They asked to pray. Out of the blue it came. Now? Right here in the middle of an otherwise “perfectly normal” conversation? Twice, in as many days. Two friends, very different in backgrounds and experience, who had no other connection asked if we could pray together. After not seeing each other for months, years, we were able to easily speak, share, laugh, confess, and delight in the goodness of friendship. Then, prayer.
Not in church, or in a “spiritual” conversation. The request stopped me… cold. On both occasions, then and there, we shared concerns and prayed. While I didn’t have a mystical experience, when we departed that day, there was a deeper sense of connection. It was, I believe what Brother Lawrence spoke of as God’s presence arising amid the routine activities of life — a deeper sense of joy and mutual love. (Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay Carmelite monk whose small book “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been treasured by believers across the centuries as a call to seek God’s presence everywhere from the chapel to the kitchen.)
Yes, prayer has been misused by charlatans and abused by spiritual pretenders. Prayer has also been reduced to a magical formula, a one-time “believer’s prayer” for example sold as a one-way ticket to heaven, separate from any daily life of faith.
A day or so before these two serendipitous prayers, another friend wrote mentioning he was reading The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg. I ordered the book, part of The Great Courses lecture series. Again, was this a coincidence? Newberg’s research looks at the way prayer, especially what might be called “Centering Prayer,” contemplative prayer, or mystical experience can shape human perception. There are measurable changes in perceptions of reality and often a sense of joy, unity with the universe and purposefulness. My look at Newberg’s rich research linking individual prayer with brain research, however, left me with a whole other set of questions.
I am not particularly well-schooled in a wide range of spiritual practices. I know some basics but can’t distinguish, say, among types of contemplative prayer. In fact, over recent years much of my praying has occurred on “prayer walks.” I am not very practiced at what is referred to and valued as “Centering Prayer.” Most of my praying is better described as “Othering Prayer.” Not exclusively, I do prayer that my personal intentions and understandings align with God’s purposes. I also seek the heart of God on the behalf of others in the world beyond my own interests. As I walk the streets of my city, I pray for those in prison as I walk by the jail, or the judges who are passing sentences, or families of those being incarcerated. I pray for the bakers passing the bagel shop; the bankers as I pass an ATM machine; those without shelter who spread their blankets in front of the library and churches.
So much of our culture’s understanding of prayer is individualistic in focus. It is decanted into a magical thinking drink… a negotiation with God… or a shaking of the begger’s cup in the face of the Almighty. What if contemplative prayer were seen as always caught up in the prayers of a community — prayers that were joined with, and for, others. This Advent we will think further about the potential of Othering Prayer.
Thanksgiving arrives! I realize my gratitude for many things. Family, friends, home, nation, church, education, even the Chicago Cubs! There were surprisingly lessons of gratitude learned during the COVID Pandemic. One for example was leaning to bake chocolate chip cookies. Had the pandemic not occurred, I would not have become so accomplished. My memory was that these attempts at baking cookies were awesome, (he said in a modest voice).
So, early Thanksgiving Morning 2022, I decided to strut my baking skills. Wanting to offer my excellent cookies to friends, Betty and Tony, when we shared dinner together later today, I began with confidence. What could go wrong?
It had been nearly a year since I baked my last batch. In the meantime, we had moved to a new condo, a new oven. I had my secret recipe. This should be a “cake walk” – or should I say, “cookie walk.” Alas, it must have been the new oven, or something missed in my recipe, or that we only had mini chocolate chips in the house. Taking the first batch from the oven, they looked unusually “toasted and flat.” At first bite I thought “well, this is better than eating shoe leather.” No prize-winning cookies these.
It set me to thinking about my gratitude even for imperfections. Some of life’s best lessons are learned here. What other times was there an occasion to learn? Or did I too quickly turn a disappointment into a source of disgruntlement, a blaming of others, or a grievance, or complaint?
Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the dangers of dividing the world into the binary categories of the “pure” and the “polluted.” She traces the meaning of “dirt” and what is considered “filth,” through history and multiple cultures. Douglas identifies rituals used to cleanse or purify defilement, persons or groups seen to be “dirty” or considered an “abomination.” Douglas noted that this effort to identify others as “filthy” often was the precursor, a contributor, to racism and fascism. What lessons can be drawn from the Jewish holocaust? What lessons might there be from the mass murders of LGBTQ persons? What of the hatred and division that is spread across social media in our time?
