In June 1979, the Indiana United Methodist Annual Conference met in the I.U. Auditorium. The presiding bishop, Leroy Hodapp,[i] set an agenda for the future “We must go to where the people are!” The subtext was clear, we must go to the suburbs and invest talent, time, and resources there. As pastor in a core-city neighborhood at the time, I leaned to a friend beside me and whispered, “What are the people in our neighborhoods? Chopped liver?
The post-WWII Baby Boom population surge was slowing. A “population shock wave[ii]” or “Agequake”[iii] disrupted assumed church practices. Denominational anxiety about the future was on the upswing. In 1970 Alvin Toffler, with his wife Adelaide, published the popular Future Shock.[iv] It spoke of the events of these years as “too much change in too short a period of time.”
Urban neighborhoods, perceived as dangerous and in inevitable decline, were changing rapidly. Homes were abandoned by families, mostly of European ancestry and sold to real estate speculators. The houses left behind were often subdivided into multiapartment residences. The new arrivals came mostly from non-Caucasian ancestry. Typically, they were families with lower wealth. Dramatic population and neighborhood changes continued, wavelike over the next decades, as residences and local businesses were turned into rental properties. Only a couple of decades later, change came again as younger folks who were given the rather ironic label of “urban pioneers”[v] arrived and refurbished the older houses again into single-family dwellings.
In an earlier post,[vi] I wrote of the demise of the Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. A version of Central Avenue’s story was replicated in thousands of churches in the U. S. during the middle-and-late Twentieth Century. The underpinnings of parish life were vanishing as linkages with surrounding neighborhoods diminished. This pattern, like rolling ocean waves, washed across city neighborhoods. Social connections withered, were then rebuilt, and again diminished, and then reestablished again.
Gentrification was only beginning. White flight had speeded changes.[vii] The none-to-subtle subtext of the bishop’s counsel in 1979 was that primary attention should be directed to those leaving the core-city and refocused on suburban church growth. Ironically, of course, the population density in core-city neighborhoods was growing to levels higher than ever.
The good bishop’s analysis and strategy failed to perceive the ways in which the “left behind” neighborhoods were becoming more global, more multicultural.[viii] There was also a failure to discern the gifts being brought by the new residents. Even as new Asian, Hispanic enclaves emerged, and African American communities were enlarged, at the same time many of these “re-establishing” neighborhoods became more multiethnic in composition.[ix]
A listening to, visiting with, and welcoming of the people of the neighborhoods near the church buildings by church leaders was rarely practiced. The focus was on who was leaving, following “our” people. There was a blindness. Importantly, and in truth determinatively, the financial base for many city congregations was diminishing as members left for the suburbs. In the Baby Boom years of the middle 1950s and early 1960s, many church buildings were expanded beyond what could be afforded by those left behind or newly arriving in the following decades.
The call to “go to where the people are” failed to consider options other than an exit strategy. Left behind were paternalistic responses welcoming the new arrivals. If there was an outreach to the newcomer, it was typically an effort to “fix” these new in-migrants. Rather than seeing these persons as resources, with gifts to share, they were thought of as “the needy” and as such, well-meaning ministries like food pantries, thrift shops, and tutoring programs became the primary mission of many inner-city churches.
As was noted in the previous post, “It is one thing to restore buildings and houses, quite another to re-establish (or perhaps rediscover) a parish.”[x] What lessons might we discover from this history? We ask: why?what if? and why not?
Why did these parishes evaporate or vanish? In the next two postings I will offer what I believe are the two primary reasons for this phenomenon: 1) the social and political ecology of embedded racism in the nation; and 2) Ineffectual denominational and congregational responses to these changes lacking in theological clarity.
Coming Next: 2-B, The Social and Political Ecology of Embedded Racism in the Nation.
Your thoughts? — Please enter these in the comment section.
[i] Bishop Leroy Hodapp was a good and intelligent man and a good friend. Still, he was a product of the mid-twentieth century church culture that selected him and shaped him for leadership. He would be considered a Christian “progressive” and generally friendly to many urban ministry efforts at the time. However, the pressures of office and desire to balance competing expectations of over 1,100 congregations and 300,000 Hoosier United Methodists limited what he perceived to be the best way forward. There were dozens of urban congregations and pastors that might have helped widen his vision, but the dye was set by the prevailing myths of the inevitability of suburban growth and urban decay.
