Do you recall looking at your image in one of those fun house mirrors, concave and convex and otherwise bent, in an amusement park? It can illustrate the way we might miss-image ourselves based on an out-of-whack, taken-for-granted, reality. It is a distortion, a skewed reflection of what is real. What if our spiritual quests and faith understandings are vulnerable to the concave and convex bends in our worlds taken-for-granted.
In contemporary North American society, frames of reference are constrained by the dominant role individualism plays. It distorts. Societal understandings, economics, politics, culture, even language are limited. Cormac Russell and John McKnight compare this with the African notion of Ubuntu and write: “Individualism is a superhighway to a sick, depressed, and dissatisfied life and a fragmented society. Ubuntu, by contrast, says we are not self-reliant, we are other reliant: that life is not about self-fulfillment and leaning into work and money. Instead, a satisfying life is largely about leaning into our relationships and investing in our communities; it is about interdependence, not independence, (The Connected Community, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022, p. xiv).
I would suggest our views of prayer have been focused too narrowly as an individualistic practice, to be personal prayer or meditation, primarily. There is Corporate Prayer, typically in a worship service or as the Invocation or Benediction in religious or civic gatherings.
Recently I wrote that the focus on Centering Prayer has gained much acceptance in religious life. While of value; still, I ask if it might be balanced by what I would call Othering Prayer.
To my mind, Othering Prayer is rooted in the prayer Jesus taught the disciples (Luke 11 and Matthew 6). What we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer draws on elements from multiple earlier Hebrew prayers. In English translations the opening word “Our” says a great deal. It begins with an awareness that we are part of a community.
I do not write this to suggest Centering Prayer, or deep personal religious experience is not of equal or often greater value. Rather, it is to suggest that there is reflection to be done on how Othering Prayer might carry benefits in acting toward God’s purposes in our world.
It was Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating, St. Joseph’s Abbey Trappist Monastery who played a significant role in opening awareness to the value of Centering Prayer more than fifty years ago. For Keating, Christian Centering Prayer was in continuity with the practices of other religious traditions.
I am assisted by the insights of Richard Rohr and the good folks at the Center for Action and Contemplation. Since 1987 this Center has sought to integrate contemplation and action with Rohr arguing they are inseparable. In fact, Rohr emphasizes this when he says the most important word in the Center’s name is neither Action or Contemplation but the small word “and.”
Recently a friend commented that her experience is that when she practices quiet, contemplative, centering prayer, it seems richer when done as part of a community. Hmmn.
Bob Greenleaf shared the story of an elderly, reclusive couple living in a small village who seldom ventured from their home. However, one day the elderly man set out alone on an adventure. He traveled to a nearby city and after some exploring he returned with a battered cello he had found on a trash heap. The damaged cello had but one string. The twisted bow stick had only a few remaining hairs. That evening and for weeks following, he seated himself in a front room corner and sawed away on the one single open string. Over and over he played one scratchy, repeated note. Day after day he played — his playing droned on increasing his wife’s unhappiness. Finally, able to stand it no longer, she decided to travel herself to the city.
Upon her return, she confronted her husband. “See here,” she said, “I have gone to the city and found people playing instruments very much like yours. The instrument is called a ‘cello’ and should have four strings. What’s more, those who play them move their fingers all along the neck of the cello and play many notes on each string.” “Even more,” she continued, “people often play these cellos along with many others instruments. The sound is beautiful and powerful when they all play together. I am told such a group is called a symphony. Why do you sit here day after day playing that one raspy note?”
The old fella gave his spouse a cold look and responded, “I would expect that of you. Those people you saw are still trying to find the one right note, I have found it!”
Robert K. Greenleaf, was a mentor to scores of folks; I was privleged to visit with him several times. His writings on Servant Leadership were widely read and practiced. Even in this, Bob knew that there would be the tendancy to turn his ideas into a distortion — a limited understanding — a one-note perspective. Too often it would be focused on “fixing” and “doing” rather than on “listening to others” and “reframing life with wider understandings.” Bob would chuckle at those who used Servant Leadership as a formula and say, “Leadership is a little like playing the cello. If you can’t hear the music maybe you shouldn’t try.” Or, Bob once opined “if you can’t share your playing with others, in a call and response way, then you will likely miss the beauty of the whole.
