Summer Reading Bouquet

A Summer Reading Bouquet

Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.

For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.

Dr. Georgia Harkness

In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.

By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.

For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Johnny (and Jill) One-Notes

Bob Greenleaf shared the story of an elderly, reclusive couple living in a small village who seldom ventured from their home.  However, one day the elderly man set out alone on an adventure. He traveled to a nearby city and after some exploring he returned with a battered cello he had found on a trash heap. The damaged cello had but one string. The twisted bow stick had only a few remaining hairs.  That evening and for weeks following, he seated himself in a front room corner and sawed away on the one single open string. Over and over he played one scratchy, repeated note. Day after day he played — his playing droned on increasing his wife’s unhappiness. Finally, able to stand it no longer, she decided to travel herself to the city.

Upon her return, she confronted her husband. “See here,” she said, “I have gone to the city and found people playing instruments very much like yours. The instrument is called a ‘cello’ and should have four strings. What’s more, those who play them move their fingers all along the neck of the cello and play many notes on each string.”  “Even more,” she continued, “people often play these cellos along with many others instruments. The sound is beautiful and powerful when they all play together. I am told such a group is called a symphony.  Why do you sit here day after day playing that one raspy note?”

The old fella gave his spouse a cold look and responded, “I would expect that of you.  Those people you saw are still trying to find the one right note, I have found it!” 

Robert K. Greenleaf, was a mentor to scores of folks; I was privleged to visit with him several times. His writings on Servant Leadership were widely read and practiced. Even in this, Bob knew that there would be the tendancy to turn his ideas into a distortion — a limited understanding — a one-note perspective. Too often it would be focused on “fixing” and “doing” rather than on “listening to others” and “reframing life with wider understandings.” Bob would chuckle at those who used Servant Leadership as a formula and say, “Leadership is a little like playing the cello. If you can’t hear the music maybe you shouldn’t try.” Or, Bob once opined “if you can’t share your playing with others, in a call and response way, then you will likely miss the beauty of the whole.

As I listen to the singular issues expounded in much of today’s social and religious discourse, I think of Bob and the story of the man and his broken cello. One note, one idea, one conviction (or two or three) can capture and predominate. Such behavior is like playing with too few strings on an instrument or giving too little attention to seeing things whole, seeing life and our challenges more comprehensively.

Perhaps you have seen the video of Johnny Mathis who holds one note, loudly, for almost a minute-and-a-half. It is amazing. Mathis is singing Johnny One Note, a song from the Broadway Musical “Babes in Arms” from 1937. (The movie version of this show starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)

The Free Dictionary identifies the idiom “Johnny-One-Note” as “Someone who repeatedly expresses or maintains a strong opinion on a single or a few particular subjects.” The song Johnny-One-Note and the idiom display the reality that when one person holds one note long and loudly, it is difficult to hear anything else.

Bob Greenleaf died on September 29, 1990, at the age of 86. Some of the wisdom Bob shared seems even more relevant today. He called himself an “institution watcher.” His experiences within large institutions like AT&T and the Ford Foundation led to his insights, his consulting and writing. In answering the question how does one best lead in humane, constructive and effective ways? He wrote “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society;  will he benefit, or at least, will he not be further deprived?” (From The Servant Leader, p. 7)

Bob is buried in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana after spending much of his working life in corporate headquarters on the East Coast. His head stone captures his sense of humor, and the whimsy of life, with an epitaph he wrote for himself: “Potentially a good plumber, spoiled by a sophisticated education.

One of his many insights that comes today was his statement that “Whether we get a better society in the future will be determined by how well older people nurture the spirit of younger people.”

Bob Greenleaf encouraged folks to “see things whole;” maybe this is why he liked telling the story of the man and his battered cello.

Dream This Dream

The lion and the lamb shall lie down together;
The kid and the panther shall play in the sun;
No one shall know the strange word "soldier";
And war shall be a shameful deed that long ago was done.

And rest for the weary, and food for the hungry,
And peace for the comfortless shall not be far to seek;
And beauty in labor, and beauty in laughter,
And beauty in loving shall come to the meek.

Mountain calls to mountain top -
Sinai unto Calvary;
Whispers rise from ancient fields -
They push up through the sod;
        
       "Tell all the children
           To tell their children's children
                To dream this dream for God."

