Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dear Papa and Mama: A "Coming Out" Letter

February 23, 2019
St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Papa and Mama,

Design of Papa and Mama's tombstone in Baguio City, Philippines
There’s something in my heart and mind that I’ve been wanting to tell you for some time now. While there’ve been chances to do so, I’ve avoided them not knowing how you would take it. My sense is you probably knew it already but you, too, have avoided the conversation, not knowing how it will go. I know I should have had this talk with you before each of you passed away and I regret not being able to do that.

But I am writing this letter anyway, hoping and praying that somehow, as you are now in the presence of God and in the company of that great cloud of witnesses, you would read this, and you would understand. If I were back home in the Philippines, I would go to your graveside and read this to you. But for now, this will have to do. So here it goes:

I’m writing this on the floor of the Dome in St. Louis. It is the first day of the Special Called Session of the General Conference of our beloved United Methodist Church where, as you know, I am a delegate. We are spending the whole day in prayer today. Tomorrow, we will take on the task of discerning a way forward for our denomination from the 50-year debate on the full inclusion of our LGBTQIA+ siblings. This impasse has, in many ways, stunted our growth and our ability to fully engage in life-giving, life-affirming ministry with all people in the name of Jesus Christ.

What I have been meaning to tell you all these years but failed is where I am on this issue. Pa and Ma, in my journey of faith I have come to believe that God in Jesus Christ calls us to love all people, period. And that includes our LGBTQIA+ siblings. All means all. No exceptions. My deep and continuing study of scripture and my experience of ministry and friendship with Rachel, Drew, Karen, Tatiana, Mallory, Jan, Greg and many others has led me to this conviction. I just cannot bring myself anymore to condemn these people who are living authentic lives of love and faithful Christian witness and discipleship. And because they are God's beloved children, I affirm their life journeys and calls to ministry, and will willingly serve alongside them to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If I am wrong on this, then God have mercy on my soul but I would rather err on the side of love in obedience to the God whose nature is love and calls me to love.

Now, I know this is not where you stand theologically because that is not what our colonial faith has taught us to believe. (I say colonial as opposed to traditional because I’m not sure if that is what our native and indigenous spirituality would have dictated.) I know because I used to believe the same way. That is why I was hesitant to even open up this conversation with you even when there were perfect opportunities to do so. Even when I felt that you were asking leading or probing questions, I shied away from the topic. I was afraid of what you would say and I truly regret that now. For all I know, you would have agreed with where I was. Or if you disagreed, that you would respect my point of view. After all, I am your son and you love me. My big regret is that I never created space for us to have that honest conversation. And now I will never know what you would have said.

Which leads me to the other thing I wanted to let you know. Pa and Ma, I will be supporting a plan that creates space for diversity in the body of Christ. I failed to do that for us around this issue but I vow to do better and create generous space for others to come to the table. I believe there is room for everyone in the Body of Christ, in spite of our differences. So I will work to draw the circle wider for that to happen.

While I will never know what you would have thought or said on this matter, in my heart of hearts, I think I know where you would have eventually stood. I know because this is how you brought us up. You always modeled inclusivity and welcome.

Papa, your work in community organizing and development led you to connect with different people. You learned to speak 2 or 3 more dialects aside from our native Ilocano and Tagalog, just so you would connect with the people you were called to serve. You danced in their caƱaos (festivals), participated in their dap-ay (tribal) conversations and drank their tapuy (rice wine). You welcomed them and their cultures as your own and they, in turn welcomed you as their own. And you never sought to exclude or marginalize anyone. I saw this for myself at a young age when you brought me to work with you in the barrios.

As a result. You had many friends. You were an imperfect vessel that leaked grace, touching lives one drop at a time. When I started new appointments in new places, you encouraged me to connect with the people; to do my one to ones; to listen to the people and to exclude no one.

Mama, you too, modeled inclusivity and welcome. In churches that Papa was appointed to as a bi-vocational pastor, you served as the unofficial head usher. You sought out people who were new and connected them with the regulars. You welcomed them with your signature warm smile and a sincere conversation asking about where they're from and what brings them to church that day. You were uneasy when someone was excluded. Your finite life was truly lived in infinite grace. The infinite grace you received from God, you freely gave to others.

And you both modeled this inclusive and welcoming spirit at home. Our home was always open to visitors and you always introduced them to us as tito (uncle) or tita (auntie) or lolo (grandfather) or lola (grandmother) even if they were not our blood relatives. You made sure that we felt connected and that they felt welcomed as family.

