A Pandemic of Compassion

Might there be a Pandemic of Compassion?

Recently I raised three queries as to ways forward for people of faith responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This posting focuses on the last question of the three: what shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

The first question (May 7th) was: Shall our choices be limited to Life or Livelihood? I told of my stealing a small pocket knife as a six-year-old, with the inscription on it: “God is Love.” My dad saw this, taught me a lesson about the true meaning of love and this has lead to a lifetime of learning the importance of moral choices. Life or livelihood is a false dichotomy. Still it has been promoted as a political agenda — “we must open,” we are told without clear plans for how this is best done. Now, in dozens of states in the U.S., we see the chaos of such either/or thinking. I know small business owners who are facing bankruptcy — it is heart wrenching, speaking with them. There are better ways to proceed that honor both livelihood and life as demonstrated in other nations just now. In the U.S. the political games continue.

Comprehensive guidelines for the common good, both in terms of public health and commerce, were offered in a 17-page document from the CDC two weeks ago. However, it was shelved by the White House. Governors, mayors and other leaders are left with an assortment of one page, scaled-down “suggestions” that arrived only today (May 15). These are vague directives full of “sorta-perhaps-you might-want-to-if-it-seems-right” guidance given in one page documents to separate groups. The message from the top is that we will love our “treasures,” more than life. Aid to small businesses, hospitals and cities may never arrive. The vulnerable ones (businesses and people) are set aside as so much “collateral damage.” And so… commerce, especially large corporate activities, has been pitted against the common good. If health officials are correct, we will see the results of this foolishness in two and three weeks when a resurgence of the virus appears — and even before that, tens of thousands more will succumb to the virus.

The second question (May 8) was: what shall we consider to be normal? Should our national and global experience in 2019, before the virus arrived, be considered normal? How long before we are past this pandemic? Is this a blizzard, long winter or ice age? For Christians we consider the question of idolatry — is money more to be treasured than the life of another? Believing this virus will not end soon, and wanting a better future than we have known, we asked what compass and a guide will help us live toward an even more flourishing future for all? Drawing on John Wesley’s counsel of “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God” it was noted that even if we could go “back to normal,” we could do better than that.

Just ten days ago or so, we were approaching 60,000 deaths from the virus in the United States; today over 80,000 persons have died; conservative projections are that this will total over 100,000 by the end of May.

This brings us to the last question (May 15): what shall we truly treasure and love in the future? Let’s begin with basics — What is meant by “love” anyway? Few persons in the Wesleyan tradition have thought more about this than theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Dr. Oord suggests that love is “an intentional act, in relationship with others, that promotes the overall well-being.” In other words, love involves an action. It is in sympathetic or empathetic relationship with others, including God and the community. It is for the purpose of doing what is good for the whole. (See: “Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love,” The Table podcast, 11/15/2018) Another valued theological voice is that of Steven Harper. Dr. Harper explores the lives of people of faith over the ages and offers regular insights into a theology of love in his postings at: https://oboedire.com/.

So, if love is an intentional act in relationship with others for the common good, how might we act now and in the future? How will we welcome the stranger? How will be live with hope, imagination and resilience? Ancient rituals thought essential like shaking hands, passing the peace, singing congregational hymns and corporate worship will be sidelined or radically modified. What of the sacraments of communion and baptism? How will we behave in loving ways to demonstrate a belonging to one another, offering words of meaning and the gifts of mutual empowerment? And what of ministries with the poor and the immigrant?

For this, I turn to you good reader. What do you imagine? How do you suggest we proceed? I will not leave you stranded with these questions. Let me turn to two persons who can help us “think forward together.”

The first is D. J. McGuire, who on a recent The More Perfect Union podcast, noted that in U.S. and world history we can see differing paths after a societal tragedy. For example, McGuire opines, “After WWI, the nations of Europe, especially Germany, were left in disarray and the U.S. turned to our own self-interest. President Wilson tried by failed — for many reasons — including his health. This led almost inevitably to the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War.”

McGuire contrasts this with U.S. and international response following WWII. He observes that here “we aspired to something larger than our previous ‘normality.’ We sought to build international strength and an economy built to include many.” The years after WWII were not easy ones — there was the conflict in Korea, the nuclear arms race and deep systemic racism continued.

