The North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is where I will be speaking on June 14-15, 2021. Originally the invitation was for June 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. I have been asked to make three presentations on the future of United Methodism in the United States. In preparing, it became clear the topic was larger than the future of one denomination. There is a loss of relevance for many institutions that has occurred over recent decades – United Methodism is but one example. Mainline Protestantism has lost its formerly dominant place in society.
It is my plan to post the presentations I am making here over several days, beginning on Monday, June 14. There are no easy solutions presented; although there are some examples of places where new imaginative ministry can be seen. We are at a time in the history of this nation and the church when there are no easy answers. I believe that for Christians today, “our work is one hundred year work.” As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
The paragraphs below are from the introduction to these talks. My hope is to encourage some dialogue on this site and in various other venues.
INTRODUCTION: DOES UNITED METHODISM HAVE A FUTURE?
Recently, a friend on an early morning walk, asked if I believed United Methodism had a future? I have heard this question often over my ministry, especially recently. This time, however, I heard the question with surprising urgency.
Does United Methodism have a future…or in highfalutin language, “Can United Methodism be Sustainable and Regenerative?” I don’t have a crystal ball. Still, I came all this way, so I am obliged to offer some perspective, some lessons from history and signs of hope. Mostly, I invite us to remember the invitation Jesus makes to the disciples in every age, simply this, “follow me.” Let’s walk together a bit, and consider the question of United Methodism’s future.
Our Context and Its Complications
As we consider our context, let me begin by sharing with you my answer to my friend. “Yes, I have no doubt that United Methodism has a future.” As to what our mission, witness or structure will be, here is a word of hope – we can choose the pathway forward. I believe our work is 100-year work. Or, as my friend Wes Jackson puts it, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Researcher David W. Scott notes what is happening in the UMC is part of a larger cultural trend, shared by other denominations; a trend that cuts across race, class and theology. He writes: “U. S. Methodists (and U. S. Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions.” Scott concludes, “I don’t know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of U. S. religious decline is. I wish I did. But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.”
Let me propose that our most hopeful options involve stepping away from long held assumptions about power and influence within the dominant culture. Douglass John Hall [Slide 5] speaking about Ecumenical Protestantism in North America, wrote: “Christianity has arrived at the end of its sojourn as the official, or established, religion in the Western world… The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.” By stepping away from the easy assumptions and practiced patterns of the dominant culture, a new beginning for Christianity and Methodism is possible. It can surprise, and perhaps, even delight us.
An overview for the three talks: 1) We consider what it means to be Rooted and Grounded in Love – our core identity as United Methodists. 2) We will consider being: “Connected to Bear Good Fruit,” and 3) “Communities of Restoration and Joy.” Our scripture focus will be on Ephesians 3 and John 15.
The text for these talks, including citations will be provided beginning on June 14th.
Listening: This morning, having coffee with a friend, we reflected on the challenges faced by institutions in our nation just now. In government, education and religion — just to name three — old patterns of participation or civic engagement seem threatened. The former taken-for-granted connective tissues are frayed or seem to have disappeared. My friend reminded me of the comment made by television host Larry King who said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.”
It occurred to me then that I had done a lot of talking already on this morning — not to mention all the talking I had done over these seventy-five years. It is the occupational hazard of being a preacher, I guess. I remembered the time I preached a sermon during Holy Week on “Silence” that lasted for 25 minutes! However, I am not alone. Too much talking and too little listening is a national malady. Much of the talk these days seems to be done in “ideological bubbles of agreement” which are dangerous to our body politic.
Years ago I mused about the importance of parking lot conversations after church or meetings of the city council or school board. I don’t romanticize these, I have seen angry disagreements unfold among the pickup trucks and hybrid cars. On occasion, I have even seen small physical altercations — nothing serious, but troubling none-the-less. I guess this is better than such incidents occurring in the sanctuary or city council chambers. Mostly, parking lot conversations I have witnessed have been done in good humor — like the teasing between Indiana University and Purdue University supporters. Okay, that’s not a good illustration, but you know what I mean. What’s the old saw, “Can we disagree without being disagreeable?”
