Both Sides Now

Anocracy – an unfamiliar word becoming ever more common. It is used by those who study the health of democracys. Anocracies are places where democratic institutions are being diminished and autocratic practices are growing. In such states legal, electoral, economic and legislative functions shift to more and more autocratic behaviors. Sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or reduced democracies, such governments, without countermeasures, move inevitably closer to full blown dictatorships and in many places civil war ensues.

Johnson and Czeck Sramek
Pulling togther? Source: METRO.co.uk

I carry in my mind a 2017 image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Czech Foreign Minister Ivo Sramek rowing a small boat on a lake in Kent. Considering the current anocratic tendencies in Czechoslovakia of late — and for that matter Great Britain — one wonders if these two men at the time were pulling together or against one another as the currents of illiberalism were surging? The strength of democratic institutions is being challenged the world around. We see it up close in the United States.

An insurgent mob attacks the Capitol building a year ago seeking to block the installation of a new president; state legislatures pass measures to challenge voting rights and favor one set of citizens over another in electoral districts; school board meetings turn ugly with threats and name-calling substituted for honest debate; the ideological divisions evident in our media grow; health measures like vaccinations and wearing face masks to protect from the Covid-19 virus are turned into political wedge issues; and, even (especially) one’s religious perspective is tied to one partisian political agenda. Barbara F. Walter, political science professor at UC San Diego has studied the emergence of anocracies for years. She says “the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” (See Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 12/16/21)

Source: Seahopperfoldingboats.com

Perhaps you have heard of the illustration of a person in a row boat who will only pull on one oar. Yes, as the metaphor goes, the rower will simply go around in circles. If one is to make it to a distant shore, both oars are necessary. In healthy governments, there needs to be the safe and secure contribution made by those who are in power balanced by the safe and secure participation of those who are being governed.

For years I have been troubled by the tendency to turn every issue into a dichotomy, a binary choice with little room for hearing, seeing or learning from another side. This is common in anocracies — forcing complex issues into simplistic either/or choices. My guess is that in times of change, fear or unrest, there is a tendancy toward this inability to see another view. In the process divisions increase and become even more accute. My brain scientist friends tell me this is the case. The prefrontal cortex takes over. The ability to see more broadly or think more clearly is reduced. It is fight or flight time.

What is true in nations, large systems, and community institutions is also true within persons. I recall the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Many singers recorded the song — my favorite was Judy Collins’ rendition. The lyric closes with:

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well, something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
.

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Life’s Illusions

For people of faith, especially for Christians and Jews, our scriptures are full of images that call us beyond the simplistic illusions. Such dualisms tempt us to miss the mark. For example, there is the illusion that religion is primarily personal. Others suggest it is soley social. Some seem to proclaim that faith is sufficient as a guide toward piety, while others see faith as only valuable if it focuses on social justice. Healthy, whole, and wholesome religiousity moves beyond such simplistic patterns of either/or toward the richness of inclusion, paradox, and a welcome to ever-new-unfolding-understandings of transcendence.

I was struck then, and deeply saddened, by a news article last fall of my alma mater joining in the efforts against a national vaccine mandate proposed to curb disease and death. As Kate Shellnutt writes in Christianity Today, Novmber 5, 2021 (Updated 12/20/21). Asbury Theological Seminary (joined Southern Baptist Seminary) in a legal challenge seeking emergency relief “from enforcement of the mandate, which asks businesses with over 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccination, with any unvaccinated workers required to wear mask and undergo regular testing.”

Such “one-oared perspectives” endanger and misslead. They seem to miss entirely the gospel’s call of caring for the neighbor. One can almost overhear in this legal challenge the question of the young man to Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?” One wonders if the seminary should not be returning the more than $780,000 from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) received during the pandemic.

No doubt, were the issue about “government interference” related to scholarship aid for the students or receipt of federal funds to keep the community roadways and railways safe, the seminary might decide there is a “greater good.” Did the seminary speak up when, only a few years ago, medicaid relief was denied the poor in Kentucky? Or, what about the current challenge to the child tax credit that has lifted millions out of poverty? Surely the seminary has spoken out about this injustice. Crickets… nothing on such “federal interventions” related to how our society treats the poor.

Sadly, it is transparent that Asbury Seminary’s opposition to public safety and the commonweal are more about joining school’s mission to that of the Republican Party. In the likelihood that Row vs. Wade abortion laws are overturned or made moot by upcoming Supreme Court decisions, the seminary’s support for individual freedom will no doubt melt away.

The seminary’s choice to prefer a political stance, “masked up” as individual or institutional freedom displays a tragic disregard for the health of the larger community. At a time when a witness could be offered to the love of neighbor, it is rather set aside for a political agenda. In so doing, the whole gospel becomes an iillusion. A great opportunity has been missed — and a disregard for sharing and living the wider Biblical narrative is lost. A one-sided, dualistic choice, political stance is evident. Sadly, such a narrow view is put to use by those who seek to diminish our democracy. It no doubt pleases many constituents whose theology and politics are shaped by believing the scriptures are simply about individual sin and salvation. It causes one to wonder where the wisdom of Luther or Wesley, who spoke of choosing the common good in times of pandemic, has gone. It is, to my great sadness, a contributor to the anocracy apparent in our nation.

