You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University. Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy. We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum.
This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door. It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history. It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.
But, what about us? Easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time? Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists. We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA.
Sadly, many of our congregations and denominational institutions have forgotten and others often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.
In the United States, the distressing chronic illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. The tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in recent days is an expression of our dilemma. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS. What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice? Okay, not realistic, you say. Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses? What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?
In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness). What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?
I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday Evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.” It’s about time!
Thanksgiving arrives! I realize my gratitude for many things. Family, friends, home, nation, church, education, even the Chicago Cubs! There were surprisingly lessons of gratitude learned during the COVID Pandemic. One for example was leaning to bake chocolate chip cookies. Had the pandemic not occurred, I would not have become so accomplished. My memory was that these attempts at baking cookies were awesome, (he said in a modest voice).
So, early Thanksgiving Morning 2022, I decided to strut my baking skills. Wanting to offer my excellent cookies to friends, Betty and Tony, when we shared dinner together later today, I began with confidence. What could go wrong?
It had been nearly a year since I baked my last batch. In the meantime, we had moved to a new condo, a new oven. I had my secret recipe. This should be a “cake walk” – or should I say, “cookie walk.” Alas, it must have been the new oven, or something missed in my recipe, or that we only had mini chocolate chips in the house. Taking the first batch from the oven, they looked unusually “toasted and flat.” At first bite I thought “well, this is better than eating shoe leather.” No prize-winning cookies these.
It set me to thinking about my gratitude even for imperfections. Some of life’s best lessons are learned here. What other times was there an occasion to learn? Or did I too quickly turn a disappointment into a source of disgruntlement, a blaming of others, or a grievance, or complaint?
Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the dangers of dividing the world into the binary categories of the “pure” and the “polluted.” She traces the meaning of “dirt” and what is considered “filth,” through history and multiple cultures. Douglas identifies rituals used to cleanse or purify defilement, persons or groups seen to be “dirty” or considered an “abomination.” Douglas noted that this effort to identify others as “filthy” often was the precursor, a contributor, to racism and fascism. What lessons can be drawn from the Jewish holocaust? What lessons might there be from the mass murders of LGBTQ persons? What of the hatred and division that is spread across social media in our time?
Having grown up in Methodism’s Holiness movement, where part of my education was centered in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary, I know well the efforts made to exclude and isolate the “in group” from those things that are seen as impure. These schools have been significant institutions advancing “spiritual holiness,” I sat through scores of college chapel services where the words “Holiness unto the Lord” were boldly inscribed above the chancel.
Often preachers would call for purity. In what theologians speak of as sanctification, the desire was to encourage a life of perfection. At base a good thing – but a dangerous instrument as well. (No one mentioned perfect cookies as I recall, but in many other aspects of life and faith there was the assumption of purity and filth.) Some believed purity was found in avoiding certain activities (e.g., dancing, going to movies, drinking alcohol, etc.). Others suggested there was a doctrine of “perfection” and a need to reject any theological perspectives that differed.
It is my sense this search for holiness as an end point has done much harm, even caused the splintering of families, marriages, congregations, and denominations. It leads to divisions over who is pure and who is polluted. I do not doubt that some folks lived a “sanctified” way of life.
Usually, it was not the teachers or preachers who claimed to be “sanctified” who demonstrated this best. Instead, I think of folks like Ms. Warner, the history teacher, a quite Quaker woman, who practiced her holiness in the loving ways she lived toward others and care for her students.
In my reading of Christian scripture, the holiness sketched across those pages and any evidence of holiness discovered in human history is always best seen as a process, a verb, and not an end point. It is an ever-maturing love for God and neighbor, an openness to imperfection – especially one’s own.
Good reader, don’t take to much comfort from growing up in other traditions, not burdened with the language or theology of “holiness.” The human story is one where there is a dividing the world up into what is pure and polluted takes many forms — and seems to be a universal trait.
