Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

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Who or what will wash away the tears?  On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying.  It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment.  I had arrived home from travels late the night before.  Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.”  I didn’t know what he meant.  “Regular,” I remember saying.  Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.

Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away.  The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968.  They continue to echo fifty years later.

I wept on that cool sunny morning.  Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever.  I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts.  Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice.  And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism.  I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address.  I had not joined in any marches by then.   Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.

(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on.  I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.)  I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.  A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral. 

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We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta.  I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass.   At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children.  There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson.  The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by.  More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs.  Men hanging on telephone polls singing.  One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.

“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs.  I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough.  Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then.  My racism.  Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others.  Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives.  There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin.  Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims.  It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed. 

It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity.  No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students.  It was then I had my first African-American friends.  Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends.  I was growing toward understanding, but slowly.  At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege. 

My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed.  This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes.  I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.

Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church.  This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School.  Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation.  The African-American students were about half of those enrolled. 

Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me.  I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion.  Didn’t we share both? I wondered. 

Years and study have followed.  I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed.  Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough.  Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society.  I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.”  What more might I have done?  Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever.  There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.”  Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.

It is true, tears are not enough.  Nor are songs, or sermons, or books.  But they are all essential, I have come to discover.  These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics. 

So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules.  All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness. 

And, yes, then there are the upcoming elections…

 

#WednesdayAshes

#WednesdayAshes

Let this Lenten Season begin in #WednesdayAshes. 

In a nation where far too many “Christians” hide beneath the umbrella of cover-churches and look-the-other-way-religious-leaders who give space for greed, racial bigotry, manufactured cultural divisions and self-centered nationalism, let’s offer a counter narrative.  Let’s proclaim messages of transformation and renewal?

In this season let’s encourage one another to think about the issue of wealth and poverty in new ways?  The book by Maricio Miller, The Alternative is a place to begin.  #WednesdayAshes is a way to share new understandings.  If you are in or around central Indiana, folks will be gathering to learn more on February 24th Register here.

What better time to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). 

We might be clear that the time for repentance and renewal in this nation so full of words designed to divide and demean is at hand.  Personally, I am sending my congressional representatives the passage from Isaiah 10:1-2 under the #WednesdayAshes.

10:1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.

Care to join?

Lent — What Fast Might Be Required?

Lent Arrives — What Fast Might Be Required?

I write this post on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, the day known for Madi Gras or Carnival in many parts of the world. It is a time for play, for “letting go,” for silliness… and preparation.

Years ago, when teaching in the Republic of Panama, I discovered that in that culture at least, Carnaval lasted for days – make that weeks – with music and dancing till dawn every night and tricksters roaming the streets by day ready to smear the unsuspecting passerby with makeup or face paint.  This frolicking was a counterpoint to what followed, the Lenten season.  These forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) were the days prior to Easter and were to be a season of fasting, mediation and self-denial.

As an adult, I have come to value the remarkable gift of the alternating seasons of the liturgical year, and alternating opportunities to live more fully, more deeply, into the dimensions of human experience.  Over the course of every liturgical year there are seasons of celebration and times of preparation, reflection and penitence.  This rotation captures the human reality — no fake news here — we humans live with the complications of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, solitude and community.  At best, at our most whole and holy center, appropriate belief and value systems will reflect this alternating dynamic.

Shrove Tuesday, for our family at least, usually means pancakes and perhaps a silly mask or costume… not much more.   No dancing all night or smearing with face paint.  We typically eat pancakes with lots or syrup, fruit and maybe even whipped cream on top.  We do this knowing that the next season will include some times of sacrifice, discipline and prayer.  Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins a time of meditation and, perhaps, fasting and self-denial.

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Some traditions speak of “giving something up for Lent.”  Perhaps it is sweets that are “given up,” or not going to the movies, or giving up attending a sports event (well, not basketball in Indiana!)  Perhaps some change in diet or giving up some other pleasure is practiced. 

