Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses

Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses

Bornholm, Denmark is an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Lovely place; a center point for one of the green power initiaitives in this small nation. In Denmark today over 50% of current electrical energy comes from renewable wind and solar power – a marked increase in recent decades. Denmark’s goal is to be 100% free of fossil fuels by 2030! This small nation is showing the rest of us a possible future. What is required for such dramatic change?

Denmark is a nation built out of a web of islands and distinct communities. While language and history, economic opportunuties, war and domination, have woven the Danes together, there is more to the story. There is imagination – an opnness to work together for new approaches to challenges. Currently, on Bornholm island, in order to make space for the windmills, new landfill projects are emering along some of the shore. Hundreds of windmills will be constructed. Has there been opposition? Of course. Still, all this is part of a national effort to, not only supply Denmark’s energy needs, but become a nation that produces its own electric power and sells energy to others. Rather astonishing. Along with thousands of miles of shoreline, the Danes have wind, and more, imagination is at play.

Rønne Lighthouse, Bornholm, Denmark

On some islands, a few former lighthouses, will now be further from shore and less visible to aid those sailing. These lighthouses are being replaced, made redundant. Some would argue that modern satellite GPS systems have eliminated the value of and need for lighthouses altogether; even so, new light sources will be installed.

This would not be the first time Denmark has led Europe, and the world, with imagination for desperately needed change. Little known is the story of the Danish Folk School Movement begun in the early 1800s. In that time, a wide majority of the pesantry living in the region were impoverished. Illiteracy was among the highest in Europe. Only a wealthy few had access to representation in government. The situation was bleak, trust in others to make change was low.

A remarkable man, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872), a Lutheran theologian saw Denmark’s future based on the construction of a system of universal literacy and the development of common trust. His vision led to the Folk School Movement. The goal was not to build a stratified society based on test results and university degrees. Rather, he focused on enriching comminities with educational options to nurture the human spirit through song, poetry, crafts, literature. It was a celebrating the giftedness of the people. Gruntvig saw renewal coming from the “bottom up.” Some of the “students” could also teach — they were weavers, cooks, farmers, fishers. Gardening, dance, practical uses of math and science were taught. Yes, there were classes in spiritual matters that were a part of the whole. Grundtvig’s goal was the preparing of persons for more enlightened citizenship and the development of networks of community trust. The folk school movement offered a place where those with limited money and time could learn new and more democratic habits, values and skills that would be needed for a healthy future society.

One hundred years later, by the early 1900s, Denmark enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. At the same time a vibrant emerging democracy was electing representatives to the Folketinget, or the house of commoners. A majority of these folks representing districts from across Denmark at the time, had studied in the Danish Folk School system. Today, Denmark has a unicameral government with representatives serving in the Folketing. Not all is, or has been, perfect in this story — there was the Nazi occupation and times of political corruption and turmoil. Still the folk school movement, wind mills and redundant lighthouses can serve as valued metaphors for us and others who seek a way to proceed to a more democratic and literate world.

In many places there is need for the renewal of trust, and a way to learn a new literacy based on a knowledge that is accurate and inclusive of others. It is difficult to think of the situation faced by Denmark in the early 1800s and not compare it to the malaise of our modern time. Distrust of institutions and a sense of brokenness in so many of our communities is evident and threatening to our futures. One measure of this malaise is offered in the Edelman Trusts Barometer https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer. Across the world, trust in our institutions, and one another, is at an all time low. Perhaps our “democratic lighthouses” are placed too far from our current shorelines. We do not see the light that might offer us a better set of bearings for the future.

Taken as a practical example and metaphor, what might one learn from the Danish experience? A few possible lessons would include:

  1. As to energy independence from fossil fuels, Denmark is showing us that dramatic and rapid change is possible. They have the attribute of wind; others of us have the prospect of, along with wind, adding many more solar power options to our resources
  2. Perhaps some of our cultural, commercial, social, educational, healthcare and religious “lighthouses” need to be moved or rebuilt and re-imagined. How might we relocate the work of the press (news and social media), churches, the schools, healthcare systems, theaters, museums, etc. so that they are closer and more relevant to the journeys of those traveling in the future?
  3. Are there ways to think systemicly about how to move ahead to encourage a more trusting and democratic common life? (In the U.S. I am of the opinion that a program of universal service options for our young would be such an institutional initiative.)
  4. What gifts of the people, across our communities, can be brought to places that seek to enrich the common life. Do we have imagination for such systemic and constructive change? These will be needed to do some Cultural Land Fill work as new ecologies of democracy emerge. I think of the excellent resource of the Tamarack Institute: https://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/?hsLang=en and the Asset Based Community Development projects:https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/.

