Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

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.

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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.

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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!

Clay Jar Treasures*

Clay Jar Treasures*

She was “only” ninety-nine.  The photo taken in 2014 shows “Marnie” or Margaret Glass, at a gathering at her beloved parish, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.  Marnie died this summer, June 26, 2019, only a few days shy of her 105th birthday.  She lived a full, life-and-a-half, in calendar years.  When I say she “lived,” I mean it, she did just that!  Of the “great spirits” I have known, Marnie nears the top of the list.

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 Marnie Glass with Philip & Elaine Amerson, 5-29-14  

Born in Chicago, Margaret was a natural, brilliant, a college athlete, playing tennis and captain of the basketball team.  She graduated from Elmhurst College only a few years after the Niebuhr brothers who attended that school before her.  When I met her, she was the lay leader at Broadway Church.  It was the mid-1980s, the neighborhood around the church had gone through dramatic racial change as white flight was nearing completion and the gentrification that now marks that neighborhood was only beginning. 

Marnie was one of dozens of wise and creative folks I knew in that parish in those years. They caused me to rethink my understandings of church, of faith and the role of parish pastor.  Margaret was first among equals in challenging my preconceived, seminary-shaped notions of who lay folks are and the limited gifts they bring to ministry.

Last week I wrote in this blog of an encounter with an angry fella who sought to set me straight after a sermon preached a year ago that included positive mention of Senator John McCain (See Certitude and Its Discontents, August 2019).  My concern at that writing was that some folks would think it a critique of that good congregation.  I fear a few did, as I received messages of apology.  None were needed.  I have found sour-pusses in every parish and a few grievance-collectors typically populate the pews wherever I go.  More often, however, I find remarkable saints-in-the-making in parishes I have served.

Marney was tops for me, such a spunky saint.  A mischievous follower of Jesus, a conspirator in the search for abundant life for all.  Her eyes would dance when she shared a story of some achievement of one of the children she tutored or some morsel of good news about a neighbor.  She could change her mind — accept new ways of being church.  Her winsomeness, her life, always caused me to think of the scripture: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (II Corinthians 4:7, NRSV).

You could find Marnie at prayer meetings and protest marches.  When we speak of the best of Methodism involving a vital piety and commitment to social justice, it was exemplified in Marnie’s life.  I can see her grabbing the cheeks of a young woman and speaking words of encouragement.  I recall the times she would take young children into her home because they needed to be in a safe place.  She noticed the little things that another had done and thanked them. 

She showed an ease in her faith; not that her long life was easy.  She married three times as she outlived her first two husbands.  Her last marriage was at age 98 and with Bob she continued speaking out on environmental and hunger issues.

Marnie was a part of a weekly Bible study group while I was pastor.   One day as we finished, she said, “Please wait a minute, I have something to share.”  She grabbed a brown, bulging grocery bag and headed to a nearby bathroom.  She returned wearing her wedding gown and still in her tennis shoes.  “This is my fiftieth wedding anniversary and I wanted to celebrate with you.” Her first husband was suffering from dementia and rather than hide in disappointment at that circumstance, Marnie invited us to join in a spontaneous celebration.  We raided the church refrigerator, found lots of ice cream and other goodies there.  Such was her transformative spirit.

She would probably deny it, but Marnie was my faith instructor, my mentor.  As Fred Craddock would put it, through her life and words I could “overhear the gospel.”  She didn’t always know that I was listening in.  One Sunday in the mid-1980s, as the military adventurism by the United States in the Middle East was heating up, I faced a dilemma.  The scripture lessons for that Sunday included Galatians 6 (“What one sews that one shall also reap“).  My sermon called for a preference of peacemaking over military intervention.  

Following the service as I headed to my office I heard voices in the hallway, around the corner ahead of me.  It was Margaret speaking with a couple who were upset about the sermon.  They didn’t know I was hearing them, their complaints. They said, “He is another one of those liberal preachers.” They likened me to a popular pastor who had spoken out against the Vietnam War twenty years earlier.  I thought I was in good company and glad to be compared with this fellow who went on to be elected a bishop.  It was then that Marnie-the-spiritual-mentor spoke.  “No, no” she said, “this one is a Jeremiah, he will weep with you.”  She didn’t know I heard.  I turned and went to my office another way.  As I was taking off my robe, Marney entered the office.  To my surprise she began to chide me.  Time for my second spiritual lesson!  “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said.  My heart dropped.  Then she went on, “I am so glad you spoke against our military engagement, but don’t you ever enter the pulpit again with a difficult message and not let me know to be praying for you!”

In the span of five minutes, I was offered two of the most important lessons over the years of my pastoral ministry.  First, a challenge to my pridefulness and second a reminder that such moments of witness should not be entered into alone and without prayerful support.

Tomorrow is Marnie’s memorial service.  I have no doubt that dozens of other lessons from my teacher, Marnie, will come to mind.  Other mentors and Great Spirits have died this year.  I think of Judy Craig, Tom Trotter and George Metrovich who died in recent months.  They are for me, persons who represent the insights of II Corinthians 4:7-10.  Here is the text as offered by Eugene Peterson:

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.  What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!  (II Corinthians 4:7-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson)

Strong Leaders Serve

Strong Leaders Serve

8661153044_41a654cfbe_zWeek by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide.  The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago.  At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards. 

Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”

This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG.  Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois.  Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain.  In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain.  It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.

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Elaine beside “The 8” Freeway and the Church Beyond. Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life

So, what of the future?  The photo to the right was taken last week.  It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway.  Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here.  As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future.  As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell).  It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation —  in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope.  Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure.  In such places.