Having grown up in Methodism’s Holiness movement, where part of my education was centered in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary, I know well the efforts made to exclude and isolate the “in group” from those things that are seen as impure. These schools have been significant institutions advancing “spiritual holiness,” I sat through scores of college chapel services where the words “Holiness unto the Lord” were boldly inscribed above the chancel.
Often preachers would call for purity. In what theologians speak of as sanctification, the desire was to encourage a life of perfection. At base a good thing – but a dangerous instrument as well. (No one mentioned perfect cookies as I recall, but in many other aspects of life and faith there was the assumption of purity and filth.) Some believed purity was found in avoiding certain activities (e.g., dancing, going to movies, drinking alcohol, etc.). Others suggested there was a doctrine of “perfection” and a need to reject any theological perspectives that differed.
It is my sense this search for holiness as an end point has done much harm, even caused the splintering of families, marriages, congregations, and denominations. It leads to divisions over who is pure and who is polluted. I do not doubt that some folks lived a “sanctified” way of life.
Usually, it was not the teachers or preachers who claimed to be “sanctified” who demonstrated this best. Instead, I think of folks like Ms. Warner, the history teacher, a quite Quaker woman, who practiced her holiness in the loving ways she lived toward others and care for her students.
In my reading of Christian scripture, the holiness sketched across those pages and any evidence of holiness discovered in human history is always best seen as a process, a verb, and not an end point. It is an ever-maturing love for God and neighbor, an openness to imperfection – especially one’s own.
Good reader, don’t take to much comfort from growing up in other traditions, not burdened with the language or theology of “holiness.” The human story is one where there is a dividing the world up into what is pure and polluted takes many forms — and seems to be a universal trait.
This past week former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, as “the most dangerous person in the world.” Really? Not even a thought of Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin? Pompeo went on to say that our nation’s schoolteachers are teaching “filth” in their classrooms. Careful there, Mike. Methinks your presidential ambitions have fallen into a toxic hole where a need to divide and harm others clouds the language you use. Is there any acknowledgement of your own failings? You might check out Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” — NRSV)
Our nation, our communities, our institutions are amid an entangled and dangerous struggle. It is often manifest as a desire for purity. The irony, of course, it that speeches against “filth” come from the mouths of persons who have supported bigotry, deceit and even insurrection – or have looked the other way when it took place. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for imperfections – but chose to seek to move past them. This is how one learns – and the second batch of cookies today were better. I look forward to quality of my future chocolate chip cookies! And I am even grateful for the gift of imperfections.
“Preaching leads to changed lives,” I recall one of my seminary homiletics professor’s assertation. Another professor, a diminutive Scot, with a marvelous Scottish brogue (involving the trilling of ‘r’s in his speech), offered instead that “Ser-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”
In my experience, sermons typically aren’t life-changing events for the hearer — or the preacher. Like workshops they can be helpful, but not often transformative. Now, after more than five decades, I have much appreciation for my Scottish professor’s understandings. A sermon may assist others in taking a step along faith’s journey. I don’t recall anyone greeting me after worship and saying, “that sermon was transformative.” On the other hand, years later a few have said, “You didn’t know it but that word came at a time in my life when I was ready to hear.” Amazingly, years or decades later, some have said, “I remember that sermon back in 19??. It came at a time when I was seeking another path, another vocation, or a new partner. Thanks.”
Recently, I wrote about well-intentioned but ineffectual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops. Like sermons, such events rarely lead to substantial change in racialism and discrimination. But this is not written as a screed against workshops or sermons. Instead, it is the proposition that when these activities are accompanied by a clear invitation to join with others in witnessing and addressing racial discrimination, remarkable transformation is possible.
So, why this focus on preaching and racism? Well, put simply, addressing racism is about more than words or ideas. Racism is often distilled into the belief that it is only about personal attitudes or prejudice. For Whites — for all people – sermons are effective as they are joined to changes in the ways we live. Parker Palmer suggests “Changed thinking doesn’t lead to changed actions so much as changed actions lead to changes in the ways one thinks.” Sermons and workshops are insufficient, helpful perhaps, but in isolation they may serve as an inoculation avoiding fundamental change.