Even so, aspirational actions like the establishment of the Marshall Plan, the G. I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the establishment of the United Nations and dozens of other efforts from NATO, to NASA, to the Civil Rights Act, to cures or treatments for polio and tuberculosis. None of these efforts were perfect — like all human activities, there was corruption and abuse; however, the trajectory was set toward a better world and not merely a return to normal.

These were two almost contradictory impulses following a major crises. Within each trajectory there were (and are) multiple ways forward… many options.

The second voice is that of Rev. Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark calls us to a Politics of Compassion (https://www.gostandrew.com/resources/livestreaming/). It is a way of considering how love can be put into action. His sermons can be viewed on the church’s website and his book “A House Divided” will be released in September (Chalice Press).

Pando Aspen – actually one tree.

I will not rehearse aspects of Mark Feldmeir’s message here. Suffice it to say that he calls us to recognize our common humanity, our belonging to one another. He suggests that we shape our actions in terms of kinship, kenosis (or self-giving) and delight. Employing the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually one tree that spreads over miles in Fish Lake, Utah, he says: “Universal care, concern, and commitment fueled by creativity and collaboration are the keys to the salvation of the aspen grove. And to our own. We need the wisdom and compassion of the aspen that can only come from a deeper sense of connectedness and belonging, and a deeper commitment to the common good.”

Feldmeir goes on: “We may be inclined to believe that the antidote to this politics of contempt is a politics of compromise, which seeks to end disagreement and claim consensus. But in our politics, as in our religion, we have often made idols out of centrism and the ‘middle ground’… we can transcend a politics of compromise in favor of a politics of compassion, which fosters a way of relating to people and responding to real human issues with universal care, concern, and commitment.”

You see, good reader, we don’t have to create a Pandemic of Compassion — we already belong to one another. The question before our nation and world is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift… this place of belonging where we already reside. How will we act like we are aware that we are part of and called to love and care for this living creation?

Friend and gifted hymn writer Ruth Duck offers these words as we seek to spread a Pandemic of Compassion:

In Fear the World is Weeping

In fear the world is weeping, and longs with every breath.
For life and hope and seeking, new paths beyond this death.
And loving hearts are risking, their lives that we may thrive.
Praise God for those who labor. O may they stay alive.

Our lives are bound together, in sorrow and in prayer.
In life and hope and nature the Holy One gives air.
Around the world show wisdom; with open hearts give care.

A new world calls us onward; sing hope now everywhere.

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.

2020 – Time to Build or Tear?

I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.

The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

The poem goes: a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(NRSV)

Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.

As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and all should stand in awe before God.”

So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!

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.

Whitsun Walks

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Whitsun Bride, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Whitsun Walks

Yesterday, I walked from meeting to meeting.  I had lunch with a Pentecostal minister; confided with a United Methodist pastor; participated in a planning meeting with a Baptist, a Jew, and a Buddhist; and completed the day conversing with a Roman Catholic layman.  It seemed right, this visiting with such a diverse group of folks.  My meetings were a “getting ready”… ready to move, to be led by the Spirit to new places of discovery.

Today we have arrived at the eve of Whitsunday (Pentecost Sunday), a celebration Christians call a moveable feast.  (Whitsunday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday following Easter.  Since the date of Easter changes from year to year so does the date of Whitsunday.)   I consider Pentecost a moveable feast for another reason – it is our call to new places, new understanding, new language.  Whitsun Walks occur in communities across the world, especially in Europe.  These walks, or parades, traditionally take place on almost any day in the week following Whitsunday — but Friday is a favorite.  The Whitsun Walks typically end with a community-wide party.  You see, Whitsuntide festival is a time of new beginnings — marriages are often are scheduled, crops are typically in the ground and graduation ceremonies abound.  Folks are in motion. 

Across Europe there are still vestiges of these Whitsun Walks in Italian, British and German towns.  Sadly, as commercialism, and its inevitable secular shadow, reach across these cultures, Whitsun Walks have diminished and in many places have disappeared.   In Great Britain, such festivities have largely been replaced by a fixed day, appropriately and ironically known as Bank Holiday, which is set on the last Monday in May.

