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.

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

Turtle Saving

Turtle Saving

First, a confession. As important as protecting sea turtles is, I hadn’t thought much about them. I didn’t intend to make a gift to this charity in 2020. In fact, saving turtles was not on a top ten list in my charity giving. Why, then, did I just make a gift to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation? (http://savetheseaturtle.org/.)

Grandpa’s Lesson in Turtle Saving

Why sea turtles? There is a young woman behind it named Eleanor. She is seven and lives in Oakland, California. Sea turtles? Why? Eleanor Amerson, you see, is my grand daughter. We asked our grandchildren what charity they wanted to support this Christmas. Eleanor’s older brother, Gus, said give to a group that helps feed hungry people. Good on you, Gus. So a gift is sent to Phil’s Kitchen at the Beacon Center (Shalom Center) in Bloomington, Indiana (http://beaconinc.org). Phil’s kitchen is named for Dr. Philip Saunders, a friend and former economics professor at Indiana University. Phil, now deceased, left the legacy of a commitment to feeding the hungry.

Our other grandchildren, Colin and Zach Murry will let us know soon their preferences as to charities they wish to support. I suspect one of them will be the Lincoln Park Community Services in Chicago where their mom serves on the board. (https://lpcschicago.org/)

In recent years, each year, we have selected the gift to charity in honor of our grandchildren. We have given to Heifer International (https://www.heifer.org) which assists persons around the world toward food security and the acquisition of live stock or The Land Institute (https://landinstitute.org) where research is underway for more sustainable agricultural models around the world.

This year, we are asking our grandchildren what they want to support. And, we are being schooled by them as to what is important — for them.

You get the point!!

There are many worthy organizations. Most (many) need our attention and support in the economic realities emerging in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I understand the limits of charity and the ways a systemic reordering of our political, religious an service institutions is needed. I do. We must move away from such a heavy dependence of fossil fuels. There is no reason for persons in the United States to face homelessness, food insecurity or the deficits we face in educational resources. Of equal importance is the climate crises and tragedies related to immigration and refugees around the world. There is much to be done — systemically, long-term and immediately through charities. Turtle saving is one of these.

At this juncture I have learned that the temptation for many is to allow “the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Okay — right. This doesn’t mean we stop giving effort to make deep change in our systems, in our communities and even our personal lives. We do what we can, now and at the same time aspire to a more just and sustainable world.

Sea turtles were not top of mind for me when December 2020 came. Thanks to Eleanor, I will be more attentive and learn more about sea turtles. What lessons will you learn during this holiday season?

Fortnight – Day10: Forgiveness

Fortnight – Day 10: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the last thing I want to be reminded of with five days until the 2020 presidential election in the United States. When considering the racism, the lying, the demeaning of women, the denial of climate change, the damage to our national and international reputation done by Donald Trump and his minions, I find little room for the idea of forgiveness. It is a word I don’t want to hear, a concept I want to deny, a theological category I don’t want to consider. Still, I must. I must consider and pray toward forgiveness BUT I cannot forget.

Tragic as it is, the human dilemma remains — we can be shaped as much, or more, by what we hate as by what we love.

One of the liberators of a Nazi death camp found a note near the body of a child — written on a piece of wrapping paper, ” O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we brought to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.  Amen. (Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones, p. 134)

I am haunted by such prayers and the one I pray often: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It seems so complex and then I recall J. Ruth Gendler’s opening sentence in a reflection on Forgiveness: “Forgiveness” she writes, “is a strong woman, tender and earthy, direct.” (Gendler, The Book of Qualities, p. 54).

DIRECT — right in front of me — Forgive? Can I ever? Will I ever, forgive? I have preached so many sermons on forgiveness and counseled so many people toward that act that I should know the way. However, I don’t. Perhaps it is the shrill voices all around and the wounds to our body politic that I see that have been inflicted. I can’t muster the desire or energy to forgive the damage that has been done to our nation, to democratic institutions but mostly to people. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I won’t continue to confront those who seek to destroy or wound. It doesn’t mean I won’t oppose evil and injustice. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.

