Back to “Normal”?

What Shall We Consider Normal?

When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?

In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?

Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.

So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).

Is Normal Our Best?

My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!

In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”

In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”

As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).

Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.

I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.

If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.

Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.

Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)

So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.

Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will!

I was surprised, shocked actually, by the thousands who read my letter to Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana, 9th Congressional District). Hollingsworth said that in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic we had to choose securing our livelihood even if it meant sacrificing some lives. Since then, the congressman has walked back his statement. Now says he was “only saying this was a difficult choice.

While I appreciate the congressman’s more moderate verbiage, his underlying message remains the same and is obvious: even if some people have to die, we should give greater preference to commerce over the current efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Responses to my letter were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there were only a handful who argued that this pandemic was God’s will. God’s will? Sadly, I find such perspectives as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. Is it God’s will that children are abused? Is it God’s will that persons are afflicted with cancer? Was the holocaust God’s will? This pandemic is in no way God’s will! I hold that God expects us to do something about this suffering and death. It is in our response to such tragedies where we can begin to discover God’s will. Over the centuries we have seen God’s will displayed by folks like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer or Father Damien. Many of the horrific realities human beings face are rooted in poor, uninformed, and sometimes evil, human decisions.

I believe God’s will is now seen in heroes, like Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauchi and Dr. Francis Collins. Even more, God’s will is demonstrated in the nurses, grocery clerks, physicians, police and fire personnel, truck drivers, medics, researchers, and all who risk their own health for the sake of others every day. In my reading of scripture and knowledge of other faith traditions, such neighbor-care is at the core of what God wills for all of us.

Too much of what goes on in our nation these days is misconstrued somehow as God’s will. It is not. We humans have moral choices to make each and every day. There has been an emergence of phony-Calvinism evident in our nation over recent decades that somehow suggests certain events, tragedies and even election results are “predestined” as God’s will.

Those who genuinely read John Calvin’s work know he understood the importance of human agency as part of God’s plan. Anyone who knows the story of John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva knows the remarkable way he responded to the plagues in his time. His actions involved the quarantine of those who were ill, the seeking the best medical advice possible and an understanding that some brave persons would be called on to risk the care of those who were sick and dying. This was the core of God’s will. Calvin himself visited these plague hospitals to pray with those who were suffering, knowing full well that he was putting himself at risk.

Those who know me, know I am Wesleyan. I have my disagreements with Calvinist thought although the richness of his understanding of God’s intentions for human life are of great value. My reading of the theology of John Calvin offers absolutely no support for a nonsensical notion that this pandemic is God’s will! Nor, should his view of predestination be thought to support a passive approach to this pandemic.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved away from Calvinism. Still he also saw the important role of Christians as ones who expressed Gods’ will though wise medical practice. Now is a time to affirm that all life is to be valued and protected. All of life! We need to learn new ways to care for God’s creation, across the entire ecology of our human, animal, plant, water, air, stone and soils.

Yesterday, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to push for this false choice between lifestyle and life, “supposed” medical epidemiologist “experts” like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (not an M.D.) made similar arguments to those made by the congressman. Dr. Phil suggested that car accidents and smoking kill more people every year than this virus. Okay — first, one wonders how he knows, as this virus only started claiming victims a few months ago (it has not yet been a year). And secondly, while people choose to drive and smoke, I haven’t heard of anyone who chooses to be infected by this virus.

Even worse, Dr. Oz said that if we returned now to free movements and social contacts it would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality.” Two or three percent? In the United States that could mean over six million deaths! Really? One wonders why we must suffer from a pandemic of confusion and poor logic along with this virus. How many will needlessly die from such pandering?

There are better ways to help our businesses than sacrificing the lives of millions. In fact, the return to the “normal” of 2019 too quickly, very well could lead to even more mortality AND long term economic and commercial damage. Congressman Hollingsworth is right in saying these are difficult choices. However, he is wrong if he fails to consider the likelihood that this pandemic will come in waves, just like the Spanish Flu, in the early Twentieth Century. He is also wrong if he buys into a simplistic either/or of commerce or life — he says the question is complex. Okay how will the policies he supports demonstrate this?

