Practitioner of Intelligent Love

Practitioner of Intelligent Love

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the aphorism. Another version of this idea, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama, is: “Teachers are like enzymes. Nature’s go-to facilitators of change.” Even if only partially true, there is much wisdom here — at least in my experience.

Dr. Gilbert James from Asbury Theological Seminary

By the late 1960s, my generation in the U.S. were “teacher-ready.” We watched as young men, many of them friends, were being shipped off to an inexplicable war in Vietnam. Too many returning in body bags. State governors stood in univeristy doorways blocking entrance to African American students. We witnessed the assinations of M. L. King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Riots were breaking out in many cities and the emerging “counter culture” saw a growing interest in drug use. Given the availability of “the pill,” a sexual revolution was afoot.

Like other young men, my name was placed in the military lottery; I was one of the lucky ones with a high number, so after college I headed to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. There I met Gilbert James. He was teaching courses on The Church in Society, Race Relations and Sociology of Religion. The teacher appeared and I was “ready.”

Gilbert James: Free Methodist pastor, sawdust revival preacher, university professor, union organizer, poet, brilliant social researcher, friend of the poor, worker for racial justice, comfortable in a corporate board room and on skid row. Great “teachers” are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, for many of us, Gilbert offered graduate-level insights wherever you found him. He challenged us to learn, whether in a classroom, on a Chicago “L” train, in a Congressional office, or, on a street corner in Harlem. Socratic in approach, he would ask probing questions, frame a situation so that those within earshot began to teach and learn from one another. How does one cipher the complexities of this man?

Not far beneath the surface was Gilbert James’ commitment to an historic Wesleyanism that encouraged vital piety, valued knowledge and sought social justice. He was one of several teachers at Asbury Seminary in those years who found ready students. I think of Bob Lyon who helped us explore serious Biblical interpretation and modeled a faith that included deep commitments to nonviolent action.

Gil James spoke easily of personal conversion and Christian experience; after all, he had come to faith by such a personal spiritual journey. However, he was critical of an individualism that ignored the Biblical mandates to love God and the neighbor. He spoke of a church that might live in terms of a “Jubilee sharing” of resources with the poor. He was suspicious of fanaticism and cautioned against the abuses of those seeking power for power’s sake – especially in the church. He had seen enough chicanery in the church and beyond. He knew the dangers of fanaticism when mixed uncritically into the religious life.

Gilbert encouraged us to be “both faithful and forward leaning.” At the same time he wanted us to know our ancestry. James reminded us of the insights of Eighteenth Century Methodists (including Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others). Our legacy included those who opposed pew rentals privileging the wealthy, who supported abolitionist struggles against slavery, who welcomed women in leadership, who encouraged ecumenism and unity, and who practiced peacemaking — often as pacifists.

Gilbert knew of the dangers of individualistic theology and the drift away from a balancing of personal conversion with social justice. In my next blog, I will share a letter from Gilbert written 52 years ago in the midst of an extended revival at Asbury College (a neighboring undergraduate institution to the seminary, seperate in curriculum and faculty).

James knew of the marginalization experienced by religious conservatives and foresaw a time when greivance could lead to a insatiable hunger for power and status unmoored from Biblical ethics. He noted the transformation of Fundamentalism into Evangelicalism — that brought a sophistication in the use of political power. It might result, he suggested, in danger for our nation and the ruin of our churches. I remember thinking, as we were reflecting on the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, that James was being overly grandiouse. Today, I see how on target he was about this threat that faith could to be compromised by a lust for approval and blind acquisition of institutional power these fifty years later.

Over coffee in the seminary cafeteriaI, I recall many informal “debates” with other faculty and students. Such exchanges were common and truly a gift. Students might be asked to “grab a cup and join the conversation.” I recall, one well-known faculty member offering up a common trope used at the time. Assuming the notion that there were two camps in American Protestant Christianity, this faculty member said that “Evangelicals were always rooted in ultimate authorithy of scripture, but Liberals always let the dominant culture set the agenda for their theology.” I recall Gilbert wriley smiling and responding, “Your culture does not set the agenda for how you read the scripture?”

Other exceptional teachers followed (Jackson Carroll, Earl Brewer, Gwen Neville) at Emory University. I then went on to my days of university teaching and Gilbert stayed in touch. In Atlanta, at Candler School of Theology, I helped him bring a group of Asbury students to that city, just as he had brought me as a student to Chicgo, Detroit and New York a decade earlier. He was still learning, teaching, making connections and demonstrating to students the ways a life of faith might be practiced among the institutions of the powerful and the gifts in low-wealth communities that were often hidden.

