It’s About Time

It’s About Time

You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University.  Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy.  We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum. 

This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door.  It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama.  This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history.  It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.

But, what about us?  Easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time?  Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists.  We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA.

Sadly, many of our congregations and denominational institutions have forgotten and others often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.

In the United States, the distressing chronic illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. The tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in recent days is an expression of our dilemma. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS.  What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice?  Okay, not realistic, you say.  Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses?  What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?

 In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness).  What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?

I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday Evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.”  It’s about time!

Saving Our Institutional Souls

Saving our Institutional Souls

A familiar folk axiom is as follows, “institutions are designed to serve the needs of people, but before long those people serve the needs of the institution.”  In my experience, this truism is evident in a variety of settings and across every organizational type. 

Let me affectionately pick on a category of institutions I value and have come to know rather well – theological schools. Seminaries are established by religious denominations to teach, prepare leaders, develop resources, and do research. A midwestern seminary, with which I am very familiar, recently invited me to join a “video conversation” scheduled for the evening of February 22, 2023.  A “select group” of us were asked to learn about exciting initiatives of the field education program.  I opened my calendar to add the date, stopped, double checked, and laughed out loud. 

The event was scheduled for Ash Wednesday evening, when most congregations I know will be holding a worship service. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent leading up to Easter.  In many Christian traditions it is among the more significant days in the liturgical calendar. The scheduling of this event was an unforced error; more, it was a sign of disconnection.  Since then, the date of this seminary’s video conference was rescheduled.  To repeat, seminaries were begun to serve congregations and denominations, but… well, the seasons and gifts of congregational ministry, are sometimes missed in the planning.  This was a failure in awareness as to who was serving whom.

At another seminary where I was in leadership, I visited a gathering of interfaith congregations in Tucson Arizona. It included a wide range of faith traditions who engaged in regular, innovative joint gatherings. A young faculty member was with me on this visit.  A few days later, back on campus, a faculty committee shared their plans to “teach congregations how to do interfaith work.” Sadly, this committee had failed to explore what was already taking place among congregations in places like Tucson. I waited before speaking, expecting my young professor friend to share her experience. Later she confessed she didn’t want to challenge the plans of more senior professors. Instead of discovering the gifts already evident in the ecology of existing congregations like those in Tucson these well-meaning faculty folks had seen their role as being the producers of knowledge, the source of innovation. Sadly, the connective tissue, the patterns of reciprocity and mutuality were missing.

I could write of dozens of other examples where institutional expectations and design missed the mark. Denominations often exhibit this blindness as to gifts already present at their own seminaries or their own congregations.  I think of denominational efforts to establish in house “leadership training” or “research programs” when the very schools they started and support, offer some of the best resources in the nation.  To be fair, we shouldn’t miss the reality that congregations themselves are too often quick to start projects without knowing the gifts in the neighborhoods or cities where they are located. 

A very different example is evident as a “new denomination” is being formed among dissidents from the United Methodist Church. Who is serving whom?  Are some seminaries and powerful caucus groups misrepresenting the denomination’s institutional practices for their own purposes?  Have congregations been being encouraged to disaffiliate based on the needs of institutions who have little or no awareness of the context and neighborhoods where the congregations are in ministry?

At the outset I suggested our world is full of similar examples of this disconnection. In government, health care, education, law, agriculture, economics and on and on we see it.  The Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams was built around such institutional blind spots.  I have no sympathy for anarchy; I do not suggest all institutions inevitably fail and should be abandoned. To the contrary we have seen the tragic results of the “deep state” myth and conspiracy nonsense in our local, state, and national governmental institutions. I am arguing that sometimes basic linkages and necessary relationships are lost.  Not all institutions should be saved.  Slavery is an example. Institutions designed to exclude other humans of basic rights should be ended.  

I am suggesting that the connective tissue allowing for mutuality and dialogue needs to be exercised, like the muscles of a human body. Our human institutions need to be continually, evaluated, strengthened, and open to democratic reform. In the process, a complex web of reciprocal teaching and learning is essential. All healthy institutions will seek democratic renewal and will be attentive to what can be learned from the gifts and assets of those at the grass roots of society. 

Othering Prayer II: Individualism and Its Distortions

Othering Prayer at Advent 2022 – II

Individualism and Its Distortions

Do you recall looking at your image in one of those fun house mirrors, concave and convex and otherwise bent, in an amusement park? It can illustrate the way we might miss-image ourselves based on an out-of-whack, taken-for-granted, reality. It is a distortion, a skewed reflection of what is real. What if our spiritual quests and faith understandings are vulnerable to the concave and convex bends in our worlds taken-for-granted. 

