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.

Both Sides Now

Anocracy – an unfamiliar word becoming ever more common. It is used by those who study the health of democracys. Anocracies are places where democratic institutions are being diminished and autocratic practices are growing. In such states legal, electoral, economic and legislative functions shift to more and more autocratic behaviors. Sometimes referred to as illiberal democracies or reduced democracies, such governments, without countermeasures, move inevitably closer to full blown dictatorships and in many places civil war ensues.

Johnson and Czeck Sramek
Pulling togther? Source: METRO.co.uk

I carry in my mind a 2017 image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Czech Foreign Minister Ivo Sramek rowing a small boat on a lake in Kent. Considering the anocratic tendencies in Czechoslovakia of late — and for that matter Great Britain — one wonders if these two men at the time were pulling together or against one another as the currents of illiberalism were surging? The strength of democratic institutions is being challenged the world around. We see it up close in the United States.

An insurgent mob attacks the Capitol building a year ago seeking to block the installation of a new president; state legislatures pass measures to challenge voting rights and favor one set of citizens over another in electoral districts; school board meetings turn ugly with threats and name-calling substituted for honest debate; the ideological divisions evident in our media grow; health measures like vaccinations and wearing face masks to protect from the Covid-19 virus are turned into political wedge issues; and, even (especially) one’s religious perspective is tied to one partisian political agenda. Barbara F. Walter, political science professor at UC San Diego has studied the emergence of anocracies for years. She says “the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.” (See Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 12/16/21)

Source: Seahopperfoldingboats.com

Perhaps you have heard of the illustration of a person in a row boat who will only pull on one oar. Yes, as the metaphor goes, the rower will simply go around in circles. If one is to make it to a distant shore, both oars are necessary. In healthy governments, there needs to be the safe and secure contribution made by those who are in power balanced by the safe and secure participation of those who are being governed.

For years I have been troubled by the tendency to turn every issue into a dichotomy, a binary choice with little room for hearing, seeing or learning from another side. This is common in anocracies — forcing complex issues into simplistic either/or choices. My guess is that in times of change, fear or unrest, there is a tendancy toward this inability to see another view. In the process divisions increase and become even more accute. My brain scientist friends tell me this is the case. The prefrontal cortex takes over. The ability to see more broadly or think more clearly is reduced. It is fight or flight time.

What is true in nations, large systems, and community institutions is also true within persons. I recall the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Many singers recorded the song — my favorite was Judy Collins’ rendition. The lyric closes with:

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well, something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
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Life’s Illusions

For people of faith, especially for Christians and Jews, our scriptures are full of images that call us beyond simplistic illusions. Dualistic thinking tempts us to miss the mark. For example, there is the illusion that religion is primarily an individual’s experience and option. Others suggest it is soley a social engagement. Some seem to proclaim that faith is sufficient as a guide toward piety, while others see faith as only valuable if it focuses on social justice. Healthy, whole, and wholesome religiousity moves beyond such simplistic patterns of either/or toward the richness of inclusion, paradox, and a welcome to ever-new-unfolding-understandings of transcendence.

I was struck then, and deeply saddened, by a news article last fall of my alma mater joining in the efforts against a national vaccine mandate proposed to curb disease and death. As Kate Shellnutt writes in Christianity Today, Novmber 5, 2021 (Updated 12/20/21). Asbury Theological Seminary (joined Southern Baptist Seminary) in a legal challenge seeking emergency relief “from enforcement of the mandate, which asks businesses with over 100 employees to require COVID-19 vaccination, with any unvaccinated workers required to wear mask and undergo regular testing.”

Such “one-oared perspectives” endanger and misslead. They seem to miss entirely the gospel’s call of caring for the neighbor. One can almost overhear in this legal challenge the question of the young man to Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?” One wonders if the seminary should not be returning the more than $780,000 from the federal government in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) received during the pandemic.

