Bishop Judith Craig

Recalling Greatness: Bishop Judith Craig

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So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself.  Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon.  Those eyes — that voice.  That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole. 

I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better.  And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could!  Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending.  I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend.  May perpetual light shine on you.

I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996.  She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us.  She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.

At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly.  I was wrong.  It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement.  Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm.  How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news?  What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world? 

We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion.  It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader.  She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind.  I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best.  Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety.  Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace.  I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances.  Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.

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Mary Oliver

Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver.  Two women, two singular voices.  I wonder if they ever met?  Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.

 

I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears.  I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blood Letters — Faith Faces Despotism

Blood Letters — A Witness to the Church

Earlier this year, the book “Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China” written by Lian Xi was published (New York: Basic Books, 2018).  I commend it to you.  Lin Zhao’s story is that of a young woman who confronted with tyranny, regained a centering point by reexamining and recommitting to her Christian faith.  She moved from being a dedicated member of the Communist Party, then experiencing the tyranny of Mao Zedong, to become a voice against totalitarianism.  Awakened again to her Christian faith she rejected the deceits and brutality around her exhibited by authorities. 

In seeking to find a life of integrity and truth amid the brutality and despotism, this remarkable woman drew on the Christian faith she had learned as a youth when educated in Methodist Schools.  Her faith became the source of hope — and truth.  She wrote letters and essays that circulated among the faithful outside of prison.

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In prison, authorities took away her paper and pens.  Lin Zhao continued to write.  She wrote on torn pieces of bedding, using her own hair and blood from pricked fingers to compose her letters and reflections.  Later, when she was given writing implements again, she often continued to write with her blood.  Lin Zhao was martyred in 1968 for her beliefs.  She is seen as the most famous of the martyrs of this time. Today, thousands in China continue to be inspired by her resistance to evil.

As intolerance, bigotry and suppression of descent rise in our world today, the witness of Lian Zhao becomes especially significant.  As attacks on a free press surge threatening to overtake truth and decency, this singular voice is a gift to us all.

My sermon on November 25th referencing her story — and that of many others.  If you wish, you can read it here: God’sMirrorforChurch 11-25-18.

We give thanks for the courage and witness for all of God’s people, especially for the witness of Lin Zhao.

Strong Leaders Serve

Strong Leaders Serve

8661153044_41a654cfbe_zWeek by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide.  The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago.  At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards. 

Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”

This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG.  Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois.  Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain.  In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain.  It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.

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Elaine beside “The 8” Freeway and the Church Beyond. Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life

So, what of the future?  The photo to the right was taken last week.  It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway.  Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here.  As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future.  As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell).  It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation —  in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope.  Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure.  In such places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forever Abiding

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My God my bright abyss                                  Into which all my longing will not go        Once more I come to the edge of all I know And believing nothing believe in this.    Christian Wiman

Abiding.  In a new place, with new people.  New friends.  Our second Sunday at San Diego First United Methodist Church. 

Attached is the sermon entitled “Forever Abiding” preached on August 19, 2018.

Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation.  Forward we go.

Shalom,    Philip Amerson

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Sermon — Forever Abiding 8-19-18 BLOG

 

 

Forever Beginning

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From T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor.  I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different.  This time, I will have a weekly assignment.  To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.

This is not an easy task in any season.  Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry.  Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018. 

Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.

Shalom,

Philip Amerson

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Sermon — Forever Beginning 8-12-18 PRINT

 

 

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Few movie scenes are more memorable than “Luke” Jackson singing Plastic Jesus while sitting as a convict in a Florida prison.   Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was a 1967 classic, a favorite, a parable about corruption and the abuse of power.  It was the story of a poor man convicted of a minor crime and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp.

Luke is shown singing the song Plastic Jesus after finding out about the death of his mother.  It is a forlorn, haunting portrayal.  You can see this scene here.  Perhaps you already know the song, or the first lines at least: 

I don’t care if it rains or freezes; Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus; Sitting on the dashboard of my car; Comes in colors pink and pleasant; Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent; Take it with you … when you travel far.

