Seek Renewal? Begin Here

Renewal: A Politics of Compassion

Our nation suffers from the challenges of COVID-19. Even more we have arrived at this time divided and distrusting of many others. One of the benefits I enjoy is knowing where there are important voices that should be heard in this time, in this nation, in our world.

I invite you to watch the attached video in which the steps toward renewal are presented by Rev. Mark Feldmeir, St. Andrew United Methodist Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado. I believe Mark’s voice is one of wisdom and vision. His message is one that should be heard nationally and globally. Please listen and then share it with a neighbor. How will we emerge from this pandemic with a sense of hope and vision? I believe it is to discover the Common Good through a Politics of Compassion.

Rev. Mark Feldmeir, Highlands Ranch United Methodist, Colorado

Rediscovering the Essentials

Rediscovering the Essentials

A sermon by Philip Amerson, St. Marks United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Let me begin by asking you to consider two questions: First, what in your life’s journey thus far has prepared you for this time of staying at home?  Second, what are you learning while staying at home that will help you better live on the journey ahead?

  1. Darkness and Sight

Sarah Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, is one of our nation’s leading researchers of exoplanets — those places across the universe where the right conditions may exist for life, as we know it, to appear.  Professor Seager understands as few of us do, that sometimes we need darkness to truly see.  You see, exoplanets are often hidden by brightness of nearby stars.  Dr. Seager also knows that sometimes journeying through the dark places of our personal lives allows us to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly.  Eight years ago, her husband Mike, died of a rare cancer.  Mike gave space for Sarah’s career to flourish.  He was house husband and primary care giver for their two young sons.  As Sarah put it, she never had to shop for groceries, or cook or pump gas… all she had to do was find another earth.”[i]

Sometimes we need darkness to see, as two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus were about to discover.  Who were they?  We have the name Cleopas as one of the travelers.  The other is not named. I love the mysteries of this story – this is a parable inside a parable and it is for then, and now.  This story is filled with surprises.  It has become so familiar for many of us – perhaps too familiar.  What might it help us see for the first time?  In this season of pandemic and fear, eager to get back to business-as-usual and back to something “normal,” who and what might we re-discover to be essential?  Where is our true home? What might our eyes be opened to see for the first time?

Our images may not include the possibility that one of the travelers is a woman.  There have been several paintings with an artist’s depiction of these two travelers; however, few if any, depict one of them as a woman.  In my mind this seems more likely.  You see, there are surprises for us here.

In this time when the world has been turned upside down by a microscopic coronavirus – when our personal worlds have been capsized, thrown into disarray, we might well understand the situation facing these Jesus-followers who are headed “home;” but home has become an unknown territory.  This fellow Jesus, a promising rabbi, had taught, healed and helped people face disappointment, death and despair.  He had brought hope. Now it had been dashed.  The words “we had hoped” leap from the lips of these travelers.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Living life with hope in the past tense is worse than death.”[ii]

Those disciples, like us, are caught between two worlds – for one they had hoped — and in one they now lived.   Richard Rohr writes: “It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.”  [iii]

  1. The Essentials

It is in these times that we discover again who and what is essential.  Is a haircut essential?  Well, it is if you are a barber!  A veil has been lifted and we now discover persons who are essential.  Who is essential in your life?  We discover the essential work of custodians, public safety workers, those who stock the grocery shelves, nurses, truck drivers, physicians, those who collect the garbage… this list goes on and on. 

Are clean air, water and a healthy natural world essential?  As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, arrived on Wednesday, for the first time in years people in many places saw blue skies, nearby mountains, fish in streams and canals – we are seeing things we had not known we were missing. We now can see – if we look —  that we are interconnected with every other person on this planet.  We are connected with the entirety of our ecological systems. 

