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.
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!
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.
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
Two narratives on impeachment: 1) What is legal, constitutional? What builds up a responsible nation with checks and balances as a human community? 2) Can we avoid corrupt leadership by diverting attention, blaming others, claiming to be victim, complaining about the process? True — there is a mix of both sets of ideas in each narrative presented, however on the whole, #1 is the response of those who seek restoration (we might call it adult or grown-up) and #2 is the response of those who seek only retribution (the preadolescent response).
It is difficult to step back and see the larger frame of what is occurring in our nation just now. However, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson 161 years ago offers some perspective. Realities between then and now are nearer than is often seen or understood. Johnson said that the nation would always “by God,” be a nation of white men. Reconstruction had only begun and the fear of the loss of the dominance by Whites in the political process, along with the deeply embedded racism – both open and submerged — along with the appeal to authoritarianism and illiberal ideologies are as much in play now as then. They are made of the same core ingredients of human fear and desire to control.
Studies of racism over the past fifty years show a high correlation with authoritarianism, dogmatism and status concern. Not much change comes by argument or debate; even so, there is the need to say, “NO, go no further with the harm you are doing.” More likely, change comes to persons who carry different narratives when they meet one another, experiencing the world of an enemy in real time, real life. The stranger, sometimes ever so slowly, learns that he or she can also be neighbor.
Prayers this Advent are that the slow restorative work of seeking to transform a stranger into neighbor can move forward… with the aid of a flawed human process known as impeachment.
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I chuckled when I first heard this — and understood the truth it contained. This wisdom, first heard years ago, is both whimsical and helpful in appreciating the gifts of insight and delight offered by a good story.
Stories provide a doorway to new understandings, new vistas on human realities and may even offer broader faith understandings. Jesus of Nazareth knew the value of parable — story laid alongside life’s experience and opening the listener to deeper truths. Stories are durable and can both deepen mystery or provide clues to one of life’s many puzzles.
What of the converse? Can we say, “Never let story get in the way of fact?” As the impeachment hearings in Congress began on November 13th we heard Ukrainian Ambassador William B. Taylor and George Kent, long-time expert on the Ukraine, speak of dueling narratives, competing stories. These career civil servants were troubled by a counter narrative being peddled among certain American leaders based on conspiracy and contrary to the deep expertise of those committed to our national security.
What is a good story, for you, dear reader?
A deep, and I believe, good narrative has guided our nation’s best actions for decades. Based on our constitution and constructive alliances with other nations it encourages the strengthening of human rights, democratic goals around the world. Do we sometimes get it wrong and stand with the tyrant — I fear we do and we have. However, the core narrative we share runs counter to tyranny and oppression. The current “irregular narrative” dismisses our nation’s long-held values and seeks to divide, destroy common understandings and undermine trust relationship.
What irony that on the day impeachment hearings begin, Mr. Trump entertained President Erdogan of Turkey and said he is “a big fan.” A big fan? A fan of a man whose strong-arm tactics destroy democracatic institutions, who jails those who disagree, whose recent aggression in Syria destroyed a delicate peace in the middle east and has set the stage for the reemergence of ISIS? A big fan? What irregular narrative is being promulgated? Why? Who benefits in the larger history being written for our grandchildren?
The idea of “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” contains the word “GOOD.” And, what is lacking in an “irregular narrative” is a link to our values and a moral compass. A good story is built on that which is constructive and beneficial to human communities and societies. The good story is one that encourages freedom and seeks to diminish tyranny. Abraham Lincoln used good stories as a critical part of his political legacy. Even though his legacy is imperfect, overall he chose to resist the temptation to divide and destroy those who disagreed. The alternative, the irregular narrative is based on a mountain of lies, of half-truths and a poisoned concoction of bigotry and deceit. Ambassador Taylor identified this story as dangerous to our security.
What makes a story good? Good for you? Good for your neighbor? Good stories are, at root factual, they contain truths, even though some of the “facts” may be elaborated. Good stories seek to help and not harm. Good stories build up and strengthen others.
