Overdosed on political chicanery? Too many pundits? Too many tweets? Too many seventy-year-olds acting like pre-schoolers? Need to give it a rest, step away from all of the intrigue, drama and confusion? Okay, I agree. Breath slowly: in-out, in-out. Think differently, perhaps like a child again. What to do in this circumstance? PLAY, I think. It’s recess time!
We are with our grandchildren, Gus and Eleanor, in Oakland, California. They offer us sanity-baths every day. Yesterday, after a game of hide-and-seek, I said “Okay, it is time for a little Tom Foolery!” They looked back with blank, puzzled expressions. “Tom who?”
“It’s tomfoolery,” I said. “You don’t know Tom?” I didn’t explain the derivation of the word from “Tom Fole” in the Middle Ages. I didn’t say it was the name given to ones who majored in silliness or buffoonery. Eventually, Tom Fool became the identifier of the clown, the joker, the mischief-maker in a parade, play or pageant.
So, I said “tomfoolery is when we joke, play games and tell silly stories.”
“Like what?” I heard them ask. And before I realized it, I was seven years old again and I heard myself reciting that doggerel from childhood:
Ladies and Jellyspoons, hobos and tramps,
cross-eyed mosquitos and bow-legged ants,
I stand before you and not behind you
to tell you something I know nothing about.
“Go on, papaw,” I heard them say and I remembered the next lines:
Next Thursday which is Good Friday,
there’s a Mother’s Day meeting for fathers only,
wear your best clothes if you haven’t any.
Please come if you can’t; if you can stay at home.
Admission is free, pay at the door;
pull up a chair and sit on the floor.
“MORE, papaw,” the cries rang out. Fortunately, thankfully, it was all I could remember. Later I did a web search and found that there were many versions of the silly poem. It is said to be anonymous — and there are many, many versions. An indication of the breadth of human imagination. One version that is close to what I remember continues with this:
It makes no difference where you sit, the man in the gallery’s sure to spit. The show is over, but before you go, let me tell you a story I don’t really know.
One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. (The blind man went to see fair play; the mute man went to shout “hooray!”) Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise, and came and killed the two dead boys. A paralysed donkey passing by kicked the blind man in the eye; knocked him through a nine-inch wall, into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
If you don’t believe this lie is true, ask the blind man; he saw it too, through a knothole in a wooden brick wall. And the man with no legs walked away.
So, with the summer solstice behind us and the Fourth of July weekend just ahead, it is a time for play, for riddles and silly poems. All the while I am aware that this play, this rest, is much-needed. And that such silly poems make more sense than the shenanigans of many of our political, cultural and religious leaders.
It’s time to go to the ZOO! And, together we can recite the poem: “Ladies and Jellyspoons, hobos and tramps…”
Citizenship depends on connection. Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution. Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”
Berry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.” It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center. Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals. Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.
Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package. Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states.
Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels. Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care. These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s. This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.
The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.
I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people. My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.
I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor. She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.”
I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks. Still we seem slow to reconnect with them. The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me. Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand. And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.
More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation. We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference. There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions. To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals. It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.
When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond?
Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader. It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership.
For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change. I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections. I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich. I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.
We are not alone. Others are seeking to build connections as well. Let me tell you about my friend. A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state. What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish. So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments. Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great! This is just where I am supposed to be!” He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him.
I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature. He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class. He becomes for me a sign of hope. He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections.
My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape. She is right — about 10% of the time! It is a running joke for us. Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape. Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed. Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.
Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me. My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her. Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix. Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.
Embarrassment is on my mind recently. Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape. We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church. I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, “Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)
It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing. As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world. We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance. He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.
Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency. I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say. However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue. We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone. There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.
Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress. A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation. What tragic madness!
Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences. Good. This is a much-needed message. However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces. Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly. The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016. Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments. We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.
Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017. Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017). Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner? Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change? I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field. We will never know. However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year. This is our continuing embarrassment.
The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump.
Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.” I agree, mostly. Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem. We should all be embarrassed. Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed.
