Hoosiers Finding Voice

Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana

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Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.

I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States.  It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines.  Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society?  NO!

With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting.  In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around.  We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves. 

Where is there hope?  In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.”  I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc.  I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.”  I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts.  You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.

If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society.  We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators.  Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people.  So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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Pastors at Broadway UMC in the 1980s re-gathered at memorial for Rev. Frank Sablan, 9/7/17.

There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served.  At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway.  We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked.  Good people, still sharing their gifts.  Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter. 

We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out.  Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation.  If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.

A copy of the petition by Indiana United Methodists is here: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.

We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.

In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.

The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.

We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.

Standing Behind the President?

Standing Behind the President?

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Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation.  Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17.  He spoke his mind.  In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished.  It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.

Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings.  He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally.  His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing.  My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him. 

It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday.  There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.

The question before us all now is where do we stand?  Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday.  However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?

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White House “leaders” playing Musical Chairs — Who will be left?    Photo by USA Today,
February 17, 2017

We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House.  Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters.  They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.”  The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”  As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”

Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  How then shall we live?

Is Mr. Trump redeemable?  Yes, of course, as a person.  I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion.  However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?”  To that I would answer “NO.”  We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration.   I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.

What then to do?  Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there.  If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do? 

Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?”  As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place.  I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures.  We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities.  We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness.  We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)

We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems.  For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources.  We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.

And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions. 

We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council.  In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away.  Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass.  Encourage and support him or her. 

Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.”  I believe our democracy is up to it.  I pray our democracy is up to it.

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Post Script — Why My Strong Words:

I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday.  After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency.  My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect.  However,  I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world.  I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below.  It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists.  So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.

Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength.  Sad.  He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday.  Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.”  No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.

As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters.  The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke.  Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency?  I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO.  This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events.  Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE.  He is, after all, the president of the United States.

There are multiple sides to our nation’s story.  Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that.  However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.

Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left.  All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally.  The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it.  White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years.  Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House.  When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.

 

Mirror Images

Mirror Images

Independence Day Reflections

July 2nd is Independence Day for the United States!  So insisted John Adams, always the contrarian.  You see, Adams and others believed the festivities should be celebrated on the date the thirteen colonies officially voted to separate from Britain.images.jpg

There are many parts of our nation’s birth story that are subject to question, even revision.  The musical “Hamilton,” for example is a recasting of our nation’s earliest years.  Hamilton gives new focus to the significance of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  (And the musical provides a delightful reconsideration of our ideas about folks like Washington and Jefferson.) 

I have been thinking about the mirror images (and differences) between the United States and Canada.  Canada celebrated its 150th Birthday on July 1st.  We have so much in common.  Two nations, so similar in cultural traditions and yet so different.  We are, and we are not, mirror images.   We both reflect the quest for democracy and freedom in North America… and have much to learn from one another.

Web searches on the topic of “Myths about U.S. Independence” or “Misconceptions surrounding the Revolutionary War” will uncover lists of the fallacies regarding our easily held stories of the nation’s birth.  It is helpful to be reminded that our knowledge can always be advanced; our own self-identity is much more complex than our fifth grade history lessons portrayed.  An engagement with the story of Canada, for example, makes these myths even more fascinating.

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Sullivan reelected, May 9. 2017, Straight.com

In May I had the privilege of meeting Sam Sullivan, recently elected to a second term as a member of the British Columbia legislature in Canada.  Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver, B.C., was left paraplegic following a skiing accident at age 19.  A civic reformer, inventor, leader in rethinking urban landscapes and how we might live in more environmentally sensitive ways in the future.  Sam is a delight to be around.  He loves challenging the taken-for-granted worlds which too often confine us. 