Gilbert James touched many lives and shaped the work of pastors and laity in diverse places. We found him to be a READY teacher and friend. Still, his concerns about the corruption of Evangelicalism ring true; and, are more applicable than ever. At his funeral in 1982 the great African American pastor and theologian James Earl Massey stood to speak of Gilbert and his influence. Massey summerized my teacher’s greatness in these simple words: He was a “practitioner of intelligent love.” It is my sense that we have a whole new generation of students ready to find such teachers today. May it be so.

Both Sides Now

Anocracy – an unfamiliar word becoming ever more common. It is used by those who study the health of democracys. Anocracies are places where democratic institutions are being diminished and autocratic practices are growing. In such states legal, electoral, economic and legislative functions shift to more and more autocratic behaviors. Sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or reduced democracies, such governments, without countermeasures, move inevitably closer to full blown dictatorships and in many places civil war ensues.

Johnson and Czeck Sramek
Pulling togther? Source: METRO.co.uk

I carry in my mind a 2017 image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Czech Foreign Minister Ivo Sramek rowing a small boat on a lake in Kent. Considering the anocratic tendencies in Czechoslovakia of late — and for that matter Great Britain — one wonders if these two men at the time were pulling together or against one another as the currents of illiberalism were surging? The strength of democratic institutions is being challenged the world around. We see it up close in the United States.

An insurgent mob attacks the Capitol building a year ago seeking to block the installation of a new president; state legislatures pass measures to challenge voting rights and favor one set of citizens over another in electoral districts; school board meetings turn ugly with threats and name-calling substituted for honest debate; the ideological divisions evident in our media grow; health measures like vaccinations and wearing face masks to protect from the Covid-19 virus are turned into political wedge issues; and, even (especially) one’s religious perspective is tied to one partisian political agenda. Barbara F. Walter, political science professor at UC San Diego has studied the emergence of anocracies for years. She says “the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” (See Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 12/16/21)

Source: Seahopperfoldingboats.com

Perhaps you have heard of the illustration of a person in a row boat who will only pull on one oar. Yes, as the metaphor goes, the rower will simply go around in circles. If one is to make it to a distant shore, both oars are necessary. In healthy governments, there needs to be the safe and secure contribution made by those who are in power balanced by the safe and secure participation of those who are being governed.

For years I have been troubled by the tendency to turn every issue into a dichotomy, a binary choice with little room for hearing, seeing or learning from another side. This is common in anocracies — forcing complex issues into simplistic either/or choices. My guess is that in times of change, fear or unrest, there is a tendancy toward this inability to see another view. In the process divisions increase and become even more accute. My brain scientist friends tell me this is the case. The prefrontal cortex takes over. The ability to see more broadly or think more clearly is reduced. It is fight or flight time.

What is true in nations, large systems, and community institutions is also true within persons. I recall the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Many singers recorded the song — my favorite was Judy Collins’ rendition. The lyric closes with:

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well, something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
.

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Life’s Illusions

For people of faith, especially for Christians and Jews, our scriptures are full of images that call us beyond simplistic illusions. Dualistic thinking tempts us to miss the mark. For example, there is the illusion that religion is primarily an individual’s experience and option. Others suggest it is soley a social engagement. Some seem to proclaim that faith is sufficient as a guide toward piety, while others see faith as only valuable if it focuses on social justice. Healthy, whole, and wholesome religiousity moves beyond such simplistic patterns of either/or toward the richness of inclusion, paradox, and a welcome to ever-new-unfolding-understandings of transcendence.

I was struck then, and deeply saddened, by a news article last fall of my alma mater joining in the efforts against a national vaccine mandate proposed to curb disease and death. As Kate Shellnutt writes in Christianity Today, Novmber 5, 2021 (Updated 12/20/21). Asbury Theological Seminary (joined Southern Baptist Seminary) in a legal challenge seeking emergency relief “from enforcement of the mandate, which asks businesses with over 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccination, with any unvaccinated workers required to wear mask and undergo regular testing.”

Such “one-oared perspectives” endanger and misslead. They seem to miss entirely the gospel’s call of caring for the neighbor. One can almost overhear in this legal challenge the question of the young man to Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?” One wonders if the seminary should not be returning the more than $780,000 from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) received during the pandemic.

