Session III: June 15, 2021: Toward a Regenerative and Sustainable UMC
Introduction: Restorative and Joyful Communities
Not far from my home is a walking path designated as a “certified sustainable trail.” It is wide, one of those “if you want to walk far, walk together” trails. As we conclude, let’s acknowledge a sustainable trail for the United Methodist Church is still emerging. We are, after all, God’s church, part of God’s wider economy. We are part of God’s symphony of hope. Many remarkable previous travelers signal us forward. Earlier today we identified these trail markers:
- Loving action is our North Star and singular mark of a mature Christian.
- Deep evangelization extends across space and time to name, bless and connect.
- Each mission site can be God’s mother tree in the social forest where it is located.
The “Root Command” of Love
In 1974, at bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University the world-renowned economist Sir Dennis Robertson was asked a big question, What Do Economists Economize?” Robertson, gave an “astonishing answer: We economize on love.”[i] Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps later agreed that indeed altruism is central to any sound economic analysis. As you might guess both economists, went on to say, ‘It’s complicated.’
Long before modern economic theories, Jesus points to love as the source of joyful communities. From John 15:11-17 we read: The Message: 11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.
17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.
Jesus speaks of a love more profound than economic altruism. Moses provides ten commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There are 613 Mizvot or commandments in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus reduces the commandments to one, “the root command: Love one another (John 15:17), so that you might have joy and be fruit bearers.[ii] Agape love, a willingness to lay down one’s life for another, is essential to joyful restoration of lives and communities. John’s gospel, was written in Ephesus a few decades after the Letter to the Ephesians and comes to a church full of interpersonal struggles, dissension and disagreement. Faith rooted in sacrificial love is said to be the path forward. Disciples were no longer servants, but friends. Ivan Illich wrote of this as conviviality, celebrating an awareness that in love we can make our life today in the shape of tomorrow’s future.[iii] United Methodists find our home as a community of loving activity, a community of friends.
Stories of restoration and joy come bubbling with laughter and hope from our scripture: Ninety-year-old Sarah laughs, Joseph embraces his brothers, mana comes in the wilderness, Babylonian refugees return, Nehemiah announces the joy of the Lord is strength, a prodigal returns home, magi see a star, a baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, water is turned to wine, winds of Pentecost blow across the church, and Christ is recognized in the breaking and sharing of bread. Joy and restoration are communal. Solo performances can be lovely and moving, but scientists have shown that it is in choral singing, voices raised together, that sustainable social bonds and personal wellbeing in forged.[iv]
Last month, as I watched Wesleyan Investive (UMDF) awards given to five national Innovative Leaders the joy was evident. One awardee was DeAmon Hargis of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis, (DeAmon is a longtime friend and has been a guest of this annual conference). Years ago, DeAmon noticed folks he identified as neighborhood healers. They practiced generosity and hospitality. They knew how to host parties to celebrate others. Not a party in the church building, but in neighborhood homes.
Did someone graduate from school? Get a new job? Retire? Complete an art project? Start a band? Then celebrate and welcome outsiders to join: the police commander, a foundation director, the mayor, a hospital administrator, a school principal. It was a reweaving, a restoration of the fabric of a community. A group of young men, the Cultivating Joy Cypher began to meet and celebrate the gifts and potential all around. Such imagination has been a critical starting point for the investments of dollars in housing, economic development, the arts and small business initiatives As DeAmon puts it “We kidnap people from old routines and bring them together so that they can fall in love with each other.”
Wesley emphasized both personal and communal religious experience. Methodists were to walk with others: classes, bands, societies and conferences. Paul Chilcote writes “Christianity, according to the Wesleys, is not so much a religion as it is a relationship. It is from the outset personal AND social.[v] Excessive individualism distorts Christianity.[vi] Our faith is relational. Our work is God’s corporate work, God’s song, God’s poem in human experience.