As I listen to the singular issues expounded in much of today’s social and religious discourse, I think of Bob and the story of the man and his broken cello. One note, one idea, one conviction (or two or three) can capture and predominate. Such behavior is like playing with too few strings on an instrument or giving too little attention to seeing things whole, seeing life and our challenges more comprehensively.
Perhaps you have seen the video of Johnny Mathis who holds one note, loudly, for almost a minute-and-a-half. It is amazing. Mathis is singing Johnny One Note, a song from the Broadway Musical “Babes in Arms” from 1937. (The movie version of this show starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)
The Free Dictionary identifies the idiom “Johnny-One-Note” as “Someone who repeatedly expresses or maintains a strong opinion on a single or a few particular subjects.” The song Johnny-One-Note and the idiom display the reality that when one person holds one note long and loudly, it is difficult to hear anything else.
Bob Greenleaf died on September 29, 1990, at the age of 86. Some of the wisdom Bob shared seems even more relevant today. He called himself an “institution watcher.” His experiences within large institutions like AT&T and the Ford Foundation led to his insights, his consulting and writing. In answering the question how does one best lead in humane, constructive and effective ways? He wrote “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?” (From The Servant Leader, p. 7)
Bob is buried in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana after spending much of his working life in corporate headquarters on the East Coast. His head stone captures his sense of humor, and the whimsy of life, with an epitaph he wrote for himself: “Potentially a good plumber, spoiled by a sophisticated education.“
One of his many insights that comes today was his statement that “Whether we get a better society in the future will be determined by how well older people nurture the spirit of younger people.”
Bob Greenleaf encouraged folks to “see things whole;” maybe this is why he liked telling the story of the man and his battered cello.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the aphorism. Another version of this idea, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama, is: “Teachers are like enzymes. Nature’s go-to facilitators of change.” Even if only partially true, there is much wisdom here — at least in my experience.
By the late 1960s, my generation in the U.S. were “teacher-ready.” We watched as young men, many of them friends, were being shipped off to an inexplicable war in Vietnam. Too many returning in body bags. State governors stood in univeristy doorways blocking entrance to African American students. We witnessed the assinations of M. L. King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Riots were breaking out in many cities and the emerging “counter culture” saw a growing interest in drug use. Given the availability of “the pill,” a sexual revolution was afoot.
Like other young men, my name was placed in the military lottery; I was one of the lucky ones with a high number, so after college I headed to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. There I met Gilbert James. He was teaching courses on The Church in Society, Race Relations and Sociology of Religion. The teacher appeared and I was “ready.”
Gilbert James: Free Methodist pastor, sawdust revival preacher, boxer, university professor, union organizer, poet, brilliant social researcher, friend of the poor, worker for racial justice, comfortable in a corporate board room and on skid row. Great “teachers” are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, for many of us, Gilbert offered graduate-level insights wherever you found him. He challenged us to learn, whether in a classroom, on a Chicago “L” train, in a Congressional office, or, on a street corner in Harlem. Socratic in approach, he would ask probing questions, frame a situation so that those within earshot began to teach and learn from one another. How does one cipher the complexities of this man?
Not far beneath the surface was Gilbert James’ commitment to an historic Wesleyanism that encouraged vital piety, valued knowledge and sought social justice. He was one of several teachers at Asbury Seminary in those years who found ready students. I think of Bob Lyon who helped us explore serious Biblical interpretation and modeled a faith that included deep commitments to nonviolent action.
Gil James spoke easily of personal conversion and Christian experience; after all, he had come to faith by such a personal spiritual journey. However, he was critical of an individualism that ignored the Biblical mandates to love God and the neighbor. He spoke of a church that might live in terms of a “Jubilee sharing” of resources with the poor. He was suspicious of fanaticism and cautioned against the abuses of those seeking power for power’s sake – especially in the church. He had seen enough chicanery in the church and beyond. He knew the dangers of fanaticism when mixed uncritically into the religious life.
Gilbert encouraged us to be “both faithful and forward leaning.” At the same time he wanted us to know our ancestry. James reminded us of the insights of Eighteenth Century Methodists (including Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others). Our legacy included those who opposed pew rentals privileging the wealthy, who supported abolitionist struggles against slavery, who welcomed women in leadership, who encouraged ecumenism and unity, and who practiced peacemaking — often as pacifists.