So, it is paradoxical — I wish to forgive and I will remember not to forgive. David Augsburger spoke to this dilemma in book, published nearly forty years ago. If you have seen it, you will know it is two books in one binding. Reading in one direction there is attention to the idea of “Caring Enough to Forgive” and turning the book around is another set of ideas entitled “Caring Enough to NOT Forgive.” [Later, Augsburger wrote a companion piece entitled “Caring Enough to Confront.”]

In the Epilogue of the volume Augsburger offers these insights:

Although in "forgiving", release unfortunately may be easier to achieve than reconciliation--       
Although one in error may choose to move over, away from, against the other --                 
Although one in weakness may attempt to live off of, without, in spite of the other --                 
Yet we dare not hesitate to take any step toward forgiving, no matter how faltering or fallible.                 
Yet we must not refuse to move toward another in seeking mutual repentance and renewed trust.                 
Yet we cannot despair of forgiveness and lose hope that reconciliation is possible.                 
So let us forgive as gently and genuinely as is possible in any situation of conflict between us.                 
So let us forgive as fully and as completely as we are able in the circumstances of our misunderstandings.                 
So let us reach out for reconciliation as openly and authentically as possible for the levels of maturity we have each achieved.               
So let us forgive freely, fully, at times even foolishly, but with all the integrity that is within us.    
[David Augsburger, Caring Enough to (Not) Forgive, 1981.] 

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Enemies  
If you are not to become a monster, 
you must care what they think. 
If you care what they think, 
how will you not hate them, 
and so become a monster 
of the opposite kind? From where then 
is love to come — love for your enemy 
that is the way of liberty? 
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go 
free of you, and you of them; 
they are to you as sunlight on a green branch. 
You must not think of them again, except 
as monsters like yourself, 
pitiable because unforgiving.
-- Wendell Berry

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I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.” (Berry, Wendell, The Art of the Commonplace: the Agrarian Essays)

Fortnight – Day9: Restoration

Fortnight – Day 9: Restoration

Restoration is a powerfully motivating message — as is evidenced in 2020 by Joe Biden’s call to “restore the Soul of America.” When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 his slogan was “Make America Great Again.” With clever marketing, the shorthand MAGA brand appeared on baseball caps, flags and t-shirts. Of course, he was borrowing from the vision Ronald Reagan offered in 1980, the difference being that Reagan spoke of American as “a shining city on the hill” and Mr. Trump focused on “American carnage.”

The discerning reader, as I am certain you are, is asking “restored to what?” Not all restorations are desirable — we don’t want to return to the racism, violence, misogyny or other bigotries of the past. I am speaking of those things that would restore strength, health and joy where they are lacking. It is a restoration toward flourishing. Restoration, in every understanding of the word, needs to be shaped in terms of the values and virtues mentioned early on in this series: the good, the true and the beautiful. It is in the implementation of such restoration that difficult conversations will be required. How might there be polycentric options for flourishing in our society?

The focus on this the ninth day of the fortnight before the 2020 election will be threefold: Natural Environment, Justice System and the Common Good.

NATURAL ENVIRONMENT:If you haven’t already discovered it, I encourage you to view the series The Age of Nature currently showing on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and produced jointly with The Nature Conservancy. The first episode is entitled “Awakening” and to my way of thinking stands as a master metaphor for the restoration needed across all of our systems — humanly constructed and the natural world.

Brice Canyon, Utah

This Awakening episode includes stories of how ecosystems are restored, with a little human assistance, around the globe. Natural ecological “awakenings” are highlighted from Panama to China to Norway to the coral reff off of the Bikini Atoll. I found particularly compelling the efforts of philanthropist Greg Carr in putting his wealth and knowledge to work assisting in the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. (You can read more about the early high stakes effort by Carr in the May 2004 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/greg-carrs-big-gamble-153081070/). This is but one of the astonishing examples of restoration shared in Awakenings.

