Regenerative Imagination: Connected to Bear Good Fruit
Presentation #2, North Texas Annual Conference, July 15, 2021
On June 4, 1941, C.S. Lewis preached one of only seven sermons ever believed to be preached by him. It was at University Church, St. Mary’s Oxford during the height of the Second World War. (See the June 4, 2021 issue of Church Times for more on this.)
Lewis suggests that knowledge and wisdom grow in precisely those places where we are uncomfortable, including the repellent parts of holy scripture; and that, if we’re not puzzled, then perhaps we are just painting God in our own image. He calls all of us to do the intellectual hard work of getting outside our comfort zones.
He recognised that, even in 1941, it was a post-Christian England. However, he argues “if there is a divine being and the offer of eternal life, then we would do well to realise that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” person. Even the dullest and apparently most uninteresting person we encounter may one day be a creature of extraordinary glory, and this should shape everything: the way we conduct our friendships, our lives, and, of course, our politics.”
“Next only to the Blessed Sacrament,” he says, “our neighbour is the holiest object presented to our senses; and that is a great antidote to the kind of rudeness which we often show towards one another.”
Yesterday we talked of love as central to United Methodist theology and practice. Today, we look at connections where love is practiced today. See below. (The document will be posted for smaller devises in full later.)
Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology
The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared. Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready. Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond. Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i]
The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood? The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others. We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health. What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.“
The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment. I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii] A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort. He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii]
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.” People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world. More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures. Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward? This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be. Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv] The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.” Both are required.
My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism. We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century. As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared. We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles. There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences. We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work. We were not ready to be at our best.
I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity. There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future. In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani. Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo. No. I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins. Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together. Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus. In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith. We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.
In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.
[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.
[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31
The North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is where I will be speaking on June 14-15, 2021. Originally the invitation was for June 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. I have been asked to make three presentations on the future of United Methodism in the United States. In preparing, it became clear the topic was larger than the future of one denomination. There is a loss of relevance for many institutions that has occurred over recent decades – United Methodism is but one example. Mainline Protestantism has lost its formerly dominant place in society.
It is my plan to post the presentations I am making here over several days, beginning on Monday, June 14. There are no easy solutions presented; although there are some examples of places where new imaginative ministry can be seen. We are at a time in the history of this nation and the church when there are no easy answers. I believe that for Christians today, “our work is one hundred year work.” As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
The paragraphs below are from the introduction to these talks. My hope is to encourage some dialogue on this site and in various other venues.
INTRODUCTION: DOES UNITED METHODISM HAVE A FUTURE?
Recently, a friend on an early morning walk, asked if I believed United Methodism had a future? I have heard this question often over my ministry, especially recently. This time, however, I heard the question with surprising urgency.
Does United Methodism have a future…or in highfalutin language, “Can United Methodism be Sustainable and Regenerative?” I don’t have a crystal ball. Still, I came all this way, so I am obliged to offer some perspective, some lessons from history and signs of hope. Mostly, I invite us to remember the invitation Jesus makes to the disciples in every age, simply this, “follow me.” Let’s walk together a bit, and consider the question of United Methodism’s future.
Our Context and Its Complications
As we consider our context, let me begin by sharing with you my answer to my friend. “Yes, I have no doubt that United Methodism has a future.” As to what our mission, witness or structure will be, here is a word of hope – we can choose the pathway forward. I believe our work is 100-year work. Or, as my friend Wes Jackson puts it, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Researcher David W. Scott notes what is happening in the UMC is part of a larger cultural trend, shared by other denominations; a trend that cuts across race, class and theology. He writes: “U. S. Methodists (and U. S. Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions.” Scott concludes, “I don’t know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of U. S. religious decline is. I wish I did. But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.”
Let me propose that our most hopeful options involve stepping away from long held assumptions about power and influence within the dominant culture. Douglass John Hall [Slide 5] speaking about Ecumenical Protestantism in North America, wrote: “Christianity has arrived at the end of its sojourn as the official, or established, religion in the Western world… The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.” By stepping away from the easy assumptions and practiced patterns of the dominant culture, a new beginning for Christianity and Methodism is possible. It can surprise, and perhaps, even delight us.
