In this fortnight of our nation’s soul, we reflect on Compassion, the human virtue of seeing the world as others do — and when there is distress — acting to alleviate the suffering of others.
There appears to be operative in some places of power and privilege a callousness toward others. One cause is what I would call a hardening of the categories. It is an atherosclerosis of imagination. It is a different type of heart disease, hardheartedness, the inability to see the world as others do and understand the challenges they face. More than a lack of awareness or lost sense of common humanity, it is a lack of desire to reach out to others. Not long ago we heard a lot about compassion fatigue. I wonder, was this an easy excuse to go on one’s way ignoring others in trouble?
Thomas Merton wrote “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation and Connections 11/1/92)
As I pulled into the grocery parking lot I am confronted by competing categories of understanding. On either side are two cars festooned with bumper stickers. On my left among the stickers are the words “Christians for President Trump” and “Let’s Pray for America.” On my right a car with even more stickers. Not certain the political ideology of this driver, but “Are You Kind,” “Human Being,” and “Live the Life You Love,” cause me to believe the two drivers function in very different universes of reality. (Okay — it’s a university town — sometimes the stickers appear to be all that hold a vehicle together!)
In such a world filled with divided loyalties, how does one proceed? Frederick Buechner suggests, “There is only your own heart, and whatever by God’s grace it has picked up in the way of insight, honesty courage, humility, and maybe above everything else, compassion.” (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 81-82.)
Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado provides us with an outstanding resource during this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. His book A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion offers wise counsel on how love of neighbor can be put into action (Chalice Press, 2020). You can read more at http://www.markfeldmeir.com/blog/.
Speaking of our commonality, Feldmeir employs the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually a single tree spreading over miles in Fish Lake, Utah. He writes: “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.”
The question before our nation in the Fortnight is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift, our shared life, this place of belonging where we all, already reside.
Thomas Merton put it simply (excuse the gender language insensitivity of the 1950s): “The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be in a bad dream.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.48)
Compassion is the circular system of human imagination, distributing hope to a world where hearts are open — to others — to all. For, like it or not, we are all one family.
In these days when the COVID 19 pandemic threatens and divides, the remarkable hymn writer, Ruth Duck, offers this verse of hope:
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.
It was a year ago. The worship service was ending, benediction pronounced. The postlude begun and I greeted the first in line. He refused my hand and pounced verbally. It took a few seconds to register — his anger, his scolding, his need to correct, transcended any niceties. With forefinger raised and a frozen glare, he let me know that I was wrong. He was certain of it!
I was new to the congregation, an interim pastor, still learning the good folks in the pews and the culture of the congregation. What was my mistake? I spoke positively of Senator John McCain. It was, after all, Sunday August 26th, 2018, the day after McCain’s death. My mention of the senator was brief: “Think of the ways Senator McCain demonstrated the heart of greatness through service!” I offered, “In one of his last public addresses Senator McCain spoke of “serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America.”(1)
That was it, nothing more. The Biblical texts for the day were from Ephesians 6 and John 6 focusing on the Spirit that gives life.(2) I also quoted Bob Greenleaf who wrote of Servant Leadership and suggested “weak leaders expect to be served – strong leaders serve.”(3)
Greeting the preacher following worship is a well practiced ritual. Over the decades I have exchanged pleasantries with tens of thousands. Occasionally I am faced by persons who disagree with the sermon. Never, however, have I been approached with such vitriol. Yes, folks sometimes offered correction. There were occasional sanctions about a mispronunciation, a typo in the bulletin, or error in scripture citation. I once misspoke and named the traveling companion of Paul “Bartholomew,” rather than “Barnabas.” And one Sunday in a university town, a distinguished professor made certain that I should speak of the American University “AT” Beirut and not “IN” Beirut. Such corrections are needed and appreciated. There have been people who disagreed and a few who have walked out as I preached. But this? This was different.
Most often words of gratitude are shared at the door, or information is passed about someone who is visiting, the birth of a child or one in hospital. Sometimes the words spoken are humorous — whether intended or not. I recall the time a woman took my hand and with great sincerity said, “Every sermon you preach is better than the next.” She smiled and moved out the door, unaware that her intended compliment had an opposite meaning to what was intended. At least I hope so.
The critique of my mention of John McCain continued with increasing vigor for several minutes in the front of the chancel. A line of well-wishers waited patiently behind him. Then it shortened to a few, then vanished. As I remember it now, he insisted, Senator McCain was not a person of honor; rather, he informed me McCain was “a self-centered narcissist, who always sought the limelight. He was a rebel and was not dependable in his voting record.” It was only my third Sunday in that pulpit. I thought a mention of McCain was appropriate. And, after all, San Diego is a Navy town. Whatever else one might think, McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot who had spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison. Surely, this would help illustrate the sermon’s intent.
Aware that there was no way to end the conversation on that day and stunned to hear such a rant about one who had so recently died, and for whom I had great respect, I simply said, “Well, it appears we disagree.” The man said, “We certainly do! And, you are certainly wrong!” As he turned my words trailed behind, “Let’s find time to talk.” We never did.