There have been many in this Asbury family who taught that individual freedom always comes in clear linkage with social responsibility. I think of beloved professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon — and before them Claude Thompson and Bob Schuler. (I will be sharing more about Gilbert James in the next blog.) In my time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were still suffering from the de facto racial segregation that had kept Asbury institutions rowing around in circles — an important witness to the wider world lost. Only a handful of African American students were welcomed. Many at the time felt it was not the government’s role to encourage racial integration in schools. Fortunately, others at the school and in society saw a larger vision, one that cared for the whole and not just for the political advantage of the segregationists.

My prayer is that God’s spirit will allow the faithful at Asbury, and in other such settings where options are narrowed to simple dualistic choices, to remember and revise their message announcing the breadth of God’s care for all people, communities and creation – personal and social – Both Sides Now.

Epiphany and epiphanies

One year ago, on January 5th, 2021, I foolishly thought I had an overview of what was to unfold in the year ahead. At the very least, I thought, Epiphany Day 2021, the next day, would be like others I had known. It would be a day to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, Epiphany Day. Foolishly I thought it would be an “Epiphany as usual” when Christians celebrated “the light that has come into the world for all people.” We would again emphasize the light that overcomes darkness for all humanity (John 1:9). I was wrong.

We celebrate this LIGHT, the coming of Christ with the “large E” Epiphany. There are also “small e” epiphanies that transform our perceptions — not always moving from darkness to light. Epiphanies, (large E or small e), are times when we may discover that things are not what they appear to be. Last year, January 6th 2021, was a day to remember and rejoice in the great Epiphany, but that Light was dimmed by an “epiphany” unfolding on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.

My perceptions, my assumptions, my intutions about the strength of the U.S. democracy and our national body politic were deeply challenged, under assult by a mob of insurrectionists. Sadly, ironically, many were carrying Christian symbols — flags and signs that read “Jesus saves.” Many in the mob believed they were acting out of honorable religious motivations.

Our national institutions proved not as resiliant as I had thought. My assumptions about the way the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth inform responsible citizenship were being assaulted. My assumptions about a broadly shared sense of fairness or widely accepted governing traditions were sorely tested.

I was prepared for a new Presidency, a new Congress and a time when clearer realities about our common life and mutual respect would be affirmed. I believed our nation was escaping, narrowly, but we were escaping, the cruely, the grievance-based-dysfunction, the lies and dystopia we had suffered during the preceeding four years. I thought that unlike other nations (China, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Turkey among others) our deeply embedded democratic institutions and a shared assumption that persons could disagree without turning to violence would hold. My sense was that we were better somehow — closer to the Epiphany values manifest in the coming of the Christ. Alas, reality came knocking at my door. I openned that door to the surprise that we were a more broken and wounded nation than I had thought.

On Wednesday afternoon, January 6th, 2021 an epiphay (small e) shook previously held assumptions. A friend phoned that afternoon. Just a friendly call to ‘catch up.’ I remember saying, “Turn on the television. All hell is breaking loose. There is a mob, must be 10,000 people, openly attacking the Capitol building!” Thinking back now, I was right, “All hell was breaking loose.” This attack, my small epiphany on that day, remains a chilling reminder that easy assumptions about American exceptionalism now need to be carefully re-considered.

It was spiritual vertigo and a citizenship vertigo rolled into one. Easy assumptions about our commonweal and appropriate patterns of national govenance vanished. This vertigo continued throughout 2021. Old deceits seemed to take on more strength. THE BIG LIE about cheating in the 2020 elections continues to be believed, according to recent polls, by over 30% of the adult population. The violence of the insurrection on Epiphany Day 2021 was in many quarters downplayed, even denied. “Just a group of tourists visiting their Capitol” some would say. Vertigo continued as the year filled-up with other surprises: the omicron varriery of COVID. Silly debates over mask wearing and critical race theory. Politics proved astonishingly polarized. Racism found new expressions and justifications. Friends died. Children suffered from isolation and limited online educational practices. Ice storms, fires and hurricanes came, it appeared, with a new overpowering force.

My thoughts of an ability to predict the future were wrong.  We may think we can control things; yet often our efforts result in surprises or unintended consequences. We think we can nail things down but we cannot.  We have not factored in the difference between CHRONOS and KAIROS. The Epiphany is the way beyond the sad and disappointing epiphanies of human evil and deceit. Even when we are tempted to fear the worst, for people of faith there is the option to choose a life shaped by a larger reality… it is bigger than insurrectionists breaking into a nation’s Capitol building, it is the discovery that God’s light has broken into the world and “the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I do so believe.

My friend, Thomas Lane Butts died in 2021. He understood. Tom put it this way “Our penchant for permanence, which seems to get stronger as we grow older is probably a genetic (God-given) arrangement in our nature which prepares us to die.  The only people I know who have a genuine permanent arrangement with life are those whose lives have ended.  In all the rest of us change is still going on.  As a matter of fact, change is a basic characteristic of life, and without it, life as we know it would be snuffed out.”  (CELEBRATE THE TEMPORARY, January 12, 1997, The Protestant Hour Radio Series)

So how might we proceed as we enter Epiphany 2022 and the many epiphanies that lie ahead? I once had a choral conductor who would jokingly say, “I want you to keep both eyes on me and the other eye on the music!” He was asking us to transcend our normal and perceived limits.  To see things whole — beyond simply the music on the page.

