Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 


In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.

An Untamed Pastor’s Fifty-Year Window

A Leaf from the Notebook of an Untamed Pastor: A Fifty Year Window

2018 marks my fiftieth year as an ordained pastor.  Five decades!  Many fine memories, good friends and much learning.  Wonderful, loving people have been teachers for me at every stop.  As former Indiana University President Herman B Wells once told me, “One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.”  Dr. Wells then laughed — he was 93 years old at the time. 

So, what do I see more clearly in 2018?  What might I share from a fifty-year window into this vocation?

Five pastors of Broadway UMC regather in 2016: left to right -Phil Amerson, Rachel Metheny, Michael Mather, Mary Ann Moman and S. Baik.

A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastorIt’s time to speak as a person of faith in an untamed fashion.  What we face in our nation is SIN — a clear and present danger to the spiritual health of our society and believers.   I have been too cautious in not speaking in terms of faith and in scriptural language.  I have not clearly called for repentance — from DJT.  Nor repentance for myself and so many in our nation. 

Clearly, ideology and grasping for power have replaced decency shaped by biblical and faith understandings.  Have we had other presidents who were sinful? — Of course — in fact, this is a character flaw, sin, we all are challenged by.  More to the point — it is the acknowledgement of sinfulness that marks movement to maturity and spiritual health.

In DJT we are witnessing an assault on truth, on the poor, on the immigrant, on God’s creation.  It is sinful.  This is a daily assault — sometimes hourly assault.  Our judicial and legislative systems, designed to align with highest religious values, are continually being threatened and undermined. Name-calling has become more normative than honest dialogue.  Those who disagree with the president are threatened with verbal abuse, even jail.  This is wrong.  Accepting it is a partnership with evil.  Sadly some support comes from those brothers and sisters who claim to be Christian — yet, little of what they argue appears to be established on scriptural basis or on principles of disciples.

On July 15, 2016, when Mr. Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, I was almost immediately troubled.  My pastoral radar sounded an alarm.  Bluntly, the fears unleashed, the thinly veiled racism and factual distortions, layered higher and higher, were anti-Christian.  My experienced eyes saw a person who was clearly a troubled, angry and manipulative man.  He belittled others so easily and thought far too highly of himself.  Over the months that have passed these initial indicators of the man’s soul-sickness have only become more tragically and dramatically evidenced by sinful decisions and impulses. 

I have decided to become an unleashed pastor because what we are witnessing is dangerous to our future and that of our grandchildren.  What we see unfolding comes straight out of Stalin’s play book — it is a pattern of disinformation, demonization and displacement.  (See Anne Applebaum’s fine book Red Famine.)

Let me offer a pastor’s call for repentance.  My own confession first.  I have been too timid to speak of the sinfulness of Mr. Trump’s words and actions.   I have been too quick to allow those who argue a false equivalency, his defenders, suggesting that the 2016 presidential election was between two equally flawed candidates. No. This is simply NOT TRUE, based on any fair-minded look at the options.  Was Secretary Clinton plagued by her own failings? — of course.  However, I am bold to claim we have journeyed in the ways of the devil after this election far more than had there been a different outcome. What we face now scriptures speak of as the evil of principalities and powers.  The spiritual well-being of our nation is at risk.

As a pastor, every year I would meet with the church’s nominating committee.  Our task?  To propose leaders the upcoming year.   Honestly, if Donald Trump were a member and his name proposed for any leadership task, I would quickly speak against him in almost any role.  I would speak about his not being a “good fit.”  No place for such a man as an assistant usher or a parking lot attendant, until there was evidence of more spiritual health.  And I certainly wouldn’t want him anywhere near the finance committee, youth work or buildings and grounds committees.  His evident narcissism and duplicity would be my guide — based on experience.

Fifty years have sharpened my radar about people.  Yes, I have made mistakes in this judgement — and keep learning from them.  And, yes, I know people can change — I have witnessed this.  However, my experience has taught that change comes with personal awareness of brokenness and the knowledge of the need to accept God’s transforming gifts in one’s life.  None of which are evident in this man.  If any role were offered, it would be the opportunity to spend a year working (silently) alongside the poor and studying scripture with a good teacher.  That would be an appropriate place for DJT – a place to begin a journey to healing and renewal… It would be an invitation to conversion.  I do not know the wounds contributing to his arrogance, masked low-self-confidence and sinful actions — but they are not helped by the enabling going on by many politicians and alleged religious leaders.