As a child, I learned an old hymn and often sang it. It was about the importance of lighthouses for people who lacked the light of faith.

The first verse was:

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.

Perhaps people of faith can join folks in other arenas to build new light sources for imagination, democracy and spirituality. It seems the church has put too much of its focus for too long, too far from where the light of imaginative faith is needed. We have offered little spiritual light and what is offered is shining in the wrong places. Rather than a faith that builds up trust and community, too much time has spent dividing, excluding and relegating those who differ to another separate island.

For the imagination already offering us hope in Denmark and beyond, I give thanks.

Summer Reading Bouquet

A Summer Reading Bouquet

Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.

For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.

Dr. Georgia Harkness

In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.

By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.

For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.

Patterns of Division and Disrespect

How May I Disrespect “THEM” – Let Me Count the Ways

Over my 76 years I have watched… and hopefully learned… that there is a pattern for perpetuating and using social/cultural/religious divisions in tragic ways. Here is a simplified overview of the ten most often practiced ways of encoruaging division in a family, denomination, nation or city:

1) Set up a ‘straw man’ (group or institution) from a disagreement, misunderstanding, mistakes, or with half-truths or complete lies about another who differs;

2) Lump everyone into two groups (those on the straw man’s side and those on your ‘righteous’ side);

3) Label those with whom you disagree as evil, heretics or fools. (This is the “process of dehumanization”);

4) Set up triangles by talking about (nor with) those with whom you disagree. Select others who share your position and persons you hope to convert to your position. Avoid talkling with those with whom you disagree. (This step is even more powerful in an age of social media, where algorithms do the selecting for you.)

5) Avoid learning, reading widely, hearing other points of view; and, be closed to paradox, nuance or the prospect that two things can be thought at the same time. Define all “terms” to best suit your arguments;

6) Use authorities to support your claims (Scriptures, The U.S. Constitution, ideology, perspectives of thought leaders or spokespersons) and ignore alternative interpretations.

7) Act as the Victim. Become the victim. Point to the ways “the other” is harming you and others.

8) Refuse any call for compromise and ignore any weakness in your own perspective and actions;

9) Nurse you grievance and turn it into one of the most important issues ever and a shield that denies any alternative point of view.

10) Rinse and repeat — ad nauseam.

I have seen this tragic pattern played out in broken marriages, families, nations, and religious denominations. There is money to be made by fueling division at each level and power to be (temporarily) gained. And there is community to be destroyed and loving respect for others to be lost. We see it today in Ukraine, in the U.S. Congress, and in religious denominations like the United Methodist Church.

Sunday School and Poker

Sunday School and Poker

Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members.  Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits.  You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets.  The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life.  It is a place of sharing and care.  One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.

It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher.  I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”

That’s okay, good even.  I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class.  Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship.  I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy.  I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.

The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story.  He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life.  Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”

Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time.  In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?”  It begins, “There was a certain man…”

Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions: 

  1. There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels.  It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
  2.  Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare.  These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.

I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike.  I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.

The Short, Long Way or the Long, Short Way?

The Short, Long Way or the Long, Short Way?

We pray the COVID pandemic is ending. Or, at least moving toward what might be called endemic where, like the flu virus, we can receive protection from a mutating disease with an annual vaccination. Looking back we can see the messy and confused ways our society lurched from stage to stage, denial to denial, and fear to fear in these months.

Our experience reminds me of an ancient rabbinic tale: A traveler attempting to reach a distant city approached a child playing at a crossroads. He asked directions to the city. The child answered, “do you want the short, long way or the long, short way?” The traveler replied, “Well, I wish the short, long way, of course” and the child pointed a direction. After an hour or two the traveler saw the city on the horizon; however, he was soon standing on the bank of a large swirling river separating him from the city.

Retracing his steps back to the child, he said, “Why did you send me to a place where I can see the city, but cannot not reach it without much time and danger?” The child replied, “You wanted the short, long way.” The traveler then took the other path and after several hours finally entered the city, crossing a bridge. (Talmud, Eruvin 53b, Rabbi Yehoshua be Chananiah)

For two years now, many have shought a shortcut bypassing the COVID pandemic, journeying the short, long way forward. One day, I pray we will re-learn, together, that the role of our national agencies, when guided by unfolding science, mutual respect and trust, offer the best “long, short way” ahead. As a child, I remember receiving the polio and small pox vaccines as part of such a national consensus. Millions since have been spared suffering and death. Vaccines, then and now, may serve as a bridge for the long, short journey.