Let Epiphany 2022 come as a reminder that there is a light that has come into the world that transcends the small, uncomfortable epiphanies. Light that is true to God’s designs for humanity. Light that shined in the dark places of our nations and world can overcome the antidemocratic forces seeking to destroy the good, the true and the beautiful.

Brittish theologian Rosemary Haughton argued that there are small conversions, or “flash-point moments” of decision, when we experience God in ways that allow a re-structure our daily calendar. Daily practices of prayer, mediation and study are times of formation providing for a life within community that can lead to transformation for persons and institutions — even nations.

Formation proceeds out of the routines of life and sets the stage for transformation of persons and communities.  Conversion emerges from the images already embedded in our deep memories and in our daily practices. The way we behave in those regular and calendared hours, minutes and seconds can anticipate the opportunities for transformation or renewal.  We have the opportunity to measure our lives not only in terms of length, wealth, achievement but, even more, we can practice ways that shape relationships with neighbor and with God. Epiphany suggests that even the surprizing and distressing epiphanies can be transcended.  A time when God’s purposes can be made know is possible.

God is not finished with us yet.  Life goes on.  Transformation is possible.  Rilke, the poet, said,  “The future enters into us in order to transform us long before it happens.”

Brokenhearted Excellence

Brokenhearted Excellence

Following the horrific tornadoes across Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee on Friday Night December 10th, there have been numerous interviews with persons who survived these tragic storms. A path of destruction carved its way across the landscape leaving behind death, lost homes and property and a wide swath of heartbreak.

Among the many interviews with survivors, was one with the Rev. Joey Reed, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Mayfield, Kentucky. Mayfield was perhaps the most heavily hit of the many communities that suffered death and destruction. As I watched Rev. Reed, his clear-eyed faith and excellent theology and pastoral leadership came shining through. You can see the interview here – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mayfield-kentucky-tornado-minister-survives-church-closet/.

I give thanks for Rev. Joey Reed, for the denomination that nurtured him and for his seminary education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He was clearly brokenhearted. Even so, he had the language of faith around Joy and Lamentation that was clear. This should be an interview that is studied by church leaders and pastors everywhere. Here is a model of excellence. Here is faith at work in the midst of tragedy.

Our “Terrible Good” Democracy

Our Terrible Good Democracy

Ralph was a large gruff voiced man, tough exterior with a tender soul. Mostly he hid the gentle side, but the tenderness leaked out more and more as you got to know him.

He was in his seventies by the time we met. He stood straight and tall even as there was evidence of aging. If one watched for it, there was a twinkle at the edges of his eyes, like a small mouse sneaking around the corner of a room. On any given Sunday, after church, I would greet Ralph with, “How are you today, Ralph?” I knew his answer ahead of time. This retired, successful man, in a gravelly voice would reply “Oh, I’m terrible good. You?” Hearing the words TERRIBLE GOOD always caused me to chuckle. It was vintage Ralph, summarizing a rough exterior covering a gentle spirit. His response, his pose, his practiced gruffness meant “I’m very good or I’m doing exceptionally well.” It was always followed with his one word question: “You?”

Terrible Good is one way I think about our national experience of democracy in the United States today. There is a terribleness, a meanness, much more threatening and ugly toward others than Ralph’s gruff demeanor. Somehow civil discourse has been devalued and too often set aside. Public governance has been turned into yelling matches across ideologial divides. Some of the interchanges in school board meetings or even in the U.S. Congress are more like a scuffle on a elementary school play ground than a display of honest human differences. It is ugly and unless we are careful it can be destructive to our future. There is so much that is good about us as a people, as a nation that, I fear, gets lost in the bellicose rudeness. Why is this so? And, what can be done to better display the goodness of our people? I have three hunches to offer.