[ii] Rizvi, Abul, Population Shock, Monash University Publishing, 2022.
[iii] Wallace, Paul, Agequake: Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster, Shaking Business, Finance and Our World, UNKNO, 1999.
[iv] Toffler, Alvin and Adelaide, Future Shock, Random House, 1970. Society was said to move through the three stages: agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial and with each transition there was a period of societal disruption and stress. Toffler’s analysis followed in follow-up books, The Third Wave and Powershift.
[v] Hwang, Jackelyn, Pioneers of Gentrification: Transformation in Global Neighborhoods in Urban America in the Late Twentieth Century, Demography, February 2016, 189-213.
[vi] Amerson, Philip, Recentering the Parish – Part 1, see: https://wp.me/p5lzr1-3Kc. Upon reading the earlier piece on the decline of Central Avenue church a friend reminded me of other changes including the interstate highway system where Interstate Highways I-64 and I-70 sectored off neighborhoods from one another. He also noted the consolidation many city and county functions in a new structure known as Unigov in Indianapolis. He was right. There are multiple other contributors as noted in this essay and each one seems shaped by racial discrimination.
[vii] Semuels, Alana, White Flight Never Ended, THE ATLANTIC, July 30, 2015.
[viii] Buccitelli, Anthony, Bak, City of Neighborhoods: Memory, Folklore, and Ethnic Place in Boston, University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.
Indianapolis: early morning tv news, April 12, 2022. In the predawn shadows I recognize it. The tower of The Centrum, formerly Central Avenue United Methodist Church, greets the dawn. The Twelfth and Central intersection pictured is blocked off with yellow “crime scene” tape.
The story of Central Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church is a tale of great success, ending in a disappointing closure. It concerns the loss of a true center – for a community and a denomination. A familiar and oft repeated pattern across cities in the Rust Belt, this. A similar plotline has played out around the nation over the past century. At one-point, Central Avenue was a civic and cultural center and then, abandoned by the Methodists. “Redundant” as the Brits say. This is the tale of a faith group’s loss of clear identity, mission, and vision; a loss of “true north.” A building was “redeemed;” a parish was lost.[i]
Bill Cook, medical device inventor and visionary, from Bloomington came to the rescue in 2008. With Indiana Landmarks, restoration began on the grand old Romanesque-Revival structure. Good thing. Fine for the grand old facility, and the neighborhood. The Centrum is now a center of civic activities. The abandoned church captured Cook’s imagination — and dollars. Bill and Gayle Cook gave careful attention to preservation efforts in dozens of locations across the Midwest. Lovely this.
Central Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church was built in the horse and buggy era (1891) in one of Indianapolis’ first suburbs. It stood only a mile-and-a-quarter, twelve blocks, from city center – the Circle. Soon automobiles came to town. Following decades saw the Great Depression, two World Wars, and accompanying urbanization. Central Avenue prospered. An influential center of civic and social service efforts in the city and beyond, it offered much leadership and support for fledgling institutions. For example, the Methodist Hospital opened in 1908 a short distance to the west carrying with it the undergirding of several congregations, but Central Avenue was a leader. However, in the following decades, the prominence of the congregation changed.
Economic patterns shifted. Employment and housing ecologies were re-sorted. Newer neighborhoods in more distant suburbs were built. Depending on location, real estate values spiked or plummeted. The actual and perceived quality of various public schools was altered. Urban parishes, like Central Avenue, faced decline and redundancy. In the early decades of the 20th Century urbanization brought “improvements” and fresh investments, especially for those living further out from Center Township.
Thousands more workers were needed. While most in the working class lived on the south and west side of town the addition of even more hands and heft required finding additional living space. New migrants found this near the church. There was also an expanding racial diversity. Those leaving behind grand old homes and churches were moving on to newer, more prestigious addresses. It was the early-and-mid-century American Way; a prevailing residential and economic wave was playing out across the nation. Apartment buildings began to dot nearby streets and avenues. Folks moved into town from farms across the Midwest to find work; soon, to support “war efforts.” Others, from Appalachia (mostly Kentucky and Tennessee) and a greater number of African Americans (from the deep South) came to the city. Manufacturing, especially on the south and west side was booming and a robust pharmaceutical industry expanded.
The need for a low wage workforce of clerks, secretaries, cooks, janitors, and food service workers meant that many poor families were competing for a place. They arrived seeking shelter wherever it could be found. Near Central Avenue church, most single-family homes were slowly but steadily transformed into rental properties. Former one-family houses were sectored into three, four, five or even six apartment units. The carriage houses and garages, off the alleys nearby, were turned into one-room residences. Often, a family with several children might reside in these conversions. There would be a little coal-burning cookstove in one corner and a shallow loft for sleeping. By the early 1960s many of the graceful residences along Central, Park, Broadway, Alabama, College, Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets had fallen into disrepair. Apartment units, built to handle the migration during the World Wars, became roach and rat-infested, places of squalor.
Tree-lined neighborhood streets were widened into bustling three-and-four-lane, one-way thoroughfares. No longer was parking allowed along many of these byways. Commuters could speedily travel to and from work or entertainment downtown. Many who formerly resided in the neighborhood, now rushed through it, past it. This “transition” accelerated and expanded during the 1950s and 1960s.
The fabric of neighborhood relationships and human commitments, often overlooked or beneath the surface, suffered. Fear of the “stranger” shaped social and spiritual underpinnings. Like tectonic plates quaking beneath the earth’s crust, the Central Avenue parish was shaken, broken. By the early 1960s the neighborhood and congregation were seen as places of decline, even danger. This quaking left this congregation (and thousands of others like it across the nation), facing an existential crisis. Church members transferred to other congregations, primarily Methodist or another mainline denomination, mostly on the northside.
Some unethical real estate speculators, “slum lords” truly, invested little and extracted much. Like their cousins, still out on the farm, these real estate strip miners couldn’t resist the impulse to turn-a-quick-profit. There was an ignoring of the stewardship of a neighborhood’s fabric, just as farming malpractice fails to properly steward the land. The impulse, in too many cases, was to accrue ever larger profits, skip over best sustainable practices, ignore the long-term health and stability of the ecology of the farm or human residences in the city. Like the erosion of the soil of a farm, an erosion of the parish around Central Avenue was underway. It was the depletion of neighborhood institutions, shops and churches, community pride and a sense of commonweal.
Prevailing myths “explaining” why these neighborhood changes were occurring grew out of the individualistic notion that such patterns were the necessary, unfortunate, but unavoidable stages in urban progress.[ii] The resulting poverty surrounding the church was said to be “inevitable,” tragic perhaps, but essential to the larger success of the city. The poor would have to “make their way out” by individual hard-work and bootstrap initiative. These newly arriving poor ones, “the industrious unfortunate” could one day “escape” their plight through hard work – and perhaps a little luck.
Congregational assistance/charity programs to meet the needs of these new arrivals were commonplace and included a usual array of efforts – food pantry, a thrift shop, rummage sales, recovery groups, summer programs for children and youth, and emergency assistance. So it was, at Central Avenue Methodist in middle years of the century; so it was, in core city congregations across the nation.
The neighborhood ecology was believed to be rooted in a biological model, like the human life cycle: neighborhoods were born, grew up, then declined. Low wealth persons who lived around the church in the 1950s and 1960’s were understood to be “born to poverty,” or ones who suffered some misfortune, or were destined to their circumstances due to some individual human failing. If they had sufficient imagination, initiative, or opportunity they too could join the upwardly mobile path to the suburbs.
In some places, in other northern Rustbelt cities, the abandonment of lovely neighborhoods was even more dramatic. Banking practices of red-lining and racist government housing mortgage guidelines aided and abetted the decline. Lost, were opportunities for poor and minority persons to benefit from home ownership. Richard Rothstein’s excellent book the “The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” documents the multiple ways local, state, and federal governments incentivized this deleterious turnover in neighborhoods, all the while limiting or outright blocking opportunities for homeownership for racial minorities and the poor.[iii]
By 1961, other voices, like Jane Jacobs and Gibson Winter offered alternative views of how urban neighborhoods might thrive[iv] and urban congregations might give witness.[v] Alternative urban parish models were emerging in the mid-century. Places like the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., and in Chicago, Woodlawn Mennonite Church, and the Ecumenical Institute were challenging old assumptions.