We are a nation struggling under the spell of a narcissistic, sin-burdened, con-artist.  A man who lies so frequently that truth and falsehood are continually blurred.  Can anyone account for a need to claim to be a “stable genius.”  Such hubris, such arrogance!  Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan making such a claim — with a straight face? My dear Republican friends, what have you endured… and so many of you accepted as normal?  We have a self designated “stable genius” who doesn’t read, has almost no understanding of geopolitical historical realities and bases our nation’s future on own self-aggrandizement.  I do give thanks for Republicans like Steve Schmidt, Jeff Flake, David Jolly and Mitt Romney.  Perhaps they will help the party and our nation — save it’s soul.  However, they may not be enough.  More is required of us all.

Wesley UMC, Urbana, Illinois — One of the many great centers of campus ministry for the denomination.

The United Methodist church once claimed a mission to “Reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness.”  Sadly, our recent response to the assault on our nation’s highest values, and Christianity itself, has been muted at best.  We do speak a word on behalf of the immigrant and the poor — but we say nothing about the sinfulness of our nation’s leaders at this critical time. So much for reforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness. 

We have known greatness.  Our work in education and mission offer remarkable hope.  There have also been times when we have been an embarrassment to ourselves and our nation.  Now, as we are silent, I believe is a time when we should be embarrassed.

We have failed before — Methodists back-tracked from our early impulses against slavery or took too long to support our courageous women seeking suffrage and equality.  Still, like Legion in scriptures, upon being confronted by the Christ, we somehow turned around and came to our senses on these matters and many others.  This is the way sinful persons and institutions change.  But there is also potential for movement in another direction — it is this sinful downward movement I fear for our nation (and church) just now.   I speak as an untamed pastor, shaped by this denominational tradition and filled with awareness of many of my own shortcomings. 

Still I speak as one with experience — experience in recognizing sin-sickness and the need for repentance.  One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.






Hoosiers Finding Voice

Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana

Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.

I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States.  It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines.  Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society?  NO!

With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting.  In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around.  We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves. 

Where is there hope?  In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.”  I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc.  I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.”  I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts.  You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.

If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society.  We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators.  Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people.  So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

Pastors at Broadway UMC in the 1980s re-gathered at memorial for Rev. Frank Sablan, 9/7/17.

There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served.  At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway.  We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked.  Good people, still sharing their gifts.  Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter. 

We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out.  Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation.  If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.

A copy of the petition by Indiana United Methodists is here: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.


A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.

We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.

In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.

The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.

We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.

Standing Behind the President?

Standing Behind the President?


Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation.  Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17.  He spoke his mind.  In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished.  It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.

Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings.  He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally.  His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing.  My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him. 

It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday.  There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.

The question before us all now is where do we stand?  Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday.  However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?

White House “leaders” playing Musical Chairs — Who will be left?    Photo by USA Today,
February 17, 2017

We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House.  Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters.  They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.”  The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”  As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”

Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  How then shall we live?

Is Mr. Trump redeemable?  Yes, of course, as a person.  I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion.  However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?”  To that I would answer “NO.”  We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration.   I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.

What then to do?  Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there.  If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do? 

Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?”  As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place.  I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures.  We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities.  We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness.  We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)

We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems.  For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources.  We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.

And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions. 

We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council.  In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away.  Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass.  Encourage and support him or her. 

Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.”  I believe our democracy is up to it.  I pray our democracy is up to it.


Post Script — Why My Strong Words:

I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday.  After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency.  My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect.  However,  I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world.  I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below.  It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists.  So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.

Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength.  Sad.  He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday.  Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.”  No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.

As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters.  The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke.  Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency?  I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO.  This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events.  Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE.  He is, after all, the president of the United States.

There are multiple sides to our nation’s story.  Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that.  However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.

Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left.  All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally.  The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it.  White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years.  Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House.  When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.


Restoring Broken Connections 

Restoring Broken Connections

Citizenship depends on connection.   Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution.  Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”

quote-only-by-restoring-the-broken-connections-can-we-be-healed-connection-is-health-wendell-berry-87-40-31-1.jpgBerry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.”  It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center.  Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals.  Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.

  • Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package.  Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states. 
  • Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
  • A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
  • There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
  • The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels.  Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care.  These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s.  This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.

The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.

I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church.  Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people.  My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.


I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor.  She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.” 

I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks.  Still we seem slow to reconnect with them.  The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me.  Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand.  And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.

More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation.  We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference.  There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions.  To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals.  It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.

When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond? 

Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader.  It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership. 

For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change.  I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections.   I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich.  I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.

We are not alone.  Others are seeking to build connections as well.  Let me tell you about my friend.  A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state.  What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish.  So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments.  Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great!  This is just where I am supposed to be!”  He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him. 

I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature.  He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class.  He becomes for me a sign of hope.  He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections. 

How can I not strive to do the same?






The Season of Splintering

The Season of Splintering

Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341.  The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law.  Somewhere.  Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.”  Somewhere.

There was nothing fixed by this.  This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist.  Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces.  And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something. 

It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people.  Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.”  This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church.  And, somewhere there is celebration.

The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status.  A fair process based on whose assessment?  Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place?  Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group?  Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?

Somewhere there is joy.  Somewhere hearts are light.  It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty.  They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen.  Is that it?

Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place?  Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences?  Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks?  Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.

I know something of the south and value so much of what I know.  My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary.  There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission.  At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown. 

Chapel was required at Asbury College.  My seat mate was Patty.  Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination.   If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.”  She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.”  Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.”  Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.

Front of Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University

Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued.  Still Patty had it right, I think.  She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her.  Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.”  Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me.  Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.

In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago.  It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles.  Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.

The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism.  It arrives now in real and troubling ways.  In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins. 

I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father.  He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination.  As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education.  Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay.  I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.”  It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south.  I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?

I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations.  Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me.  It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth.  And I still think of Patty.

During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay.  And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay.  Somewhere there is celebration.   Not among these good folks.  We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.

Somewhere there is celebration.  I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.

Some may celebrate.  I weep, I grieve.  The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter. 

An Ecology of Hope

Truth on the Scaffold and An Ecology of Hope

I find it difficult to be hopeful these days — about many things — especially our nation’s commitment to the care of God’s creation.  With Scott Pruitt confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency we quite literally have a case of “the fox guarding the hen-house.”  What might we do and where might we find hope?

I spoke to this yesterday at the University of Evansville Founder’s Day event.  In this address (attached below) I cited the comments made by environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken.

Harken gave a surprisingly hope-filled address at the University of Portland in 2009. It was titled You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring.  When asked,” he says, “if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse… Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, re-imagine, and reconsider.

Like Paul Harken, I am hopeful, despite the climate change deniers, skeptics and so-called “luke warmers.”  Still optimism does not come easily.  It requires that we join our voices in full-throated demands that we dare not continue to destroy the gift of God’s creation.

Trains loading at Gibson County Coal Mine

In my address at the university I noted that “There are more toxic super polluting power plants around Evansville, Indiana than around any other large or midsized city in the nation.  Millions of pounds of toxic air-pollution are produced within a thirty-mile radius each year.  Of the twenty-one plants identified as super polluters in the United States, four of them are in this circle. (There are five super polluting plants in Indiana and four of them are within fifty miles of the campus.)” 

See full address at: ue-founders-day-2-19-17.

Dr. Stephen Jay of IUPUI’s School of Public Health notes “In Indiana industrial greenhouse-gas emissions are second only to Texas domestically, and exceed those from Israel, Greece and 185 other countries.”Emissions from coal-burning plants are not good for our health and they bring rapidly increasing destruction for our planet. A growing number of studies demonstrate this. Such pollution is correlated with higher incidences of heart disease, pulmonary problems and certain cancers.

Cayuga coal power plant in Vermillion County

Way back in 1979, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, I quoted the Spencer County coroner who seeing the increasing incidence of serious health problems and death said, “If the people knew the truth, they’d panic.” Long time local activist and photographer John Blair puts it simply, “we’re subsidizing the coal industry big time with our health.”

James Russell Lowell’s poem spoke of times when “Truth was on the scaffold.” Today is such a time – regarding our environment – and so many other issues of morality, human respect and basic governance.