No doubt, were the issue about “government interference” related to scholarship aid for the students or receipt of federal funds to keep the community roadways and railways safe, the seminary might decide there is a “greater good.” Did the seminary speak up when, only a few years ago, medicaid relief was denied the poor in Kentucky? Or, what about the current challenge to the child tax credit that has lifted millions out of poverty? Surely the seminary has spoken out about this injustice. Crickets… nothing on such “federal interventions” related to how our society treats the poor.

Sadly, it is transparent that Asbury Seminary’s opposition to public safety and the commonweal are more about joining school’s mission to that of the Republican Party. In the likelihood that Row vs. Wade abortion laws are overturned or made moot by upcoming Supreme Court decisions, the seminary’s support for individual freedom will no doubt melt away.

The seminary’s choice to prefer a political stance, “masked up” as individual or institutional freedom displays a tragic disregard for the health of the larger community. At a time when a witness could be offered to the love of neighbor, it is rather set aside for a political agenda. In so doing, the whole gospel becomes an illusion. A great opportunity has been missed — and a disregard for sharing and living the wider Biblical narrative is lost. A one-sided, dualistic choice, this political stance is evident. Sadly, such a narrow view is put to use by those who seek to diminish our democracy. It no doubt pleases many constituents whose theology and politics are shaped by believing the scriptures are simply about individual sin and salvation. It causes one to wonder where the wisdom of Luther or Wesley, who spoke of choosing the common good in times of pandemic, has gone. It is, to my great sadness, a contributor to the anocracy apparent in our nation.

There have been many in this Asbury family who taught that individual freedom always comes in clear linkage with social responsibility. I think of beloved professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon — and before them Claude Thompson and Bob Shuler II. (I will be sharing more about Gilbert James in the next blog.) In my time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were still suffering from the de facto racial segregation that had kept Asbury institutions rowing around in circles — an important witness to the wider world lost. Only a handful of African American students were welcomed. Many at the time felt it was not the government’s role to encourage racial integration in schools. Fortunately, others at the school and in society saw a larger vision, one that cared for the whole and not just for the political advantage of the segregationists.

My prayer is that God’s spirit will allow the faithful at Asbury, and in other such settings where options are narrowed to simple dualistic choices, to remember and revise their message announcing the breadth of God’s care for all people, communities and creation – personal and social – Both Sides Now.

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

There Have Been Saints, But – I Repeat Myself

Blessed with many generous friends, I enjoy times of remembering the good, bad, ugly and beautiful. Among my younger companions, many below my years by a decade, or two, or more, I sometimes am foolish enough to offer my ‘wise counsel.’ (Okay, I try to do this only when they seek it.) I have known many of these folks now for several decades. Together, we have shared a wide circle of mutual travelers and acquaintances on our circuitous journeys. Included in this entourage are a number of rogues, clowns, mischief makers, heroines, heros and… well, in a word, there have been “Saints.”

As All Saints Day slips past us in 2021, I am aware that Fredrick Buechner’s image of saints is sorely lacking, lovely and whimsical as it is. Buechner speaks of saints as “God’s dropped handkerchiefs.” He says saints appear as part of “God’s flirtation with the world.” The saints I have known hardly flutter to earth or are easily picked up. In fact, at my age, they are substantial, heavy and many. I am left wondering if some I catalogued as scoundrels, and others to whom I seldom gave attention, might need to be recategorized as saints.

Often, after an evening visiting with friends remembering the past, and recounting acts of stupidity or moral courage, I find myself thinking… “Did I get that right? How often have I told that same story? Have I garbbled it? Have I confused a congressman with a senator, or a police officer with a trial attorney, or a chaplain with an orderly? Listening to my recapitulations, my friends must be bored stiff at every retelling — or they think “poor fella, he repeats himself. What is this? The 146th time ole Amerson has recalled and then re-shaped some sinner into a saint or some blunder into an accomplisment? Bless him and his muddled memories.”

