Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1
A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!
Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.
Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.
A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.
A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.
The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.
Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.
For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.
In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.
By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.
For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.
The wedding was to be an oppulent affair. No detail overlooked. Expensive floral boquets adorned every corner of the sanctuary. The string quartet rehearsing, women attendents doning gorgeous gowns and men were in tuxedos, all in anticipation as a stretch limo waited at the door to parade the bride and groom to a reception for hundreds following the wedding. As pastor, I observed it all with embarrassment. These were fine young people; I liked and prayed for them. This event was detailed in bridal magazines as one costing hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars! This, at a time when our congregation was giving considerable attention, energy and resources to aid the homeless and hungry around us. What witness did this extravagence offer?
Preparing to preside, heavy hearted, I put the robe over my shoulders and picked up the order of service. Immediately, my sadness melted; I began to laugh. This perfectly planned wedding would be remembered, not so much for the wealth displayed but for a typo atop the custom-printed bulletin. There it was on the second line, the church was identified as “The First Untied Methodist Church.” Amid all the preparations, the printer and spell-check had missed it. The church was not named the “First United Methodist,” but rather indellibly printed were the words “First Untied Methodist.” We were UNTIED, and at a wedding!
Steve Harper recently wrote that the “The Future of the United Methodist Church is Now.” The denomination’s 2020 General Conference (an event scheduled for every four years) has now been delayed for the third time due to the COVID pandemic. It will now be convened in 2024. In response, a break-away group, identifying itself as “traditionalist,” indicated they can “wait no longer.” They are forming a new and seperate denomination, the Global Methodist Church to be initiated in May 2022. Our denominational un-tiedness is on full display. Dr. Harper advises that for the large majority who do not exit, the phrase “United Methodist” should be understood as a verb. He suggests to be about intentionally and actively forging a renewed identity. To be passive, he writes, is for “congregations to be impotent and irrelevant.”
It is time to move from being “untied” to being “united” again. Earlier Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren, shaped by the likes of the Wesley brothers, Philip Otterbien, Jacob Albright, Barbara Heck, E. Stanley Jones and Georgia Harkness, James Thomas, Leontyne Kelly each pointed to God’s redemptive work as resource. Even so; the doors opening to the future require new eyes to see the ways forward. Isaiah 43 comes to mind — behold, God is doing a new thing. The New Testament is filled with the call to “turn around” (metanoia) and walk a renewed and ever-renewing path.
Emerging from my observations as pastor and seminary administrator, and thinking of United Methodism as a verb, I offer here ten turnings for a renewal of identity and mission for United Methodists:
Repentance, not Reactivity: Let us repent of the damage done to the “other.” Our healthiest future will involve repentence. I do not suggest this is easy, or obvious, or perfectly done, or that we should give up core beliefs/commitments/actions, or our welcome of LGBTQ+ persons throughout our church. However, we can give up the practice of “talking about” rather than “talking with” one another. We have been too quick to react and too slow to repent. Repentance takes a lifetime, reactivity is a quick fix, that in my experience doesn’t work and damages more than it heals. My dear friend, Walter Wangerin, Jr., died last summer. Watching the warfare inside of our Untied Methodist Church these days, I recall what Walt shared with me on more than one occassion. Walt left his beloved Missouri Synod Lutheran ancestry, the denomination of his birth, early in his pastoral career to join another Lutheran body. He would remind me that “schism in the body of Christ was a mark of sinfulness on all sides.”
Resurrection, not Rebuilding: This is God’s work. We are privileged to join. Jesus spoke of those who lose their life “for my sake” might find it. Much energy has been spent and is being spent on trying to “save the denominaton.” As a wise pastor-friend of mine once observed, “People don’t get burned out, It’s mostly that they were committed to the wrong thing in the first place.” Saving a denomination has left us in a place where the melodrama obscures God’s first purpose — bringing life and hope to the world. It is time to let the many assumptions about power, place and authority die and trust our future in God’s hands. Prayer more than plan, laughter more than grievance, humility shaped by community and friendship more than caucus will be signs of resurrection. In these years it may be more important to “give up” rather than “gain up” in restructuring. At the center of our story is death and resurrection. Yet, it is the thing that scares us most of all. We seem not to believe that resurrection doesn’t come without a death.
