That Joy May Be Full

Session III:  June 15, 2021: Toward a Regenerative and Sustainable UMC

Introduction: Restorative and Joyful Communities

Not far from my home is a walking path designated as a “certified sustainable trail.” It is wide, one of those “if you want to walk far, walk together” trails.  As we conclude, let’s acknowledge a sustainable trail for the United Methodist Church is still emerging. We are, after all, God’s church, part of God’s wider economy.  We are part of God’s symphony of hope.  Many remarkable previous travelers signal us forward.  Earlier today we identified these trail markers:

  1. Loving action is our North Star and singular mark of a mature Christian.
  2. Deep evangelization extends across space and time to name, bless and connect.
  3. Each mission site can be God’s mother tree in the social forest where it is located.

The “Root Command” of Love

In 1974, at bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University the world-renowned economist Sir Dennis Robertson was asked a big question, What Do Economists Economize?” Robertson, gave an “astonishing answer: We economize on love.”[i]  Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps later agreed that indeed altruism is central to any sound economic analysis. As you might guess both economists, went on to say, ‘It’s complicated.’

Long before modern economic theories, Jesus points to love as the source of joyful communities.  From John 15:11-17 we read: The Message: 11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17 But remember the root command: Love one another.

Jesus speaks of a love more profound than economic altruism.  Moses provides ten commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There are 613 Mizvot or commandments in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus reduces the commandments to one, “the root command: Love one another (John 15:17), so that you might have joy and be fruit bearers.[ii]  Agape love, a willingness to lay down one’s life for another, is essential to joyful restoration of lives and communities. John’s gospel, was written in Ephesus a few decades after the Letter to the Ephesians and comes to a church full of interpersonal struggles, dissension and disagreement. Faith rooted in sacrificial love is said to be the path forward.  Disciples were no longer servants, but friends. Ivan Illich wrote of this as conviviality, celebrating an awareness that in love we can make our life today in the shape of tomorrow’s future.[iii]  United Methodists find our home as a community of loving activity, a community of friends.

Stories of restoration and joy come bubbling with laughter and hope from our scripture: Ninety-year-old Sarah laughs, Joseph embraces his brothers, mana comes in the wilderness, Babylonian refugees return, Nehemiah announces the joy of the Lord is strength, a prodigal returns home, magi see a star, a baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, water is turned to wine, winds of Pentecost blow across the church, and Christ is recognized in the breaking and sharing of bread. Joy and restoration are communal. Solo performances can be lovely and moving, but scientists have shown that it is in choral singing, voices raised together, that sustainable social bonds and personal wellbeing in forged.[iv]

Last month, as I watched Wesleyan Investive (UMDF) awards given to five national Innovative Leaders the joy was evident.  One awardee was DeAmon Hargis of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis, (DeAmon is a longtime friend and has been a guest of this annual conference). Years ago, DeAmon noticed folks he identified as neighborhood healers. They practiced generosity and hospitality. They knew how to host parties to celebrate others. Not a party in the church building, but in neighborhood homes.

De’Amon Harges, The Learning Tree

Did someone graduate from school? Get a new job? Retire? Complete an art project?  Start a band? Then celebrate and welcome outsiders to join: the police commander, a foundation director, the mayor, a hospital administrator, a school principal. It was a reweaving, a restoration of the fabric of a community.  A group of young men, the Cultivating Joy Cypher began to meet and celebrate the gifts and potential all around. Such imagination has been a critical starting point for the investments of dollars in housing, economic development, the arts and small business initiatives  As DeAmon puts it “We kidnap people from old routines and bring them together so that they can fall in love with each other.”

Wesley emphasized both personal and communal religious experience. Methodists were to walk with others: classes, bands, societies and conferences. Paul Chilcote writes “Christianity, according to the Wesleys, is not so much a religion as it is a relationship. It is from the outset personal AND social.[v]  Excessive individualism distorts Christianity.[vi]  Our faith is relational.  Our work is God’s corporate work, God’s song, God’s poem in human experience.

Regenerative Root Systems

About 200 miles due south of the Red Wing Barn portrayed in Ted Kooser’s poem is a place called The Land Institute (TLI) near Salina, Kansas.  TLI has been much on my mind in thinking of root systems.  I had the privilege of meeting Wes Jackson, co-founder of TLI two summers ago.

