Certitude and Its Discontents

Certitude and Its Discontents*

It was a year ago.  The worship service was ending, benediction pronounced.  The postlude begun and I greeted the first in line.  He refused my hand and pounced verbally.  It took a few seconds to register — his anger, his scolding, his need to correct, transcended any niceties.  With forefinger raised and a frozen glare, he let me know that I was wrong.  He was certain of it!

I was new to the congregation, an interim pastor, still learning the good folks in the pews and the culture of the congregation.  What was my mistake?  I spoke positively of Senator John McCain.  It was, after all, Sunday August 26th, 2018, the day after McCain’s death.  My mention of the senator was brief: “Think of the ways Senator McCain demonstrated the heart of greatness through service!” I offered, “In one of his last public addresses Senator McCain spoke of “serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America.”(1)  

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Photo by Bob Lang

That was it, nothing more.  The Biblical texts for the day were from Ephesians 6 and John 6 focusing on the Spirit that gives life.(2)  I also quoted Bob Greenleaf who wrote of Servant Leadership and suggested “weak leaders expect to be served – strong leaders serve.”(3)

Greeting the preacher following  worship is a well practiced ritual.  Over the decades I have exchanged pleasantries with tens of thousands.  Occasionally I am faced by persons who disagree with the sermon.  Never, however, have I been approached with such vitriol.  Yes, folks sometimes offered correction.  There were occasional sanctions about a mispronunciation, a typo in the bulletin, or error in scripture citation.  I once misspoke and named the traveling companion of Paul “Bartholomew,” rather than “Barnabas.”  And one Sunday in a university town, a distinguished professor made certain that I should speak of the American University “AT” Beirut and not “IN” Beirut.  Such corrections are needed and appreciated.  There have been people who disagreed and a few who have walked out as I preached.  But this?  This was different.

Most often words of gratitude are shared at the door, or information is passed about someone who is visiting, the birth of a child or one in hospital.  Sometimes the words spoken are humorous — whether intended or not.  I recall the time a woman took my hand and with great sincerity said, “Every sermon you preach is better than the next.”  She smiled and moved out the door, unaware that her intended compliment had an opposite meaning to what was intended.  At least I hope so.

The critique of my mention of John McCain continued with increasing vigor for several minutes in the front of the chancel.  A line of well-wishers waited patiently behind him.  Then it shortened to a few, then vanished.  As I remember it now, he insisted, Senator McCain was not a person of honor; rather, he informed me McCain was “a self-centered narcissist, who always sought the limelight.  He was a rebel and was not dependable in his voting record.”  It was only my third Sunday in that pulpit.  I thought a mention of McCain was appropriate.  And, after all, San Diego is a Navy town.  Whatever else one might think, McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot who had spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison.  Surely, this would help illustrate the sermon’s intent.

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Aware that there was no way to end the conversation on that day and stunned to hear such a rant about one who had so recently died, and for whom I had great respect, I simply said, “Well, it appears we disagree.”  The man said, “We certainly do!  And, you are certainly wrong!”  As he turned my words trailed behind, “Let’s find time to talk.” We never did.

That Sunday a year ago, I had unintentionally strayed across an ideological yellow line.(4)  I had touched a third rail.  As the fella left, the word “certainly” hung in the air.  “Certainly, certainly…”  There it was.  Life was to be a one way journey along a path of certainty.  No preacher should disturb the binary ideological categories.  The Religious Right was apparently now the province of the Alt-Right.  I learned later that this man’s pattern of accosting the preacher was not new.  He had been practiced on others.

As popular author Ann Lamott has written: The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do. (5)  Or, as Søren Kierkegaard posited, it is only when objective certitude fails that belief becomes possible.

I believe John McCain was a fine man, a remarkable man.  He had flaws as we all do.  Yet, he displayed a fierce ability to consider an other’s point of view.  I recall his taking the microphone from the woman who said “Obama is a Muslim” in the 2008 Presidential campaign.  He indicated that she was mistaken and that while he disagreed with then candidate Obama, McCain said he believed the future president was a decent man. It was a display of courage, of humility, of faith that no doubt hurt him among some in that election.

Our nation seems caught up in a time when the action of listening and disagreeing seem unlikely.  We have chosen up sides and divided up the future into competing realities.  And what of my need for certitude?  What of my hunger for agency?  What of my fears and misplaced allegiances?  We live in a season when fear trips up humility, when chaos clouds the pathways of hope, when dichotomous thinking pushes us into corners that blind us to cooperation.  It was Parker Palmer, drawing on the work of Thomas Merton, who in his small volume, The Promise of Paradox, written now forty years ago, wrote that our hope rested in learning to live within and even celebrate the contradictions that confront us.

One place we can all begin, at least those of us who are observant, is after attending future worship services and hearing a word of faith is wait in line and thank the one who speaks with courage.  Let her know of your support.  Let him know of your prayers.  Let all those who speak difficult words of Gospel in these days, know you stand with them.  You see, it is not easy, this work of proclamation.   There seem to be so many places where a hunger for certainty blinds the ways of faith and where ideological or partisan commitments place a silencer on the Christian message.  And, if you disagree with the preacher, let her or him know.  But do it this way — invite them to lunch — converse, listen, and you pay!