Wallace Stegner’s novel Recapitulation tells of the return of Harry Mason to his childhood home in Salt Lake City. Mason has had what others would consider a successful life. He worked in the U.S. State Department, served as an ambassador. Mason remembered much, but celebrated little. His relationships, complex and difficult, were like an old coat to be shed every few years. They had shaped him but had not ever connected him to anything more substantial than his desires, fears and aspirations. Stegner writes “Harry Mason would have treated his father like an entry in his reminder book. Drawn a rectangle around his name and blacked it out. Did. Yet, Harry Mason’s only definition now was given to him by the relationships he had laid aside, without them he would merge with the universal grass. In his life it was the same.” He was left with “the souveniors of upward mobility.”

During this season of life, I have come to fresh understandings. Relationships may be lost but memories can continue to connect. We don’t just build community — we remember community. To love God and Neighbor — well that is the work of saints. I will not name their names in this writing, but this year saw the passing of many, many great spirits. These are saints, not handkershiefs. Some died COVID related deaths, some simply of declining health from aging, some from tragedy. As saints pass away, disappear from the earthly lifescape, they make their way into our flimsy memories, yours and mine. We draw on the web of multiple memories — some of them muddled. Still, as we light candles and ring a chime when their name is read at All Saints services, we are reshaped by recalling the good and noble gifts they shared with us. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. We will not forget the gifts they shared, even if we remember incorrectly or confuse one saint with another. BUT I REPEAT MYSELF.

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.

Music: Social Distancing isn’t for the Birds

Music: Social Distancing is for the Birds

Song bird feeders are now empty, cleaned and stored until we have an “all clear.” Feeders have been taken down around the region. From Washington D.C., then west through Indiana, songbirds are endangered by a mysterious disease. Not long ago I could sit by a bird feeder, watch the congregation gathering there and hear dozens of songs and calls. Gold finches, sparrows, grosbeaks were common. Not all were song birds, but all were welcome at our feeder.

Then we were told that avian social distancing should be practiced. Bird feeders and birdbaths should be cleaned and left empty.

At one time from tiny chickadees to the proud redheaded Pileated Woodpeckers they would come. There was chatter. From downy to red-bellied, the woodpeckers came when not chiseling a nearby tree… or the eves on a house! Some of the birds would call or cry out from nearby limbs, others would sing glorious tunes, sometimes in a liturgical call and response. I admit to being less than happy when a cowbird flew in to feed. I knew they had bullied their way into a nest or two they did not construct, with a female laying eggs there. This, so that cowbird chicks might be incubated, hatched, fed and cared for by another more industrious bird. Some spring afternoons indigo buntings would stop by to feed on their way north.

Alas. Now silence. I miss the music and the chatter. I miss the surprise of a new visitor. My photography is barely amateur grade: still, I offer some evidence of the visitors. There were days I could count a dozen birds at the feeders. And another dozen or more waiting… Some politely waiting their turn… others just commandeering a place, pushing neighbors out. I miss the chatter of it all, the wonderful mix of guests at these feeders. I often could not predict the “pecking order” of the various varieties. Mostly I miss the noise they bring — especially the music. I feel I owe an apology to the birds or at least an explanation that I understand how they must feel. Do birds feel? Well, I suspect they do but that is another matter. I know humans do.

Gold Finch and Red Bud in Bloom

Birds are one thing. Even more, I miss the human music: the choirs, orchestras, brass bands, string ensembles, and even the cacophony of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field. Public music was an essential part of life prior to the COVIC human-social-distancing we practiced. Many of our human “feeders” were closed down and empty. It has been a long time since I was physically present in worship and heard a choir sing, or sat at the opera and heard a dueling soprano and tenor blend their song.

Elaine and I retired in Bloomington in part because of the remarkable Jacobs Music school at Indiana University. Before COVID there were hundreds of concerts every year at the University. And these were augmented by community choirs, orchestras, festivals and impromptu music around town. A great student opera and local entertainment at the Bluebird club or the Lotus Festival were a possibility. I miss hearing Carrie Newcomer or Sylvia McNair singing in a local park or theater. I miss it all.

The lost chords of these months of pandemic will never be recovered. Lost forever. We are the poorer for it. The prospect of the new delta variant, or the next variant of the coronavirus (what is it, lambda?) continuing to deny this gift is hard to bear.