There is another, more pernicious, pandemic that continually rages across our common life — it is the pandemic of racial bigotry and discrimination. It threatens our future, our being our best, and the hope of a just and moral way forward. Many people of good will want to act in ways that are anti-racist. Let me suggest that, here too, one discovers the option of a “short, long way” or a “longer, short way.”

Let me explain. In October 2020 when our nation was reeling form the many tragedies of racism laid bare, as symbolized by the murder of George Floyd, I was asked to offer some advice and teaching. How might we untangle the snares of racial injustice? How will we find a hopeful way forward and begin a journey toward more respectful and loving communities?

Based on earlier research on racism and my life experience, I was asked to lead several Zoom sessions (remember this was during the pandemic) on the seeking of racial justice. Looking back now, I recognize that my counsel was to travel the “long, short way.” There were no easy short cuts. I knew that establishing relationships with those unlike me was central; working together with persons of different racial backgrounds and experiences on addressing places of injustice was needed at a grass roots level as a way to seek racial justice. I said to preachers, “Don’t preach that sermon, until there is a way to build such relationships.” Many preached their finger-wagging sermons anyway. I encouraged persons to read a book on racism, hold conversations, but working together with neighbors who were unlike you was more essential for change. Many read the books and talked but did little else of real substance. As I watched the many efforts at “diversity training” and “book clubs reading about racism” unfold, I was hopeful but knew these might end up being a “short, long way.” We act our ways to new ways of thinking more often than we think our way to new ways of acting. Preachng, reading and talking are good — but insufficient in crossing this swirling river of division.

Since that time, I have watched “Critial Race Theory” and accusations about “defunding the police” or the “1619 Project” used to reinforce divisions by demagogues. Political and media actors make the building of relationships for the common good even more difficult. We are witnessing a pandemic of voter suppression as a way to avoid equal representation. A renewed use of the ‘Willie Horton strategy’ stiring up racial fear and animosity was evident in the hearings of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Sadly, it will take more than churches doing diversity training and reading groups, to respond to the waves of racially-stoked fear in our body politic. It will take more than curricular changes in our schools. It will take even more than this for the church and our society to move beyond our racial brokenness.

There is hope. I see it. It is a Long, Short Way ahead — If you do your diversity training, read those books on racism, please DO MORE. BUILD NEW RELATIONSHIPS. Reach out to those you perceive to be ‘different.’ Listen to their stories, find some small ways to work together. Leave your top-down ideas at home. Be quiet and listen for the signals of how you can best walk beside others. Together discover the long, short journey ahead. Join John Lewis in ‘making good trouble’ by crossing over that bridge.

Lest, I be misunderstood, racial injustice, tribal and ethnic discrimination is a human problem… it is in China, Myrnmar, India, Russia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East. White surpremacy is playing out during the trigic events in Ukraine just now. In each instance, there will be the temptation to deny or point to the sins of others… or to seek the short, long way forward. Hard questions await for us as to how our responses differ in Ukraine from Ethopia or Syria. For now, we can find a place in our hometowns to begin our own long, short journey.

The piece below as written last October. It is about a friend who helped teach me the long, short way toward racial justice. Her name was LaVerta Terry.

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How to NOT Cure an Illness

This week a note popped up on my calendar dated, October 1st, 2020. It was a reminder to do a little one-year analysis of progress made regarding racial justice in the U.S. It read: “Next year consider if any thing more than reading and talking about racism has been done in your networks over the past year. Let’s check annually.”

I chuckled to myself. Since writing that note I had sat in on a number of conversations. Back in the summer and fall of 2020, following the tragic murder of George Floyd, and several other murders, folks were ready — to talk. I preached a few times. There was much conversation and study. Many church folks joined reading groups. There are many fine, fine books and some good conversation that has taken place. I am encouraged and at the same time dubious that real progress was being made.

If one has a headache, and the doctor prescribes aspirin, is it enough for the patient to sit and read the aspirin bottle label and not take the medicine? If a person is diagnosed with cancer, should the patient only review the research on carcinogens and treatments? Racism is endemic in our nation. We seek to make a difference every generation or so, only to fall back into old patterns of bigotry, separation and discrimination. Ours is a repetitive cycle of two steps forward and then one back. Yes, we are making progress, but we have miles to go and we are only progressing a few yards each decade.