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* This is the first of several occasional posts that will reflect on actual pastoral experiences.

Notations:

  1. Senator John McCain spoke at a ceremony at the National Constitution Center, October 16, 2017. 
  2. The sermon was titled “Hands of the Strong” and was based on Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:63-69.  It is the Spirit that give life the gospel proclaims and Paul speaks of the “full armor of God” ending with Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,  for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. 
  3. Robert Greenleaf writes: “Leader first and servant first are two extreme types.  Between them there are shadings and blends  that are part of the infinite variety of human nature... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?   And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?” (The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf, p. 7)  AND,  “The only real justification for institutions, beyond a certain efficiency (which, of course, does serve) is that people in them grow to greater stature than if they stood alone.” (Trustees as Servants, p. 13)
  4. I am somewhat embarrassed to look back now and realize that McCain’s thumbs down vote that kept the Affordable Care Act in effect marked him as a traitor in the eyes of some.
  5. Anne Lamott, Plan B: When Your Plan Fails and God’s Prevails.  See Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript for example.

 

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives.  Not surprising, but saddening.  Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance. 

Balance — that which allows us to stand  upright and walk forward.  Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical.  Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage.  We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.

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Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set.  Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations.  Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.

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Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker.  Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid.  They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”

Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation.  It is missing from United Methodism.  One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction.  As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice.  I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church. 

One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle.  I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted.  Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons.  We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves.  Expressed differences, and openness to other views  — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged. 

Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)?  This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others.  Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.

I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance.   I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings.  Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations.  So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.

It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now.  I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives.  Yet both made our nation better for their service.  I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.

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Orphaned or Exiled?

Orphaned or Exiled?

This will not be long.  I have been avoiding adding to the verbiage surrounding the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis.  Perhaps I know too much, or is it too little?  I awoke this morning considering the actions taken yesterday by the United Methodists gathered in St. Louis.  It is certainly one of the most painful days in my more than fifty years of ordained ministry.  Whatever, I was even more painfully aware of the ways my many LGBTQI friends have been spiritually brutalized by the language and actions of this gathering.

I saw it coming… and I understood what it will likely mean for the future.  As the conference voted to continue to exclude gay and lesbian folks from the full ministry of the church and to punish anyone who would join in seeking a more open church, I found myself wondering what has happened to the denomination I joined as a young man.  Yes, I felt orphaned by mother church… or, perhaps it is that I felt exiled.

Let’s just say that as an elected delegate to four General Conferences in the past, I have been in the room and seen the “sausage made.”  The result is our guidebook, the Book of Discipline.  However, words are insufficient to capture the whole human story and the ways God keeps leading the faithful forward.  This is, after all, evidenced in the unfolding story of our scriptures.  God’s people learn and learn again of God’s faithfulness and love.

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John Wesley – Methodism’s Founder

More to the point, I have seen the ways we United Methodists have struggled to live our lives together over the past fifty years.  The intrigues, the deceits, the political distortions — yes.  I have also seen the affection and generosity of persons who come together from many places geographically and theologically to seek to discover what God had in store for a church that was willing to take risks — to be a messy church on the behalf of sharing the transforming love of Christ in the world.

 

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John Wesley suggested that Methodists should begin and end our work with a “watching over one another in love.”  Let me recommend a fine sermon by Dr. Robert Hill that looked at what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as our way to know God’s will.  (see http://www.fumcsd.org)

N.T. Wright suggests that the church is merely the scaffolding for God’s Kin-dom work in our world.  This helps.  But not much this morning.  I confess to feeling orphaned in the face of decisions being made by this “special general conference” in St. Louis this week.  Or, perhaps it is an exiling that is underway.  This is a more helpful image — from scripture.  What shall I do? — well, it is time to listen, watch and look for new connections with old friends.  I think of the dozens, make that hundreds of churches where a Methodism of the heart and mind continue to be practiced.   I think of places like Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, Illinois or… the list goes on, by the hundreds it goes on, in the U.S. and around the world.  Here gather people who are not afraid to think AND pray.  To welcome and include.  To be open to changes they need to make rather than seeking to make other fit into their categories.  Maybe there will be a gathering-of-orphans — or exiles — that will become the next chapter in our faith journey.  Would that I could stay in the familiar world of mother church.  Sometimes, however, we must leave home (or be pushed out) to grow in ways God would desire.

 

Strong Leaders Serve

Strong Leaders Serve

8661153044_41a654cfbe_zWeek by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide.  The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago.  At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards. 

Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”

This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG.  Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois.  Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain.  In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain.  It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.

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Elaine beside “The 8” Freeway and the Church Beyond. Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life

So, what of the future?  The photo to the right was taken last week.  It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway.  Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here.  As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future.  As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell).  It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation —  in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope.  Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure.  In such places.