Jackson left university teaching and research nearly fifty years ago to go back to his home state of Kansas. He shifted from genetics research to investigating crop sustainability and teaching about regenerative agriculture. He later won the MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the “genius award” back in 1992 for this work.  Wes works to restore communities in the soil and among humans.  Professor Robert Jensen, retired from University of Texas says of Wes, Jackson has perfected the art of “seeing small and thinking big.”[vii]  Uncomfortable with traditional religious language, Jackson jokingly describes himself as a 5/8th Methodist! His Methodist roots are displayed as he speaks of a Creaturely Worldview. It is Wes who says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

A large photo, perhaps twelve feet long and three feet wide, is placed down a stairway at TLI.  It’s two root systems, actual size, side-by-side. On the left are thin winter wheat roots grown and replanted annually less than one (1) meter long. The other, a perennial plant, has roots over three (3) meters long reaching broadly outward. Jackson proposes a mix of wheat, soybean and oilseed (like sunflower) plants grown together as perennials.  Imagine the mutual benefits for soil and water preservation from deeper root systems and the activity of diverse plants, with some preventing erosion and others restoring nitrogen in the soil.

From The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

What do root systems in the Kansas River Valley have to do with the vibrancy of congregations in North Texas?  Or, ministry in towns, rural settings or the Dallas metroplex?  Imperfect, as all metaphors are, our places of ministry might be seen as regenerative sources for communities and personal lives. What if we sought deep regenerative roots of faith?  Do we plow under our ministry investments too quickly as we shift from one strategy to another?[viii]

Being “fruitful” is a fixation for many North American denominations. We do a lot of plowing-under-and-replanting. While understandable, many of these efforts are counterproductive, increasing stress and diverting local, indigenous innovations. Rather than the vision from Jeremiah of a tree planted by water, anxious North America Christians turn to questionable spiritual husbandry. Perhaps, in anxiety about institutional decline, many have been, as the song by country singer Johnny Lee goes, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”  What if we focused on being sustainable as well as fruitful

Recently a pastor friend of a large church put the challenge succinctly, “Programs that attracted people two years ago, pre-pandemic, are no longer effective. Expectations and attention spans shift month to month. There can be a constant churning.  We have learned to take a longer view.”  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last made a distinction between “time telling” and “clock building” cultures.[ix]  Time tellers can tell you the latest industrial fad while clock builders build sustainable institutions.

Change comes to the doorstep of all institutions, including church. Some call it “creative destruction.” Some see a slow and steady entropy, a post-denominational society, a decline to be expected and accepted?  I think of Ezekiel’s haunting question looking at a Valley of Dry Bones, “Can these bones live?”

Wes Jackson reflects on the ecology of human institutions saying we quickly seek the “how to?” and insufficiently focus on the “why?”  Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky distinguish between Technical and Adaptive Challenges. Technical Challenges seek a “how to” response.  Adaptive Challenges, on the other hand, require new discoveries, more imagination and an adaptive leap for a culture. Adaptive Challenges require a look at core mission and the “why” questions.[x]  Have too many of our ministries lost the “why” behind our activities? 

Several years ago I directed a mentoring program for pastors.  At our first gathering, apprentices were placed in one group and the mentors in another.[xi]  The apprentices were smart, thoughtful, energetic, committed folks, typically younger, though not always. Their early conversations were about what they were accomplishing – new programs and successes. Voices brimmed with a confidence.

Meanwhile, down the hall very different conversations were unfolding. The mentors demonstrated what I came to call the “three-experience-based-attitudes:” encouragement, forgiveness, and laughter.  Apprentices were confident, even prone to a little bragging. Many of the apprentices were emerging as righteous interrupters. Among mentors there was confession of failure as mistakes and lessons learned were shared, stories of regret often followed by words of forgiveness. There was laughter, and sometimes tears. This pattern seemed true in class after class.  I now see mentors regenerative connecters.  They were perennials with an ability to adapt and keep growing. Their roots were deep and wide.  Encouragement, forgiveness and laughter.  Over a year, as apprentices and mentors prayed and dreamed together, the joy of a common calling bubbled up. They learned the truth of the adage that leadership is often better caught than taught.  A community of joy was born.