An overview for the three talks: 1) We consider what it means to be Rooted and Grounded in Love – our core identity as United Methodists. 2) We will consider being: “Connected to Bear Good Fruit,” and 3) “Communities of Restoration and Joy.” Our scripture focus will be on Ephesians 3 and John 15.
The text for these talks, including citations will be provided beginning on June 14th.
TODAY we cross a dateline for our planet. The Global Footprint Network calls it the Earth Overshoot Day. I encourage you to visit their website to learn more at: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/.
Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year when human beings begin to consume more of our natural resources than can be replenished in that year. July 29th, 209 days into the calendar year, is when we have burnt through the natural resources available to the world’s populations for the year. For the remaining 164 days of 2019, we will be overdrawing nature’s accounts. We are writing bogus checks on our world’s future replenishment abilities. We are using up our natural resources 1.75 times faster than they can be replenished!
I think of it as a tragic environmental Ponzi scheme, a plundering of nature — a using resources which should be set aside for our children and grand children. This over-exploitation increases each year. We in the United States lead in this extractive exploitation. If the entire world lived as we do it would take the resources of FIVE EARTHS to provide sufficiency.
Enter Wes Jackson — someone who has been thinking about this dilemma for four decades. Jackson is co-founder of the Land Institute in Salinas Kansas (Land Institute). Elaine and I stopped to visit on July 15th. I had read several articles and books he had authored or co-authored. I knew of his friendship and shared work with Wendell Berry; and, I confess to being more than a little star struck. After all Wes was one of the early recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship. I expected our visit to last an hour and then be on my way.
In fact we talked through the entire morning. We toured of the institute research facilities and farm research plots in Salinas. (Other research goes on around the world where institute scientists are working to discover new paths of regenerative agriculture.)
I found in Wes a friend… and mentor — someone with a deep concern, clarity about his vocation and a surprising light-heartedness. He confessed the dilemmas we all face. The human contradictions faced as we move from our extractive and fossil-fuel based systems. We laughed often; spoke of authors who had influenced us (Ivan Illich, Walter Brueggemann) and spoke of the need for a broader dialogue between science and religion. We talked about a possible conference where theologians and scientists might talk about the sustainability of our ecosphere. I loved it when Wes brought out his “computer” to take notes. It turned out to be his old Underwood typewriter!
I found in Wes Jackson a person who had done more theological thinking about our creatureliness and relationship with the ecosphere than most formal theologians I have known. It was not a surprise to learn that Wes and John Cobb were friends and correspondents. There were more than two dozen scientists and interns at The Land Institute at work that morning seeking to establish perennial polycultures. They are developing perennial grains, legumes and oilseed varieties that can be grown together replicating the patterns evident in native ecosystems.
We stopped on one hillside and Jackson pointed out the native prairie grasses and the cultivated fields below. “Modern agriculture” he argued has been moving in ever more destructive ways for the past 10,000 years. The Green Revolution, and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, did produce more in the short term; however at the same time they were depleting the resources of our soil, water and fossil fuels ever more rapidly.
As we looked out across the fields, I thought of my own experiences in seeking to encourage our United Methodist Churches in Indiana to consider the gifts of creation and to work toward living more faithfully as those who are to care for the earth as God’s gift. I recalled with sadness the ways leaders in the Indiana Annual Conference blocked small pieces of legislation designed to encourage care for the creation. We were told that such efforts were “too political.”
I left the Institute with a commitment to find ways to bring theological educators into greater conversation and relationship with the folks in Salinas.
On this Earth Overshoot Day, I give thanks for the true “master theologians” of our time like Wes Jackson. I don’t think he would like the title. In fact he told me he had been “excommunicated” from his United Methodist Church in Kansas several years earlier by a pastor who considered him a heretic. I wish the church had more heretics like him. Maybe with time we will. Let’s work to make this happen sooner rather than later.