Music is soul mending. Highlights of my life were painted with music. Tears, laughter and new life understandings have emerged from the music of my journey. I have been blessed to hear the rich harmonies of Mennonite congregations in Northern Indiana, while listening to the orchestra at Chautauqua Institute, or reveling in one of many church choirs as they sang a Felix Mendelssohn or John Rutter piece. I have been transfixed on hearing Charles Webb or Jaebon Hwang master the Widor Toccata on the pipe organ. There were times when Ken Medema would improvise weaving story and song at the keyboard or Ed Kilbourne was adding his folk touches to enrich a story. There was the evening James Taylor had us up dancing at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Sorry birds, I can only guess you miss the music of others who congregate as well. There are now dozens of research studies that demonstrate music, especially choral singing, offer health benefits. Other studies show the power of listening to music in reducing stress, even lowering blood pressure. Might it be that the ugliness and meanness we see in our world might at least be somewhat mitigated with a little more music and less cable television? Let me just say that I look forward live music and singing with others soon. Social distancing isn’t even for the birds!

Our Unmaskings

Colin Murray, Soldier Field, 6/16/21

The weather was as good as it gets – one of those days I have been waiting for well over 475 days. My grandson, Colin Murray was graduating from Whitney Young High School. Where better in Chicago for such an event than at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan? June 16, 2021. Most of us in the large crowd of proud friends and relatives were wearing masks. It was great to be in a public place doing “almost normal things.” Lots of sunshine and cool breezes and reason to celebrate the 515 students were graduating. These 2021 grads were off to the next passages in their lives. The graduation bulletin listed their destinations to places around the world. Impressive. I confess to choking back some tears as I watched this diverse, talented group of youngsters. These graduates represent the future of our great multicultural society. Huzzah for them, and for our nation, and our world!

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of anti-mask protesters who attended other large gatherings over the past year. Otherwise intelligent persons consciously choosing to display their “liberty” by NOT wearing masks. And, too often, a few weeks later, the community where these “liberties” were displayed saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 related illness and deaths! It’s a crazy world, isn’t it? There is recent legislation allowing firearms to be carried in the open in some states, with few restrictions on weapon sales, and at the same time significant new limits are being placed on when, where and how persons can vote. Seems more than a little upside-down. All of this while the number and frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. is increasing.

We have been down a similar road before. There was the debate over seat belts back in the 1970s and the opposition to the polio vaccination, or adding fluoride to the water when I was a child. I certainly understand the need to be cautious and wise with regulations. Still, even with measures in place to protect the larger population, there is a desire by some to see conspiracy instead of a desired well-being-for-all that is intended.

I am far from being a constitutional scholar. Even so, the preamble to the U. S. Constitution is clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The idea of “promoting the general Welfare,” seems straight forward and a good foundational basis for healthy and enduring civic life. The framers of the Constitution understood the inherent competing interests of individual liberty and social responsibility. Public health measures sing in harmony with Constitutional intentions. Things like face masks, vaccinations, quarantines, building codes, safe food and drug production/sales, licenses as to who can operate an automobile, practice medicine are all part of the general welfare.

We will find our way forward from this I do believe. Even in sensible gun measures one day soon, I pray. At Indiana University there was a regulation students arriving in the fall would need to display proof of a coronavirus vaccination. Sadly, the state legislature tried to intervene and claimed such basic public health efforts were illegal. There was a recent small protest at the university against such a requirement. I loved the way the university acted like the “adult in the conversation” by saying, “Okay then, we won’t be policing the students. But guess what? We will offer incentives.” There will be a drawing open to all who provide evidence of their vaccination that includes great gift cards for the book store and other purchases around town. There will be electronic devices and for at least one lucky student, a year of free tuition. Now that is promoting the general welfare in a creative way.

It seems to me that what has been unmasked during this pandemic is the way some have believed their individual liberty trumped the promotion of the general welfare. In a word, it is a way of seeking to justify self-centered-ness. It was all about the “ME” with an absence of any sense of the “WE”.

