Restoring Broken Connections

Restoring Broken Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can I not strive to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

There she was in the alley.  Pushing a shopping cart.  She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee.  Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked.  She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path.  I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.

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Ann Livingston, Al Etmanski, John McKnight and Michael Mather (Photo by Travis Lupick, The Georgian Straight Magazine)

I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU.  We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.  VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users.  They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others.  Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.”  She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver. 

Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers.  She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer.  Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power.  She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver. 

When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace.  As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.  

With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared.  In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites.  This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe.  The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement.  To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.

LEARNING

Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn.  (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.)  I am helped by new learning occasions.  Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places.  Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.

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photo by Travis Lupick

Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face.  When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections.  There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone,  Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose.  When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”

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Ann Livingston and John McKnight, photo by Travis Lupick

My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis.  It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight.  John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing.  It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities.  This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits.  This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing.  Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.

LOATHING

As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States.  Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT.  It simple doesn’t work.  Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed. 

This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years.  It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology.   Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers.  The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin.  Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes.  Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.”  It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish.  In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.

LOVING

Can there be a turn from loathing to loving?  Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.”  No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.

By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries?  Why was Ann carrying strawberries?”  It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site.  When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”

The Unexpected Neighbor

The Unexpected Neighbor

The remarkable social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).

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Ivan Illich, 1971, source: Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — and widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge and much valuable reforming wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his analysis. 

He was more!  Each critique was not a call to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as a table where all may share. 

His call is to reinvest in the original motivating principles behind our “helping” institutions.  He was about the nurturing of an underlying community spirit built on the essential importance of neighborliness.  He suggests there are ways of living into such community understandings as evidenced in his book Tools for Conviviality.

Illich spoke of “corruptio optimi pessima” or “the corruption of the best becoming the worst.” He writes, “Through the attempt to ensure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst.  And yet at any moment we still have opportunities to recognize, even when we are Palestinians, that there is a Jew lying in the ditch whom I can take in my arms and embrace.”  (David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Toronto: Anansi Press, p. 242.)

As Illich would put it, there is a “sad historical progression in which God’s incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out” (from David Cayley’s Rivers North of the Future, p. 29).  This corruption may be seen in our many efforts to serve, to control, to regulate, to manage and to turn our neighbors into categories or objects of our good intentions.  A simple illustration he gives is as follows: “In the early years of Christianity it was customary in a Christian household to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus, should knock at the door in the form of a stranger without a roof” (Cayley, Rivers North of the Future, p. 54.).  Over the centuries, hospitality was “improved upon.”  The work of each householder is transformed into the responsibility of our “serving institutions.”

If there is one alternative story which Ivan Illich cites more than others, it would, no doubt, be the one known as “the Good Samaritan Parable” in Luke 10. 

I have spent much of my adult life sifting through the human wisdom nuggets of truth in this story — AND BEING CONVERTED BY THIS WITNESS.  It is astonishing that in these few verses in Luke’s gospel, there are dozens upon dozens of insights into our institutions, our freedom, the incarnation story and the wider human reality — tragic and blessed.  I have written about this in other places — and will, no doubt, write more in the future about this upside down reality, this conspiracy, which is the core of Christianity (and that of many other great religious traditions).  Instead in this piece, I want to begin to share a few other alternative stories.  Today, there is the story from Wes Jackson, environmentalist and founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Alternative Story #1:

Wes Jackson shares a story of a visit E.F. Schumacher, author of the widely known work Small is Beautiful, made to his fledgling organization in Kansas in 1977.  Jackson says The Land Institute was “scarcely six months old and we were honored that Schumacher, the widely acclaimed author would visit and give a public lecture.”

“When Schumacher arrived, he did not dismiss this tiny organization that had recently experienced a devastating fire, destroying much of their early work. Instead, E. F. Schumacher listened patiently and insisted on being called ‘Fritz.’ On the evening of the lecture, the Salina Community Theater was filled with farmers, small business owners and the unemployed.”

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Wes Jackson, from Cool Science News, 2009

Fritz began by telling of a trip he had made during the 1930s with some friends in an automobile across America. He and his compatriots had stopped at a service station in some small Kansas town at the height of the Great Depression. Fritz engaged a local man at the station by asking, “How are things?” “Fine,” the local replied. “What is it you do?” asked Fritz. “Oh, I work on that farm over there,” he said pointing in the direction of the farm. “I used to own that farm but I had no money to pay the hired hand, so I paid him in land.  Eventually he owned all of my farm and now I work for him.”