Several Open Housing campaigns in the 1960s carried the slogan: Your heart may be in the right place, but are you? As hundreds of thousands were moving to the suburbs avoiding racially integrated schools and neighborhoods, the church was… well, preaching a lot about racial justice. Meanwhile in only a few cities were churches at the center of racial justice and integration efforts. In 1961 Gibson Winter, theologian and social scientist, documented this in the book “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches.”
A cherished friend of mine, Professor William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, is now in his nineties. We met in the late 1960s when as a young seminarian his book “My Friend, the Enemy” spoke powerfully about racism being more than personal prejudice. As friends, he taught me that it was not enough to have a “changed heart.” I needed to acknowledge the enemy we both faced of white privilege, culture and discrimination.
Sermons, workshops, and conferences can be mechanisms of avoidance. Bill speaks of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. The theme for the 1966 gathering was One Race, One Gospel, One Task. Evangelical leaders invited more than 1,200 delegates from 100 countries to Berlin for this World Congress on Evangelism (an important precursor to the historic 1974 Lausanne Congress). Pannell speaks of a small group of African American Christians who discover that even though the theme was One Race, One Gospel, One Task, there was a silence about racial injustice. Imagine this in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of those years. As Pannell tells it, (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkpYIg8tpOI) those concerned about this omission confronted the conference leadership and, as is often the case, they were asked to write a document on racism to be approved by the Congress. Pannell then reports, these more than fifty years later, that document must be “sitting on a shelf somewhere.” You see, the passing of a nicely worded document, was not connected to concrete institutional and cultural change. Or as Pannell would have it, “Vital and Biblical evangelization.”
All around we have the opportunity to join in activities to address racial injustice and do more than attend workshop or preach sermons. However, those of us who are now, or have been, a part of Mainline Christian leadership need to learn to listen to and support others. There are some remarkable young persons ready to teach and lead us. Persons who come from different racial experiences. I will share more in future chapters. Urgently now, look for places where persons are addressing the evil of White Christian Nationalism. Check out the upcoming event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-white-christian-nationalism-threatens-our-democracy-tickets-439763242697#search. Then do more. A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on the structural, financial and cultural options pursued.
One of my other heroes was Thomas Broden on the faculty of Notre Dame Law School. Tom joined a team working on an initiative called Project Understanding, back in the early 1970s. It focused on city congregations across the country (Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Bay Area, South Bend). My work was to carry out research on ways racial attitudes might be changed and how racism in many forms might be addressed.
I recall the day we recommended to Broden that lay persons from many denominations be gathered to study and consider ways to address racial injustice. Tom’s response was “That’s okay as far as it goes.” He had my attention! He went on, “We will want to get them involved in some activity with persons who differ racially and in situations where discrimination can be clearly seen.” In South Bend, one of the activities he suggested was to have lay people sit in welfare offices and observe the cheating going on there. I was appalled – Tom laughed – “Oh, he said, cheaters will be found, but few of them will be those seeking assistance!” He was right, so very right. Today, in Indiana every welfare office must post “the rights of those who seek assistance.” That came directly from the work of lay people in Project Understanding. In Chicago and Dallas, change came from teams who sought to rent an apartment (some teams were White only, some Black only, some mixed racially). After visiting the same apartment and seeking to rent it, the teams would gather and learn about the ways discrimination was seen in the prospect of renting the same apartment. In California, there were engagements with persons seeking immigration or work documents. Sermons helped, workshops were okay, but the research showed that true and lasting changes in racial attitudes were rooted in real and concrete efforts to address discrimination and unjust institutions.
Or, as my seminary preaching professor would put It, “Serr-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”
Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1
A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!
Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.
Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.
A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.
A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.
The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.
Matthew was gone. I was heading back from my morning walk. He had been there an hour earlier, just pulling back his bedroll and stretching from his “outdoor shelter” on the porch of the old train station downtown.