In contemporary North American society, frames of reference are constrained by the dominant role individualism plays. It distorts. Societal understandings, economics, politics, culture, even language are limited. Cormac Russell and John McKnight compare this with the African notion of Ubuntu and write: “Individualism is a superhighway to a sick, depressed, and dissatisfied life and a fragmented society. Ubuntu, by contrast, says we are not self-reliant, we are other reliant: that life is not about self-fulfillment and leaning into work and money. Instead, a satisfying life is largely about leaning into our relationships and investing in our communities; it is about interdependence, not independence, (The Connected Community, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022, p. xiv).

I would suggest our views of prayer have been focused too narrowly as an individualistic practice, to be personal prayer or meditation, primarily.  There is Corporate Prayer, typically in a worship service or as the Invocation or Benediction in religious or civic gatherings. 

Recently I wrote that the focus on Centering Prayer has gained much acceptance in religious life. While of value; still, I ask if it might be balanced by what I would call Othering Prayer

To my mind, Othering Prayer is rooted in the prayer Jesus taught the disciples (Luke 11 and Matthew 6). What we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer draws on elements from multiple earlier Hebrew prayers. In English translations the opening word “Our” says a great deal. It begins with an awareness that we are part of a community. 

I do not write this to suggest Centering Prayer, or deep personal religious experience is not of equal or often greater value.  Rather, it is to suggest that there is reflection to be done on how Othering Prayer might carry benefits in acting toward God’s purposes in our world.

It was Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating, St. Joseph’s Abbey Trappist Monastery who played a significant role in opening awareness to the value of Centering Prayer more than fifty years ago.  For Keating, Christian Centering Prayer was in continuity with the practices of other religious traditions.

I am assisted by the insights of Richard Rohr and the good folks at the Center for Action and Contemplation.  Since 1987 this Center has sought to integrate contemplation and action with Rohr arguing they are inseparable.  In fact, Rohr emphasizes this when he says the most important word in the Center’s name is neither Action or Contemplation but the small word “and.” 

Recently a friend commented that her experience is that when she practices quiet, contemplative, centering prayer, it seems richer when done as part of a community. Hmmn.

Enough for now — more to come…

Othering Prayer, Advent 2022

Othering Prayer at Advent 2022

They asked to pray. Out of the blue it came. Now? Right here in the middle of an otherwise “perfectly normal” conversation? Twice, in as many days. Two friends, very different in backgrounds and experience, who had no other connection asked if we could pray together.  After not seeing each other for months, years, we were able to easily speak, share, laugh, confess, and delight in the goodness of friendship. Then, prayer.

Not in church, or in a “spiritual” conversation. The request stopped me… cold. On both occasions, then and there, we shared concerns and prayed. While I didn’t have a mystical experience, when we departed that day, there was a deeper sense of connection. It was, I believe what Brother Lawrence spoke of as God’s presence arising amid the routine activities of life — a deeper sense of joy and mutual love.  (Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay Carmelite monk whose small book “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been treasured by believers across the centuries as a call to seek God’s presence everywhere from the chapel to the kitchen.)

Yes, prayer has been misused by charlatans and abused by spiritual pretenders. Prayer has also been reduced to a magical formula, a one-time “believer’s prayer” for example sold as a one-way ticket to heaven, separate from any daily life of faith.

A day or so before these two serendipitous prayers, another friend wrote mentioning he was reading The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg. I ordered the book, part of The Great Courses lecture series. Again, was this a coincidence? Newberg’s research looks at the way prayer, especially what might be called “Centering Prayer,” contemplative prayer, or mystical experience can shape human perception.  There are measurable changes in perceptions of reality and often a sense of joy, unity with the universe and purposefulness.  My look at Newberg’s rich research linking individual prayer with brain research, however, left me with a whole other set of questions.

I am not particularly well-schooled in a wide range of spiritual practices. I know some basics but can’t distinguish, say, among types of contemplative prayer. In fact, over recent years much of my praying has occurred on “prayer walks.”  I am not very practiced at what is referred to and valued as “Centering Prayer.” Most of my praying is better described as “Othering Prayer.”  Not exclusively, I do prayer that my personal intentions and understandings align with God’s purposes.  I also seek the heart of God on the behalf of others in the world beyond my own interests.  As I walk the streets of my city, I pray for those in prison as I walk by the jail, or the judges who are passing sentences, or families of those being incarcerated.  I pray for the bakers passing the bagel shop; the bankers as I pass an ATM machine; those without shelter who spread their blankets in front of the library and churches. 

