An Untamed Pastor’s Fifty-Year Window

A Leaf from the Notebook of an Untamed Pastor: A Fifty Year Window

2018 marks my fiftieth year as an ordained pastor.  Five decades!  Many fine memories, good friends and much learning.  Wonderful, loving people have been teachers for me at every stop.  As former Indiana University President Herman B Wells once told me, “One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.”  Dr. Wells then laughed — he was 93 years old at the time. 

So, what do I see more clearly in 2018?  What might I share from a fifty-year window into this vocation?

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Five pastors of Broadway UMC regather in 2016: left to right -Phil Amerson, Rachel Metheny, Michael Mather, Mary Ann Moman and S. Baik.

A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastorIt’s time to speak as a person of faith in an untamed fashion.  What we face in our nation is SIN — a clear and present danger to the spiritual health of our society and believers.   I have been too cautious in not speaking in terms of faith and in scriptural language.  I have not clearly called for repentance — from DJT.  Nor repentance for myself and so many in our nation. 

Clearly, ideology and grasping for power have replaced decency shaped by biblical and faith understandings.  Have we had other presidents who were sinful? — Of course — in fact, this is a character flaw, sin, we all are challenged by.  More to the point — it is the acknowledgement of sinfulness that marks movement to maturity and spiritual health.

In DJT we are witnessing an assault on truth, on the poor, on the immigrant, on God’s creation.  It is sinful.  This is a daily assault — sometimes hourly assault.  Our judicial and legislative systems, designed to align with highest religious values, are continually being threatened and undermined. Name-calling has become more normative than honest dialogue.  Those who disagree with the president are threatened with verbal abuse, even jail.  This is wrong.  Accepting it is a partnership with evil.  Sadly some support comes from those brothers and sisters who claim to be Christian — yet, little of what they argue appears to be established on scriptural basis or on principles of disciples.

On July 15, 2016, when Mr. Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, I was almost immediately troubled.  My pastoral radar sounded an alarm.  Bluntly, the fears unleashed, the thinly veiled racism and factual distortions, layered higher and higher, were anti-Christian.  My experienced eyes saw a person who was clearly a troubled, angry and manipulative man.  He belittled others so easily and thought far too highly of himself.  Over the months that have passed these initial indicators of the man’s soul-sickness have only become more tragically and dramatically evidenced by sinful decisions and impulses. 

I have decided to become an unleashed pastor because what we are witnessing is dangerous to our future and that of our grandchildren.  What we see unfolding comes straight out of Stalin’s play book — it is a pattern of disinformation, demonization and displacement.  (See Anne Applebaum’s fine book Red Famine.)

Let me offer a pastor’s call for repentance.  My own confession first.  I have been too timid to speak of the sinfulness of Mr. Trump’s words and actions.   I have been too quick to allow those who argue a false equivalency, his defenders, suggesting that the 2016 presidential election was between two equally flawed candidates. No. This is simply NOT TRUE, based on any fair-minded look at the options.  Was Secretary Clinton plagued by her own failings? — of course.  However, I am bold to claim we have journeyed in the ways of the devil after this election far more than had there been a different outcome. What we face now scriptures speak of as the evil of principalities and powers.  The spiritual well-being of our nation is at risk.

As a pastor, every year I would meet with the church’s nominating committee.  Our task?  To propose leaders the upcoming year.   Honestly, if Donald Trump were a member and his name proposed for any leadership task, I would quickly speak against him in almost any role.  I would speak about his not being a “good fit.”  No place for such a man as an assistant usher or a parking lot attendant, until there was evidence of more spiritual health.  And I certainly wouldn’t want him anywhere near the finance committee, youth work or buildings and grounds committees.  His evident narcissism and duplicity would be my guide — based on experience.