  1. The Media Made Us Do It.” This is not a new explanation and is, in fact, the most common one offered. Marshall McLuhan was perhaps right, “The medium is the message.” From social media interactions to talk radio to the cable television channels, for many in our nation the offering of information has been set aside and instead exchanges become an ongoing battle, a bludgeoning of “the other.” Complex challenges are distilled into easy answers and turned into verbal brickbats tossed across any convenient ideologocial or cultural chasim.
  2. “There are Fewer Parking-Lot-Conversations.” As a clergy person, I would often see persons engaged in parking-lot-conversations following a worship service or meeting. Sometimes these conversations would last a half an hour, or would move to a nearby restaurant or watering hole. People got to know one another in regular, healthy human exchanges, where differences were freely shared. I recall a lot of teasing about sports teams (Cardinals vs. Cubs; Colts vs. Bears, etc.), or joking about the best college or university, or, yes, disagreements about politics. I heard many such conversations and teasing between Republicans, Democrats and Independents on the asphalt. Sometimes the conversations were serious but almost always to my memory, respectful. I saw this behavior in other arenas as well. For example, I still recall the gatherings following a school board or city council meeting where persons of opposite parties would gather at an establishment and engage in post meeting banter. There was much laughter and often a testing of alternative approaches to problems. Several things happened to change this over the past twenty years. First, churches became more and more ideologically/politically segregated, leaving space for fewer such teasing opportunities. I think the same is true of our politics. Mostly gone are the days when opponents like Tip O’Neal and Ronald Reagan jovially visited after a tough day of battle in Washington. COVID hasn’t helped — there have been fewer people attending fewer public meetings.
  3. “We are fogetting how to practice local democracy.” Local democracy, and by “local” I mean at the grass roots, subatomic, or subpolitical party level. I mean meetings at the PTA, garden club, bowling league, League of Women Voters, church board meetings, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks or dozens of other social or service clubs. While I am not arguing that Roberts Rules of Order should be followed by every group, I do wonder if at the local level we are forgetting how to make fair and democratic decisions. If Roberts Rules are assumed, then some simple things like setting an agenda, learning how to make a motion and call for a vote are helpful. There are other ways to proceed (Consensus, Democratic Rules, Atwood Rules, Group Discernment, etc.). To my mind, if there is no agreed upon way to proeed, an option many will chose is trying to “win” by yelling more loudly than others. There should be some agreement about process. In too many organizations we have turned to the practice of electing officers/leaders and then leaving all the work to those persons, later to grumble about decisions made. My friend Parker Palmer once spoke of visiting an African American Sunday School Class years ago as they were electing officers for the upcoming year. He noted that even in a small class of fewer than ten people, everyone held an office. After the class Palmer asked a friend why everyone held a post and the answer was simple and elegant. “We are practicing.” I believe it is time to give much more attention to the practice of local democracy.

If asked how democracy in the United States is doing today, I would respond that we are “TERRIBLE GOOD.” Of course, to prove this is true, a majority of us would need to answer as Ralph did and ask, “YOU?” More practice at listening to the voices of others and knowing how to fairly make decisions at the local level is something all of us can focus on doing better.

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.

Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.

Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.

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Context of prayer:

Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”

As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.

Amador County, CA, Nov. 2021

From the internet, same day

I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:

If by chance I should find myself at rest, 
By falling from this jagged cliff, 
I look below and I look above, 
I’m surrounded by your boundless love. 
Surround me with your boundless love, 
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be 
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love, 
You surround me with your boundless love.

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

Blessed with many generous friends, I enjoy times of remembering the good, bad, ugly and beautiful. Among my younger companions, many below my years by a decade, or two, or more, I sometimes am foolish enough to offer my ‘wise counsel.’ (Okay, I try to do this only when they seek it.) I have known many of these folks now for several decades. Together, we have shared a wide circle of mutual travelers and acquaintances on our circuitous journeys. Included in this entourage are a number of rogues, clowns, mischief makers, heroines, heros and… well, in a word, there have been “Saints.”

As All Saints Day slips past us in 2021, I am aware that Fredrick Buechner’s image of saints is sorely lacking, lovely and whimsical as it is. Buechner speaks of saints as “God’s dropped handkerchiefs.” He says saints appear as part of “God’s flirtation with the world.” The saints I have known hardly flutter to earth or are easily picked up. In fact, at my age, they are substantial, heavy and many. I am left wondering if some I catalogued as scoundrels, and others to whom I seldom gave attention, might need to be recategorized as saints.

Often, after an evening visiting with friends remembering the past, and recounting acts of stupidity or moral courage, I find myself thinking… “Did I get that right? How often have I told that same story? Have I garbbled it? Have I confused a congressman with a senator, or a police officer with a trial attorney, or a chaplain with an orderly? Listening to my recapitulations, my friends must be bored stiff at every retelling — or they think “poor fella, he repeats himself. What is this? The 146th time ole Amerson has recalled and then re-shaped some sinner into a saint or some blunder into an accomplisment? Bless him and his muddled memories.”

Wallace Stegner’s novel Recapitulation tells of the return of Harry Mason to his childhood home in Salt Lake City. Mason has had what others would consider a successful life. He worked in the U.S. State Department, served as an ambassador. Mason remembered much, but celebrated little. His relationships, complex and difficult, were like an old coat to be shed every few years. They had shaped him but had not ever connected him to anything more substantial than his desires, fears and aspirations. Stegner writes “Harry Mason would have treated his father like an entry in his reminder book. Drawn a rectangle around his name and blacked it out. Did. Yet, Harry Mason’s only definition now was given to him by the relationships he had laid aside, without them he would merge with the universal grass. In his life it was the same.” He was left with “the souveniors of upward mobility.”

During this season of life, I have come to fresh understandings. Relationships may be lost but memories can continue to connect. We don’t just build community — we remember community. To love God and Neighbor — well that is the work of saints. I will not name their names in this writing, but this year saw the passing of many, many great spirits. These are saints, not handkershiefs. Some died COVID related deaths, some simply of declining health from aging, some from tragedy. As saints pass away, disappear from the earthly lifescape, they make their way into our flimsy memories, yours and mine. We draw on the web of multiple memories — some of them muddled. Still, as we light candles and ring a chime when their name is read at All Saints services, we are reshaped by recalling the good and noble gifts they shared with us. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. BUT I REPEAT MYSELF.