Falsehoods are being dressed up and widely shared on social media. Memes and tropes are invented that are specifically designed to undercut that which is good. Truth is victimized and a search for the “good” is jeopardized. We are living through a time when false narratives are employed to hold gain and hold power and do harm. The temptation to accept the torrent of lies that come from politicians, tyrants and even television commentators seems too strong to be countered. However, I will live believing truth will prevail. What is “good” may appear to be lost in the tsunami of false information that seems to go unchecked. Still I choose a commitment to the commonweal, the beloved community, a community that includes all people.
Good stories are powerful things — at a fundamental level they reinforce and magnify the truth. In the end, I believe the good in stories will prevail… but this good is fragile and under attack. How do we know the good? Well, there is being attentive to our history and our ongoing struggles with tyranny. There is also the identification of truth-tellers. I believe the narratives shared by patriots and long-time civil servants like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman will cut through much of the disinformation and deceit.
There is our faith… and with it, there is joy.
Like the license plate I saw on a crimson pickup truck years ago driven by a theology school dean which read “JOY N IT.” Good stories, stories of faith, typically bring new insight, laughter and delight. I choose stories that are good, in large measure because they also lead to joy. The gift of honest exaggeration, of teasing, of hope-filled truths will always make clear the gift of sisters and brothers who can smile, and understand it when they say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).
There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.
This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.
I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.
I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.
The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”
Steve Harper continues his reflections on Holy Love by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Hermeneutic as offered by Richard Rohr captures the preference of “Christ Transforming Culture” rather than a “Christ of Culture” (as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested over fifty years ago).
The fourth vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is Christ, the one who reveals the creator (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), the one who made the creation (“ everything came into being through the Word,” John 1:3), and the one who is the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). So, everything we have said thus far comes together in Christ, and it does so through love (John 13:1).
One of the things I have heard people say about the relation between Christ and human sexuality is this, “I wish he had made it clear about sexual identities, orientations, same-sex marriage, etc. I have wished the same. I have thought, “If only I could spend five minutes with Jesus.” I have a list of questions. Human sexuality is one of them.
Scholars are correct in noting Jesus’ silence about homosexuality. And…
My daily morning dyspepsia is, I believe, related to long division problems. I am awake in the early morning, unable to find rest amid puzzles I can’t seem to solve. At about age eight, a teacher taught me “to do long division.” The moment was delicious — I could solve big numbers that before seemed too large. In my early teens, I discovered algebraic long division. Another revelation, a gift, a tool.
Today, my morning dyspepsia, is not so simple. This problem requires an institutional calculus. It is not division I seek: rather, it is the seeking ways to avoid so much dividing — it is greater unity I would like to cipher. Every theological and social instinct within me calls out for linkage, for connection, for common ground rather than a land of separation. Am I simply foolish, nostalgic, tied to some ancient vision of St. Francis bargaining with the wolf or his meeting with the enemies during the Crusades to discover ways of peace?
Why is our nation so tribal, so insistent on becoming a splintering galaxy of spinning ideological enclaves? In ways I suspect most of us don’t fully see, the corollary exists in the divisions of the United Methodist Church. Both nation and church are pursuing long division problems. They are here now, in part because in both nation and church, we have been on a path too long-dividing. Many forces and fractions have brought us to this point: the rise of social media and loss of common language; new cultural and economic ecologies where unemployment and poor community resources persist; much focus on personal and social grievance; churches that avoid their prophetic voice as they fear the loss of market share and numerical decline — all these additives, and more, have brought us to this whirlpool of distrust.
Let’s focus on United Methodism. Maybe if we untangle this a bit, or at least untie some of these knots, it will assist with other riddles. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for a division solution. It often happens like this – I am walking through fellowship hall at church and someone says, “What are we going to do?” I know what is meant but can’t help myself, I reply, “About what?” The answers are: “About the church.” “About the harm being done to LGBTQI persons.” “About damage to the United Methodist brand. ” “About the loss of our children who already think the church is out of touch with their worlds.” Or, I am entering a store downtown, a friend greets me and says, “What do you think is going to happen?” I play out the scene again. “About what?” I respond and I hear the same list of concerns.
