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.

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.

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.

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.