Might we reclaim the week ahead (and the year ahead) as a time of Whitsun Walks?  Our world needs to remember the gifts of the Spirit set in motion at Pentecost.  We need a time to look around, all around, and see the gifts in the smiles of friends, to laugh, to hear the aria of the nightingale and thrush at dusk, to revel in the rich tapestry of music, language, art and to grow with the insights from multiple spiritual sources.

It was heart-breaking this past week, the week before Pentecost, to see the images in the Holy Land.  The celebration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem this week is a picture that is the very opposite, a reverse image, of the stories we read of the first Pentecost.  This week, folks of wealth and privilege gathered to congratulate one another on the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem.  Only a few miles away, others who differ in culture, physical appearance and faith commitments were protesting.  There were more than fifty deaths and hundreds of injuries while the elites in power were giving one another high-fives. 

Both groups — those protesting in Gaza and those celebrating in Jerusalem are imprisoned.  Those in Gaza are trapped by unemployment and horrible living conditions.  They are trapped by a history many of their leaders helped create over decades of failed negotiations, broken promises and the heartless oppression from Israeli practices.  They are trapped by an inability to move past the physical and ideological fences and barriers that prevent migration to a place of greater security and opportunity.

Those who were celebrating the new embassy are trapped by arrogance and bigotry, horrible theologies and a foolish trust in economic and military power.  Some of this bigotry not only condemns all others to hell, now and in the future, but serves to daily undercut, ever more deeply, the prospect for a lasting peace.  This trap has become a never-ending cycle of fear, violence and retaliation, followed by new fears. 

Whereas the folks at the first Pentecost were able to communicate across divisions that separated peoples in the ancient world, the celebrants at the embassy opening seem to have lost any common language that speaks of hope, vision or the true source of human power.

It is amazing to see “Evangelical” pastors baptizing this embassy with their prayers and simultaneously condemning the rioters only a few miles away — persons they do not know.  Do they not know, for example, that there are tens of thousands of the Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land and there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians in diaspora? (See Richard Mouw’s To My Fellow Evangelicals, Richard Mouw.)

So we pray for peace; but we must also walk.  I do not oppose an embassy in Jerusalem — but at what price?   The decades of promises of a two state solution, of Jerusalem also being an international city, a capital city for both Jews and Palestinians, may have been permanently erased as a possibility.  We not only pray — we must walk — keep moving — keep learning from and about others.

If there was any movement in Jerusalem this week it was in the wrong direction.  Tomorrow across the world, Christians will read from the second chapter of Acts, the story that recounts how persons from diverse backgrounds were drawn forward by the Spirit into a new community.  These early followers of Jesus were known as People of the Way.  Too many of us today have become People of the Fence, or People of my Same-Ole-Stuck Place

It is a challenge for we humans, who have adapted to the power of fear, to act out of love for the stranger.  The early Jesus followers certainly had reason to hide, to protect themselves, to cluster in ever smaller worlds of kinship.  However, the hope of the Resurrection or the power loosed at Pentecost required risk.  Even when there is not clear path ahead, we walk — by faith more than sight.

 

 

 

Pentecost Lost… and found

Pentecost Lost… and found

Light the candles, sing the songs, cut the cake, burst the piñata — it’s a birthday.  Laugh, dance, tease, shout out “Many Happy Returns!!”  WAIT A MINUTE… Which Birthday is it?  PENTECOST?  Where?  What if the gifts of Pentecost go missing this year?  Shouldn’t we send out a missing feast day alert?

Pentecost is said to be the birthday of the church.  Why celebrate the Spirit first unleashed two millenia ago?  Should I wear red on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 as in other years?  Perhaps not.  Scanning the international, national and ecclesial horizon, there is little evidence such celebration is in order or that Pentecost will have much of a season in our world today.  Pentecost has gone missing.

The Pentecost Season in the church is to last several months.  It is when we read some of the greatest chapters in Christian scripture —  Acts 2, Ezekiel 37, Romans 8, Psalm 104, Galatians 3.  And, the most reiterated word (and theme) in these passages? It is “ALL,” as in “EVERYONE,” “EACH TOGETHER.” 

Here is the core identity of church, the basic DNA of God’s people.  In these texts it is made clear — God includes all persons.  Further, we are to love and protect ALL of creation.  Francis of Assisi had it right — we indeed are relatives to brother sun and sister moon.  Pentecost is about including, renewing, accepting, out-reaching.  It is about creating community and not simply talking about community. In Pentecost we learn the meaning of neighboring with God and with one another.

Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in B+Pentecost+Acts+02_17+No+2new birth.  The work of the Spirit is about new life, addition to our social fabric and our communities of friends.  It is not an excluding or dividing.  Rather, Pentecost passages include, extend, restore.  Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, this is a focus on that which has been separated or torn asunder being made whole.  God’s heart in any Pentecost celebration is about inclusion. 

If the word “All” were to be left out of these passages, they turn to gibberish.  Or, if words like “everyone,” “each,” or “every nation,” “every tongue” or “all flesh” were to be omitted, Pentecost vanishes.  No need for celebration, no call for many happy returns — Pentecost would drift away, vaporize, disappear.circle-312343_960_720

At a national level, in the U.S. today, Pentecost may have gone missing.  The preachers who affirm the mean and divisive ways of this president, have missed the story and meaning of Pentecost for our world.  Instead of a Pentecost vision we are offered border walls, white nationalist rhetoric, the separating of children from undocumented parents, thinly veiled racism that smoothly falls from the lips of national leaders.  Pentecost seems hidden by ugly bigotries.  On so many fronts the vision of Pentecost seems erased. 

Racism and Patriarchy continue to plague our nation and blind us to the story of Pentecost.  We are still discovering the enormity of these curses on our national psyche and our people.  Racism and sexism is baked into all we do and who we are as a nation — it masks any signs of Pentecost among us. 

Take for example the tragedy of the maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States.  These percentages are growing and are almost exclusively due to the increased percentage of deaths among African-American mothers and their children.  “We are the only developed country the [mortality] rate is going up.” (https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily.  The Daily, New York Times podcast, May 11,2018).

Our “infant mortality rate is high…  It is 32nd out of the 35 most developed countries… A black woman is 2 to 3 times more likely to die in child-birth than a white woman and a black baby 2.2 times more likely to die than a white baby… This racial disparity is larger now than it was in 1850!” (Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily).   

Today there is now overwhelming research that demonstrates this disparity in mortality is grounded in the racism of our institutions and cultural life in the United States.  Such disparity does not exist to this extent in other countries.  One of the most astonishing discoveries has been named the “weathering” of African-American women.  (Again, Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018.) Weathering is language that speaks of the results of chronic toxic stress on African-American women.  This is the impact of racism on the body of women facing day-in and day-out challenges and diminishment in this society due to their racial identity.  Put simply, our racism damages the bodies of our sisters.

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Or take, for example, the patriarchy that still distorts the church from genuine expressions of the gospel — from the meaning of Pentecost.  Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has finally apologized from insensitive and dangerous remarks about women needing to stay in homes where they are being physically abused so that “they might be a witness” to abusive husbands.  Patterson only recently also acknowledged that some sermon illustrations about young women were “hurtful.”  It is tragic.  Still this denomination and many others exclude women in leadership in multiple ways.

In my own denomination, United Methodism, we live under our own distortions of Pentecost.  Jeremy Smith has argued that “the Gay Panic” has also harmed women and equality throughout the denomination.  In his most recent posting Smith outlines the ways the United Methodist Church is damaged by an inability to welcome all people. (Gay Panic Harms Women and Equality, Jeremy Smith, May 11, 2018.)

In a stunning, dispiriting outcome this past week, United Methodists learned that a constitutional amendment stating that woman and girls were to be equals in the church, narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds vote from the world-wide denomination necessary for its approval.  A re-vote is scheduled due to some mistakes in the original stated language of the amendment.  Still, no matter.  Damage done.  Patriarchy clearly asserted, riding the coattails of Gay Panic in the church.  Where is Pentecost in this?

Still I confess to being a prisoner of hope.  Just when I believe Pentecost has been lost or gone into permanent hiding, there are experiences that renew and restore.

As in so many other places in my life, I have discovered that I was looking for Pentecost in all the wrong places.  Our nation and our churches seem to be drifting away from the SPIRIT BEING A GIFT TO EVERYONE.  Still there are Pentecost tracks and genuine sightings all around.  Last Sunday I saw evidences of Pentecost at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chicago.  And, I know that such signs are bubbling up in churches like Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis and St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington Indiana (where I worship).  I see it there — almost weekly.  There it is — the Spirit given to ALL.