My dear friend, LaVerta Terry once told me that “It’s going to take a lot more than reading and talking for things to change.” She reminded me of the quote by Frederick Douglas, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Research done decades earlier, in the 1970s, part of a program named Project Understanding, taught me that church people like to sit and talk. Getting up and doing something is much more challenging. Many like hearing challenging sermons about justice — well, okay, some folks like them, not all. I laugh thinking of folks who would leave worship following a “prophetic” sermon seeming so grateful I had railed against racism or sexism or homophobia. One fella, many years ago, thanked me at the door following such a sermon saying, “That was good, we like it when you talk dirty to us.” Yikes, is that all some these sermons were? Just a scolding? Treating the congregation like a collection of bad adolescents? Are they just a public rehearsal of “oughts, musts and shoulds” that cause folks in the pew to squirm?

Since that research on racism now nearly fifty years ago, I have seen over and again that there is a better way to deal with racism than reading or preaching. In the 1970s we would challenge congregations by asking “Did your church spend more on light bulbs or toilet paper in the past year than on programs in the community supporting racial justice?” Maybe we should be asking that question again. There are ways to engage with persons across the racial lines that continue to separate and harm. There are ways to “walk our prayers into existence.” Whatever your race or ethnicity, we can do more than read — we can ACT, LEARN, BEFRIEND, TOUCH, LAUGH as we PRAY.

Yes, marches for justice are necessary. Yes, passing the voting rights act is essential. We also need to take account of how our institutions spend time and money. What will have changed for us when October 2022 comes around?

My friend LaVerta Terry, died five years ago. She worked with the Black Student programs at Indiana University. More importantly, I now realize that her best gift was as my friend. We laughed often and well. We went to the opera and marched to address racist behaviors or in support of a student who had been excluded or verbally wounded by hateful language. LaVerta would say “The more opposition I faced, the more I decided I could make a difference, but to do this I had to make some people uncomfortable.” We strategized as to how to make changes and not only talk about them. I can hear her still, saying “If all we are going to do at church is talk, talk, talk, I’ll be waiting outside the door to walk, walk, walk.” LaVerta taught me much — talking is good; walking is better; strategize to get up and make a change; make a new friend; and, laughing together can’t be beat.

How not to cure an illness? Just read the label? Okay, what are you planning for next year? Any new friendships in your future? Let’s check in again next October.

Our “Terrible Good” Democracy

Our Terrible Good Democracy

Ralph was a large gruff voiced man, tough exterior with a tender soul. Mostly he hid the gentle side, but the tenderness leaked out more and more as you got to know him.

He was in his seventies by the time we met. He stood straight and tall even as there was evidence of aging. If one watched for it, there was a twinkle at the edges of his eyes, like a small mouse sneaking around the corner of a room. On any given Sunday, after church, I would greet Ralph with, “How are you today, Ralph?” I knew his answer ahead of time. This retired, successful man, in a gravelly voice would reply “Oh, I’m terrible good. You?” Hearing the words TERRIBLE GOOD always caused me to chuckle. It was vintage Ralph, summarizing a rough exterior covering a gentle spirit. His response, his pose, his practiced gruffness meant “I’m very good or I’m doing exceptionally well.” It was always followed with his one word question: “You?”

Terrible Good is one way I think about our national experience of democracy in the United States today. There is a terribleness, a meanness, much more threatening and ugly toward others than Ralph’s gruff demeanor. Somehow civil discourse has been devalued and too often set aside. Public governance has been turned into yelling matches across ideologial divides. Some of the interchanges in school board meetings or even in the U.S. Congress are more like a scuffle on a elementary school play ground than a display of honest human differences. It is ugly and unless we are careful it can be destructive to our future. There is so much that is good about us as a people, as a nation that, I fear, gets lost in the bellicose rudeness. Why is this so? And, what can be done to better display the goodness of our people? I have three hunches to offer.