How to NOT Cure an Illness

How to NOT Cure an Illness

This week a note popped up on my calendar dated, October 1st, 2020. It was a reminder to do a little one-year analysis of progress made regarding racial justice in the U.S. It read: “Next year consider if any thing more than reading and talking about racism has been done in your networks over the past year. Let’s check annually.”

I chuckled to myself. Since writing that note I had sat in on a number of conversations. Back in the summer and fall of 2020, following the tragic murder of George Floyd, and several other murders, folks were ready — to talk. I preached a few times. There was much conversation and study. Many church folks joined reading groups. There are many fine, fine books and some good conversation that has taken place. I am encouraged and at the same time dubious that real progress was being made.

If one has a headache, and the doctor prescribes aspirin, is it enough for the patient to sit and read the aspirin bottle label and not take the medicine? If a person is diagnosed with cancer, should the patient only review the research on carcinogens and treatments? Racism is endemic in our nation. We seek to make a difference every generation or so, only to fall back into old patterns of bigotry, separation and discrimination. Ours is a repetitive cycle of two steps forward and then one back. Yes, we are making progress, but we have miles to go and we are only progressing a few yards each decade.

My dear friend, LaVerta Terry once told me that “It’s going to take a lot more than reading and talking for things to change.” She reminded me of the quote by Frederick Douglas, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Research done decades earlier, in the 1970s, part of a program named Project Understanding, taught me that church people like to sit and talk. Getting up and doing something is much more challenging. Many like hearing challenging sermons about justice — well, okay, some folks like them, not all. I laugh thinking of folks who would leave worship following a “prophetic” sermon seeming so grateful I had railed against racism or sexism or homophobia. One fella, many years ago, thanked me at the door following such a sermon saying, “That was good, we like it when you talk dirty to us.” Yikes, is that all some these sermons were? Just a scolding? Treating the congregation like a collection of bad adolescents? Are they just a public rehearsal of “oughts, musts and shoulds” that cause folks in the pew to squirm?

Since that research on racism now nearly fifty years ago, I have seen over and again that there is a better way to deal with racism than reading or preaching. In the 1970s we would challenge congregations by asking “Did your church spend more on light bulbs or toilet paper in the past year than on programs in the community supporting racial justice?” Maybe we should be asking that question again. There are ways to engage with persons across the racial lines that continue to separate and harm. There are ways to “walk our prayers into existence.” Whatever your race or ethnicity, we can do more than read — we can ACT, LEARN, BEFRIEND, TOUCH, LAUGH as we PRAY.

Yes, marches for justice are necessary. Yes, passing the voting rights act is essential. We also need to take account of how our institutions spend time and money. What will have changed for us when October 2022 comes around?

My friend LaVerta Terry, died five years ago. She worked with the Black Student programs at Indiana University. More importantly, I now realize that her best gift was as my friend. We laughed often and well. We went to the opera and marched to address racist behaviors or in support of a student who had been excluded or verbally wounded by hateful language. LaVerta would say “The more opposition I faced, the more I decided I could make a difference, but to do this I had to make some people uncomfortable.” We strategized as to how to make changes and not only talk about them. I can hear her still, saying “If all we are going to do at church is talk, talk, talk, I’ll be waiting outside the door to walk, walk, walk.” LaVerta taught me much — talking is good; walking is better; strategize to get up and make a change; make a new friend; and, laughing together can’t be beat.

How not to cure an illness? Just read the label? Okay, what are you planning for next year? Any new friendships in your future? Let’s check in again next October.

Still Unhoused in the Shadows of Success

Still Unhoused in the Shadow of Success

Dateline: September 30, 2021, Bloomington, Indiana.

There is an old adage “success has many parents, while failure is an orphan.” Last evening folks gathered on the lawn of the county courthouse in our town to remember the thirty-two persons who had died without adequate shelter over the past year. No doubt others threatened by poverty, addiction, or hunger had also passed away. They were not known. This likelihood was mentioned; homelessness cycles for millions continually in our society. Where is there hope?

Joe Emerson and Sylvia McNair at the Service of Remembrance, September 29, 2021

Candles were lit and small placards with the names of the known deceased were placed on the courthouse lawn. There were prayers, poetry and singing as several dozen folks lifted their candles in remembrance. The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Director of Beacon Inc in Bloomington (an antipoverty program that grew out of, and includes, the Shalom Center Shelter) lead the service. Politicians spoke and a family member shared the important words, “We miss her. A hole is left in our hearts. Forgive yourself and others.”

It was an inspiring evening. The Rev. Joe Emerson, now approaching his 90th birthday, opened in prayer. He had first suggested such a service of remembrance back in 2004. Joe prayed. My thoughts went back to the United Methodist General Conference in 1992 in Louisville, to the beginnings of what became known as Shalom Zones. The 1992 Louisville Conference occurred as the trial of four police officers involved in the tragic arrest and beating of Rodney King was concluding. As the “not guilty” verdict was read, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. It was April 29th, midway into the two-week denominational conference, held every four years. How should the church respond? Those gathered in Louisville took their cue from the Rev. Joe Hyun-Seung Yang, a pastor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, near the riots. Yang had set up a “relief center” that became known as the Shalom Community Center. Shalom, a word from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning peace, wholeness, safety, health.