Gilbert knew of the dangers of individualistic theology and the drift away from a balancing of personal conversion with social justice. In my next blog, I will share a letter from Gilbert written 52 years ago in the midst of an extended revival at Asbury College (a neighboring undergraduate institution to the seminary, seperate in curriculum and faculty).
James knew of the marginalization experienced by religious conservatives and foresaw a time when greivance would spill over and could lead to a insatiable hunger for power and status unmoored from Biblical ethics. He noted the transformation of Fundamentalism into Evangelicalism — that brought a sophistication in the use of political power. It might result, he suggested, in danger for our nation and the ruin of our churches. I remember thinking, as we were reflecting on the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, that James was being overly grandiouse. Today, I see how on target he was about this threat that faith could to be compromised by a lust for approval and blind acquisition of institutional power these fifty years later.
Over coffee in the seminary cafeteriaI, I recall many informal “debates” with other faculty and students. Such exchanges were common and truly a gift. Students might be asked to “grab a cup and join the conversation.” I recall, one well-known faculty member offering up a common trope used at the time. Assuming the notion that there were two camps in American Protestant Christianity, this faculty member said that “Evangelicals were always rooted in ultimate authorithy of scripture, but Liberals always let the dominant culture set the agenda for their theology.” I recall Gilbert wriley smiling and responding, “Your culture does not set the agenda for how you read the scripture?”
Other exceptional teachers followed (Jackson Carroll, Earl Brewer, Gwen Neville) at Emory University. I then went on to my days of university teaching and Gilbert stayed in touch. In Atlanta, at Candler School of Theology, I helped him bring a group of Asbury students to that city, just as he had brought me as a student to Chicgo, Detroit and New York a decade earlier. He was still learning, teaching, making connections and demonstrating to students the ways a life of faith might be practiced among the institutions of the powerful and the gifts in low-wealth communities that were often hidden.
Gilbert James touched many lives and shaped the work of pastors and laity in diverse places. We found him to be a READY teacher and friend. Still, his concerns about the corruption of Evangelicalism ring true; and, are more applicable than ever. At his funeral in 1982 the great African American pastor and theologian James Earl Massey stood to speak of Gilbert and his influence. Massey summerized my teacher’s greatness in these simple words: He was a “practitioner of intelligent love.” It is my sense that we have a whole new generation of students ready to find such teachers today. May it be so.
You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University. Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy. We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Governor Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum.
This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door. It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history. It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.
But, what about us? It’s too easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time? Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists. We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA. Sadly, many of our congregations and denomination institutions have forgotten and often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.
In the United States, the distressing illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS. What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice? Okay, not realistic, you say. Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses? What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?
In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness). What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?
I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.” It’s about time!
What an interesting coincidence that the violent attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 occurred on the day Christians celebrate Epiphany! On the first anniversary of that ugly day and as another Epiphany arrives, it seems appropriate to reflect on the relationship between them.
Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance,” “manifestation,” or “revelation” and is commonly linked with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12). The Magi, from the region of what we know as Iraq and Iran, were foreigners who studied the stars for signs of divine presence and revelation.
An implication of Matthew’s story is that the God made known in Jesus the Christ reveals God’s self in multiple ways and to ALL people. God’s saving presence is not limited to our religion, our race, our nation, our culture, our political party. God is sovereign over ALL!
For years, actually decades, I have watched and worked to build respectful connections among the warring tribal groups of the United Methodist Church. My assigned label was that of “Progressive”; although as with most of us, such binary categories do more to confuse than to explain.
There is much story to tell of my own journey among the Asbury institutions in Wilmore, Kentucky and then on to other pastoral and leadership roles in United Methodism. Along the way, it became clear that much of the struggle (mine and others) had to do with a desire for validation. Family System Theory would speak of the dynamic of weak self differentiation or an insatiable hunger for approval by a perceived competitor. Of course the battles among so called “traditionalists” and “progressives” are more than this, still for many this need for validation fuels the ongoing battles.
Just now, at Mt. Bethel UMC north of Atlanta, the battle is on full display. As I watch and listen, I hear some of the Wesley Covenant Association folks saying “the world is watching us.” That is the need for validation speaking. Most of the world is watching the Olympics. And, I fear, those who are watching the battle between the WCA and North Georgia UMC don’t see much of the love of Christ to be admired and valued.
