Methodist Church. It is distressful to see the results of votes casted upon by several annual conferences, particularly in the Philippines Central Conference where I belong, of which women’s leadership, women's active participation and women's full engagement in almost all aspects and levels of our mission and ministries, are distinctly visible, but fail to be deliberately and justly recognized by the whole Church. The struggle is real, absolutely frustrating, but with the challenging words from our United Methodist women bishops' pastoral letter,

“We weep for the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm that is inflicted upon women and girls because of this action. We weep for those who are denied the ability to use their gifts to make a difference in the world. We also weep for those who are not protected from exclusion in the church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition. We see you. We weep with you. We seek your healing. We work for the healing of our church. We strive for a church and world that honors every person as a beloved child of God, made in the image of our Creator.”

Women know and feel… from the core of their heart, mind, soul… that we never lose hope and we dare to fight.

I can say that working and journeying with our women over a decade through the organizations of UMWSCS, deaconesses, clergywomen, clergy female spouses, youth and young adult fellowships in the Philippines Central Conference ensure a possibility, though it seems like impossible in some occasions, that we can create a world of harmony, unity and equality. Our commitment and ministries for women’s empowerment go with our advocacy work for gender partnership – women and men working together and promotion of equal spaces and opportunities for both women and men. Our women have been learning the value and importance of collective action and shared leadership and service. They have been unlearning hierarchical and bureaucratic approaches, behaviors and styles and seeking ways of being inclusive, compassionate, welcoming and nurturing community of God’s people.

While we are forever grateful to our women (and some men) who made a significant impact with all their personal and institutional efforts in the past to advance women’s equality and gender justice within our Church, our present realities send us a clear message - that we must carry on, that we continue to struggle, to resist and that we cannot rest until we “reach a place where we fully embody the gospel promise that, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’-Galatians 3:28” (From the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church Statement in Support of Women’s Equality and Full Inclusion, May 7, 2018).

As the world celebrates Mother’s Day today, I pause for a moment with my Mother God… to pray… and sing...

“Our souls magnify the Lord,
And our spirits rejoice in God our Savior,
For God has looked on the humble state of God’s servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call us blessed.”
(Paraphrase from The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-48)

“Our hearts exult in the Lord;
Our strength is exalted in our God.
Our mouth derides our enemies,
Because we rejoice in our victory”
(Paraphrase from Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:1)

We celebrate our being women, created in the image and likeness of God, who are bound to protect and care for the sanctity of life;
Like Mary and Hannah, we speak words of denunciation to powers that be creating unjust systems and oppressive structures that destroy life and human dignity;
Like Mary and Hannah, we desire to take an active part in liberating our people from all forms of violence, injustices, discrimination and oppression;
Like Mary and Hannah, we pray for lasting peace, justice and equality to triumph and flourish;
Like Mary and Hannah, we sing songs of hope, freedom and liberation for our people, for our Church, for our land.
And our prayers and singing will never end… until fullness of life as God has promised, is fulfilled and shared with all.