  1. The Media Made Us Do It.” This is not a new explanation and is, in fact, the most common one offered. Marshall McLuhan was perhaps right, “The medium is the message.” From social media interactions to talk radio to the cable television channels, for many in our nation the offering of information has been set aside and instead exchanges become an ongoing battle, a bludgeoning of “the other.” Complex challenges are distilled into easy answers and turned into verbal brickbats tossed across any convenient ideologocial or cultural chasim.
  2. “There are Fewer Parking-Lot-Conversations.” As a clergy person, I would often see persons engaged in parking-lot-conversations following a worship service or meeting. Sometimes these conversations would last a half an hour, or would move to a nearby restaurant or watering hole. People got to know one another in regular, healthy human exchanges, where differences were freely shared. I recall a lot of teasing about sports teams (Cardinals vs. Cubs; Colts vs. Bears, etc.), or joking about the best college or university, or, yes, disagreements about politics. I heard many such conversations and teasing between Republicans, Democrats and Independents on the asphalt. Sometimes the conversations were serious but almost always to my memory, respectful. I saw this behavior in other arenas as well. For example, I still recall the gatherings following a school board or city council meeting where persons of opposite parties would gather at an establishment and engage in post meeting banter. There was much laughter and often a testing of alternative approaches to problems. Several things happened to change this over the past twenty years. First, churches became more and more ideologically/politically segregated, leaving space for fewer such teasing opportunities. I think the same is true of our politics. Mostly gone are the days when opponents like Tip O’Neal and Ronald Reagan jovially visited after a tough day of battle in Washington. COVID hasn’t helped — there have been fewer people attending fewer public meetings.
  3. “We are fogetting how to practice local democracy.” Local democracy, and by “local” I mean at the grass roots, subatomic, or subpolitical party level. I mean meetings at the PTA, garden club, bowling league, League of Women Voters, church board meetings, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks or dozens of other social or service clubs. While I am not arguing that Roberts Rules of Order should be followed by every group, I do wonder if at the local level we are forgetting how to make fair and democratic decisions. If Roberts Rules are assumed, then some simple things like setting an agenda, learning how to make a motion and call for a vote are helpful. There are other ways to proceed (Consensus, Democratic Rules, Atwood Rules, Group Discernment, etc.). To my mind, if there is no agreed upon way to proeed, an option many will chose is trying to “win” by yelling more loudly than others. There should be some agreement about process. In too many organizations we have turned to the practice of electing officers/leaders and then leaving all the work to those persons, later to grumble about decisions made. My friend Parker Palmer once spoke of visiting an African American Sunday School Class years ago as they were electing officers for the upcoming year. He noted that even in a small class of fewer than ten people, everyone held an office. After the class Palmer asked a friend why everyone held a post and the answer was simple and elegant. “We are practicing.” I believe it is time to give much more attention to the practice of local democracy.

If asked how democracy in the United States is doing today, I would respond that we are “TERRIBLE GOOD.” Of course, to prove this is true, a majority of us would need to answer as Ralph did and ask, “YOU?” More practice at listening to the voices of others and knowing how to fairly make decisions at the local level is something all of us can focus on doing better.

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.

Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.

Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.

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Context of prayer:

Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”

As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.

Amador County, CA, Nov. 2021

From the internet, same day

I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:

If by chance I should find myself at rest, 
By falling from this jagged cliff, 
I look below and I look above, 
I’m surrounded by your boundless love. 
Surround me with your boundless love, 
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be 
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love, 
You surround me with your boundless love.

How to NOT Cure an Illness

How to NOT Cure an Illness

This week a note popped up on my calendar dated, October 1st, 2020. It was a reminder to do a little one-year analysis of progress made regarding racial justice in the U.S. It read: “Next year consider if any thing more than reading and talking about racism has been done in your networks over the past year. Let’s check annually.”

I chuckled to myself. Since writing that note I had sat in on a number of conversations. Back in the summer and fall of 2020, following the tragic murder of George Floyd, and several other murders, folks were ready — to talk. I preached a few times. There was much conversation and study. Many church folks joined reading groups. There are many fine, fine books and some good conversation that has taken place. I am encouraged and at the same time dubious that real progress was being made.

If one has a headache, and the doctor prescribes aspirin, is it enough for the patient to sit and read the aspirin bottle label and not take the medicine? If a person is diagnosed with cancer, should the patient only review the research on carcinogens and treatments? Racism is endemic in our nation. We seek to make a difference every generation or so, only to fall back into old patterns of bigotry, separation and discrimination. Ours is a repetitive cycle of two steps forward and then one back. Yes, we are making progress, but we have miles to go and we are only progressing a few yards each decade.

My dear friend, LaVerta Terry once told me that “It’s going to take a lot more than reading and talking for things to change.” She reminded me of the quote by Frederick Douglas, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Research done decades earlier, in the 1970s, part of a program named Project Understanding, taught me that church people like to sit and talk. Getting up and doing something is much more challenging. Many like hearing challenging sermons about justice — well, okay, some folks like them, not all. I laugh thinking of folks who would leave worship following a “prophetic” sermon seeming so grateful I had railed against racism or sexism or homophobia. One fella, many years ago, thanked me at the door following such a sermon saying, “That was good, we like it when you talk dirty to us.” Yikes, is that all some these sermons were? Just a scolding? Treating the congregation like a collection of bad adolescents? Are they just a public rehearsal of “oughts, musts and shoulds” that cause folks in the pew to squirm?

