The Season of Splintering

The Season of Splintering

Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341.  The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law.  Somewhere.  Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.”  Somewhere.

There was nothing fixed by this.  This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist.  Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces.  And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something. 

It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people.  Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.”  This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church.  And, somewhere there is celebration.

The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status.  A fair process based on whose assessment?  Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place?  Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group?  Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?

Somewhere there is joy.  Somewhere hearts are light.  It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty.  They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen.  Is that it?

Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place?  Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences?  Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks?  Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.

I know something of the south and value so much of what I know.  My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary.  There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission.  At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown. 

Chapel was required at Asbury College.  My seat mate was Patty.  Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination.   If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.”  She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.”  Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.”  Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.

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Front of Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University

Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued.  Still Patty had it right, I think.  She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her.  Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.”  Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me.  Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.

In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago.  It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles.  Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.

The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism.  It arrives now in real and troubling ways.  In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins. 

I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father.  He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination.  As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education.  Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay.  I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.”  It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south.  I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?

I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations.  Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me.  It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth.  And I still think of Patty.

During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay.  And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay.  Somewhere there is celebration.   Not among these good folks.  We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.

Somewhere there is celebration.  I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.

Some may celebrate.  I weep, I grieve.  The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter. 

Creation Care No Step in the Right Direction Too Small

Creation Care

No Step in the Right Direction is Too Small

Sunday last, I was asked to preach at St. Marks UMC in Bloomington, Indiana.  The topic assigned?  Christian responsibility regarding Creation Care.  What United

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Huntington Museum Gardens – St. Francis sculpture

Methodist Bishops have called “Environmental Holiness” has become of increasing interest and passion for me.  Perhaps this is especially the case as I am enjoying my years as a grandparent and considering the ways these children will experience the beauty and the destruction of the gift of the natural world.

Attached is the sermon that came for the day.  As any preacher knows — there is both more and less to say on any topic.  Sermons are shaped for particular occasions and specific audiences.  Still, I share this in the hope that no matter our particular perspective on the causes of the environmental changes that are now occurring, we can believe that we, each one of us has a responsibility to care for this “common home” that we share.

The sermon is here: ApologiesEaster – 4-23-17.

With thanks for the blessings of this good earth, I pray along with Christians everywhere — “Thy Kingdom come on earth.”

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Lake Louise – Canadian Rockies, 2016

My Easter Tie

My Easter Tie

Easter 2017 — my Easter necktie is missing.  In fact almost all of my neckties have disappeared.  Perhaps they didn’t make the move from LaPorte to Bloomington with us.  Perhaps they ended up in the items we sent to Goodwill. 

Every day I discover doodads, socks, books and photos that made the move to Bloomington.  In boxes or drawers, they appear.  So far, however, no neckties.  Most of the discoveries are items I didn’t know were missing.  Most are IMG_3878things I can do without.  I had thought we had given away so much — but not important things like Easter ties.

The time had come — I always wear a bright tie that symbolizes the joy of the day.  For more than four decades I have worn such a tie on Easter.  I think “Why would one go to an Easter service dressed otherwise?   My Easter ties were usually gold or yellow or a mix of other bright colors as part of my celebration the day of resurrection. 

I looked.  I pondered.  I looked again.  Nope, not there.  Not in the closet, the dresser, the storage room.  Not there.  I was left with only three ties packed for other more somber events.  These were ties to be worn for a lecture at a university, a funeral, an important business luncheon.  (I chuckled at the thought that maybe these three things are all alike!)

No more time to search.  The hour was on us — time to go to church — still no Easter tie.  Elaine was waiting for me!  This never happens.  Quickly I chose from the three ties remaining — a gray number, with muted white stripes.   It was a tie I had worn to a couple of funerals.  This would have to do.  Off to church. 

Driving I thought perhaps this is exactly the right tie to wear on Easter Day 2017.  How does one celebrate during these days of disorientation and discouragement?   What does one do when the world seems to be spinning toward more violence and deception.  Maybe, just maybe, it represents the idea that celebration this Easter involves getting ready for the new business at hand.  Maybe it is a time to for educating, not lecture, but serious thought and dialogue with others.  Maybe there are things too important, things to mourn this Easter, like the death of a dear friend, or the threats to truth.

Earlier that morning I sent the message:  One word counters a million Potus tweets: EASTER. Let it be our word, our verb. May hope & truth Easter in us as a witness beyond today.  I believe it.  Easter is to be understood as a verb… we are to practice resurrection as Wendell Berry suggests.

