Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.
For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.
In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.
By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.
For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.
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.”
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.
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.
Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members. Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits. You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets. The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life. It is a place of sharing and care. One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.
It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher. I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”
That’s okay, good even. I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship. I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy. I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.
I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.
The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story. He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life. Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”
Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time. In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?” It begins, “There was a certain man…”
Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions:
There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels. It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare. These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.
I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike. I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.
We pray the COVID pandemic is ending. Or, at least moving toward what might be called endemic where, like the flu virus, we can receive protection from a mutating disease with an annual vaccination. Looking back we can see the messy and confused ways our society lurched from stage to stage, denial to denial, and fear to fear in these months.
Our experience reminds me of an ancient rabbinic tale: A traveler attempting to reach a distant city approached a child playing at a crossroads. He asked directions to the city. The child answered, “do you want the short, long way or the long, short way?” The traveler replied, “Well, I wish the short, long way, of course” and the child pointed a direction. After an hour or two the traveler saw the city on the horizon; however, he was soon standing on the bank of a large swirling river separating him from the city.
Retracing his steps back to the child, he said, “Why did you send me to a place where I can see the city, but cannot not reach it without much time and danger?” The child replied, “You wanted the short, long way.” The traveler then took the other path and after several hours finally entered the city, crossing a bridge. (Talmud, Eruvin 53b, Rabbi Yehoshua be Chananiah)
For two years now, many have shought a shortcut bypassing the COVID pandemic, journeying the short, long way forward. One day, I pray we will re-learn, together, that the role of our national agencies, when guided by unfolding science, mutual respect and trust, offer the best “long, short way” ahead. As a child, I remember receiving the polio and small pox vaccines as part of such a national consensus. Millions since have been spared suffering and death. Vaccines, then and now, may serve as a bridge for the long, short journey.
There is another, more pernicious, pandemic that continually rages across our common life — it is the pandemic of racial bigotry and discrimination. It threatens our future, our being our best, and the hope of a just and moral way forward. Many people of good will want to act in ways that are anti-racist. Let me suggest that, here too, one discovers the option of a “short, long way” or a “longer, short way.”
Let me explain. In October 2020 when our nation was reeling form the many tragedies of racism laid bare, as symbolized by the murder of George Floyd, I was asked to offer some advice and teaching. How might we untangle the snares of racial injustice? How will we find a hopeful way forward and begin a journey toward more respectful and loving communities?
Based on earlier research on racism and my life experience, I was asked to lead several Zoom sessions (remember this was during the pandemic) on the seeking of racial justice. Looking back now, I recognize that my counsel was to travel the “long, short way.” There were no easy short cuts. I knew that establishing relationships with those unlike me was central; working together with persons of different racial backgrounds and experiences on addressing places of injustice was needed at a grass roots level as a way to seek racial justice. I said to preachers, “Don’t preach that sermon, until there is a way to build such relationships.” Many preached their finger-wagging sermons anyway. I encouraged persons to read a book on racism, hold conversations, but working together with neighbors who were unlike you was more essential for change. Many read the books and talked but did little else of real substance. As I watched the many efforts at “diversity training” and “book clubs reading about racism” unfold, I was hopeful but knew these might end up being a “short, long way.” We act our ways to new ways of thinking more often than we think our way to new ways of acting. Preachng, reading and talking are good — but insufficient in crossing this swirling river of division.
Since that time, I have watched “Critial Race Theory” and accusations about “defunding the police” or the “1619 Project” used to reinforce divisions by demagogues. Political and media actors make the building of relationships for the common good even more difficult. We are witnessing a pandemic of voter suppression as a way to avoid equal representation. A renewed use of the ‘Willie Horton strategy’ stiring up racial fear and animosity was evident in the hearings of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Sadly, it will take more than churches doing diversity training and reading groups, to respond to the waves of racially-stoked fear in our body politic. It will take more than curricular changes in our schools. It will take even more than this for the church and our society to move beyond our racial brokenness.