July 4th, 2017 Parade, Bloomington

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: For too long the criminal justice system in the United States has focused on punishment only, on retribution. Even though there was lip-service to the idea about “rehabilitation,” the core motivation was to punish someone for a crime. However, restorative justice is about more than prisons or a court system. It can be as basic as how discipline is handled in school or at camp. Restorative justice involves restitution by the offender in a process that includes the victim and often representatives of the wider community. Rupert Ross’ book “Return to the Teachings” explores the ways Aboriginal cultures have been effectively incorporated into restorative justice.

COMMON GOOD: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has offered a remarkable resource in his work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Basic Books, September 2020). Sacks offers a framework for the public task of reconstructing a shared sense of virtue and values. He writes that we need to look beyond the perceived solutions found in politics and economics toward the deeper, bedrock set of moral assumptions. He shows “that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility, arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.”

Again, I mention the more accessible and excellent resource for congregational study, Mark Feldmeir’s A House Divided: Engaging Issues through the Politics of Compassion. Earlier this week, my local congregation held an online discussion about Feldmeir’s work in which serious and respectful agreement came that we all have a responsibility to work at reweaving the torn fabric or our democracy.

There are currently scores efforts across the nation to encourage a stronger civil community. Good reader, you have probably thought of a several. This is our work, the responsibility ahead as we seek to RESTORE a commitment to seeking the Beloved Community.

So, on Day Nine — with five days remaining between now and the election — I would seek restoration of that which leads to strength, health and joy for persons, communities and nation.

Fortnight – Day8: Social Self

Fortnight – Day8: Social Self

Today, consider please, the presumed dichotomy between the personal and the social, the individual and community. For too long our politics, religion, economics and charity have been misshapen by this fraudulent binary. At a fundamental level, there is a web of mutuality between one’s self and others. Americans tend to live with a heavy focus on individualism and “individual rights.” This is a good thing — however, if this is the sum total of what is valued or the singular basis for action– it will lead to trouble.

Social Psychologists George Herbert Meade and George Cooley posited decades ago the understanding that every human being is a Social Self. From the beginning, we learn who we are by interacting with others, as if in a looking glass. The language we learn, the games we play, our habits and our pains are fundamentally shaped in social contexts. It was from these insights that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the ethics classic, “The Responsible Self.” Niebuhr suggested that the reflexive self could act as the responsible self.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson a slip of paper listing “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” These were:

  • Politics without principles.
  • Wealth without work.
  • Pleasure without conscience.
  • Knowledge without character.
  • Commerce without morality.
  • Science without humanity.
  • Worship without sacrifice.

(see Donella Meadows, Gandhi’s Seven Blunders — And Then Some, Sustainability Institute, August, 18, 1994)

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In the United States this week (10/25/20), a young man, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, stood on the White House lawn in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” He dismissively suggested that in response to the George Floyd “situation,” individuals “in the Black community” were unwilling “to break out of the problems they were complaining about.” He expressed doubt that African Americans “want to be successful.” Upon hearing the interview with Jared Kushner, I thought of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.

As abhorrent as Mr. Kushner’s words are, I recognize their ideological fountainhead. It is the reductive belief that only “personal responsibility” is required for the thriving of a community or nation. Individual liberty is the supreme goal and good and personal responsibility is the tool. Fix individuals and everything else will fall in line.

At this juncture, I have sat beside too many persons who worked hard, risked much, withstood adversity and still were crushed by immoral constructs in the social order. A wise front-porch, neighborhood philosopher, named Doris Danner once taught me, “You can build a crocked wall with perfectly straight blocks.” In a pandemic, is “personal responsibility” sufficient? Shouldn’t there be a societal expectation, even a mandate, that everyone wear a mask? Sadly, we are seeing, living with, and many dying from, the results of a mistaken notion of individual freedom as the ultimate and exclusive good.