This pandemic will bear a cost in both lives lost and economic suffering; our response needs to begin with an understanding of human agency. Are we responsible? Do we decide what our economic theory and practice should be? Or is this a time we will make our economic theories into our “Gods” that will determine and limit our ethical choices? What we need now are clear-eyed, well researched medical, economic and, yes, I would argue ethical/theological responses to this crises. That is, in my view, God’s will.

Hacked Christianity — UMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 – Time to Build or Tear?

I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.

The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

The poem goes: a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(NRSV)

Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.

As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and all should stand in awe before God.”

So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!

Sail On Ship of Zion

Jeremy Smith offers this insightful proposal for United Methodism as it faces possible schism: http://hackingchristianity.net/2019/10/will-the-general-church-advocate-for-big-boat-methodism-or-scuttle-the-fleet.html.

The Model of Mahayana Methodism

My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).

There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.

This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.

I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.

I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.

The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”

Holy Love: Christ

Steve Harper continues his reflections on Holy Love by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Hermeneutic as offered by Richard Rohr captures the preference of “Christ Transforming Culture” rather than a “Christ of Culture” (as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested over fifty years ago).

Oboedire

​The fourth vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is Christ, the one who reveals the creator (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), the one who made the creation (“ everything came into being through the Word,” John 1:3), and the one who is the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). So, everything we have said thus far comes together in Christ, and it does so through love (John 13:1).

One of the things I have heard people say about the relation between Christ and human sexuality is this, “I wish he had made it clear about sexual identities, orientations, same-sex marriage, etc. I have wished the same. I have thought, “If only I could spend five minutes with Jesus.” I have a list of questions. Human sexuality is one of them.

Scholars are correct in noting Jesus’ silence about homosexuality. And…

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United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

First United Methodist of San Diego — Habitat for Humanity Work Day

United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

My daily morning dyspepsia is, I believe, related to long division problems. I am awake in the early morning, unable to find rest amid puzzles I can’t seem to solve. At about age eight, a teacher taught me “to do long division.” The moment was delicious — I could solve big numbers that before seemed too large. In my early teens, I discovered algebraic long division. Another revelation, a gift, a tool.

Today, my morning dyspepsia, is not so simple. This problem requires an institutional calculus. It is not division I seek: rather, it is the seeking ways to avoid so much dividing — it is greater unity I would like to cipher. Every theological and social instinct within me calls out for linkage, for connection, for common ground rather than a land of separation. Am I simply foolish, nostalgic, tied to some ancient vision of St. Francis bargaining with the wolf or his meeting with the enemies during the Crusades to discover ways of peace?

Why is our nation so tribal, so insistent on becoming a splintering galaxy of spinning ideological enclaves? In ways I suspect most of us don’t fully see, the corollary exists in the divisions of the United Methodist Church. Both nation and church are pursuing long division problems. They are here now, in part because in both nation and church, we have been on a path too long-dividing. Many forces and fractions have brought us to this point: the rise of social media and loss of common language; new cultural and economic ecologies where unemployment and poor community resources persist; much focus on personal and social grievance; churches that avoid their prophetic voice as they fear the loss of market share and numerical decline — all these additives, and more, have brought us to this whirlpool of distrust.

Let’s focus on United Methodism. Maybe if we untangle this a bit, or at least untie some of these knots, it will assist with other riddles. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for a division solution. It often happens like this – I am walking through fellowship hall at church and someone says, “What are we going to do?” I know what is meant but can’t help myself, I reply, “About what?” The answers are: “About the church.” “About the harm being done to LGBTQI persons.” “About damage to the United Methodist brand. ” “About the loss of our children who already think the church is out of touch with their worlds.” Or, I am entering a store downtown, a friend greets me and says, “What do you think is going to happen?” I play out the scene again. “About what?” I respond and I hear the same list of concerns.