Since that research on racism now nearly fifty years ago, I have seen over and again that there is a better way to deal with racism than reading or preaching. In the 1970s we would challenge congregations by asking “Did your church spend more on light bulbs or toilet paper in the past year than on programs in the community supporting racial justice?” Maybe we should be asking that question again. There are ways to engage with persons across the racial lines that continue to separate and harm. There are ways to “walk our prayers into existence.” Whatever your race or ethnicity, we can do more than read — we can ACT, LEARN, BEFRIEND, TOUCH, LAUGH as we PRAY.

Yes, marches for justice are necessary. Yes, passing the voting rights act is essential. We also need to take account of how our institutions spend time and money. What will have changed for us when October 2022 comes around?

My friend LaVerta Terry, died five years ago. She worked with the Black Student programs at Indiana University. More importantly, I now realize that her best gift was as my friend. We laughed often and well. We went to the opera and marched to address racist behaviors or in support of a student who had been excluded or verbally wounded by hateful language. LaVerta would say “The more opposition I faced, the more I decided I could make a difference, but to do this I had to make some people uncomfortable.” We strategized as to how to make changes and not only talk about them. I can hear her still, saying “If all we are going to do at church is talk, talk, talk, I’ll be waiting outside the door to walk, walk, walk.” LaVerta taught me much — talking is good; walking is better; strategize to get up and make a change; make a new friend; and, laughing together can’t be beat.

How not to cure an illness? Just read the label? Okay, what are you planning for next year? Any new friendships in your future? Let’s check in again next October.

Still Unhoused in the Shadows of Success

Still Unhoused in the Shadow of Success

Dateline: September 30, 2021, Bloomington, Indiana.

There is an old adage “success has many parents, while failure is an orphan.” Last evening folks gathered on the lawn of the county courthouse in our town to remember the thirty-two persons who had died without adequate shelter over the past year. No doubt others threatened by poverty, addiction, or hunger had also passed away. They were not known. This likelihood was mentioned; homelessness cycles for millions continually in our society. Where is there hope?

Joe Emerson and Sylvia McNair at the Service of Remembrance, September 29, 2021

Candles were lit and small placards with the names of the known deceased were placed on the courthouse lawn. There were prayers, poetry and singing as several dozen folks lifted their candles in remembrance. The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Director of Beacon Inc in Bloomington (an antipoverty program that grew out of, and includes, the Shalom Center Shelter) lead the service. Politicians spoke and a family member shared the important words, “We miss her. A hole is left in our hearts. Forgive yourself and others.”

It was an inspiring evening. The Rev. Joe Emerson, now approaching his 90th birthday, opened in prayer. He had first suggested such a service of remembrance back in 2004. Joe prayed. My thoughts went back to the United Methodist General Conference in 1992 in Louisville, to the beginnings of what became known as Shalom Zones. The 1992 Louisville Conference occurred as the trial of four police officers involved in the tragic arrest and beating of Rodney King was concluding. As the “not guilty” verdict was read, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. It was April 29th, midway into the two-week denominational conference, held every four years. How should the church respond? Those gathered in Louisville took their cue from the Rev. Joe Hyun-Seung Yang, a pastor in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, near the riots. Yang had set up a “relief center” that became known as the Shalom Community Center. Shalom, a word from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning peace, wholeness, safety, health.

In Louisville that week the Rev. Joseph Sprague from Columbus, Ohio (later a bishop serving in Chicago) proposed a Shalom Initiative. Civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson and his brother the Rev. Philip Lawson, both delegates, rose to speak in support. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Within hours a denomination-wide program calling for “Shalom Zones” was adopted and funded. Shalom Zones were to be established around the world as places where persons in poverty could find safe space to build communities of hope and restoration.

In Bloomington, later that year and in years following, we began to pray, confess our failings, study and hold conversations on the biblical notion of Shalom. We challenged one another to address the broken places in our society, in our city. How might we respond? Make a difference? Many initiatives followed. Financial offerings were taken and shared; the church kitchen was used to provide meals for the hungry, clothing was collected and shared. In 1999 the church provided funds for one of the early Habitat for Humanity houses built in the city.

