Learning to dance

Bishop Karen, how do I sum up in a few words the last year since Scottsdale, Arizona? I could speak of your vision for our conference that excites me, the deep love you have shown for every congregation small and large, even those who haven’t been ready to love you in return. I stand amazed at the deep insights and instincts of a shepherd you bring to every situation. The list of what I could say is long. So perhaps I should start at the beginning.

When you were elected, I was thrilled. You were meant to be a Bishop in The United Methodist Church I love. The interviews, the conversations, the Spirit whispering as it moved in the room… all showed this was undeniable. But then you were assigned to the Mountain Sky Area. You were to be my Bishop. Suddenly, the excitement in my gut had a partner — fear. I am privileged to serve as the District Superintendent of the Wyoming District, a District full of beautiful vistas, wide open spaces, and good salt of the earth people. But this is a conservative place. Not all in my District would be pleased with this news. Did I have what it would take to manage the emotions and the conflict? Could we get through this?

And then the announcement was read (yes, I had advanced notice, thanks to a friend) and you came to greet us, your new flock. And the first words I heard you say, with a face beaming with joy, “We are going to have fun!” The fear in my gut could hardly believe it. Fun? It was the smile on your face, the love in your eyes, that convinced me. Bishop Karen, you’ve been true to your promise, and so much more. When Bishop Elaine invited me to the Cabinet table, I knew the work would be hard, I knew it would be rewarding. I never expected it to be filled with such joy. But then, at your consecration, you began to dance… and I knew then, I think all of us present knew our lives and our conference would never be the same. Praise be to God it isn’t the same.

There have been some hard times. Some good people have parted company with us. There have been times of being on the receiving end of bitter words and having to swallow hard, kick the dust off our feet, and move forward in grace. The letters of encouragement, the power of changed hearts, the fun and friendship within the circle I’m privileged to share had made the bitter days worth it.

How do I sum up the last year? You are teaching us — let me be personal — you are teaching me how to dance. I confess: my feet haven’t learned the lesson yet, but my heart at least is learning how to dance in the melodies of grace in ways I never would have expected. You inspire me to find the joy — inexhaustible joy — even in the hard days, the frustrating days. You also inspire me to let my heart break at times, especially with those whose hearts or spirits or even bodies have been broken time and time again. You inspire us to be vulnerable enough to be our whole authentic selves in this strange journey of loving Jesus and loving those Jesus loves.

Has it really been a year?
It seems like yesterday.
Has it only been a year?
It seems like a lifetime.
Thank you for the journey
and for the lessons
along the way.
Most of all thank you
for the friendship
and for being you
through and through.
I’m ready for the
next year.

Here we are, one year later. Bishop Karen, thank you for accepting God’s call to be a Bishop in this church we love. And may God’s Spirit continue to work within and through you. Some of us – especially me – still have many steps to learn yet, but when it’s time to dance, I don’t believe you will ever be without dancing partners in the Mountain Sky Area.

*Note on this entry: This is a revised, and expanded, version of words I was privileged to offer at the Rocky Mountain Conference 2017 in a moment where we celebrated Bishop Karen Oliveto’s first annual conference as our Episcopal leader. 

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new wine (annotated)

by Jeff Rainwater, 24 April 2017, Cheyenne, WY

Drunk![1]
you will say
I am,
and other names
may follow.
Rebel![2]
Heretic![3]
Crazy![4]
Disturber of the Peace![5]
of Beelzebul![6]
(my absolute favorite,
but only
if you use the word…
Beelzebul)
But were you there
when Mighty Wind
blew through
gently,
when Now walked in,
smiling,
to greet sacred Past
with love?
Drunk?
Perhaps
it is New Wine[7]
that was poured.
Spirit[8], Peter named it,
and I’m sure I heard
someone whisper,
Grace never tasted
so sweet.[9]

[1] Acts 2:13; Acts 2:15, Peter’s reply. There is an irony here I never caught before. The complaint was literally, “these men are full of sweet, new, wine.” The implication is clear, ‘they’re drunk.’ But Jesus has spoken of new wine before in Luke 5:37, comparing his presence with the disciples and perhaps the Kingdom itself as ‘new wine.’ (In Greek, a different word from Acts 2:13, but same idea). The complainers were more right than they knew. Were the disciples full of new, sweet, wine? Yes! Just not the wine the complainers were thinking of.
[2] John 19:12, of Jesus; Acts 21:38, of Paul, falsely
[3] Or blasphemer; Matthew 26:65, of Jesus; Acts 12:13, of Stephen, falsely
[4] Mark 3:20, of Jesus
[5] Acts 24:5, of Paul
[6] Matthew 12:24, of Jesus
[7] Luke 5:37
[8] Acts 2:17, referencing Joel 2:28-32, Joel suggests this is a singular event, but Acts later  attests to the Spirit being poured out on many occasions, as a continuing fulfillment, that I suggest continues through the present in new, sometimes equally disruptive, ways.
[9] Psalm 119:103; Psalm 34:8; and again, Acts 2:13, new, sweet, wine. Oh to taste sweet wine of Jesus’ grace given by the Spirit!

