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. We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 new 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
(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…)
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.
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:
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.
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.
*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2017.
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.
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.
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.)
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 makessense 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.”
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.