Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1

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.

An early Inventory of Institutional Racism, from 1973

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.

Good morning, Matthew

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 Distortion of the Lord’s Prayer

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)

Matthew 6:9-15

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 our daily 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

Interpretive Aids:

*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.”

Fencing Beauty and Neighbors

Fencing Beauty and Neighbors

Sample Gates, Indiana University

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.

“Welcome Gates” Downtown Post Office

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?

Near Sample Gates 6-27-22

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.

People’s Park, near Sample Gates, 6-27-22

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

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.

Rønne Lighthouse, Bornholm, Denmark

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 Barometer https://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:

  1. 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
  2. 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?
  3. 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.)
  4. What gifts of the people, across our communities, can be brought to places that seek to enrich the common life. Do we have imagination for such systemic and constructive change? These will be needed to do some Cultural Land Fill work as new ecologies of democracy emerge. I think of the excellent resource of the Tamarack Institute: https://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/?hsLang=en and the Asset Based Community Development projects:https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/.

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.

Declaring Interdependence

Declaring Interdependence

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.”

Jane Addams Memorial Park, Chicago

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.”

Summer Reading Bouquet

A Summer Reading Bouquet

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.

Dr. Georgia Harkness

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.

Jesus at Our Doorways

Jesus at Our Doorways

Morning walks are a gift in retirement years. One sees things with eyes that are both old, and new. One remembers, prays, dreams. Today I notice the doorways.

In doorways, along streets were I often walk are folks without shelter. In the early morning light I see them. Many are asleep, a few are up, moving, repacking their belongings. I speak sometimes: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Mostly the response is silence or “no thanks.” Today, Ronnie says “that would be nice.”

In my city are dozens, perhaps hundreds, who seek evening shelter at our doorways, under bridges and in wooded clearings. We have shelters and multiple social service programs – some very good ones. Years ago, the church I served in this town made a commitment to seek to make a difference. A fine set of service agencies have resulted. Even so, the number of persons living on the streets keeps growing. They come from nearby towns where resources are few, and, truly, they come from around the nation. Mental health resources, creative responses for addictions and resources to aid severe poverty are insufficient. We look to the mayor, other city officials and social service agencies to make a response and are often disappointed.

As I walk, Revelation 3:20 comes to mind. 3:20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” (NRSVUE) The King James Version’s memorable translation begins “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” The meaning of this passage has been spiritualized by much of American Christianity.

After all, the book of Revelation is “apocalyptic” literature filled with symbols and metaphor like dragons, angels, seals, beasts, earthquakes, rivers and gardens. Revelation is an interpreters paradise. Many a theological shyster has used Revelation for purposes that are contradictory to the messages of the Torah, Prophets or Jesus of the Gospels. Some interpretations naturally move away from seeing real-flesh-and-blood-folks, like Ronnie, who sleep in our doorways.

Revelation 3:20 is often spiritualized to mean that Jesus stands in an individual’s experiece or “the heart’s doorway.” It is a passage used in support of “born again” Christianity to mean that if one “opens the door of the heart” then Jesus will “come in” and that person will then be “saved.”

This is, no doubt, helpful to many. However, what of a wider understanding of this, not just a spiritual awakening, but a true “behold” event? What if the one on the outside seeks shelter and fellowship with the insiders, us?

What if Jesus’ representatives are actually at our doorways? What if these persons are signs of Jesus’ presence today? Over and over in Revelation there is the phrase “I know your works.” The writer of Revelation does not write, “I know your heart experience,” but rather “I know your works.

In the 8th Century BCE, the prophet Isaiah challenged his listeners to do more than join the institutionalized rituals — the “fasting” on certain occasions. The question Isaiah posed was “what does God require of us?” He answers, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:7).

On our streets today, in every city and town, folks sleep in doorways without shelter. More resources are needed. And how much of the continuing challege around this dilemma resides in an inability to “behold” the one at the door as worthy of our response and more? How might these be seen as a part of a larger story — one that requires more of us? Social service agencies can serve as buffers protecting from having to do anything other than donate a few bucks and then look the other way.

Our “programs” and “agencies” can actually allow us to avoid discovering the stories of those who sleep in our doorways. Insufficient resources is a truth. But more resource and programs are not enough. We also live in a culture that looks on the poor as those who are in the situation due to their own personal “moral failing.” Such a perspective limits our imagination and distorts our empathy.

John McKnight reminds us of an even more fundamental complication and reality. Our institutional responses, well-meaning as they are meant to be, can become twisted and upsidedown. Agency programs can fall into virtue cycles, and end up spending more energy on applying for the next grant or designing the next fund-raising event than in listening to, and beholding those in our doorways. Additional government and philanthropic regulations require more staff. Our bureaucratic impulses turn those “being served” into “clients” who are to be “treated” according to an outside formula or “an outcome.” The persons without shelter, or with “mental illness” or suffering an addiction lose their voice and the unigue and powerful stories they bring, These are the very things that might better shape a genuinely effective response to root causes. Public servants can be turned into masters rather than the servants.

Ronnie and I sat at a table outside a shop along Kirkwood Street sharing coffee and a pastry. He tells of losing his job, his spouse and contact with his children. He says, “I have lost everything I love.” We pray. I mention some agencies, services nearby. He already knows them. He looks at me, nods and smiles saying, “This morning the coffee is enough.”