No doubt, were the issue about “government interference” related to scholarship aid for the students or receipt of federal funds to keep the community roadways and railways safe, the seminary might decide there is a “greater good.” Did the seminary speak up when, only a few years ago, medicaid relief was denied the poor in Kentucky? Or, what about the current challenge to the child tax credit that has lifted millions out of poverty? Surely the seminary has spoken out about this injustice. Crickets… nothing on such “federal interventions” related to how our society treats the poor.

Sadly, it is transparent that Asbury Seminary’s opposition to public safety and the commonweal are more about joining school’s mission to that of the Republican Party. In the likelihood that Row vs. Wade abortion laws are overturned or made moot by upcoming Supreme Court decisions, the seminary’s support for individual freedom will no doubt melt away.

The seminary’s choice to prefer a political stance, “masked up” as individual or institutional freedom displays a tragic disregard for the health of the larger community. At a time when a witness could be offered to the love of neighbor, it is rather set aside for a political agenda. In so doing, the whole gospel becomes an illusion. A great opportunity has been missed — and a disregard for sharing and living the wider Biblical narrative is lost. A one-sided, dualistic choice, this political stance is evident. Sadly, such a narrow view is put to use by those who seek to diminish our democracy. It no doubt pleases many constituents whose theology and politics are shaped by believing the scriptures are simply about individual sin and salvation. It causes one to wonder where the wisdom of Luther or Wesley, who spoke of choosing the common good in times of pandemic, has gone. It is, to my great sadness, a contributor to the anocracy apparent in our nation.

There have been many in this Asbury family who taught that individual freedom always comes in clear linkage with social responsibility. I think of beloved professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon — and before them Claude Thompson and Bob Shuler II. (I will be sharing more about Gilbert James in the next blog.) In my time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were still suffering from the de facto racial segregation that had kept Asbury institutions rowing around in circles — an important witness to the wider world lost. Only a handful of African American students were welcomed. Many at the time felt it was not the government’s role to encourage racial integration in schools. Fortunately, others at the school and in society saw a larger vision, one that cared for the whole and not just for the political advantage of the segregationists.

My prayer is that God’s spirit will allow the faithful at Asbury, and in other such settings where options are narrowed to simple dualistic choices, to remember and revise their message announcing the breadth of God’s care for all people, communities and creation – personal and social – Both Sides Now.

Epiphany and epiphanies

One year ago, on January 5th, 2021, I foolishly thought I had an overview of what was to unfold in the year ahead. At the very least, I thought, Epiphany Day 2021, the next day, would be like others I had known. It would be a day to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, Epiphany Day. Foolishly I thought it would be an “Epiphany as usual” when Christians celebrated “the light that has come into the world for all people.” We would again emphasize the light that overcomes darkness for all humanity (John 1:9). I was wrong.

We celebrate this LIGHT, the coming of Christ with the “large E” Epiphany. There are also “small e” epiphanies that transform our perceptions — not always moving from darkness to light. Epiphanies, (large E or small e), are times when we may discover that things are not what they appear to be. Last year, January 6th 2021, was a day to remember and rejoice in the great Epiphany, but that Light was dimmed by an “epiphany” unfolding on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.

My perceptions, my assumptions, my intutions about the strength of the U.S. democracy and our national body politic were deeply challenged, under assult by a mob of insurrectionists. Sadly, ironically, many were carrying Christian symbols — flags and signs that read “Jesus saves.” Many in the mob believed they were acting out of honorable religious motivations.

Our national institutions proved not as resiliant as I had thought. My assumptions about the way the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth inform responsible citizenship were being assaulted. My assumptions about a broadly shared sense of fairness or widely accepted governing traditions were sorely tested.

I was prepared for a new Presidency, a new Congress and a time when clearer realities about our common life and mutual respect would be affirmed. I believed our nation was escaping, narrowly, but we were escaping, the cruely, the grievance-based-dysfunction, the lies and dystopia we had suffered during the preceeding four years. I thought that unlike other nations (China, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Turkey among others) our deeply embedded democratic institutions and a shared assumption that persons could disagree without turning to violence would hold. My sense was that we were better somehow — closer to the Epiphany values manifest in the coming of the Christ. Alas, reality came knocking at my door. I openned that door to the surprise that we were a more broken and wounded nation than I had thought.

On Wednesday afternoon, January 6th, 2021 an epiphay (small e) shook previously held assumptions. A friend phoned that afternoon. Just a friendly call to ‘catch up.’ I remember saying, “Turn on the television. All hell is breaking loose. There is a mob, must be 10,000 people, openly attacking the Capitol building!” Thinking back now, I was right, “All hell was breaking loose.” This attack, my small epiphany on that day, remains a chilling reminder that easy assumptions about American exceptionalism now need to be carefully re-considered.