Earlier, when I passed him, I spoke “Good morning.” He smiled and said “morning.” I saw his lovely blue eyes and his gaunt frame. “What’s your name?” I opened. “Matthew” he answered. “I’m Philip.” He laughed and said “Two disciples.” I replied, “Yep, two followers of Jesus.” “Right, right” he affirmed, “You or I wouldn’t be here without Jesus,” he said. He paused and chuckling went on “Or, our mom and dad!” We did a fist bump as I headed on to meet my walking partner for the morning. Looking back I said, “I’ll see you later.” “You bet, Philip, nice to meet you.”
When I returned to the place, an hour later, Matthew was gone.
Like cities all across the nation our streets and wooded edges of neighborhoods or shopping areas are filling with unsheltered folks. Oh…Bloomington has plans… lots of pie-in-the-sky plans. Meanwhile the unsheltered sleep on the streets and in doorways of our public buildings. (See photo of one early morning this summer in the doorway of our public library.)
Maybe there will be more support for our existing shelters, and residences, maybe. These PLANS talk of “housing first.” But, where is the housing? We build great high-rise plans but little low-income housing. Thanks to the Chamber, Mayor and Community Foundation we have PLANS, Plans, plans… but not shelters. Dozens and dozens of new higher-income housing developments spouting up all over town. The university expands its enrollment dramatically but has done NOTHING to address the residential challenges it has helped create for low income persons.
Could we consider looking at models like Community Solutions that use abandoned spaces to make an immediate difference. We have lot’s of empty buildings, that, well, sit empty — with bathrooms in each (some former retirement centers, former medical facilities) that will “someday be razed” as the old hospital site is being “redeveloped.” Buildings are sitting empty during these years. We have empty buildings and PLANS but no facilities for my new friend Matthew. (https://community.solutions/)
Here is my challenge, my question for today. Where will Matthew sleep come December? I think we know. So, let me challenge the Mayor and City Council, County Council and Chamber and Community Foudation and Police Chief and leaders of our hospitals and health care centers. Will you make a commitment to spend a night or two sleeping on the street come December 16 and 17th? It’s the weekend before Christmas — good time to meet some other persons who are “disciples” and experience what they experience each evening. OR, perhaps some of your PLANS might include finding shelter (old or new, re-purposed or not) NOW! Can you include doing something NOW for the unsheltered in our city. Matthew, the disciple is asking.
A North American Adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer – for too many Christians
A “Distortion” of The Lord’s Prayer as understood by too many North American Christians
(With interpretive notes)
Pray then in this way: Our* MY Father in heaven, hallowed be MY UNDERSTANDING OF your name. Your SPIRITUALIZED kingdom come, Your SPIRITUALIZED will be done, On earth** AMONG MY TRIBE as it is in heaven. Give us ME this day ourdaily MORE EXCESS bread, And forgive us our ME MY debts, as we I also have forgiven our MY debtor FRIENDs WHO DESERVE IT. And do not bring us ME to the time of trial, but rescue us ME from the evil ones WHO DISAGREE WITH ME. For if you forgive*** CONDEMN others of their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also ESPECIALLY forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father WILL forgive your trespasses ANYWAY. –Matthew 6:9-15
*This prayer is distorted to fit “modern” North American individualistic sensibilities held by many Christians. Toby Keith’s song “I Want to Talk About Me” can be sung after the prayer. It is based on the message preached and believed that all the followeres of Jesus are to focus on is individual salvation. This view forgets any mention of love of neighbor, the Year of Jubilee, Gospel stories about welcoming the outsider and stranger, Paul’s mention of each having gifts needed to be a part of whole community, historic practices of social-justice or ideas of covenant and commonweal.
** Faith in this view is all about heaven and the hereafter. It has little reference to daily life on earth. My current life is to get me ready for the “sweet by-and-by.” God’s will is meant only for those who think like me and believe the same theology and creeds that I hold. In other words, “on earth” is about how I treat those who are part of my tribe. This means, climate change is a myth, any government aid the poor is “evil socialism,” the earth’s resources are to be dominated and used up for my benefit and those who are like me. The earth is not our “Common Home” as Pope Francis proclaims. The United Methodist bishops calling for “environmental holiness” was wrong.