Micah 6:8 is a fine summary of what is expected (make that required) of God’s people. It is to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” One of the great unmaskings coming out of the pandemic is the way bad theology shaped the practices of many in our churches. One day in the future, we will be able to see the relationship between political and religious gatherings where masks were discounted, even ridiculed, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 related damage done in a community.

A “religious” anti-masker protesting outside a grocery store challenged me for wearing a mask as I entered. The challenge was, “Give me one good reason you are wearing that thing.” I wanted to respond “I can give you over 600,000 good reasons. Those who died.” I didn’t. Parking lot debates are usually not very productive! Already, today, the evidence is clear. In city after city, and health care facility after health care facility TODAY those hospitalized with COVID are all folks who refused or for some other “reason” were not vaccinated against the virus.

Early in the pandemic, St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado offered masks with the Micah text. It has become my mask of choice over the past fifteen months. While my prayer is that we can be sufficiently past the pandemic, just in case we are not, I am looking into finding a mask that simply reads, “Promote the General Welfare.”

I find this moment hope-filled. A time to believe there is a better future is possible. Why? Because yesterday I saw 515 reasons to be hope-filled… and this is just at one school in a nation where millions of our children and youth have struggled through the pandemic and I believe the vast majority have witnessed an important unmasking. They no longer believe there are easy answers to complex public challenges but there is a path forward.

Saving Soul and Soil

Saving Soul and Soil

Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology

The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared.  Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready.  Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond.  Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i] 

kernzatli
Field of Kernza at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood?  The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others.  We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health.  What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.

The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment.  I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii]  A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort.  He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii] 

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.”  People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world.  More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures.  Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward?  This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be.  Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv]  The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.”  Both are required.

My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism.  We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century.  As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared.  We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles.  There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences.  We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work.  We were not ready to be at our best.

BloomingtonFUMC
First United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity.  There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future.  In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani.  Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo.  No.  I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins.  Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together.  Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus.  In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith.   We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.

In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.

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[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.

[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31

[iii] Ibid, pp. 27-28.

[iv] Ibid, p. 2

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.

We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.

Indiana University, Veterans Day 2020

After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.

A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.

Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.

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Senator Michael Braun                                                       November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Braun,

I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States.  Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times.  As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes.  We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator. 

We are better than this.  You are better than this.  At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.”  Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Let’s see:

I pledge allegiance to the flag 
of the United States of America, 
And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands, 
One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California), 
with Liberty and Justice for all 
(except those Trumpists wish to exclude). 

We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others?  Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

The people in the U.S. are navigating through the choppy waters. I think of this as the gulf of conspiracy. Less than a month ago, my visit to the dentist demonstrated this. Prior to entry, much care was taken — “Call before entering when you arrive. Let us know if you have a fever or other symptoms? You must wear a mask.” Good. A place of care. Once inside, however I found another contagion. A pandemic of conspiracy, spread by a friendly staff member. As we talked, she opined that “COVID-19 deaths are exaggerated so that doctors and hospitals can make more money.” Okay, I thought — that’s a new one — a pretty sad and inaccurate one — given the risks being taken by medical staff and the financial distress many healthcare systems face in this dramatically changed economic reality.

Sidewalk art, Indiana University campus, 2020

However, that wasn’t the first touch with conspiracy that morning. A phone call earlier from a friend began, “Don’t you think Donald Trump is pretending to have the corona virus and doing this for political purposes?” “No,” I responded, “How would this be helpful?”

Our nation seems to be swimming in a sea of conspiracies. Today there is the claim of “widespread voter fraud” by President Trump and his most loyal supporters. There is no evidence. Election officials, including Republicans, deny this in states where such “fraud” is claimed to have occurred. This conspiracy joins ranks of others in 2020 like the anti-vaxxers who oppose all vaccines, the belief that Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump and the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately produced in a Chinese lab.