Or, I get phone calls from friends around the country. (And, yes, I sometimes call them.) “What’s the latest you have heard?” “Which plan should we support?”

Add this to the daily news about presidential impeachments or government conspiracy and the result is dyspepsia along with a certain emotional and spiritual vertigo — right?

United Methodism’s Long Division isn’t this easy!

So, here are some thoughts about our long division problem in the church — these are a collection of hunches, perceptions, experiences, frequent early morning musings based on my faith journey and desire to be a follower of Jesus. Please note, these are not a plan, nor the son of a plan — no long division solution here. In fact, the PLANS I have seen are, to my mind, part of the problem. I almost chuckle at the plan of the week unveiled from some official or unofficial grouping of problem-solvers and I weep at the theological vacuity often evidenced.

I wonder if there aren’t several million plans out there among United Methodists around the world — one plan for each of the members of the denomination. Individualism and self-centered privilege lead us to find our corner with the like minded. We can shape things along with our gang and the lines of our personal preference. I think of Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely on June 25, 1819 wrote: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” My memory is that on another occasion Jefferson opined that he “carried his religious denomination under his hat.

Well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) offer up new plans weekly. Some would divide the church into two groups, some three, some four. I have even heard of a plan for seven new denominations. At the same time I hear little of how these plans correspond with the great ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “they would be one” (John 17) or the message from Paul about the church as a body with many members (I Corinthians 12).

Most of the proposals that are trumpeted seem unaware of the lessons of church history or from Christians of other denominational families who have struggled with divisions in recent years. What might we learn from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that still speaks, five decades later, of “Forming Together” after the splintering of Southern Baptists? What lessons might our Pan Methodist friends teach us as some large congregations have split off from their fellowships? Or, what of the Lutherans, the Seminex story from the Missouri Synod Church, or the merger resulting in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the challenges they have faced? What lessons from the Assembly of God and splintering there? The Wesleyan Church? What might we learn from the United or Uniting Churches around the world (India, Canada, etc.) Or, what of lessons from our older sibling, the Episcopal Church.

Rather than a plan, I would offer some paradoxical thoughts, some ecclesiological assumptions, some prayerful hints for how we might proceed… with or without a plan. Paradoxical, yes, I propose them as cruciform. For they are. One clear assertion I will make is this: there will be no resurrection for us, no renewal apart from the cross. (In the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew there are the words like these “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… you will find it..) Here are seven paradoxes to explore.

I pray that any reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church will be: Centered in the Christ of scripture and Christ alive in our world today; shaped by prayer and a humble mystic spirit; a seeking of unity among all believers even as we resist efforts to harm; focused locally as essential to a global witness; open to the long-haul of history in order to be relevant today; ready for sacrifice in order to find abundance in unexpected places; and, opening our hearts to the story of others within and beyond our daily routines so as to sharpen our Wesleyan distinctives.

Bishop Grant Hagiya, 2019

When have I seen us at our best? Not when we are arguing or devising our long division plans but rather when we are in mission with others. I see it when the gospel is shared and persons and communities are changed. I see it when bishops pray and invite all, especially those who disagree to a common table. When those who join that table represent the extraordinary array of those from multiple cultures and classes modeling together an invitation to live in our time and place in terms of God’s emerging kin-dom.

FUMC San Diego Acting as Witnesses

I see it in the thousands of places where our actions speak louder than our words. Where the “theology of the hammer” brings people together. I see it when the church works along the Mexican border and says in the name of Jesus, we will welcome these who are in need of sanctuary and we will not bear false witness against them. I see it when the church takes seriously its commitment to care for all creation.