If we had time, I would tell you of similar patterns among lay persons that I have witnessed.  Gene, blind from birth, and Carol his spouse offered their infectious joy that helped sustain and restore an old core-city church as new, younger members were attracted to the journey unfolding in that congregation.  They were generative root system that sustains this faith community.[xii]  These folks were clock builders.[xiii] 

Fifty-three years ago, here is Dallas, Dr. Albert Outler preached at the birthing of the United Methodist Church.  “The heart of the gospel is startlingly simple,” he said, “that God loves you and me and all [men] with a very special love and that Jesus Christ is sufficient proof to this love.”[xiv]  Outler challenged United Methodists to be true Protestants — reformed and ever reforming.[xv]  He closed the sermon, “This is the day the Lord has made, Let us really rejoice and be glad in it[xvi] – glad for the new chance God now gives us: to be a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church cruciform in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for all [humankind].”[xvii]    

Albert Outler, United Methodist Uniting Conference

Like the early church in Ephesus or Eighteenth Century Methodists, today, there are multiple obstacles, threats and challenges.  Let me suggest that considering the questions of sustainability, we need to think about the far horizon for the church and not just about the next General Conference.[xviii]  If we are to develop sustainable ecologies, we will move beyond the patterns of sickening denominational self-concern.[xix]   We must shift from denominational preservation to be mindful of the opportunities for witness all around whether reducing racism, welcoming the stranger, addressing economic injustice, or protecting our natural world.[xx]

So, there is much work to do.  Would I advise throwing a few more parties and inviting strangers to join?  Yes.  Should we celebrate righteous interrupters and regenerative connectors who build communities of restoration and joy – Yes, definitely! 

When considering the challenges that too easily appear to impede our future, to block our flow, I am reminded of

Wendell Berry’s poem, Our Real Work.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and when we no longer know which way to go

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. Counterpoint, 1983

Albert Outler called for a cruciform way of proceeding. We know from our Gospels that “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… will find it.) It is paradoxical.  So, here are my seven paradoxical endnotes for a reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church:

The trail markers noted here are:

  • Following the Jesus of scripture leads to Christ alive today;
  • Stepping away from Christendom is a step to being church;
  • Calmed and converted to Forever-Beginning-Disciples.
  • God loves each as none other and God loves all equally;
  • Strong local hub trees interconnect to global forest;
  • Diverse, linked, perennial roots encourage, forgive and laugh;
  • The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The calling for United Methodists today is to ripple and splash with delight in one an other’s company as we reinvent our ecology in interconnected and restorative ways.

Samuel Wells writes of A Future that is Greater Than the Past in this way “The church is a work of art. God is the artist, who makes the church, through the action of the Holy Spirit, in the form of Christ, out of the material of human beings… The church is not beautiful in a detached, distant sense: but if and when it is well and honestly made, it exhibits that overflow of presence that generates joy.” Reflecting on Ephesians (2:10) Wells says “we [the church] are God’s ‘work of art,’ or perhaps better, ‘God’s poem.’”[xxi]

Amen.


[i] Phelps, Edmund, ed, Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory, (New York: Russell Sage, 1975), p. 1.  See also Timothy Taylor’s Is Altruism a Scarce Resource that Needs Conserving, at: https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2013/11/is-altruism-scarce-resource-that-needs.html.

[ii] My father lived to be 92.  In the last decade of his life, when greeted and asked how he was doing, he would answer, “I’m rejoicing.”  Those who knew, him knew it to be true. A pastor friend shared that his mother who would often say, “I have the rhythm of rejoicing.”   Personal joy is a good and holy thing. As John’s Gospel, Ephesians and, yes, Albert Outler suggest to truly rejoice and be glad in this day the Lord has made will involve a community of loving activity, a community of friends.

[iii] Illich, Ivan, Celebration of Awareness (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), 19.