Fifty years have sharpened my radar about people.  Yes, I have made mistakes in this judgement — and keep learning from them.  And, yes, I know people can change — I have witnessed this.  However, my experience has taught that change comes with personal awareness of brokenness and the knowledge of the need to accept God’s transforming gifts in one’s life.  None of which are evident in this man.  If any role were offered, it would be the opportunity to spend a year working (silently) alongside the poor and studying scripture with a good teacher.  That would be an appropriate place for DJT – a place to begin a journey to healing and renewal… It would be an invitation to conversion.  I do not know the wounds contributing to his arrogance, masked low-self-confidence and sinful actions — but they are not helped by the enabling going on by many politicians and alleged religious leaders.

We are a nation struggling under the spell of a narcissistic, sin-burdened, con-artist.  A man who lies so frequently that truth and falsehood are continually blurred.  Can anyone account for a need to claim to be a “stable genius.”  Such hubris, such arrogance!  Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan making such a claim — with a straight face? My dear Republican friends, what have you endured… and so many of you accepted as normal?  We have a self designated “stable genius” who doesn’t read, has almost no understanding of geopolitical historical realities and bases our nation’s future on own self-aggrandizement.  I do give thanks for Republicans like Steve Schmidt, Jeff Flake, David Jolly and Mitt Romney.  Perhaps they will help the party and our nation — save it’s soul.  However, they may not be enough.  More is required of us all.

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Wesley UMC, Urbana, Illinois — One of the many great centers of campus ministry for the denomination.

The United Methodist church once claimed a mission to “Reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness.”  Sadly, our recent response to the assault on our nation’s highest values, and Christianity itself, has been muted at best.  We do speak a word on behalf of the immigrant and the poor — but we say nothing about the sinfulness of our nation’s leaders at this critical time. So much for reforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness. 

We have known greatness.  Our work in education and mission offer remarkable hope.  There have also been times when we have been an embarrassment to ourselves and our nation.  Now, as we are silent, I believe is a time when we should be embarrassed.

We have failed before — Methodists back-tracked from our early impulses against slavery or took too long to support our courageous women seeking suffrage and equality.  Still, like Legion in scriptures, upon being confronted by the Christ, we somehow turned around and came to our senses on these matters and many others.  This is the way sinful persons and institutions change.  But there is also potential for movement in another direction — it is this sinful downward movement I fear for our nation (and church) just now.   I speak as an untamed pastor, shaped by this denominational tradition and filled with awareness of many of my own shortcomings. 

Still I speak as one with experience — experience in recognizing sin-sickness and the need for repentance.  One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.

 

 

 

 

 

Patchwork: Community of the Lost and Found

Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found

Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other. 

This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana.  It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.

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Alan Winslow, February 2017

We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community.  Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years.  This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken.  Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades. 

Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.

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Nelia Kimbrough, John Doyle, Elaine Amerson, 1977

No doubt we were naive.  Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.”  No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school.  As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith.  No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.

Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living.  (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)

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Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.

We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time.  There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well.  It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville?  Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River?  As we used to say, this only makes sense if it can “Play in Peoria.”

Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks.  We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission.  Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more.  Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”

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Patchwork Gathering 1983

 

While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice.  So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  Sunday evening worship grew.  Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings.   The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.

The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources.  The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.”  Truth is, we rarely wore ties.   We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes.  Others joined.  Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.

We grew in numbers and influence in the city.  Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby.  How could we afford it?  Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?”  We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois.  The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.”  Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group.  Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.

There are so many lessons from those years.  On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found.  The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing.  Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.

What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork?  Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork?  Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).

First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods.  (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.) 

What we found was this.  If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower-income communities.  We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”

I am not certain this would happen today.  I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done.  For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips.  Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry.  Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today.  Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission.  The Phillips understood.  And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay.  Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.

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Alan Winslow and Alice Serr, 2017

Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause.  There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church.  Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church.  It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth. 

I was so very wrong.  There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.

Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival.  I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.

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Darlene Bragg, Back Alley Bakery, circa 1983.