It was spiritual vertigo and a citizenship vertigo rolled into one. Easy assumptions about our commonweal and appropriate patterns of national govenance vanished. This vertigo continued throughout 2021. Old deceits seemed to take on more strength. THE BIG LIE about cheating in the 2020 elections continues to be believed, according to recent polls, by over 30% of the adult population. The violence of the insurrection on Epiphany Day 2021 was in many quarters downplayed, even denied. “Just a group of tourists visiting their Capitol” some would say. Vertigo continued as the year filled-up with other surprises: the omicron varriery of COVID. Silly debates over mask wearing and critical race theory. Politics proved astonishingly polarized. Racism found new expressions and justifications. Friends died. Children suffered from isolation and limited online educational practices. Ice storms, fires and hurricanes came, it appeared, with a new overpowering force.

My thoughts of an ability to predict the future were wrong.  We may think we can control things; yet often our efforts result in surprises or unintended consequences. We think we can nail things down but we cannot.  We have not factored in the difference between CHRONOS and KAIROS. The Epiphany is the way beyond the sad and disappointing epiphanies of human evil and deceit. Even when we are tempted to fear the worst, for people of faith there is the option to choose a life shaped by a larger reality… it is bigger than insurrectionists breaking into a nation’s Capitol building, it is the discovery that God’s light has broken into the world and “the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I do so believe.

My friend, Thomas Lane Butts died in 2021. He understood. Tom put it this way “Our penchant for permanence, which seems to get stronger as we grow older is probably a genetic (God-given) arrangement in our nature which prepares us to die.  The only people I know who have a genuine permanent arrangement with life are those whose lives have ended.  In all the rest of us change is still going on.  As a matter of fact, change is a basic characteristic of life, and without it, life as we know it would be snuffed out.”  (CELEBRATE THE TEMPORARY, January 12, 1997, The Protestant Hour Radio Series)

So how might we proceed as we enter Epiphany 2022 and the many epiphanies that lie ahead? I once had a choral conductor who would jokingly say, “I want you to keep both eyes on me and the other eye on the music!” He was asking us to transcend our normal and perceived limits.  To see things whole — beyond simply the music on the page.

Let Epiphany 2022 come as a reminder that there is a light that has come into the world that transcends the small, uncomfortable epiphanies. Light that is true to God’s designs for humanity. Light that shined in the dark places of our nations and world can overcome the antidemocratic forces seeking to destroy the good, the true and the beautiful.

Brittish theologian Rosemary Haughton argued that there are small conversions, or “flash-point moments” of decision, when we experience God in ways that allow a re-structure our daily calendar. Daily practices of prayer, mediation and study are times of formation providing for a life within community that can lead to transformation for persons and institutions — even nations.

Formation proceeds out of the routines of life and sets the stage for transformation of persons and communities.  Conversion emerges from the images already embedded in our deep memories and in our daily practices. The way we behave in those regular and calendared hours, minutes and seconds can anticipate the opportunities for transformation or renewal.  We have the opportunity to measure our lives not only in terms of length, wealth, achievement but, even more, we can practice ways that shape relationships with neighbor and with God. Epiphany suggests that even the surprizing and distressing epiphanies can be transcended.  A time when God’s purposes can be made know is possible.

God is not finished with us yet.  Life goes on.  Transformation is possible.  Rilke, the poet, said,  “The future enters into us in order to transform us long before it happens.”

Brokenhearted Excellence

Brokenhearted Excellence

Following the horrific tornadoes across Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee on Friday Night December 10th, there have been numerous interviews with persons who survived these tragic storms. A path of destruction carved its way across the landscape leaving behind death, lost homes and property and a wide swath of heartbreak.

Among the many interviews with survivors, was one with the Rev. Joey Reed, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Mayfield, Kentucky. Mayfield was perhaps the most heavily hit of the many communities that suffered death and destruction. As I watched Rev. Reed, his clear-eyed faith and excellent theology and pastoral leadership came shining through. You can see the interview here – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mayfield-kentucky-tornado-minister-survives-church-closet/.

I give thanks for Rev. Joey Reed, for the denomination that nurtured him and for his seminary education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He was clearly brokenhearted. Even so, he had the language of faith around Joy and Lamentation that was clear. This should be an interview that is studied by church leaders and pastors everywhere. Here is a model of excellence. Here is faith at work in the midst of tragedy.

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.

Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.

Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.

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Context of prayer:

Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”

As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.