[iv] Launay, Jacques and Eiluned Pierce, “The New Science of Singing Together,” Greater Good Magazine, December 4, 2015, available at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_singing.  See also, Dina Kraft, “In Israel, Singing for Social Harmony,” Christian Science Monitor, February 12,  2019.  In Isreal in recent years there is an event known as Koolulam that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to sing.  The musical director, Ben Yefet, directs the crowd with this instruction: “If you can’t hear the person singing next to you, you are singing too loudly.”  Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Music/2019/0212/In-Israel-singing-for-social-harmony

[v] Chilcote, Paul Wesley, Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004) p 20.  Chilcote proposes that Wesley’s vision comes in eight conjunctions, starting with Free Grace, Inclusive Love, Shared Experience and Enthused Disciples,

[vi] Bellah, Robert, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California, 1985), 221, 235.  Robert Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart, identifies the growing phenomenon in 1985 he called Sheilaism   He writes of this is an individualistic understanding of faith.  Radically self-focused, the sole determinate for each person’s beliefs is a home-made theology.  It is a DIY (Do It Yourself) faith, popularly expressed in the phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.” 

[vii] Jensen, Robert, “Intellectual Grounding: Podcast from the Prairie,”  add link:  Also see Jensen, Robert “The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.”

[viii] I would assert local community ecologies have far deeper roots than easily seen on the surface.  As Willie Jennings said, there may be a lot of “unused gospel” we have missed.  Or, as the line in the Kooser poem suggests, “The good works of the Lord are all around.”

[ix] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, (New York: Harper, 2004).

[x] Heifetz, Richard and Marty, Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 31.

[xi] In this mentoring program for pastors, we had to determine who were mentors and who apprentices. After considering several formal research approaches, a remarkable Roman Catholic sister and university administrator advised, “Just ask.”  Ask denominational leaders and lay persons to name parish pastors who have done their work effectively with grace for seven or eight years and which ones showed promise as apprentices.  So we did.  As we welcomed each new group into the mentoring program, an interesting pattern began to appear.  We quickly saw, that for most, there was a distinction between time tellers and clock builders

[xii] Gene and Carol were interrupters, connectors and ambassadors of joy in a congregation I served.  Each Father’s Day we held an ugly tie contest.  Men were asked to wear their ugliest tie to church.  I was always nervous that someone might be chosen who didn’t know about the contest, who just wore ugly ties.  I recall the year Gene gathered a piece of elongated orange cloth and several white balls of cotton.  He asked Carol to sew these onto an already disgusting looking tie. It was, he said, his “rabbits in the garden” motif.  Gene won that ugly tie contest — for the third consecutive year.  In his acceptance speech he said “Now that I have won for the third year, I will now retire from entering in the future.  I just have too much of an unfair advantage.”  Laughter filled the room. You see Gene was blind from birth.

Carol played second base on our church softball team.  Occasionally, early in the season, before other teams knew Gene, Carol would help position him behind the catcher.  Someone would tell him to announce, “Play Ball!”  He would then act as the umpire calling balls and strikes. Seriously, there were a couple of games, early in the season, when he went through the first three batters before the other team caught on!  Laughing he would say he was doing better than most major league umpires!  Helped to return to the bleachers, he would loudly cheer the exploits Carol and the team.  They assisted that church in rejoicing at the gift of being Christ’s community.  On Sundays there was no pretending. Rarely could a visitor leave worship in this city congregation who wasn’t first welcomed by Carol and Gene. Carol would follow up with a note shortly thereafter.  They practiced a generative, life affirming love, an ability to treat others with dignity and respect and thereby assist us all in remembering the community in which we were privileged to worship.  I am convinced that these two joyful disciples were a critical reason this urban congregation has grown in mission and ministry.   

Or, I think of a pastor who understood the importance of communities of joy.  The first holiday season in her new appointment, she watched as hundreds lined up in freezing weather for an annual charity giveaway – a few groceries and a frozen chicken.  Leaving her office and going outside she visited with folks waiting in that line.  Later she thought, “We can do better than this.”  Shortly thereafter she shared her concerns with the congregation’s outreach team. Some old-timers were offended. Who was this new pastor anyway?  She listened, explained her concerns, and suggested more conversations.  They met again, prayed and talked, and prayed some more.  “Those who stood in line were not our clients,” she said, “they are persons with names, families, stories.  They are part of our community.” Slowly a new idea emerged.  First, they would visit and invite some neighbors to join in planning.  The next year a “holiday store” replaced the frozen-chicken-give-away.  Several neighbors who only a year before stood outside, now volunteered as fellow workers.  Many neighbors received vouchers and were invited to come and “shop” for items of new clothing, toys and food. That day, no one stood outside.  Everyone was inside.  Carols were sung, laughter filled the hall, some helped wrap gifts. ALL were neighbors.