That is a very sad story,” replied Fritz.” “Well, not so sad,” countered the hired hand. “You see, now my friend has no money either and so he is paying me back in land.” (Jackson, Wes, The Land Institute, December 1999, see info@landinstitute.org).

What are your thoughts about such alternative narratives?  Let’s have a conversation.  Let’s keep listening for other stories that conspire to teach new lessons than might transform our view of the world — and perhaps even change the way we see ourselves.

 

 

Our “Peak Crazy” Social Psyche

Our Peak Crazy Social Psyche

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Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

Peak Crazy

Today’s New York Times (September 28, 2016) asks if our national psyche has reached a “peak craziness” with regard to our penchant for accepting conspiracy theories.  “Peak Craziness” was a new concept for me.  A search shows that it is not a widely used idea; however, I find it a helpful one.  It suggests a reaching of a distorted, foolish summit or high point in human experience and discourse.

Upon reading the NY Times commentary it was clear that while conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon in our society, the changes in the way we receive our news and the power of social media, give a credence to conspiracy theories that is dense in saliency and reach.  Our “news” comes at us fast and furiously and these theories become an ordering mechanism for the hurried, anxious or fearful.

One couldn’t help but chuckle on Tuesday morning when Donald Trump complained that his microphone had malfunctioned during his recent debate with Hillary Clinton.  Trump went on to say that “he didn’t want to believe in conspiracy theories” and wondered why he had microphone problems and Mrs. Clinton did not.  It is no surprise, I guess, that the candidate who has been the most active in bringing our nation to a peak craziness around conspiracy theories would suggest that any failure on his part is the result of some conspiracy.   Truth is, that both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton have painted pictures of “vast conspiracies” as part of their election narrative. 

While I give more credence to Ms. Clinton’s concerns — whether about the crazed conjecturing about Benghazi, White Water, missing emails, etc. — it seems that she gives too much attention to some vast plot or “hidden hand” that determines present and future circumstance.  Of course, Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories are more pernicious — filled with racism and xenophobia.  In fact, the record is clear, Trump’s “birther” conspiracy comments, freighted with bigoted attempts to undermine Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, was a major factor in his staying in public consciousness.  We will no doubt hear of other “conspiracies” as Mr. Trump plays a kind of ideological bumper cars with the truth and our national psyche.

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Spirit Island: Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park

Thinking about the idea of Peak Craziness reminds me of our recent visit to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park.  Mary Schaffer is said to be the first person of European ancestry to “discover” Maligne Lake.  Using a map provided by Samson Beaver, a First Nations chief of the Stoney People, Mary Schaffer’s small party found this nonpareil site.  The glory of the lake and the surrounding peaks filled them with wonder.  An artist, Mary Schaffer, spoke of this as a place beyond ever fully capturing by words or brush.  Depending on where one stands there are peaks and glaciers in every direction surrounding the lake. 

Near the glacier-fed headwaters is Spirit Island.  The island is a sacred ground for the First Nations people who spoke of this as the temple of the gods.

One wonders if the humanly constructed “peaks of craziness” in our national psyche are blocking our view,  preventing us from seeing the genuine peaks of wonder all around.  Perhaps we need to spend more time on our own Spirit Islands to to see the true beauty of this election season.  There they are, towering beyond all our conspiracy theories, the peaks of shared humanity, the remarkable wonder of democracy — even when messy — and the towering responsibility of citizenship.

Let’s live as a Spirit island people, who work and vote in a world as free of conspiracy peaks as possible.

 

 

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

September 6, 2016

An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week.  Unexpected.  And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep.  Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California.  Elaine and I were in Sacramento. 

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The “Safe” — an empty pork and beans can

Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising.  It was a grassy and green stretch.  On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California.  Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government.  On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees.  Beyond them an empty field.  The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels.  No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.

About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass.  It gyrated across my path.  The light beckoned me come.   I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment.  Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious.  Only the trees for cover.  I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish.  They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor.  With no response, I looked more closely.  There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans.   Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents.  Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.

Who lived here?  For how long?  Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks?  The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me.   How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation?  Bad luck?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us?  Our bad luck?  Our ideological addictions?  Our mental illness? 