Regenerative Root Systems
About 200 miles due south of the Red Wing Barn portrayed in Ted Kooser’s poem is a place called The Land Institute (TLI) near Salina, Kansas. TLI has been much on my mind in thinking of root systems. I had the privilege of meeting Wes Jackson, co-founder of TLI two summers ago.
Jackson left university teaching and research nearly fifty years ago to go back to his home state of Kansas. He shifted from genetics research to investigating crop sustainability and teaching about regenerative agriculture. He later won the MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the “genius award” back in 1992 for this work. Wes works to restore communities in the soil and among humans. Professor Robert Jensen, retired from University of Texas says of Wes, Jackson has perfected the art of “seeing small and thinking big.”[vii] Uncomfortable with traditional religious language, Jackson jokingly describes himself as a 5/8th Methodist! His Methodist roots are displayed as he speaks of a Creaturely Worldview. It is Wes who says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
A large photo, perhaps twelve feet long and three feet wide, is placed down a stairway at TLI. It’s two root systems, actual size, side-by-side. On the left are thin winter wheat roots grown and replanted annually less than one (1) meter long. The other, a perennial plant, has roots over three (3) meters long reaching broadly outward. Jackson proposes a mix of wheat, soybean and oilseed (like sunflower) plants grown together as perennials. Imagine the mutual benefits for soil and water preservation from deeper root systems and the activity of diverse plants, with some preventing erosion and others restoring nitrogen in the soil.
What do root systems in the Kansas River Valley have to do with the vibrancy of congregations in North Texas? Or, ministry in towns, rural settings or the Dallas metroplex? Imperfect, as all metaphors are, our places of ministry might be seen as regenerative sources for communities and personal lives. What if we sought deep regenerative roots of faith? Do we plow under our ministry investments too quickly as we shift from one strategy to another?[viii]
Being “fruitful” is a fixation for many North American denominations. We do a lot of plowing-under-and-replanting. While understandable, many of these efforts are counterproductive, increasing stress and diverting local, indigenous innovations. Rather than the vision from Jeremiah of a tree planted by water, anxious North America Christians turn to questionable spiritual husbandry. Perhaps, in anxiety about institutional decline, many have been, as the song by country singer Johnny Lee goes, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” What if we focused on being sustainable as well as fruitful?
Recently a pastor friend of a large church put the challenge succinctly, “Programs that attracted people two years ago, pre-pandemic, are no longer effective. Expectations and attention spans shift month to month. There can be a constant churning. We have learned to take a longer view.” Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last made a distinction between “time telling” and “clock building” cultures.[ix] Time tellers can tell you the latest industrial fad while clock builders build sustainable institutions.
Change comes to the doorstep of all institutions, including church. Some call it “creative destruction.” Some see a slow and steady entropy, a post-denominational society, a decline to be expected and accepted? I think of Ezekiel’s haunting question looking at a Valley of Dry Bones, “Can these bones live?”
Wes Jackson reflects on the ecology of human institutions saying we quickly seek the “how to?” and insufficiently focus on the “why?” Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky distinguish between Technical and Adaptive Challenges. Technical Challenges seek a “how to” response. Adaptive Challenges, on the other hand, require new discoveries, more imagination and an adaptive leap for a culture. Adaptive Challenges require a look at core mission and the “why” questions.[x] Have too many of our ministries lost the “why” behind our activities?
Several years ago I directed a mentoring program for pastors. At our first gathering, apprentices were placed in one group and the mentors in another.[xi] The apprentices were smart, thoughtful, energetic, committed folks, typically younger, though not always. Their early conversations were about what they were accomplishing – new programs and successes. Voices brimmed with a confidence.
Meanwhile, down the hall very different conversations were unfolding. The mentors demonstrated what I came to call the “three-experience-based-attitudes:” encouragement, forgiveness, and laughter. Apprentices were confident, even prone to a little bragging. Many of the apprentices were emerging as righteous interrupters. Among mentors there was confession of failure as mistakes and lessons learned were shared, stories of regret often followed by words of forgiveness. There was laughter, and sometimes tears. This pattern seemed true in class after class. I now see mentors regenerative connecters. They were perennials with an ability to adapt and keep growing. Their roots were deep and wide. Encouragement, forgiveness and laughter. Over a year, as apprentices and mentors prayed and dreamed together, the joy of a common calling bubbled up. They learned the truth of the adage that leadership is often better caught than taught. A community of joy was born.