I wrote a friend this morning who has been sharing information about the situation at Mt Bethel this: “Do you know of the habits of the cowbird? We have many cowbirds in Indiana. While it is an imperfect metaphor, it is still apt. The cowbird, known as a brood parasite, does not build its own nest but rather invades the nest of other birds, removing an egg of the other bird and leaving one of its own to be incubated and nurtured. Even though the cowbird egg is larger, the nesting bird still cares for the cowbird egg and infant. From the Audubon society: ‘Cowbird chicks don’t directly harm their nest mates (by pushing them out of the nest, for instance, like some cuckoo species), but tend to grow faster and out compete them for resources.’ The Audubon Society does not encourage the removal of these eggs. What is true in the world of birds may also be the case in humans — although in our world the invading species sometimes take over entire institutions.”
The institutions we believe we can build will never be perfect ones apart from the love of Christ. No matter traditional or progressive there will be others who will disagree and perhaps even act to out compete.
As a child I learned the Sunday School song, “Deep and Wide”. I would encourage all my friends to think deeply and widely about the future and the past. There is a deeper ecology as expressed in Ephesians 3 which is to be “rooted and grounded in love” and “comprehend with all the saints the breadth and length, and depth and height of the love of Christ which passes knowledge.”
For many years I was privileged to be a part of a ministry that was ecumenical in vision and reach. In fact, I often think of how blessed we were at Patchwork Ministries in Evansville to welcome folks from many faith traditions to join in our work. For me this openness to seeing the world more broadly is symbolized in the tower that stands at Patchwork. It was part of a synagogue when originally built. Then after a fire destroyed much of that original building, the decision was to leave the tower standing. Now I look and see it can symbolize the prospect of looking beyond the past toward what is yet to be.
Much as I love my United Methodist tribe, the infighting among our various clans can cause us to miss the greater spiritual possibilities. In the larger scheme of things we are, as they say, “small potatoes.” There is so much more to discover from other persons of faith. There is an opportunity for us to live as persons who see the world with a wider lens than our own narrow understanding of God and faith. There is so much more to what God is doing — all around us — to be explored and celebrated. I choose to look more widely… and deeply.
My grandson, Colin, and I were in upstate New York on our way to Boston. We had stopped off at Niagara Falls. Enjoyed the marvelous views. We rode under the Falls on the Maid of the Mist boat and came out drenched on the other side. We were then off to the hotel nearby. As we collected our luggage, I grabbed my road atlas from the pocket behind the passenger seat. It was time to make some old-fashioned travel plans, done the right way, with a map. I was weary of following the GPS system in the car or on my cell phone.
Upstate New York is lovely country. I wanted to check alternative possible routes to Boston. Then, explore a route back west, perhaps stopping off at one of the Finger Lakes? Didn’t I remember that I-86 was a lovely alternative to the heavily traveled I-90? I would check it out. There was much less traffic on I-86, and no tolls! Perfect way to enjoy the beauty of the Mohawk Valley. Perhaps we could check out some remaining stretches of the old Erie Canal. Yes, I would use the atlas.
We checked into our room. Settled in for a little rest before dinner. I grabbed my trusted road atlas, opened it, and began to laugh out loud.
What I had brought to the room in order to check out travel routes through upstate New York was not an atlas of the United States at all! It was my dog-eared Indiana Gazetteer. A collection of local topographical maps that included every street and back road in the state of Indiana – at least in 1990! This Gazetteer was over twenty years old. It had been a treasured friend when seeking shortcuts in my home state. Well worn, I had used it often. As I leafed though the pages, memories of trips in Indiana came to mind.
Then there was a rush of understanding that this was a good metaphor of our human situation. How much of our understanding today comes from the out-dated and out of context maps carried in our memories? I once read of an adventurous people who sought to travel “off the map.” Had we forgotten this as a possibility? Are we locked into old patterns or electronically limited GPS systems? There was a time, as a boy scout, I had known how to find my way with a compass and rudimentary map.
Sometimes we carry intricate details of a world that once was but is no more. We can believe there is a return to a “safe and familiar” world long gone. Interesting human artifacts, these; but not much help in a newly evolving world. Our culture, our mores, our routines, our faith expressions, our educational systems and our governance patterns are transitioning — and quickly. It can be, understandably, a threatening time. This, in some ways, explains the hunger for authoritarian certainties that wash across our nation and our world.
We can be locked into mental maps that are simply too small for the journey ahead. Just when I need to have a more expansive view, I can get stuck with an out-of-date set of categories and images of reality. The nostalgic MAGA belief that one leader will help “Make America Great Again” is one of the most dangerous, and small minded maps of our time. This is, I believe a dead end, rather than a route forward. Or, it is like a religious denomination that seeks to return to a world that no longer exists.
The landscape ahead is of another territory all together. This, just when I thought I had retired! The most detailed mapping of streets and roads in Indiana, that I carry with me, isn’t much help in planning a trip through Upstate New York. There is no value for me when in New York planning a trip on back roads from Rushville to LaPorte, Indiana. New understandings, new companions on the journey ahead, a fresh reading of our scriptures and great documents like the U.S. Constitution can provide compass points — a sense of direction.
There are some maps that appear to help for short passages of the journey ahead. And, there are some parts of the travel that will require a compass of righteousness, the wisdom of spiritual guides and willingness to travel off the old maps I carry. My personally-crafted gazetteer will need some updating. As Rick Steves puts it, we should “Keep on Traveling.”
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 theEphesians 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]
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
Regenerative Imagination: Connected to Bear Good Fruit
Presentation #2, North Texas Annual Conference, July 15, 2021
On June 4, 1941, C.S. Lewis preached one of only seven sermons ever believed to be preached by him. It was at University Church, St. Mary’s Oxford during the height of the Second World War. (See the June 4, 2021 issue of Church Times for more on this.)
Lewis suggests that knowledge and wisdom grow in precisely those places where we are uncomfortable, including the repellent parts of holy scripture; and that, if we’re not puzzled, then perhaps we are just painting God in our own image. He calls all of us to do the intellectual hard work of getting outside our comfort zones.
He recognised that, even in 1941, it was a post-Christian England. However, he argues “if there is a divine being and the offer of eternal life, then we would do well to realise that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” person. Even the dullest and apparently most uninteresting person we encounter may one day be a creature of extraordinary glory, and this should shape everything: the way we conduct our friendships, our lives, and, of course, our politics.”
“Next only to the Blessed Sacrament,” he says, “our neighbour is the holiest object presented to our senses; and that is a great antidote to the kind of rudeness which we often show towards one another.”
Yesterday we talked of love as central to United Methodist theology and practice. Today, we look at connections where love is practiced today. See below. (The document will be posted for smaller devises in full later.)
The North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is where I will be speaking on June 14-15, 2021. Originally the invitation was for June 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. I have been asked to make three presentations on the future of United Methodism in the United States. In preparing, it became clear the topic was larger than the future of one denomination. There is a loss of relevance for many institutions that has occurred over recent decades – United Methodism is but one example. Mainline Protestantism has lost its formerly dominant place in society.
It is my plan to post the presentations I am making here over several days, beginning on Monday, June 14. There are no easy solutions presented; although there are some examples of places where new imaginative ministry can be seen. We are at a time in the history of this nation and the church when there are no easy answers. I believe that for Christians today, “our work is one hundred year work.” As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
The paragraphs below are from the introduction to these talks. My hope is to encourage some dialogue on this site and in various other venues.
INTRODUCTION: DOES UNITED METHODISM HAVE A FUTURE?
Recently, a friend on an early morning walk, asked if I believed United Methodism had a future? I have heard this question often over my ministry, especially recently. This time, however, I heard the question with surprising urgency.
Does United Methodism have a future…or in highfalutin language, “Can United Methodism be Sustainable and Regenerative?” I don’t have a crystal ball. Still, I came all this way, so I am obliged to offer some perspective, some lessons from history and signs of hope. Mostly, I invite us to remember the invitation Jesus makes to the disciples in every age, simply this, “follow me.” Let’s walk together a bit, and consider the question of United Methodism’s future.
Our Context and Its Complications
As we consider our context, let me begin by sharing with you my answer to my friend. “Yes, I have no doubt that United Methodism has a future.” As to what our mission, witness or structure will be, here is a word of hope – we can choose the pathway forward. I believe our work is 100-year work. Or, as my friend Wes Jackson puts it, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Researcher David W. Scott notes what is happening in the UMC is part of a larger cultural trend, shared by other denominations; a trend that cuts across race, class and theology. He writes: “U. S. Methodists (and U. S. Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions.” Scott concludes, “I don’t know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of U. S. religious decline is. I wish I did. But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.”
Let me propose that our most hopeful options involve stepping away from long held assumptions about power and influence within the dominant culture. Douglass John Hall [Slide 5] speaking about Ecumenical Protestantism in North America, wrote: “Christianity has arrived at the end of its sojourn as the official, or established, religion in the Western world… The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.” By stepping away from the easy assumptions and practiced patterns of the dominant culture, a new beginning for Christianity and Methodism is possible. It can surprise, and perhaps, even delight us.
An overview for the three talks: 1) We consider what it means to be Rooted and Grounded in Love – our core identity as United Methodists. 2) We will consider being: “Connected to Bear Good Fruit,” and 3) “Communities of Restoration and Joy.” Our scripture focus will be on Ephesians 3 and John 15.
The text for these talks, including citations will be provided beginning on June 14th.
Listening: This morning, having coffee with a friend, we reflected on the challenges faced by institutions in our nation just now. In government, education and religion — just to name three — old patterns of participation or civic engagement seem threatened. The former taken-for-granted connective tissues are frayed or seem to have disappeared. My friend reminded me of the comment made by television host Larry King who said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.”
It occurred to me then that I had done a lot of talking already on this morning — not to mention all the talking I had done over these seventy-five years. It is the occupational hazard of being a preacher, I guess. I remembered the time I preached a sermon during Holy Week on “Silence” that lasted for 25 minutes! However, I am not alone. Too much talking and too little listening is a national malady. Much of the talk these days seems to be done in “ideological bubbles of agreement” which are dangerous to our body politic.
Years ago I mused about the importance of parking lot conversations after church or meetings of the city council or school board. I don’t romanticize these, I have seen angry disagreements unfold among the pickup trucks and hybrid cars. On occasion, I have even seen small physical altercations — nothing serious, but troubling none-the-less. I guess this is better than such incidents occurring in the sanctuary or city council chambers. Mostly, parking lot conversations I have witnessed have been done in good humor — like the teasing between Indiana University and Purdue University supporters. Okay, that’s not a good illustration, but you know what I mean. What’s the old saw, “Can we disagree without being disagreeable?”
Our ability to listen, even when we disagree, is perhaps more important than our ability to speak — although the freedom of speech and legal protest is also essential. My point is that we seem to have lost an appreciation for all three; and more specifically, when we don’t listen our words and actions often miss the mark necessary for true communication. I recall with both sadness and a chuckle the denominational gathering of United Methodist clergy for what is referred to as a “clergy session” when a microphone was requested so that a concern could be expressed. The bishop and other leaders seemed surprised, nonplussed really, they had not planned on needing to listen to anyone in the gathering. Only a generation prior, in such gatherings it was normal to have dialogue and disagreements expressed at such gatherings. Something was lost over a period of a little more than a decade. That something was “listening.” Listening so that participation and faith in the institution might be stronger.
My spouse and I have participated on many boards, nonprofit and otherwise, over the years. We have noticed that in such meetings, there has been a loss in understanding some basic elements of healthy listening and decision making. While Roberts Rule of Order is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, fair-minded decision making can occur, it is often the case that today many meetings of boards occur without the basics of an agenda, knowledge of how to make a motion or call for a vote. Sadly, we are out of practice at the local level whether in civic board meetings, the church or in politics.
In our nation and world, listening seems undervalued, even ridiculed. Witness the criticism of President Biden for his willingness to take time to listen and try for a bipartisan approach to certain challenges we face. I admit, it has seemed like a fool’s errand, even naive, to think that Mitch McConnell who has made his reputation on blocking any and all things that he can’t control. I don’t deny that the filibuster in the Senate, as it is currently practiced, is harmful and I do think that, after listening, it is time for some tough votes to support voting rights or infrastructure improvements. The listening has been done and action needs to come… but it is important that listening was done!
So, two basic suggestions: 1) pick up the phone and call that person with whom you disagree and listen. Perhaps there is too much of a divide just now. Perhaps, if appropriate, you might still say something like “I appreciate you.” 2) Next meeting you attend where decisions are made, listen to see how you can in small ways improve the democratic process. It might be as simple as saying, “Could take a moment to set out an agenda, maybe set one now or plan on it next meeting?”
Retooling our listening abilities are a necessity if our democracy is to survive in any and all of our institutions, large and small.