[xiii] Herman B Wells was a member of the parish in Bloomington, Indiana. A cradle Methodist, he was president, then chancellor of Indiana University over several decades.  Herman was a rotund, brilliant man who enjoyed good conversation.  His eyes danced as he shared from his encyclopedic memory. During one visit he winked as he said, “It is important to think about things in fifty-year blocks.” Chuckling, he added, “Of course it helps if you are ninety-five years old!” As Herman was at the time.

[xiv] Outler, Albert C., “A Sermon for the Uniting Conference of the United Methodist Church,” Dallas, Texas, 23 April 1968, p. 39. In the Albert C. Outler Papers at Bridwell Library.  Available at: https://www.umnews.org/-/media/umc-media/2018/04/09/20/43/outler_sermon_for_uniting_conference.ashx?la=en&rev=4181d891f1fc4aa3a645ae0dfd337593&hash=FC63DFB4E79C09A9A97933FAFA0DA8BDDF77A132

[xv] Ibid.  Drawing on the Consultation on Christian Unity (COCU) he named as our rootage “unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform.” 

[xvi] Ibid, p. 41.

[xvii] https://www.epaumc.org/news/rejoice-in-our-united-methodist-heritage/

[xviii] I believe parish ministry, denominational witness and shaping the future of the church as one-hundred-year work.  I have been inspired by religious and social movements beyond Methodism.  Movements like the Danish Folk School movement begun in the late 18th Century, inspired by Lutheran Pastor N.S.F. Grundvig.  This movement focused broadly on democratic education of the peasantry in the arts, literature, music, sports, dance, gardening and what he called “the living word.”  Over the next century social and cultural realities in Denmark were reshaped.  So much so that a century later a majority of the Danish legislature were graduates of a folk school.  While we hold dear our heritage, we must also be open to what I believe was Dr. Outler’s evangelism and ecumenical project and what Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon suggests when he writes The Future of Methodism is not Methodism.  Wes Jackson, for example, reminds us of need to reduce our dependance on energy-rich-carbon extracted from our soils, trees, coal, gas and oil.

[xix] As to unity, we have work to do.  As to ecumenism, I find myself agreeing with Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon, that The Future of Methodism is not Methodism.  When we focus on the words of Jesus in John 15 we need to remember that just two chapters further on we have the prayer of Jesus that his followers might be one. https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10112/the-future-of-methodism-is-not-methodism

[xx] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31.  Noting our personal and social insatiable appetite for lifestyles built on energy-rich carbon, he says homo sapiens as a “species out of context” (page 2) Soil, timber, coal, oil and gas – resources from ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground – have eased our labors, providing wealth and comfort to many. This he says, is our “carbon imperative,” or as his friend and co-author, Bill Vitek puts it, rather than human-nature, we would better speak of ours currently as “human-carbon nature.” (pages27-28).  If we are a species out of context in the natural world as Wes Jackson suggests, the pandemic in 2020 revealed North American Christians may be a faith group out of context. Might we find ways to live more fully in terms of our “human-spirit-nature”?  Wes Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”  I want to argue that inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.” Both are required. Scientists report this winter that over one-third of the carbon rich topsoil in Corn Belt in the Midwest (nearly 100,000 acres) has been completely lost.  See University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Corn belt farmland has lost a third of its carbon-rich soil.” (See ScienceDaily, 15 February 2021. Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210215160227.htm.)

[xxi] Wells, Samuel, “A Future That’s Bigger than the Past,” London: Canterbury Press, 2019, pp 126-127.

Connected to Bear Good Fruit

Regenerative Imagination: Connected to Bear Good Fruit

Presentation #2, North Texas Annual Conference, July 15, 2021

On June 4, 1941, C.S. Lewis preached one of only seven sermons ever believed to be preached by him.  It was at University Church, St. Mary’s Oxford during the height of the Second World War. (See the June 4, 2021 issue of Church Times for more on this.)