This past week former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, as “the most dangerous person in the world.” Really? Not even a thought of Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin? Pompeo went on to say that our nation’s schoolteachers are teaching “filth” in their classrooms. Careful there, Mike. Methinks your presidential ambitions have fallen into a toxic hole where a need to divide and harm others clouds the language you use. Is there any acknowledgement of your own failings? You might check out Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” — NRSV)
Our nation, our communities, our institutions are amid an entangled and dangerous struggle. It is often manifest as a desire for purity. The irony, of course, it that speeches against “filth” come from the mouths of persons who have supported bigotry, deceit and even insurrection – or have looked the other way when it took place. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for imperfections – but chose to seek to move past them. This is how one learns – and the second batch of cookies today were better. I look forward to quality of my future chocolate chip cookies! And I am even grateful for the gift of imperfections.
A North American Adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer – for too many Christians
A “Distortion” of The Lord’s Prayer as understood by too many North American Christians
(With interpretive notes)
Pray then in this way: Our* MY Father in heaven, hallowed be MY UNDERSTANDING OF your name. Your SPIRITUALIZED kingdom come, Your SPIRITUALIZED will be done, On earth** AMONG MY TRIBE as it is in heaven. Give us ME this day ourdaily MORE EXCESS bread, And forgive us our ME MY debts, as we I also have forgiven our MY debtor FRIENDs WHO DESERVE IT. And do not bring us ME to the time of trial, but rescue us ME from the evil ones WHO DISAGREE WITH ME. For if you forgive*** CONDEMN others of their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also ESPECIALLY forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father WILL forgive your trespasses ANYWAY. –Matthew 6:9-15
*This prayer is distorted to fit “modern” North American individualistic sensibilities held by many Christians. Toby Keith’s song “I Want to Talk About Me” can be sung after the prayer. It is based on the message preached and believed that all the followeres of Jesus are to focus on is individual salvation. This view forgets any mention of love of neighbor, the Year of Jubilee, Gospel stories about welcoming the outsider and stranger, Paul’s mention of each having gifts needed to be a part of whole community, historic practices of social-justice or ideas of covenant and commonweal.
** Faith in this view is all about heaven and the hereafter. It has little reference to daily life on earth. My current life is to get me ready for the “sweet by-and-by.” God’s will is meant only for those who think like me and believe the same theology and creeds that I hold. In other words, “on earth” is about how I treat those who are part of my tribe. This means, climate change is a myth, any government aid the poor is “evil socialism,” the earth’s resources are to be dominated and used up for my benefit and those who are like me. The earth is not our “Common Home” as Pope Francis proclaims. The United Methodist bishops calling for “environmental holiness” was wrong.
*** Forgiveness in this view is a sign of weakness… unless it is asking for a pardon for crimes. The individual praying the prayer doesn’t need forgiveness because he or she has the right answer on two or three critical issues (e.g., against homosexuality and all abortions) and all else is “up to God.” I don’t really need to ask for forgiveness as my way is the only way to salvation. The story about the prodigal returning home is always about “them” and never about “me.”
Bloomington, Indiana is a lovely college town; I’m an unabashed booster. The name “Bloomington” is no accident. Tree-lined streets, parks and flower gardens are in abundance. Playgrounds and walking trails dot the city. At the community’s heart is the lovely campus of Indiana University. There is abundant and diverse fine music performed. Museums, libraries and theaters, research centers and multiple dining options are sprinkled in the mix. Surrounded by forests, lakes, farms, vineyards and orchards it is where natural beauty finds a home.
Natural beauty resides comfortably in Bloomington – Beauty resides here more easily than some of our people. People without shelter, who due to heath or economic realities, are left with no option other than life on the street. Perhaps the ugliest addition to our community is the 8-10 foot fence that has been placed around the downtown post office. The fence is festooned with threatening signs. Gates are locked tightly every evening. “No trespasing” is posted and one can’t even find a place to drop a letter in the mail. Forget it if you wish to walk up to a drop box or pass a drive-through box after hours. Why the ugly high fencing and all the horrible signs?