Amador County, CA, Nov. 2021

From the internet, same day

I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:

If by chance I should find myself at rest, 
By falling from this jagged cliff, 
I look below and I look above, 
I’m surrounded by your boundless love. 
Surround me with your boundless love, 
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be 
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love, 
You surround me with your boundless love.

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

Blessed with many generous friends, I enjoy times of remembering the good, bad, ugly and beautiful. Among my younger companions, many below my years by a decade, or two, or more, I sometimes am foolish enough to offer my ‘wise counsel.’ (Okay, I try to do this only when they seek it.) I have known many of these folks now for several decades. Together, we have shared a wide circle of mutual travelers and acquaintances on our circuitous journeys. Included in this entourage are a number of rogues, clowns, mischief makers, heroines, heros and… well, in a word, there have been “Saints.”

As All Saints Day slips past us in 2021, I am aware that Fredrick Buechner’s image of saints is sorely lacking, lovely and whimsical as it is. Buechner speaks of saints as “God’s dropped handkerchiefs.” He says saints appear as part of “God’s flirtation with the world.” The saints I have known hardly flutter to earth or are easily picked up. In fact, at my age, they are substantial, heavy and many. I am left wondering if some I catalogued as scoundrels, and others to whom I seldom gave attention, might need to be recategorized as saints.

Often, after an evening visiting with friends remembering the past, and recounting acts of stupidity or moral courage, I find myself thinking… “Did I get that right? How often have I told that same story? Have I garbbled it? Have I confused a congressman with a senator, or a police officer with a trial attorney, or a chaplain with an orderly? Listening to my recapitulations, my friends must be bored stiff at every retelling — or they think “poor fella, he repeats himself. What is this? The 146th time ole Amerson has recalled and then re-shaped some sinner into a saint or some blunder into an accomplisment? Bless him and his muddled memories.”

Wallace Stegner’s novel Recapitulation tells of the return of Harry Mason to his childhood home in Salt Lake City. Mason has had what others would consider a successful life. He worked in the U.S. State Department, served as an ambassador. Mason remembered much, but celebrated little. His relationships, complex and difficult, were like an old coat to be shed every few years. They had shaped him but had not ever connected him to anything more substantial than his desires, fears and aspirations. Stegner writes “Harry Mason would have treated his father like an entry in his reminder book. Drawn a rectangle around his name and blacked it out. Did. Yet, Harry Mason’s only definition now was given to him by the relationships he had laid aside, without them he would merge with the universal grass. In his life it was the same.” He was left with “the souveniors of upward mobility.”

During this season of life, I have come to fresh understandings. Relationships may be lost but memories can continue to connect. We don’t just build community — we remember community. To love God and Neighbor — well that is the work of saints. I will not name their names in this writing, but this year saw the passing of many, many great spirits. These are saints, not handkershiefs. Some died COVID related deaths, some simply of declining health from aging, some from tragedy. As saints pass away, disappear from the earthly lifescape, they make their way into our flimsy memories, yours and mine. We draw on the web of multiple memories — some of them muddled. Still, as we light candles and ring a chime when their name is read at All Saints services, we are reshaped by recalling the good and noble gifts they shared with us. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. BUT I REPEAT MYSELF.

Plantings and Harvests

Plantings and Harvests

What’s the old adage? “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago and the next best time is today.” Top of mind today are events in Afghanistan, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and COVID hospitalizations and deaths around the world. Perhaps, like me, these tragedies overwhelm and despair has taken up residence in your thoughts. What was planted twenty years ago – and longer – is now being harvested. What has brought us to this point? Where is there a hopeful way forward?

As a nation, as a world, we seem unable to consider long-term implications of actions taken today. The all-too-natural-human tendency to prefer the tools of retaliation, blame, distrust, greed, fear or bigotry have served as a modus operandi in most of human history. Too seldom has the wisdom of an Abraham Lincoln been displayed. As the terrible years of the Civil War were ending he spoke the remarkable words “with malice toward none and charity for all.” Such a guiding vision and telos for our wars is astonishing. There is a dangerous and disastrous inability to view our political, global and cultural situations with a longer view. Retaliation has produced what fruit? Distrust of government, health and religious institutions, broken, fragile and in need of reformation as they all are, has yielded exactly what fruit?