I recognize Mr. Kushner’s perspective. You see, as an adolescent, my religious understandings were focused on personal salvation. I had to want to have a personal relationship with Jesus and that would fix everything else. Personal salvation was separate from justice. Yes, I was taught that if I was saved, I should be compassionate toward others. It was however, always with the motive that I could see that they were a saved individual, just like me. Whether I would admit it or not, racial segregation, economic or educational discrimination, or poor health care were best overcome if persons were saved and then “wanted to be successful.”

In my individualistic understandings, my paternalistic role was to see that others were “fixed” like me. There was little awareness that others, who saw things differently, might have something to teach me; nor was there the sense that God was at work for the the common good, for the realm of God.

While I prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” in those years; I failed to hear that it was a communal prayer. It was a prayer filed with the corporate words, “our,” “us” and “we;” a prayer about our neighbor and our world.

Jane Addams Helping Hands Memorial, Chicago

Years after receiving the note with the Seven Blunders listed, Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.

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Dr. Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist and early writer on sustainability who added to the list of social sins. A professor at MIT and McArthur award winner, sadly, she died too young, in 2001. Still her words fall in line with the call of H. Richard Neibuhr that we are to act as a Social Self — a Responsible Self!

Somehow our public discussion has become dominated by either-or simplicities... This simplistic thinking seems incapable of embracing the idea of BALANCE, which was Gandhi’s central point. He wasn’t calling for work without wealth or humanity without science, he was calling for work AND wealth. Science AND humanity. Commerce AND morality. Pleasure AND conscience.

Life is full of unsolvable problems. Pretending to have solved them by choosing just one or another of profound opposites can generate even more blunders than the ones Gandhi listed. Justice without mercy. Order without freedom. Talking without listening. Individuality without community. Stability without change. Private interest without public interest. Liberty without equality. Or, in every case, vice versa. Listen to our public debates about health care, crime, taxation, regulation. You will hear the Gandhian blunders, the frantic search for a permanent simplicity, the passive violence that leads to active violence. There’s no point in taking sides in these debates. There’s only an opportunity to point out that balance, discovered through love, is what we should be seeking — and what we will always have to be seeking. (Donella Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1994)

Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.

PublicDomainPictures.net

As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.

There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.

PublicDomainPictures.net

This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.

When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”

Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.

I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”

Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.

We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.

Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.

It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.

Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.

I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.

Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.

This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.

They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.

I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.

I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.

I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.

I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.

Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”

I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.

Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.

As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.

No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!

Rediscovering the Essentials

Rediscovering the Essentials

A sermon by Philip Amerson, St. Marks United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Let me begin by asking you to consider two questions: First, what in your life’s journey thus far has prepared you for this time of staying at home?  Second, what are you learning while staying at home that will help you better live on the journey ahead?

  1. Darkness and Sight

Sarah Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, is one of our nation’s leading researchers of exoplanets — those places across the universe where the right conditions may exist for life, as we know it, to appear.  Professor Seager understands as few of us do, that sometimes we need darkness to truly see.  You see, exoplanets are often hidden by brightness of nearby stars.  Dr. Seager also knows that sometimes journeying through the dark places of our personal lives allows us to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly.  Eight years ago, her husband Mike, died of a rare cancer.  Mike gave space for Sarah’s career to flourish.  He was house husband and primary care giver for their two young sons.  As Sarah put it, she never had to shop for groceries, or cook or pump gas… all she had to do was find another earth.”[i]

Sometimes we need darkness to see, as two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus were about to discover.  Who were they?  We have the name Cleopas as one of the travelers.  The other is not named. I love the mysteries of this story – this is a parable inside a parable and it is for then, and now.  This story is filled with surprises.  It has become so familiar for many of us – perhaps too familiar.  What might it help us see for the first time?  In this season of pandemic and fear, eager to get back to business-as-usual and back to something “normal,” who and what might we re-discover to be essential?  Where is our true home? What might our eyes be opened to see for the first time?

Our images may not include the possibility that one of the travelers is a woman.  There have been several paintings with an artist’s depiction of these two travelers; however, few if any, depict one of them as a woman.  In my mind this seems more likely.  You see, there are surprises for us here.