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Then today, I caught what will be an enduring glimpse of Pentecost for me.  It was the dedication of two Habitat for Humanity Houses in my town.  Two homes — one for Colleen and her daughter Juliana;  another for Rachel.  Two houses — built by women and for women.  There were women crew chiefs and three-hundred-and-forty (340) local women working on these builds!  These women raised the money, hammered the nails, put on the roof, painted the walls and finished these homes.  They completed two homes in two weeks (take that Paige Patterson)! 

I watched as the crew leaders passed the keys along a line of celebration — each one a contributor — and then to the new owners.  I watched Colleen and Juliana accepted the keys to their home.  They have worked hard to get to this point — their own homes, their own mortgages — after years of living it difficult, counter productive situations. 

Then keys were passed to Rachel.  When I heard Rachel say “I have worked hard but you women have taught me more than building, you have taught that we need each other.  Hey, this is MY House but your love is in every board,” I caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  It has been in hiding for me, but I might see it more clearly yet.  I may even wear red on May 20, Pentecost Sunday!

 

 

 

The Gifts Behind Door #1408

The Gifts Behind Door #1408

It is a short, rather boring, walk from the elevator to our Chicago apartment. Twenty-three paces.  We rarely meet anyone in the hallway.  Nor is there anything particularly unusual about the tan walls and dark carpet.

It is this very ordinariness that makes what sometimes happens in the hallway so remarkable.  The first time it occurred I was rushing to bring in groceries.  I noticed the music — “what fine music,” I thought.  It was a piano sonata, probably on the radio or a recording.  Nice.

Shortly afterward, I heard the music behind the door again.  Chopin, I thought… and just then, the piano music abruptly stopped, then began again a few measures earlier. 

This wasn’t a recording at all!  There was an actual pianist — and a talented one at that — practicing in #1408.  It was my special gift, each time I walked past and listened to the artist at practice.  I suspect she didn’t know she was gifting me or any of the others of us who passed by. 

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The Gifts Behind Door #1408

Then one afternoon, a violin was added to the piano.  On another occasion there was a flute.  Then I noticed a few times when the pianist wasn’t as accomplished. 

[I am both slow-witted and a bit dull, you see, because it took me weeks to understand that this was the apartment of a music teacher.  Of course, of course, there is a college of music nearby our apartment.  Students, with differing skills and who play various instruments were coming for lessons.] 

On one occasion, there was such a marvelous combination of violin and piano that I confess I stood in the hallway and luxuriated at the fine, hidden away, performance for several minutes.  So exceptional were the musical gifts being practiced behind the door they demanded my slowing down and listening. That is when I first met one of my neighbors.  A young woman.  We exchanged greetings.  She smiled, and stood with me for a moment, listening.  “Isn’t this wonderful” she said as she moved on to her apartment. 

The doorway to #1408 offers me a valuable lesson in a world chock-full of anonymous, mundane interactions.  All around — just on the other side of this anonymity, this troubling news and fear-filled analysis — there is often beauty that I otherwise tend to miss.  There is teaching and learning that is going on.  There are glorious gifts waiting to be heard, to be seen, to be understood or simply appreciated.  Sometimes the gift is offered as a solo, sometimes it is more than one who is sharing.

Then it happened, one afternoon, I met her, the pianist, the teacher. 

We were leaving our apartments at the same time.  She was almost as I had imagined her to be.  Petite, handsome, she was moving carefully to close her door, a violin case in her hand.  When I told her how I appreciated the music emanating from her apartment, she seemed surprised, a little worried.  “I hope my music isn’t bothering you,” she said.  “Bothering?” I reacted.  “Not at all!  Every time I leave the elevator on the 14th floor, I hope you will be playing.  It is the best part of returning.”

I still don’t know her name — this teacher, this beauty maker.  That will be remedied one day soon, I will make certain to learn more at the right time.  For now, even though we are still moving in anonymous worlds, I receive her gift as a reminder that my senses are often too dull to receive other offerings.

What gifts around us do we miss each day?  What gifts might we be sharing that we are unaware of at the time?  Where are there human and transcendent notes of joy and hope that are muted by the “normal.”