Welcome, not Exclusion: Let us unite in acting as a loving community with the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised. Our denominational squabbles have turned us inward, unable to accept the interruptions of the Spirit at work at our doorsteps. Let us turn to know the names of our neighbors and their stories, not as those who we seek to fix but rather the others with whom we share, together, the transforming love of Christ.
Heart Religion, not Statute: At our best we are a people who value Christian Experience, a people who practice a faith that is confirmed by a tranformed heart and mind (a metanoia) that is sustained and flourishes by living in loving relationship with other believers. Rather than more rules to keep things as they were, we might look to less standing still and more turning to live in loving relationships with other believers. The Shaker hymn “Tis a Gift to Be Simple” speaks of “turning, turning, till we come round right.”
Ecumenical, not Faith Enclave: Let us turn to truly be a global and ecumenical church, not in words but in practice. Let us see the beauty all around in the practice of grass-roots ecumenism and interfaith sharing. Let’s do this, moving past the often thinly veiled paternalism and colonialism that has shaped much of our talk and action about “mission.” This will involve the essential task of learning from those in other places and who seek to follow Christ in different ways.
Economy of Love, not the Marketing of Scarcity: Let us turn from, and give up, the “business facade and facination” that has distorted our core Christian identity and purpose. Too much time, energy, and resources have been directed to “best practice” models from business or from scarcity models designed to hoard resources. There are certainly lessons to draw from business and commerce, but where is our witness to “faith, hope and charity?” Strategies and designs that turn congregations into branch offices have done real damage. Rather than seeing God’s people gathered in unique communities, with distinctive gifts, expensive programs have been established that, while well-meaning, in too many places are counter-productive. Pastors are bombarded with the message that unless they do it like corporate America, or a megachurch somewhere, they are failing. They are told by some authority unfamilar with the ministry context, or the gifts of the people they know, how to “be fruitful.” (There are important parallel lessons coming from well-intended but ultimately destructive models in modern agriculture whose full damage to our environment and food resources is only now becoming apparent.)
Encourage Positive Deviance, not Scaleable Formulas: Let us celebrate the overlooked places, sometimes small or nontraditonal, where ministry results in changed lives, new ways of being church, and witness that is otherwise overlooked. Such places of “positive deviance” offer dozens of exciting examples of witness in finding community with homeless persons, in caring for God’s creation, in welcoming the immigrant, in giving witness in the corporate board room, in demonstrating our opposition to war and violence in all forms. Let these be the ministries we seek to replicate, more than a mega-church or a drive-in restaurant chain.
Watching Over in Love, not with Sanction: Let us turn to focus again on building and sustaining small group relationships and the practice of “watching over one another in love.” As my friend Michael Mather puts it, “If we watched over one another in love, we would not keep missing the abundant acts of grace, charity, and encouragement that happen in all of our churches and that would pull our heart and attention to somewhere that would certainly please God.” Whether called “class meeting” or “covenant discipleship” or any other name, we United Methodists have a remarkable tradition here.
Horizontal, rather than Vertical: Let the connection be rewoven — horizontally. This could model for the world a different way of being community, a way that has been lost. This will involve discovering again and turning toward the value of circuits, of districts, subdistricts, relationships with and among our schools, colleges, seminaries, hospitals and other institutions. It would change what we counted and valued. General Boards and Agencies (whichever ones remain) should turn toward acting as weavers and reweavers of connections, turning from perceiving themselves as the center of action and returning to the earlier practice of assisting others in flourishing and being sustainable. The models await development and our moving from the heavily top-down and bureaucratic approaches of the past generation. Too many laypersons were placed on the sidelines as conferences merged, institutions drifted away from positive connections with the wider church. More attention to our colleges and universities is overdue. Our seminaries too need to think horizontally. Some will need to merge, some should close or discover another mission. All should become more cooperative. In preparing pastors, United Methodist theological students should spend at least one year in a United Methodist seminary as a part of this reweaving and building relationships for mission.