That Sunday a year ago, I had unintentionally strayed across an ideological yellow line.(4) I had touched a third rail. As the fella left, the word “certainly” hung in the air. “Certainly, certainly…” There it was. Life was to be a one way journey along a path of certainty. No preacher should disturb the binary ideological categories. The Religious Right was apparently now the province of the Alt-Right. I learned later that this man’s pattern of accosting the preacher was not new. He had been practiced on others.
As popular author Ann Lamott has written: The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do. (5) Or, as Søren Kierkegaard posited, it is only when objective certitude fails that belief becomes possible.
I believe John McCain was a fine man, a remarkable man. He had flaws as we all do. Yet, he displayed a fierce ability to consider an other’s point of view. I recall his taking the microphone from the woman who said “Obama is a Muslim” in the 2008 Presidential campaign. He indicated that she was mistaken and that while he disagreed with then candidate Obama, McCain said he believed the future president was a decent man. It was a display of courage, of humility, of faith that no doubt hurt him among some in that election.
Our nation seems caught up in a time when the action of listening and disagreeing seem unlikely. We have chosen up sides and divided up the future into competing realities. And what of my need for certitude? What of my hunger for agency? What of my fears and misplaced allegiances? We live in a season when fear trips up humility, when chaos clouds the pathways of hope, when dichotomous thinking pushes us into corners that blind us to cooperation. It was Parker Palmer, drawing on the work of Thomas Merton, who in his small volume, The Promise of Paradox, written now forty years ago, wrote that our hope rested in learning to live within and even celebrate the contradictions that confront us.
One place we can all begin, at least those of us who are observant, is after attending future worship services and hearing a word of faith is wait in line and thank the one who speaks with courage. Let her know of your support. Let him know of your prayers. Let all those who speak difficult words of Gospel in these days, know you stand with them. You see, it is not easy, this work of proclamation. There seem to be so many places where a hunger for certainty blinds the ways of faith and where ideological or partisan commitments place a silencer on the Christian message. And, if you disagree with the preacher, let her or him know. But do it this way — invite them to lunch — converse, listen, and you pay!
* This is the first of several occasional posts that will reflect on actual pastoral experiences.
Senator John McCain spoke at a ceremony at the National Constitution Center, October 16, 2017.
The sermon was titled “Hands of the Strong” and was based on Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:63-69. It is the Spirit that give life the gospel proclaims and Paul speaks of the “full armor of God” ending with Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Robert Greenleaf writes: “Leader first and servant first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. 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?” (The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf, p. 7) AND, “The only real justification for institutions, beyond a certain efficiency (which, of course, does serve) is that people in them grow to greater stature than if they stood alone.” (Trustees as Servants, p. 13)
I am somewhat embarrassed to look back now and realize that McCain’s thumbs down vote that kept the Affordable Care Act in effect marked him as a traitor in the eyes of some.
Anne Lamott, Plan B: When Your Plan Fails and God’s Prevails. See Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript for example.
Colin Murray, stood before me holding the elements for Holy Communion. He was one of the fifteen newly confirmed on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018. I didn’t anticipate having a soul-shaping experience on that Pentecost. Not in this is formal, traditional worship service. Does the Holy Spirit move in United Church of Christ congregations? Even on Pentecost? Even with a pipe organ playing Bach? It was overwhelming. I took several deep breaths. They didn’t seem to help. So, I let the tears flow and reached for a handkerchief. Tears of joy, of hope, of transformation. The young man, Colin, standing at the end of the pew sharing the body and blood of Christ with us, was my grandson. This extraordinary moment was more than grand-parental pride. Scales were falling from my eyes, new insight, awareness of the ways God works beyond my limited understandings of the Jesus movement.
What were the odds? One in fifteen? Who arrived with the communion elements at our pew? I melted. Gratitude? Yes. So much more — I thought of Isaiah 43 — “I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?” It was more than a passing of generations. Much more. It was more than a septuagenarian grandpa’s delight. A burning bush? Nope, no voice from heaven; but it was certainly an awareness of a transforming love that was always ready to bring a change in me — let’s call it an overwhelming.
The temptation for us all, especially those of us in ordained ministry, is to believe that our work, our point of view, our plans, our strategies, our voice will somehow figure it all out, be a difference maker in the church and the world. More often than not, we fail to know that God’s purposes and actions are far beyond our activities or ideas or speeches.
We are instruments to be sure — but weak reeds, frail passing voices in God’s realm. I was aware that each of these young confirmands was a part of a family much larger and more gifted by the Holy Spirit than I understood upon entering that sanctuary that day. I understood that God’s family included the youth being confirmed in the Black churches on the south side of Chicago and the Hispanic youth on the west side. Or the young Poles, or Serbians or Chinese or Koreans all around town who were stepping into a new place in their baptismal identity. Sadly, we are still separated by culture and language and tradition. Centuries of racism, the building of enclaves, and the impoverishment of our social and political systems still separate us — but, “Can you not perceive it? I am doing a new thing,” says the lord.
An Overwhelming – Exhibit B
One of the best known passages from Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” is this:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.” Page 153.