Our ability to listen, even when we disagree, is perhaps more important than our ability to speak — although the freedom of speech and legal protest is also essential. My point is that we seem to have lost an appreciation for all three; and more specifically, when we don’t listen our words and actions often miss the mark necessary for true communication. I recall with both sadness and a chuckle the denominational gathering of United Methodist clergy for what is referred to as a “clergy session” when a microphone was requested so that a concern could be expressed. The bishop and other leaders seemed surprised, nonplussed really, they had not planned on needing to listen to anyone in the gathering. Only a generation prior, in such gatherings it was normal to have dialogue and disagreements expressed at such gatherings. Something was lost over a period of a little more than a decade. That something was “listening.” Listening so that participation and faith in the institution might be stronger.
My spouse and I have participated on many boards, nonprofit and otherwise, over the years. We have noticed that in such meetings, there has been a loss in understanding some basic elements of healthy listening and decision making. While Roberts Rule of Order is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, fair-minded decision making can occur, it is often the case that today many meetings of boards occur without the basics of an agenda, knowledge of how to make a motion or call for a vote. Sadly, we are out of practice at the local level whether in civic board meetings, the church or in politics.
In our nation and world, listening seems undervalued, even ridiculed. Witness the criticism of President Biden for his willingness to take time to listen and try for a bipartisan approach to certain challenges we face. I admit, it has seemed like a fool’s errand, even naive, to think that Mitch McConnell who has made his reputation on blocking any and all things that he can’t control. I don’t deny that the filibuster in the Senate, as it is currently practiced, is harmful and I do think that, after listening, it is time for some tough votes to support voting rights or infrastructure improvements. The listening has been done and action needs to come… but it is important that listening was done!
So, two basic suggestions: 1) pick up the phone and call that person with whom you disagree and listen. Perhaps there is too much of a divide just now. Perhaps, if appropriate, you might still say something like “I appreciate you.” 2) Next meeting you attend where decisions are made, listen to see how you can in small ways improve the democratic process. It might be as simple as saying, “Could take a moment to set out an agenda, maybe set one now or plan on it next meeting?”
Retooling our listening abilities are a necessity if our democracy is to survive in any and all of our institutions, large and small.
Evil never advances better than when it “gets religion.” When it claims to “have the blessing of God” upon it, evil can justify whatever it says and does. Evil is never more insidious and dangerous than when it operates through a politician/priest collusion.
Israel was farthest away from God during the times when monarchs and ministers conspired to create a top-to-bottom system of oppression (e.g. Jeremiah 6:13-15). In Jesus’ day, evil religion was personified in the Pilate/Herod partnership that desecrated both synagogue and society, turning the Temple itself into a “den of thieves.”
After the close of the biblical era, history continued to document the advance of evil through political/religious deception.  The one-word summary for this is imperialism.  Today, we describe the advance of religious evil in the word nationalism.  Across two millennia, religious evil has produced what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.”
Democracy in the United States of America came to the edge of survival on January 6th, 2021. We watched in horror as our nation moved perilously close to a chasm, a coup d’etat. In fact, there are concerns that widespread anarchy may be exhibited in coming days. I pray not. A mob of insurrectionists, egged on by a psychologically disturbed and morally bankrupt president, invaded and occupied the capitol building for several hours. Others will investigate the “whys” and “wherefores” of this totalitarian-near-miss. It is time to hold the invaders accountable. For all citizens this is the time to consider the “thenceforth.” What now? Where next? How might we gain our bearings? How shall we, as citizens of this remarkable republic, proceed?
With no small irony, January 6th is also the day we Christians annually celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of discovery, of realization, of seeing new things, in new ways. In 2021 Epiphany became a day of treachery and tragedy. Insurrectionists sought to destroy our democracy. While some may seek revolution, let us understand that Epiphany is better employed as a time of revelation.
Over the next few postings, let’s think together about what has been and might be revealed. We will do this under three categories: Carnage, Complicity and Community.