Or, I get phone calls from friends around the country. (And, yes, I sometimes call them.) “What’s the latest you have heard?” “Which plan should we support?”
Add this to the daily news about presidential impeachments or government conspiracy and the result is dyspepsia along with a certain emotional and spiritual vertigo — right?
So, here are some thoughts about our long division problem in the church — these are a collection of hunches, perceptions, experiences, frequent early morning musings based on my faith journey and desire to be a follower of Jesus. Please note, these are not a plan, nor the son of a plan — no long division solution here. In fact, the PLANS I have seen are, to my mind, part of the problem. I almost chuckle at the plan of the week unveiled from some official or unofficial grouping of problem-solvers and I weep at the theological vacuity often evidenced.
I wonder if there aren’t several million plans out there among United Methodists around the world — one plan for each of the members of the denomination. Individualism and self-centered privilege lead us to find our corner with the like minded. We can shape things along with our gang and the lines of our personal preference. I think of Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely on June 25, 1819 wrote: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” My memory is that on another occasion Jefferson opined that he “carried his religious denomination under his hat.“
Well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) offer up new plans weekly. Some would divide the church into two groups, some three, some four. I have even heard of a plan for seven new denominations. At the same time I hear little of how these plans correspond with the great ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “they would be one” (John 17) or the message from Paul about the church as a body with many members (I Corinthians 12).
Most of the proposals that are trumpeted seem unaware of the lessons of church history or from Christians of other denominational families who have struggled with divisions in recent years. What might we learn from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that still speaks, five decades later, of “Forming Together” after the splintering of Southern Baptists? What lessons might our Pan Methodist friends teach us as some large congregations have split off from their fellowships? Or, what of the Lutherans, the Seminex story from the Missouri Synod Church, or the merger resulting in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the challenges they have faced? What lessons from the Assembly of God and splintering there? The Wesleyan Church? What might we learn from the United or Uniting Churches around the world (India, Canada, etc.) Or, what of lessons from our older sibling, the Episcopal Church.
Rather than a plan, I would offer some paradoxical thoughts, some ecclesiological assumptions, some prayerful hints for how we might proceed… with or without a plan. Paradoxical, yes, I propose them as cruciform. For they are. One clear assertion I will make is this: there will be no resurrection for us, no renewal apart from the cross. (In the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew there are the words like these “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… you will find it..) Here are seven paradoxes to explore.
I pray that any reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church will be: Centered in the Christ of scripture and Christ alive in our world today; shaped by prayer and a humble mystic spirit; a seeking of unity among all believers even as we resist efforts to harm; focused locally as essential to a global witness; open to the long-haul of history in order to be relevant today; ready for sacrifice in order to find abundance in unexpected places; and, opening our hearts to the story of others within and beyond our daily routines so as to sharpen our Wesleyan distinctives.
When have I seen us at our best? Not when we are arguing or devising our long division plans but rather when we are in mission with others. I see it when the gospel is shared and persons and communities are changed. I see it when bishops pray and invite all, especially those who disagree to a common table. When those who join that table represent the extraordinary array of those from multiple cultures and classes modeling together an invitation to live in our time and place in terms of God’s emerging kin-dom.
I see it in the thousands of places where our actions speak louder than our words. Where the “theology of the hammer” brings people together. I see it when the church works along the Mexican border and says in the name of Jesus, we will welcome these who are in need of sanctuary and we will not bear false witness against them. I see it when the church takes seriously its commitment to care for all creation.
I see it when I meet another United Methodist, from Africa, Zimbabwe. He tells me his name is “Blessing” and we laugh together when we talk about our mutual friends. Yes, he had taken some classes at Africa University. Yes, he was a student there when I visited that campus. We join in conversation about how we might heal a broken church, in order to set about healing a broken world. It is in surprises like this that my dyspepsia finds relief.