But your biggest and most recent modeling of inclusivity and welcome came when my brother Noel left the United Methodist Church to join another church significantly different in theology from ours. I know that both of you struggled with this. But we remained one family, in spite of our differences. You even went as far worshipping with them occasionally to draw the circle wide.

At both your wakes and funerals, and even in conversations after we had buried each of you, it was clear that Noel and I were processing our grief from differing theological perspectives. I can point to different specific times in planning your memorial services and even in our daily phone calls after your deaths where we disagreed theological and could have easily gotten into an argument. But because of the deep love that binds us as brothers, we chose to agree to disagree. We acknowledged our difference of opinion and persuasion but respected that if that would help each one work through this time of grief, then the other would respect it and accept it as true and holy. Pa and Ma, you taught us that love. You loved us that way.

Thank you, for teaching us the value of welcome, of inclusion and of hospitality. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for teaching us how to love. I will hold these in my heart and mind as I engage in the work here in St. Louis. I promise, I will choose love.

I love each of you dearly and miss you everyday.

Your firstborn,

Caloy (Carlo)

P.S.: Our Filipino culture believes in “multos” or ghosts, not the scary ones that horror movies are made of but the belief that our loved ones who have gone before us, do come to visit us, to lead us, inspire us, give us closure or affirmation. I ask that you do that. Please come visit me here in St. Louis. Come to me through a dream, through a vision. Let me know that you read this. I would very much love that.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Gateway Arch and My Prayer for GC 2019

I do a lot of traveling for work but I do not let that get in the way of my running. I try to run wherever I am, whatever the weather. So aside from checking the weather to know what running gear to pack, one of the things I do to prepare for a trip, especially to places I haven't been, is to go online and scope out places I can go for a run while I am there.

Two weeks ago, I was checking the map of St. Louis, Missouri to plan running routes close to my hotel while I am there to attend the Special Session of the UMC General Conference this weekend into next week. I found routes, alright. But more importantly, I was pleased to find out that my hotel and the convention center is close to the Gateway Arch and I can run in the park.

Now, let me explain my excitement about this find. You see, this triggered a childhood memory for me. When I was in Elementary School, my brother and I would always get home at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, in time for a snack and to watch one of our favorite TV shows then: Mario and the Magic Movie Machine. It was a children's show that was broadcast by the American Armed Forces TV Network for service people and their families stationed in the Philippines at that time. The show featured different pieces of significance in the United States, including historical landmarks.

The particular episode that came back to memory for me was one that featured the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and how it was built. Not only did this spark a flashback but also a reflection about and a prayer for the General Conference Special Session.

When we were in Portland in 2016 for the General Conference Regular Session, one of the reflections I heard around the edges was about the architecture of the convention center we were meeting at. In particular, it was about the two towers that jutted out from the main convention center dome. The reflection drawn was that while, at one level, we were gathered as one denomination in  worship, fellowship and celebration of mission and ministry, on another level, there were two opposite poles that were standing straight, immovable that represented the major difference of opinion and theological understanding about the full inclusion of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in the life and ministry of our denomination.

I came home from General Conference 2016 with that image seared in my heart and mind. And it's a heartbreaking image. It moves me to tears every time I see those two towers that threaten to split my beloved United Methodist Church. And every time I see it, I pray: Give us a way forward, O God.

Could there be an alternative image for February 2019? 

And then two weeks ago, I realized that in St. Louis, instead of being under the shadow of two towers, we will be under The Gateway Arch, which according to its official website, stands for and "celebrates the diverse people who shaped the region and the country. The dreamer, Thomas Jefferson, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the United States. The explorers, Lewis & Clark and their Shoshone guide Sacagawea, scouted the new territory and mapped a route to the Pacific Ocean. The challengers, Dred and Harriet Scott, filed suit at the Old Courthouse for their freedom from slavery, and St. Louis suffragette Virginia Minor sued for women’s right to vote. The artist, architect Eero Saarinen, designed the monument that honors them all." 

Wow! How appropriate for such a time as this in the life of our denomination! Could it be that the St. Louis GC would truly be a celebration of what it means to be one church with diverse expressions. And so I prayed, God, could the Gateway Arch be our alternative image.

And then my childhood memory reminded me of how the Gateway Arch was built: They started building on either side of the Arch from the ground up. In the beginning stages, it looked like they were building two towers. But as the project progressed, the towers slowly but surely "bowed to each other" in order to form the Arch.