If we had time, I would tell you of similar patterns among lay persons that I have witnessed. Gene, blind from birth, and Carol his spouse offered their infectious joy that helped sustain and restore an old core-city church as new, younger members were attracted to the journey unfolding in that congregation. They were generative root system that sustains this faith community.[xii] These folks were clock builders.[xiii]
Fifty-three years ago, here is Dallas, Dr. Albert Outler preached at the birthing of the United Methodist Church. “The heart of the gospel is startlingly simple,” he said, “that God loves you and me and all [men] with a very special love and that Jesus Christ is sufficient proof to this love.”[xiv] Outler challenged United Methodists to be true Protestants — reformed and ever reforming.[xv] He closed the sermon, “This is the day the Lord has made, Let us really rejoice and be glad in it[xvi] – glad for the new chance God now gives us: to be a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church cruciform in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for all [humankind].”[xvii]
Like the early church in Ephesus or Eighteenth Century Methodists, today, there are multiple obstacles, threats and challenges. Let me suggest that considering the questions of sustainability, we need to think about the far horizon for the church and not just about the next General Conference.[xviii] If we are to develop sustainable ecologies, we will move beyond the patterns of sickening denominational self-concern.[xix] We must shift from denominational preservation to be mindful of the opportunities for witness all around whether reducing racism, welcoming the stranger, addressing economic injustice, or protecting our natural world.[xx]
So, there is much work to do. Would I advise throwing a few more parties and inviting strangers to join? Yes. Should we celebrate righteous interrupters and regenerative connectors who build communities of restoration and joy – Yes, definitely!
When considering the challenges that too easily appear to impede our future, to block our flow, I am reminded of
Wendell Berry’s poem, Our Real Work.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
—Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. Counterpoint, 1983
Albert Outler called for a cruciform way of proceeding. We know from our Gospels that “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… will find it.) It is paradoxical. So, here are my seven paradoxical endnotes for a reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church:
The trail markers noted here are:
- Following the Jesus of scripture leads to Christ alive today;
- Stepping away from Christendom is a step to being church;
- Calmed and converted to Forever-Beginning-Disciples.
- God loves each as none other and God loves all equally;
- Strong local hub trees interconnect to global forest;
- Diverse, linked, perennial roots encourage, forgive and laugh;
- The impeded stream is the one that sings.
The calling for United Methodists today is to ripple and splash with delight in one an other’s company as we reinvent our ecology in interconnected and restorative ways.
Samuel Wells writes of A Future that is Greater Than the Past in this way “The church is a work of art. God is the artist, who makes the church, through the action of the Holy Spirit, in the form of Christ, out of the material of human beings… The church is not beautiful in a detached, distant sense: but if and when it is well and honestly made, it exhibits that overflow of presence that generates joy.” Reflecting on Ephesians (2:10) Wells says “we [the church] are God’s ‘work of art,’ or perhaps better, ‘God’s poem.’”[xxi]
[i] Phelps, Edmund, ed, Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory, (New York: Russell Sage, 1975), p. 1. See also Timothy Taylor’s Is Altruism a Scarce Resource that Needs Conserving, at: https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2013/11/is-altruism-scarce-resource-that-needs.html.
[ii] My father lived to be 92. In the last decade of his life, when greeted and asked how he was doing, he would answer, “I’m rejoicing.” Those who knew, him knew it to be true. A pastor friend shared that his mother who would often say, “I have the rhythm of rejoicing.” Personal joy is a good and holy thing. As John’s Gospel, Ephesians and, yes, Albert Outler suggest to truly rejoice and be glad in this day the Lord has made will involve a community of loving activity, a community of friends.
[iii] Illich, Ivan, Celebration of Awareness (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), 19.