“American Carnage” is the way Donald Trump chose to describe our nation and its institutions in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Former President George W. Bush was heard to comment afterward, “That was some strange sh*t.” Trump was elected as the champion of grievance and revenge. He has built a governing philosophy based on lies, division and self promotion. Even listening to him at the inauguration in 2017, I found myself thinking of the axiom from sociologists W. I. and Dorothy S. Thomas: “What we perceive to be real becomes real in its consequences.” What was perceived then as carnage has ricocheted in genuine death and tragedy from Charlottesville to Seattle to Minneapolis and finally landing at the Capitol building on Epiphany 2021.
Social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was asked by journalist David Cayley “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich responded, “Neither. The best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.“**
Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. His brilliant critiques of our counterproductive institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge. He offered valuable wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies. Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his sharp analysis.
Illich was a truth-teller. He saw the failures of our schools, our broken economies, our media and strategies that continued to ignore and crush the underprivileged, our distortions of faith traditions, our inability to see. He understood the conditions of despair that became the source of Trump’s appeal… he understood the power of fear and misplaced anger.
Illich’s call was not to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some set of “fixes,” or an elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.” He was about something much more basic — as basic as the streets where we walk and the tables we share (or don’t share). His call was to reinvest in the original “revelation,” the motivating principles behind our “helping” and “governing” institutions and the essential importance of neighborliness (see Tools for Conviviality).
Illich was silenced for years by the Catholic Church, prohibited from teaching through official church media. He writes of a church that has lost its highest calling in The Corruption of the Church.
Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” is was the chosen one to end the Carnage in our nation found a home in the narrative of the Religious Right. Donald and his religious enablers turned Christianity away from narratives of grace and mercy into a faith that was rooted in individual salvation alone, into a struggle for a “religious freedom” to discriminate and faith as a tool of retaliation and censure against those who differed. It became a way to promote, even baptize, exclusion, racism and greed. Religious leaders like Eric Metexas and Franklin Graham were so bold as to suggest that anyone, Christian or not, anyone who didn’t follow Donald Trump was demon possessed (The Atlantic, “To Trump’s Evangelical’s Everyone Else is a Sinner,” November 25, 2019).
Metexas, who like Senator Josh Hawley, is Ivy League educated and can be an attractive, engaging spokesperson for a narrow and corrupted narrative. It is a narrative that cocoons the message of Jesus of Nazareth inside a political ideology. In the process it transforms the Gospel message into something distorted and limited. Folks like Metexas, make the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tale about how fortunate it was that the Samaritan was wealthy so he could assist the one found beaten on the road! The parable becomes a story in praise of wealth and tax cuts for those in power.
Here is a good test question for us all about our core narratives and Epiphany. Does your ideology capture your faith, limiting and containing it? Or is your ideology continually challenged and transformed by your faith? Compare the way Eric Metexas and Ivan Illich understand the Good Samaritan story. For Illich, this is an ever opening revelation. It is about “an untrammeled freedom to act” turning all strangers into a neighbor where “no category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (Caley, David, “Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich,” p.30).
In the summer of 2018 I walked along the Capitol Mall on a number of occasions. I had joined a group of colleagues to work on a revision of The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. In random conversations with strangers on the Mall and in the hotel lounge, it was apparent something troubling was already taking place — an attempt to reshape the nation’s story into one of Donald Trump’s (and his enablers) making. The American Carnage motif had taken root. Persons were out to remake the nation. As one proudly told me, “There is a new sheriff in town.” When I spoke about the offices of the Board of Church and Society, where we were meeting, being the only denominational presence on The Hill, I was told that, “Sorry, that is no longer true, we are on the inside.” Inside and outside language was strange to me as I still carried some notion of the separation of church and state. The “We” had to do with a certain brand of Evangelicalism busy making Faustian bargains with Donald Trump.
At the time I didn’t foresee the tragedy coming on Epiphany Day 2021. However, I sensed then there was a dangerous change underway. Some were seeking to challenge our national self understandings into ones shaped by a small, restrictive vision for our nation and for the faith.
Father Richard Rohr speaks of the import of story, of revelation, on January 10, 2021. He writes of an alternative journey defined by a “Christ map” that can shape who we can be as a people when he writes: We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it. (Rohr, Richard, “Stories are Essential,” Center for Action and Contemplation, 1/10/21)
**A fuller expression of the idea by Illich is “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”
It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.
Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.
It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.
When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.
Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.
2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.
First, a confession. As important as protecting sea turtles is, I hadn’t thought much about them. I didn’t intend to make a gift to this charity in 2020. In fact, saving turtles was not on a top ten list in my charity giving. Why, then, did I just make a gift to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation? (http://savetheseaturtle.org/.)
Why sea turtles? There is a young woman behind it named Eleanor. She is seven and lives in Oakland, California. Sea turtles? Why? Eleanor Amerson, you see, is my grand daughter. We asked our grandchildren what charity they wanted to support this Christmas. Eleanor’s older brother, Gus, said give to a group that helps feed hungry people. Good on you, Gus. So a gift is sent to Phil’s Kitchen at the Beacon Center (Shalom Center) in Bloomington, Indiana (http://beaconinc.org). Phil’s kitchen is named for Dr. Philip Saunders, a friend and former economics professor at Indiana University. Phil, now deceased, left the legacy of a commitment to feeding the hungry.
Our other grandchildren, Colin and Zach Murry will let us know soon their preferences as to charities they wish to support. I suspect one of them will be the Lincoln Park Community Services in Chicago where their mom serves on the board. (https://lpcschicago.org/)
In recent years, each year, we have selected the gift to charity in honor of our grandchildren. We have given to Heifer International (https://www.heifer.org) which assists persons around the world toward food security and the acquisition of live stock or The Land Institute (https://landinstitute.org) where research is underway for more sustainable agricultural models around the world.
This year, we are asking our grandchildren what they want to support. And, we are being schooled by them as to what is important — for them.
You get the point!!
There are many worthy organizations. Most (many) need our attention and support in the economic realities emerging in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I understand the limits of charity and the ways a systemic reordering of our political, religious an service institutions is needed. I do. We must move away from such a heavy dependence of fossil fuels. There is no reason for persons in the United States to face homelessness, food insecurity or the deficits we face in educational resources. Of equal importance is the climate crises and tragedies related to immigration and refugees around the world. There is much to be done — systemically, long-term and immediately through charities. Turtle saving is one of these.
At this juncture I have learned that the temptation for many is to allow “the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Okay — right. This doesn’t mean we stop giving effort to make deep change in our systems, in our communities and even our personal lives. We do what we can, now and at the same time aspire to a more just and sustainable world.
Sea turtles were not top of mind for me when December 2020 came. Thanks to Eleanor, I will be more attentive and learn more about sea turtles. What lessons will you learn during this holiday season?
When asked where there are excellent preachers, I think of many women and men who are diligent in the task of proclaiming God’s word. Today, Mark Feldmeir at St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.
We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.
After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.
A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.“
He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.
Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.
Senator Michael Braun November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Braun,
I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States. Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times. As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes. We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator.
We are better than this. You are better than this. At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.” Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Let’s see:
I pledge allegiance to the flagof the United States of America,And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands,One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California),with Liberty and Justice for all(except those Trumpists wish to exclude).
We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others? Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.
The people in the U.S. are navigating through the choppy waters. I think of this as the gulf of conspiracy. Less than a month ago, my visit to the dentist demonstrated this. Prior to entry, much care was taken — “Call before entering when you arrive. Let us know if you have a fever or other symptoms? You must wear a mask.” Good. A place of care. Once inside, however I found another contagion. A pandemic of conspiracy, spread by a friendly staff member. As we talked, she opined that “COVID-19 deaths are exaggerated so that doctors and hospitals can make more money.” Okay, I thought — that’s a new one — a pretty sad and inaccurate one — given the risks being taken by medical staff and the financial distress many healthcare systems face in this dramatically changed economic reality.
However, that wasn’t the first touch with conspiracy that morning. A phone call earlier from a friend began, “Don’t you think Donald Trump is pretending to have the corona virus and doing this for political purposes?” “No,” I responded, “How would this be helpful?”