My re-reading of Merton in 2019 helps my spiritual vertigo. The ups and downs of United Methodist conferences befuddle and depress. They can confuse and offer such a small horizon on the realm of God. Today (mid-June 2019) my spirits and aspirations are on the upswing.
All across the nation in recent weeks a new generation of persons are being elected as annual conference delegates. Many of these folks are young and committed to a more open and inclusive denomination. It is a youth driven revolution — young clergy are saying “NO” to the harmful decisions made in February 2019 United Methodist conference. The Febraury so called “Special General Conference” enacted mean-spirited legislation to exclude LGBTQI folks from ordination or same-sex marriages in the denomination. Further, it was designed to punish anyone who acted in ways that disagreed. Something as marvelous and no less surprising than a grandson standing beside you bearing the sacrament was underway. Still, it is a miniscule part of the Holy Spirit’s handiwork. The Holy Spirit can surprise us still — (S)he is already at play in the church, even within a broken and disoriented part of the body like United Methodism just now.
Overwhelming – Exhibit C
As news continues to come in from around the United Methodist Church in the United States, it is clear that change in almost every corner is underway. I do not know that it will be sufficient to bring about an apology for the damage done or begin to mend and redirect a denomination into patterns that do not do harm to our gay siblings. However, as I attended the California- Pacific Annual Conference (a place I consider my second ecclesial home), I was again overwhelmed. Again I took deep breaths and reached for my handkerchief. There was newly ordained deacon, and my colleague this past year, Melissa Spence. She is serving the sacrament with an elder, former student, fine pastor and friend, Brian Parcel.
Looking around the Chapel at the University of Redlands on this day, I see others. They are, I now understand, my spiritual grandchildren, my grandnieces and grantnephews. The great gift of the California-Pacific Annual Conference is its ability to welcome a wide and blessed cultural diversity. Oh, the Tongan choir sings as communion is served. Words cannot capture the glory of the harmonies that surround us.
There they are — former students, colleagues, friends and a few foes, persons who have taught me and who mostly learned without my aid, persons I do not know — all sharing in the holy meal. There is my long-time friend, Bishop Charles Jordan among those presiding at communion. There are other bishops at table… the host bishop has been generous in his invitations and his words. And there he is, Bishop Grant Hagiya, on his knees calling on us all to be repentant for the ways we have held hostility toward others. Bishop Hagiya said it well in his sermon on the first day — “there may be irreconcilable differences… still might we not stay together in mission and give space to be contextual in governance? Perhaps divorce is inevitable — and certainly separating can be a gift to both parties — still must we make the only a best option a complete separation?
This family, all of it, all around, shines with the glory of God. We may have to divide, I grieve it. At the same time, I join Bishop Hagiya in seeing a New Church where compassion for one another is the currency used toward creating a future of mission.
Dear God — grant me the gift of years so that I might witness more of these youth revolutions. Grant my colleagues who now feel left behind or unappreciated the gift of knowing that the contribution they have made to bring us to this place are used by the Holy Spirit in unsuspected ways — whether the renewal is inside or outside the familiar structures. I pray we are given the time to see this unfold in ways that bring transformation for our world.
More deep breaths and stifled tears, the Tongans continue to sing. In the pew alongside me are many of the friends from First United Methodist Church in San Diego. They are a wonderful group of fellow disciples. I will be leaving them soon — returning to Indiana, one of the sites of the your revolution in the church. I may not return to my beloved California-Pacific Annual Conference in this life but I will remember a bishop on his knees, a people of many hues and languages, together ready to serve and a Spirit at work among us all. It is OVERWHELMING.
Of the work of the Holy Spirit Merton writes; “Yet the air of the outside world is not fresh air. Just to break out and walk down the boulevards is no solution. The fresh air we need is the clean breath of the Holy Spirit, coming like the wind, blowing as He pleases. Hence the window must open, or be able to open, in any direction. The error is to lock the windows and doors in order to keep the Holy Spirit in the monastery.” (Conjectures, p. 7)
A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years).
For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory. After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts. Who knows what will survive and in what form?
I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.” I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”
So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.
Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965. This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource. Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be” and spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.“
I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism. We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward. My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison. He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life. He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.” I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire. I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”
I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.
“I will be a better Catholic,”Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)
I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!” For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences
Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies
around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.United Methodism in 2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change. We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles. There are fissures all around. I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news. We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.
Across the south and Midwest there is change. Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates. Will it be enough to change things? Well, probably not. Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable. It may be that we are stuck. Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference — reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades. The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this.
Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places. Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.
I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church. “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say. Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated. “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear. I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844! I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge. To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what? Toward what end? It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass. What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place? Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.
Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me. I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians. This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17. Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together? The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer. Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church. I know. Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years? Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue? A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude others based on sexual orientation.
What might we do? This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer. It is about agency. By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference. I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes. This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there? Doing what? Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms. Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess. Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia. I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?
My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies.
Isn’t there a larger frame? Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First. She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness. First, she argues, provide a place to live! Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter. Then work on the other social and emotional needs. In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things. And it also happens to be Christian!
What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness? What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises? What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix? What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists? What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled? Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom? Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.