Ernest Cadman "Pomp" Colwell
President, Claremont School of Theology (1957 - 1968)
Dr. Calwell, ca. 1960

Epiphany and epiphanies

One year ago, on January 5th, 2021, I foolishly thought I had an overview of what was to unfold in the year ahead. At the very least, I thought, Epiphany Day 2021, the next day, would be like others I had known. It would be a day to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, Epiphany Day. Foolishly I thought it would be an “Epiphany as usual” when Christians celebrated “the light that has come into the world for all people.” We would again emphasize the light that overcomes darkness for all humanity (John 1:9). I was wrong.

We celebrate this LIGHT, the coming of Christ with the “large E” Epiphany. There are also “small e” epiphanies that transform our perceptions — not always moving from darkness to light. Epiphanies, (large E or small e), are times when we may discover that things are not what they appear to be. Last year, January 6th 2021, was a day to remember and rejoice in the great Epiphany, but that Light was dimmed by an “epiphany” unfolding on the steps of our nation’s Capitol.

My perceptions, my assumptions, my intutions about the strength of the U.S. democracy and our national body politic were deeply challenged, under assult by a mob of insurrectionists. Sadly, ironically, many were carrying Christian symbols — flags and signs that read “Jesus saves.” Many in the mob believed they were acting out of honorable religious motivations.

Our national institutions proved not as resiliant as I had thought. My assumptions about the way the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth inform responsible citizenship were being assaulted. My assumptions about a broadly shared sense of fairness or widely accepted governing traditions were sorely tested.

I was prepared for a new Presidency, a new Congress and a time when clearer realities about our common life and mutual respect would be affirmed. I believed our nation was escaping, narrowly, but we were escaping, the cruely, the grievance-based-dysfunction, the lies and dystopia we had suffered during the preceeding four years. I thought that unlike other nations (China, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Turkey among others) our deeply embedded democratic institutions and a shared assumption that persons could disagree without turning to violence would hold. My sense was that we were better somehow — closer to the Epiphany values manifest in the coming of the Christ. Alas, reality came knocking at my door. I openned that door to the surprise that we were a more broken and wounded nation than I had thought.

On Wednesday afternoon, January 6th, 2021 an epiphay (small e) shook previously held assumptions. A friend phoned that afternoon. Just a friendly call to ‘catch up.’ I remember saying, “Turn on the television. All hell is breaking loose. There is a mob, must be 10,000 people, openly attacking the Capitol building!” Thinking back now, I was right, “All hell was breaking loose.” This attack, my small epiphany on that day, remains a chilling reminder that easy assumptions about American exceptionalism now need to be carefully re-considered.

It was spiritual vertigo and a citizenship vertigo rolled into one. Easy assumptions about our commonweal and appropriate patterns of national govenance vanished. This vertigo continued throughout 2021. Old deceits seemed to take on more strength. THE BIG LIE about cheating in the 2020 elections continues to be believed, according to recent polls, by over 30% of the adult population. The violence of the insurrection on Epiphany Day 2021 was in many quarters downplayed, even denied. “Just a group of tourists visiting their Capitol” some would say. Vertigo continued as the year filled-up with other surprises: the omicron varriery of COVID. Silly debates over mask wearing and critical race theory. Politics proved astonishingly polarized. Racism found new expressions and justifications. Friends died. Children suffered from isolation and limited online educational practices. Ice storms, fires and hurricanes came, it appeared, with a new overpowering force.

My thoughts of an ability to predict the future were wrong.  We may think we can control things; yet often our efforts result in surprises or unintended consequences. We think we can nail things down but we cannot.  We have not factored in the difference between CHRONOS and KAIROS. The Epiphany is the way beyond the sad and disappointing epiphanies of human evil and deceit. Even when we are tempted to fear the worst, for people of faith there is the option to choose a life shaped by a larger reality… it is bigger than insurrectionists breaking into a nation’s Capitol building, it is the discovery that God’s light has broken into the world and “the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I do so believe.

My friend, Thomas Lane Butts died in 2021. He understood. Tom put it this way “Our penchant for permanence, which seems to get stronger as we grow older is probably a genetic (God-given) arrangement in our nature which prepares us to die.  The only people I know who have a genuine permanent arrangement with life are those whose lives have ended.  In all the rest of us change is still going on.  As a matter of fact, change is a basic characteristic of life, and without it, life as we know it would be snuffed out.”  (CELEBRATE THE TEMPORARY, January 12, 1997, The Protestant Hour Radio Series)

So how might we proceed as we enter Epiphany 2022 and the many epiphanies that lie ahead? I once had a choral conductor who would jokingly say, “I want you to keep both eyes on me and the other eye on the music!” He was asking us to transcend our normal and perceived limits.  To see things whole — beyond simply the music on the page.