I hear multiple conspiracies each day. Some are minor and some perhaps carry a small grain of truth. Ever hear of Area 51 in Nevada or the various theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, or that Neil Armstrong didn’t really walk on the moon? Other conspiracies offer more existential and long-term danger: like those labeling all media as “Fake News” so as to undermine all news sources, or the claim that climate change is a hoax even as our natural environment may be irreparably damaged, or the astonishing QAnon assertions that Tom Hanks joins the Democrats in cannibalism and child sex-trafficking.

Alaskan Highway

Presidential elections are fertile ground for new conspiracies. Those who start political conspiracies behaved like rabbits this year, breeding and releasing multiple distortions and threats into our civic life. We need take great care in choosing which conspiracies shape our understandings. You say – “Hey, wait a minute there, fella, I don’t fall for conspiracies!” Sorry, I have some sad news to report. From many research quarters (universities and sophisticated research centers) comes the knowledge that everyone is prone to accepting ideas that bolster preconceived notions. Confirmation bias is alive and well. It is the notion that we choose the information that reinforces our beliefs and values.

Am I saying that we are stuck in our conspiracies? Well NO, and, sadly, potentially yes. Conspiracies do not an entire worldview make; however, our worldviews do make us more susceptible. Here is where the value of the intervening correctives come into play. Reason, research and faith-informed reflection are a critical trio for me. Other correctives are enshrined in our nation’s constitution and bill of rights. Still others are operational — things like continuing education, practicing critical thinking, reading widely, legal precedence and community engagement each can assist in holding our hubris and distortions in check.

For years I have felt something important is lost as religious congregations have become more and more monolithic in make-up theologically and culturally. Genuine and durable democracy and respect across ideological divisions was often bolstered in friendly disagreements across the table at the pitch-in dinner or visits after worship in the parking lot.

There is a sign along the Alaskan Highway that reads “Choose Your Rut Carefully. You’ll Be In It For The Next Sixty Miles.” I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to remember such signs as my family traveled across Missouri and Oklahoma back in the early 1950s. Of course, then it was only a few miles in the same rut. The conspiracies to which we may fall prey can turn into ruts that mislead and distract for years.

As I think of conspiracies and the rut I choose, I am am reminded of Ivan Illich, priest and social critic. Illich speaks of “conspiratio” and “comestio” as essential to faith and the civic life [See David Cayley’s conversations with Ilich in “The Rivers North of the Future,” Anansi Press, 2005].

Illich asserts that conspiratio is not a bunch of rebels trying to undermine or overthrow a political order. It is not the sowing of misinformation or deceit. It is more radical than this! It is about living by a new narrative. It is a changing of the “I” into a new “We.” It is the Gospel narrative set out in the parables of Jesus. Stories of Good Samaritan, the Importuning Widow, the Ten Bridesmaids, and on and on and on the parables go. There are stories of those celebrating the finding of that which was lost, and of the best wine served late and with abundance. There is a conversion of what is presumed to be a suspicious and limited existence toward a community of abundance and conviviality. It is the narrative of God’s grace and the joys of faith over against the dominant grim order. It is about that which was lost, being found. Conspiratio is “breathing together,” represented in the “kiss of peace” offered as believers come to celebrate the Eucharist. Comestio is the sharing of a common meal where all are welcome at the table.

I have not done justice to Illich here; still let me affirm that he points to the conspiracy into which I choose to live.

This morning as I walked my normal route contemplating how to end this reflection an incident occurred that surely comes as a sign for me of the conspiracy I choose. My walk took me through a neighborhood park named in memory of Dr. Ernest Butler, an African American pastor in Bloomington and friend of mine for many years.

Along the trail, between the playground and tennis courts, a man in his mid-forties approached. He motioned and asked if I could help. I nodded yes, not certain what he wanted. He said, “Have you seen a boy on the trail, sandy haired?” Raising his arm he gave indication of the young man’s height. “No,” I replied, “If I see him what do you want me to tell him?” The man choked back his words, wetness welling in his eyes, “Tell him, his father loves him. He should come home.”

I walked on. A half an hour or so later I saw the father and boy sitting together on a bridge, talking. May I live to see such conspiracies often.