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Lunch with Sam Sullivan, July 17, 2017, photo by Travis Lupick

Sullivan is a student of history, especially the founding of our two nations.  In our visit he enjoyed retelling the U.S.’s founding story, from a Canadian perspective.  He reminded us that had there been no so-called “revolutionary war,” slavery would have been outlawed in the colonies decades earlier, women would have had the right to vote sooner and the taxes over which we have been told were the basis for the Boston Tea Party were, in fact, rescinded before the revolution began.  He suggested we take a closer look at the ways France played a critical role in our founding as an “independent” nation.

If my perceptions surrounding Independence Day are distorted, what might I need to reconsider about the current social, cultural and political realities?

It is too easy for me to speak of the narcissism of the current occupant of the White House.  He is indeed a troubled soul, so hungry for adulation that he surrounds himself with people who agree to only see the world through his lenses of reality.  There is, no doubt, plenty to criticize.  (I have given much space in this blog over recent months to doing so.)  He seems to forever be looking for validation and praise, seeking self-worth by looking in the mirrors of the media for images that portray him as hero and victor.  If he doesn’t like the reflection, it is “false.” The myth of Narcissus is, in fact, the story of one so hungry for adulation that he dies beside the stream admiring his own image.

But this critique is too easy for this Independence Day.  How many times did I preach of the importance of seeing oneself clearly in the world in which we live and work?   Drawing on the thoughts of great theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I encouraged myself and others to be aware of the “Little Hitler” that exists in every human breast.

IMG_4166Now for those of you who don’t like this theological assumption of original sin, I confess that I don’t like it much either.

I would prefer to speak of human beings as being originally blessed, avoiding anything to do with original sin.  Honesty, however, compels me to believe that both make up the human condition.  Our nation’s history and our personal ones argue that we are subject to less than noble self-understandings and actions.  The temptation to move to binary thinking (one is all good and another is all bad) leads us to places where we can easily condemn the other and remain immature and unfulfilled ourselves.  Let me recommend the teaching of Fr. Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation on the limits of such binary theologies.  [See Richard Rohr].

Please do not read this as suggesting an equivalency between the current occupant of the White House and Adolf Hitler.  That is NOT the point.  My suggestion is about the rest of us — that we all need to be freed from our tendency to divide the world too easily and believe our understandings are the only way to proceed. We, the people of the United States, need some honest looking in the mirror around our history, our bigotry and our potential.

The call is toward renewal, personal and social.  The call to be freed from distortions in our self-perceptions and idealized views of our being somehow more special than others.  This, I would suggest, is a true way to celebrate Independence, on July 2, July 4 and every day of the year.

I leave you with the words from the song of that great philosopher, Michael Jackson:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If  you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change

[Performed by Michael Jackson, written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 priests 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?

 

 

 

 

 

Living Beyond Embarrassment

Living Beyond Embarrassment

My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape.  She is right — about 10% of the time!  It is a running joke for us.  Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape.  Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed.  Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.

Attachment-1Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me.  My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her.  Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix.  Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.

Embarrassment is on my mind recently.  Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape.  We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church.  I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)

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It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing.  As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world.  We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance.  He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.

Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency.   I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say.  However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue.  We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone.  There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.

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Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress.  A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation.   What tragic madness!

Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences.  Good.  This is a much-needed message.  However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces.  Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly.  The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016.  Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments.  We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.

Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017.  Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017).   Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner?  Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change?  I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field.  We will never know.  However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year.  This is our continuing embarrassment.gun-166507_960_720

The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump. 

Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.”  I agree, mostly.  Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem.  We should all be embarrassed.  Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed. 

What can we do?  Let me suggest four things:

  1. Take personal responsibility.  Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation.  In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people.  Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
  2. Plan and act locally.  Find ways you can make a difference where you live.  For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby.  Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.”  In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult.  In places like this our work is more basic.  We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand. 
  3. Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger.  Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
  4. Act now.  Channel that embarrassment.  Do something today.  It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor.  Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society. 

Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.

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?”

Hollow Promises, Real Threats

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. 

Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office to be president of the United States with his hand on TWO Bibles!  (More on that later). 