Our nation seems to be swimming in a sea of conspiracies. Today there is the claim of “widespread voter fraud” by President Trump and his most loyal supporters. There is no evidence. Election officials, including Republicans, deny this in states where such “fraud” is claimed to have occurred. This conspiracy joins ranks of others in 2020 like the anti-vaxxers who oppose all vaccines, the belief that Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump and the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately produced in a Chinese lab.
I hear multiple conspiracies each day. Some are minor and some perhaps carry a small grain of truth. Ever hear of Area 51 in Nevada or the various theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, or that Neil Armstrong didn’t really walk on the moon? Other conspiracies offer more existential and long-term danger: like those labeling all media as “Fake News” so as to undermine all news sources, or the claim that climate change is a hoax even as our natural environment may be irreparably damaged, or the astonishing QAnon assertions that Tom Hanks joins the Democrats in cannibalism and child sex-trafficking.
Presidential elections are fertile ground for new conspiracies. Those who start political conspiracies behaved like rabbits this year, breeding and releasing multiple distortions and threats into our civic life. We need take great care in choosing which conspiracies shape our understandings. You say – “Hey, wait a minute there, fella, I don’t fall for conspiracies!” Sorry, I have some sad news to report. From many research quarters (universities and sophisticated research centers) comes the knowledge that everyone is prone to accepting ideas that bolster preconceived notions. Confirmation bias is alive and well. It is the notion that we choose the information that reinforces our beliefs and values.
Am I saying that we are stuck in our conspiracies? Well NO, and, sadly, potentially yes. Conspiracies do not an entire worldview make; however, our worldviews do make us more susceptible. Here is where the value of the intervening correctives come into play. Reason, research and faith-informed reflection are a critical trio for me. Other correctives are enshrined in our nation’s constitution and bill of rights. Still others are operational — things like continuing education, practicing critical thinking, reading widely, legal precedence and community engagement each can assist in holding our hubris and distortions in check.
For years I have felt something important is lost as religious congregations have become more and more monolithic in make-up theologically and culturally. Genuine and durable democracy and respect across ideological divisions was often bolstered in friendly disagreements across the table at the pitch-in dinner or visits after worship in the parking lot.
There is a sign along the Alaskan Highway that reads “Choose Your Rut Carefully. You’ll Be In It For The Next Sixty Miles.” I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to remember such signs as my family traveled across Missouri and Oklahoma back in the early 1950s. Of course, then it was only a few miles in the same rut. The conspiracies to which we may fall prey can turn into ruts that mislead and distract for years.
As I think of conspiracies and the rut I choose, I am am reminded of Ivan Illich, priest and social critic. Illich speaks of “conspiratio” and “comestio” as essential to faith and the civic life [See David Cayley’s conversations with Ilich in “The Rivers North of the Future,” Anansi Press, 2005].
Illich asserts that conspiratio is not a bunch of rebels trying to undermine or overthrow a political order. It is not the sowing of misinformation or deceit. It is more radical than this! It is about living by a new narrative. It is a changing of the “I” into a new “We.” It is the Gospel narrative set out in the parables of Jesus. Stories of Good Samaritan, the Importuning Widow, the Ten Bridesmaids, and on and on and on the parables go. There are stories of those celebrating the finding of that which was lost, and of the best wine served late and with abundance. There is a conversion of what is presumed to be a suspicious and limited existence toward a community of abundance and conviviality. It is the narrative of God’s grace and the joys of faith over against the dominant grim order. It is about that which was lost, being found. Conspiratio is “breathing together,” represented in the “kiss of peace” offered as believers come to celebrate the Eucharist. Comestio is the sharing of a common meal where all are welcome at the table.
I have not done justice to Illich here; still let me affirm that he points to the conspiracy into which I choose to live.
This morning as I walked my normal route contemplating how to end this reflection an incident occurred that surely comes as a sign for me of the conspiracy I choose. My walk took me through a neighborhood park named in memory of Dr. Ernest Butler, an African American pastor in Bloomington and friend of mine for many years.
Along the trail, between the playground and tennis courts, a man in his mid-forties approached. He motioned and asked if I could help. I nodded yes, not certain what he wanted. He said, “Have you seen a boy on the trail, sandy haired?” Raising his arm he gave indication of the young man’s height. “No,” I replied, “If I see him what do you want me to tell him?” The man choked back his words, wetness welling in his eyes, “Tell him, his father loves him. He should come home.”