Soon the day came for the final piece, the capstone if you may, to be put in. It was a hot day and the temperatures made the steel and other metals expand so much that the final piece would not fit. They had to device a way to bring water up in order to hose down the two towers to be cool enough so that the final piece to unite them might fall perfectly into place.

Might this be our alternative image to the two towers from 2016? I pray so.

Friends, it has been 50 years of tower building on either end and maybe, just maybe, we are so close to being united as one church when we gather at St. Louis. It is my prayer that at the Special Session, each one would be willing to come in convicted humility, to bow down before each other, to be willing to "cool down" and let the waters of the Spirit move so that the last piece of our unity might fall into place. And then, perhaps, we as a church may truly be a gateway where all are welcome and have a place at the table. That is my prayer as I travel to St. Louis. I covet your prayers for us who are delegates and all who will be there. I covet your prayers for our United Methodist Church.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Making the Road By Walking

The Rapanut grandkids having a light moment together
before we drove to the airport.
My mother passed away earlier this month. And while she had not fully recovered from the stroke she suffered almost two years ago, her death was sudden and completely unexpected. The last time I talked to her, she was full of life and happy to report that she was making good progress in learning to walk again. That was three weeks before she died. Phone and internet lines had gone down after the devastation of typhoon Mankhut, preventing us from making wi-fi calls. Perhaps I should have tried harder to find other means to connect. It's too late now.

No matter how hard we prepare ourselves and our loved ones for it, death still comes with an impact that shakes us to the very core.  We who are left behind are left to pick-up the pieces from the life that has ended while dealing with the void created in our own lives and the deep sense of loss.

So many details. So many matters to think of: planning of the wake, the funeral; what to write in the obituary; what to write on the epitaph for the tombstone; volumes of paperwork that goes with reporting the death so that pension benefits may transfer to the surviving spouse; more paperwork for bank accounts to be transferred; the care of my aunt, Mama's younger sister, who is mentally handicapped and has been under Mama's care since our grandmother passed away. I could go on with this list...

And then there’s the grief. The deep sense of loss. Even if the aforementioned logistical details were all taken care of, the painful fact still remains - our Mama is dead. And she has left a gaping hole in our hearts. She will no longer be there to answer when I make a video call. She will no longer call me with a joyful report about how many more steps she has taken today. She will no longer be there to watch with pride and joy as her grandchildren play the saxophone, piano and guitar or cheer for them as they run, swim, play volleyball or taekwondo. She will no longer be there to give encouraging words for my ministry...

I have been on the phone with my Papa Joe more frequently these past few weeks after Mama's passing. I've been on the phone with my brother Noel almost everyday since we got back from the Philippines for Mama's funeral. This is something we've not done as much as we would like to since my family and I moved to Alaska almost 10 years ago. Even in death, Mama has her way of keeping her family close and connected as she did when she was alive. We are supporting each other in our grief. We are crying together, and laughing together as we remember our beloved Mama Rhona. We are journeying together and figuring things and details out as we go. We are “making the road by walking” and we are trusting that God is walking with us.

To honor the mathematician that Mama was, we came up with an epitaph that describes her life in mathematical terms: “a finite life lived in infinite grace.” As we make the road by walking, we pray that this road be one that would honor her memory, keep alive her legacy and ultimately glorify God.

What about you, dear friend? What shifts or changes, great or small, are you, your family, your group or your community going through right now, throwing your life into a complete tailspin and causing you to lose hope and sense of grounding? Is a way forward yet unknown? Is the road ahead yet unseen? How can I journey with you so that together, we might make the road by walking? And more importantly, how can we together trust that God is journeying with us, even as we walk through the valley of life’s deep and dark shadows?

Let’s talk. Let’s journey with God. And together, let’s make the road by walking.

Your fellow disciple,

In Memory
To the one who first taught me how to walk, physically and spiritually, and I know walks with me still.

Teofina “Rhona” Axibal Rapanut
August 8, 1947 - October 4, 2018
A finite life lived in infinite grace

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

I'm Writing Again!

I have not written a blogpost for a while. Two years and five months to be exact. The last piece I wrote was on May 24, 2016 shortly after the adjournment of the 2016 UMC General Conference. I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons why I haven't been writing, but its nothing I've been able to put my finger on. As life and work went on, I just lost the desire, the impetus, and consequently even the time, to write.