In recent years I have appreciated those who suggest that perhaps we should think about what we might ADD to our daily life patterns during Lent.  Perhaps we should add some acts of kindness, charity or justice.  I like it.  Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, suggests this idea of adding something at Lent.  Then, jokingly, he says that when growing up, he had already given up all the pleasures and excesses of life, because at the time he was a Southern Baptist and had already given up all such temptations.  I laughed, and understand, because growing up in a strict conservative Methodist home, we had already given up dancing, movies, rock and roll music and, of course, smoking, alcohol and playing cards!

As Lent 2018 begins, two realities collide. 

There is scripture that speaks of God’s desire for humanity and there is the proposed national budget presented today in Washington, D.C.   From scriptures, think especially of Isaiah 58:1-11, where the prophet asks what sort of fast does God require of the faithful?  Hear these words written hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth, and referenced by him in his ministry.  They still carry a force for shaping the lives of believers today.

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness of the Lord will go before you;
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. 
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
[New International Version]

 

Ironically, tragically, these words of guidance and reminder to the faithful, read during this 2018 Lenten season, COLLIDE HEAD ON with the national budget from the White House presented TODAY!  There are deep budget cuts proposed to efforts that provide food, housing and health care for the poorest among our people in the U.S.  [Less than a month ago, deep tax cuts were made that benefited the richest among us.]  Instead of building up our foundations, instead of seeking to strengthen our COMMONwealth here is a focus on walls, on further depleting our environment and the exclusion of those who differ.

So, what fast is required of us?  We shall pray and reflect; however, this is not a season for quietism or passivity.   We will need to find alternating patterns of action and prayer during Lent this year.  Richard Rohr appropriately calls his ministry a “Center for Action and Contemplation.”  These two emphases seem right this Lent.  Perhaps this is one of the sacrifices required this Lent — to do both — act and pray.  Some time normally given to meditation, may be time that will go to writing a congress person.  Maybe the money saved from having no desert should go more directly to offer food to the hungry.

This Lenten season I invite you to add some act of kindness and justice to your normal routine.  I invite you to daily prayer and meditation.  If this is not a part of your routine — this is your opportunity. 

There are many fine resources.  You might subscribe to the insightful reflections of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation CAC Daily Meditation; or, look to the Upper Room Upper Room for the daily devotionals there.

Perhaps you would wish to join some in New Harmony, Indiana on March 23 and 24 for a “Finding New Harmony” retreat (check out: www.mycalmcard.com ).

How will you observe this Lenten Season?  What might you give up?  What might you add?

 

 

 

 

 

An Untamed Pastor’s Fifty-Year Window

A Leaf from the Notebook of an Untamed Pastor: A Fifty Year Window

2018 marks my fiftieth year as an ordained pastor.  Five decades!  Many fine memories, good friends and much learning.  Wonderful, loving people have been teachers for me at every stop.  As former Indiana University President Herman B Wells once told me, “One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.”  Dr. Wells then laughed — he was 93 years old at the time. 

So, what do I see more clearly in 2018?  What might I share from a fifty-year window into this vocation?

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Five pastors of Broadway UMC regather in 2016: left to right -Phil Amerson, Rachel Metheny, Michael Mather, Mary Ann Moman and S. Baik.

A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastorIt’s time to speak as a person of faith in an untamed fashion.  What we face in our nation is SIN — a clear and present danger to the spiritual health of our society and believers.   I have been too cautious in not speaking in terms of faith and in scriptural language.  I have not clearly called for repentance — from DJT.  Nor repentance for myself and so many in our nation. 

Clearly, ideology and grasping for power have replaced decency shaped by biblical and faith understandings.  Have we had other presidents who were sinful? — Of course — in fact, this is a character flaw, sin, we all are challenged by.  More to the point — it is the acknowledgement of sinfulness that marks movement to maturity and spiritual health.

In DJT we are witnessing an assault on truth, on the poor, on the immigrant, on God’s creation.  It is sinful.  This is a daily assault — sometimes hourly assault.  Our judicial and legislative systems, designed to align with highest religious values, are continually being threatened and undermined. Name-calling has become more normative than honest dialogue.  Those who disagree with the president are threatened with verbal abuse, even jail.  This is wrong.  Accepting it is a partnership with evil.  Sadly some support comes from those brothers and sisters who claim to be Christian — yet, little of what they argue appears to be established on scriptural basis or on principles of disciples.

On July 15, 2016, when Mr. Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, I was almost immediately troubled.  My pastoral radar sounded an alarm.  Bluntly, the fears unleashed, the thinly veiled racism and factual distortions, layered higher and higher, were anti-Christian.  My experienced eyes saw a person who was clearly a troubled, angry and manipulative man.  He belittled others so easily and thought far too highly of himself.  Over the months that have passed these initial indicators of the man’s soul-sickness have only become more tragically and dramatically evidenced by sinful decisions and impulses. 

I have decided to become an unleashed pastor because what we are witnessing is dangerous to our future and that of our grandchildren.  What we see unfolding comes straight out of Stalin’s play book — it is a pattern of disinformation, demonization and displacement.  (See Anne Applebaum’s fine book Red Famine.)

Let me offer a pastor’s call for repentance.  My own confession first.  I have been too timid to speak of the sinfulness of Mr. Trump’s words and actions.   I have been too quick to allow those who argue a false equivalency, his defenders, suggesting that the 2016 presidential election was between two equally flawed candidates. No. This is simply NOT TRUE, based on any fair-minded look at the options.  Was Secretary Clinton plagued by her own failings? — of course.  However, I am bold to claim we have journeyed in the ways of the devil after this election far more than had there been a different outcome. What we face now scriptures speak of as the evil of principalities and powers.  The spiritual well-being of our nation is at risk.

As a pastor, every year I would meet with the church’s nominating committee.  Our task?  To propose leaders the upcoming year.   Honestly, if Donald Trump were a member and his name proposed for any leadership task, I would quickly speak against him in almost any role.  I would speak about his not being a “good fit.”  No place for such a man as an assistant usher or a parking lot attendant, until there was evidence of more spiritual health.  And I certainly wouldn’t want him anywhere near the finance committee, youth work or buildings and grounds committees.  His evident narcissism and duplicity would be my guide — based on experience.

Fifty years have sharpened my radar about people.  Yes, I have made mistakes in this judgement — and keep learning from them.  And, yes, I know people can change — I have witnessed this.  However, my experience has taught that change comes with personal awareness of brokenness and the knowledge of the need to accept God’s transforming gifts in one’s life.  None of which are evident in this man.  If any role were offered, it would be the opportunity to spend a year working (silently) alongside the poor and studying scripture with a good teacher.  That would be an appropriate place for DJT – a place to begin a journey to healing and renewal… It would be an invitation to conversion.  I do not know the wounds contributing to his arrogance, masked low-self-confidence and sinful actions — but they are not helped by the enabling going on by many politicians and alleged religious leaders.

We are a nation struggling under the spell of a narcissistic, sin-burdened, con-artist.  A man who lies so frequently that truth and falsehood are continually blurred.  Can anyone account for a need to claim to be a “stable genius.”  Such hubris, such arrogance!  Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan making such a claim — with a straight face? My dear Republican friends, what have you endured… and so many of you accepted as normal?  We have a self designated “stable genius” who doesn’t read, has almost no understanding of geopolitical historical realities and bases our nation’s future on own self-aggrandizement.  I do give thanks for Republicans like Steve Schmidt, Jeff Flake, David Jolly and Mitt Romney.  Perhaps they will help the party and our nation — save it’s soul.  However, they may not be enough.  More is required of us all.

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Wesley UMC, Urbana, Illinois — One of the many great centers of campus ministry for the denomination.