Lewis suggests that knowledge and wisdom grow in precisely those places where we are uncomfortable, including the repellent parts of holy scripture; and that, if we’re not puzzled, then perhaps we are just painting God in our own image. He calls all of us to do the intellectual hard work of getting outside our comfort zones.

He recognised that, even in 1941, it was a post-Christian England. However, he argues “if there is a divine being and the offer of eternal life, then we would do well to realise that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” person. Even the dullest and apparently most uninteresting person we encounter may one day be a creature of extraordinary glory, and this should shape everything: the way we conduct our friendships, our lives, and, of course, our politics.”

“Next only to the Blessed Sacrament,” he says, “our neighbour is the holiest object presented to our senses; and that is a great antidote to the kind of rudeness which we often show towards one another.”

Yesterday we talked of love as central to United Methodist theology and practice. Today, we look at connections where love is practiced today. See below. (The document will be posted for smaller devises in full later.)

Rooted and Grounded in Love

Let’s Talk! Attached below is a pdf copy of the first of three presentations shared at the sessions of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 14, 2021. I have no doubt that many will come to the question of “Does United Methodism Have a Future?” with a set of expectations that will be unsatisfied by these presentations. This is the dilemma of speaking to a situation in flux and an institutions under stress.

St. Andrew UMC, Plano, Texas

For many years, and continuing to this day, some believe there is a formula, a key, a right set of practices or doctrines that will solve the question of the declining influence and relevance of Christendom in our world. However, any fair-minded reading of our context and the complications of modernity, requires an admission that the old domination of Western religious institutions is rapidly passing away. No religious group is immune from this loss of influence and apparent relevance. (The largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists, are in the midst of dramatic decline in membership and attendance.)

United Methodist congregations come in many shapes and sizes (nearly 30,000 of them in the U.S.). We have multiple hospitals, child care, social service and education facilities across the nation. For example, over one hundred United Methodist institutions of higher education are scattered across the country. They are marks of the vision and commitments of past generations. Even so, United Methodism does not have the influence or cultural reach of the past. United Methodists have been growing in other parts of the world (Philippines, Africa and elsewhere; even in these global places growth is slowing).

For many years the mistaken belief was that the conservative or traditionalists were the growing center of North American Christianity. Some sophisticated social scientists who wrote about this ascendancy of “the Evangelicals,” as an inevitability. Sadly, United Methodism, was too often led to believe that aping the theologies and practices of these conservative groups would be our salvation. United Methodism was often distorted and focused in ways that were not true to our theological DNA. As it turns out now, taking a longer view, it appears that all denominations and theological camps now have declining numbers and influence.

I believe there is a faithful way forward for Christianity and the expression of it known as United Methodism waiting to unfold. These talks are NOT a blueprint for how to rebuild a denomination; rather they are in invitation to other sojourners to walk together acting in ways that would seek to follow the lead of Jesus.

Methodism Transformed from the Outside In

St. Andrew UMC, Plano Texas

Let’s Talk! Attached below is a pdf copy of the first of three presentations shared at the sessions of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 14, 2021. I have no doubt that many will come to the question of “Does United Methodism Have a Future?” with a set of expectations that will be unsatisfied by these presentations. This is the dilemma of speaking to a situation in flux and an institutions under stress.

For many years, and continuing to this day, some believe there is a formula, a key, a right set of practices or doctrines that will solve the question of the declining influence and relevance of Christendom in our world. However, any fair-minded reading of our context and the complications of modernity, requires an admission that the old domination of Western religious institutions is rapidly passing away. No religious group is immune from this loss of influence and apparent relevance. (The largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists, are in the midst of dramatic decline in membership and attendance.)

Sutter Creek UMC, California 2021

United Methodists congregations come in many shapes and sizes (nearly 30,000 of them in the U.S.). We have multiple hospitals, child care, social service and education facilities across the nation. For example, over one hundred United Methodist institutions of higher education are scattered across the country. They are marks of the vision and commitments of past generations. Even so, United Methodism does not have the influence or cultural reach of the past. United Methodists have been growing in other parts of the world (Philippines, Africa and elsewhere; even in these global places growth is slowing).