He is now our president, my president.  Donald Trump?  How could this happen?  How, in this nation I love, could this occur?  I understand many of the dynamics, sociologically speaking: lost jobs, lost status, lost centers of cohesion.  Religious congregations and denominations have been narrowed into enclaves for the like-minded.  Patriotism has been turned into a category that is narrowly defined by a few talk radio hosts and Fox News.  But, am I not a patriot too, one who loves and will sacrifice for the country?

It was Bill Coffin who said “Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”  Parker Palmer reminded me of this quote by Coffin in a recent interview with Krista Tippett (Parker Palmer on Patriotism and Trump).

Parker helped me better understand the emotional vertigo I was experiencing when he said, On January 20, 2017, the country I love will inaugurate a man who embodies many of our culture’s most soulless traits: adolescent impulsiveness, an unbridled drive for wealth and power, a taste for violence, nonstop narcissism, and massive arrogance. A man who has maligned women, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and Mother Earth — a man who’d sooner deny the obvious than apologize for the outrageous — will become President of the United States.

When time for the inauguration came I couldn’t watch — not in real-time.  I believe this is a day of tragedy for our nation. Actually, I pray fervently that I am wrong.  However, as one of my wise friends says, “There is no wrong way to do the right thing.”

Instead of watching the inauguration I read passages of scripture (Isaiah 43, Luke 4, Matthew 5-7, Psalm 30)  Psalm 30:5 reminds that “Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.”   These passages offer a much more compelling inaugural — one that better fits the shape of our hope as human beings.

And I read passages from Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.   It was here I read “And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” 

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President Trump’s Inaugural
In the end, I did look at video clips of Mr. Trump’s inauguration address — with the sound OFF.  Then I read it.  It was watching the address in silence that I noticed something for the first time.  Where had I seen these behaviors before?  These facial expressions, the gestures, the snarls, the gesticulation?  It was familiar, and threatening, apart from any words.  If I had never seen him before, this was clearly an angry man — diffuse anger.  Expressing disgust over something.    Something deep in my psyche said “don’t get near him.”

I searched my memory.  Why was this truculent image so compelling?  Then I recalled the places it had been seen —

  • Troubled parents yelling at their children from the sidelines of a baseball game or soccer match. 
  • Crowds caught up in so-called professional wrestling matches or soccer matches.
  • A certain angry basketball coach yelling at the refs — or worse, his players.
  • School board meetings or city council meetings where angry citizens want to “protect their children” or “protect their property” from others, unlike themselves, — usually the less fortunate.

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Photo by Will Counts of Elizabeth Eckford on way to Little Rock High School, September 4, 1957
I was reminded of my own adolescence, of my anger and soul-sick past efforts to denigrate or belittle others, that I fell into.  Thankfully this mostly occurred in my preadolescent years… so I recognized the fear laden, petty impulses I saw in those images.

And, mostly, I was reminded of the famous photo taken by my friend Will Counts depicting the angry mob following Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine as she was on her way to school.  One of the persons shouting at her is Hazel Massery.  (Forty years later Hazel sought forgiveness and reconciliation with Elizabeth.)

Angry words are easily spoken, especially by the immature, but typically they result in false promises and dangerous threats.  To fulfill the promises made will require some compromises, apologies, new alliances with perceived enemies.  It is the threats that are more easily made and laced in bigotry that are real. Threats indicate an inability to think beyond binary categories of good and evil or us and them.

The scripture passages I read tell of the power of anger to destroy others — and in the process one’s own self.  The scriptures speak of a need for forgiveness (no matter whether one thinks it is needed).  The scriptures speak of a God who loves ALL and calls us to love others as we are loved.  You can swear on two, or ten, or one hundred Bibles but the real importance of the Bible is to know the stories and truths it contains… and to incorporate those into a person’s living and behaviors. 

Hand on the Bible, Mr. Trump is now caught in a web of his own making.  He will be expected by us all — including those who voted for him — to do more than merely shout insults from the sidelines.  Either/or views of the world won’t do much good when the complexities of modern life and governance confront.  Can a seventy year old grow up emotionally?  The world watches and hopes.