[iv] Launay, Jacques and Eiluned Pierce, “The New Science of Singing Together,” Greater Good Magazine, December 4, 2015, available at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_singing. See also, Dina Kraft, “In Israel, Singing for Social Harmony,” Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 2019. In Isreal in recent years there is an event known as Koolulam that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to sing. The musical director, Ben Yefet, directs the crowd with this instruction: “If you can’t hear the person singing next to you, you are singing too loudly.” Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Music/2019/0212/In-Israel-singing-for-social-harmony
[v] Chilcote, Paul Wesley, Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004) p 20. Chilcote proposes that Wesley’s vision comes in eight conjunctions, starting with Free Grace, Inclusive Love, Shared Experience and Enthused Disciples,
[vi] Bellah, Robert, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California, 1985), 221, 235. Robert Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart, identifies the growing phenomenon in 1985 he called Sheilaism He writes of this is an individualistic understanding of faith. Radically self-focused, the sole determinate for each person’s beliefs is a home-made theology. It is a DIY (Do It Yourself) faith, popularly expressed in the phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.”
[vii] Jensen, Robert, “Intellectual Grounding: Podcast from the Prairie,” add link: Also see Jensen, Robert “The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.”
[viii] I would assert local community ecologies have far deeper roots than easily seen on the surface. As Willie Jennings said, there may be a lot of “unused gospel” we have missed. Or, as the line in the Kooser poem suggests, “The good works of the Lord are all around.”
[ix] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, (New York: Harper, 2004).
[x] Heifetz, Richard and Marty, Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 31.
[xi] In this mentoring program for pastors, we had to determine who were mentors and who apprentices. After considering several formal research approaches, a remarkable Roman Catholic sister and university administrator advised, “Just ask.” Ask denominational leaders and lay persons to name parish pastors who have done their work effectively with grace for seven or eight years and which ones showed promise as apprentices. So we did. As we welcomed each new group into the mentoring program, an interesting pattern began to appear. We quickly saw, that for most, there was a distinction between time tellers and clock builders.
[xii] Gene and Carol were interrupters, connectors and ambassadors of joy in a congregation I served. Each Father’s Day we held an ugly tie contest. Men were asked to wear their ugliest tie to church. I was always nervous that someone might be chosen who didn’t know about the contest, who just wore ugly ties. I recall the year Gene gathered a piece of elongated orange cloth and several white balls of cotton. He asked Carol to sew these onto an already disgusting looking tie. It was, he said, his “rabbits in the garden” motif. Gene won that ugly tie contest — for the third consecutive year. In his acceptance speech he said “Now that I have won for the third year, I will now retire from entering in the future. I just have too much of an unfair advantage.” Laughter filled the room. You see Gene was blind from birth.
Carol played second base on our church softball team. Occasionally, early in the season, before other teams knew Gene, Carol would help position him behind the catcher. Someone would tell him to announce, “Play Ball!” He would then act as the umpire calling balls and strikes. Seriously, there were a couple of games, early in the season, when he went through the first three batters before the other team caught on! Laughing he would say he was doing better than most major league umpires! Helped to return to the bleachers, he would loudly cheer the exploits Carol and the team. They assisted that church in rejoicing at the gift of being Christ’s community. On Sundays there was no pretending. Rarely could a visitor leave worship in this city congregation who wasn’t first welcomed by Carol and Gene. Carol would follow up with a note shortly thereafter. They practiced a generative, life affirming love, an ability to treat others with dignity and respect and thereby assist us all in remembering the community in which we were privileged to worship. I am convinced that these two joyful disciples were a critical reason this urban congregation has grown in mission and ministry.