In Louisville that week the Rev. Joseph Sprague from Columbus, Ohio (later a bishop serving in Chicago) proposed a Shalom Initiative. Civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson and his brother the Rev. Philip Lawson, both delegates, rose to speak in support. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Within hours a denomination-wide program calling for “Shalom Zones” was adopted and funded. Shalom Zones were to be established around the world as places where persons in poverty could find safe space to build communities of hope and restoration.

In Bloomington, later that year and in years following, we began to pray, confess our failings, study and hold conversations on the biblical notion of Shalom. We challenged one another to address the broken places in our society, in our city. How might we respond? Make a difference? Many initiatives followed. Financial offerings were taken and shared; the church kitchen was used to provide meals for the hungry, clothing was collected and shared. In 1999 the church provided funds for one of the early Habitat for Humanity houses built in the city.

A day center for the homeless was up and running in First United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall by 1999. Here, persons could get mail, use a phone, have a meal and simply stay safe and warm. The need for more overnight shelter remained. Many incredible lay people in the congregation, and beyond, struggled to make a difference for those on the streets. Change, enduring change, needed a persistence practiced by the actions of lay persons. This was much more crucial than sermons or study times led by the pastor. The day center was given a name — it would be the, naturally, the “Shalom Center.” Lay persons, like Indiana University Economics professor Philip Saunders, joined dozens of others who began to widen the vision for what might be possible. In fact, the feeding program at the Shalom Shelter, in 2021, twenty-four year’s later, is known as Phil’s Kitchen.

At the service last night, a fellow approached and surprisingly called my name. It had been more than twenty years since we met in the late 1990s. Having overcome the challenges of addiction he had faced earlier, this man was now helping others. We laughed as he reminded me that many on the streets didn’t adopt the name “Shalom Center.” Instead they slurred the words, using street humor, they teasingly called the fellowship hall arrangement the “Slum Center.” These folks knew, and we knew, we could do better. Thankfully as the years passed many others joined together to do better. They persisted. Something much better has emerged.

I hear other origin stories about these beginnings of the Shalom Center in Bloomington. Each narrative holds its own truth… there have been many sources of action and investment. The sacrifices and generosity of so many since 1992 have made a difference. Prior to the 1990s there were already many fine service organizations (e.g., Monroe County United Ministries and Community Kitchen) assisting persons facing the brutal results of relentless poverty and non-available shelter. Today, even more organized resources are offered in the community through social service groups and government programs.

Yes, success has many parents. One must ask, has this truly been a success? Well, yes… and no. No doubt many lives have been saved and new beginnings discovered. Still, at least thirty-two of God’s children died on the streets in our town over the last year. That’s not the mark of success. Such an assessment is true in almost every city in the nation. Last night, I heard the politicians speak of aid that has been offered and I often read annual reports of the organizations in our city like Habitat for Humanity, New Hope for Families, Wheeler Mission and the Bloomington Housing Authority. Good, good and very good on them all. Still, still, still, there is yet a shadow over us. Thirty-two died without housing last year — this we know. Shalom Zone activities begun in Louisville in 1992 continue around the world. Scores of places have benefited through dozens of projects in the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, Glenncliff Village, Nashville

Even so, in this nation and in my community, homelessness persists. We seem stuck, forever overshadowed by the tragedy of persons without safe housing. Many in our nation seem forever caught up in ignorance, bad theology and lousy public policy, devoid of humane responses to addiction and poor mental health. We must not fall into the trap of believing homelessness is about an individual’s moral failings, as so many seem to think; rather, these without shelter are evidence of our society’s moral failings, failings of our community, our economic and political choices.

How to move beyond the shadow? There is, as the scriptures say, a “great cloud of witnesses” showing us pathways forward. There are persons with a broader vision, a better response. In my city there is a “Heading Home” proposal that offers the better linkage of resources, more housing and earlier, more appropriate, and sustainable, interventions to persons in such crisis.

Across the nation, others point the way, typically these days initiatives are ecumenical and/or interfaith in nature. For example, note the work of folks like Ingrid McIntyre in Nashville, the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, co-founder of Open Table Nashville, which seeks to “break the mold of what people call the church.” Rev. McIntyre led in the building of twenty-two micro homes in a Nashville neighborhood known as The Village at Glencliff. These are shelters for “medically vulnerable neighbors who are chronically homeless” as they wait for permanent housing. The homes form a sacred halo around Glencliff United Methodist Church. I can’t help but think about other churches, scores of them, where tiny houses might be built and homeless persons having interim shelter and linking the gifts of the congregation with those who need shelter.

Lincoln Park Community Services, 2020

In Dallas, an ecumenical initiative known as CitySquare has over these past twenty-five years grown from a food pantry into offerings of legal aid, to job development, housing rehab and the building more fifty tiny houses for those needing short-term housing while persons deal with addictions and other health issues.