*** Forgiveness in this view is a sign of weakness… unless it is asking for a pardon for crimes. The individual praying the prayer doesn’t need forgiveness because he or she has the right answer on two or three critical issues (e.g., against homosexuality and all abortions) and all else is “up to God.” I don’t really need to ask for forgiveness as my way is the only way to salvation. The story about the prodigal returning home is always about “them” and never about “me.”
Bloomington, Indiana is a lovely college town; I’m an unabashed booster. The name “Bloomington” is no accident. Tree-lined streets, parks and flower gardens are in abundance. Playgrounds and walking trails dot the city. At the community’s heart is the lovely campus of Indiana University. There is abundant and diverse fine music performed. Museums, libraries and theaters, research centers and multiple dining options are sprinkled in the mix. Surrounded by forests, lakes, farms, vineyards and orchards it is where natural beauty finds a home.
Natural beauty resides comfortably in Bloomington – Beauty resides here more easily than some of our people. People without shelter, who due to heath or economic realities, are left with no option other than life on the street. Perhaps the ugliest addition to our community is the 8-10 foot fence that has been placed around the downtown post office. The fence is festooned with threatening signs. Gates are locked tightly every evening. “No trespasing” is posted and one can’t even find a place to drop a letter in the mail. Forget it if you wish to walk up to a drop box or pass a drive-through box after hours. Why the ugly high fencing and all the horrible signs?
You see, this post office is now “off limits” in the evenings because it is next to Seminary Square Park. Seminary Square is registered as a national historic site. It is the location of the first campus for what would became Indiana Univeristy. In recent years Seminary Square is where many unsheltered persons chose to gather; many camped there until city officials began to disperse them. The result? Folks are now scattered, sleeping on sidewalks and being rousted from one doorway or storefront to another. Where are efforts to bring ALL the stake holders together — including the unsheltered — to find new ways forward? I am told “there are plans”. If so they are not well known in the city. How many millions of dollars have been spent on street improvements so that streets can now be closed off for dining, or for new bikeways to encourage such travel? And, why has such little thought been given to developing more places for the unsheltered? There are wonderful nonprofit programs designed to assist unhoused persons (Beacon Inc. – Shalom Center and New Hope for Families, for example) but these folks have limited palliative options and must focus on the most dramatic examples of this challenge.
A first-rate new IU Health Bloomington Hospital facility recently opened on the east side of the city; the hospital having completely abandoned its downtown location. Now that old facility is… you guessed it… FENCED off. Plans for re-use or redevelopment are slow to unfold and little has thus far been announced. Yes, redevelopment is complicated, and to do it well takes time, but what of those who could benefit from a dry and safer space to sleep in the meantime? And what of any new outreach initiatives from the fancy new I.U. Health facility? Any annoucement of outreach to address mental health and addiction issues faced by many of the unsheltered sleeping on the street? What of outreach to those no longer at the hospital’s doorway? If the past is prologue, in ten years, the old hospital site will become commercial property or another upscale housing site — and we will still have the unsheltered fenced out.
WE CAN AND MUST DO BETTER. Bloomington claims to be a civically engaged and imaginative place where democracy is valued. Let’s prove it by the way we live together. Ugly fences do us no pride. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been, and will be spent, on building new apartment/condo complexes. The university is spending millions to provide shelter for students. Where are plans to include alternative housing options for the unsheltered now and in future? Other cities face similiar dilemmas and are offering creative alternatives. I have never thought of our Bloomington as a laggard… until recently.
Now, please understand, as an pastor for more than fifty years, one who has lived and worked in impoverished areas, and with many persons without shelter much of my adult life, I get it. I have no doubts that the troubling reality of insufficient shelter and healhy options FOR ALL is extraordinarily demanding work. And I know there were incidents near the downtown post office (perhaps dangerous ones) that lead to the fence being errected and the park being cleared each evening. Even so, let’s be clear, this is the message being sent: “If you are an unsheltered person, you are unwelcome — you are locked out.” Bloomington is a beautiful city, mostly. It’s time to do better.
Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses
Bornholm, Denmark is an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Lovely place; a center point for one of the green power initiaitives in this small nation. In Denmark today over 50% of current electrical energy comes from renewable wind and solar power – a marked increase in recent decades. Denmark’s goal is to be 100% free of fossil fuels by 2030! This small nation is showing the rest of us a possible future. What is required for such dramatic change?
Denmark is a nation built out of a web of islands and distinct communities. While language and history, economic opportunuties, war and domination, have woven the Danes together, there is more to the story. There is imagination – an opnness to work together for new approaches to challenges. Currently, on Bornholm island, in order to make space for the windmills, new landfill projects are emering along some of the shore. Hundreds of windmills will be constructed. Has there been opposition? Of course. Still, all this is part of a national effort to, not only supply Denmark’s energy needs, but become a nation that produces its own electric power and sells energy to others. Rather astonishing. Along with thousands of miles of shoreline, the Danes have wind, and more, imagination is at play.
On some islands, a few former lighthouses, will now be further from shore and less visible to aid those sailing. These lighthouses are being replaced, made redundant. Some would argue that modern satellite GPS systems have eliminated the value of and need for lighthouses altogether; even so, new light sources will be installed.
This would not be the first time Denmark has led Europe, and the world, with imagination for desperately needed change. Little known is the story of the Danish Folk School Movement begun in the early 1800s. In that time, a wide majority of the pesantry living in the region were impoverished. Illiteracy was among the highest in Europe. Only a wealthy few had access to representation in government. The situation was bleak, trust in others to make change was low.
A remarkable man, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872), a Lutheran theologian saw Denmark’s future based on the construction of a system of universal literacy and the development of common trust. His vision led to the Folk School Movement. The goal was not to build a stratified society based on test results and university degrees. Rather, he focused on enriching comminities with educational options to nurture the human spirit through song, poetry, crafts, literature. It was a celebrating the giftedness of the people. Gruntvig saw renewal coming from the “bottom up.” Some of the “students” could also teach — they were weavers, cooks, farmers, fishers. Gardening, dance, practical uses of math and science were taught. Yes, there were classes in spiritual matters that were a part of the whole. Grundtvig’s goal was the preparing of persons for more enlightened citizenship and the development of networks of community trust. The folk school movement offered a place where those with limited money and time could learn new and more democratic habits, values and skills that would be needed for a healthy future society.
One hundred years later, by the early 1900s, Denmark enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. At the same time a vibrant emerging democracy was electing representatives to the Folketinget, or the house of commoners. A majority of these folks representing districts from across Denmark at the time, had studied in the Danish Folk School system. Today, Denmark has a unicameral government with representatives serving in the Folketing. Not all is, or has been, perfect in this story — there was the Nazi occupation and times of political corruption and turmoil. Still the folk school movement, wind mills and redundant lighthouses can serve as valued metaphors for us and others who seek a way to proceed to a more democratic and literate world.
In many places there is need for the renewal of trust, and a way to learn a new literacy based on a knowledge that is accurate and inclusive of others. It is difficult to think of the situation faced by Denmark in the early 1800s and not compare it to the malaise of our modern time. Distrust of institutions and a sense of brokenness in so many of our communities is evident and threatening to our futures. One measure of this malaise is offered in the Edelman Trusts Barometerhttps://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer. Across the world, trust in our institutions, and one another, is at an all time low. Perhaps our “democratic lighthouses” are placed too far from our current shorelines. We do not see the light that might offer us a better set of bearings for the future.
Taken as a practical example and metaphor, what might one learn from the Danish experience? A few possible lessons would include:
As to energy independence from fossil fuels, Denmark is showing us that dramatic and rapid change is possible. They have the attribute of wind; others of us have the prospect of, along with wind, adding many more solar power options to our resources
Perhaps some of our cultural, commercial, social, educational, healthcare and religious “lighthouses” need to be moved or rebuilt and re-imagined. How might we relocate the work of the press (news and social media), churches, the schools, healthcare systems, theaters, museums, etc. so that they are closer and more relevant to the journeys of those traveling in the future?
Are there ways to think systemicly about how to move ahead to encourage a more trusting and democratic common life? (In the U.S. I am of the opinion that a program of universal service options for our young would be such an institutional initiative.)