A Blessing Indeed

I see it when I meet another United Methodist, from Africa, Zimbabwe. He tells me his name is “Blessing” and we laugh together when we talk about our mutual friends. Yes, he had taken some classes at Africa University. Yes, he was a student there when I visited that campus. We join in conversation about how we might heal a broken church, in order to set about healing a broken world. It is in surprises like this that my dyspepsia finds relief.

Clay Jar Treasures*

Clay Jar Treasures*

She was “only” ninety-nine.  The photo taken in 2014 shows “Marnie” or Margaret Glass, at a gathering at her beloved parish, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.  Marnie died this summer, June 26, 2019, only a few days shy of her 105th birthday.  She lived a full, life-and-a-half, in calendar years.  When I say she “lived,” I mean it, she did just that!  Of the “great spirits” I have known, Marnie nears the top of the list.

IMG_0598
 Marnie Glass with Philip & Elaine Amerson, 5-29-14  

Born in Chicago, Margaret was a natural, brilliant, a college athlete, playing tennis and captain of the basketball team.  She graduated from Elmhurst College only a few years after the Niebuhr brothers who attended that school before her.  When I met her, she was the lay leader at Broadway Church.  It was the mid-1980s, the neighborhood around the church had gone through dramatic racial change as white flight was nearing completion and the gentrification that now marks that neighborhood was only beginning. 

Marnie was one of dozens of wise and creative folks I knew in that parish in those years. They caused me to rethink my understandings of church, of faith and the role of parish pastor.  Margaret was first among equals in challenging my preconceived, seminary-shaped notions of who lay folks are and the limited gifts they bring to ministry.

Last week I wrote in this blog of an encounter with an angry fella who sought to set me straight after a sermon preached a year ago that included positive mention of Senator John McCain (See Certitude and Its Discontents, August 2019).  My concern at that writing was that some folks would think it a critique of that good congregation.  I fear a few did, as I received messages of apology.  None were needed.  I have found sour-pusses in every parish and a few grievance-collectors typically populate the pews wherever I go.  More often, however, I find remarkable saints-in-the-making in parishes I have served.

Marney was tops for me, such a spunky saint.  A mischievous follower of Jesus, a conspirator in the search for abundant life for all.  Her eyes would dance when she shared a story of some achievement of one of the children she tutored or some morsel of good news about a neighbor.  She could change her mind — accept new ways of being church.  Her winsomeness, her life, always caused me to think of the scripture: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (II Corinthians 4:7, NRSV).

You could find Marnie at prayer meetings and protest marches.  When we speak of the best of Methodism involving a vital piety and commitment to social justice, it was exemplified in Marnie’s life.  I can see her grabbing the cheeks of a young woman and speaking words of encouragement.  I recall the times she would take young children into her home because they needed to be in a safe place.  She noticed the little things that another had done and thanked them. 

She showed an ease in her faith; not that her long life was easy.  She married three times as she outlived her first two husbands.  Her last marriage was at age 98 and with Bob she continued speaking out on environmental and hunger issues.

Marnie was a part of a weekly Bible study group while I was pastor.   One day as we finished, she said, “Please wait a minute, I have something to share.”  She grabbed a brown, bulging grocery bag and headed to a nearby bathroom.  She returned wearing her wedding gown and still in her tennis shoes.  “This is my fiftieth wedding anniversary and I wanted to celebrate with you.” Her first husband was suffering from dementia and rather than hide in disappointment at that circumstance, Marnie invited us to join in a spontaneous celebration.  We raided the church refrigerator, found lots of ice cream and other goodies there.  Such was her transformative spirit.

She would probably deny it, but Marnie was my faith instructor, my mentor.  As Fred Craddock would put it, through her life and words I could “overhear the gospel.”  She didn’t always know that I was listening in.  One Sunday in the mid-1980s, as the military adventurism by the United States in the Middle East was heating up, I faced a dilemma.  The scripture lessons for that Sunday included Galatians 6 (“What one sews that one shall also reap“).  My sermon called for a preference of peacemaking over military intervention.  