A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can.  Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it.  I returned.  Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude.  Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can. 

I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way.  I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light.  I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years.  Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks.  Yes, I prayed for our nation and world.  More, I prayed for myself.  My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating.  So many live on the edge.  It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do.  How many homeless in the U.S.?  Eleven million?  Or, as some say, thirty million? 

I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value.  Should I call a church or social workers?  NO!  Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary.  Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero.  Nor were my motives heroic.  There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims.  Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.

I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child?  Might that child be undocumented?  Might that child be a refugee?  A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago?  Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?

IMG_1645Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light.   Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key.  My first thought was to carry it back to the camp.  Leave it there with the rosary in the can.  Then I realized the key might be for me.  I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins.  I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all.  Now — here is the real surprise for me.  In that moment there was JOY.  The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling.  The JOY of having another key to my identity.  Lost and found — Joy.  Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.”  I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.

Yes, I was so privileged.  I had work to do.  In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.

I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments:  ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

I brought the key home with me.

 

 

 

 

Mentors of Hope

Mentors of Hope

Visits with my best friends typically include the question, “what are you reading?”  Sometimes I am embarrassed and tongue-tied because I don’t want to admit that I can’t even remember the name of the author or the title of the book in that moment.  I know it is a good book and can even tell you the color of the cover or quote several passages from it.  But the name of the author? — Ah, the joys of being 70 keep coming!  Still, I am grateful for this question and for these friends as they are asking a deeper question, more fundamental question.  It is “who is teaching you these days?”

Good reader, who are your teachers?  This is not asking you who were your teachers? Rather what is informing you today?  No doubt lessons from the past are critical to shaping who we are.  I do remember elementary school teachers like Ms. Kerns, Ms. Schindler, Ms. Williams, Mr. Glass all offered lessons that still shape my living.  Occasionally I hear echoes of Ms. Schindler, third grade teacher saying “Philip, you are too good not to be better!”  What an enduring word — her legacy on my life.

Lessons from today are even more essential — essential to shaping who we will become.  Who teaches us now?  In a time when ignorance and falsehood is the trademark of one Donald Trump, the question “what are your reading?” is critical.  If you find Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy troubling, “what are you reading?”  What gives you perspective beyond the same ole talking heads on television?

So, here are a few folks who are shaping my thoughts today for the future:

  1. Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  In her blog “Practicing Restoration” Sara recently wrote of Beauty in the Borderlands (Wenger Shenk, Practicing Restoration).  Very nice — and full of wisdom like the importance of “caring for the institution you are trying to heal.”
  2. President Wenger Shenk mentions Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World and I am reminded of another wonderful teacher for these times.  I have only started the book but find it so compelling, I can even remember the name of the author!
  3. Then there is the work Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler that points to the power of our networks of friends and their friends who touch our lives in ways that shape our worlds for benefit or disease.
  4. I would mention the daily meditation pieces from Richard Rohr, at the Center for Action and Contemplation – see Richard Rohr meditations.  He has recently challenged my tendency to think too often in binary ways and reminded again of the powerful benefit of paradox for us if we are to find more hope-filled ways forward.
  5. Lastly, I would mention Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History at Revisionist History podcast.  He has just completed the first ten podcasts for this summer season.  They are richly rewarding and will make you think!

In a period of history when the temptation is to watch my favorite news channel (Fox or MSNBC or CNN or…. you name it) our communities and our body politic deserve our efforts to think more clearly and not find ourselves trapped in our limited cul de sacs of narrow analysis.  Read on good folks — think more broadly.  Our world deserves the best we can know, even if we can’t always remember the name of the author or the title of the work.  Where do you find hope?  Who mentors you in that direction?

It is all too easy to focus on some issue of discontent.  Okay, I hear your complaints.  What I want to know is where do you find hope — where do you see folks coming together?

I write trusting that in some small way I can act as a mentor of hope today.  I will have my issues of disagreement with others, of course.  I challenge you to join me to read more widely, think more broadly, our world needs you to do so.

Filet

 

Harvesting Weeds

Harvesting Weeds

 

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Allium in Bloom, Walstead Farm 2016

Early June – daffodils and tulips have dropped their blooms.  Now the purple allium flowers, gorgeous, stand proudly over the “weeds.”