I walked on. A half an hour or so later I saw the father and boy sitting together on a bridge, talking. May I live to see such conspiracies often.
A democracy can die of too many lies. I remember hearing those words from Bill Moyers, nearly a year ago. “A Democracy can die of too many lies,” he said. “And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (see Bill Moyers on Truth).
I recall the impact of hearing this then — these words still resonate strongly in my soul today. On the eve the presidential election 2020, I am stirred by the deep desire to return to a place where gas-lighting and fabrication are no longer the taken-for-granted tools of a nation’s leader. Even so, I have become aware that something more important than truth has been devalued — something more essential to our society’s health and future well-being. There was a time, not that long ago, when we were able to value truth and understand that an even larger human gift was WISDOM.
Will we again come to value both and know the difference? How long will it take to remember that wisdom involves a “speaking truth in love?” Or, that wisdom carries an ability to weave the facts of the moment into a larger constructive narrative. Truth may help you know where you are, while it is wisdom that will help you know where you need to go.
Writing in the Christian Scholar’s Review, Professor Lambert Zuidervaart (Oct 18, 2018) points us to the essential value of wisdom. He writes: “The love of wisdom needs the wisdom of love.” His article begins with a poem by Miriam Pederson “Hold Your Horses.”
like a run-away steer
and you will find its veins
running cold.Approach it like a lover
with a ribbon for her hair
and truth, in time,
will lean in your direction.
Wisdom is more than knowledge… It is not knowing a truth so much as allowing the little truth we do know to take residence in our daily lives. It is how “our truth” is further enhanced by the gifts of compassion, mutuality, hospitality, hope — and, yes, love. Might we know, as T S Elliot put it that “Truth on our level is a different thing from truth for the jellyfish“? Truth is not always singular and shapeless. It is often difficult to fully capture and this is where wisdom is beneficial.
Earlier this summer, Ken Sehested wrote that: “almost every breakthrough begins with a breakdown.” (Sehested, Prayer and Politics, 6/12/20) Something will be broken by the election tomorrow. Might it lead to a breakthrough? What might result from this shattering? For me? For those with whom I disagree? Might we each be too quick to proclaim an un-lived truth, that lacks the fullness of wisdom? Or, will we choose a retaliation that will inevitably follow — if our sole goal is arguing for our particular set of truths?
In writing on All Saints Sunday, yesterday, I was reminded of a tale I once heard about Oliver Cromwell. While the story may be apocryphal — and certainly deserves a wider historical rendering — it may illustrate my hopes for how many might behave in the post-election season. The story goes that when the treasury ran out of silver to provide coinage for the nation, Cromwell sent troops to the cathedrals to find the precious metal. Returning, they reported, “The only silver we can find is in the statues of the saints stationed in the corners of the cathedrals.” Cromwell responded, “Good, melt down the saints and put them in circulation!”
Good friends, VOTE, PRAY, and ACT, as saints who have been placed in circulation. In these days when singing is often limited to a few singers in our churches — I say we go to the street corners (masks in place) and sing for WISDOM. Let’s VOTE, PRAY, ACT and SING for WISDOM!
Reading the fine article by Professor Zuidervaart, I was delighted to see him reference a hymn lyric by my friend, Ruth Duck. Professor Duck is a retired distinguished professor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
Come and Seek the Way of Wisdom, Ruth Duck
Come and seek the ways of Wisdom,
she who danced, when earth was new.
Follow closely what she teaches,
for her words are right and true.
Wisdom clears the path to justice,
showing us what love must do. Listen to the voice of Wisdom,
crying in the market-place.
Hear the Word made flesh among us,
full of glory, truth and grace.
When the word takes root and ripens,
peace and righteousness embrace. Sister Wisdom, come, assist us;
nurture all who seek rebirth.
Spirit-guide and close companion,
bring to light our sacred worth.
Free us to become your people,
holy friends of God and earth.
Ruth Duck, 1997 The Pilgrim Press