Democratic doorkeepers, not Border Guards. Perhaps we need to stop merging conferences and allow for core polity and mission structures that are smaller, more agile and more adaptable. Perhaps these units might be the size of a couple of districts today with an elected presiding elder or table of leadership. Focus could be on the social and cultural ecology of each place – urban, suburban or rural. Perhaps there would be no bishops or superintendents at all, as is the case in other Methodist bodies. Or, if we continue in the episcopal format, explore a term limited episcopacy rather than life-episcopacy. Perhaps all appointments beyond the local church should also be expected to serve in a local congregation as well as in a non-congregational setting.
These, then, are Ten Turnings that might be considered as we move from being the Un-tied church. They are, in the Protestant tradition, a call to be a people who are Forever Reforming (Semper Reformanda), or as the Methodist Bicentennial motto in the United States put it “Forever Beginning.”
In recent days there has been much talk about a conspiracy around the postponing of the General Conference, yet again. It is charged that General Conference 2020 is being further delayed for some political advantage and suggested that those “moderates” and “progressives” who plan to stay in the United Methodist church, have successfully plotted to postpone any the General Conference until 2024, as a way to undercut the plans of the “traditionalists.” I laugh at such notions. Having spent much of my life around the corridors of authority in the denomination, I know that our church leaders have problems organizing a three float parade! Something as dramatic as a power play to change the General Conference dates three times, for a power advantage, is as likely as a Southern Baptist giving up immersion. Further, the COVID pandemic that shut down the gathering of persons from around the world, leving a singnificant minority unable to obtain visas, is not a conspiracy of anyone’s planning.
Let’s face it, we live and serve in an anacronistic institution. It is one we don’t know how to handle. We need let go of the foolish conspiracy thinking that has marked too much of our brokenness, and for too long, and which is, let me say it again – sinful.
My friend Noah was a Trappist monk who two decades after the changes in the Roman Catholic Church from Vatican II, shared with me an insight about his disappointment that there was not more renewal in denominational practices, structure and mission. Speaking of his sadness that positive changes were painfully slow to come, Noah said, “At the monestary, we changed our dress, our leadership patterns, and the arrangement of our furniture in the chapel. We changed our music, our liturgy, and our educational curriculum.” He paused and smiling said, “We tried changing everything… but our hearts.”
There is much in our United Methodist tradition(s) that is of great value… and much that need be changed. I look and chuckle to see the multiple ways folks are trying to arrive at perfection, like the effort at that wedding service where I presided so many years ago. In remembering, I begin to laugh out loud. We who call United Methodism home are indeed more UN-TIED than we are UNITED. There are now, and will be, many plans as to how the future should be approached. We are indeed a verb — but too often in the passive tense. And knowing this, and knowing human nature, I chuckle. As God’s church, perhaps we can find ways whereby our hearts might be changed and not just our structures and ways of sanctioning. Perhaps these “Ten Turnings” offer a few ideas, hunches really, as to where we can discover the God already at work among us.
Recently while sorting though an old file, I found the letter from Professor Gilbert James written in 1970. I had taken a leave from my formal seminary education in Kentucky and was in a year-long intership, teaching at the United Methodist School IPA, in the Republic of Panamá. Professor James at Asbury Seminary and I exchanged correspondence during the year. I was taking a reading course from him while away from campus.
In the letter I recently discovered, Dr. James asks that I not share its contents because “if expressed openly on campus would be considered high treason.” Hyperbole is all too comon in the academy. However, I think Gilbert was quite serious. His comments in the letter would have created problems and perhaps even censure.
My spouse, Elaine, and I were in Panama. Back in the U.S. Gilbert was confronted with a “spontaneous revival” which had begun at the college across the street. Others have since spoken and written about the 1970 Asbury College Revival in positive terms. There are, indeed, powerful stories of persons finding emotional and physical healing and being restored in their faith.
What were these controversial comments in the letter? Gilbert writes of his dismay watching folks “getting high on ‘mass enthususiasm.'” As a social scientist, educated in both sociology and psychology, what he observed was a religious fanaticism, interpreted with narrow fundamentalist language, and celebrated with “abysmal Biblical ignorance.” Only that!