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Bob Greenleaf shared the story of an elderly, reclusive couple living in a small village who seldom ventured from their home.  However, one day the elderly man set out alone on an adventure. He traveled to a nearby city and after some exploring he returned with a battered cello he had found on a trash heap. The damaged cello had but one string. The twisted bow stick had only a few remaining hairs.  That evening and for weeks following, he seated himself in a front room corner and sawed away on the one single open string. Over and over he played one scratchy, repeated note. Day after day he played — his playing droned on increasing his wife’s unhappiness. Finally, able to stand it no longer, she decided to travel herself to the city.

Upon her return, she confronted her husband. “See here,” she said, “I have gone to the city and found people playing instruments very much like yours. The instrument is called a ‘cello’ and should have four strings. What’s more, those who play them move their fingers all along the neck of the cello and play many notes on each string.”  “Even more,” she continued, “people often play these cellos along with many others instruments. The sound is beautiful and powerful when they all play together. I am told such a group is called a symphony.  Why do you sit here day after day playing that one raspy note?”

The old fella gave his spouse a cold look and responded, “I would expect that of you.  Those people you saw are still trying to find the one right note, I have found it!” 

Robert K. Greenleaf, was a mentor to scores of folks; I was privleged to visit with him several times. His writings on Servant Leadership were widely read and practiced. Even in this, Bob knew that there would be the tendancy to turn his ideas into a distortion — a limited understanding — a one-note perspective. Too often it would be focused on “fixing” and “doing” rather than on “listening to others” and “reframing life with wider understandings.” Bob would chuckle at those who used Servant Leadership as a formula and say, “Leadership is a little like playing the cello. If you can’t hear the music maybe you shouldn’t try.” Or, Bob once opined “if you can’t share your playing with others, in a call and response way, then you will likely miss the beauty of the whole.

As I listen to the singular issues expounded in much of today’s social and religious discourse, I think of Bob and the story of the man and his broken cello. One note, one idea, one conviction (or two or three) can capture and predominate. Such behavior is like playing with too few strings on an instrument or giving too little attention to seeing things whole, seeing life and our challenges more comprehensively.

Perhaps you have seen the video of Johnny Mathis who holds one note, loudly, for almost a minute-and-a-half. It is amazing. Mathis is singing Johnny One Note, a song from the Broadway Musical “Babes in Arms” from 1937. (The movie version of this show starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)

The Free Dictionary identifies the idiom “Johnny-One-Note” as “Someone who repeatedly expresses or maintains a strong opinion on a single or a few particular subjects.” The song Johnny-One-Note and the idiom display the reality that when one person holds one note long and loudly, it is difficult to hear anything else.

Bob Greenleaf died on September 29, 1990, at the age of 86. Some of the wisdom Bob shared seems even more relevant today. He called himself an “institution watcher.” His experiences within large institutions like AT&T and the Ford Foundation led to his insights, his consulting and writing. In answering the question how does one best lead in humane, constructive and effective ways? He wrote “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society;  will he benefit, or at least, will he not be further deprived?” (From The Servant Leader, p. 7)

Bob is buried in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana after spending much of his working life in corporate headquarters on the East Coast. His head stone captures his sense of humor, and the whimsy of life, with an epitaph he wrote for himself: “Potentially a good plumber, spoiled by a sophisticated education.

One of his many insights that comes today was his statement that “Whether we get a better society in the future will be determined by how well older people nurture the spirit of younger people.”

Bob Greenleaf encouraged folks to “see things whole;” maybe this is why he liked telling the story of the man and his battered cello.

Patterns of Division and Disrespect

How May I Disrespect “THEM” – Let Me Count the Ways

Over my 76 years I have watched… and hopefully learned… that there is a pattern for perpetuating and using social/cultural/religious divisions in tragic ways. Here is a simplified overview of the ten most often practiced ways of encoruaging division in a family, denomination, nation or city:

1) Set up a ‘straw man’ (group or institution) from a disagreement, misunderstanding, mistakes, or with half-truths or complete lies about another who differs;

2) Lump everyone into two groups (those on the straw man’s side and those on your ‘righteous’ side);

3) Label those with whom you disagree as evil, heretics or fools. (This is the “process of dehumanization”);

4) Set up triangles by talking about (nor with) those with whom you disagree. Select others who share your position and persons you hope to convert to your position. Avoid talkling with those with whom you disagree. (This step is even more powerful in an age of social media, where algorithms do the selecting for you.)

5) Avoid learning, reading widely, hearing other points of view; and, be closed to paradox, nuance or the prospect that two things can be thought at the same time. Define all “terms” to best suit your arguments;

6) Use authorities to support your claims (Scriptures, The U.S. Constitution, ideology, perspectives of thought leaders or spokespersons) and ignore alternative interpretations.

7) Act as the Victim. Become the victim. Point to the ways “the other” is harming you and others.

8) Refuse any call for compromise and ignore any weakness in your own perspective and actions;

9) Nurse you grievance and turn it into one of the most important issues ever and a shield that denies any alternative point of view.

10) Rinse and repeat — ad nauseam.

I have seen this tragic pattern played out in broken marriages, families, nations, and religious denominations. There is money to be made by fueling division at each level and power to be (temporarily) gained. And there is community to be destroyed and loving respect for others to be lost. We see it today in Ukraine, in the U.S. Congress, and in religious denominations like the United Methodist Church.