We walk. Every day. Our fitbits record the steps. The base goal? Ten-thousand steps, nearly five miles. The actual goal is to stay fit, keep our health. Bloomington is a good place to walk. The B-line trail is nearby, five miles of paved, safe hiking… soon to be extended. Indiana University is three-quarters of a mile from our condo. That’s 1,480 steps for Phil and 1,535 steps for Elaine. Sometimes we stroll them, sometimes mosey, most often to a pace metered by the music playing in our earphones. To grocery, library, barber, shops, restaurants, theater, museum, opera – we walk. It’s a joy – mostly.
We left the farm in LaPorte, Indiana last Advent and headed to Bloomington. The move spilled across the calendar of 2017. After jettisoning decades of accumulated “stuff” through an estate sale last year, we find we actually miss only a few of those former treasures. This year has been given to renovating the condo, sorting boxes, and reconnecting with many marvelous friends. We worship at St. Mark’s United Methodist, two and a half miles away. We haven’t walked there yet, but look forward to bike rides to church come Spring. So, Advent 2017 finds us in our new primary home, a condo in our walk-about community of Bloomington. Our lives are already full and overflowing with new activities and places of service – and, of course, there are I.U. sporting events for Elaine to attend (yes, she has basketball tickets).
Our grandsons Zack (9) and Colin Murray (14) are in Chicago. Our California grandchildren, Gus (7) and Ellie (4), now live in Oakland. Every month or so we travel north and/or west to steal as much grandparenting time as possible. Their silly jokes, hugs, wonder at the world and whimsy are another way we “stay fit” and enjoy our health. These young ones carry so much delight and potential.
Son Drew teaches at Hastings Law School and daughter-in-law Erin continues her work as research physician and faculty member of the UCSF Medical Center. Tom and Lydia Murray, live in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, a nice walk to Wrigley field. The Murrays are active with St. Paul United Church of Christ and the Lincoln Park Homeless Shelter. Tom is Managing Director at JPMorganChase. Lydia is a Senior Manager for Deloitte. Elaine and Phil also keep a small apartment in Chicago for a frequent get-away in that great city – and grands.
We wish you and yours the very best this holiday season. Not all of us can walk, but we can determine to journey away from the fears and bigotries so evident just now. Might we all journey as if we were escorting Mary and Joseph, so that that baby Jesus might be born anew in our world. It is recorded that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, probably walking most of the way, or maybe Mary rode a donkey over those rocky and steep paths. Depending on their route, 90 miles more or less, it took them a week or so. Despite the terror all around they seemed to step out in hope for a better world.
Daily it seems we have reason to fear and grieve. We see the damage done to our freedoms, our environment, and to others who differ in their race, religion, language or place of birth. We walk a rocky and precarious path. Even so, our hope for you and for all is for there to be abundant laughter, good health and new discovery of the remarkable friendships possible all around. We commit to join others in building emerging communities of resistance and hope. In these times when bigotry, division, ugly speech and greed seem to control the future, we know our prayers require action. So, we keep walking toward the hopes of those Bethlehem pilgrims and away from the ugly betrayals of this past year.
We walk together with you –
Elaine and Philip Amerson, 500 N. Walnut, #306, Bloomington, Indiana 47404
It is a short, rather boring, walk from the elevator to our Chicago apartment. Twenty-three paces. We rarely meet anyone in the hallway. Nor is there anything particularly unusual about the tan walls and dark carpet.
It is this very ordinariness that makes what sometimes happens in the hallway so remarkable. The first time it occurred I was rushing to bring in groceries. I noticed the music — “what fine music,” I thought. It was a piano sonata, probably on the radio or a recording. Nice.
Shortly afterward, I heard the music behind the door again. Chopin, I thought… and just then, the piano music abruptly stopped, then began again a few measures earlier.
This wasn’t a recording at all! There was an actual pianist — and a talented one at that — practicing in #1408. It was my special gift, each time I walked past and listened to the artist at practice. I suspect she didn’t know she was gifting me or any of the others of us who passed by.
Then one afternoon, a violin was added to the piano. On another occasion there was a flute. Then I noticed a few times when the pianist wasn’t as accomplished.
[I am both slow-witted and a bit dull, you see, because it took me weeks to understand that this was the apartment of a music teacher. Of course, of course, there is a college of music nearby our apartment. Students, with differing skills and who play various instruments were coming for lessons.]
On one occasion, there was such a marvelous combination of violin and piano that I confess I stood in the hallway and luxuriated at the fine, hidden away, performance for several minutes. So exceptional were the musical gifts being practiced behind the door they demanded my slowing down and listening. That is when I first met one of my neighbors. A young woman. We exchanged greetings. She smiled, and stood with me for a moment, listening. “Isn’t this wonderful” she said as she moved on to her apartment.
The doorway to #1408 offers me a valuable lesson in a world chock-full of anonymous, mundane interactions. All around — just on the other side of this anonymity, this troubling news and fear-filled analysis — there is often beauty that I otherwise tend to miss. There is teaching and learning that is going on. There are glorious gifts waiting to be heard, to be seen, to be understood or simply appreciated. Sometimes the gift is offered as a solo, sometimes it is more than one who is sharing.
Then it happened, one afternoon, I met her, the pianist, the teacher.