A day center for the homeless was up and running in First United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall by 1999. Here, persons could get mail, use a phone, have a meal and simply stay safe and warm. The need for more overnight shelter remained. Many incredible lay people in the congregation, and beyond, struggled to make a difference for those on the streets. Change, enduring change, needed a persistence practiced by the actions of lay persons. This was much more crucial than sermons or study times led by the pastor. The day center was given a name — it would be the, naturally, the “Shalom Center.” Lay persons, like Indiana University Economics professor Philip Saunders, joined dozens of others who began to widen the vision for what might be possible. In fact, the feeding program at the Shalom Shelter, in 2021, twenty-four year’s later, is known as Phil’s Kitchen.

At the service last night, a fellow approached and surprisingly called my name. It had been more than twenty years since we met in the late 1990s. Having overcome the challenges of addiction he had faced earlier, this man was now helping others. We laughed as he reminded me that many on the streets didn’t adopt the name “Shalom Center.” Instead they slurred the words, using street humor, they teasingly called the fellowship hall arrangement the “Slum Center.” These folks knew, and we knew, we could do better. Thankfully as the years passed many others joined together to do better. They persisted. Something much better has emerged.

I hear other origin stories about these beginnings of the Shalom Center in Bloomington. Each narrative holds its own truth… there have been many sources of action and investment. The sacrifices and generosity of so many since 1992 have made a difference. Prior to the 1990s there were already many fine service organizations (e.g., Monroe County United Ministries and Community Kitchen) assisting persons facing the brutal results of relentless poverty and non-available shelter. Today, even more organized resources are offered in the community through social service groups and government programs.

Yes, success has many parents. One must ask, has this truly been a success? Well, yes… and no. No doubt many lives have been saved and new beginnings discovered. Still, at least thirty-two of God’s children died on the streets in our town over the last year. That’s not the mark of success. Such an assessment is true in almost every city in the nation. Last night, I heard the politicians speak of aid that has been offered and I often read annual reports of the organizations in our city like Habitat for Humanity, New Hope for Families, Wheeler Mission and the Bloomington Housing Authority. Good, good and very good on them all. Still, still, still, there is yet a shadow over us. Thirty-two died without housing last year — this we know. Shalom Zone activities begun in Louisville in 1992 continue around the world. Scores of places have benefited through dozens of projects in the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, Glenncliff Village, Nashville

Even so, in this nation and in my community, homelessness persists. We seem stuck, forever overshadowed by the tragedy of persons without safe housing. Many in our nation seem forever caught up in ignorance, bad theology and lousy public policy, devoid of humane responses to addiction and poor mental health. We must not fall into the trap of believing homelessness is about an individual’s moral failings, as so many seem to think; rather, these without shelter are evidence of our society’s moral failings, failings of our community, our economic and political choices.

How to move beyond the shadow? There is, as the scriptures say, a “great cloud of witnesses” showing us pathways forward. There are persons with a broader vision, a better response. In my city there is a “Heading Home” proposal that offers the better linkage of resources, more housing and earlier, more appropriate, and sustainable, interventions to persons in such crisis.

Across the nation, others point the way, typically these days initiatives are ecumenical and/or interfaith in nature. For example, note the work of folks like Ingrid McIntyre in Nashville, the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, co-founder of Open Table Nashville, which seeks to “break the mold of what people call the church.” Rev. McIntyre led in the building of twenty-two micro homes in a Nashville neighborhood known as The Village at Glencliff. These are shelters for “medically vulnerable neighbors who are chronically homeless” as they wait for permanent housing. The homes form a sacred halo around Glencliff United Methodist Church. I can’t help but think about other churches, scores of them, where tiny houses might be built and homeless persons having interim shelter and linking the gifts of the congregation with those who need shelter.

Lincoln Park Community Services, 2020

In Dallas, an ecumenical initiative known as CitySquare has over these past twenty-five years grown from a food pantry into offerings of legal aid, to job development, housing rehab and the building more fifty tiny houses for those needing short-term housing while persons deal with addictions and other health issues.

In Chicago a group of churches joined together to build a new facility for Lincoln Park Community Service offering interim housing and job counseling for more than 120 residents.

This is a tiny window into the work of persons who are working to end homelessness. Each one is essential to ultimately addressing the challenge.

Finding room for the unsheltered can seem overwhelming, I understand. Even so, I join the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who suggests that when confronted by huge, seemingly intractable problems (like the fanaticism and hatred held by many Palestinians and many Jews in Israel), a productive option is to join The Order of the Teaspoon.