There is hope. I see it. It is a Long, Short Way ahead — If you do your diversity training, read those books on racism, please DO MORE. BUILD NEW RELATIONSHIPS. Reach out to those you perceive to be ‘different.’ Listen to their stories, find some small ways to work together. Leave your top-down ideas at home. Be quiet and listen for the signals of how you can best walk beside others. Together discover the long, short journey ahead. Join John Lewis in ‘making good trouble’ by crossing over that bridge.
Lest, I be misunderstood, racial injustice, tribal and ethnic discrimination is a human problem… it is in China, Myrnmar, India, Russia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East. White surpremacy is playing out during the trigic events in Ukraine just now. In each instance, there will be the temptation to deny or point to the sins of others… or to seek the short, long way forward. Hard questions await for us as to how our responses differ in Ukraine from Ethopia or Syria. For now, we can find a place in our hometowns to begin our own long, short journey.
The piece below as written last October. It is about a friend who helped teach me the long, short way toward racial justice. Her name was LaVerta Terry.
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.
The lion and the lamb shall lie down together;
The kid and the panther shall play in the sun;
No one shall know the strange word "soldier";
And war shall be a shameful deed that long ago was done.
And rest for the weary, and food for the hungry,
And peace for the comfortless shall not be far to seek;
And beauty in labor, and beauty in laughter,
And beauty in loving shall come to the meek.
Mountain calls to mountain top -
Sinai unto Calvary;
Whispers rise from ancient fields -
They push up through the sod;
"Tell all the children
To tell their children's children
To dream this dream for God."
Ernest Cadman "Pomp" Colwell
President, Claremont School of Theology (1957 - 1968)
The wedding was to be an oppulent affair. No detail overlooked. Expensive floral boquets adorned every corner of the sanctuary. The string quartet rehearsing, women attendents doning gorgeous gowns and men were in tuxedos, all in anticipation as a stretch limo waited at the door to parade the bride and groom to a reception for hundreds following the wedding. As pastor, I observed it all with embarrassment. These were fine young people; I liked and prayed for them. This event was detailed in bridal magazines as one costing hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars! This, at a time when our congregation was giving considerable attention, energy and resources to aid the homeless and hungry around us. What witness did this extravagence offer?
Preparing to preside, heavy hearted, I put the robe over my shoulders and picked up the order of service. Immediately, my sadness melted; I began to laugh. This perfectly planned wedding would be remembered, not so much for the wealth displayed but for a typo atop the custom-printed bulletin. There it was on the second line, the church was identified as “The First Untied Methodist Church.” Amid all the preparations, the printer and spell-check had missed it. The church was not named the “First United Methodist,” but rather indellibly printed were the words “First Untied Methodist.” We were UNTIED, and at a wedding!
Steve Harper recently wrote that the “The Future of the United Methodist Church is Now.” The denomination’s 2020 General Conference (an event scheduled for every four years) has now been delayed for the third time due to the COVID pandemic. It will now be convened in 2024. In response, a break-away group, identifying itself as “traditionalist,” indicated they can “wait no longer.” They are forming a new and seperate denomination, the Global Methodist Church to be initiated in May 2022. Our denominational un-tiedness is on full display. Dr. Harper advises that for the large majority who do not exit, the phrase “United Methodist” should be understood as a verb. He suggests to be about intentionally and actively forging a renewed identity. To be passive, he writes, is for “congregations to be impotent and irrelevant.”
It is time to move from being “untied” to being “united” again. Earlier Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren, shaped by the likes of the Wesley brothers, Philip Otterbien, Jacob Albright, Barbara Heck, E. Stanley Jones and Georgia Harkness, James Thomas, Leontyne Kelly each pointed to God’s redemptive work as resource. Even so; the doors opening to the future require new eyes to see the ways forward. Isaiah 43 comes to mind — behold, God is doing a new thing. The New Testament is filled with the call to “turn around” (metanoia) and walk a renewed and ever-renewing path.