In this time when the world has been turned upside down by a microscopic coronavirus – when our personal worlds have been capsized, thrown into disarray, we might well understand the situation facing these Jesus-followers who are headed “home;” but home has become an unknown territory.  This fellow Jesus, a promising rabbi, had taught, healed and helped people face disappointment, death and despair.  He had brought hope. Now it had been dashed.  The words “we had hoped” leap from the lips of these travelers.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Living life with hope in the past tense is worse than death.”[ii]

Those disciples, like us, are caught between two worlds – for one they had hoped — and in one they now lived.   Richard Rohr writes: “It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.”  [iii]

  1. The Essentials

It is in these times that we discover again who and what is essential.  Is a haircut essential?  Well, it is if you are a barber!  A veil has been lifted and we now discover persons who are essential.  Who is essential in your life?  We discover the essential work of custodians, public safety workers, those who stock the grocery shelves, nurses, truck drivers, physicians, those who collect the garbage… this list goes on and on. 

Are clean air, water and a healthy natural world essential?  As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, arrived on Wednesday, for the first time in years people in many places saw blue skies, nearby mountains, fish in streams and canals – we are seeing things we had not known we were missing. We now can see – if we look —  that we are interconnected with every other person on this planet.  We are connected with the entirety of our ecological systems. 

As Will Willimon puts it, we are discovering, like these early disciples, that “Jesus is on the loose.” Like a guest who shows up and starts teaching us the lessons we have ignored for too long.  Might we see the interconnectedness of all things? Might our global environment be struggling with an infection – a virus or too much pollution?  Could our vibrant sphere, this planet, our earth home, be struggling with too much use of fossil fuels, too much travel, so much greed, an ignoring of caring for the health of our natural gifts?

We are discovering that planning, science, good information, wise governance and preparedness are essential.  Just-in-time production and delivery now leaves us sorely unprepared — for this sudden change in what is needed for a quality life… for life itself.

Almost 70 years ago, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and transcendence.  I hadn’t thought of this in years, decades.  Today, it has become more obvious and important.  While we are sheltering-in-place, or staying-safe-at-home, we are discovering again these – and other – core human needs.  What would you include as essentials?  What would your hierarchy include?   If like me you have discovered such things as the importance of belonging with others in new ways – family and friends, caring for the neighbor.  Some who you have not thought of in months. 

I have discovered that movement is a fantastic privilege.  When we lose the freedom to move about freely, we face difficult choices about our identity.  Pico Iyer wrote travel books suggesting that “We travel initially to lose ourselves and next we travel to find ourselves.”  But later, Iyer wrote a critique of his earlier writings entitled: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.  Borrowing from Thoreau he wrote: “It matters not where or how far you travel — but how much alive you are to the place you are.” [iv]

And, for me, knowing about home is an essential – Home, where we can prepare for the journeys ahead and practice seeing in a new way.  Home is not where you sleep, it is where you stand; it is what and who you value. It is hard to get your bearings when in midair.  So, home is more than a place.  Home is a work in progress.  Home has less to do with a piece of soil than a place for the soul.  Nelle Morton, in her book The Journey is Home taught us many years ago that “home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be ‘their own,’ and increasingly responsible for the world.”[v]

You see, we do not know where Emmaus is geographically.  Frederick Buechner puts it this way, We do not have to know where Emmaus is… we just know that it is seven miles from heartache and heartbreak.   Even better, I like the notion shared by John Dominic Crossan who says, “No one, then or now, knows where Emmaus is… maybe it is nowhere… or maybe it is everywhere.

This story challenges our notion that it is our job to somehow find Jesus.  Too much of our theology and church work in North America presumes that we are the ones who are to set about to discover Jesus, as if he has been lost.  No.  Instead, like in this story, it is Jesus who finds us along our journey and in our home… The resurrected Jesus on the loose, finds us, and teaches again what is essential.

Where do you find hope?  Where do you see Jesus on the loose?  I have found hope in poetry, song and good writing.  If you have a chance, read the blog of John Robert McFarland, Christ in Winter.  We miss seeing John and Helen in church each week these days — but we can read what he writes. It is a gift and I often read it to discover that Jesus is on the loose in ways I had not seen before.  Thank you, John, you help me discover an unexpected Jesus.