The song was a parody, written a few years before the movie.  It is a spoof, an over-the-top critique, of a “Christian” radio station in Del Rio, Texas in those years that sold prayer handkerchiefs and other phony spiritual artifacts.  One could purchase “actual splinters from the cross of Jesus.”  Yes, there were dashboard figures for sale — ones that glowed in the dark — representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  This “border busting” high wattage radio station, when not selling religious wares, featured a disc jockey known as Wolf Man Jack.  To learn more about the song Plastic Jesus and its evolution, click here.

Without doubt, the most memorable and repeated line from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  It is spoken by the warden and one other in the film.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this by offering more information now.

The idea of a “failure to communicate” and “Plastic Jesus” came to mind this month when I read that on June 7th, several United Methodist conference representative are planning to pass out plastic water bottles in downtown Indianapolis — as a Christian witness.  Help!  Talk about a failure to communicate.  Save us from our plastic, Jesus!

These plastic bottles are to be “relabeled with a message of hope.” Hope?  It seems what was intended was a symbolic action referring to the giving of a cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew 10 or Mark 9.  Unfortunately, for many, this is more an act of pollution.  Please check out this brief You Tube on Plastic pollution.

Should the church encourage such blight on creation? I know, I know, it may only be a small number of bottles — 500 or 1,000 and this is only a tiny part of the more than 35 billion water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. every hear.  What witness are we to give to such a danger to us, our children, and all our relatives?

Most bottles are used once for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and then tossed away.  (There are health dangers from repeated reuse.)  Most plastic bottles don’t fully degrade for 700 to 1,000 years.  Ten percent of plastic bottles end up in our oceans and waterways killing millions of animals annually and over 2/3rd of our fish now test positively for plastics in their blood streams!  We eat the fish… and so on. 

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I write this as a small plea, a tiny protest to those who think it is a witness to pass out plastic water bottles in the name of Jesus.  Is it too late to reconsider? To repent?  To offer a more positive witness?  Think of the greater witness that could be made if there was an act of repentance, a public turning around.  A call to the local newspapers could generate quite a story of faithfulness, of Christians who care enough to change. 

This would be a real sharing of Gospel news, that actual cups of cold water are given and not polluting plastic bottles that will despoil our environment and diminish the health of our planet and our children’s children. 

Sometimes what is meant for good instead communicates an opposite message.  These folks who plan to give out plastic bottles are good people and their message is well-intended.  Sadly it is at the same time a misguided effort.  One can’t blame these good folks entirely.  The Indiana Annual Conference has avoided taking a clear stand on the importance of caring for God’s creation.  In fact for years there has been an effort to avoid working together on critical justice issues.

Last year, in June 2017, a simple legislative proposal that each congregation study a document calling for “Environmental Holiness,” for the care of creation was put on hold.  Some thought it was “too political.”  Others, among them some Conference leaders, thought it would take too much extra work.  So it was decided that consideration should be delayed. 

This year, June 2018, we have plastic bottles offered as our witness.  I know that good folks haven’t thought very clearly about how we care for God’s good creation.  What we have here is a failure to communicate… Unless we repent and believe.  So we pray — Save us from our plastic, Jesus.

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From the United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

The Council of Bishops made the following pledges: “With God’s help and with you as our witnesses—

  1. We as your bishops pledge to answer God’s call to deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation.
  2. We pledge to make God’s vision of renewal our goal.
  3. We pledge to practice dialogue with those whose life experience differs dramatically from our own, and we pledge to practice prayerful self-examination.
  4. We pledge ourselves to make common cause with religious leaders and people of goodwill worldwide who share these concerns.
  5. We pledge to advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations.
  6. We pledge to measure the “carbon footprint” of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes. We will urge our congregations, schools, and settings of ministry to do the same.
  7. We pledge to provide, to the best of our ability, the resources needed by our conferences to reduce dramatically our collective exploitation of the planet, peoples, and communities, including technical assistance with buildings and programs, education and training, and young people’s and online networking resources.
  8. We pledge to practice hope as we engage and continue supporting the many transforming ministries of our denomination.
  9. We pledge more effective use of the church and community Web pages to inspire and to share what we learn.

            From God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.