I find that by passing my neighbor’s apartment, even when there is no music, I am reminded to consider such questions — and I am able to approach my day with an anticipation of the gifts all around that I often otherwise miss.

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(Our primary residence is in Bloomington, Indiana: we also keep an apartment in Chicago.  We love both cities and because we have a couple of grandsons in Chicago, well…)

Rim Walking to the Eternal

Rim Walking to the Eternal

Almost autumn; rouge-tinged leaves hint that a soon-to-arrive-change is near.  Rotund tomatoes have captured a summer filled with both promise and tragedy.  It is time… to remember, to move on.

Saturday morning and a visit to our hometown Farmers’ Market.  A much-needed respite, today’s early gifts.

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Farmers Market, Bloomington, September 16, 2017

Our overripe national drama could cause one to despair, to wonder if a return to normal can be gained, or regained. 

From near and far are images of tragedy… a nursing home in Hollywood Hills, Florida, opioid overdoses down the street, a denuded Virgin Island paradise, mud, posturing politicians, mold, South Texas languishing, St. Louis marching in step with decades of accumulated grievance.  Politicians preen, speak sly words and pose for photo-op-displays-of-compassion.  These televised images vie for attention alongside heartless racist-tinged rhetoric.

Will our national identity be reduced to cheap reality television episodes?  Are we prisoners to shallow, disjointed actions and pathetic promises? “Everyone will be happy”!?  Is this reality?  Fake becomes real, while the real, the true, is declared fake.  Don’t lose your balance fellow pilgrims-of-hope.

Even here, especially here, there is truth… there is music, poetry and beauty.   So much fine produce at the market, stacked high, even okra (mostly for my spouse) and summers-end sweet corn (mostly for me).  The community band plays sweet summers-end music.  Abide With Me as it tunes up for the morning.  Tune to the “A.”  Some things do remind one of stability.  Abide…

 

Sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, sweet music and poetry abide.  Justice will prevail.  Our belief in respect and decency will survive this cruel passage.  It is clear in the acts of human compassion evidenced in the places of unimaginable destruction.  From St. Johns, a family shares space under their tarpaulin.  One visits a nearby hospital — just a brief word, a smile and a prayer.  We applaud as early response teams arrive in Texas and Florida, and ahead of them are thousands-upon-thousands of cleaning kits, (flood buckets), arriving along with a piece of our hearts.

How will we know the way?  What direction and pace shall we travel?  Poetry directs us beyond the limits of here and now.  Friend Walter Wangerin, Jr. calls our name:

The Wanderer*

I am the World-Rim-Walker.

I tread the sheer crags

Where night and daylight

Contour one other.

So we journey ahead as Rim Walkers toward the Eternal.  Between the tragedy and treat offered in the daily news cycles and our truest hope found in the dignity of human beings at their best.  Here and there… we move forward.

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Bloomington Farmers Market

These are our compass points.  Smiles and greetings.  New friends met and old friends greeted.  Fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, kale and spinach now join honey, music and poetry to point to our pathway ahead.  We journey together fellow Rim Walkers

May your late summer be filled with laughter, joy and the reminders of taken-for-granted beauty all around.  Together let us continue to walk in ways that rebut and rebuke the vapid efforts to divert us from the ways of our truest hope.

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*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2017.

 

Patchwork: Community of the Lost and Found

Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found

Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other. 

This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana.  It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.

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Alan Winslow, February 2017

We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community.  Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years.  This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken.  Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades. 

Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.

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Nelia Kimbrough, John Doyle, Elaine Amerson, 1977

No doubt we were naive.  Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.”  No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school.  As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith.  No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.

Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living.  (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)

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Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.

We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time.  There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well.  It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville?  Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River?  As we used to say, this only makes sense if it can “Play in Peoria.”

Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks.  We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission.  Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more.  Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”

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Patchwork Gathering 1983

 

While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice.  So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  Sunday evening worship grew.  Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings.   The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.

The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources.  The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.”  Truth is, we rarely wore ties.   We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes.  Others joined.  Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.

We grew in numbers and influence in the city.  Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby.  How could we afford it?  Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?”  We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois.  The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.”  Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group.  Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.

There are so many lessons from those years.  On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found.  The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing.  Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.

What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork?  Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork?  Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).

First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods.  (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.) 