Oz writes that when facing an enormous, tragic situation, like a conflagration, a fire burning out of control, there are three options: 1) Run away; 2) Write an angry letter to the editor; 3) “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire.” He goes on, “and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon — almost everyone has a teaspoon.” Oz Amos [“how to cure a fanatic,” Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 93-95] asserts that if millions who have a teaspoon form the Order of the Teaspoon to join in taking on enormous challenges, dramatic change is possible. [Homelessness is an enormous problem but small when compared with others like the Jewish/Palestinian divide which is the conflagration to which Oz Amos is pointing.]

Too many will sleep unhoused tonight on the streets of my city or town, and yours. Might we continue the vision of Shalom Zones begun thirty years ago — and, actually, centuries before that — [insert your own scripture here — there are dozens from which to chose]. What if we each brought our teaspoon to dose the fires that leave us in the shadow of the unhoused? So, please, find a place near seeking to make a difference. Persist, you and your a bucket of difference-making support, or add glassful or a teaspoon of support toward ending homelessness.

Plantings and Harvests

Plantings and Harvests

What’s the old adage? “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago and the next best time is today.” Top of mind today are events in Afghanistan, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and COVID hospitalizations and deaths around the world. Perhaps, like me, these tragedies overwhelm and despair has taken up residence in your thoughts. What was planted twenty years ago – and longer – is now being harvested. What has brought us to this point? Where is there a hopeful way forward?

As a nation, as a world, we seem unable to consider long-term implications of actions taken today. The all-too-natural-human tendency to prefer the tools of retaliation, blame, distrust, greed, fear or bigotry have served as a modus operandi in most of human history. Too seldom has the wisdom of an Abraham Lincoln been displayed. As the terrible years of the Civil War were ending he spoke the remarkable words “with malice toward none and charity for all.” Such a guiding vision and telos for our wars is astonishing. There is a dangerous and disastrous inability to view our political, global and cultural situations with a longer view. Retaliation has produced what fruit? Distrust of government, health and religious institutions, broken, fragile and in need of reformation as they all are, has yielded exactly what fruit?

Grain in Southern Indiana

As we approach the autumn harvest season in North America, farmers are doing more than combining grain and gathering the harvest. They are planning ahead for the crops they will plant next year, and the years following. I think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:

16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

As I grieved the deaths of our thirteen young military personnel this past week and more than one-hundred-and-seventy Afghanistan persons murdered at the Kabul airport, I thought of the twenty plus year toll on our world and nation and my heart was broken. Still, the words of the U.S. President in response this horrific attack in Kubal by promising retaliation and saying “we will not forgive,” brought small comfort. Today, exactly what are we reaping and what are we sowing for the future? We should not forget, and should act wisely in the future, but what fruit does this retaliation bring? This talk was, for me, a kind of virtue-signaling of the worst order as the president needed to let anyone listening know that he (we) were tough and could be as cruel as any terrorists in response.

Out of fear, revenge, and no small hubris, we have spent thousands of precious lives and billions of dollars with apparently too little knowledge of the people and culture and less wisdom as to our mission. Afghanistan was already a broken Humpty Dumpty of a place when U.S. troops entered in 2001. My appreciation for those in the military and civilians who diligently sought to build a better place is enormous. Thanks for their service knows no limit. However, this still begs the question, was violence the best tool in our toolkit? Is it now?

Many people of faith over generations understood that retaliation was not the way of Jesus. They understood the importance of making our institutions humane and strong rather than stirring up animus against government or leaders with whom one disagrees. Many taught the path of nonviolence and restorative justice. For people of faith, especially my own Christian family, we have great traditions of reconciliation and grace upon which to draw. Sadly, in my denomination, many have been caught up in tribal warfare over these twenty years. What if we had spent this energy on planting a better future for our world, for Afghanistan, together? Our vision has been reduced to a sickening institutional battle over the next two years or four years. Our passions have focused more on proving another party wrong, gaining control of congregations and a denomination, rather than on planting the good seed of Christ for the future. We think too small and hope too little. Kyrie Elieson — may God have mercy and forgive.

Whether it is war, hurricane, or disease, a future of hope requires deeper, wiser, more hope-filled and generous behaviors. Our decisions now about war and peace will require thoughtful critique and retooling. Our fragile social, cultural and religious institutions — those intended to build up and not destroy — call on us to plant seeds of renewal designed to bring good fruit. And, living our lives in more environmentally sustainable ways on this precious planet require new life patterns for the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. I believe this is possible. There is an ecology of hope we can practice, a living in ways that plant good seed for the future, so that others may receive an abundant and good harvest.