  1. The Table – Journey and Home

So dear friends, in this place and time, what do we learn when we journey?  And, what at home prepares us for the journey ahead?  Four things I hope you remember from the retelling of the Emmaus story today:

  1. Sometimes darkness is essential to more clearly see.
  2. Jesus is on the loose all around you.
  3. At Emmaus the tables are turned and disciples re-discover hope.
  4. This hope is a journey. Home is a journey, that may become a permanent residence.

When I think of Jesus on the loose, I think of friends who have helped me see that the stranger just might be the Jesus on the loose, of Christ incognito.  I saw this most clearly on a journey I took with two friends, two characters, Ernie Teagle and Raydean Davis. Ernie was a cardiovascular surgeon in Belleville, Illinois.  Raydean, a Methodist pastor who served during most of ministry in university settings.  We had been reading some Latin American theologians and had the crazy notion of riding motorcycles all the way to Costa Rica to visit with some theologians there. 

When we arrived at the border with Mexico, we discovered that we would be charged a crossing fee as well as a tariff.  You see, the Mexican authorities thought we might be trying to bring the motorcycles there to sell at a profit.  Then we learned that between the Texas border and the Guatemalan border with Mexico, there would be fourteen other check points — each requiring the payment of a crossing fee.  So we turned the bikes around and decided to fly to Costa Rica.  Heading for New Orleans we ran into a terrible rainstorm.  We were soaked and the heavy rain and wind seemed to get only worse.  Just over the Texas border with Louisiana, we found a Holiday Inn and decided to shelter there for the night.  We were drenched.

Once we were settled, we headed to dinner in the hotel.  No one else much was there.  There was a waitress, and obviously a cook because food came to the table.  There was the fella at the front desk.  No one else.  My crazy, wonderful journey friends, Raydean and Ernie said to the waitress “Would you bring us another one of those dinner rolls and a bottle of Merlot?  And invite the cook, the desk clerk, the custodian and anyone else here to come and sit with us for a while.”  They did. 

I was slow.  I had a vague idea of what was going to happen – I should have known better.  When we had all gathered, Ernie looked at Raydean and said, “Okay, you’re on.”  Raydean asked everyone to come in close.  He asked each person’s name and then he broke the bread and shared the wine.  As Fred Craddock has said, “Had they known before the invitation that the stranger was the Christ, one can imagine the red carpet and elaborate preparations.  But it was with tired and hungry travelers that they shared bread.  They prepared supper, and his presence made it a sacrament.[vi]

St. Augustine said that breakfast the next morning is a sacrament, if one knows that Jesus is present.  As the meal was shared these disciples’ eyes were opened.  They were changed from those who said, “we had hoped” to ones you exclaimed, “did not our hearts burn within us!” 

The funny addition to this story is that the next morning we rushed off on our motorcycles and made it to the New Orleans airport just in time miss our flight.  So, we waited another day and again, in another hotel, Raydean blessed the bread and wine and we shared these gifts with a new group of strangers who became our friends.

The text in Luke says that after the meal Jesus disappeared.  These two folks who had walked seven miles to arrive home were now ready for the journey, they were now eager to rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others of this experience.

May you understand that sometimes it takes darkness to see more clearly, that Jesus is loose in the world, that tables can be turned and bring new awareness and may you know that home is also a journey… and the journey is also your home.  What we learn as we stay indoors can prepare us for the journey ahead.  Amen. 


[i] The Daily, NY Times, The Sunday Read, The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth,” April 19, 2020

[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, p. 21.

[iii] Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020.

[iv] Gate, Tom Montgomery, March 14, 2018, from the blog Spiritual Detours.

[v] Morton, Nelle The Journey is Home, pp. xix.

[vi] Craddock, Fred, Luke: Interpretation, p. 121.

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will!

I was surprised, shocked actually, by the thousands who read my letter to Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana, 9th Congressional District). Hollingsworth said that in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic we had to choose securing our livelihood even if it meant sacrificing some lives. Since then, the congressman has walked back his statement. Now says he was “only saying this was a difficult choice.

While I appreciate the congressman’s more moderate verbiage, his underlying message remains the same and is obvious: even if some people have to die, we should give greater preference to commerce over the current efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Responses to my letter were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there were only a handful who argued that this pandemic was God’s will. God’s will? Sadly, I find such perspectives as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. Is it God’s will that children are abused? Is it God’s will that persons are afflicted with cancer? Was the holocaust God’s will? This pandemic is in no way God’s will! I hold that God expects us to do something about this suffering and death. It is in our response to such tragedies where we can begin to discover God’s will. Over the centuries we have seen God’s will displayed by folks like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer or Father Damien. Many of the horrific realities human beings face are rooted in poor, uninformed, and sometimes evil, human decisions.

I believe God’s will is now seen in heroes, like Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauchi and Dr. Francis Collins. Even more, God’s will is demonstrated in the nurses, grocery clerks, physicians, police and fire personnel, truck drivers, medics, researchers, and all who risk their own health for the sake of others every day. In my reading of scripture and knowledge of other faith traditions, such neighbor-care is at the core of what God wills for all of us.

Too much of what goes on in our nation these days is misconstrued somehow as God’s will. It is not. We humans have moral choices to make each and every day. There has been an emergence of phony-Calvinism evident in our nation over recent decades that somehow suggests certain events, tragedies and even election results are “predestined” as God’s will.

Those who genuinely read John Calvin’s work know he understood the importance of human agency as part of God’s plan. Anyone who knows the story of John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva knows the remarkable way he responded to the plagues in his time. His actions involved the quarantine of those who were ill, the seeking the best medical advice possible and an understanding that some brave persons would be called on to risk the care of those who were sick and dying. This was the core of God’s will. Calvin himself visited these plague hospitals to pray with those who were suffering, knowing full well that he was putting himself at risk.

Those who know me, know I am Wesleyan. I have my disagreements with Calvinist thought although the richness of his understanding of God’s intentions for human life are of great value. My reading of the theology of John Calvin offers absolutely no support for a nonsensical notion that this pandemic is God’s will! Nor, should his view of predestination be thought to support a passive approach to this pandemic.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved away from Calvinism. Still he also saw the important role of Christians as ones who expressed Gods’ will though wise medical practice. Now is a time to affirm that all life is to be valued and protected. All of life! We need to learn new ways to care for God’s creation, across the entire ecology of our human, animal, plant, water, air, stone and soils.

Yesterday, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to push for this false choice between lifestyle and life, “supposed” medical epidemiologist “experts” like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (not an M.D.) made similar arguments to those made by the congressman. Dr. Phil suggested that car accidents and smoking kill more people every year than this virus. Okay — first, one wonders how he knows, as this virus only started claiming victims a few months ago (it has not yet been a year). And secondly, while people choose to drive and smoke, I haven’t heard of anyone who chooses to be infected by this virus.

Even worse, Dr. Oz said that if we returned now to free movements and social contacts it would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality.” Two or three percent? In the United States that could mean over six million deaths! Really? One wonders why we must suffer from a pandemic of confusion and poor logic along with this virus. How many will needlessly die from such pandering?

There are better ways to help our businesses than sacrificing the lives of millions. In fact, the return to the “normal” of 2019 too quickly, very well could lead to even more mortality AND long term economic and commercial damage. Congressman Hollingsworth is right in saying these are difficult choices. However, he is wrong if he fails to consider the likelihood that this pandemic will come in waves, just like the Spanish Flu, in the early Twentieth Century. He is also wrong if he buys into a simplistic either/or of commerce or life — he says the question is complex. Okay how will the policies he supports demonstrate this?