As a child, I learned an old hymn and often sang it. It was about the importance of lighthouses for people who lacked the light of faith.
The first verse was:
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore, But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore. Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave! For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Perhaps people of faith can join folks in other arenas to build new light sources for imagination, democracy and spirituality. It seems the church has put too much of its focus for too long, too far from where the light of imaginative faith is needed. We have offered little spiritual light and what is offered is shining in the wrong places. Rather than a faith that builds up trust and community, too much time has spent dividing, excluding and relegating those who differ to another separate island.
For the imagination already offering us hope in Denmark and beyond, I give thanks.
In a month, our nation will celebrate Independence Day 2022. There will be fireworks, brass bands, speeches — lots of speeches. Sadly, some will use the Day to seek to divide — to insist that individual freedom is the all in all for our democracy. Individualism will be celebrated and in some places the social contract will be given short shrift. Politicians, and others, will suggest their way is the only true understanding of our national experiment. It will be suggested that those who disagree, are not true-blue Americans. Alas.
I have been giving some thought to a Declaration of Interdependence. It is not a new idea. There have been a number of “Declarations of Interdependence” published over the last century and before. Many of our words and practices for the “common good” seem to have lost valance in the chemistry of our body politic. Words like “neighbor, friend, commonweal, community, kinship, congregation, covenant, alliance” have been lost or turned inside out, swallowed up in a wash of self-interest and the celebration of individual freedoms and options. The idea of a social contract seems to disappear — and it is forgotten that we live best when we are in healthy and respectful relationiships with the stranger.
My time spent with farm people taught me that the weeds in one field, unattended, can eventually damage the neighbor’s harvest. Poor soil protection practices can, through water or wind erosion, hurt the neighbor. And further, when a neighbor is in trouble, those around understand that they need to help repair the damaged roof or aid with the planting or harvest of a nearby farmer in trouble.
We have allowed too many weeds to grow unattended in our national ecology. Sometimes the result of the ugly and bashing words in the media, whether on television on in social media, lead to ugly actions and words on the street. In the extreme, angry self-focused individualism results in damage to us all, sometimes it ends in violent actions toward others. The gun violence exploding across our nation illustrates how “individual rights” have been perverted into foolish misdirections. The fact that ownership, registration, insurance and public safety practices are so lax around assault weapons, as compared to owning and operating an automobile, illustrates the distortion that is possible when we singularly declare individual independence and fail to balance this with a declaration of interdependence.
Our nation has faced antisocial and individualistic tides in the past. Hypercapitalism and selfish, exclusive politics are not new. Folks like Jane Addams marked the way respect for the stranger and those who were excluded by reminding us that “Democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community.”
If I am unable to persuade my senators, congressman and governor to take common sense steps to save lives, whether around guns. Or, if I can’t immediately address environmental, educational or healthcare concerns, perhaps I can take small steps to declare interdependence in other ways. I have been giving thought to what simple acts might be taken to encourage and perhaps mend the dangerous rifts created by radical individualism. Here are a few small suggestions:
Write at least one letter (posted in the U.S. mail) at least once a week for the next year.
Call a friend, especially one you haven’t seen in a while, every day.
Support a local newspaper, especially one that still has some local ownership. Send a letter to the editorial page.
Call a school teacher, principal, social worker, nurse or other social servant to simply say “thank you.”
Smile and greet the store clerk with a postive word.
Offer the fast food worker a tip for her/his work; and/or pay for the person who is in the car behind you at the fast food restaurant.
THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF OTHER WAYS WE CAN REBUILD HUMAN GRATITUDE AND TRUST.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke and wrote of a Beloved Community. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he writes: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” He says it so clearly and simply — “connection is health.”
Wendell Berry’s novels, poetry and essays all provide clear and compelling calls to Interdependence.
In wondering what I might do to take some small step in repairing the fabric of civic life and the building a beloved community, my phone rang. It was a surprising invitation from a friend inviting me to participate in a monthly gathering of men to spend an evening together in conversation and friendship — no big agenda (at least not at first). It was just a small invitation. When the friend asked if I was interested, I laughed and said, “Your call came right on time.”
Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.
For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.
In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.
By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.
For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.