Each morning I read the news and think “I’ve seen this play before.” On a smaller stage but with the same general plot and same speeches by the lead actors. I was in the Republic of Panama in 1969 and 1970, teaching at the Methodist school, the Instituto Pan Americano. There, I had a front row seat to watch one of the early reality television stars, General Omar Torrijos Herrera.
Torillos came to power in 1968. It was a “soft” coup d’etat. It came following his involvement in election fraud, the formation of alliances with other dictators, an appeal to campesinos with legitimate grievances and the backing of a major news outlet, La Estrella. Torrijos was ridiculed by the elites as a “tinpot dictator.” He was known for his womanizing even as he posed as the devoted husband and father. He was open to playing all sides against the middle as long as he was the winner. Sound familiar?
“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes” is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain. There are differences between Omar and Donald; however, they play the same games of distraction, bullying and corruption. Watching POTUS every day, I am reminded of Torrijos. The only difference in these daily productions is that Omar was the better actor and did claim some moral minimums beneath which he would not bend. He had no need to claim to be a stable genius — he was smart enough to know that. Torrijos was self confident enough to allow the great novelist Graham Greene to write a book about his time as “ultimate leader.”
As I watch Donald’s tactics of prevarication and distraction I see parallels to Torrijos. (“You’re not really seeing what you are seeing. Look over here, no I meant over there.”) It is all theater of the absurd. It saddens me to watch the Grand Old Party turned into the practitioners of Banana Republicanism. Each day in this nation and time our moral influence is reduced, our constitutional commitments reduced to ashes. What’s next?
In 1970 Torillos felt his power waning, so set up what Latin Americans call an autogolpe — a phony, self designed and manipulated coup d’etat. I remember it well. The general was out of the country in Mexico for the horse races. The alleged take over was dramatically reported, although oddly the “rebels” didn’t plan to take over the television stations or the country’s second busiest airport in the city of David some 300 miles away. Aided by other nations, Torrijos flew back to David. He then made a triumphant journey down the spine of the country. The military was pre-positioned to welcome him as he was cheered in every town back to the capital. There was some gunfire in the capital city and a few arrested — but it was a carefully scripted television event.
I wonder, might our nation be experiencing something similar — an autogolpe in plain sight? Might POTUS, sensing a potential loss in the upcoming 2020 elections, be engaged in his own little deception? Let’s see, he needs an enemy who can be painted as corrupt who is trying to overthrow him. He needs a major news outlet to support his phony allegations. Uhm, let me think?
Torrijos, brutal and venal as he could be, did have some redeeming qualities and left some enduring accomplishments for his nation. I could name several like the agreement with President Carter for the Canal to be turned over to Panama and Torrijos’ commitment to help the underprivileged with universal health care and education. Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1981 at a point where he “seemed” to be moving in support of more democratic institutions.
Donald may leave behind a few accomplishments (I struggle to name many just now)… but at what expense to our moral and constitutional underpinnings? POTUS started with a nation rich in reputation, legacy and a commitment to pursuit of an ever more humane future for its citizens. He has spent many of these moral assets with little to show in return. In this way, the legacy and roles of these two men do not rhyme. One was a dictator who desired, in the end, to be honestly elected in a more democratic state — the other was surprised to be elected and has since evidenced increasing desire for dictatorial powers.
She was “only” ninety-nine. The photo taken in 2014 shows “Marnie” or Margaret Glass, at a gathering at her beloved parish, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Marnie died this summer, June 26, 2019, only a few days shy of her 105th birthday. She lived a full, life-and-a-half, in calendar years. When I say she “lived,” I mean it, she did just that! Of the “great spirits” I have known, Marnie nears the top of the list.
Born in Chicago, Margaret was a natural, brilliant, a college athlete, playing tennis and captain of the basketball team. She graduated from Elmhurst College only a few years after the Niebuhr brothers who attended that school before her. When I met her, she was the lay leader at Broadway Church. It was the mid-1980s, the neighborhood around the church had gone through dramatic racial change as white flight was nearing completion and the gentrification that now marks that neighborhood was only beginning.