Emerging from my observations as pastor and seminary administrator, and thinking of United Methodism as a verb, I offer here ten turnings for a renewal of identity and mission for United Methodists:
Repentance, not Reactivity: Let us repent of the damage done to the “other.” Our healthiest future will involve repentence. I do not suggest this is easy, or obvious, or perfectly done, or that we should give up core beliefs/commitments/actions, or our welcome of LGBTQ+ persons throughout our church. However, we can give up the practice of “talking about” rather than “talking with” one another. We have been too quick to react and too slow to repent. Repentance takes a lifetime, reactivity is a quick fix, that in my experience doesn’t work and damages more than it heals. My dear friend, Walter Wangerin, Jr., died last summer. Watching the warfare inside of our Untied Methodist Church these days, I recall what Walt shared with me on more than one occassion. Walt left his beloved Missouri Synod Lutheran ancestry, the denomination of his birth, early in his pastoral career to join another Lutheran body. He would remind me that “schism in the body of Christ was a mark of sinfulness on all sides.”
Resurrection, not Rebuilding: This is God’s work. We are privileged to join. Jesus spoke of those who lose their life “for my sake” might find it. Much energy has been spent and is being spent on trying to “save the denominaton.” As a wise pastor-friend of mine once observed, “People don’t get burned out, It’s mostly that they were committed to the wrong thing in the first place.” Saving a denomination has left us in a place where the melodrama obscures God’s first purpose — bringing life and hope to the world. It is time to let the many assumptions about power, place and authority die and trust our future in God’s hands. Prayer more than plan, laughter more than grievance, humility shaped by community and friendship more than caucus will be signs of resurrection. In these years it may be more important to “give up” rather than “gain up” in restructuring. At the center of our story is death and resurrection. Yet, it is the thing that scares us most of all. We seem not to believe that resurrection doesn’t come without a death.
Welcome, not Exclusion: Let us unite in acting as a loving community with the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised. Our denominational squabbles have turned us inward, unable to accept the interruptions of the Spirit at work at our doorsteps. Let us turn to know the names of our neighbors and their stories, not as those who we seek to fix but rather the others with whom we share, together, the transforming love of Christ.
Heart Religion, not Statute: At our best we are a people who value Christian Experience, a people who practice a faith that is confirmed by a tranformed heart and mind (a metanoia) that is sustained and flourishes by living in loving relationship with other believers. Rather than more rules to keep things as they were, we might look to less standing still and more turning to live in loving relationships with other believers. The Shaker hymn “Tis a Gift to Be Simple” speaks of “turning, turning, till we come round right.”
Ecumenical, not Faith Enclave: Let us turn to truly be a global and ecumenical church, not in words but in practice. Let us see the beauty all around in the practice of grass-roots ecumenism and interfaith sharing. Let’s do this, moving past the often thinly veiled paternalism and colonialism that has shaped much of our talk and action about “mission.” This will involve the essential task of learning from those in other places and who seek to follow Christ in different ways.
Economy of Love, not the Marketing of Scarcity: Let us turn from, and give up, the “business facade and facination” that has distorted our core Christian identity and purpose. Too much time, energy, and resources have been directed to “best practice” models from business or from scarcity models designed to hoard resources. There are certainly lessons to draw from business and commerce, but where is our witness to “faith, hope and charity?” Strategies and designs that turn congregations into branch offices have done real damage. Rather than seeing God’s people gathered in unique communities, with distinctive gifts, expensive programs have been established that, while well-meaning, in too many places are counter-productive. Pastors are bombarded with the message that unless they do it like corporate America, or a megachurch somewhere, they are failing. They are told by some authority unfamilar with the ministry context, or the gifts of the people they know, how to “be fruitful.” (There are important parallel lessons coming from well-intended but ultimately destructive models in modern agriculture whose full damage to our environment and food resources is only now becoming apparent.)
Encourage Positive Deviance, not Scaleable Formulas: Let us celebrate the overlooked places, sometimes small or nontraditonal, where ministry results in changed lives, new ways of being church, and witness that is otherwise overlooked. Such places of “positive deviance” offer dozens of exciting examples of witness in finding community with homeless persons, in caring for God’s creation, in welcoming the immigrant, in giving witness in the corporate board room, in demonstrating our opposition to war and violence in all forms. Let these be the ministries we seek to replicate, more than a mega-church or a drive-in restaurant chain.