That was it!  We arrived at St. Marks UMC in time.  Jimmy Moore preached a marvelous Easter sermon.  He made it clear.  He was pastoral and warm and wise.  The sermon didn’t avoid the hard truths of a world where meanness and bigotry are on the rise. (I am so grateful to attend a church that speaks the truth in love and challenges parties of all ideological stances to consider the way the gospel calls for a bigger, more generous view of the neighbor and the stranger and the enemy.)

Jimmy’s sermon avoided bright shinny objects (and, I thought, he seemed to know I didn’t need a brightly colored Easter ties).  He offered examples of those who persist in seeking God’s kingdom even when faced with enormous difficulties.  He spoke of the ministry of Palestinian Elias Chacour.  He told of Chacour’s call for hope amid despair and his persistence in explaining that the man from Galilee will make appearances if only we can see them. 

So, for the time being at least, instead of looking for neckties, I will look for the Christ present in the world around.  I will speak against the phony uses of threat and bigotry.  This will be my Easter business for the year ahead.  It is to see the Christ alive today in places where I had missed this gift in the past. 

 

The Unexpected Neighbor

The Unexpected Neighbor

The remarkable social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).

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Ivan Illich, 1971, source: Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — and widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge and much valuable reforming wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his analysis. 

He was more!  Each critique was not a call to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as a table where all may share. 

His call is to reinvest in the original motivating principles behind our “helping” institutions.  He was about the nurturing of an underlying community spirit built on the essential importance of neighborliness.  He suggests there are ways of living into such community understandings as evidenced in his book Tools for Conviviality.

Illich spoke of “corruptio optimi pessima” or “the corruption of the best becoming the worst.” He writes, “Through the attempt to ensure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst.  And yet at any moment we still have opportunities to recognize, even when we are Palestinians, that there is a Jew lying in the ditch whom I can take in my arms and embrace.”  (David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Toronto: Anansi Press, p. 242.)

As Illich would put it, there is a “sad historical progression in which God’s incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out” (from David Cayley’s Rivers North of the Future, p. 29).  This corruption may be seen in our many efforts to serve, to control, to regulate, to manage and to turn our neighbors into categories or objects of our good intentions.  A simple illustration he gives is as follows: “In the early years of Christianity it was customary in a Christian household to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus, should knock at the door in the form of a stranger without a roof” (Cayley, Rivers North of the Future, p. 54.).  Over the centuries, hospitality was “improved upon.”  The work of each householder is transformed into the responsibility of our “serving institutions.”

If there is one alternative story which Ivan Illich cites more than others, it would, no doubt, be the one known as “the Good Samaritan Parable” in Luke 10. 

I have spent much of my adult life sifting through the human wisdom nuggets of truth in this story — AND BEING CONVERTED BY THIS WITNESS.  It is astonishing that in these few verses in Luke’s gospel, there are dozens upon dozens of insights into our institutions, our freedom, the incarnation story and the wider human reality — tragic and blessed.  I have written about this in other places — and will, no doubt, write more in the future about this upside down reality, this conspiracy, which is the core of Christianity (and that of many other great religious traditions).  Instead in this piece, I want to begin to share a few other alternative stories.  Today, there is the story from Wes Jackson, environmentalist and founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Alternative Story #1:

Wes Jackson shares a story of a visit E.F. Schumacher, author of the widely known work Small is Beautiful, made to his fledgling organization in Kansas in 1977.  Jackson says The Land Institute was “scarcely six months old and we were honored that Schumacher, the widely acclaimed author would visit and give a public lecture.”

“When Schumacher arrived, he did not dismiss this tiny organization that had recently experienced a devastating fire, destroying much of their early work. Instead, E. F. Schumacher listened patiently and insisted on being called ‘Fritz.’ On the evening of the lecture, the Salina Community Theater was filled with farmers, small business owners and the unemployed.”

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Wes Jackson, from Cool Science News, 2009

Fritz began by telling of a trip he had made during the 1930s with some friends in an automobile across America. He and his compatriots had stopped at a service station in some small Kansas town at the height of the Great Depression. Fritz engaged a local man at the station by asking, “How are things?” “Fine,” the local replied. “What is it you do?” asked Fritz. “Oh, I work on that farm over there,” he said pointing in the direction of the farm. “I used to own that farm but I had no money to pay the hired hand, so I paid him in land.  Eventually he owned all of my farm and now I work for him.”

That is a very sad story,” replied Fritz.” “Well, not so sad,” countered the hired hand. “You see, now my friend has no money either and so he is paying me back in land.” (Jackson, Wes, The Land Institute, December 1999, see info@landinstitute.org).

What are your thoughts about such alternative narratives?  Let’s have a conversation.  Let’s keep listening for other stories that conspire to teach new lessons than might transform our view of the world — and perhaps even change the way we see ourselves.