Following the service as I headed to my office I heard voices in the hallway, around the corner ahead of me.  It was Margaret speaking with a couple who were upset about the sermon.  They didn’t know I was hearing them, their complaints. They said, “He is another one of those liberal preachers.” They likened me to a popular pastor who had spoken out against the Vietnam War twenty years earlier.  I thought I was in good company and glad to be compared with this fellow who went on to be elected a bishop.  It was then that Marnie-the-spiritual-mentor spoke.  “No, no” she said, “this one is a Jeremiah, he will weep with you.”  She didn’t know I heard.  I turned and went to my office another way.  As I was taking off my robe, Marney entered the office.  To my surprise she began to chide me.  Time for my second spiritual lesson!  “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said.  My heart dropped.  Then she went on, “I am so glad you spoke against our military engagement, but don’t you ever enter the pulpit again with a difficult message and not let me know to be praying for you!”

In the span of five minutes, I was offered two of the most important lessons over the years of my pastoral ministry.  First, a challenge to my pridefulness and second a reminder that such moments of witness should not be entered into alone and without prayerful support.

Tomorrow is Marnie’s memorial service.  I have no doubt that dozens of other lessons from my teacher, Marnie, will come to mind.  Other mentors and Great Spirits have died this year.  I think of Judy Craig, Tom Trotter and George Metrovich who died in recent months.  They are for me, persons who represent the insights of II Corinthians 4:7-10.  Here is the text as offered by Eugene Peterson:

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.  What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!  (II Corinthians 4:7-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson)

July 29: Earth Overshoot Day

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July 29: Earth Overshoot Day

TODAY we cross a dateline for our planet.  The Global Footprint Network calls it the Earth Overshoot Day.   I encourage you to visit their website to learn more at: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/.

Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year when human beings begin to consume more of our natural resources than can be replenished in that year.  July 29th, 209 days into the calendar year, is when we have burnt through the natural resources available to the world’s populations for the year.  For the remaining 164 days of 2019, we will be overdrawing nature’s accounts.  We are writing bogus checks on our world’s future replenishment abilities.  HEbtKI-P_200x200.jpgWe are using up our natural resources 1.75 times faster than they can be replenished! 

I think of it as a tragic environmental Ponzi scheme, a plundering of nature — a using resources which should be set aside for our children and grand children. This over-exploitation increases each year.  We in the United States lead in this extractive exploitation.  If the entire world lived as we do it would take the resources of FIVE EARTHS to provide sufficiency.

Enter Wes Jackson — someone who has been thinking about this dilemma for four decades.  Jackson is co-founder of the Land Institute in Salinas Kansas (Land Institute) Elaine and I stopped to visit on July 15th.  I had read several articles and books he had authored or co-authored.  I knew of his friendship and shared work with Wendell Berry; and, I confess to being more than a little star struck.  After all Wes was one of the early recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship.  I expected our visit to last an hour and then be on my way.  

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Wes Jackson and his “computer” July 2019

In fact we talked through the entire morning.  We toured of the institute research facilities and farm research plots in Salinas.  (Other research goes on around the world where institute scientists are working to discover new paths of regenerative agriculture.) 

I found in Wes a friend… and mentor — someone with a deep concern, clarity about his vocation and a surprising light-heartedness.  He confessed the dilemmas we all face.  The human contradictions faced as we move from our extractive and fossil-fuel based systems.  We laughed often; spoke of authors who had influenced us (Ivan Illich, Walter Brueggemann) and spoke of the need for a broader dialogue between science and religion.  We talked about a possible conference where theologians and scientists might talk about the sustainability of our ecosphere.  I loved it when Wes brought out his “computer” to take notes. It turned out to be his old Underwood typewriter!

I found in Wes Jackson a person who had done more theological thinking about our creatureliness and relationship with the ecosphere than most formal theologians I have known.  It was not a surprise to learn that Wes and John Cobb were friends and correspondents.  There were more than two dozen scientists and interns at The Land Institute at work that morning seeking to establish perennial polycultures. They are developing perennial grains, legumes and oilseed varieties that can be grown together replicating the patterns evident in native ecosystems.