For many years the mistaken belief was that the conservative or traditionalists were the growing center of North American Christianity. Some sophisticated social scientists who wrote about this ascendancy of “the Evangelicals,” as an inevitability. Sadly, United Methodism, was too often led to believe that aping the theologies and practices of these conservative groups would be our salvation. United Methodism was often distorted and focused in ways that were not true to our theological DNA. As it turns out now, taking a longer view, it appears that all denominations and theological camps now have declining numbers and influence.

I believe there is a faithful way forward for Christianity and the expression of it known as United Methodism waiting to unfold. These talks are NOT a blueprint for how to rebuild a denomination; rather they are in invitation to other sojourners to walk together acting in ways that would seek to follow the lead of Jesus.

Here is the first presentation. I look forward to dialogue in response to these thoughts.

Saving Soul and Soil

Saving Soul and Soil

Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology

The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared.  Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready.  Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond.  Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i] 

kernzatli
Field of Kernza at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood?  The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others.  We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health.  What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.

The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment.  I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii]  A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort.  He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii] 

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.”  People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world.  More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures.  Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward?  This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be.  Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv]  The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.”  Both are required.

My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism.  We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century.  As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared.  We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles.  There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences.  We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work.  We were not ready to be at our best.

BloomingtonFUMC
First United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity.  There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future.  In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani.  Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo.  No.  I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins.  Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together.  Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus.  In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith.   We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.

In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.

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[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.

[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31

[iii] Ibid, pp. 27-28.

[iv] Ibid, p. 2

Hacked Christianity — UMC

Below are my comments responding to Jeremy Smith’s fine post in Hacking Christianity regarding the plan for United Methodism to move beyond the brokenness and harm of recent decades. (http://hackingchristianity.net/2020/01/the-art-of-the-deal-understanding-the-plan-of-separation-for-the-united-methodist-church.html) Yes, this is a schism… however, as many others have pointed out, this is a separation, a brokenness, an ideological chasm that has been going on for years.

My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.

Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.

Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.

What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.

Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.

A Crack in Everything

On Wednesday, December 18th the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump. It was a day of sadness and a day of hope. For me the hope didn’t ensue from the debate on the floor of congress or even the the vote to impeach. Rather it came from a surprising place, Christianity Today magazine.

Mark Galli, longtime editor of the magazine who is about to retire, wrote an editorial that gave voice to a bubbling discontent that has marinated among Evangelical Christians for years. In short, Galli asserted that Donald Trump should be impeached and removed. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.

Galli writes, this president’s actions and words are “profoundly immoral.” Trump, Mr. Galli asserts, “has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Was I surprised? Well, in truth my surprise was only that it has taken this long for an Evangelical leader with moral courage to surface. Over the past three years my Evangelical friends have lowered their gaze and voices when speaking of the wholesale surrender of Christian virtue to Donald Trump. They spoke of his enablers, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., having strayed far from any biblically normative ethic. Just how solid is the support for Mr. Trump?

There has been growing discontent and concern near the heart of important parts of the Evangelical universe. For years, words of concern have come from Fuller Seminary that the racist language and the horrific immigration policies of the Trump administration are not to be endorsed. Respected Evangelical colleges across the nation, places like Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, Wheaton in Illinois, Seattle Pacific, Houghton in New York have seen a growing willingness to say “enough, this is not who we are!”

In May 2019 there was widely expressed faculty and student discontent at Taylor University in Indiana when Vice President Pence was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed a petition of concern regarding the racism and bigotry of the administration. There was a request to rescind the invitation, to no avail. Mr. Pence spoke; but dozens of the graduates and faculty did not participate or wore symbols of protest saying “We Are Taylor Too.”

In the state universities, like in my hometown, Evangelical student organizations are finding young Christian students who are embarrassed by the claims that Trump represents an Evangelical agenda. They discover alternative voices and perspectives.

I listen to the pundits who say the Evangelical support is a solid wall, eighty percent (80%) or more of the Evangelicals will support this administration. I doubt it. I doubt it will be there in November. O yes, I suspect a majority of those who wear the “Evangelical” label will march in line. However, there is dissent, especially among the young.