In Chicago a group of churches joined together to build a new facility for Lincoln Park Community Service offering interim housing and job counseling for more than 120 residents.

This is a tiny window into the work of persons who are working to end homelessness. Each one is essential to ultimately addressing the challenge.

Finding room for the unsheltered can seem overwhelming, I understand. Even so, I join the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who suggests that when confronted by huge, seemingly intractable problems (like the fanaticism and hatred held by many Palestinians and many Jews in Israel), a productive option is to join The Order of the Teaspoon.

Oz writes that when facing an enormous, tragic situation, like a conflagration, a fire burning out of control, there are three options: 1) Run away; 2) Write an angry letter to the editor; 3) “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire.” He goes on, “and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon — almost everyone has a teaspoon.” Oz Amos [“how to cure a fanatic,” Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 93-95] asserts that if millions who have a teaspoon form the Order of the Teaspoon to join in taking on enormous challenges, dramatic change is possible. [Homelessness is an enormous problem but small when compared with others like the Jewish/Palestinian divide which is the conflagration to which Oz Amos is pointing.]

Too many will sleep unhoused tonight on the streets of my city or town, and yours. Might we continue the vision of Shalom Zones begun thirty years ago — and, actually, centuries before that — [insert your own scripture here — there are dozens from which to chose]. What if we each brought our teaspoon to dose the fires that leave us in the shadow of the unhoused? So, please, find a place near seeking to make a difference. Persist, you and your a bucket of difference-making support, or add glassful or a teaspoon of support toward ending homelessness.

Plantings and Harvests

Plantings and Harvests

What’s the old adage? “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago and the next best time is today.” Top of mind today are events in Afghanistan, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and COVID hospitalizations and deaths around the world. Perhaps, like me, these tragedies overwhelm and despair has taken up residence in your thoughts. What was planted twenty years ago – and longer – is now being harvested. What has brought us to this point? Where is there a hopeful way forward?

As a nation, as a world, we seem unable to consider long-term implications of actions taken today. The all-too-natural-human tendency to prefer the tools of retaliation, blame, distrust, greed, fear or bigotry have served as a modus operandi in most of human history. Too seldom has the wisdom of an Abraham Lincoln been displayed. As the terrible years of the Civil War were ending he spoke the remarkable words “with malice toward none and charity for all.” Such a guiding vision and telos for our wars is astonishing. There is a dangerous and disastrous inability to view our political, global and cultural situations with a longer view. Retaliation has produced what fruit? Distrust of government, health and religious institutions, broken, fragile and in need of reformation as they all are, has yielded exactly what fruit?

Grain in Southern Indiana

As we approach the autumn harvest season in North America, farmers are doing more than combining grain and gathering the harvest. They are planning ahead for the crops they will plant next year, and the years following. I think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:

16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

As I grieved the deaths of our thirteen young military personnel this past week and more than one-hundred-and-seventy Afghanistan persons murdered at the Kabul airport, I thought of the twenty plus year toll on our world and nation and my heart was broken. Still, the words of the U.S. President in response this horrific attack in Kubal by promising retaliation and saying “we will not forgive,” brought small comfort. Today, exactly what are we reaping and what are we sowing for the future? We should not forget, and should act wisely in the future, but what fruit does this retaliation bring? This talk was, for me, a kind of virtue-signaling of the worst order as the president needed to let anyone listening know that he (we) were tough and could be as cruel as any terrorists in response.

Out of fear, revenge, and no small hubris, we have spent thousands of precious lives and billions of dollars with apparently too little knowledge of the people and culture and less wisdom as to our mission. Afghanistan was already a broken Humpty Dumpty of a place when U.S. troops entered in 2001. My appreciation for those in the military and civilians who diligently sought to build a better place is enormous. Thanks for their service knows no limit. However, this still begs the question, was violence the best tool in our toolkit? Is it now?

Many people of faith over generations understood that retaliation was not the way of Jesus. They understood the importance of making our institutions humane and strong rather than stirring up animus against government or leaders with whom one disagrees. Many taught the path of nonviolence and restorative justice. For people of faith, especially my own Christian family, we have great traditions of reconciliation and grace upon which to draw. Sadly, in my denomination, many have been caught up in tribal warfare over these twenty years. What if we had spent this energy on planting a better future for our world, for Afghanistan, together? Our vision has been reduced to a sickening institutional battle over the next two years or four years. Our passions have focused more on proving another party wrong, gaining control of congregations and a denomination, rather than on planting the good seed of Christ for the future. We think too small and hope too little. Kyrie Elieson — may God have mercy and forgive.

Whether it is war, hurricane, or disease, a future of hope requires deeper, wiser, more hope-filled and generous behaviors. Our decisions now about war and peace will require thoughtful critique and retooling. Our fragile social, cultural and religious institutions — those intended to build up and not destroy — call on us to plant seeds of renewal designed to bring good fruit. And, living our lives in more environmentally sustainable ways on this precious planet require new life patterns for the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. I believe this is possible. There is an ecology of hope we can practice, a living in ways that plant good seed for the future, so that others may receive an abundant and good harvest.

