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!

Bishop Judith Craig

Recalling Greatness: Bishop Judith Craig

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So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself.  Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon.  Those eyes — that voice.  That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole. 

I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better.  And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could!  Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending.  I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend.  May perpetual light shine on you.

I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996.  She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us.  She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.

At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly.  I was wrong.  It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement.  Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm.  How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news?  What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world? 

We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion.  It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader.  She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind.  I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best.  Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety.  Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace.  I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances.  Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.

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Mary Oliver

Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver.  Two women, two singular voices.  I wonder if they ever met?  Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.

 

I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears.  I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 

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In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.