Grain in Southern Indiana

As we approach the autumn harvest season in North America, farmers are doing more than combining grain and gathering the harvest. They are planning ahead for the crops they will plant next year, and the years following. I think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:

16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

As I grieved the deaths of our thirteen young military personnel this past week and more than one-hundred-and-seventy Afghanistan persons murdered at the Kabul airport, I thought of the twenty plus year toll on our world and nation and my heart was broken. Still, the words of the U.S. President in response this horrific attack in Kubal by promising retaliation and saying “we will not forgive,” brought small comfort. Today, exactly what are we reaping and what are we sowing for the future? We should not forget, and should act wisely in the future, but what fruit does this retaliation bring? This talk was, for me, a kind of virtue-signaling of the worst order as the president needed to let anyone listening know that he (we) were tough and could be as cruel as any terrorists in response.

Out of fear, revenge, and no small hubris, we have spent thousands of precious lives and billions of dollars with apparently too little knowledge of the people and culture and less wisdom as to our mission. Afghanistan was already a broken Humpty Dumpty of a place when U.S. troops entered in 2001. My appreciation for those in the military and civilians who diligently sought to build a better place is enormous. Thanks for their service knows no limit. However, this still begs the question, was violence the best tool in our toolkit? Is it now?

Many people of faith over generations understood that retaliation was not the way of Jesus. They understood the importance of making our institutions humane and strong rather than stirring up animus against government or leaders with whom one disagrees. Many taught the path of nonviolence and restorative justice. For people of faith, especially my own Christian family, we have great traditions of reconciliation and grace upon which to draw. Sadly, in my denomination, many have been caught up in tribal warfare over these twenty years. What if we had spent this energy on planting a better future for our world, for Afghanistan, together? Our vision has been reduced to a sickening institutional battle over the next two years or four years. Our passions have focused more on proving another party wrong, gaining control of congregations and a denomination, rather than on planting the good seed of Christ for the future. We think too small and hope too little. Kyrie Elieson — may God have mercy and forgive.

Whether it is war, hurricane, or disease, a future of hope requires deeper, wiser, more hope-filled and generous behaviors. Our decisions now about war and peace will require thoughtful critique and retooling. Our fragile social, cultural and religious institutions — those intended to build up and not destroy — call on us to plant seeds of renewal designed to bring good fruit. And, living our lives in more environmentally sustainable ways on this precious planet require new life patterns for the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. I believe this is possible. There is an ecology of hope we can practice, a living in ways that plant good seed for the future, so that others may receive an abundant and good harvest.

Humility and Humor as Litmus Tests

Been thinking some about the linkages between unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution. Okay, I know, I know, it all sounds like something for a dry academic article published in an arcane journal somewhere. So, let me tone it down. These are thoughts of a trailer load of horse manure that still makes me laugh.

Let me start with a recent event and work back to that trailer of manure years ago.

A few days back I watched an online videocast from a sanctuary of a church north of Atlanta. I would identify the church by its denomination, but truth is, they don’t know what they are. They once were a United Methodist Church (still are in actuality) but through a series of events that I won’t detail here, an identity change is occurring. Some who spoke on this broadcast bragged about being the biggest church in the biggest conference in United Methodism and in the next breath expressed they are leaving the denomination because they were being treated so badly. You can read more about the “whys and wherefores” elsewhere; but even as I was watching I thought my psychologist friends would have a field day analyzing this.

I watched a series of speakers whose messages were filled with a sense of grievance, persecution and victimization. There were a few brave and sincere prayers for healing and understanding, I appreciated those. But mostly, I was puzzled by the juxtaposition of the claim to greatness while the same time claiming to be profoundly abused and persecuted. Several of the speakers suggested that “The whole world is watching us.” (Now that’s a Napoleonic syndrome claim — sorry, I’ll stop my arm chair psychoanalysis.) I remember thinking, however; “Nope, the whole world is watching the Olympics in Japan.” Sad, really, but an interesting case study in unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution… anyway back to the horse manure.

I attended a small religious college and then seminary in Kentucky. Good place, many marvelous people there. It was a place where extraordinary leaders of much depth and spiritual insight had been educated. Persons like E. Stanley Jones, Rosalind Rinker, J. Waskom Pickett and James Matthews had graduated a couple of generations back… and hundreds of others since have lived lives of faithful service making great contributions to faith and intellectual accomplishment. In fact, as I think about this now, I realize the truly great ones related to these schools were among the most humble and down-to-earth human beings I have had the privilege of knowing. Their greatness, their examples of holy living, rested in their clearheaded and openhearted sense that they were children of God called to love and serve others of God’s extended household.

Many of the truly great faculty and alums of this school modeled such humility. They lived in terms of a true greatness spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 20 or Mark 10 — “If you would be great, become as a servant to all.”