Let Epiphany 2022 come as a reminder that there is a light that has come into the world that transcends the small, uncomfortable epiphanies. Light that is true to God’s designs for humanity. Light that shined in the dark places of our nations and world can overcome the antidemocratic forces seeking to destroy the good, the true and the beautiful.

Brittish theologian Rosemary Haughton argued that there are small conversions, or “flash-point moments” of decision, when we experience God in ways that allow a re-structure our daily calendar. Daily practices of prayer, mediation and study are times of formation providing for a life within community that can lead to transformation for persons and institutions — even nations.

Formation proceeds out of the routines of life and sets the stage for transformation of persons and communities.  Conversion emerges from the images already embedded in our deep memories and in our daily practices. The way we behave in those regular and calendared hours, minutes and seconds can anticipate the opportunities for transformation or renewal.  We have the opportunity to measure our lives not only in terms of length, wealth, achievement but, even more, we can practice ways that shape relationships with neighbor and with God. Epiphany suggests that even the surprizing and distressing epiphanies can be transcended.  A time when God’s purposes can be made know is possible.

God is not finished with us yet.  Life goes on.  Transformation is possible.  Rilke, the poet, said,  “The future enters into us in order to transform us long before it happens.”

Brokenhearted Excellence

Brokenhearted Excellence

Following the horrific tornadoes across Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee on Friday Night December 10th, there have been numerous interviews with persons who survived these tragic storms. A path of destruction carved its way across the landscape leaving behind death, lost homes and property and a wide swath of heartbreak.

Among the many interviews with survivors, was one with the Rev. Joey Reed, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Mayfield, Kentucky. Mayfield was perhaps the most heavily hit of the many communities that suffered death and destruction. As I watched Rev. Reed, his clear-eyed faith and excellent theology and pastoral leadership came shining through. You can see the interview here – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mayfield-kentucky-tornado-minister-survives-church-closet/.

I give thanks for Rev. Joey Reed, for the denomination that nurtured him and for his seminary education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He was clearly brokenhearted. Even so, he had the language of faith around Joy and Lamentation that was clear. This should be an interview that is studied by church leaders and pastors everywhere. Here is a model of excellence. Here is faith at work in the midst of tragedy.

Humility and Humor as Litmus Tests

Been thinking some about the linkages between unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution. Okay, I know, I know, it all sounds like something for a dry academic article published in an arcane journal somewhere. So, let me tone it down. These are thoughts of a trailer load of horse manure that still makes me laugh.

Let me start with a recent event and work back to that trailer of manure years ago.

A few days back I watched an online videocast from a sanctuary of a church north of Atlanta. I would identify the church by its denomination, but truth is, they don’t know what they are. They once were a United Methodist Church (still are in actuality) but through a series of events that I won’t detail here, an identity change is occurring. Some who spoke on this broadcast bragged about being the biggest church in the biggest conference in United Methodism and in the next breath expressed they are leaving the denomination because they were being treated so badly. You can read more about the “whys and wherefores” elsewhere; but even as I was watching I thought my psychologist friends would have a field day analyzing this.

I watched a series of speakers whose messages were filled with a sense of grievance, persecution and victimization. There were a few brave and sincere prayers for healing and understanding, I appreciated those. But mostly, I was puzzled by the juxtaposition of the claim to greatness while the same time claiming to be profoundly abused and persecuted. Several of the speakers suggested that “The whole world is watching us.” (Now that’s a Napoleonic syndrome claim — sorry, I’ll stop my arm chair psychoanalysis.) I remember thinking, however; “Nope, the whole world is watching the Olympics in Japan.” Sad, really, but an interesting case study in unrecognized privilege and perceived persecution… anyway back to the horse manure.

I attended a small religious college and then seminary in Kentucky. Good place, many marvelous people there. It was a place where extraordinary leaders of much depth and spiritual insight had been educated. Persons like E. Stanley Jones, Rosalind Rinker, J. Waskom Pickett and James Matthews had graduated a couple of generations back… and hundreds of others since have lived lives of faithful service making great contributions to faith and intellectual accomplishment. In fact, as I think about this now, I realize the truly great ones related to these schools were among the most humble and down-to-earth human beings I have had the privilege of knowing. Their greatness, their examples of holy living, rested in their clearheaded and openhearted sense that they were children of God called to love and serve others of God’s extended household.