As Will Willimon puts it, we are discovering, like these early disciples, that “Jesus is on the loose.” Like a guest who shows up and starts teaching us the lessons we have ignored for too long.  Might we see the interconnectedness of all things? Might our global environment be struggling with an infection – a virus or too much pollution?  Could our vibrant sphere, this planet, our earth home, be struggling with too much use of fossil fuels, too much travel, so much greed, an ignoring of caring for the health of our natural gifts?

We are discovering that planning, science, good information, wise governance and preparedness are essential.  Just-in-time production and delivery now leaves us sorely unprepared — for this sudden change in what is needed for a quality life… for life itself.

Almost 70 years ago, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and transcendence.  I hadn’t thought of this in years, decades.  Today, it has become more obvious and important.  While we are sheltering-in-place, or staying-safe-at-home, we are discovering again these – and other – core human needs.  What would you include as essentials?  What would your hierarchy include?   If like me you have discovered such things as the importance of belonging with others in new ways – family and friends, caring for the neighbor.  Some who you have not thought of in months. 

I have discovered that movement is a fantastic privilege.  When we lose the freedom to move about freely, we face difficult choices about our identity.  Pico Iyer wrote travel books suggesting that “We travel initially to lose ourselves and next we travel to find ourselves.”  But later, Iyer wrote a critique of his earlier writings entitled: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.  Borrowing from Thoreau he wrote: “It matters not where or how far you travel — but how much alive you are to the place you are.” [iv]

And, for me, knowing about home is an essential – Home, where we can prepare for the journeys ahead and practice seeing in a new way.  Home is not where you sleep, it is where you stand; it is what and who you value. It is hard to get your bearings when in midair.  So, home is more than a place.  Home is a work in progress.  Home has less to do with a piece of soil than a place for the soul.  Nelle Morton, in her book The Journey is Home taught us many years ago that “home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be ‘their own,’ and increasingly responsible for the world.”[v]

You see, we do not know where Emmaus is geographically.  Frederick Buechner puts it this way, We do not have to know where Emmaus is… we just know that it is seven miles from heartache and heartbreak.   Even better, I like the notion shared by John Dominic Crossan who says, “No one, then or now, knows where Emmaus is… maybe it is nowhere… or maybe it is everywhere.

This story challenges our notion that it is our job to somehow find Jesus.  Too much of our theology and church work in North America presumes that we are the ones who are to set about to discover Jesus, as if he has been lost.  No.  Instead, like in this story, it is Jesus who finds us along our journey and in our home… The resurrected Jesus on the loose, finds us, and teaches again what is essential.

Where do you find hope?  Where do you see Jesus on the loose?  I have found hope in poetry, song and good writing.  If you have a chance, read the blog of John Robert McFarland, Christ in Winter.  We miss seeing John and Helen in church each week these days — but we can read what he writes. It is a gift and I often read it to discover that Jesus is on the loose in ways I had not seen before.  Thank you, John, you help me discover an unexpected Jesus.

  1. The Table – Journey and Home

So dear friends, in this place and time, what do we learn when we journey?  And, what at home prepares us for the journey ahead?  Four things I hope you remember from the retelling of the Emmaus story today:

  1. Sometimes darkness is essential to more clearly see.
  2. Jesus is on the loose all around you.
  3. At Emmaus the tables are turned and disciples re-discover hope.
  4. This hope is a journey. Home is a journey, that may become a permanent residence.

When I think of Jesus on the loose, I think of friends who have helped me see that the stranger just might be the Jesus on the loose, of Christ incognito.  I saw this most clearly on a journey I took with two friends, two characters, Ernie Teagle and Raydean Davis. Ernie was a cardiovascular surgeon in Belleville, Illinois.  Raydean, a Methodist pastor who served during most of ministry in university settings.  We had been reading some Latin American theologians and had the crazy notion of riding motorcycles all the way to Costa Rica to visit with some theologians there. 

When we arrived at the border with Mexico, we discovered that we would be charged a crossing fee as well as a tariff.  You see, the Mexican authorities thought we might be trying to bring the motorcycles there to sell at a profit.  Then we learned that between the Texas border and the Guatemalan border with Mexico, there would be fourteen other check points — each requiring the payment of a crossing fee.  So we turned the bikes around and decided to fly to Costa Rica.  Heading for New Orleans we ran into a terrible rainstorm.  We were soaked and the heavy rain and wind seemed to get only worse.  Just over the Texas border with Louisiana, we found a Holiday Inn and decided to shelter there for the night.  We were drenched.

Once we were settled, we headed to dinner in the hotel.  No one else much was there.  There was a waitress, and obviously a cook because food came to the table.  There was the fella at the front desk.  No one else.  My crazy, wonderful journey friends, Raydean and Ernie said to the waitress “Would you bring us another one of those dinner rolls and a bottle of Merlot?  And invite the cook, the desk clerk, the custodian and anyone else here to come and sit with us for a while.”  They did. 

I was slow.  I had a vague idea of what was going to happen – I should have known better.  When we had all gathered, Ernie looked at Raydean and said, “Okay, you’re on.”  Raydean asked everyone to come in close.  He asked each person’s name and then he broke the bread and shared the wine.  As Fred Craddock has said, “Had they known before the invitation that the stranger was the Christ, one can imagine the red carpet and elaborate preparations.  But it was with tired and hungry travelers that they shared bread.  They prepared supper, and his presence made it a sacrament.[vi]

St. Augustine said that breakfast the next morning is a sacrament, if one knows that Jesus is present.  As the meal was shared these disciples’ eyes were opened.  They were changed from those who said, “we had hoped” to ones you exclaimed, “did not our hearts burn within us!” 

The funny addition to this story is that the next morning we rushed off on our motorcycles and made it to the New Orleans airport just in time miss our flight.  So, we waited another day and again, in another hotel, Raydean blessed the bread and wine and we shared these gifts with a new group of strangers who became our friends.

The text in Luke says that after the meal Jesus disappeared.  These two folks who had walked seven miles to arrive home were now ready for the journey, they were now eager to rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others of this experience.

May you understand that sometimes it takes darkness to see more clearly, that Jesus is loose in the world, that tables can be turned and bring new awareness and may you know that home is also a journey… and the journey is also your home.  What we learn as we stay indoors can prepare us for the journey ahead.  Amen. 


[i] The Daily, NY Times, The Sunday Read, The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth,” April 19, 2020

[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, p. 21.

[iii] Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020.

[iv] Gate, Tom Montgomery, March 14, 2018, from the blog Spiritual Detours.

[v] Morton, Nelle The Journey is Home, pp. xix.

[vi] Craddock, Fred, Luke: Interpretation, p. 121.

After the Storm — The Congressman Responds

Χριστός ἀνέστη! Easter Redux

The congressman responded – in three days! An email arrived late yesterday from Congressman Trey Hollingsworth. A response in three days? Normally I wait weeks/months — often no response comes. Okay, I admit to chuckling when I thought, “Three days, that’s the time Jesus was in the tomb.” Good for you Congressman! Someone in your office was working on Saturday. I would guess there were dozens who wrote him about his comment that we should “put on big boy pants” and give attention to securing our future lifestyle over loss of life.

So, what I received was boilerplate, I know. Nice generalities and lofty, vague words of concern. There were many others who received the same response, no doubt. However, there was a difference in tone — less strident, fewer overtones of conspiracy. While the response was generic and suggested we needed to be thoughtful, the underlying message appeared to be the same.

This post includes first thoughts on my-response-to-his-response and concludes with some suggestions for us all about where we go from here. But first… It’s Easter!

For the world’s Orthodox Christians this is Easter Day. For me, it is Easter Redux. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the celebration began late Saturday night when blazing candles filled the church. Christos Anesti!” the priest shouts at midnight and the Orthodox worshipers respond: “Χριστός ἀνέστη!” – “Christ is Risen!” But this year it was different.

Normally that flame starts in Jerusalem and is carried by plane, helicopter or other transport to Orthodox churches around the globe. However, this year, the pandemic has changed that. Normally Orthodox churches are packed. In some communities the priest moves through the community from house to house blessing the homes of the believers. Not this year — this pandemic has changed that.

Our world has been changed — even so, from the stillness and the isolation, from the sheltering alone/together, I hear the unifying desire of people of faith everywhere — Χριστός ἀνέστη! Christos Anesti!

There are other refrains. Persons of other faith traditions share their light in this time of sadness. And, nonreligious persons who seek the common good join their voices and hands toward a better future.

We also hear persons who say “we will never return to normal” while others say “we need to return to normal as soon as possible.” Which is it?

Truth is, there will be no returning to normal and, truth is, we need to do more than lament our loss.

First, we need to look to science, wise governance and theological/ethical understandings and give our best to reducing the effects of this scourge, saving as many lives as possible AND at the same time we need to begin to offer new economically just ways forward. I believe we can shape ways that save as many lives and the health of as many as possible and at the same time offer new options for a strong and more just economic future.

What if we worked to share Christ’s light around the world in new ways? What if we were to move beyond the corrosive and divisive powers at play and aspire to a new way of living? Kidar Nelson has recently completed a painting entitled After the Stormhttps://www.cbsnews.com/news/artist-kadir-nelson-after-the-storm/. (CBS News, April 19,2020) He pictures dozens of folks, young and old; persons of all hues and cultures in a compelling human pyramid. Together, hands and arms interconnected, they are looking to the horizon. Nelson says, “I would challenge everyone and anyone to fill their days with creating something that’s going to help themselves get to the next moment, to the next hour, to the next day, to the next week, so that by the end of this experience, we’ve created this beautiful document that shows where we’ve been, who we are, and how we’re going to move forward.” (See: kidarnelson.com)

My temptation, and I fear the temptation of too many, is to anger. On all sides there seems to be a deep desire to blame someone, to settle some score, to act on some accumulated grievance. Do I believe some have behaved badly. Yes. Are some still seeking to reshape the narrative, turning mistakes into efforts to malign others. Yes, I do see this. There will be a day of accounting. However, for now, I urge us to give our energies to imagining and aspiring toward a better future. Like Kidar Nelson, let’s bring the gifts and interests we have into a time of creativity.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. our leaders still talk of “relief packages.” Word is that “Relief Package – IV” is in the works and will soon be approved. Okay — good. Let’s get support for those who are suffering with health and with their financial futures — individual persons, small businesses, hospitals, communities and corporations we will need as we imagine a better future together.

Shaping and funding relief packages now is important. Envisioning a new way our economy can function and all lives can be improved is essential. In his letter Congressman Hollingsworth wrote: “It is the duty of elected officials to present a plan to the American people that acknowledges this reality. We must have the difficult conversation about how we can minimize both the risk to American lives and the risk to our American way of life.  Then, we can move forward as a country.

Yes, let’s have those difficult conversations. I agree. Let’s hold them in places where folks are welcome to disagree, agreeably. Let’s move away from photo ops with a few supporters, to Town Halls where many voices can be heard and new insights gained.

Yes, let’s move forward, but not with the foolish notion that we can go back to the normal. Let’s think together about what we have learned in this time. Let’s think together about what we have learned about supply chains, research needs, rural health options, personal safety equipment. What does this mean about our international relationships and the reality that our global community carries with it opportunities as well as threats? Let’s talk honestly about that.

What does “moving forward” mean? Later this month I will say more — more about this creative opportunity, more about the dimensions of God’s will, more about what we can learn from our history and, mostly, more about how we Christians might live with love toward all people and all of God’s creation.

For now, I wish you all a belated Easter greeting. Christos anesti, Χριστός ἀνέστη

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will

No, Pandemics Are Not God’s Will!

I was surprised, shocked actually, by the thousands who read my letter to Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana, 9th Congressional District). Hollingsworth said that in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic we had to choose securing our livelihood even if it meant sacrificing some lives. Since then, the congressman has walked back his statement. Now says he was “only saying this was a difficult choice.

While I appreciate the congressman’s more moderate verbiage, his underlying message remains the same and is obvious: even if some people have to die, we should give greater preference to commerce over the current efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Responses to my letter were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there were only a handful who argued that this pandemic was God’s will. God’s will? Sadly, I find such perspectives as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. Is it God’s will that children are abused? Is it God’s will that persons are afflicted with cancer? Was the holocaust God’s will? This pandemic is in no way God’s will! I hold that God expects us to do something about this suffering and death. It is in our response to such tragedies where we can begin to discover God’s will. Over the centuries we have seen God’s will displayed by folks like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer or Father Damien. Many of the horrific realities human beings face are rooted in poor, uninformed, and sometimes evil, human decisions.

I believe God’s will is now seen in heroes, like Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauchi and Dr. Francis Collins. Even more, God’s will is demonstrated in the nurses, grocery clerks, physicians, police and fire personnel, truck drivers, medics, researchers, and all who risk their own health for the sake of others every day. In my reading of scripture and knowledge of other faith traditions, such neighbor-care is at the core of what God wills for all of us.

Too much of what goes on in our nation these days is misconstrued somehow as God’s will. It is not. We humans have moral choices to make each and every day. There has been an emergence of phony-Calvinism evident in our nation over recent decades that somehow suggests certain events, tragedies and even election results are “predestined” as God’s will.

Those who genuinely read John Calvin’s work know he understood the importance of human agency as part of God’s plan. Anyone who knows the story of John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva knows the remarkable way he responded to the plagues in his time. His actions involved the quarantine of those who were ill, the seeking the best medical advice possible and an understanding that some brave persons would be called on to risk the care of those who were sick and dying. This was the core of God’s will. Calvin himself visited these plague hospitals to pray with those who were suffering, knowing full well that he was putting himself at risk.

Those who know me, know I am Wesleyan. I have my disagreements with Calvinist thought although the richness of his understanding of God’s intentions for human life are of great value. My reading of the theology of John Calvin offers absolutely no support for a nonsensical notion that this pandemic is God’s will! Nor, should his view of predestination be thought to support a passive approach to this pandemic.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved away from Calvinism. Still he also saw the important role of Christians as ones who expressed Gods’ will though wise medical practice. Now is a time to affirm that all life is to be valued and protected. All of life! We need to learn new ways to care for God’s creation, across the entire ecology of our human, animal, plant, water, air, stone and soils.

Yesterday, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to push for this false choice between lifestyle and life, “supposed” medical epidemiologist “experts” like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (not an M.D.) made similar arguments to those made by the congressman. Dr. Phil suggested that car accidents and smoking kill more people every year than this virus. Okay — first, one wonders how he knows, as this virus only started claiming victims a few months ago (it has not yet been a year). And secondly, while people choose to drive and smoke, I haven’t heard of anyone who chooses to be infected by this virus.

Even worse, Dr. Oz said that if we returned now to free movements and social contacts it would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality.” Two or three percent? In the United States that could mean over six million deaths! Really? One wonders why we must suffer from a pandemic of confusion and poor logic along with this virus. How many will needlessly die from such pandering?

There are better ways to help our businesses than sacrificing the lives of millions. In fact, the return to the “normal” of 2019 too quickly, very well could lead to even more mortality AND long term economic and commercial damage. Congressman Hollingsworth is right in saying these are difficult choices. However, he is wrong if he fails to consider the likelihood that this pandemic will come in waves, just like the Spanish Flu, in the early Twentieth Century. He is also wrong if he buys into a simplistic either/or of commerce or life — he says the question is complex. Okay how will the policies he supports demonstrate this?

This pandemic will bear a cost in both lives lost and economic suffering; our response needs to begin with an understanding of human agency. Are we responsible? Do we decide what our economic theory and practice should be? Or is this a time we will make our economic theories into our “Gods” that will determine and limit our ethical choices? What we need now are clear-eyed, well researched medical, economic and, yes, I would argue ethical/theological responses to this crises. That is, in my view, God’s will.

For This We Pray

My awakening came after the National Prayer Breakfast on the morning of February 6th. The annual prayer breakfast was heavily covered by the news media. For the wrong reasons. You see, following Arthur Brooks’ message about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, President Trump began his remarks with “I don’t know if I agree with Arthur,” and proceeded to question the faith commitments and prayers of those who disagree with him. It was a direct dismissal of Brooks’ message that our nation needed to move beyond a “culture of contempt.”

These are difficult days. Prayer is in short supply. Rationed? No, I fear it has “been disappeared.” Taken to the outskirts of our commonweal and imprisoned in our ideological certainties. Lost in rancor amplified by competing messages of contempt sent across social media and cable news.

The impeachment trial had ended only a few hours prior to the breakfast. The Senate voted for acquittal. Senator Mitt Romney had spoken movingly of his own deep faith commitments and these ethical commitments lead him to vote for removal of the president based on one of the charges. So, this prayer breakfast, this annual event to increase mutual respect and deepen faith, was turned into a sad spewing of invective and malice.

The national news reports missed the lead story — the truly critical message of the morning. The true-north of the gathering was Brooks’ call to step beyond our culture of contempt and ending with a video-linked benediction offered by Congressman John Lewis who reminded those present of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “I have decided to stick with love, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” O God, teach me to pray.

As the day went on, I kept thinking of the missed opportunity, the deeper story. The call to move past all the grievance and fear. To clearly name the lies and still act as neighbor with those who disagree. This is difficult work. O God, teach us to pray.

I found myself wondering what would happen if, despite what the president believes about the prayers and faith commitments of folks like me (or even Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi) — what if — what if my prayers, our prayers were ever more publicly visible and shaped around the core commitment to neighbor love. O God teach me how to pray.

What if there was a daily call to prayer for millions of us, as a preparing of our nation’s heart and mind shaped for acts of love? What if these were prayers of confession for my (our) failures? What if daily, there was a national call to prayer, challenging the retributive policies that require the making enemies, the telling of lies about others, the ridiculing of those who differ, the establishment of dichotomies? Such prayers could not be carried in the shibboleth of nice, soft words. They would include prayers of judgement and for deliverance from the evil of these days. O God, teach me to pray?

Such prayers will require acts of resistance and demand the courage to speak both with respect and still with clear critiques of the falsehoods and damage being done to others and to our republic. O God, teach us how to pray.

With this on my mind I came across the passage below in Peter Storey’s autobiography, “I Beg to Differ.” Storey, a Methodist pastor in South Africa, who fought the good and courageous fight against Apartheid, knew how to pray this kind of prayer — the prayer that I was now seeking to discover in this time and place. He speaks of the call to those with whom he worked in this way:

“I reminded them that “John Wesley’s theology was beaten out on the anvil of his daily battle with personal and social evil in a brutalised society very much like our own.” Real hope was born in the inward life of the soul because “hope’s final fortress is the heart”, but needed to be realised in concrete action. Rather than being part of the nation’s disease, the Church had to be the place where “the love of God leaps across the parallel lines drawn by history.” ― [from Peter Storey’s, “I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas.”]

“Hope’s final fortress is the heart,” O God, teach me how to pray.

The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives.  Another year.  Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world.  Memories cascade:

  • Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
  • Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
  • Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
  • Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
  • Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.

These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces.  I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category.  Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live.  In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.

White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity.  There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.   The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core.  Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.”  Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.

Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal.  Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.”  In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.

Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.  President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.

image
[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”   Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.  Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report.  Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure.  Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.

In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work.  My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.”  The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding.  We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions.  More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities.  We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed. 

Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation.  Change required relationship.  It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes.  It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.

Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us.  It is the notion of “good people on all sides.”  Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed.  Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”

This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear.  Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy.  Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.”  Really, Senator McConnell?  You say this with a straight face.

There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care.  One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.”  She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on. 

She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth.  Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap.  It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”  [Thick, p. 152]

Filibustered by Congress

Filibustered by Congress

“Write your congressman” — advice I have heard — and given — all of my adult life. Often, I wrote. I have written scores of letters to senators and congresspersons. Acknowledging that it would likely make only a slight difference, if any, I wrote. Past experience was that the congressperson, or her staff, replied. Often there was disagreement. Still, I wrote and they replied. Occasionally, in the process, our positions and concerns were clarified. Sometimes there were acknowledgments of gratitude beyond ‘thank you for writing.’ There was, implicitly at least, a search for common understanding — perhaps some shared awareness might be found, even if only a tiny patch of it — light (insight) that is.

Today it seems that the Republicans in Congress are filibustering the American people as we search for light. Instead of filibustering in Congress we now are in a time of filibustering by Congress. What is the truth regarding the actions of Donald Trump and his enablers regarding aid withheld and encouragement needed for a more democratic governance in the Ukraine?

An impeachment has resulted and now a Senate trial. Efforts to hear from witnesses, to see public documents or interview government officials involved are avoided or denied altogether. We deserve answers — instead we receive what can only be understood as ideological fog and attempts by persons like Rudy Giuliani to tell us “up is down” and “left is right.” There is an embargo on needed information — a filibuster is set up against information for the citizens of the United States.

In the past, I wrote my representatives and they replied. That was then. Now? Not so much. I continue to write. My experience with Trey Hollingsworth, Congressman from Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District, exemplifies the problem. No more honest exchange. (I also write Senators Young and Braun and find a similar sad pattern of avoiding and filibustering in their responses.) Responses to my letters are delayed or not received at all. Worse yet, when a response comes, there is an avoidance of answers to specific questions. Instead there is a blaming of others, a sense of victimization, an avoidance of seeking after any truth other than what little can fit in a narrow ideological corner. Below are my questions for Representative Hollingsworth first sent on November 8, 2019; then, sent again, December 19, 2019.

  1. Do you believe the testimony of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman that efforts were made to demand of Ukrainian President Zelensky a public statement against a private citizen of the United States in exchange for the release of much needed military aid?
  2. Do you observe this as a way Mr. Trump continues to act in support of the global agenda of Mr. Putin and Russia?
  3. Was Russia engaged in trying to influence elections in 2016 and is Russia already at work on interfering in the 2020 elections?
  4. What are you, as a congressman, doing to protect us from any such attacks?
  5. Was the National Rifle Association a conduit for Russian influence in our elections?
  6. Did former Congressman Rohrabacher and Pete Sessions receive direct support from Russia or were they indirectly assisted by the use of Russian directed bots on social media?
  7. Have you received, or are you open to receiving, aid from any foreign country, especially Russia for your political campaigns?
  8. What will you say to your grandchildren when they ask in twenty years, “What did you do to protect representative democracy, grandpa?”  [This is not a rhetorical question.  I sincerely want your answer.]

A response, of sorts, from Representative Hollingsworth came on January 3rd. Remembering my questions, here is what I received:

I realize my questions were direct, troubling for those who would seek to protect Donald Trump and his administration. However, they were more. Most could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Each question was a sincere effort to get at the truth. Of course, question number eight challenges the Congressman to think about his legacy — what indeed will he say to his grandchildren?

I am wondering if others in my congressional district and state might try… perhaps if there are three of us, or ten of us, or one hundred of us, we might get more than responses that seek to avoid honest and direct answers to these questions.

And in recent days, many other disturbing questions have emerged. Was Ambassador Yovanovitch under surveillance while in the Ukraine? What was the role played by our Secretary of State? Our Vice President? Our Attorney General? The Secretary of Energy? The Ranking House Republican on the Intelligence Committee?

It seems each week is filled with new information that Senator McConnell, his allies and President Trump would like to sweep under a carpet of avoidance and obfuscation. I believe we, the American People, deserve more than a filibuster against us. I wish to know the truth that might be uncovered in answering my first set of questions.  If answered, they would offer a place to begin to understand what is at play.

Our future as a Constitutional Democracy requires more than a filibuster of information directed against us, the Citizens. As Timothy Snyder puts it so well, “post-truth is pre-fascism.” 

Hacked Christianity — UMC

Below are my comments responding to Jeremy Smith’s fine post in Hacking Christianity regarding the plan for United Methodism to move beyond the brokenness and harm of recent decades. (http://hackingchristianity.net/2020/01/the-art-of-the-deal-understanding-the-plan-of-separation-for-the-united-methodist-church.html) Yes, this is a schism… however, as many others have pointed out, this is a separation, a brokenness, an ideological chasm that has been going on for years.

My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.

Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.

Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.

What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.

Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.

2020 – Time to Build or Tear?

I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.

The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

The poem goes: a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(NRSV)

Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.

As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and all should stand in awe before God.”

So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!

A Crack in Everything

On Wednesday, December 18th the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump. It was a day of sadness and a day of hope. For me the hope didn’t ensue from the debate on the floor of congress or even the the vote to impeach. Rather it came from a surprising place, Christianity Today magazine.

Mark Galli, longtime editor of the magazine who is about to retire, wrote an editorial that gave voice to a bubbling discontent that has marinated among Evangelical Christians for years. In short, Galli asserted that Donald Trump should be impeached and removed. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.

Galli writes, this president’s actions and words are “profoundly immoral.” Trump, Mr. Galli asserts, “has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Was I surprised? Well, in truth my surprise was only that it has taken this long for an Evangelical leader with moral courage to surface. Over the past three years my Evangelical friends have lowered their gaze and voices when speaking of the wholesale surrender of Christian virtue to Donald Trump. They spoke of his enablers, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., having strayed far from any biblically normative ethic. Just how solid is the support for Mr. Trump?

There has been growing discontent and concern near the heart of important parts of the Evangelical universe. For years, words of concern have come from Fuller Seminary that the racist language and the horrific immigration policies of the Trump administration are not to be endorsed. Respected Evangelical colleges across the nation, places like Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, Wheaton in Illinois, Seattle Pacific, Houghton in New York have seen a growing willingness to say “enough, this is not who we are!”

In May 2019 there was widely expressed faculty and student discontent at Taylor University in Indiana when Vice President Pence was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed a petition of concern regarding the racism and bigotry of the administration. There was a request to rescind the invitation, to no avail. Mr. Pence spoke; but dozens of the graduates and faculty did not participate or wore symbols of protest saying “We Are Taylor Too.”

In the state universities, like in my hometown, Evangelical student organizations are finding young Christian students who are embarrassed by the claims that Trump represents an Evangelical agenda. They discover alternative voices and perspectives.

I listen to the pundits who say the Evangelical support is a solid wall, eighty percent (80%) or more of the Evangelicals will support this administration. I doubt it. I doubt it will be there in November. O yes, I suspect a majority of those who wear the “Evangelical” label will march in line. However, there is dissent, especially among the young.

So, my belief, my hope at least, is that December 18, 2019 was an inflection point, a crack in the silence, a step by the honest adventurers away from all of the aiding and abetting. The gift of truth was spoken even amid the threats to “stay in line.” This crack in the facade of official Evangelicalism is an opening for small virtues like manners, and greater virtues like truth, altruism and beauty. I want to express gratitude ahead of time to our courageous Evangelical sisters and brothers speaking words of truth in the new year. May your tribe increase.

I am reminded of words of Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (From Anthem by Leonard Cohen.  See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)

Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way in the year ahead that we may see your pathways of hope.  Amen