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Wes Jackson at Land Institute, July 2019

We stopped on one hillside and Jackson pointed out the native prairie grasses and the cultivated fields below.  “Modern agriculture” he argued has been moving in ever more destructive ways for the past 10,000 years. The Green Revolution, and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, did produce more in the short term; however at the same time they were depleting the resources of our soil, water and fossil fuels ever more rapidly. 

As we looked out across the fields, I thought of my own experiences in seeking to encourage our United Methodist Churches in Indiana to consider the gifts of creation and to work toward living more faithfully as those who are to care for the earth as God’s gift.  I recalled with sadness the ways leaders in the Indiana Annual Conference blocked small pieces of legislation designed to encourage care for the creation.  We were told that such efforts were “too political.”
I left the Institute with a commitment to find ways to bring theological educators into greater conversation and relationship with the folks in Salinas.

On this Earth Overshoot Day, I give thanks for the true “master theologians” of our time like Wes Jackson.  I don’t think he would like the title.  In fact he told me he had been “excommunicated” from his United Methodist Church in Kansas several years earlier by a pastor who considered him a heretic.  I wish the church had more heretics like him.  Maybe with time we will.  Let’s work to make this happen sooner rather than later.

Conjectures from this Guilty Bystander — Part II

Conjectures from this Guilty Bystander — Part II

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Overwhelming – Exhibit A

Colin Murray, stood before me holding  the elements for Holy Communion.  He was one of the fifteen newly confirmed on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.  I didn’t anticipate having a soul-shaping experience on that Pentecost.  Not in this is formal, traditional worship service.  Does the Holy Spirit move in United Church of Christ congregations?  Even on Pentecost?  Even with a pipe organ playing Bach? It was overwhelming.  I took several deep breaths.  They didn’t seem to help.  So, I let the tears flow and reached for a handkerchief.  Tears of joy, of hope, of transformation.   The young man, Colin, standing at the end of the pew sharing the body and blood of Christ with us, was my grandson.  This extraordinary moment was more than grand-parental pride.  Scales were falling from my eyes, new insight, awareness of the ways God works beyond my limited understandings of the Jesus movement.

What were the odds?  One in fifteen?  Who arrived with the communion elements at our pew?  I melted. Gratitude?  Yes.  So much more — I thought of Isaiah 43 — “I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?”   It was more than a passing of generations.  Much more.  It was more than a septuagenarian grandpa’s delight.  A burning bush?  Nope, no voice from heaven; but it was certainly an awareness of a transforming love that was always ready to bring a change in me — let’s call it an overwhelming.

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The temptation for us all, especially those of us in ordained ministry, is to believe that our work, our point of view, our plans, our strategies, our voice will somehow figure it all out, be a difference maker in the church and the world.  More often than not, we fail to know that God’s purposes and actions are far beyond our activities or ideas or speeches.

We are instruments to be sure — but weak reeds, frail passing voices in God’s realm.  I was aware that each of these young confirmands was a part of a family much larger and more gifted by the Holy Spirit than I understood upon entering that sanctuary that day.  I understood that God’s family included the youth being confirmed in the Black churches on the south side of Chicago and the Hispanic youth on the west side.   Or the young Poles, or Serbians or Chinese or Koreans all around town who were stepping into a new place in their baptismal identity.  Sadly, we are still separated by culture and language and tradition.  Centuries of racism, the building of enclaves, and the impoverishment of our social and political systems still separate us — but, “Can you not perceive it?  I am doing a new thing,” says the lord.

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An Overwhelming – Exhibit B

One of the best known passages from Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” is this:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.”  Page 153.

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My re-reading of Merton in 2019 helps my spiritual vertigo.  The ups and downs of United Methodist conferences befuddle and depress.  They can confuse and offer such a small horizon on the realm of God.  Today (mid-June 2019) my spirits and aspirations are on the upswing. 