The United Methodist church once claimed a mission to “Reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness.”  Sadly, our recent response to the assault on our nation’s highest values, and Christianity itself, has been muted at best.  We do speak a word on behalf of the immigrant and the poor — but we say nothing about the sinfulness of our nation’s leaders at this critical time. So much for reforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness. 

We have known greatness.  Our work in education and mission offer remarkable hope.  There have also been times when we have been an embarrassment to ourselves and our nation.  Now, as we are silent, I believe is a time when we should be embarrassed.

We have failed before — Methodists back-tracked from our early impulses against slavery or took too long to support our courageous women seeking suffrage and equality.  Still, like Legion in scriptures, upon being confronted by the Christ, we somehow turned around and came to our senses on these matters and many others.  This is the way sinful persons and institutions change.  But there is also potential for movement in another direction — it is this sinful downward movement I fear for our nation (and church) just now.   I speak as an untamed pastor, shaped by this denominational tradition and filled with awareness of many of my own shortcomings. 

Still I speak as one with experience — experience in recognizing sin-sickness and the need for repentance.  One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.

 

 

 

 

 

Hoosiers Finding Voice

Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana

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Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.

I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States.  It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines.  Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society?  NO!

With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting.  In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around.  We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves. 

Where is there hope?  In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.”  I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc.  I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.”  I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts.  You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.

If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society.  We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators.  Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people.  So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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Pastors at Broadway UMC in the 1980s re-gathered at memorial for Rev. Frank Sablan, 9/7/17.

There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served.  At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway.  We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked.  Good people, still sharing their gifts.  Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter. 

We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out.  Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation.  If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.

A copy of the petition by Indiana United Methodists is here: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.

We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.

In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.

The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.

We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.

Patchwork: Community of the Lost and Found

Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found

Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other. 

This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana.  It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.

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Alan Winslow, February 2017

We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community.  Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years.  This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken.  Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades. 

Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.

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Nelia Kimbrough, John Doyle, Elaine Amerson, 1977

No doubt we were naive.  Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.”  No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school.  As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith.  No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.

Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living.  (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)

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Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.

We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time.  There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well.  It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville?  Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River?  As we used to say, this only makes sense if it can “Play in Peoria.”

Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks.  We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission.  Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more.  Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”

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Patchwork Gathering 1983

 

While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice.  So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  Sunday evening worship grew.  Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings.   The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.

The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources.  The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.”  Truth is, we rarely wore ties.   We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes.  Others joined.  Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.

We grew in numbers and influence in the city.  Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby.  How could we afford it?  Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?”  We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois.  The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.”  Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group.  Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.

There are so many lessons from those years.  On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found.  The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing.  Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.

What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork?  Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork?  Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).

First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods.  (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.) 

What we found was this.  If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower-income communities.  We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”

I am not certain this would happen today.  I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done.  For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips.  Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry.  Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today.  Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission.  The Phillips understood.  And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay.  Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.

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Alan Winslow and Alice Serr, 2017

Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause.  There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church.  Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church.  It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth. 

I was so very wrong.  There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.

Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival.  I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.

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Darlene Bragg, Back Alley Bakery, circa 1983.

 

I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.”  Such hubris!!  Such ignorance.   I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions.  Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination.  The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision.  I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around.  In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share.  Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined.  However, I needed to stop and listen.  If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.

Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost.  Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void.  Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.

We discovered that everyone can and does live in community.  The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be?  The choice is to risk living in new ways.  The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible.  It requires work.   bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”

In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one.  However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost.  They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.

Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:

Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.

Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.

Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.

No one will find life another way.

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There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central.  Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives.  I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.

 

 

The Season of Splintering

The Season of Splintering

Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341.  The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law.  Somewhere.  Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.”  Somewhere.

There was nothing fixed by this.  This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist.  Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces.  And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something. 

It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people.  Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.”  This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church.  And, somewhere there is celebration.

The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status.  A fair process based on whose assessment?  Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place?  Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group?  Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?

Somewhere there is joy.  Somewhere hearts are light.  It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty.  They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen.  Is that it?

Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place?  Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences?  Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks?  Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.

I know something of the south and value so much of what I know.  My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary.  There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission.  At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown. 

Chapel was required at Asbury College.  My seat mate was Patty.  Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination.   If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.”  She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.”  Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.”  Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.

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Front of Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University

Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued.  Still Patty had it right, I think.  She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her.  Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.”  Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me.  Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.

In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago.  It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles.  Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.

The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism.  It arrives now in real and troubling ways.  In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins. 

I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father.  He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination.  As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education.  Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay.  I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.”  It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south.  I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?

I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations.  Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me.  It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth.  And I still think of Patty.

During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay.  And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay.  Somewhere there is celebration.   Not among these good folks.  We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.

Somewhere there is celebration.  I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.

Some may celebrate.  I weep, I grieve.  The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter. 

ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

First — this apology to my non-United Methodist friends and readers.  We United Methodists are amid some “denominational challenges” just now.  I have written this letter as a way to encourage some of our more traditional and conservative leaders to answer five questions about their purposes and basic intentions.  You see, I fear this “new effort” known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association in North America is merely a building of a highway for schism among folks in our denomination divided by our views around homosexuality.  My prayer is that raising these questions may help identify some of the distortions often made by these, my friends, who claim to be more “Biblical, evangelical, and Wesleyan” than others of us.  Forgive this interlude in my blog entries — please check out the recent post on my  embarrassing moments as a pastor.  It is much more fun… and probably more enlightening.
 

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Dear Friends of the Wesley Covenant Association,
As I read the names of the founding sponsors of the Wesley Covenant Association, I know many of you — have known you for years.  You have been colleagues in our work as United Methodists.  You are committed pastors, known theological educators and activist organizers in the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement in United Methodism.  Now you offer a new organization, a new association.  Hopefully your claim that the Wesley Covenant Association is a re-booting, a move toward re-discovery, a signal of readiness to traverse beyond the tread-worn battles of the past is true. 
I pray  you join me in the realization that the younger, rising generation of United Methodist seems rather disinterested in a rehearsal of the same old arguments, using the same labels and categories.  Our battles still may appear to be unresolved, but there is little doubt they are increasingly insignificant in the lives and faith of our grandchildren.  I would be helped if you could answer five questions.  They are ones asked before, at various times and places.  Not yet having received an answer I repeat them now – this time with a renewed sense of urgency as I fear the WCA may be simply a laying of the predicate for a schism in our denomination.
These questions of you are not rhetorical.  I sincerely would like to hear from you:
  • If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share? 
  • If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?  Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
  • If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
  • If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation?  What is the hermeneutic employed?
  • If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?

 

Answers to these questions would help me know if I might be included in the “covenant” you seek to draw.  You see, I fear your appropriation of the word “covenant” is more of a way to exclude and narrow than it is a way to a hope-filled future.  It is a misdirection away from the more profound meaning of covenant that comes from scripture.  The covenant, I believe we share is much broader and more profoundly enduring than that which can be restricted by a few paragraphs in the ever-shifting-language of The United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Using the word “covenant” in this narrow way may be beneficial to an ecclesial political agenda.  It may serve to set folks like me outside of “the elect.”  I reject this use of covenant language in this way.  I will not be thus separated by your linguistic legerdemain.
It was after all, conservative theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, of blessed memory, who taught the essential difference between “contract” and “covenant.”  Our faith covenant binds us together by something deeper and more profound than contractual language can ever contain.
A contract is limited to the temporal, “quid pro quo” reality.  It is an effort to control and claim exclusive authority over things that are passing, temporal.  It seeks to hold us together, by our past rules, limited language and small understandings.  It is a way to count up grievances and deny our commonweal.  It suggests the interpretation of scripture is the exclusive possession of one party and only this view will be acceptable for all United Methodists.  A “contract” seeks to limit vision, thwart new expression, block new insights walling them in to past categories and perspectives.
Covenant is not contract.  Covenant is God’s gift for us ALL — something that draws us into the future, TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.  Covenant continually ReCenters us in Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote clearly of the church being centered in Christ where boundaries drawn by those who seek to limit the expansiveness of God’s activity in the world will not hold. 
Believing we all belong to Christ and this is our true covenant hope, I remain, your brother,
Philip Amerson

That Dumb Preacher and the Gift of Embarrassment

“That Dumb Preacher” and the Gift of Embarrassment

Fifty years ago this past summer I was provisionally ordained as a Methodist pastor.  Young and determined to change the world, I was “set aside” for ministry by Bishop Richard C. Raines in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Indiana University Auditorium.

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I. U. Auditorium

I was ready to change the world — and I was so little aware of the way the world would change me.  Now there is time to look back, to reflect, to laugh and learn anew.

These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness.  All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life.  It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment.  Yes, I said embarrassment.   It keeps one humble.  One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one’s own foolish efforts at vocational perfection.  Here is my top ten list — memories of times I played the role of “that dumb preacher.”

  1. One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, “Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband.”  Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan’s, eyes, I knew that she was not “Jennifer” and he was not a “Mike.”  And, I couldn’t remember their names.  I searched papers tucked in my Bible.  It took an eternity — probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities.  I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, “that poor, dumb preacher.”
  2. Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one.  I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks.  I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone.  As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation — I was even at the wrong funeral home!  Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, “How did you know my father?”  No words came for several seconds.  Then I muttered, “Oh, I knew of him.”  Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
  3. Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me.  More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person.  Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit.  I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
  4. Then, there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones.  On more than one occasion, I continued to “broadcast” when I should have turned the darn thing to “OFF.”  Let’s just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying.  Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound.  These were not the rushing waters from Elijah.  These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
  5. Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding.  We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and… yes, all was ready.  Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar!  Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married.  I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to “say it again” and then confirmed it by shouting “yes, to what he said!”  I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
  6. We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday.  I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another.  This seemed safe enough.  Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, “It must be great to have 70 happy years together?”  The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, “Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage.”  The congregation roared with laughter.  Too late.  Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
  7. And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship?  Well… somehow the tailor didn’t tie off the knots along the leg seams.  As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch.  It was, so to speak, open territory.  What to do?  Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services.  Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe.  I wore a robe all the way home that day!
  8. I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own.  On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist — at all five services!  Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared.  At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice.  More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn’t need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service!  I don’t recall much of the sermon in service number five — I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
  9. Advice to young pastors — don’t attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full.  As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and… oh yes, the baby!  I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby’s pacifier fell out of her mouth.  Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier.  The baby came down as well.  She was baptized on the wrong end!  The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day.   I did catch the pacifier — after all, what is truly important?
  10. Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home.  Before I knew it three small children were beside me… then crawling over my lap and shoulders.  Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair.  The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored.  I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers.  One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, “You don’t know what to do with us, do you?”  Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on “that dumb preacher.”
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Wesley UMC, University of Illinois

Much has changed over the past fifty years.  Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as more and more “sidelined” denominations.  We grow anxious, serious, more determined.  We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline.  Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades.  We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us. 

Our institutions have much to be embarrassed about.  In fact, too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric.  Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of our denomination — Wesley UMC at the University of Illinois.  I had just attended an event where there was hand wringing about our need to be a global church and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline.  All of this is true.  Still, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud after the sermon in Champaign, Illinois, as dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service.  I was aware that our global reach might be wider than our limited vision could see.  Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, “you don’t know what to do with us, do you?”

I would not argue that we should not seek to be relevant.  I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch.  Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church — some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments.  Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help.   A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.  I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments — there are dozens more I could offer.  This will do for now.  Enjoy… and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said.  I think she is right.   We just don’t know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us.  I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.