Or, I think of a pastor who understood the importance of communities of joy. The first holiday season in her new appointment, she watched as hundreds lined up in freezing weather for an annual charity giveaway – a few groceries and a frozen chicken. Leaving her office and going outside she visited with folks waiting in that line. Later she thought, “We can do better than this.” Shortly thereafter she shared her concerns with the congregation’s outreach team. Some old-timers were offended. Who was this new pastor anyway? She listened, explained her concerns, and suggested more conversations. They met again, prayed and talked, and prayed some more. “Those who stood in line were not our clients,” she said, “they are persons with names, families, stories. They are part of our community.” Slowly a new idea emerged. First, they would visit and invite some neighbors to join in planning. The next year a “holiday store” replaced the frozen-chicken-give-away. Several neighbors who only a year before stood outside, now volunteered as fellow workers. Many neighbors received vouchers and were invited to come and “shop” for items of new clothing, toys and food. That day, no one stood outside. Everyone was inside. Carols were sung, laughter filled the hall, some helped wrap gifts. ALL were neighbors.
[xiii] Herman B Wells was a member of the parish in Bloomington, Indiana. A cradle Methodist, he was president, then chancellor of Indiana University over several decades. Herman was a rotund, brilliant man who enjoyed good conversation. His eyes danced as he shared from his encyclopedic memory. During one visit he winked as he said, “It is important to think about things in fifty-year blocks.” Chuckling, he added, “Of course it helps if you are ninety-five years old!” As Herman was at the time.
[xiv] Outler, Albert C., “A Sermon for the Uniting Conference of the United Methodist Church,” Dallas, Texas, 23 April 1968, p. 39. In the Albert C. Outler Papers at Bridwell Library. Available at: https://www.umnews.org/-/media/umc-media/2018/04/09/20/43/outler_sermon_for_uniting_conference.ashx?la=en&rev=4181d891f1fc4aa3a645ae0dfd337593&hash=FC63DFB4E79C09A9A97933FAFA0DA8BDDF77A132
[xv] Ibid. Drawing on the Consultation on Christian Unity (COCU) he named as our rootage “unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform.”
[xvi] Ibid, p. 41.
[xviii] I believe parish ministry, denominational witness and shaping the future of the church as one-hundred-year work. I have been inspired by religious and social movements beyond Methodism. Movements like the Danish Folk School movement begun in the late 18th Century, inspired by Lutheran Pastor N.S.F. Grundvig. This movement focused broadly on democratic education of the peasantry in the arts, literature, music, sports, dance, gardening and what he called “the living word.” Over the next century social and cultural realities in Denmark were reshaped. So much so that a century later a majority of the Danish legislature were graduates of a folk school. While we hold dear our heritage, we must also be open to what I believe was Dr. Outler’s evangelism and ecumenical project and what Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon suggests when he writes The Future of Methodism is not Methodism. Wes Jackson, for example, reminds us of need to reduce our dependance on energy-rich-carbon extracted from our soils, trees, coal, gas and oil.
[xix] As to unity, we have work to do. As to ecumenism, I find myself agreeing with Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon, that The Future of Methodism is not Methodism. When we focus on the words of Jesus in John 15 we need to remember that just two chapters further on we have the prayer of Jesus that his followers might be one. https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10112/the-future-of-methodism-is-not-methodism
[xx] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31. Noting our personal and social insatiable appetite for lifestyles built on energy-rich carbon, he says homo sapiens as a “species out of context” (page 2) Soil, timber, coal, oil and gas – resources from ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground – have eased our labors, providing wealth and comfort to many. This he says, is our “carbon imperative,” or as his friend and co-author, Bill Vitek puts it, rather than human-nature, we would better speak of ours currently as “human-carbon nature.” (pages27-28). If we are a species out of context in the natural world as Wes Jackson suggests, the pandemic in 2020 revealed North American Christians may be a faith group out of context. Might we find ways to live more fully in terms of our “human-spirit-nature”? Wes Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.” I want to argue that inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.” Both are required. Scientists report this winter that over one-third of the carbon rich topsoil in Corn Belt in the Midwest (nearly 100,000 acres) has been completely lost. See University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Corn belt farmland has lost a third of its carbon-rich soil.” (See ScienceDaily, 15 February 2021. Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210215160227.htm.)
[xxi] Wells, Samuel, “A Future That’s Bigger than the Past,” London: Canterbury Press, 2019, pp 126-127.