You see, this post office is now “off limits” in the evenings because it is next to Seminary Square Park. Seminary Square is registered as a national historic site. It is the location of the first campus for what would became Indiana Univeristy. In recent years Seminary Square is where many unsheltered persons chose to gather; many camped there until city officials began to disperse them. The result? Folks are now scattered, sleeping on sidewalks and being rousted from one doorway or storefront to another. Where are efforts to bring ALL the stake holders together — including the unsheltered — to find new ways forward? I am told “there are plans”. If so they are not well known in the city. How many millions of dollars have been spent on street improvements so that streets can now be closed off for dining, or for new bikeways to encourage such travel? And, why has such little thought been given to developing more places for the unsheltered? There are wonderful nonprofit programs designed to assist unhoused persons (Beacon Inc. – Shalom Center and New Hope for Families, for example) but these folks have limited palliative options and must focus on the most dramatic examples of this challenge.
A first-rate new IU Health Bloomington Hospital facility recently opened on the east side of the city; the hospital having completely abandoned its downtown location. Now that old facility is… you guessed it… FENCED off. Plans for re-use or redevelopment are slow to unfold and little has thus far been announced. Yes, redevelopment is complicated, and to do it well takes time, but what of those who could benefit from a dry and safer space to sleep in the meantime? And what of any new outreach initiatives from the fancy new I.U. Health facility? Any annoucement of outreach to address mental health and addiction issues faced by many of the unsheltered sleeping on the street? What of outreach to those no longer at the hospital’s doorway? If the past is prologue, in ten years, the old hospital site will become commercial property or another upscale housing site — and we will still have the unsheltered fenced out.
WE CAN AND MUST DO BETTER. Bloomington claims to be a civically engaged and imaginative place where democracy is valued. Let’s prove it by the way we live together. Ugly fences do us no pride. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been, and will be spent, on building new apartment/condo complexes. The university is spending millions to provide shelter for students. Where are plans to include alternative housing options for the unsheltered now and in future? Other cities face similiar dilemmas and are offering creative alternatives. I have never thought of our Bloomington as a laggard… until recently.
Now, please understand, as an pastor for more than fifty years, one who has lived and worked in impoverished areas, and with many persons without shelter much of my adult life, I get it. I have no doubts that the troubling reality of insufficient shelter and healhy options FOR ALL is extraordinarily demanding work. And I know there were incidents near the downtown post office (perhaps dangerous ones) that lead to the fence being errected and the park being cleared each evening. Even so, let’s be clear, this is the message being sent: “If you are an unsheltered person, you are unwelcome — you are locked out.” Bloomington is a beautiful city, mostly. It’s time to do better.
Powering Democracy and Replacing Redundant Lighthouses
Bornholm, Denmark is an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Lovely place; a center point for one of the green power initiaitives in this small nation. In Denmark today over 50% of current electrical energy comes from renewable wind and solar power – a marked increase in recent decades. Denmark’s goal is to be 100% free of fossil fuels by 2030! This small nation is showing the rest of us a possible future. What is required for such dramatic change?
Denmark is a nation built out of a web of islands and distinct communities. While language and history, economic opportunuties, war and domination, have woven the Danes together, there is more to the story. There is imagination – an opnness to work together for new approaches to challenges. Currently, on Bornholm island, in order to make space for the windmills, new landfill projects are emering along some of the shore. Hundreds of windmills will be constructed. Has there been opposition? Of course. Still, all this is part of a national effort to, not only supply Denmark’s energy needs, but become a nation that produces its own electric power and sells energy to others. Rather astonishing. Along with thousands of miles of shoreline, the Danes have wind, and more, imagination is at play.
On some islands, a few former lighthouses, will now be further from shore and less visible to aid those sailing. These lighthouses are being replaced, made redundant. Some would argue that modern satellite GPS systems have eliminated the value of and need for lighthouses altogether; even so, new light sources will be installed.