Marnie was one of dozens of wise and creative folks I knew in that parish in those years. They caused me to rethink my understandings of church, of faith and the role of parish pastor. Margaret was first among equals in challenging my preconceived, seminary-shaped notions of who lay folks are and the limited gifts they bring to ministry.
Last week I wrote in this blog of an encounter with an angry fella who sought to set me straight after a sermon preached a year ago that included positive mention of Senator John McCain (See Certitude and Its Discontents, August 2019). My concern at that writing was that some folks would think it a critique of that good congregation. I fear a few did, as I received messages of apology. None were needed. I have found sour-pusses in every parish and a few grievance-collectors typically populate the pews wherever I go. More often, however, I find remarkable saints-in-the-making in parishes I have served.
Marney was tops for me, such a spunky saint. A mischievous follower of Jesus, a conspirator in the search for abundant life for all. Her eyes would dance when she shared a story of some achievement of one of the children she tutored or some morsel of good news about a neighbor. She could change her mind — accept new ways of being church. Her winsomeness, her life, always caused me to think of the scripture: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (II Corinthians 4:7, NRSV).
You could find Marnie at prayer meetings and protest marches. When we speak of the best of Methodism involving a vital piety and commitment to social justice, it was exemplified in Marnie’s life. I can see her grabbing the cheeks of a young woman and speaking words of encouragement. I recall the times she would take young children into her home because they needed to be in a safe place. She noticed the little things that another had done and thanked them.
She showed an ease in her faith; not that her long life was easy. She married three times as she outlived her first two husbands. Her last marriage was at age 98 and with Bob she continued speaking out on environmental and hunger issues.
Marnie was a part of a weekly Bible study group while I was pastor. One day as we finished, she said, “Please wait a minute, I have something to share.” She grabbed a brown, bulging grocery bag and headed to a nearby bathroom. She returned wearing her wedding gown and still in her tennis shoes. “This is my fiftieth wedding anniversary and I wanted to celebrate with you.” Her first husband was suffering from dementia and rather than hide in disappointment at that circumstance, Marnie invited us to join in a spontaneous celebration. We raided the church refrigerator, found lots of ice cream and other goodies there. Such was her transformative spirit.
She would probably deny it, but Marnie was my faith instructor, my mentor. As Fred Craddock would put it, through her life and words I could “overhear the gospel.” She didn’t always know that I was listening in. One Sunday in the mid-1980s, as the military adventurism by the United States in the Middle East was heating up, I faced a dilemma. The scripture lessons for that Sunday included Galatians 6 (“What one sews that one shall also reap“). My sermon called for a preference of peacemaking over military intervention.
Following the service as I headed to my office I heard voices in the hallway, around the corner ahead of me. It was Margaret speaking with a couple who were upset about the sermon. They didn’t know I was hearing them, their complaints. They said, “He is another one of those liberal preachers.” They likened me to a popular pastor who had spoken out against the Vietnam War twenty years earlier. I thought I was in good company and glad to be compared with this fellow who went on to be elected a bishop. It was then that Marnie-the-spiritual-mentor spoke. “No, no” she said, “this one is a Jeremiah, he will weep with you.” She didn’t know I heard. I turned and went to my office another way. As I was taking off my robe, Marney entered the office. To my surprise she began to chide me. Time for my second spiritual lesson! “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. My heart dropped. Then she went on, “I am so glad you spoke against our military engagement, but don’t you ever enter the pulpit again with a difficult message and not let me know to be praying for you!”
In the span of five minutes, I was offered two of the most important lessons over the years of my pastoral ministry. First, a challenge to my pridefulness and second a reminder that such moments of witness should not be entered into alone and without prayerful support.
Tomorrow is Marnie’s memorial service. I have no doubt that dozens of other lessons from my teacher, Marnie, will come to mind. Other mentors and Great Spirits have died this year. I think of Judy Craig, Tom Trotter and George Metrovich who died in recent months. They are for me, persons who represent the insights of II Corinthians 4:7-10. Here is the text as offered by Eugene Peterson:
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! (II Corinthians 4:7-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson)