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.
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.)
Let’s Talk! Attached below is a pdf copy of the first of three presentations shared at the sessions of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 14, 2021. I have no doubt that many will come to the question of “Does United Methodism Have a Future?” with a set of expectations that will be unsatisfied by these presentations. This is the dilemma of speaking to a situation in flux and an institutions under stress.
For many years, and continuing to this day, some believe there is a formula, a key, a right set of practices or doctrines that will solve the question of the declining influence and relevance of Christendom in our world. However, any fair-minded reading of our context and the complications of modernity, requires an admission that the old domination of Western religious institutions is rapidly passing away. No religious group is immune from this loss of influence and apparent relevance. (The largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists, are in the midst of dramatic decline in membership and attendance.)
United Methodist congregations come in many shapes and sizes (nearly 30,000 of them in the U.S.). We have multiple hospitals, child care, social service and education facilities across the nation. For example, over one hundred United Methodist institutions of higher education are scattered across the country. They are marks of the vision and commitments of past generations. Even so, United Methodism does not have the influence or cultural reach of the past. United Methodists have been growing in other parts of the world (Philippines, Africa and elsewhere; even in these global places growth is slowing).
For many years the mistaken belief was that the conservative or traditionalists were the growing center of North American Christianity. Some sophisticated social scientists who wrote about this ascendancy of “the Evangelicals,” as an inevitability. Sadly, United Methodism, was too often led to believe that aping the theologies and practices of these conservative groups would be our salvation. United Methodism was often distorted and focused in ways that were not true to our theological DNA. As it turns out now, taking a longer view, it appears that all denominations and theological camps now have declining numbers and influence.
I believe there is a faithful way forward for Christianity and the expression of it known as United Methodism waiting to unfold. These talks are NOT a blueprint for how to rebuild a denomination; rather they are in invitation to other sojourners to walk together acting in ways that would seek to follow the lead of Jesus.
The North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is where I will be speaking on June 14-15, 2021. Originally the invitation was for June 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. I have been asked to make three presentations on the future of United Methodism in the United States. In preparing, it became clear the topic was larger than the future of one denomination. There is a loss of relevance for many institutions that has occurred over recent decades – United Methodism is but one example. Mainline Protestantism has lost its formerly dominant place in society.
It is my plan to post the presentations I am making here over several days, beginning on Monday, June 14. There are no easy solutions presented; although there are some examples of places where new imaginative ministry can be seen. We are at a time in the history of this nation and the church when there are no easy answers. I believe that for Christians today, “our work is one hundred year work.” As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
The paragraphs below are from the introduction to these talks. My hope is to encourage some dialogue on this site and in various other venues.
INTRODUCTION: DOES UNITED METHODISM HAVE A FUTURE?
Recently, a friend on an early morning walk, asked if I believed United Methodism had a future? I have heard this question often over my ministry, especially recently. This time, however, I heard the question with surprising urgency.
Does United Methodism have a future…or in highfalutin language, “Can United Methodism be Sustainable and Regenerative?” I don’t have a crystal ball. Still, I came all this way, so I am obliged to offer some perspective, some lessons from history and signs of hope. Mostly, I invite us to remember the invitation Jesus makes to the disciples in every age, simply this, “follow me.” Let’s walk together a bit, and consider the question of United Methodism’s future.
Our Context and Its Complications
As we consider our context, let me begin by sharing with you my answer to my friend. “Yes, I have no doubt that United Methodism has a future.” As to what our mission, witness or structure will be, here is a word of hope – we can choose the pathway forward. I believe our work is 100-year work. Or, as my friend Wes Jackson puts it, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Researcher David W. Scott notes what is happening in the UMC is part of a larger cultural trend, shared by other denominations; a trend that cuts across race, class and theology. He writes: “U. S. Methodists (and U. S. Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions.” Scott concludes, “I don’t know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of U. S. religious decline is. I wish I did. But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.”
Let me propose that our most hopeful options involve stepping away from long held assumptions about power and influence within the dominant culture. Douglass John Hall [Slide 5] speaking about Ecumenical Protestantism in North America, wrote: “Christianity has arrived at the end of its sojourn as the official, or established, religion in the Western world… The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.” By stepping away from the easy assumptions and practiced patterns of the dominant culture, a new beginning for Christianity and Methodism is possible. It can surprise, and perhaps, even delight us.
An overview for the three talks: 1) We consider what it means to be Rooted and Grounded in Love – our core identity as United Methodists. 2) We will consider being: “Connected to Bear Good Fruit,” and 3) “Communities of Restoration and Joy.” Our scripture focus will be on Ephesians 3 and John 15.
The text for these talks, including citations will be provided beginning on June 14th.
Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?
A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.
Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?
It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors. Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.
Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”
J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)
Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”
Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics. Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.
Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):
In the end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
(From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)
My God my bright abyssInto which all my longing will not goOnce more I come to the edge of all I knowAnd believing nothing believe in this.
-- Christian Wiman
The final presidential debate of 2020 was held last evening. I didn’t watch. Couldn’t watch really. Not because I had already dropped my ballot in the box with the County Clerk. More than anything else, I suspected it would be a pretty joyless exchange. Wasn’t interested in more distraction, grievance, dreary argument, spin, grumbling or blaming others.
Joylessness — this is what I anticipated from the debate. I am fatigued by it all. If the follow-up analysis offered by pundits is accurate, I guessed right. Apparently Mr. Biden attempted to tease Mr. Trump about being Abraham Lincoln. The president missed the humor, as he does about many things, especially if his fragile ego is threatened. The reruns from the debate seemed to confirm that even though Mr. Trump seemed to use his “in door voice” more than in the past, he still seemed to offer more vinegar and acid than balm.
Thinking back over the years, to sermons I have preached or talks I have given, I often spoke of joy, laughter, or delight. Why? Well, I think joy, laughter and delight are recurring marks of faithful living. We all face suffering, pain, burdens and betrayals, but at the core of it all, God offers us JOY. Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 93).
Serving as an interim pastor in a couple of congregations that had passed through some challenging times, it was clear that in the face of difficulty, humor can help. Laughter can offer an antidote to despairing. After one wise layperson observed “we have forgotten how to laugh in our parish,” we offered an entire series of sermons entitled “Count it all joy: Faith Crowned with Laughter.” I invited other friends to come and join me in the sermon series and we each shared stories of times joy made a difference in our work. As Steve Allen once put it, “Humor is the social lubricant that helps us get over some of the bad spots.”
I was not attempting to follow the current trend suggesting that worship should be a time of entertainment or avoiding challenging topics. Heaven forbid! Just the opposite, in fact. Humor often is a good way to approach difficult topics. More than three decades ago, in the late 1980s, when a congregation I served made the decision to fully welcome LGBTQ persons, it was the laughter and joy that helped us move forward. It was joy and an ability to delight in the gifts others might share and the abundance already present that offered us hope. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we did act with respect for the variety of beliefs in that church. Someone recently asked, “how did the people in that parish act in such a courageous way?” I didn’t reply, but I know they didn’t act out of courage so much as JOY.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century mystic said, “God laughs out of an abundance of life, energy and love. I believe in a pleasurable, joyful, laughing God.“
A favorite reflection comes from Wendell Berry’s collection of Sabbath Poems (A Timbered Choir, p. 18).
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
Whatever happens on November 3rd, we have work to do. Our joy must “be lived out from day to day.” It is a relief that there are no more presidential debates to avoid. Now, could someone do something about all of the email, television spots and fliers that seem to appear daily in the mail?
This is my goal for the remainder of this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. I will remember the JOY of living as a child of God. I will sing (not in a public choir of course), I will dance a little, I will laugh, read poetry, call friends, encourage persons to vote and give generously to good causes. I will choose to be joyful.
This fortnight, unlike any other of my lifetime, seems a good time to post thoughts on faith and human flourishing; a time to review gifts of hope, community, love, conviviality, and grace. This fortnight, as the cold wind of autumn arrives, a sharing of this folio of reflections seems apt. Why? This fortnight will culminate on November 3rd; if one counts the days, that’s fourteen. If one ponders epochs, however, this fortnight faces into a test for a nation’s soul. This fortnight culminates with a pivot point.
Samuel Johnson wrote “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.“This fortnight for me, then, is a time when the mind is wonderfully focused!
In the fortnight ahead, leadership is on the ballot in the United States. We will better know what Americans prefer in terms of a leader — not just the “who,” but the “how” of leading. What will be seen as leadership strength? What vision, language and actions are seen as most desirable?
Leadership or Connectorship?
All the focus on leadership development over the past two decades has left me bemused. One can only guess at the resources (dollars, graduate courses, research, coaching and consulting) that been given to teaching leadership. I do not doubt there is some benefit; still I am unconvinced the fruit harvested has been worth the expense.
Just as there are times when listening is more valuable than speaking, there are times when following is required in order to later lead. Jesus put it this way, “if you would be master, first be a servant.” On occasion I preached sermons suggesting follower-ship is every bit as important as leadership.
Years ago, in a visit with Robert Greenleaf, I asked if he thought leadership could be taught. He had been an executive with ATT and had written a popular book on Servant Leadership. He had consulted with a wide array of foundations, religious and civic institutions. Bob smiled at my question, paused and said he was “an institution watcher, simply a student of human behavior, noting what I see and not intending to change anybody or anything.” He went on, “Being a leader,” he suggested is “a little like playing violin. If you can’t hear the pitch you shouldn’t try to play.” [There will be more lessons from Bob Greenleaf later in these fortnight briefs].
I was at lunch with a couple of friends. One, the president of a fine academic institution; the other was John McKnight, proponent of asset based community development among communities around the globe. The academic leader spoke in glowing terms of a new leadership development initiative at the school. McKnight, the wise observer of institutions and advocacy efforts over the years, waited until lunch was ending to comment. With good humor and a kind smile he offered, “You know, you may want to consider giving attention to connector-ship more than leadership.” Connecting people is likely to have a longer term pay off… and allow the new, the not yet foreseen, the leaders already present to join the effort.”
Connecting has been much in my thoughts as a critical element of community as we enter this fortnight; even more, CONNECTING is an essential in not only claiming a faith but living it. Faith as a verb, a way of life, is what is missing from so much of the religious lingo and posturing around leadership.
From the Gospel of Mark, 10:42-43 we read: Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. [The Message].
As this fortnight continues, it is worth considering who seeks to serve and who seeks to be served? It is worth considering who seeks to connect and who seeks to divide? Even as the leaves fall from the trees this autumn revealing what has been hidden in the hills across the valley, may clarity come to our nation as to how to follow and how to lead.
Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem “Autumn Overdue” is identified as a “Fortnight Poem“:
Autumn OverdueCold wind of autumn, blowing loud
At dawn, a fortnight overdue,
Jostling the doors, and tearing through
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,
I know—for I can hear the hiss
And scrape of leaves along the floor—
How many boughs, lashed bare by this,
Will rake the cluttered sky once more.
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown;
When, having but to turn my head,
Through the stripped maple I shall see,
Bleak and remembered, patched with red,
The hill all summer hid from me.
Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.
As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.
There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.
This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.
When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”
Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.
I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”
Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.
We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.
Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.
It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.
Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.
I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.
Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.
This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.
They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.
I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.
I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.
I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.
I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.
Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”
I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.
Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.
As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.
No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!
Recently I raised three queries as to ways forward for people of faith responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This posting focuses on the last question of the three: what shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
The first question (May 7th) was: Shall our choices be limited to Life or Livelihood? I told of my stealing a small pocket knife as a six-year-old, with the inscription on it: “God is Love.” My dad saw this, taught me a lesson about the true meaning of love and this has lead to a lifetime of learning the importance of moral choices. Life or livelihood is a false dichotomy. Still it has been promoted as a political agenda — “we must open,” we are told without clear plans for how this is best done. Now, in dozens of states in the U.S., we see the chaos of such either/or thinking. I know small business owners who are facing bankruptcy — it is heart wrenching, speaking with them. There are better ways to proceed that honor both livelihood and life as demonstrated in other nations just now. In the U.S. the political games continue.
Comprehensive guidelines for the common good, both in terms of public health and commerce, were offered in a 17-page document from the CDC two weeks ago. However, it was shelved by the White House. Governors, mayors and other leaders are left with an assortment of one page, scaled-down “suggestions” that arrived only today (May 15). These are vague directives full of “sorta-perhaps-you might-want-to-if-it-seems-right” guidance given in one page documents to separate groups. The message from the top is that we will love our “treasures,” more than life. Aid to small businesses, hospitals and cities may never arrive. The vulnerable ones (businesses and people) are set aside as so much “collateral damage.” And so… commerce, especially large corporate activities, has been pitted against the common good. If health officials are correct, we will see the results of this foolishness in two and three weeks when a resurgence of the virus appears — and even before that, tens of thousands more will succumb to the virus.
The second question (May 8) was: what shall we consider to be normal? Should our national and global experience in 2019, before the virus arrived, be considered normal? How long before we are past this pandemic? Is this a blizzard, long winter or ice age? For Christians we consider the question of idolatry — is money more to be treasured than the life of another? Believing this virus will not end soon, and wanting a better future than we have known, we asked what compass and a guide will help us live toward an even more flourishing future for all? Drawing on John Wesley’s counsel of “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God” it was noted that even if we could go “back to normal,” we could do better than that.