This would not be the first time Denmark has led Europe, and the world, with imagination for desperately needed change. Little known is the story of the Danish Folk School Movement begun in the early 1800s. In that time, a wide majority of the pesantry living in the region were impoverished. Illiteracy was among the highest in Europe. Only a wealthy few had access to representation in government. The situation was bleak, trust in others to make change was low.
A remarkable man, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872), a Lutheran theologian saw Denmark’s future based on the construction of a system of universal literacy and the development of common trust. His vision led to the Folk School Movement. The goal was not to build a stratified society based on test results and university degrees. Rather, he focused on enriching comminities with educational options to nurture the human spirit through song, poetry, crafts, literature. It was a celebrating the giftedness of the people. Gruntvig saw renewal coming from the “bottom up.” Some of the “students” could also teach — they were weavers, cooks, farmers, fishers. Gardening, dance, practical uses of math and science were taught. Yes, there were classes in spiritual matters that were a part of the whole. Grundtvig’s goal was the preparing of persons for more enlightened citizenship and the development of networks of community trust. The folk school movement offered a place where those with limited money and time could learn new and more democratic habits, values and skills that would be needed for a healthy future society.
One hundred years later, by the early 1900s, Denmark enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. At the same time a vibrant emerging democracy was electing representatives to the Folketinget, or the house of commoners. A majority of these folks representing districts from across Denmark at the time, had studied in the Danish Folk School system. Today, Denmark has a unicameral government with representatives serving in the Folketing. Not all is, or has been, perfect in this story — there was the Nazi occupation and times of political corruption and turmoil. Still the folk school movement, wind mills and redundant lighthouses can serve as valued metaphors for us and others who seek a way to proceed to a more democratic and literate world.
In many places there is need for the renewal of trust, and a way to learn a new literacy based on a knowledge that is accurate and inclusive of others. It is difficult to think of the situation faced by Denmark in the early 1800s and not compare it to the malaise of our modern time. Distrust of institutions and a sense of brokenness in so many of our communities is evident and threatening to our futures. One measure of this malaise is offered in the Edelman Trusts Barometerhttps://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer. Across the world, trust in our institutions, and one another, is at an all time low. Perhaps our “democratic lighthouses” are placed too far from our current shorelines. We do not see the light that might offer us a better set of bearings for the future.
Taken as a practical example and metaphor, what might one learn from the Danish experience? A few possible lessons would include:
As to energy independence from fossil fuels, Denmark is showing us that dramatic and rapid change is possible. They have the attribute of wind; others of us have the prospect of, along with wind, adding many more solar power options to our resources
Perhaps some of our cultural, commercial, social, educational, healthcare and religious “lighthouses” need to be moved or rebuilt and re-imagined. How might we relocate the work of the press (news and social media), churches, the schools, healthcare systems, theaters, museums, etc. so that they are closer and more relevant to the journeys of those traveling in the future?
Are there ways to think systemicly about how to move ahead to encourage a more trusting and democratic common life? (In the U.S. I am of the opinion that a program of universal service options for our young would be such an institutional initiative.)
As a child, I learned an old hymn and often sang it. It was about the importance of lighthouses for people who lacked the light of faith.
The first verse was:
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore, But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore. Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave! For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Perhaps people of faith can join folks in other arenas to build new light sources for imagination, democracy and spirituality. It seems the church has put too much of its focus for too long, too far from where the light of imaginative faith is needed. We have offered little spiritual light and what is offered is shining in the wrong places. Rather than a faith that builds up trust and community, too much time has spent dividing, excluding and relegating those who differ to another separate island.
For the imagination already offering us hope in Denmark and beyond, I give thanks.
In a month, our nation will celebrate Independence Day 2022. There will be fireworks, brass bands, speeches — lots of speeches. Sadly, some will use the Day to seek to divide — to insist that individual freedom is the all in all for our democracy. Individualism will be celebrated and in some places the social contract will be given short shrift. Politicians, and others, will suggest their way is the only true understanding of our national experiment. It will be suggested that those who disagree, are not true-blue Americans. Alas.
I have been giving some thought to a Declaration of Interdependence. It is not a new idea. There have been a number of “Declarations of Interdependence” published over the last century and before. Many of our words and practices for the “common good” seem to have lost valance in the chemistry of our body politic. Words like “neighbor, friend, commonweal, community, kinship, congregation, covenant, alliance” have been lost or turned inside out, swallowed up in a wash of self-interest and the celebration of individual freedoms and options. The idea of a social contract seems to disappear — and it is forgotten that we live best when we are in healthy and respectful relationiships with the stranger.
My time spent with farm people taught me that the weeds in one field, unattended, can eventually damage the neighbor’s harvest. Poor soil protection practices can, through water or wind erosion, hurt the neighbor. And further, when a neighbor is in trouble, those around understand that they need to help repair the damaged roof or aid with the planting or harvest of a nearby farmer in trouble.
We have allowed too many weeds to grow unattended in our national ecology. Sometimes the result of the ugly and bashing words in the media, whether on television on in social media, lead to ugly actions and words on the street. In the extreme, angry self-focused individualism results in damage to us all, sometimes it ends in violent actions toward others. The gun violence exploding across our nation illustrates how “individual rights” have been perverted into foolish misdirections. The fact that ownership, registration, insurance and public safety practices are so lax around assault weapons, as compared to owning and operating an automobile, illustrates the distortion that is possible when we singularly declare individual independence and fail to balance this with a declaration of interdependence.
Our nation has faced antisocial and individualistic tides in the past. Hypercapitalism and selfish, exclusive politics are not new. Folks like Jane Addams marked the way respect for the stranger and those who were excluded by reminding us that “Democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community.”
If I am unable to persuade my senators, congressman and governor to take common sense steps to save lives, whether around guns. Or, if I can’t immediately address environmental, educational or healthcare concerns, perhaps I can take small steps to declare interdependence in other ways. I have been giving thought to what simple acts might be taken to encourage and perhaps mend the dangerous rifts created by radical individualism. Here are a few small suggestions:
Write at least one letter (posted in the U.S. mail) at least once a week for the next year.
Call a friend, especially one you haven’t seen in a while, every day.
Support a local newspaper, especially one that still has some local ownership. Send a letter to the editorial page.
Call a school teacher, principal, social worker, nurse or other social servant to simply say “thank you.”
Smile and greet the store clerk with a postive word.
Offer the fast food worker a tip for her/his work; and/or pay for the person who is in the car behind you at the fast food restaurant.
THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF OTHER WAYS WE CAN REBUILD HUMAN GRATITUDE AND TRUST.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke and wrote of a Beloved Community. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he writes: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” He says it so clearly and simply — “connection is health.”
Wendell Berry’s novels, poetry and essays all provide clear and compelling calls to Interdependence.
In wondering what I might do to take some small step in repairing the fabric of civic life and the building a beloved community, my phone rang. It was a surprising invitation from a friend inviting me to participate in a monthly gathering of men to spend an evening together in conversation and friendship — no big agenda (at least not at first). It was just a small invitation. When the friend asked if I was interested, I laughed and said, “Your call came right on time.”
Morning walks are a gift in retirement years. One sees things with eyes that are both old, and new. One remembers, prays, dreams. Today I notice the doorways.
In doorways, along streets were I often walk are folks without shelter. In the early morning light I see them. Many are asleep, a few are up, moving, repacking their belongings. I speak sometimes: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Mostly the response is silence or “no thanks.” Today, Ronnie says “that would be nice.”
In my city are dozens, perhaps hundreds, who seek evening shelter at our doorways, under bridges and in wooded clearings. We have shelters and multiple social service programs – some very good ones. Years ago, the church I served in this town made a commitment to seek to make a difference. A fine set of service agencies have resulted. Even so, the number of persons living on the streets keeps growing. They come from nearby towns where resources are few, and, truly, they come from around the nation. Mental health resources, creative responses for addictions and resources to aid severe poverty are insufficient. We look to the mayor, other city officials and social service agencies to make a response and are often disappointed.
As I walk, Revelation 3:20 comes to mind. 3:20 “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” (NRSVUE) The King James Version’s memorable translation begins “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” The meaning of this passage has been spiritualized by much of American Christianity.
After all, the book of Revelation is “apocalyptic” literature filled with symbols and metaphor like dragons, angels, seals, beasts, earthquakes, rivers and gardens. Revelation is an interpreters paradise. Many a theological shyster has used Revelation for purposes that are contradictory to the messages of the Torah, Prophets or Jesus of the Gospels. Some interpretations naturally move away from seeing real-flesh-and-blood-folks, like Ronnie, who sleep in our doorways.
Revelation 3:20 is often spiritualized to mean that Jesus stands in an individual’s experiece or “the heart’s doorway.” It is a passage used in support of “born again” Christianity to mean that if one “opens the door of the heart” then Jesus will “come in” and that person will then be “saved.”
This is, no doubt, helpful to many. However, what of a wider understanding of this, not just a spiritual awakening, but a true “behold” event? What if the one on the outside seeks shelter and fellowship with the insiders, us?
What if Jesus’ representatives are actually at our doorways? What if these persons are signs of Jesus’ presence today? Over and over in Revelation there is the phrase “I know your works.” The writer of Revelation does not write, “I know your heart experience,” but rather “I know your works.“
In the 8th Century BCE, the prophet Isaiah challenged his listeners to do more than join the institutionalized rituals — the “fasting” on certain occasions. The question Isaiah posed was “what does God require of us?” He answers, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:7).
On our streets today, in every city and town, folks sleep in doorways without shelter. More resources are needed. And how much of the continuing challege around this dilemma resides in an inability to “behold” the one at the door as worthy of our response and more? How might these be seen as a part of a larger story — one that requires more of us? Social service agencies can serve as buffers protecting from having to do anything other than donate a few bucks and then look the other way.
Our “programs” and “agencies” can actually allow us to avoid discovering the stories of those who sleep in our doorways. Insufficient resources is a truth. But more resource and programs are not enough. We also live in a culture that looks on the poor as those who are in the situation due to their own personal “moral failing.” Such a perspective limits our imagination and distorts our empathy.
John McKnight reminds us of an even more fundamental complication and reality. Our institutional responses, well-meaning as they are meant to be, can become twisted and upsidedown. Agency programs can fall into virtue cycles, and end up spending more energy on applying for the next grant or designing the next fund-raising event than in listening to, and beholding those in our doorways. Additional government and philanthropic regulations require more staff. Our bureaucratic impulses turn those “being served” into “clients” who are to be “treated” according to an outside formula or “an outcome.” The persons without shelter, or with “mental illness” or suffering an addiction lose their voice and the unigue and powerful stories they bring, These are the very things that might better shape a genuinely effective response to root causes. Public servants can be turned into masters rather than the servants.
Ronnie and I sat at a table outside a shop along Kirkwood Street sharing coffee and a pastry. He tells of losing his job, his spouse and contact with his children. He says, “I have lost everything I love.” We pray. I mention some agencies, services nearby. He already knows them. He looks at me, nods and smiles saying, “This morning the coffee is enough.”
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.
Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members. Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits. You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets. The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life. It is a place of sharing and care. One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.
It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher. I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”
That’s okay, good even. I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship. I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy. I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.
I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.
The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story. He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life. Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”
Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time. In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?” It begins, “There was a certain man…”
Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions:
There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels. It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare. These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.
I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike. I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.
We pray the COVID pandemic is ending. Or, at least moving toward what might be called endemic where, like the flu virus, we can receive protection from a mutating disease with an annual vaccination. Looking back we can see the messy and confused ways our society lurched from stage to stage, denial to denial, and fear to fear in these months.
Our experience reminds me of an ancient rabbinic tale: A traveler attempting to reach a distant city approached a child playing at a crossroads. He asked directions to the city. The child answered, “do you want the short, long way or the long, short way?” The traveler replied, “Well, I wish the short, long way, of course” and the child pointed a direction. After an hour or two the traveler saw the city on the horizon; however, he was soon standing on the bank of a large swirling river separating him from the city.
Retracing his steps back to the child, he said, “Why did you send me to a place where I can see the city, but cannot not reach it without much time and danger?” The child replied, “You wanted the short, long way.” The traveler then took the other path and after several hours finally entered the city, crossing a bridge. (Talmud, Eruvin 53b, Rabbi Yehoshua be Chananiah)
For two years now, many have shought a shortcut bypassing the COVID pandemic, journeying the short, long way forward. One day, I pray we will re-learn, together, that the role of our national agencies, when guided by unfolding science, mutual respect and trust, offer the best “long, short way” ahead. As a child, I remember receiving the polio and small pox vaccines as part of such a national consensus. Millions since have been spared suffering and death. Vaccines, then and now, may serve as a bridge for the long, short journey.
There is another, more pernicious, pandemic that continually rages across our common life — it is the pandemic of racial bigotry and discrimination. It threatens our future, our being our best, and the hope of a just and moral way forward. Many people of good will want to act in ways that are anti-racist. Let me suggest that, here too, one discovers the option of a “short, long way” or a “longer, short way.”
Let me explain. In October 2020 when our nation was reeling form the many tragedies of racism laid bare, as symbolized by the murder of George Floyd, I was asked to offer some advice and teaching. How might we untangle the snares of racial injustice? How will we find a hopeful way forward and begin a journey toward more respectful and loving communities?
Based on earlier research on racism and my life experience, I was asked to lead several Zoom sessions (remember this was during the pandemic) on the seeking of racial justice. Looking back now, I recognize that my counsel was to travel the “long, short way.” There were no easy short cuts. I knew that establishing relationships with those unlike me was central; working together with persons of different racial backgrounds and experiences on addressing places of injustice was needed at a grass roots level as a way to seek racial justice. I said to preachers, “Don’t preach that sermon, until there is a way to build such relationships.” Many preached their finger-wagging sermons anyway. I encouraged persons to read a book on racism, hold conversations, but working together with neighbors who were unlike you was more essential for change. Many read the books and talked but did little else of real substance. As I watched the many efforts at “diversity training” and “book clubs reading about racism” unfold, I was hopeful but knew these might end up being a “short, long way.” We act our ways to new ways of thinking more often than we think our way to new ways of acting. Preachng, reading and talking are good — but insufficient in crossing this swirling river of division.
Since that time, I have watched “Critial Race Theory” and accusations about “defunding the police” or the “1619 Project” used to reinforce divisions by demagogues. Political and media actors make the building of relationships for the common good even more difficult. We are witnessing a pandemic of voter suppression as a way to avoid equal representation. A renewed use of the ‘Willie Horton strategy’ stiring up racial fear and animosity was evident in the hearings of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Sadly, it will take more than churches doing diversity training and reading groups, to respond to the waves of racially-stoked fear in our body politic. It will take more than curricular changes in our schools. It will take even more than this for the church and our society to move beyond our racial brokenness.
There is hope. I see it. It is a Long, Short Way ahead — If you do your diversity training, read those books on racism, please DO MORE. BUILD NEW RELATIONSHIPS. Reach out to those you perceive to be ‘different.’ Listen to their stories, find some small ways to work together. Leave your top-down ideas at home. Be quiet and listen for the signals of how you can best walk beside others. Together discover the long, short journey ahead. Join John Lewis in ‘making good trouble’ by crossing over that bridge.
Lest, I be misunderstood, racial injustice, tribal and ethnic discrimination is a human problem… it is in China, Myrnmar, India, Russia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East. White surpremacy is playing out during the trigic events in Ukraine just now. In each instance, there will be the temptation to deny or point to the sins of others… or to seek the short, long way forward. Hard questions await for us as to how our responses differ in Ukraine from Ethopia or Syria. For now, we can find a place in our hometowns to begin our own long, short journey.
The piece below as written last October. It is about a friend who helped teach me the long, short way toward racial justice. Her name was LaVerta Terry.
How to NOT Cure an Illness
This week a note popped up on my calendar dated, October 1st, 2020. It was a reminder to do a little one-year analysis of progress made regarding racial justice in the U.S. It read: “Next year consider if any thing more than reading and talking about racism has been done in your networks over the past year. Let’s check annually.”
I chuckled to myself. Since writing that note I had sat in on a number of conversations. Back in the summer and fall of 2020, following the tragic murder of George Floyd, and several other murders, folks were ready — to talk. I preached a few times. There was much conversation and study. Many church folks joined reading groups. There are many fine, fine books and some good conversation that has taken place. I am encouraged and at the same time dubious that real progress was being made.
If one has a headache, and the doctor prescribes aspirin, is it enough for the patient to sit and read the aspirin bottle label and not take the medicine? If a person is diagnosed with cancer, should the patient only review the research on carcinogens and treatments? Racism is endemic in our nation. We seek to make a difference every generation or so, only to fall back into old patterns of bigotry, separation and discrimination. Ours is a repetitive cycle of two steps forward and then one back. Yes, we are making progress, but we have miles to go and we are only progressing a few yards each decade.
My dear friend, LaVerta Terry once told me that “It’s going to take a lot more than reading and talking for things to change.” She reminded me of the quote by Frederick Douglas, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Research done decades earlier, in the 1970s, part of a program named Project Understanding, taught me that church people like to sit and talk. Getting up and doing something is much more challenging. Many like hearing challenging sermons about justice — well, okay, some folks like them, not all. I laugh thinking of folks who would leave worship following a “prophetic” sermon seeming so grateful I had railed against racism or sexism or homophobia. One fella, many years ago, thanked me at the door following such a sermon saying, “That was good, we like it when you talk dirty to us.” Yikes, is that all some these sermons were? Just a scolding? Treating the congregation like a collection of bad adolescents? Are they just a public rehearsal of “oughts, musts and shoulds” that cause folks in the pew to squirm?
Since that research on racism now nearly fifty years ago, I have seen over and again that there is a better way to deal with racism than reading or preaching. In the 1970s we would challenge congregations by asking “Did your church spend more on light bulbs or toilet paper in the past year than on programs in the community supporting racial justice?” Maybe we should be asking that question again. There are ways to engage with persons across the racial lines that continue to separate and harm. There are ways to “walk our prayers into existence.” Whatever your race or ethnicity, we can do more than read — we can ACT, LEARN, BEFRIEND, TOUCH, LAUGH as we PRAY.
Yes, marches for justice are necessary. Yes, passing the voting rights act is essential. We also need to take account of how our institutions spend time and money. What will have changed for us when October 2022 comes around?
My friend LaVerta Terry, died five years ago. She worked with the Black Student programs at Indiana University. More importantly, I now realize that her best gift was as my friend. We laughed often and well. We went to the opera and marched to address racist behaviors or in support of a student who had been excluded or verbally wounded by hateful language. LaVerta would say “The more opposition I faced, the more I decided I could make a difference, but to do this I had to make some people uncomfortable.” We strategized as to how to make changes and not only talk about them. I can hear her still, saying “If all we are going to do at church is talk, talk, talk, I’ll be waiting outside the door to walk, walk, walk.” LaVerta taught me much — talking is good; walking is better; strategize to get up and make a change; make a new friend; and, laughing together can’t be beat.
How not to cure an illness? Just read the label? Okay, what are you planning for next year? Any new friendships in your future? Let’s check in again next October.