What we found was this.  If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower-income communities.  We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”

I am not certain this would happen today.  I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done.  For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips.  Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry.  Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today.  Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission.  The Phillips understood.  And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay.  Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.

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Alan Winslow and Alice Serr, 2017

Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause.  There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church.  Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church.  It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth. 

I was so very wrong.  There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.

Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival.  I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.

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Darlene Bragg, Back Alley Bakery, circa 1983.

 

I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.”  Such hubris!!  Such ignorance.   I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions.  Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination.  The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision.  I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around.  In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share.  Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined.  However, I needed to stop and listen.  If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.

Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost.  Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void.  Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.

We discovered that everyone can and does live in community.  The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be?  The choice is to risk living in new ways.  The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible.  It requires work.   bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”

In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one.  However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost.  They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.

Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:

Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.

Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.

Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.

No one will find life another way.

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There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central.  Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives.  I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.

 

 

That Dumb Preacher and the Gift of Embarrassment

“That Dumb Preacher” and the Gift of Embarrassment

Fifty years ago this past summer I was provisionally ordained as a Methodist pastor.  Young and determined to change the world, I was “set aside” for ministry by Bishop Richard C. Raines in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Indiana University Auditorium.

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I. U. Auditorium

I was ready to change the world — and I was so little aware of the way the world would change me.  Now there is time to look back, to reflect, to laugh and learn anew.

These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness.  All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life.  It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment.  Yes, I said embarrassment.   It keeps one humble.  One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one’s own foolish efforts at vocational perfection.  Here is my top ten list — memories of times I played the role of “that dumb preacher.”

  1. One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, “Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband.”  Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan’s, eyes, I knew that she was not “Jennifer” and he was not a “Mike.”  And, I couldn’t remember their names.  I searched papers tucked in my Bible.  It took an eternity — probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities.  I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, “that poor, dumb preacher.”
  2. Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one.  I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks.  I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone.  As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation — I was even at the wrong funeral home!  Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, “How did you know my father?”  No words came for several seconds.  Then I muttered, “Oh, I knew of him.”  Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
  3. Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me.  More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person.  Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit.  I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
  4. Then, there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones.  On more than one occasion, I continued to “broadcast” when I should have turned the darn thing to “OFF.”  Let’s just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying.  Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound.  These were not the rushing waters from Elijah.  These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
  5. Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding.  We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and… yes, all was ready.  Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar!  Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married.  I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to “say it again” and then confirmed it by shouting “yes, to what he said!”  I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
  6. We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday.  I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another.  This seemed safe enough.  Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, “It must be great to have 70 happy years together?”  The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, “Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage.”  The congregation roared with laughter.  Too late.  Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
  7. And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship?  Well… somehow the tailor didn’t tie off the knots along the leg seams.  As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch.  It was, so to speak, open territory.  What to do?  Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services.  Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe.  I wore a robe all the way home that day!
  8. I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own.  On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist — at all five services!  Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared.  At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice.  More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn’t need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service!  I don’t recall much of the sermon in service number five — I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
  9. Advice to young pastors — don’t attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full.  As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and… oh yes, the baby!  I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby’s pacifier fell out of her mouth.  Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier.  The baby came down as well.  She was baptized on the wrong end!  The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day.   I did catch the pacifier — after all, what is truly important?
  10. Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home.  Before I knew it three small children were beside me… then crawling over my lap and shoulders.  Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair.  The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored.  I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers.  One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, “You don’t know what to do with us, do you?”  Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on “that dumb preacher.”

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Wesley UMC, University of Illinois

Much has changed over the past fifty years.  Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as more and more “sidelined” denominations.  We grow anxious, serious, more determined.  We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline.  Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades.  We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us. 

Our institutions have much to be embarrassed about.  In fact, too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric.  Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of our denomination — Wesley UMC at the University of Illinois.  I had just attended an event where there was hand wringing about our need to be a global church and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline.  All of this is true.  Still, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud after the sermon in Champaign, Illinois, as dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service.  I was aware that our global reach might be wider than our limited vision could see.  Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, “you don’t know what to do with us, do you?”

I would not argue that we should not seek to be relevant.  I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch.  Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church — some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments.  Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help.   A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.  I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments — there are dozens more I could offer.  This will do for now.  Enjoy… and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said.  I think she is right.   We just don’t know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us.  I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.