So much of our culture’s understanding of prayer is individualistic in focus. It is decanted into a magical thinking drink… a negotiation with God… or a shaking of the begger’s cup in the face of the Almighty. What if contemplative prayer were seen as always caught up in the prayers of a community — prayers that were joined with, and for, others. This Advent we will think further about the potential of Othering Prayer.

Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

“Preaching leads to changed lives,” I recall one of my seminary homiletics professor’s assertation. Another professor, a diminutive Scot, with a marvelous Scottish brogue (involving the trilling of ‘r’s in his speech), offered instead that “Ser-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”

In my experience, sermons typically aren’t life-changing events for the hearer — or the preacher. Like workshops they can be helpful, but not often transformative.  Now, after more than five decades, I have much appreciation for my Scottish professor’s understandings. A sermon may assist others in taking a step along faith’s journey.  I don’t recall anyone greeting me after worship and saying, “that sermon was transformative.” On the other hand, years later a few have said, “You didn’t know it but that word came at a time in my life when I was ready to hear.” Amazingly, years or decades later, some have said, “I remember that sermon back in 19??.  It came at a time when I was seeking another path, another vocation, or a new partner. Thanks.”

Recently, I wrote about well-intentioned but ineffectual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops. Like sermons, such events rarely lead to substantial change in racialism and discrimination. But this is not written as a screed against workshops or sermons. Instead, it is the proposition that when these activities are accompanied by a clear invitation to join with others in witnessing and addressing racial discrimination, remarkable transformation is possible.

So, why this focus on preaching and racism? Well, put simply, addressing racism is about more than words or ideas. Racism is often distilled into the belief that it is only about personal attitudes or prejudice. For Whites — for all people – sermons are effective as they are joined to changes in the ways we live. Parker Palmer suggests “Changed thinking doesn’t lead to changed actions so much as changed actions lead to changes in the ways one thinks.”  Sermons and workshops are insufficient, helpful perhaps, but in isolation they may serve as an inoculation avoiding fundamental change.

Several Open Housing campaigns in the 1960s carried the slogan: Your heart may be in the right place, but are you? As hundreds of thousands were moving to the suburbs avoiding racially integrated schools and neighborhoods, the church was… well, preaching a lot about racial justice.  Meanwhile in only a few cities were churches at the center of racial justice and integration efforts.  In 1961 Gibson Winter, theologian and social scientist, documented this in the book “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches.”

Dr. William Pannell

A cherished friend of mine, Professor William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, is now in his nineties. We met in the late 1960s when as a young seminarian his book “My Friend, the Enemy” spoke powerfully about racism being more than personal prejudice. As friends, he taught me that it was not enough to have a “changed heart.”  I needed to acknowledge the enemy we both faced of white privilege, culture and discrimination. 

Sermons, workshops, and conferences can be mechanisms of avoidance. Bill speaks of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. The theme for the 1966 gathering was One Race, One Gospel, One Task.  Evangelical leaders invited more than 1,200 delegates from 100 countries to Berlin for this World Congress on Evangelism (an important precursor to the historic 1974 Lausanne Congress). Pannell speaks of a small group of African American Christians who discover that even though the theme was One Race, One Gospel, One Task, there was a silence about racial injustice.  Imagine this in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of those years. As Pannell tells it, (see:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkpYIg8tpOI) those concerned about this omission confronted the conference leadership and, as is often the case, they were asked to write a document on racism to be approved by the Congress.  Pannell then reports, these more than fifty years later, that document must be “sitting on a shelf somewhere.”  You see, the passing of a nicely worded document, was not connected to concrete institutional and cultural change.  Or as Pannell would have it, “Vital and Biblical evangelization.”

All around we have the opportunity to join in activities to address racial injustice and do more than attend workshop or preach sermons.  However, those of us who are now, or have been, a part of Mainline Christian leadership need to learn to listen to and support others.  There are some remarkable young persons ready to teach and lead us. Persons who come from different racial experiences.  I will share more in future chapters. Urgently now, look for places where persons are addressing the evil of White Christian Nationalism. Check out the upcoming event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-white-christian-nationalism-threatens-our-democracy-tickets-439763242697#search.  Then do more.  A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on the structural, financial and cultural options pursued.