Humility and Humor as Litmus Tests

Been thinking some about the linkages between unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution. Okay, I know, I know, it all sounds like something for a dry academic article published in an arcane journal somewhere. So, let me tone it down. These are thoughts of a trailer load of horse manure that still makes me laugh.

Let me start with a recent event and work back to that trailer of manure years ago.

A few days back I watched an online videocast from a sanctuary of a church north of Atlanta. I would identify the church by its denomination, but truth is, they don’t know what they are. They once were a United Methodist Church (still are in actuality) but through a series of events that I won’t detail here, an identity change is occurring. Some who spoke on this broadcast bragged about being the biggest church in the biggest conference in United Methodism and in the next breath expressed they are leaving the denomination because they were being treated so badly. You can read more about the “whys and wherefores” elsewhere; but even as I was watching I thought my psychologist friends would have a field day analyzing this.

I watched a series of speakers whose messages were filled with a sense of grievance, persecution and victimization. There were a few brave and sincere prayers for healing and understanding, I appreciated those. But mostly, I was puzzled by the juxtaposition of the claim to greatness while the same time claiming to be profoundly abused and persecuted. Several of the speakers suggested that “The whole world is watching us.” (Now that’s a Napoleonic syndrome claim — sorry, I’ll stop my arm chair psychoanalysis.) I remember thinking, however; “Nope, the whole world is watching the Olympics in Japan.” Sad, really, but an interesting case study in unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution… anyway back to the horse manure.

I attended a small religious college and then seminary in Kentucky. Good place, many marvelous people there. It was a place where extraordinary leaders of much depth and spiritual insight had been educated. Persons like E. Stanley Jones, Rosalind Rinker, J. Waskom Pickett and James Matthews had graduated a couple of generations back… and hundreds of others since have lived lives of faithful service making great contributions to faith and intellectual accomplishment. In fact, as I think about this now, I realize the truly great ones related to these schools were among the most humble and down-to-earth human beings I have had the privilege of knowing. Their greatness, their examples of holy living, rested in their clearheaded and openhearted sense that they were children of God called to love and serve others of God’s extended household.

Many of the truly great faculty and alums of this school modeled such humility. They lived in terms of a true greatness spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 20 or Mark 10 — “If you would be great, become as a servant to all.”

So you have been waiting on the manure story. Well, when a group of people set themselves up as superior to all others, folks around can smell the stench of self-righteousness. Holier-than-thou is a terrible way to give witness. Many of those who spoke of their grievance recently were related in significant ways to the college and seminary I attended.

With that said, the story is set in the small town, we will call Skidmore, Kentucky. Skidmore is sometimes jokingly said to be seventeen miles away from the nearest sin. (The town’s name is changed, all the other information here is as factual as I can recall.) It is 1968. I am in seminary and my friend Frank Shirbroune and I have decided in late winter to plant a garden. We hear that horse manure is free if we load it up ourselves and carry it back to town from the trotter horse track in the city. We borrow a trailer from a friend and attach it to hitch on Frank’s old Volvo. It is illegal in multiple ways — bad tires, no lights, no license plate, no connector chain, etc. Still we are off to collect some fresh horse droppings in the city.

Readers who know about gardening and manure recognize that we are making several mistakes. “Green” (fresh) manure is not great for gardens, especially if applied in the spring. We would learn this soon enough.

Knowing that the trailer was not street-legal, I prayed that we would make it safely to the race track and back without being pulled over by a state trooper or without a breakdown, leaving us on the side of the road with a load of, uh, “fertilizer.” We got there, loaded the trailer and headed for Skidmore, seventeen miles back. When we made it to the turnoff for town I thought my prayers were answered. No breakdown, no police stop. Whew.

However, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, there were flashing blue lights behind us. We were only a mile away from our garden plot but a state trooper was behind us. He was a big fella. In my memory he was 6’6″ (probably 5’10”) but he did weigh over 200 pounds. He certainly knew the reputation of Skidmore as a holier-than-thou place. My imagination led me to believe that Frank and I were going to spend the night in jail for illegally hauling horse manure — and green manure at that!

My hands were shaking as I opened the glove box to find the car registration. Do trailers need to be registered? I wondered. Frank rolled down the window. The trooper cleared his throat and then in a rather high-pitched melodious southern voice he spoke these memorable words, “Boyzz, I never thought I would see anyone hauling horse poop IN TO Skidmore.” With that, he turned and headed back to his cruiser, chuckling and shaking his head. No doubt he was eager to get back to the patrol house and share the story with other troopers.

For weeks Frank and I could hardly look at one another without laughing. In fact, I laugh about that manure to this day.

The school was shaped around the idea of holiness. But holiness, wrongly worn, can become a rigid garment that excludes and narrows the range of what God is able to accomplish in the world. Sadly, this school in the middle south, was slow in welcoming African Americans in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Even today, it seeks to exclude and deny gay and lesbian persons as fully God’s children, created as they are in God’s image. A narrow claim of holiness as limited to “persons like me” or “persons who agree with me” and reinforced by a closed doctrine and culture, can poison. It can turn persons who are privileged in so many ways into persons who are bereft of a sense that the God of abundance includes them in the family without there needing to be any covenant of exclusion of others.