We were leaving our apartments at the same time. She was almost as I had imagined her to be. Petite, handsome, she was moving carefully to close her door, a violin case in her hand. When I told her how I appreciated the music emanating from her apartment, she seemed surprised, a little worried. “I hope my music isn’t bothering you,” she said. “Bothering?” I reacted. “Not at all! Every time I leave the elevator on the 14th floor, I hope you will be playing. It is the best part of returning.”
I still don’t know her name — this teacher, this beauty maker. That will be remedied one day soon, I will make certain to learn more at the right time. For now, even though we are still moving in anonymous worlds, I receive her gift as a reminder that my senses are often too dull to receive other offerings.
What gifts around us do we miss each day? What gifts might we be sharing that we are unaware of at the time? Where are there human and transcendent notes of joy and hope that are muted by the “normal.”
I find that by passing my neighbor’s apartment, even when there is no music, I am reminded to consider such questions — and I am able to approach my day with an anticipation of the gifts all around that I often otherwise miss.
(Our primary residence is in Bloomington, Indiana: we also keep an apartment in Chicago. We love both cities and because we have a couple of grandsons in Chicago, well…)
Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana
Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.
I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States. It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines. Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society? NO!
With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting. In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around. We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves.
Where is there hope? In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.” I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc. I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.” I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts. You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.
If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society. We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators. Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people. So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.
There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served. At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway. We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked. Good people, still sharing their gifts. Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter.
We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out. Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation. If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.
A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.
We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.
In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.
The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.
We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.
Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation. Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17. He spoke his mind. In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished. It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.
Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings. He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally. His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing. My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him.
It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday. There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.
The question before us all now is where do we stand? Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday. However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?
We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House. Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters. They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.” The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”
Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” How then shall we live?
Is Mr. Trump redeemable? Yes, of course, as a person. I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion. However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?” To that I would answer “NO.” We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration. I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.
What then to do? Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there. If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do?
Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?” As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place. I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures. We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities. We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness. We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)
We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems. For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources. We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.
And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions.
We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council. In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away. Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass. Encourage and support him or her.
Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.” I believe our democracy is up to it. I pray our democracy is up to it.
Post Script — Why My Strong Words:
I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday. After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency. My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect. However, I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world. I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below. It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists. So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.
Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength. Sad. He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday. Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.” No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.
As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters. The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke. Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency? I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO. This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events. Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE. He is, after all, the president of the United States.
There are multiple sides to our nation’s story. Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that. However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.
Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left. All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally. The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it. White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years. Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House. When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.
Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found
Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other.
This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana. It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.
Alan Winslow, February 2017
We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community. Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years. This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken. Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades.
Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.
No doubt we were naive. Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.” No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school. As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith. No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.
Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living. (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)
Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.
We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time. There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well. It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville? Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River? As we used to say, this only makessense if it can “Play in Peoria.”
Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks. We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission. Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more. Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”
While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice. So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities. Sunday evening worship grew. Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings. The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.
The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources. The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.” Truth is, we rarely wore ties. We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes. Others joined. Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.
We grew in numbers and influence in the city. Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby. How could we afford it? Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?” We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois. The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.” Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group. Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.
There are so many lessons from those years. On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found. The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing. Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.
What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork? Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork? Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).
First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods. (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.)
What we found was this. If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower income communities. We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”
I am not certain this would happen today. I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done. For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips. Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry. Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today. Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission. The Phillips understood. And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay. Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.
Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause. There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church. Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church. It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth.
I was so very wrong. There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.
Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival. I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.
I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.” Such hubris!! Such ignorance. I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions. Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination. The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision. I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around. In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share. Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined. However, I needed to stop and listen. If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.
Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost. Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void. Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.
We discovered that everyone can and does live in community. The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be? The choice is to risk living in new ways. The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible. It requires work. bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one. However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost. They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.
Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:
Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.
Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.
Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.
No one will find life another way.
There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central. Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives. I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.
Citizenship depends on connection. Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution. Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”
Berry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.” It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center. Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals. Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.
Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package. Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states.
Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels. Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care. These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s. This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.
The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.
I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people. My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.
I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.”
I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks. Still we seem slow to reconnect with them. The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me. Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand. And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.
More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation. We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference. There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions. To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals. It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.
When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond?
Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader. It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership.
For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change. I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections. I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich. I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.
We are not alone. Others are seeking to build connections as well. Let me tell you about my friend. A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state. What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish. So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments. Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great! This is just where I am supposed to be!” He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him.
I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature. He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class. He becomes for me a sign of hope. He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections.
Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341. The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law. Somewhere. Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.” Somewhere.
There was nothing fixed by this. This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist. Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces. And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something.
It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people. Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.” This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church. And, somewhere there is celebration.
The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status. A fair process based on whose assessment? Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place? Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group? Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?
Somewhere there is joy. Somewhere hearts are light. It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty. They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen. Is that it?
Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place? Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences? Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks? Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.
I know something of the south and value so much of what I know. My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary. There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission. At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown.
Chapel was required at Asbury College. My seat mate was Patty. Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination. If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.” She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.” Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.” Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.
Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued. Still Patty had it right, I think. She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her. Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.” Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me. Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.
In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago. It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles. Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.
The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism. It arrives now in real and troubling ways. In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins.
I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father. He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination. As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education. Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay. I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.” It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south. I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?
I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations. Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me. It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth. And I still think of Patty.
During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay. And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay. Somewhere there is celebration. Not among these good folks. We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.
Somewhere there is celebration. I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.
Some may celebrate. I weep, I grieve. The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter.