Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Practicing Resurrection

How can it be?  Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames?  And, early on Holy Week no less.  There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss.  Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).

In response we hear brave words about rebuilding.  Good.  Yet, we know some things are forever gone.  Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp.  Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever.  Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss.  Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about.  At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others.  We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities.  How then shall we proceed?  In the places we live and work?  In Louisiana? In Paris?

This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Closing lines include these delicious words:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.  Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest…

Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it.  Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.  Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice Resurrection.

Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine.  May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.

Philip Amerson

Orphaned or Exiled?

Orphaned or Exiled?

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

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

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

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John Wesley – Methodism’s Founder

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

 

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

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

 

Mirrors of Truth

Mirrors of Truth

We are arriving at the Reign of Christ Sunday (Christ the King).  It is the conclusion of the seasons known as Kingdomtide and Pentecost.  2018 is one of the unusual years when the Reign of Christ Sunday comes after Thanksgiving.

The scripture lesson is from John’s Gospel, the 18th chapter.  The lesson tells of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate — the Roman Governor who questions Jesus and has yet to be answered verbally for two millenia.   Pilate asks “What is truth?”  Jesus is SILENT —  He just stands there.  He has already given the answer by how he has lived.  Truth is discovered in right relationships rather more than in right answers.

Parker Palmer in To Know As We Are Known writes “In prayer I begin to realize that I not only know but am known.”  Palmer says “Truth is in relationship… “The hallmark of a community of truth is in its claim that reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it.”

So the sermon tomorrow will focus on the mirrors of truth I have known over the years — those who included me in the conversation toward truth.  [You can find it on the church’s webpage at http://www.fumcsd.org.]  I will be speaking of Olive and Sidney Anderson.  We knew them in Atlanta when in graduate school and teaching at Emory.  They worshiped, as did we, at Trinity UMC in downtown Atlanta.  Here is a part of the story that unfolded slowly as we knew them:  Anderson, Sidney (An Disheng) (1889 ~ 1978) – Methodist Mission Bicentennial.

Their amazing lives – the lives of these two were mirrors into the Reign of Christ which came into view as we were blessed to know folks like these and call them friends.

More recently another has demonstrated what God’s realm is about.  Bob Wilson worships every Sunday at San Diego First UMC.  He sits about six rows back on pulpit side.  His wisdom and good will exudes to those around him.  Recently Bob has made a generous response to the victims of wildfires in Paradise, California.  You can read about it here: Bob Wilson’s Generosity.  [http://enewspaper.sandiegouniontribune.com/infinit/article_share.aspx?guid=68587f94-6283-4340-ae0f-107fc920b4d9.

Folks like Sid and Olive Anderson and the Bob Wilson, each in their own special way, leave behind a legacy that answers the question “What is truth?” They answer through their lives, each in his/her own unique way.

Yeats speaks of the truth of legacy-making through relationships in this poem.

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.

William Butler Yeats, The Coming of Wisdom With Time

Let Caravans of Hope Be Our Response

Caravans of Hope — Our Response

“CARAVAN” it is a word being used to stir up fear among the good people of the United States.  You can hear it daily — the underlying message is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Those of us who follow Jesus need to respond. We need not accept the false dichotomy being offered. 

There are humane and Christian alternatives we can choose.  It is not the either/or of “barbarians at our gates” versus “wide open borders.”  As a nation we can respond with safe and honest practices of processing those who seek and deserve asylum and those who don’t.  There are many constructive ways to offer hospitality and security at the same time.

Those of us who claim to march with the Prince of Peace, who came to earth surrounded by the message “Fear Not,” must respond.  How?

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One possible response is to form our own Caravans.  Let’s make them “Caravans of the Spirit,” “Caravans of Hope and Love,” “Caravans of Compassion.”  Might we join together and march in another direction?  All of us can actually move toward the borders of our nation or at least to the borders of our daily routines to welcome, to send a message that we stand with those who suffer from FEAR — all of them — those brothers and sisters looking for asylum from terror in their home countries, AND those in the United States who are being misled by the deceits of some who seek to divide us and leave many to dwell in a muddle of fear.

Might we substitute HOPE for the HATE that is being encouraged?  Will you join in making today a day when you participate in Caravans of Hope?  From Eastern and Southern Europe, across the British Commonwealth and along the borders of the United States, in our hometowns, in our shopping malls and public spaces — 

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real people are facing the tragic reality of being demonized by those who seem to have no ethical or Biblical moorings. 

Let’s recommit to forming and joining our own caravans — ones that welcome and offer Biblical hospitality to the stranger and sojourner.  The time for a new direction can begin today through simple acts of including others with a smile, a kind word, a gift to those who work with refugees and a VOTE in the coming elections.   These acts indicate we are part of the LARGEST CARAVAN EVER — a Caravan of Hope.

 

 

 

Reclaiming Jesus

Reclaiming Jesus

When the history of the church in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is written, there will be a question as to exactly who the one known as Jesus of Galilee was understood to be.  There will be questions as to whether what he taught made any difference in the way folks lived their lives today.

My prayer, my hope, is that the history will include the sermon that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Bishop Curry’s powerful message captured much of the teachings of the Jesus long ago.  It was a vision that is far from much of what passes for Christian teaching in too many American churches. 

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Bishop Michael Curry, Reuters photo

While the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle was heard by perhaps two billion people around the world, Bishop Curry joined hundreds of other religious leaders in the United States only four days later in an even more important event focused on “Reclaiming Jesus.” 

They marched on the White House and proclaimed that the ‘America First’ slogan adopted by national leaders in the U.S.  is “a theological heresy for the followers of Christ.” [See: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crises]

It is the sermon Bishop Curry preached at National City Church in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening that deserves even more attention.  Cur5b0830e51a0000cd04cdfc71.jpegry said we are called to: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!”

Yes, that is indeed why we are here.  When the story of the church in this century is written, I pray it will be of the church that decided to Reclaim Jesus.

 

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

I have come to understand that there is a rather simple human choice each of us can make.  It is this, will the generosity of a loving God be reflected in our lives?

In the past week two such difference makers for me, died.  Their names, James Cone – renown theologian, faculty member at Union Seminary in NYC and author of ground-breaking work on Black and Liberation theologies, and Gaye Hudson – elementary school teacher, musician and supporter/surrogate parent of students at Indiana University both passed away.

Gaye and James were in many ways different, and yet, in essential ways they were similar.  It is this — though both of them had reasons to live otherwise — they turned toward hope and healing as they lived their lives.

I remember the joy it was for me when James Cone would visit during my time in the administration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or when we were attending various academic meetings together.  I would argue that more than any other writer in the last century, James Cone named the racism that constrained and corrupted the church in the United States.  James understood the way all of our institutions, including his own alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, were diminished by the toxins of racial bigotry and discrimination. 

Still I knew him as a man of hope and… wait for it… JOY.  I can see that smile and loved the ease with which he shared a small laugh, a riddle, a pun, that betrayed an underlying sense of hope.  On more than one occasion, he expanded my ability to see past the fear-filled static and toxins of our society.  Even when his words began in anger, they found their way to the gift of transformation. John Robert McFarland writes meaningfully and beautifully of memories with his seminary  classmate James Cone — the difference maker (see: http://christinwinter.blogspot.com/).

Gaye Hudson was a member of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.  This is a church I served as pastor for almost a decade.  It was, and is, a congregation filled with remarkable folks — few more remarkable than Gaye.  For over thirty years she sang in the choir and for all of this time she was a friend to many.  Hundreds of students knew of Gaye’s care while in school.  She fed them, provided transportation, encouraged them, attended their recitals and on occasion slipped a little extra cash their way.  Some went on to teach; some became opera or recording stars; many were choral conductors, some wrote music and published books — ALL of them were in debt to their “dear friend Gaye.”

Gaye was the choir-mothercaring, challenging, sometimes lovingly disagreeing, anticipating the needs of others, and, yes, difference making.  At her funeral service on April 29th, the choir loft was overflowing with her “children.”  My, my, the music they made in her memory!  I suspect that nowhere in American — or the world for that matter — was music of praise and generosity more gloriously sung than yesterday in that sanctuary.

In a world too full of anger and blame, fear and shame, I give thanks for James Cone and Gaye Hudson, two folks who didn’t know one another, two who knew injustice and burdens, but they knew more, they knew the joy of living with generosity toward others.  I give thanks for these two who make a difference in my life.