All across the nation in recent weeks a new generation of persons are being elected as annual conference delegates.  Many of these folks are young and committed to a more open and inclusive denomination.  It is a youth driven revolution — young clergy are saying “NO” to the harmful decisions made in February 2019 United Methodist conference.  The Febraury so called “Special General Conference” enacted mean-spirited legislation to exclude LGBTQI folks from ordination or same-sex marriages in the denomination.  Further, it was designed to punish anyone who acted in ways that disagreed.  Something as marvelous and no less surprising than a grandson standing beside you bearing the sacrament was underway.  Still, it is a miniscule part of the Holy Spirit’s handiwork.  The Holy Spirit can surprise us still — (S)he is already at play in the church, even within a broken and disoriented part of the body like United Methodism just now.

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Overwhelming – Exhibit C

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As news continues to come in from around the United Methodist Church in the United States, it is clear that change in almost every corner is underway.  I do not know that it will be sufficient to bring about an apology for the damage done or begin to mend and redirect a denomination into patterns that do not do harm to our gay siblings.  However, as I attended the California- Pacific Annual Conference (a place I consider my second ecclesial home), I was again overwhelmed.  Again I took deep breaths and reached for my handkerchief.  There was newly ordained deacon, and my colleague this past year, Melissa Spence.  She is serving the sacrament with an elder, former student, fine pastor and friend, Brian Parcel.

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Looking around the Chapel at the University of Redlands on this day, I see others.  They are, I now understand, my spiritual grandchildren, my grandnieces and grantnephews.  The great gift of the California-Pacific Annual Conference is its ability to welcome a wide and blessed cultural diversity.  Oh, the Tongan choir sings as communion is served.  Words cannot capture the glory of the harmonies that surround us. 

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There they are — former students, colleagues, friends and a few foes, persons who have taught me and who mostly learned without my aid, persons I do not know — all sharing in the holy meal.  There is my long-time friend, Bishop Charles Jordan among those presiding at communion.  There are other bishops at table… the host bishop has been generous in his invitations and his words. And there he is, Bishop Grant Hagiya, on his knees calling on us all to be repentant for the ways we have held hostility toward others.  Bishop Hagiya said it well in his sermon on the first day — “there may be irreconcilable differences… still might we not stay together in mission and give space to be contextual in governance?  Perhaps divorce is inevitable — and certainly separating can be a gift to both parties — still must we make the only a best option a complete separation?

This family, all of it, all around, shines with the glory of God.  We may have to divide, I grieve it.  At the same time, I join Bishop Hagiya in seeing a New Church where compassion for one another is the currency used toward creating a future of mission.

Dear God — grant me the gift of years so that I might witness more of these youth revolutions.  Grant my colleagues who now feel left behind or unappreciated the gift of knowing that the contribution they have made to bring us to this place are used by the Holy Spirit in unsuspected ways — whether the renewal is inside or outside the familiar structures.  I pray we are given the time to see this unfold in ways that bring transformation for our world.

More deep breaths and stifled tears, the Tongans continue to sing.  In the pew alongside me are many of the friends from First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  They are a wonderful group of fellow disciples.  I will be leaving them soon — returning to Indiana, one of the sites of the your revolution in the church.  I may not return to my beloved California-Pacific Annual Conference in this life but I will remember a bishop on his knees, a people of many hues and languages, together ready to serve and a Spirit at work among us all.  It is OVERWHELMING.

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Of the work of the Holy Spirit Merton writes; “Yet the air of the outside world is not fresh air.  Just to break out and walk down the boulevards is no solution. The fresh air we need is the clean breath of the Holy Spirit, coming like the wind, blowing as He pleases. Hence the window must open, or be able to open, in any direction. The error is to lock the windows and doors in order to keep the Holy Spirit in the monastery.” (Conjectures, p. 7)