So you have been waiting on the manure story. Well, when a group of people set themselves up as superior to all others, folks around can smell the stench of self-righteousness. Holier-than-thou is a terrible way to give witness. Many of those who spoke of their grievance recently were related in significant ways to the college and seminary I attended.

With that said, the story is set in the small town, we will call Skidmore, Kentucky. Skidmore is sometimes jokingly said to be seventeen miles away from the nearest sin. (The town’s name is changed, all the other information here is as factual as I can recall.) It is 1968. I am in seminary and my friend Frank Shirbroune and I have decided in late winter to plant a garden. We hear that horse manure is free if we load it up ourselves and carry it back to town from the trotter horse track in the city. We borrow a trailer from a friend and attach it to hitch on Frank’s old Volvo. It is illegal in multiple ways — bad tires, no lights, no license plate, no connector chain, etc. Still we are off to collect some fresh horse droppings in the city.

Readers who know about gardening and manure recognize that we are making several mistakes. “Green” (fresh) manure is not great for gardens, especially if applied in the spring. We would learn this soon enough.

Knowing that the trailer was not street-legal, I prayed that we would make it safely to the race track and back without being pulled over by a state trooper or without a breakdown, leaving us on the side of the road with a load of, uh, “fertilizer.” We got there, loaded the trailer and headed for Skidmore, seventeen miles back. When we made it to the turnoff for town I thought my prayers were answered. No breakdown, no police stop. Whew.

However, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, there were flashing blue lights behind us. We were only a mile away from our garden plot but a state trooper was behind us. He was a big fella. In my memory he was 6’6″ (probably 5’10”) but he did weigh over 200 pounds. He certainly knew the reputation of Skidmore as a holier-than-thou place. My imagination led me to believe that Frank and I were going to spend the night in jail for illegally hauling horse manure — and green manure at that!

My hands were shaking as I opened the glove box to find the car registration. Do trailers need to be registered? I wondered. Frank rolled down the window. The trooper cleared his throat and then in a rather high-pitched melodious southern voice he spoke these memorable words, “Boyzz, I never thought I would see anyone hauling horse poop IN TO Skidmore.” With that, he turned and headed back to his cruiser, chuckling and shaking his head. No doubt he was eager to get back to the patrol house and share the story with other troopers.

For weeks Frank and I could hardly look at one another without laughing. In fact, I laugh about that manure to this day.

The school was shaped around the idea of holiness. But holiness, wrongly worn, can become a rigid garment that excludes and narrows the range of what God is able to accomplish in the world. Sadly, this school in the middle south, was slow in welcoming African Americans in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Even today, it seeks to exclude and deny gay and lesbian persons as fully God’s children, created as they are in God’s image. A narrow claim of holiness as limited to “persons like me” or “persons who agree with me” and reinforced by a closed doctrine and culture, can poison. It can turn persons who are privileged in so many ways into persons who are bereft of a sense that the God of abundance includes them in the family without there needing to be any covenant of exclusion of others.

This Season of Dividing

This Season of Our Dividing

I am often slow to put my deepest convictions into words. Who knew? Folks who know me as a preacher will be surprised to hear this. Even so, finding the right word or words sometimes comes slowly. Then, I am helped when I read another who touches the heart of a matter better than I could.

It has been over two years. I was at a table with folks discussing the future of the United Methodist Church and its splintering into several pieces — some traditional, some progressive and some seeking inclusion of all. I recall being surprised when persons spoke of the need for what they referred to as an “amicable divorce.” They proposed separation, into parts where folks would no longer quarrel and could be in a safe theological home place. Such talk was not new — it was the many who were accepting this season of division that surprised me. They were ready to welcome the schism-movin-company to partial out the pieces of ministry developed over decades.

I wanted to say, “Hey, this is moving in precisely the wrong direction. We ought to be joining with other Christians, not dividing among ourselves.” I was only able to say, “I profoundly disagree.” I was unable to share my deepest conviction that supporting such brokenness in our body was sinful. Such words seemed too harsh and judgemental. I recalled a dear Lutheran friend who amidst the splintering of the Missouri Synod thirty years ago, said simply, “We are, on all sides, sinful.” Okay, I am sometimes a coward — and a sinful one at that! Many United Methodists over the past two years have offered plans for what is called “an amicable separation.” Such talk has gone on for a long time. But now, there are proposals, protocols and new denominations planned. For followers of Jesus to be comfortable with this seems to me to be nonsensical. Still, I didn’t have the words, until I came across a short essay by Eugene Peterson entitled “Comfort Zones” (“Called to Community,” p. 278-280, Plough Publishers, 2016).