Watching Over in Love, not with Sanction: Let us turn to focus again on building and sustaining small group relationships and the practice of “watching over one another in love.” As my friend Michael Mather puts it, “If we watched over one another in love, we would not keep missing the abundant acts of grace, charity, and encouragement that happen in all of our churches and that would pull our heart and attention to somewhere that would certainly please God.” Whether called “class meeting” or “covenant discipleship” or any other name, we United Methodists have a remarkable tradition here.
Horizontal, rather than Vertical: Let the connection be rewoven — horizontally. This could model for the world a different way of being community, a way that has been lost. This will involve discovering again and turning toward the value of circuits, of districts, subdistricts, relationships with and among our schools, colleges, seminaries, hospitals and other institutions. It would change what we counted and valued. General Boards and Agencies (whichever ones remain) should turn toward acting as weavers and reweavers of connections, turning from perceiving themselves as the center of action and returning to the earlier practice of assisting others in flourishing and being sustainable. The models await development and our moving from the heavily top-down and bureaucratic approaches of the past generation. Too many laypersons were placed on the sidelines as conferences merged, institutions drifted away from positive connections with the wider church. More attention to our colleges and universities is overdue. Our seminaries too need to think horizontally. Some will need to merge, some should close or discover another mission. All should become more cooperative. In preparing pastors, United Methodist theological students should spend at least one year in a United Methodist seminary as a part of this reweaving and building relationships for mission.
Democratic doorkeepers, not Border Guards. Perhaps we need to stop merging conferences and allow for core polity and mission structures that are smaller, more agile and more adaptable. Perhaps these units might be the size of a couple of districts today with an elected presiding elder or table of leadership. Focus could be on the social and cultural ecology of each place – urban, suburban or rural. Perhaps there would be no bishops or superintendents at all, as is the case in other Methodist bodies. Or, if we continue in the episcopal format, explore a term limited episcopacy rather than life-episcopacy. Perhaps all appointments beyond the local church should also be expected to serve in a local congregation as well as in a non-congregational setting.
These, then, are Ten Turnings that might be considered as we move from being the Un-tied church. They are, in the Protestant tradition, a call to be a people who are Forever Reforming (Semper Reformanda), or as the Methodist Bicentennial motto in the United States put it “Forever Beginning.”
In recent days there has been much talk about a conspiracy around the postponing of the General Conference, yet again. It is charged that General Conference 2020 is being further delayed for some political advantage and suggested that those “moderates” and “progressives” who plan to stay in the United Methodist church, have successfully plotted to postpone any the General Conference until 2024, as a way to undercut the plans of the “traditionalists.” I laugh at such notions. Having spent much of my life around the corridors of authority in the denomination, I know that our church leaders have problems organizing a three float parade! Something as dramatic as a power play to change the General Conference dates three times, for a power advantage, is as likely as a Southern Baptist giving up immersion. Further, the COVID pandemic that shut down the gathering of persons from around the world, leving a singnificant minority unable to obtain visas, is not a conspiracy of anyone’s planning.
Let’s face it, we live and serve in an anacronistic institution. It is one we don’t know how to handle. We need let go of the foolish conspiracy thinking that has marked too much of our brokenness, and for too long, and which is, let me say it again – sinful.
My friend Noah was a Trappist monk who two decades after the changes in the Roman Catholic Church from Vatican II, shared with me an insight about his disappointment that there was not more renewal in denominational practices, structure and mission. Speaking of his sadness that positive changes were painfully slow to come, Noah said, “At the monestary, we changed our dress, our leadership patterns, and the arrangement of our furniture in the chapel. We changed our music, our liturgy, and our educational curriculum.” He paused and smiling said, “We tried changing everything… but our hearts.”
There is much in our United Methodist tradition(s) that is of great value… and much that need be changed. I look and chuckle to see the multiple ways folks are trying to arrive at perfection, like the effort at that wedding service where I presided so many years ago. In remembering, I begin to laugh out loud. We who call United Methodism home are indeed more UN-TIED than we are UNITED. There are now, and will be, many plans as to how the future should be approached. We are indeed a verb — but too often in the passive tense. And knowing this, and knowing human nature, I chuckle. As God’s church, perhaps we can find ways whereby our hearts might be changed and not just our structures and ways of sanctioning. Perhaps these “Ten Turnings” offer a few ideas, hunches really, as to where we can discover the God already at work among us.
He showed up after most of the group had gathered. Speeches were being made against the war in Ukraine. There was also a clear accounting of the continuing threat of nuclear conflagration in our world. The group started small, perhaps two dozen. I recognized some from demonstrations thirty years earlier. It was an interfaith gathering. Truth is, it was mostly folks from the Quaker, Unitarian and Jewish traditions. There were a few Methodist types attending — but not many. Here we were, gathered again, persistant voices against violence and war. I had shown up early to join “my people,” and I also came to observe and to learn. As the speeches began, others joined, the crowd slowly grew. Some had brought Ukranian flags. Others carried signs calling for the end of war and stopping the aggression by Mr. Putin.
As the crowd grew, by my count, to just over one hundred, others passed by enjoying the warm March weather. We were on the south lawn of the County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana. One woman wove her way through the crowd distributing packets of Sun Flower seeds, a sign of peace in Ukraine. A few passing motorists blew horns in support. Mostly, people on the sidewalks barely noticed, on their way to the coffee or ice cream shops nearby. A speaker, standing beside an old Civil War canon, finished his reflections by saying “I don’t have any easy answers, but we must stay vigilant. In these difficult days we must do all we can to stop such tyrrany.”
From the back of the crowd a man shouted “Bomb Ukraine.” He scolded the speaker, “What do you mean you don’t have any answers?” We turned to see him, swaying behind us, clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He erupted again, “That’s no good. We need to bomb the hell outta somebody.” As the inebriated shouts continued, someone begain to sing “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
I joined in for a verse or two and watched as the man uncertain on his feet swaying and occasionally shouting. It is not surprising that this too was ridiculed by the drunken man. “Singing ain’t going to do any good against bullets and bombs. This is stupid.” He weaved and stumbled before shouting again, “Bomb Ukraine. Get Poland to join the fight, they are mean SOBs.” Folks moved away — others began to disburse — still others sang louder.
Slowly approaching him, I asked, “How are you do’in? Anything I can do to help?” Our eyes met and we both understood. He knew my modus operandi as much as I knew his. Laughing, he slurred, “You a preacher or someting?” Caught. I chuckled and said, “My name is Phil.” “Phil the pill,” he responded. He had me pegged, preacher, social worker, or a physician or counselor, or someone experienced around addiction. I asked his name, “It’s Joey, showy Joey.” We talked on for a few minutes. Not arguing but speaking out of our deepest hopes. Joey said he had recently lost his job, was from Texas. When he asked again if I was trying to “save him,” I replied, “God is already working on you… and on me too. You are about to be caught. God bless you, showy Joey,” I said. He stuck out his hand to shake. I touched his shoulder. Our eyes met again. Two children of God recoginizing each other.
Turning for home, this all seemed to me to be an apt metaphor. Joey, shouting for attention. Others like me who only know to sing the songs of Zion from our past while in this wilderness, while many of our politicians, drunk on narcissism, grievance, or thirst for power speak as foolishly as Joey about bombing and killing. The greed and drunkeness for power in our nation has contributed to our dilemma. The senior senator from South Carolina publicly calls for an assination of the Russian leader. Violence is the only tool he seems to know. While the senior senator from West Virginia, so drunk on his addictions to fossil fuels, calls for increased drilling and mining in the U.S., not wanting to miss the opportunity to supplant the Russian production of petroleum and turn a profit for himself and his friends. Will this violence, greed and hunger end without an enormous expenditure of life and treasure? I fear not; even as the violence spirals across Ukranian communities? We grope for a way forward amid the darkness and grieve the suffering of the innocents.
As the sun set, I journeyed to prayers at a local church. On a different liturgical calendar, this year the Lenten Season in Eastern Christianity begins a week after ours. Lent starts with “clean Monday” or “pure Monday” and prayers are held on the Sunday evening prior with a time of forgiveness. At the service in Bloomington there were prayers for Ukraine and for Russia… and for Europe and for Ethopia and for Syria and for the U.S. There were prayers for our leaders – the wise and the foolish. And there were prayers for all the people of Ukraine. And there were prayers for Joey — and the Joey that resides in each and every one of us.
Today is a Twos-Day. This, the twenty-second (22) day, of the second (2) month, of the year twenty-twenty-two (2022), has me considering the things that might be “twinned” together. What are two places, two events, or two persons that share something in common.
Briefly then, I write of two persons who come to mind on this day of 2s. I join author John Green in not being a fan of heroizing individuals; even so, I risk it here. The belief that there is some hero in a white hat who will come along and save the day, is a deeply inculcated myth in our culture. It does much damage. One the one hand, some folks chose to wait for the hero to appear, not stepping forward to join others in seeking to address some injustice of shared dilemma. On the other hand some think they are called to act as hero and come up with “the great fix” that will solve whatever problem they perceive to be at hand. One doesn’t have to live long in low-wealth communities to see the damage done by the continuing cycle of “heros” who appear and believe they are going to fixt things, all the while ignoring the gifts of the persons or neighborhoods they were scheming to FIX.
Even so, on this day of twinning, there are some difference-makers who come to mind. They show up in our world to point us to noblier paths. On a day when tyrants, like Vladimir Putin, act as bullies on the international stage, there are other options. On a day when one can, in hindsight, see through the thinly veiled efforts of our former U.S. president to take us out of NATO, and undermine the democratically elected government of the Ukraine, I want to hold up two other persons. If Putin and Trump can be seen as twinned — at least in their preference for autocratic governance, there are two men who have shown a different path forward: Paul Farmer and Jim Wallis.
The news came yesterday that Paul Farmer had died. I only met Farmer once and briefly. Still his life, his writings, and his witness standout. He would not accept that healthcare should limited to only the wealty or privileged neighborhoods in our nation or world. He did his work encouraging the resources at hand — whether with the people by establishing neighborhood health worker corps or building clinics and hospitals using the natural resources and gifts of the communities where they were built. Read more about Paul Famer here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/02/21/how-paul-farmer-saved-millions-of-lives/.
Farmer was clear and persistent. His calling was to act along with others, to make a difference, to give access to health care FOR ALL. A friend tells of a time Paul Farmer was asked to meet with executives of a large pharmaceutical company in the Midwest. In his presentation, he said he could make a difference in a nation in Africa if a donation of $3 million in specific medicines could be made available. At the close of this talk, the executives quickly huddled, then came back saying the best the company could do was $1 million of these medicines. Dr. Farmer responded that, then, he wouldn’t be able to accept their donation because it wasn’t sufficient to the challenge the people were facing. As he stood to leave, the executives asked for a moment to discuss the matter further. Upon their return to the room, they assured Paul Farmer he would receive ALL the medical supplies he requested. Clarity and Persistence. We grieve Paul Farmer’s early death and celebrate the gifts he shared.
The second man that comes to mind is Jim Wallis. Jim is still very much alive and I give thanks for this. My friendship with Jim has been a long one, beginning back in San Francisco in 1974 when we were both called Young Evangelicals. I was teaching in an urban studies progam and invited Jim to come speak at a conference on the role Christians might play to address discrimination and poverty in our cities. As the editor of a new magazine, The Post American, later to become Sojourners Magazine, Jim was one of several persons who were emerging as important Christian witnesses. Jim would be the first to say he is not a hero; and my years of friendship would confirm his assessment. Like every person I know, he has his blemishes. Still, I suspect, that when a list of the saints of our generation is written, his name will be on that list (or at least he will be in a place of honorable-mention!).
Currently, I give thanks that Jim Wallis’ voice and experience in making it clear that voting rignts for all in the U.S. today is a moral issue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/02/18/sojourners-jim-wallis-voting-rights-religious-left/. As Wallis puts it, “For me it’s the first book of the Bible. We were all made in God’s image and likeness. Voter suppression on the basis of skin color is a throwing away of Imago Dei.” Jim has spent more than fifty years giving witness to the ways the Gospel calls us to live beyond the prejudices and discrimination still so prevelant. Clarity and Persistence.
These two men are connected by Clarity and Persistance: 1) they believe every human being is made in the image of God; 2) No matter the evil patterns and powers and persons who seek to exclude and dominate, God’s way of love for all is the preferred way for humanity. Paul and Jim have demonstrated THE BETTER WAY on this Twos-Day.