What can we do? Let me suggest four things:
Take personal responsibility. Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation. In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people. Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
Plan and act locally. Find ways you can make a difference where you live. For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby. Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.” In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult. In places like this our work is more basic. We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand.
Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger. Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
Act now. Channel that embarrassment. Do something today. It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor. Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society.
Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.
There she was in the alley. Pushing a shopping cart. She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee. Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked. She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path. I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.
I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU. We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users. They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others. Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.” She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver.
Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers. She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer. Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power. She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver.
When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace. As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.
With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared. In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites. This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe. The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement. To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.
Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn. (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.) I am helped by new learning occasions. Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places. Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.
Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face. When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections. There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone, Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose. When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”
My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis. It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight. John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing. It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities. This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits. This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing. Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.
As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States. Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT. It simple doesn’t work. Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed.
This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years. It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology. Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers. The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin. Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes. Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.
Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.” It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish. In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.
Can there be a turn from loathing to loving? Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.” No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.
By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries? Why was Ann carrying strawberries?” It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site. When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”
After a life of service as pastor and/or denominational leader, some of our best are being pointed to the exit. Jack Harnish is one of the best among us. Sadly, some “colleagues” want to change the vision of the United Methodist Church from “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” to “If you don’t agree with me there is the door. Exit politely please.” Here Jack speaks of the wonderment created by the idea that folks from the Wesleyan Covenant Association now say tens of thousands who have a differing view should seek “an honorable exit.”“…seek an honorable exit” And the worlds and work of the great spirits of our tradition like E. Stanley Jones, Leontine Kelly, Georgia Harkness, Albert Outler and James Thomas are turned upside down.
I don’t think I have ever been invited to “seek an honorable exit” before, but it doesn’t feel very good.
Last week the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled against the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a Bishop. In it’s full context, it is a complex and somewhat convoluted decision, but the bottom line is that the Judicial Council did what they are supposed to do–they ruled on the constitutionality of such an election based on their understanding of the Discipline of the Church. There is plenty of room for debate about their decision and there will be much conversation over the coming weeks about the implications. Right now, I am not ready to step into that debate. What struck me was the reaction of the “Wesleyan Covenant Association”, a conservative group for whom this issue is the bottom line, the red line, the litmus test…
Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341. The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law. Somewhere. Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.” Somewhere.
There was nothing fixed by this. This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist. Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces. And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something.
It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people. Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.” This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church. And, somewhere there is celebration.
The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status. A fair process based on whose assessment? Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place? Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group? Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?
Somewhere there is joy. Somewhere hearts are light. It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty. They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen. Is that it?
Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place? Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences? Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks? Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.
I know something of the south and value so much of what I know. My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary. There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission. At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown.
Chapel was required at Asbury College. My seat mate was Patty. Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination. If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.” She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.” Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.” Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.
Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued. Still Patty had it right, I think. She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her. Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.” Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me. Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.
In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago. It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles. Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.
The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism. It arrives now in real and troubling ways. In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins.
I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father. He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination. As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education. Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay. I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.” It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south. I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?
I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations. Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me. It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth. And I still think of Patty.
During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay. And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay. Somewhere there is celebration. Not among these good folks. We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.
Somewhere there is celebration. I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.
Some may celebrate. I weep, I grieve. The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter.
Sunday last, I was asked to preach at St. Marks UMC in Bloomington, Indiana. The topic assigned? Christian responsibility regarding Creation Care. What United
Methodist Bishops have called “Environmental Holiness” has become of increasing interest and passion for me. Perhaps this is especially the case as I am enjoying my years as a grandparent and considering the ways these children will experience the beauty and the destruction of the gift of the natural world.
Attached is the sermon that came for the day. As any preacher knows — there is both more and less to say on any topic. Sermons are shaped for particular occasions and specific audiences. Still, I share this in the hope that no matter our particular perspective on the causes of the environmental changes that are now occurring, we can believe that we, each one of us has a responsibility to care for this “common home” that we share.