Peterson give me language when he wrote: “Sectarianism is a common problem in Christian Community… Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to theology, a willful removal of a part from the whole. The part is, of course, good — a work of God. But apart from the whole it is out of context and therefore diminished, disengaged from what it needs from the whole and from what the rest of the whole needs from it. We wouldn’t tolerate someone marketing a Bible with some famous preacher’s five favorite books selected from the complete sixty-six and bound in fine leather. We wouldn’t put up with an art dealer cutting up a large Rembrandt canvas into two inch squares and selling them off nicely framed. So why do we so often positively delight and celebrate the dividing up of the Jesus community into contentious and competitive groups? And why does Paul’s rhetorical question, “Has Christ been divided?” (I Cor. 1:13) continue to be ignored century after century after century?”…

There is more as Peterson points to the “selfism” that underlies such divisions. He reminds us “The birthing of the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism.” As Peterson starkly puts it “sects are termites in the Father’s house.

Such seasons of dividing are a perpetual threat to Christian community. Just as the Methodist Church divided over slavery in 1844 only to be clumsily reconfigured a century and more later, I am rather certain that one day this season of dividing will pass, and after a time, there will be a Season of Reuniting. I may not live to see it, but believe in the Resurrection.

Deeper and Wider: Toward a Faith Ecology

For years, actually decades, I have watched and worked to build respectful connections among the warring tribal groups of the United Methodist Church. My assigned label was that of “Progressive”; although as with most of us, such binary categories do more to confuse than to explain.

There is much story to tell of my own journey among the Asbury institutions in Wilmore, Kentucky and then on to other pastoral and leadership roles in United Methodism. Along the way, it became clear that much of the struggle (mine and others) had to do with a desire for validation. Family System Theory would speak of the dynamic of weak self differentiation or an insatiable hunger for approval by a perceived competitor. Of course the battles among so called “traditionalists” and “progressives” are more than this, still for many this need for validation fuels the ongoing battles.

Just now, at Mt. Bethel UMC north of Atlanta, the battle is on full display. As I watch and listen, I hear some of the Wesley Covenant Association folks saying “the world is watching us.” That is the need for validation speaking. Most of the world is watching the Olympics. And, I fear, those who are watching the battle between the WCA and North Georgia UMC don’t see much of the love of Christ to be admired and valued.

I wrote a friend this morning who has been sharing information about the situation at Mt Bethel this: “Do you know of the habits of the cowbird? We have many cowbirds in Indiana. While it is an imperfect metaphor, it is still apt. The cowbird, known as a brood parasite, does not build its own nest but rather invades the nest of other birds, removing an egg of the other bird and leaving one of its own to be incubated and nurtured. Even though the cowbird egg is larger, the nesting bird still cares for the cowbird egg and infant. From the Audubon society: ‘Cowbird chicks don’t directly harm their nest mates (by pushing them out of the nest, for instance, like some cuckoo species), but tend to grow faster and out compete them for resources.’ The Audubon Society does not encourage the removal of these eggs. What is true in the world of birds may also be the case in humans — although in our world the invading species sometimes take over entire institutions.”

The institutions we believe we can build will never be perfect ones apart from the love of Christ. No matter traditional or progressive there will be others who will disagree and perhaps even act to out compete.

As a child I learned the Sunday School song, “Deep and Wide”. I would encourage all my friends to think deeply and widely about the future and the past. There is a deeper ecology as expressed in Ephesians 3 which is to be “rooted and grounded in love” and “comprehend with all the saints the breadth and length, and depth and height of the love of Christ which passes knowledge.”

For many years I was privileged to be a part of a ministry that was ecumenical in vision and reach. In fact, I often think of how blessed we were at Patchwork Ministries in Evansville to welcome folks from many faith traditions to join in our work. For me this openness to seeing the world more broadly is symbolized in the tower that stands at Patchwork. It was part of a synagogue when originally built. Then after a fire destroyed much of that original building, the decision was to leave the tower standing. Now I look and see it can symbolize the prospect of looking beyond the past toward what is yet to be.

Much as I love my United Methodist tribe, the infighting among our various clans can cause us to miss the greater spiritual possibilities. In the larger scheme of things we are, as they say, “small potatoes.” There is so much more to discover from other persons of faith. There is an opportunity for us to live as persons who see the world with a wider lens than our own narrow understanding of God and faith. There is so much more to what God is doing — all around us — to be explored and celebrated. I choose to look more widely… and deeply.