That changed a month or so ago when our Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky invited all of us in the Greater Northwest Area to a "year of Crossing Over to LIFE" using Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, as our roadmap. It is an invitation to spiritual renewal and alignment with Christ. This call to journey resonated with me vocationally as a pastor and in my role as Superintendent of the Alaska Conference but even more so personally as husband, parent, son and friend. I'll be sharing more about the personal impacts later.

As a pastor, I realized that this is what I am called to do, to walk with people "from death to life, from strife to peace, from prohibition to permission, from fear to faith, from isolation to community, from wandering to promise, from scarcity to abundance, from sorrow to joy!" This is what Jesus was and is all about and so this is what I should be all about!

So, with this in my mind and in my heart, I have committed to two crossover action points ministerially:

First, I am bringing this theme of "CrossOver to Life" to all of the charge conferences this season. Many of our churches are stuck and many people in our churches are stuck and are desperately in need of a crossover whether they acknowledge it or not. Charge conferences are our United Methodist system's way of looking back at the past (year or so) and what has been and into the future and what God is calling us to be. The crossover conversation is very relevant and I look forward to having them with all of you!

Second, I am crossing my blog over from dormancy into activity! The invitation to a CrossOver Year has given me the necessary "spark" to write again. The theme of crossovers is very rich. I believe that life in the church and life in general is made up of a series of crossovers. Scriptures bear witness to story after story of how people of God crossed over into newness of life. Even running is a constant crossing over!

So, consider this my personal invitation to you, joining Bishop Elaine's invitation, to go on a year of Crossing Over to Life. Subscribe to the CrossOver blog. Subscribe to my blog as I promise to write more often. Order the book, We Make the Road by Walking and read it personally and with a group. Let's crossover into the fullness of life that Jesus promises each one of us.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

But God Was Not In The Wind...

This is the fourth day since General Conference 2016 adjourned. Many reflections have been offered since. I would like to add my voice to the mix. 

After the sudden turn of events at the beginning of the second week of General Conference, this scripture came to me:

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV)

Elijah was on the run. He had just defeated 450 prophets of Baal in a showdown to prove whose God was more powerful, Baal or the God of Israel (1 Kings 18). God had shown up mightily through fire in a way that Elijah had expected and the defeat cost the prophets of Baal their lives. Now King Ahab and Queen Jezebel's troops were after Elijah's.

Elijah was afraid. He fled and ran for 40 days into the wilderness and came to a mountain where he expected God to meet him and show him a way forward. As in the showdown of fire, Elijah had clear expectations as to how God would show up. Perhaps in a mighty way again- like fire, or wind, or earthquake.

But God was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire...

Regardless of where in the human sexuality conversation one stood, I know that each person had a set preferred outcome in mind as they approached General Conference. I did. And I'm pretty sure you did, too, whether you were a delegate, an alternate, a volunteer, or one who was watching it from afar. We all had our preferred outcomes. We all had our expectations as to how God would show up and act at General Conference. We all had our winds, fires and earthquakes by which we expected God to surely act - schism, full-inclusion, keeping the original language, deleting the original language, ending trials, strengthening the case for trials... the list goes on.

Yet God did not appear in the "wind" as some people had hoped. Nor did God show up in the "earthquake" or "fire" as others had expected. God was not to be confined to one person's or group's agenda or preferred outcomes.

Instead, God came in the sound of sheer silence. God came in a way that we did not expect God to show up!

Surely, God showed up in the wonderful worship services, the powerful and challenging preaching, and the various moments of celebrating what we have done together as a denomination. If you have time, it is worth going back to the livestream video archives (click here) to watch and re-live those moments.

But God also showed up in completely unexpected ways!

God showed up through an overwhelming plea and call from the General Conference to the Council of Bishops to "please lead us." Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops said this is unprecedented. This was unexpected. Perhaps this was an act of God.

God showed up through the Council of Bishops who, even while acknowledging that they were not of one heart and mind on the issues concerning human sexuality, responded to the plea of the General Conference with a statement and recommendations for a way forward (read here). Again, Bishop Ough said that, to his knowledge, this has never been done before. Surely no one had this in their list of expected outcomes. Perhaps this was an act of God.

God showed up through the youth of the church who, while also acknowledging differences of opinion even among themselves across the connection, called for unity of heart through a statement (read here) that they read to the body. This was not in the program. Perhaps this was an act of God.