 

I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.”  Such hubris!!  Such ignorance.   I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions.  Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination.  The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision.  I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around.  In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share.  Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined.  However, I needed to stop and listen.  If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.

Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost.  Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void.  Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.

We discovered that everyone can and does live in community.  The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be?  The choice is to risk living in new ways.  The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible.  It requires work.   bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”

In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one.  However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost.  They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.

Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:

Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.

Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.

Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.

No one will find life another way.

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There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central.  Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives.  I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.

 

 

That Dumb Preacher and the Gift of Embarrassment

“That Dumb Preacher” and the Gift of Embarrassment

Fifty years ago this past summer I was provisionally ordained as a Methodist pastor.  Young and determined to change the world, I was “set aside” for ministry by Bishop Richard C. Raines in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Indiana University Auditorium.

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I. U. Auditorium

I was ready to change the world — and I was so little aware of the way the world would change me.  Now there is time to look back, to reflect, to laugh and learn anew.

These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness.  All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life.  It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment.  Yes, I said embarrassment.   It keeps one humble.  One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one’s own foolish efforts at vocational perfection.  Here is my top ten list — memories of times I played the role of “that dumb preacher.”

  1. One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, “Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband.”  Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan’s, eyes, I knew that she was not “Jennifer” and he was not a “Mike.”  And, I couldn’t remember their names.  I searched papers tucked in my Bible.  It took an eternity — probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities.  I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, “that poor, dumb preacher.”
  2. Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one.  I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks.  I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone.  As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation — I was even at the wrong funeral home!  Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, “How did you know my father?”  No words came for several seconds.  Then I muttered, “Oh, I knew of him.”  Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
  3. Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me.  More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person.  Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit.  I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
  4. Then, there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones.  On more than one occasion, I continued to “broadcast” when I should have turned the darn thing to “OFF.”  Let’s just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying.  Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound.  These were not the rushing waters from Elijah.  These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
  5. Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding.  We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and… yes, all was ready.  Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar!  Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married.  I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to “say it again” and then confirmed it by shouting “yes, to what he said!”  I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
  6. We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday.  I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another.  This seemed safe enough.  Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, “It must be great to have 70 happy years together?”  The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, “Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage.”  The congregation roared with laughter.  Too late.  Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
  7. And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship?  Well… somehow the tailor didn’t tie off the knots along the leg seams.  As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch.  It was, so to speak, open territory.  What to do?  Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services.  Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe.  I wore a robe all the way home that day!
  8. I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own.  On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist — at all five services!  Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared.  At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice.  More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn’t need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service!  I don’t recall much of the sermon in service number five — I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
  9. Advice to young pastors — don’t attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full.  As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and… oh yes, the baby!  I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby’s pacifier fell out of her mouth.  Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier.  The baby came down as well.  She was baptized on the wrong end!  The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day.   I did catch the pacifier — after all, what is truly important?
  10. Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home.  Before I knew it three small children were beside me… then crawling over my lap and shoulders.  Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair.  The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored.  I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers.  One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, “You don’t know what to do with us, do you?”  Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on “that dumb preacher.”
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Wesley UMC, University of Illinois

Much has changed over the past fifty years.  Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as more and more “sidelined” denominations.  We grow anxious, serious, more determined.  We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline.  Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades.  We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us. 

Our institutions have much to be embarrassed about.  In fact, too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric.  Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of our denomination — Wesley UMC at the University of Illinois.  I had just attended an event where there was hand wringing about our need to be a global church and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline.  All of this is true.  Still, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud after the sermon in Champaign, Illinois, as dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service.  I was aware that our global reach might be wider than our limited vision could see.  Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, “you don’t know what to do with us, do you?”

I would not argue that we should not seek to be relevant.  I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch.  Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church — some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments.  Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help.   A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.  I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments — there are dozens more I could offer.  This will do for now.  Enjoy… and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said.  I think she is right.   We just don’t know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us.  I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.