Many of the truly great faculty and alums of this school modeled such humility. They lived in terms of a true greatness spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 20 or Mark 10 — “If you would be great, become as a servant to all.”

So you have been waiting on the manure story. Well, when a group of people set themselves up as superior to all others, folks around can smell the stench of self-righteousness. Holier-than-thou is a terrible way to give witness. Many of those who spoke of their grievance recently were related in significant ways to the college and seminary I attended.

With that said, the story is set in the small town, we will call Skidmore, Kentucky. Skidmore is sometimes jokingly said to be seventeen miles away from the nearest sin. (The town’s name is changed, all the other information here is as factual as I can recall.) It is 1968. I am in seminary and my friend Frank Shirbroune and I have decided in late winter to plant a garden. We hear that horse manure is free if we load it up ourselves and carry it back to town from the trotter horse track in the city. We borrow a trailer from a friend and attach it to hitch on Frank’s old Volvo. It is illegal in multiple ways — bad tires, no lights, no license plate, no connector chain, etc. Still we are off to collect some fresh horse droppings in the city.

Readers who know about gardening and manure recognize that we are making several mistakes. “Green” (fresh) manure is not great for gardens, especially if applied in the spring. We would learn this soon enough.

Knowing that the trailer was not street-legal, I prayed that we would make it safely to the race track and back without being pulled over by a state trooper or without a breakdown, leaving us on the side of the road with a load of, uh, “fertilizer.” We got there, loaded the trailer and headed for Skidmore, seventeen miles back. When we made it to the turnoff for town I thought my prayers were answered. No breakdown, no police stop. Whew.

However, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, there were flashing blue lights behind us. We were only a mile away from our garden plot but a state trooper was behind us. He was a big fella. In my memory he was 6’6″ (probably 5’10”) but he did weigh over 200 pounds. He certainly knew the reputation of Skidmore as a holier-than-thou place. My imagination led me to believe that Frank and I were going to spend the night in jail for illegally hauling horse manure — and green manure at that!

My hands were shaking as I opened the glove box to find the car registration. Do trailers need to be registered? I wondered. Frank rolled down the window. The trooper cleared his throat and then in a rather high-pitched melodious southern voice he spoke these memorable words, “Boyzz, I never thought I would see anyone hauling horse poop IN TO Skidmore.” With that, he turned and headed back to his cruiser, chuckling and shaking his head. No doubt he was eager to get back to the patrol house and share the story with other troopers.

For weeks Frank and I could hardly look at one another without laughing. In fact, I laugh about that manure to this day.

The school was shaped around the idea of holiness. But holiness, wrongly worn, can become a rigid garment that excludes and narrows the range of what God is able to accomplish in the world. Sadly, this school in the middle south, was slow in welcoming African Americans in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Even today, it seeks to exclude and deny gay and lesbian persons as fully God’s children, created as they are in God’s image. A narrow claim of holiness as limited to “persons like me” or “persons who agree with me” and reinforced by a closed doctrine and culture, can poison. It can turn persons who are privileged in so many ways into persons who are bereft of a sense that the God of abundance includes them in the family without there needing to be any covenant of exclusion of others.

This Season of Dividing

This Season of Our Dividing

I am often slow to put my deepest convictions into words. Who knew? Folks who know me as a preacher will be surprised to hear this. Even so, finding the right word or words sometimes comes slowly. Then, I am helped when I read another who touches the heart of a matter better than I could.

It has been over two years. I was at a table with folks discussing the future of the United Methodist Church and its splintering into several pieces — some traditional, some progressive and some seeking inclusion of all. I recall being surprised when persons spoke of the need for what they referred to as an “amicable divorce.” They proposed separation, into parts where folks would no longer quarrel and could be in a safe theological home place. Such talk was not new — it was the many who were accepting this season of division that surprised me. They were ready to welcome the schism-movin-company to partial out the pieces of ministry developed over decades.