Some saw in the enthusiastic fervor at Asbury College in 1970 a great time of spiritual renewal. Gilbert noted there was good, but expressed concerns rooted in his years of experience with such spiritual awakenings. There is irony in the fact that Gilbert James had spent much of his life as an evangelist, attending and preaching in many camp meetings and revivals. Between 1946 and 1960 he was the Superintendent of the Department of Interracial Evangelism for the Free Methodist Church. He knew the genuine article and celebrated it. In 1970 he also was troubled.
Knowing my teacher as a world class provocatuer, I suspect that his fear of being accused of being a traitor to the faith is correct. He might have been charged with something like “high theological treason” in that particular time and place five decades ago — and in many places still today. He saw some of the fanaticism of the events at the college across the street, spilling over into the seminary. My guess is that during the 1970 Asbury Revival his wife, Esther, had to tone him down each evening; although, I suspect she shared many of his perspectives.
With some discomfort I recall that Gilbert was a revivalist. He believed in seeking both personal and institutional renewal. My discomfort is primarily due to the fact that his breadth of theological vision seems to be in short supply in today’s world. Evangelism has been given over to a narrow set of understandings. It has been limited to only a change in an individual — who is being introduced into thinly disguised social and political understandings. Unlike the revivals in the Second Great Awkening, where a wide array of societal saw as injustices were addressed (poverty, slavery, voting rights for women, etc.), there is scant focus on institutional practices that need transformation, apart from a short list that includes fights against abortion and homosexuality.
Gilbert, the evangelist, believed in personal conversion — in transformation, possible through faith in Christ. Such change is affirmed in the letter — but he knew of an evangelism that was much deeper and wider. And he knew of the threats of individualism and fundamentalism that were at play. There were troublesome signs for him in the events surrounding the 1970 Asbury Revival that I don’t believe have been made public before.
So, here, 52 years later I offer this insight into his perspective of the 1950 Asbury Revival. I have highlightedin bold some passages mentioned above, the underlining was his.
Letter from Dr. Gilbert James – March 31, 1970 – Wilmore, Kentucty To: Phil and Elaine Amerson – Republic of Panamá
Dear Phil and Elaine,
“Thanks for your good letters and your patience with me… “ [Professor James then writes a few paragraphs about a reading course for Phil.]… The letter then continues speaking of the 1970 Asbury Revival.
“I am sure you have read of the revival and all of the excitement around here with teams going out in all directions – classes suspended – and the academic quarter an educational shambles.“
“There were some remarkable individual examples and changed lives and I am grateful for every one of them. There has been, however, I must in all honesty confess, a great deal of shear non-sense that was nothing more than “getting high” on mass enthusiasm. I have never witnessed in my life more expressions of atrocious theology and abysmal biblical ignorance than I heard from the “witnessing” lips of those college students. As a result, we underwent the usual “exorcism of demons” at the college until it was suppressed and now we have the most frightful outbreak of “tongues” at the seminary that we have ever suffered. The word is out that Asbury Seminary is the “Mecca” for the tongues movement. I am just sick about it. The most remarkable aspect of the whole affair is not that it occurred, but rather that as much good was accomplished as was with all the inane and disrespectful antics that went on with it.“
“Please do not write back to anyone about this, for what I am writing to you, if expressed openly on the campus would be considered high treason.” I repeat, I am glad for the work of a sovereign God, in spite of man’s ignorance and sinfulness, but I predict it will be years to fully recover from the unfortunate results that have damaged the reputation of Asbury and reflected on the sound biblical basis of her message.“
“I am right in the midst of the elaborate planning necessary for the Chicago program. We received $50,000 from Lilly for the experiment, and this is our big chance to try to seek some new directions in theological education. After a full day’s consultation with the Minister’s Study Board director of the NCC. He said, in great seriousness, “This is one of the most exciting and unique experiments in American theological education. He has agreed to direct our evaluation of the program and we hope to get a monograph out of it.“
“Love to you both – I must close. Write soon about books you want. Pray for me – please.“
Teaching in Panamá, I was thousands of miles away from the spiritual, emotional, psychological cyclone richocheting in and around Wilmore, Kentucky. I was far from the events my teacher, Gilbert, saw at close proximity. However, a “spiritual awakening” was continuing for me at the time in Panamá. There I saw more clearly the injustice, racism and violence of institutions and nations. Gilbert James had been insturmental in alerting me of similar structures in the U.S. in my earlier years as his student. In Panamá, these were brought into even sharper relief. I saw, up close, what it was like to live in a nation suffering under a dictator who was propped up by the U.S. I saw the racism institutionalized in the practices of the Canal Zone and the abuses of so called “aid projects” privileging of wealthy, both in Panamá and the U.S. I saw hungry children dumpster diving to have something to eat. And there was the corruption of young women sold into sexual arrangements as teenagers. Evangelization needed to be wider and deeper than “individuals getting high on mass enthusiasm.”
In my review of materials from the 1970 Revival and from reports I recall receiving from others at the time, there were many testimonies about giving up cheating, lying, gossip, drinking alcohol, smoking, sexual petting, premarital sex or persons having an “insufficient prayer life.” It is almost exclusively about individual sins or a shortcoming of one’s self. Where are the witnesses who say, “We must now speak out against racism, war, poverty or violence?”
I do not agree with all of Gilbert’s perspectives, including some in this letter. That would make him happy… and he would, no doubt, want to have a conversation about where we differ and what we might together learn. Even so, I very much believe his call to an intelligent faith that combines personal and social transformation, informed by careful biblical and theological work was right then, and continues to be right today.
I can already hear some saying, but you must begin with the individual, then “changed persons will change society.” My response: Where is your evidence? It has now been fifty years. If you disagree, please point me to how this “revival” made the kind of difference in our society that came from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The Cane Ridge Revival began forty-six miles from Wilmore and one-hundred-and-sixty-nine years earlier.
Other “Awakenings” or revivals involved more than an adjustment of personal pieties or individual behaviors and beliefs. For early Evangelicals like John Wesley or John Calvin, institutional changes accompanied personal change. For the Anabaptists, a new personal faith meant a commitment to pacifism and the persecution that ensued. There is the conversion of John Newton who wrote the lyric we now sing as “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s conversion led him to become an abolitionist, after serving as the captian of slave ships. More recently one thinks of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in England and the ensuing spiritual awakening resulting in international work at peacemaking (See: Fire in Coventry, Varney, Stephen: Hoder and Stoughton Ltd., 1974). Dozens of other examples could be cited; the sadness is that even today Asbury College and Seminary have fallen into the narrow valleys of a tamed evangelism and pursue cultural stances that are more informed by reactionary political elites and shaped by categories of individualism.
Gilbert James was way ahead of me in 1970, and I suspect even now. When traveling with him for a seminary class in Chicago, New York, Detroit or Minneapolis, it was always amazing how he nudged us forward to see the broader ecology and the challenges of ministry in urban settings. It was even more astonishing meeting the people he brought to those seminars. Today I think of Letty Russell, Bill Stringfellow, Bill Pannell, George Riddick, Richard Leuke, Stan Hallett and George Weber, to name only a few.
A 1974 article by Gilbert entitled “The Use and Abuse of Power: A Study of the Principalities and Powers” demonstrates his understandings of the challenges Christians face in urban ecologies. He understood the need to seek transformation that is more than individual renewal (http://place.asburyseminary.edu/firstfruitspapers/15/).
My last visit with Gilbert was, I believe, in the fall of 1978. Having finished my doctoral work, I was asked to cover his seminary classes for a semester. My brilliant teacher was decending into early onset dementia. He would die in 1982 at the age of 66. I traveled to the seminary from my home at the time in Evansville, Indiana.
As I walked down a hallway in the seminary’s administraiton building, there was Gilbert heading toward the mail room. As he approached, we both began to weep. Then he gave me a hug and said, “I should know but I can’t place who you are.”
Ah, Gilbert, my friend, my beloved teacher, what is truly sad is that too few today remember who YOU are!
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.
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, boxer, 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 would spill over and 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.