So, my belief, my hope at least, is that December 18, 2019 was an inflection point, a crack in the silence, a step by the honest adventurers away from all of the aiding and abetting. The gift of truth was spoken even amid the threats to “stay in line.” This crack in the facade of official Evangelicalism is an opening for small virtues like manners, and greater virtues like truth, altruism and beauty. I want to express gratitude ahead of time to our courageous Evangelical sisters and brothers speaking words of truth in the new year. May your tribe increase.

I am reminded of words of Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (From Anthem by Leonard Cohen.  See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)

Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way in the year ahead that we may see your pathways of hope.  Amen

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

First — this apology to my non-United Methodist friends and readers.  We United Methodists are amid some “denominational challenges” just now.  I have written this letter as a way to encourage some of our more traditional and conservative leaders to answer five questions about their purposes and basic intentions.  You see, I fear this “new effort” known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association in North America is merely a building of a highway for schism among folks in our denomination divided by our views around homosexuality.  My prayer is that raising these questions may help identify some of the distortions often made by these, my friends, who claim to be more “Biblical, evangelical, and Wesleyan” than others of us.  Forgive this interlude in my blog entries — please check out the recent post on my  embarrassing moments as a pastor.  It is much more fun… and probably more enlightening.
 

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Dear Friends of the Wesley Covenant Association,
As I read the names of the founding sponsors of the Wesley Covenant Association, I know many of you — have known you for years.  You have been colleagues in our work as United Methodists.  You are committed pastors, known theological educators and activist organizers in the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement in United Methodism.  Now you offer a new organization, a new association.  Hopefully your claim that the Wesley Covenant Association is a re-booting, a move toward re-discovery, a signal of readiness to traverse beyond the tread-worn battles of the past is true. 
I pray  you join me in the realization that the younger, rising generation of United Methodist seems rather disinterested in a rehearsal of the same old arguments, using the same labels and categories.  Our battles still may appear to be unresolved, but there is little doubt they are increasingly insignificant in the lives and faith of our grandchildren.  I would be helped if you could answer five questions.  They are ones asked before, at various times and places.  Not yet having received an answer I repeat them now – this time with a renewed sense of urgency as I fear the WCA may be simply a laying of the predicate for a schism in our denomination.
These questions of you are not rhetorical.  I sincerely would like to hear from you:
  • If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share? 
  • If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?  Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
  • If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
  • If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation?  What is the hermeneutic employed?
  • If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?

 

Answers to these questions would help me know if I might be included in the “covenant” you seek to draw.  You see, I fear your appropriation of the word “covenant” is more of a way to exclude and narrow than it is a way to a hope-filled future.  It is a misdirection away from the more profound meaning of covenant that comes from scripture.  The covenant, I believe we share is much broader and more profoundly enduring than that which can be restricted by a few paragraphs in the ever-shifting-language of The United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Using the word “covenant” in this narrow way may be beneficial to an ecclesial political agenda.  It may serve to set folks like me outside of “the elect.”  I reject this use of covenant language in this way.  I will not be thus separated by your linguistic legerdemain.
It was after all, conservative theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, of blessed memory, who taught the essential difference between “contract” and “covenant.”  Our faith covenant binds us together by something deeper and more profound than contractual language can ever contain.
A contract is limited to the temporal, “quid pro quo” reality.  It is an effort to control and claim exclusive authority over things that are passing, temporal.  It seeks to hold us together, by our past rules, limited language and small understandings.  It is a way to count up grievances and deny our commonweal.  It suggests the interpretation of scripture is the exclusive possession of one party and only this view will be acceptable for all United Methodists.  A “contract” seeks to limit vision, thwart new expression, block new insights walling them in to past categories and perspectives.
Covenant is not contract.  Covenant is God’s gift for us ALL — something that draws us into the future, TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.  Covenant continually ReCenters us in Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote clearly of the church being centered in Christ where boundaries drawn by those who seek to limit the expansiveness of God’s activity in the world will not hold. 
Believing we all belong to Christ and this is our true covenant hope, I remain, your brother,
Philip Amerson

Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

xrayview
Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

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What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>