Funny how I can miss the beauty by seeing only the weeds.  Beauty — this year I saw it all around our home in the flower or vegetable beds.  The allium amidst the weeds remind me of wisdom of a friend long ago — the Rev. Esther Angel.

I first met Esther in 1992 in Louisville.  We were both clergy delegates to the United Methodist General Conference working in the same legislative group.  That year Esther’s quiet and deeply spiritual presence made a difference.  During a break in our legislative group, Esther, speaking softly, asked if she should say something to the entire group.  Several of us encouraged her and then she said something that has lingered with me since.  She simply and calmly said, “I fear the United Methodist Church is in a time of self-loathing.  It is diminishing and replacing the joy of our work.”  She went on “we are forgetting to celebrate the harvest, focusing too much on the weeds.

That day, in the next hour, Esther rose and moved to the middle of the circle in which our legislative group was sitting.  The topic was the denomination’s support for a woman’s right to have a choice when facing the tragedy of abortion.  Up to this point, it was mainly men who had spoken.  Raising her hand, moving to the center, turning and continuing to slowing circle, she began, “I would sing you my heart…” 

She spoke of the women she had counseled facing difficult, almost impossible pregnancies and life situations.  Saying she had never counseled a woman or her partner to proceed with an abortion — she could still understand how in some cases this would be a tragic yet appropriate choice.  Esther spoke in a beautiful way of other ways we sought to be a denomination that brought healing and hope.   She rehearsed the ways United Methodists had led over the years in civil rights struggles.  She spoke on the behalf of a woman’s right to choose and wondering why none of the men, who had spoken with such strong views that week, had asked to hear from women in the room. 

I thought of Esther this year when the 2016 General Conference voted to abandon our denomination’s long term support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.   In 1992, Esther spoke about the importance of welcoming gay and lesbian persons in our churches.  She ended her solilloquy, her word-dance with the words, “Let’s stop harvesting the weeds.”  In 1992, Esther’s quiet, yet prophetic, spirit made a difference.  We missed her in 2016 — but her spirit remains.

The 2016 General Conference of the church “spent a lot of time harvesting weeds.”  Esther, who died, too young several years ago, had a capacity for quiet communication. In 1992 Esther passed out a poem printed on a 4 X 6 note card.  Here is a link to a copy: Re-Imagining — Esther Angel, 1992.

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To my mind she captured something in speaking of our “denominational self-loathing.” She perceived then that we were forgetting to celebrate the good harvest related to who we are as Wesleyans as United Methodists.  In too many places we forget our great legacy and are literally getting lost in the weeds. 

Often when I hear of congreations who try to hide their United Methodist identity on signage or websites, I think of Esther.  When I learn of congregations who ignore our theology of baptism or communion, who offer meager financial support to the denomination and prefer to identify themselves “post-denominational” or “community” churches rather than United Methodists, I think of Esther’s witness.  When I see the stong waves of the so called New Room Calvinism seeking to capture the future theological direction of our denomination, I think of Esther.

In her poem Esther spoke of the energy expended on attacking and defending and then wrote:  “Meanwhile, The poor hear bad news, Captives stay in prisons, The blind remain unsighted.  Satan laughs.  Wouldn’t you in his/her shoes?  “Left”; “Right, both the same, in tactics and in what remains — Undone.”

At our house we are now harvesting vegetables.  What joy!  Still, it’s difficult not to focus on the weeds, no matter our best intentions.  The same is true, I fear, in the church. 

My own bishop writes compellingly that United Methodists are about so much more than dealing with issues of sexuality.  Sadly, he then spends nearly every communication, every month, talking about the church and homosexuality.  He may be trying to do penance for the years he has quietly aided and abetted our bigotry.  Perhaps.  Still, until we hear of the beauty of faithful, loving homosexual relationships or about the gift of the witness of congregations that are courageously focusing on welcome and reconciliation and rituals of support for all people, it all stays in the weeds.

We all have a responsibility.  Will we speak of the beauty all around?  Will we speak of the delights of the harvest?  Will we speak about our denomination’s commitments to addressing poverty?  Addressing racism?  Our ongoing commitments to threatened immigrants in our nation and world?  Will we have a constructive word about addressing the dilemmas of climate change?  Will we hear about the ways the lives of persons in our communities are being changed through the love of Christ?

Esther had it right, let’s stop harvesting weeds!

Phil A