This pandemic will bear a cost in both lives lost and economic suffering; our response needs to begin with an understanding of human agency. Are we responsible? Do we decide what our economic theory and practice should be? Or is this a time we will make our economic theories into our “Gods” that will determine and limit our ethical choices? What we need now are clear-eyed, well researched medical, economic and, yes, I would argue ethical/theological responses to this crises. That is, in my view, God’s will.

July 29: Earth Overshoot Day

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July 29: Earth Overshoot Day

TODAY we cross a dateline for our planet.  The Global Footprint Network calls it the Earth Overshoot Day.   I encourage you to visit their website to learn more at: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/.

Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year when human beings begin to consume more of our natural resources than can be replenished in that year.  July 29th, 209 days into the calendar year, is when we have burnt through the natural resources available to the world’s populations for the year.  For the remaining 164 days of 2019, we will be overdrawing nature’s accounts.  We are writing bogus checks on our world’s future replenishment abilities.  HEbtKI-P_200x200.jpgWe are using up our natural resources 1.75 times faster than they can be replenished! 

I think of it as a tragic environmental Ponzi scheme, a plundering of nature — a using resources which should be set aside for our children and grand children. This over-exploitation increases each year.  We in the United States lead in this extractive exploitation.  If the entire world lived as we do it would take the resources of FIVE EARTHS to provide sufficiency.

Enter Wes Jackson — someone who has been thinking about this dilemma for four decades.  Jackson is co-founder of the Land Institute in Salinas Kansas (Land Institute) Elaine and I stopped to visit on July 15th.  I had read several articles and books he had authored or co-authored.  I knew of his friendship and shared work with Wendell Berry; and, I confess to being more than a little star struck.  After all Wes was one of the early recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship.  I expected our visit to last an hour and then be on my way.  

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Wes Jackson and his “computer” July 2019

In fact we talked through the entire morning.  We toured of the institute research facilities and farm research plots in Salinas.  (Other research goes on around the world where institute scientists are working to discover new paths of regenerative agriculture.) 

I found in Wes a friend… and mentor — someone with a deep concern, clarity about his vocation and a surprising light-heartedness.  He confessed the dilemmas we all face.  The human contradictions faced as we move from our extractive and fossil-fuel based systems.  We laughed often; spoke of authors who had influenced us (Ivan Illich, Walter Brueggemann) and spoke of the need for a broader dialogue between science and religion.  We talked about a possible conference where theologians and scientists might talk about the sustainability of our ecosphere.  I loved it when Wes brought out his “computer” to take notes. It turned out to be his old Underwood typewriter!

I found in Wes Jackson a person who had done more theological thinking about our creatureliness and relationship with the ecosphere than most formal theologians I have known.  It was not a surprise to learn that Wes and John Cobb were friends and correspondents.  There were more than two dozen scientists and interns at The Land Institute at work that morning seeking to establish perennial polycultures. They are developing perennial grains, legumes and oilseed varieties that can be grown together replicating the patterns evident in native ecosystems.

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Wes Jackson at Land Institute, July 2019

We stopped on one hillside and Jackson pointed out the native prairie grasses and the cultivated fields below.  “Modern agriculture” he argued has been moving in ever more destructive ways for the past 10,000 years. The Green Revolution, and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, did produce more in the short term; however at the same time they were depleting the resources of our soil, water and fossil fuels ever more rapidly. 

As we looked out across the fields, I thought of my own experiences in seeking to encourage our United Methodist Churches in Indiana to consider the gifts of creation and to work toward living more faithfully as those who are to care for the earth as God’s gift.  I recalled with sadness the ways leaders in the Indiana Annual Conference blocked small pieces of legislation designed to encourage care for the creation.  We were told that such efforts were “too political.”
I left the Institute with a commitment to find ways to bring theological educators into greater conversation and relationship with the folks in Salinas.

On this Earth Overshoot Day, I give thanks for the true “master theologians” of our time like Wes Jackson.  I don’t think he would like the title.  In fact he told me he had been “excommunicated” from his United Methodist Church in Kansas several years earlier by a pastor who considered him a heretic.  I wish the church had more heretics like him.  Maybe with time we will.  Let’s work to make this happen sooner rather than later.