One of my other heroes was Thomas Broden on the faculty of Notre Dame Law School. Tom joined a team working on an initiative called Project Understanding, back in the early 1970s. It focused on city congregations across the country (Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Bay Area, South Bend). My work was to carry out research on ways racial attitudes might be changed and how racism in many forms might be addressed.

I recall the day we recommended to Broden that lay persons from many denominations be gathered to study and consider ways to address racial injustice. Tom’s response was “That’s okay as far as it goes.” He had my attention! He went on, “We will want to get them involved in some activity with persons who differ racially and in situations where discrimination can be clearly seen.”  In South Bend, one of the activities he suggested was to have lay people sit in welfare offices and observe the cheating going on there.  I was appalled – Tom laughed – “Oh, he said, cheaters will be found, but few of them will be those seeking assistance!”  He was right, so very right.  Today, in Indiana every welfare office must post “the rights of those who seek assistance.”  That came directly from the work of lay people in Project Understanding.  In Chicago and Dallas, change came from teams who sought to rent an apartment (some teams were White only, some Black only, some mixed racially). After visiting the same apartment and seeking to rent it, the teams would gather and learn about the ways discrimination was seen in the prospect of renting the same apartment. In California, there were engagements with persons seeking immigration or work documents.  Sermons helped, workshops were okay, but the research showed that true and lasting changes in racial attitudes were rooted in real and concrete efforts to address discrimination and unjust institutions.

Or, as my seminary preaching professor would put It, “Serr-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”

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

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

A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!

Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.

Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.

A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.

A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.

An early Inventory of Institutional Racism, from 1973

The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.

A North American Distortion of the Lord’s Prayer

A North American Adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer – for too many Christians

A “Distortion” of The Lord’s Prayer as understood by too many North American Christians

(With interpretive notes)

Matthew 6:9-15

Pray then in this way:
Our* MY Father in heaven,
hallowed be MY UNDERSTANDING OF your name.
Your SPIRITUALIZED kingdom come,
Your SPIRITUALIZED will be done,
On earth** AMONG MY TRIBE as it is in heaven.
Give us ME this day our daily MORE EXCESS bread,
And forgive us our ME MY debts,
as we I also have forgiven our MY debtor FRIENDs WHO DESERVE IT.
And do not bring us ME to the time of trial,
but rescue us ME from the evil ones WHO DISAGREE WITH ME.
For if you forgive*** CONDEMN others of their trespasses,

your heavenly Father will also ESPECIALLY forgive you;

but if you do not forgive others,

neither will your Father WILL forgive your trespasses ANYWAY.
–Matthew 6:9-15

Interpretive Aids:

*This prayer is distorted to fit “modern” North American individualistic sensibilities held by many Christians.  Toby Keith’s song “I Want to Talk About Me” can be sung after the prayer.  It is based on the message preached and believed that all the followeres of Jesus are to focus on is individual salvation. This view forgets any mention of love of neighbor, the Year of Jubilee, Gospel stories about welcoming the outsider and stranger, Paul’s mention of each having gifts needed to be a part of whole community, historic practices of social-justice or ideas of covenant and commonweal.

** Faith in this view is all about heaven and the hereafter. It has little reference to daily life on earth. My current life is to get me ready for the “sweet by-and-by.” God’s will is meant only for those who think like me and believe the same theology and creeds that I hold.  In other words, “on earth” is about how I treat those who are part of my tribe.  This means, climate change is a myth, any government aid the poor is “evil socialism,” the earth’s resources are to be dominated and used up for my benefit and those who are like me. The earth is not our “Common Home” as Pope Francis proclaims. The United Methodist bishops calling for “environmental holiness” was wrong.

*** Forgiveness in this view is a sign of weakness… unless it is asking for a pardon for crimes.  The individual praying the prayer doesn’t need forgiveness because he or she has the right answer on two or three critical issues (e.g., against homosexuality and all abortions) and all else is “up to God.” I don’t really need to ask for forgiveness as my way is the only way to salvation. The story about the prodigal returning home is always about “them” and never about “me.”

Summer Reading Bouquet

A Summer Reading Bouquet

Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.

For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.

Dr. Georgia Harkness

In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.

By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.

For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday School and Poker

Sunday School and Poker

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: 

  1. 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.
  2.  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.