Just ten days ago or so, we were approaching 60,000 deaths from the virus in the United States; today over 80,000 persons have died; conservative projections are that this will total over 100,000 by the end of May.
This brings us to the last question (May 15): what shall we truly treasure and love in the future? Let’s begin with basics — What is meant by “love” anyway? Few persons in the Wesleyan tradition have thought more about this than theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Dr. Oord suggests that love is “an intentional act, in relationship with others, that promotes the overall well-being.” In other words, love involves an action. It is in sympathetic or empathetic relationship with others, including God and the community. It is for the purpose of doing what is good for the whole. (See: “Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love,” The Table podcast, 11/15/2018) Another valued theological voice is that of Steven Harper. Dr. Harper explores the lives of people of faith over the ages and offers regular insights into a theology of love in his postings at: https://oboedire.com/.
So, if love is anintentional act in relationship with others for the common good, how might we act now and in the future? How will we welcome the stranger? How will be live with hope, imagination and resilience? Ancient rituals thought essential like shaking hands, passing the peace, singing congregational hymns and corporate worship will be sidelined or radically modified. What of the sacraments of communion and baptism? How will we behave in loving ways to demonstrate a belonging to one another, offering words of meaning and the gifts of mutual empowerment? And what of ministries with the poor and the immigrant?
For this, I turn to you good reader. What do you imagine? How do you suggest we proceed? I will not leave you stranded with these questions. Let me turn to two persons who can help us “think forward together.”
The first is D. J. McGuire, who on a recent The More Perfect Union podcast, noted that in U.S. and world history we can see differing paths after a societal tragedy. For example, McGuire opines, “After WWI, the nations of Europe, especially Germany, were left in disarray and the U.S. turned to our own self-interest. President Wilson tried by failed — for many reasons — including his health. This led almost inevitably to the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War.”
McGuire contrasts this with U.S. and international response following WWII. He observes that here “we aspired to something larger than our previous ‘normality.’ We sought to build international strength and an economy built to include many.” The years after WWII were not easy ones — there was the conflict in Korea, the nuclear arms race and deep systemic racism continued.
Even so, aspirational actions like the establishment of the Marshall Plan, the G. I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the establishment of the United Nations and dozens of other efforts from NATO, to NASA, to the Civil Rights Act, to cures or treatments for polio and tuberculosis. None of these efforts were perfect — like all human activities, there was corruption and abuse; however, the trajectory was set toward a better world and not merely a return to normal.
These were two almost contradictory impulses following a major crises. Within each trajectory there were (and are) multiple ways forward… many options.
The second voice is that of Rev. Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark calls us to a Politics of Compassion (https://www.gostandrew.com/resources/livestreaming/). It is a way of considering how love can be put into action. His sermons can be viewed on the church’s website and his book “A House Divided” will be released in September (Chalice Press).
I will not rehearse aspects of Mark Feldmeir’s message here. Suffice it to say that he calls us to recognize our common humanity, our belonging to one another. He suggests that we shape our actions in terms of kinship, kenosis (or self-giving) and delight. Employing the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually one tree that spreads over miles in Fish Lake, Utah, he says: “Universal care, concern, and commitment fueled by creativity and collaboration are the keys to the salvation of the aspen grove. And to our own. We need the wisdom and compassion of the aspen that can only come from a deeper sense of connectedness and belonging, and a deeper commitment to the common good.”
Feldmeir goes on: “We may be inclined to believe that the antidote to this politics of contempt is a politics of compromise, which seeks to end disagreement and claim consensus. But in our politics, as in our religion, we have often made idols out of centrism and the ‘middle ground’… we can transcend a politics of compromise in favor of a politics of compassion, which fosters a way of relating to people and responding to real human issues with universal care, concern, and commitment.”
You see, good reader, we don’t have to create a Pandemic of Compassion — we already belong to one another. The question before our nation and world is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift… this place of belonging where we already reside. How will we act like we are aware that we are part of and called to love and care for this living creation?
Friend and gifted hymn writer Ruth Duck offers these words as we seek to spread a Pandemic of Compassion:
In Fear the World is Weeping
In fear the world is weeping, and longs with every breath. For life and hope and seeking, new paths beyond this death. And loving hearts are risking, their lives that we may thrive. Praise God for those who labor. O may they stay alive.
Our lives are bound together, in sorrow and in prayer. In life and hope and nature the Holy One gives air. Around the world show wisdom; with open hearts give care.
A new world calls us onward; sing hope now everywhere.