There were a few attempts at incorporating alternative approaches to the traditional congregational life emerging in Indianapolis. As one observer commented, “Indianapolis is a city that is long on charity and short on justice.”[vi] Mainline congregations confirmed a preference for charity as the primary hallmark and missional goal of urban parish life.
However, the story is more complex, isn’t it? It turns out to be more circular. Today a fuller view of the development cycle of economic, housing and neighborhood vibrancy is clearer. It is “wash, rinse and repeat.” Decline and decay were not inevitable. Indianapolis is more fortunate than many other cities where the loss of entire neighborhoods was and is more profound. It only took a few short decades, along with the vision and resources of folks known as Urban Pioneers for this cycle to be obvious.
Still, a blindness remains. Congregations and neighborhoods once benefitting from the population turnover and changes around Central Avenue now face their own demise. They now experience the loss of any sense of parish cohesiveness. False options offered by the prevailing view of inevitable development and/or decline persist and shape understandings. Today Indianapolis’ Old North Neighborhood has mostly been “gentrified.” There is good in this. There has also been harm. The Centrum, is a symbol of a neighborhood rediscovered and being “preserved.” One wonders for how long?
It is one thing to restore buildings and houses, quite another to re-establish (or perhaps rediscover) a parish.
This leaves one today (and hopefully future leaders of congregations and denominations) with three questions: why?what if? and why not? Future installments will seek to address these three queries. The hope is to better understand and offer suggestions as to alternative futures for faith-based communities. Might there be multiple ways to “re-parish” the urban landscape?
[i] This story is one I know well, as I lived much of it. My father was pastor of Central Avenue, 1962-1966. He was a good and respected pastor. Prior to moving to Indianapolis, he had served growing congregations with predominantly working-class memberships. However, sixty years ago, Central Avenue was viewed as a “dying inner city congregation.” This work proved to be tough duty for my papa. He seemed to age too rapidly over those four years with speedily graying hair and the burdens of such a parish spiraling downward he seemed to stoop in his shoulders. He was one of five or six talented younger pastors across two decades of the 1950s and 1960s who were sent to “turn the place around.” It was not to be. ++There is more. As it turns out, just twenty years later I was appointed pastor to nearby Broadway United Methodist, just seventeen blocks to the north. The story of Broadway and the surrounding neighborhood was not unlike the story of Central Avenue. A once prominent congregation had fallen on hard times. In 1986 my family bought a home near the church, and I became one of those younger white professionals (urban pioneers) fortunate enough to own a home in a neighborhood that was beginning to regentrify.
[ii] Much of the work of the University of Chicago sociologists (e.g., Robert Park and Ernest Burgess) assumed that such patterns or variations thereof, known as the “Concentric Zone Model,” were predictable and normal in every city. Their book, The City, was published in 1925 and the model they offered, based largely on Chicago, shaped understandings of an inevitable pattern in all American urban ecologies.
[iii] Rothstein, Richard, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Norton Publishing, 2018.
[iv] Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
[v] Winter, Gibson, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in the Expanding Metropolis, Doubleday, 1961.
[vi] This perspective, of Indianapolis being a city “long on charity and short on justice,” was discussed on several occasions by this author with Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut III, mayor from 1976-1990. Hudnut had been pastor of the influential Second Presbyterian Church in the city. He was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary. Among his seminary classmates was his friend and mine, Dr. Carl Dudley, a leading observer, researcher, and proponent for new models of urban parish life. (Dudley was an urban pastor in St. Louis who later taught at McCormick Seminary in Chicago and Hartford Seminary.) “Mayor Bill” also knew the history of neighborhood decay and renewal set down in this piece. Hudnut knew the alternative approaches to urban parish life emerging in other cities. He did not disagree that individual charity was the preferred norm for the city and as such, the challenge for urban pastors was problematic. Even so, he offered cautionary counsel about “moving too quickly” to organize opposition that would confront underlying assumptions held by leaders in the city or denominational bodies.
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.)