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.

images.jpg

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?

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Neighbor

The Unexpected Neighbor

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

532984_f520
Ivan Illich, 1971, source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Story #1:

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

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

images
Wes Jackson, from Cool Science News, 2009

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

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

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

 

 

An Ecology of Hope

Truth on the Scaffold and An Ecology of Hope

I find it difficult to be hopeful these days — about many things — especially our nation’s commitment to the care of God’s creation.  With Scott Pruitt confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency we quite literally have a case of “the fox guarding the hen-house.”  What might we do and where might we find hope?

I spoke to this yesterday at the University of Evansville Founder’s Day event.  In this address (attached below) I cited the comments made by environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken.

Harken gave a surprisingly hope-filled address at the University of Portland in 2009. It was titled You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring.  When asked,” he says, “if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse… Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, re-imagine, and reconsider.

Like Paul Harken, I am hopeful, despite the climate change deniers, skeptics and so-called “luke warmers.”  Still optimism does not come easily.  It requires that we join our voices in full-throated demands that we dare not continue to destroy the gift of God’s creation.

img_3771
Trains loading at Gibson County Coal Mine

In my address at the university I noted that “There are more toxic super polluting power plants around Evansville, Indiana than around any other large or midsized city in the nation.  Millions of pounds of toxic air-pollution are produced within a thirty-mile radius each year.  Of the twenty-one plants identified as super polluters in the United States, four of them are in this circle. (There are five super polluting plants in Indiana and four of them are within fifty miles of the campus.)” 

See full address at: ue-founders-day-2-19-17.

Dr. Stephen Jay of IUPUI’s School of Public Health notes “In Indiana industrial greenhouse-gas emissions are second only to Texas domestically, and exceed those from Israel, Greece and 185 other countries.”Emissions from coal-burning plants are not good for our health and they bring rapidly increasing destruction for our planet. A growing number of studies demonstrate this. Such pollution is correlated with higher incidences of heart disease, pulmonary problems and certain cancers.

img_3787
Cayuga coal power plant in Vermillion County

Way back in 1979, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, I quoted the Spencer County coroner who seeing the increasing incidence of serious health problems and death said, “If the people knew the truth, they’d panic.” Long time local activist and photographer John Blair puts it simply, “we’re subsidizing the coal industry big time with our health.”

James Russell Lowell’s poem spoke of times when “Truth was on the scaffold.” Today is such a time – regarding our environment – and so many other issues of morality, human respect and basic governance. 

An Ecological Dawning?

An Ecological Dawning

I am an early riser, one who enjoys watching the sun spread across the sky.  This morning I couldn’t help but consider it a metaphor for the new light I believe is on the horizon regarding our environment.  One reason for this is the reading I have been doing of late on this topic.  Yesterday, it was my honor to preach at Wesley United Methodist Church adjacent to the campus of the University of Illinois.  It was called a “teach in” as part of a national focus on faith and the environment.  I believe a new day is dawning in terms of public awareness and constructive action.

IMG_1327

It is not my intent to offer a reprise the sermon here.  Instead I have attached a link to a copy for those who are interested.  Here is my take away.  First, we face enormous challenges as a society, as a global community.  The damage has been severe, it will be difficult to reverse.  NASA now suggests that climate change is our nation’s most serious security risk.  Note the changes in the Arctic as our early warning system.  (The Petermann glacier in Greenland is receding more than twenty miles a year!)   Increasingly we are seeing a link with floods, wild fires and drought.  We will have more than fifty million environmental refugees by the year 2020.  This doubles the number of the estimates just twenty years ago. 

I know the dangers of climate change are very real — difficult (some say impossible) to reverse.   On the other hand, there are signs of hope, a dawning of awareness among nations, corporations and the general public.  It is my sincere hope that the U.S. Congress will one day soon catch up with the scientific evidence.  As the research is overwhelming clear, the Paris agreements are tentatively in process, and corporate and technological leaders are investing billions of dollars toward constructive change, it is our duty as citizens to press the case with Congress.  The cost of solar and wind energy continue to drop in price.  

It was a joy to be with a university community and see the commitments made by that congregation.  I spoke with several students who indicated a deep appreciation for the sermon — but more importantly a personal commitment as future engineers, chemists, business leaders and farmers to a different way of thinking about our economy and ecology.  Hooray for the gifts of great universities!  (Look for a post soon challenging the larger church to rethink our investments in and valuing of campus ministry.)

I know that change will be difficult.  Actually, it calls for a conversion — an ecological conversion, on the part of individuals, the culture and the economy.  The witness of people of faith is essential as part of any solution. All people of faith – especially the local church… these communities will need to find voice on these matters. As Pope Francis demonstrated with the issuance of the encyclical Laudato Si, Christians can bring a perspective, insight and inspiration for the future — for the dawning just ahead.

For the complete text of the  sermon, see: WesleySermon – Feb 14, 2016