 

A note about this poem:  In July 2016, I was an observer privileged to be present for the election of the first openly gay Bishop within the United Methodist Church. She was elected because she was the best candidate, leading all ballots throughout the process. The election has been challenged because she chooses to live an authentic and open life in all its dimensions including her marriage to her spouse, Robin Ridenour.

Today, I leave for Newark, NJ, to stand with many others in support of Bishop Oliveto. Since her election 8 months ago in Arizona, it has been my great honor to serve on Bishop Oliveto’s Cabinet in my continuing appointment as Wyoming District Superintendent. She is my Bishop through and through, deserving in every way of the office she now holds, but to me she is more than that. Bishop Karen and Robin both have become family. As I pray for justice this week, I wish all could come to know this remarkable leader of our church as I have. I wish all could see how the Spirit is at work in the Mountain Sky Area.

For those that question the motives behind Bishop Oliveto’s election or object to my support of her or of the full inclusion the LGBTQ community within the life of our church, I offer this poem as a reflection on that day in July when history was made within the denomination I love. Whatever happens now, that moment cannot be undone.

we are God’s garden

by Jeff Rainwater, 20 April 2017, Cheyenne, WY

Dark, fertile, earth hides
under my fingernails.
Compost’s sharp scent
fills my nostrils.
Aching back protests
a good day’s effort
in my garden.

I become aware
sometimes new life
needs a little help.

And I wonder,
Does God enjoy
getting hands
dirty as I do?

We are God’s garden.

“the Lord God formed the human
from the topsoil of the fertile land
and blew life’s breath into his nostrils.
The human came to life.”

-Genesis 2:7, CEB

why I preach

By Jeff Rainwater, Easter 2017, Cheyenne, Wuyoming

New life
surprises.

Mountain vales
suddenly greening.
Shattered relationships
miraculous mending.
A lost life (sometimes mine)
graciously turning.

Look here,
when did that
happen?

Astonished,
I stand in awe
in front of another
empty tomb, awaiting
the voice of One Reborn:
Go on now…
Tell the others.
Such news is
too good to
remain a
secret.

while it was still dark

by Jeff Rainwater, 3 April 2017, Cheyenne, WY

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed…”
-John 20:1

When there is still scent
of death upon the wind
and darkness hides all
but fear and despair
and hope is but
a memory…

That is the Beginning.

When root of green grass
yields to cold ground’s will
no more, when life trapped
in chrysalis first dreams
of flight, before first bloom
is ever seen…

That is the Beginning.

Before sparrow sings
or trumpet sounds or
the Lord calls out, “Arise!”
there is quiet, inward, breath
and determination
to silence break…

That is the Beginning.

When Night has become
a snare and all you believed
good and right and true
has failed, light the candle,
set the watch, stay awake.
God’s not done yet.

This is just the Beginning.

hidden hosanna

by Jeff Rainwater, Palm & Passion Sunday 2017, Worland, WY

How could they say it?
Why would they cry,

Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!

Don’t you know?
Haven’t you been told?
Beneath every “Crucify!”

is a “Hosanna,”

wrapped in anger,
hidden in fear,
as a wounded animal,
ready to strike, yet
struggling to be heard —

a desperate plea…

Save me, Son of David!
Save me!

A note on this poem and the word, Hosanna: There is a natural hidden quality to the word, Hosanna. First, in Greek and in English, it is a transliteration and not a translation of the Hebrew word. That’s because, at the time of Jesus, the word’s use had varied from it’s original meaning and had become a shout of acclamation or praise — something akin to “hooray!” But within that usage, especially on Palm Sunday, I believe there is still that deeper, original, meaning, ever so important, that this poem calls upon. Hosanna (in Hebrew, hosia na) in its original form means ‘Please save’ or ‘save me.’

were you there

by Jeff Rainwater, 3 March 2017, Cheyenne, WY

Were you there
that fateful day
our Shepherd died
as the Bandit went free,
when the mob
chose a rebel
over the King?

What lies were
whispered in your ear,
what promises made,
that turned hearts
from One who fed
and healed and forgave
to a man of violence?

Were you standing
on the side shaking
your head yet afraid
to speak? Or did you
find yourself convinced
to raise, in support,
cruel Barabbas’ name?

And please say
your lips did not
utter, your voice
was not heard
to proclaim,
in anger,
Crucify!
Crucify!
Crucify!

Were you there?

I only ask
because this road
my people walk today
seems all too
familiar.


As Holy Week approaches we turn our eyes toward Jerusalem, toward Golgotha, and after a time, toward an empty tomb. On Good Friday, many of us will find ourselves singing that well-known Negro spiritual, Were You There. It moves me every single time. I must also admit it troubles me. In particular, one word troubles me — they. “Were you there when
they (not I, not we) crucified my Lord.” Can I sing ‘they’ assured that I would’ve chosen Jesus over Barrabas? If I was there, would I have protested, or have clucked my tongue at the injustice of it all, or would the words ‘crucify!’ have passed my lips? Can I even feel assured, knowing the end of the story as I do, that I am on the right side of justice today? I’m not so sure I can. So I offer this poem as an alternative, a confession even, for those of us who may tremble before the Cross, or those of us who should, knowing the moral ground below our own feet is never so solid as we would claim. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.