I wanted to say, “Hey, this is moving in precisely the wrong direction. We ought to be joining with other Christians, not dividing among ourselves.” I was only able to say, “I profoundly disagree.” I was unable to share my deepest conviction that supporting such brokenness in our body was sinful. Such words seemed too harsh and judgemental. I recalled a dear Lutheran friend who amidst the splintering of the Missouri Synod thirty years ago, said simply, “We are, on all sides, sinful.” Okay, I am sometimes a coward — and a sinful one at that! Many United Methodists over the past two years have offered plans for what is called “an amicable separation.” Such talk has gone on for a long time. But now, there are proposals, protocols and new denominations planned. For followers of Jesus to be comfortable with this seems to me to be nonsensical. Still, I didn’t have the words, until I came across a short essay by Eugene Peterson entitled “Comfort Zones” (“Called to Community,” p. 278-280, Plough Publishers, 2016).

Peterson give me language when he wrote: “Sectarianism is a common problem in Christian Community… Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to theology, a willful removal of a part from the whole. The part is, of course, good — a work of God. But apart from the whole it is out of context and therefore diminished, disengaged from what it needs from the whole and from what the rest of the whole needs from it. We wouldn’t tolerate someone marketing a Bible with some famous preacher’s five favorite books selected from the complete sixty-six and bound in fine leather. We wouldn’t put up with an art dealer cutting up a large Rembrandt canvas into two inch squares and selling them off nicely framed. So why do we so often positively delight and celebrate the dividing up of the Jesus community into contentious and competitive groups? And why does Paul’s rhetorical question, “Has Christ been divided?” (I Cor. 1:13) continue to be ignored century after century after century?”…

There is more as Peterson points to the “selfism” that underlies such divisions. He reminds us “The birthing of the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism.” As Peterson starkly puts it “sects are termites in the Father’s house.

Such seasons of dividing are a perpetual threat to Christian community. Just as the Methodist Church divided over slavery in 1844 only to be clumsily reconfigured a century and more later, I am rather certain that one day this season of dividing will pass, and after a time, there will be a Season of Reuniting. I may not live to see it, but believe in the Resurrection.

Deeper and Wider: Toward a Faith Ecology

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.

That Joy May Be Full

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:

  1. Loving action is our North Star and singular mark of a mature Christian.
  2. Deep evangelization extends across space and time to name, bless and connect.
  3. 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 the Ephesians 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.

De’Amon Harges, The Learning Tree

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.

From The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

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]    

Albert Outler, United Methodist Uniting Conference

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]

Amen.


[i] Phelps, Edmund, ed, Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory, (New York: Russell Sage, 1975), p. 1.  See also Timothy Taylor’s Is Altruism a Scarce Resource that Needs Conserving, at: https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2013/11/is-altruism-scarce-resource-that-needs.html.

[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.

[iii] Illich, Ivan, Celebration of Awareness (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), 19.

[iv] Launay, Jacques and Eiluned Pierce, “The New Science of Singing Together,” Greater Good Magazine, December 4, 2015, available at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_singing.  See also, Dina Kraft, “In Israel, Singing for Social Harmony,” Christian Science Monitor, February 12,  2019.  In Isreal in recent years there is an event known as Koolulam that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to sing.  The musical director, Ben Yefet, directs the crowd with this instruction: “If you can’t hear the person singing next to you, you are singing too loudly.”  Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Music/2019/0212/In-Israel-singing-for-social-harmony

[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.

[xiv] Outler, Albert C., “A Sermon for the Uniting Conference of the United Methodist Church,” Dallas, Texas, 23 April 1968, p. 39. In the Albert C. Outler Papers at Bridwell Library.  Available at: https://www.umnews.org/-/media/umc-media/2018/04/09/20/43/outler_sermon_for_uniting_conference.ashx?la=en&rev=4181d891f1fc4aa3a645ae0dfd337593&hash=FC63DFB4E79C09A9A97933FAFA0DA8BDDF77A132

[xv] Ibid.  Drawing on the Consultation on Christian Unity (COCU) he named as our rootage “unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform.” 

[xvi] Ibid, p. 41.

[xvii] https://www.epaumc.org/news/rejoice-in-our-united-methodist-heritage/

[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.

[xix] As to unity, we have work to do.  As to ecumenism, I find myself agreeing with Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon, that The Future of Methodism is not Methodism.  When we focus on the words of Jesus in John 15 we need to remember that just two chapters further on we have the prayer of Jesus that his followers might be one. https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10112/the-future-of-methodism-is-not-methodism

[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.

Connected to Bear Good Fruit

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.)