God showed up through the General Conference who, on a second attempt after going through a legislative and procedural quagmire, decided to accept the document from the Bishops and act on their recommendations. Totally unexpected! Perhaps this, too, was an act of God.

I know that there are feelings of betrayal, anger and disappointment from various standpoints about General Conference's action or inaction. I know how you feel. Like I said, I too had desired outcomes and was ready to work hard to make them happen. We all had preferred outcomes. Yet God chose to show up in an unexpected way.

I had shared in an earlier blogpost that my prayer as I headed for General Conference was, "Come, Holy Spirit, come!" My prayer was for the Holy Spirit to work and that I would be willing to be led where the Spirit moved or to get out of the way if I was a hindrance. I believe that the Spirit has moved in and through General Conference 2016 albeit in completely unexpected ways. The unexpected outcomes may very well be the answer to my prayer for the Spirit to move and lead. Perhaps it is time for me to get on board with the Spirit and trust in God. 

I continue to trust that God is still at work in the United Methodist Church and in each one of us. I firmly believe that God is not done with us yet. I will continue to put my hope in God and be open to how God will show up and lead us forward.

I offer this reflection to you, for whatever it is worth.

Your fellow disciple,


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Come, Holy Spirit, Come

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes in exactly a week from today. While it may be purely coincidence and totally unplanned, I think it is significant to note that the Sunday in the middle of the two weeks of General Conference is the Day of Pentecost.

So, just as the disciples gathered together behind locked doors prayerfully awaiting the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, so I approach General Conference with this prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Move in our General Conference. Move in our United Methodist Church. We acknowledge that we are not of one mind on many issues. Empower us to "speak in tongues" of love and grace, enabling us to transcend our many differences that we may come together around what truly matters, making disciples of Jesus Christ who will transform the world. May we be sensitive to where your wind is blowing and follow where you lead. May our hearts be ablaze with the passion that burns in yours. May we be ready to step aside when we find ourselves in the way of your will. By your Spirit, may your Kingdom truly come on earth... ON EARTH... through our church.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Looking Forward to Spring

I've lived in Alaska for almost 8 years now but the changing of the seasons still fascinate me. Until we moved up in 2008, I had lived all my life in the Philippines where the only seasons are wet (rainy) and dry (summer). We had none of the changing of the colors and the subsequent shedding of leaves in autumn. We didn't have snow and winter although the temperatures did get a relatively cooler. One could say that we lived in an eternal hybrid season of spring and summer. 

One of the things that I continue to marvel about, because I've never seen it before coming to Alaska, is the budding of the trees. After "dying" in the fall and remaining "dead" all winter, the trees are beginning to show signs of new life, of resurrection, if you may. So fascinated am I with this cycle of death and new life that I have probably written an article or preached a sermon about it every year for the past 8 years! It is such a great metaphor for our lives as Christian disciples, individually and corporately as communities of faith.

Science tells us that the shedding of leaves is necessary for a tree's continued existence, to survive the cold and dark winter and thrive again in the future spring and summer. As the temperatures drop and the sunlight decreases, the trees adapt by cutting off "food supply" to the leaves. The stems and trunks would likely survive the freezing temperatures but not the leaves. The shedding of leaves is a survival mechanism. Winter, to a tree, is a season of survival that precedes a season of growth and new life.

This past weekend East Anchorage United Methodist Church celebrated their 50th anniversary. 50 years of life and ministry! I was honored to be invited to preach at their anniversary service on Sunday and join them in celebrating the myriad of ways in the past 50 years that they have lived out their mission: "In the name of Jesus Christ, Carry the light!"

On June 5th, East Anchorage UMC will be celebrating their final worship service as a congregation. Early this year, seeing the "temperatures drop and the sunlight decreasing" in their life as a congregation, they voted to discontinue. This action of discontinuance will be formalized by a vote at Annual Conference. In some ways, it is a necessary shedding of leaves, a necessary winter, a necessary dying, so that new life might emerge.

Last week, on the days leading to EAUMC's anniversary celebration, I spent time with key people, "walking the neighborhood" and looking at demographics and maps. It was a great time of deep conversation, dreaming and discerning what God is calling us to birth in this neighborhood in East Anchorage. And the dreaming and discerning goes on...

I look forward to the day when buds will again emerge. I look forward to the new thing that God is going birth in this space and place. And I am excited and look forward to the ways that the Spirit of God may be calling you and me to be part of that!

Your fellow disciple,