Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander – Part I

Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part I

A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years). 

For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory.  After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts.  Who knows what will survive and in what form?

I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.”  I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”

So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.

Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965.  This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource.  Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to beand spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.

I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism.  We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
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When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward.  My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison.  He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life.  He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.”  I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire.  I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”

I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.

“I will be a better Catholic,” Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)

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I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!”  For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences

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Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies

around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.  United Methodism in  2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change.  We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles.  There are fissures all around.  I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news.  We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.

Across the south and Midwest there is  change.  Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates.  Will it be enough to change things?  Well, probably not.  Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable.  It may be that we are stuck.  Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference —  reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades.  The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this. 

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Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places.  Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.

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I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church.  “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say.  Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated.  “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear.  I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844!  I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge.  To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.”  Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what?  Toward what end?  It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass.  What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place?  Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.

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Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me.  I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians.  This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17.  Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together?   The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer.  Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church.  I know.  Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years?  Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue?  A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude  others based on sexual orientation.

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What might we do?  This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer.   It is about agency.  By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference.  I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes.  This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there?  Doing what?  Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms.  Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess.  Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia.  I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?

My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies. 

Isn’t there a larger frame?  Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First.  She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness.  First, she argues, provide a place to live!  Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter.  Then work on the other social and emotional needs.  In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things.  And it also happens to be Christian!

What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness?  What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises?  What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix?  What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists?  What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled?  Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom?  Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.

 

 

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives.  Not surprising, but saddening.  Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance. 

Balance — that which allows us to stand  upright and walk forward.  Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical.  Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage.  We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.

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Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set.  Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations.  Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.

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Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker.  Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid.  They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”

Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation.  It is missing from United Methodism.  One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction.  As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice.  I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church. 

One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle.  I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted.  Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons.  We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves.  Expressed differences, and openness to other views  — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged. 

Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)?  This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others.  Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.

I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance.   I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings.  Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations.  So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.

It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now.  I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives.  Yet both made our nation better for their service.  I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.

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Practicing Resurrection

How can it be?  Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames?  And, early on Holy Week no less.  There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss.  Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).

In response we hear brave words about rebuilding.  Good.  Yet, we know some things are forever gone.  Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp.  Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever.  Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss.  Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about.  At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others.  We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities.  How then shall we proceed?  In the places we live and work?  In Louisiana? In Paris?

This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Closing lines include these delicious words:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.  Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest…

Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it.  Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.  Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice Resurrection.

Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine.  May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.

Philip Amerson

Forever Beginning

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From T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor.  I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different.  This time, I will have a weekly assignment.  To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.

This is not an easy task in any season.  Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry.  Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018. 

Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.

Shalom,

Philip Amerson

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Sermon — Forever Beginning 8-12-18 PRINT

 

 

Whitsun Walks

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Whitsun Bride, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Whitsun Walks

Yesterday, I walked from meeting to meeting.  I had lunch with a Pentecostal minister; confided with a United Methodist pastor; participated in a planning meeting with a Baptist, a Jew, and a Buddhist; and completed the day conversing with a Roman Catholic layman.  It seemed right, this visiting with such a diverse group of folks.  My meetings were a “getting ready”… ready to move, to be led by the Spirit to new places of discovery.

Today we have arrived at the eve of Whitsunday (Pentecost Sunday), a celebration Christians call a moveable feast.  (Whitsunday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday following Easter.  Since the date of Easter changes from year to year so does the date of Whitsunday.)   I consider Pentecost a moveable feast for another reason – it is our call to new places, new understanding, new language.  Whitsun Walks occur in communities across the world, especially in Europe.  These walks, or parades, traditionally take place on almost any day in the week following Whitsunday — but Friday is a favorite.  The Whitsun Walks typically end with a community-wide party.  You see, Whitsuntide festival is a time of new beginnings — marriages are often are scheduled, crops are typically in the ground and graduation ceremonies abound.  Folks are in motion. 

Across Europe there are still vestiges of these Whitsun Walks in Italian, British and German towns.  Sadly, as commercialism, and its inevitable secular shadow, reach across these cultures, Whitsun Walks have diminished and in many places have disappeared.   In Great Britain, such festivities have largely been replaced by a fixed day, appropriately and ironically known as Bank Holiday, which is set on the last Monday in May.

Might we reclaim the week ahead (and the year ahead) as a time of Whitsun Walks?  Our world needs to remember the gifts of the Spirit set in motion at Pentecost.  We need a time to look around, all around, and see the gifts in the smiles of friends, to laugh, to hear the aria of the nightingale and thrush at dusk, to revel in the rich tapestry of music, language, art and to grow with the insights from multiple spiritual sources.

It was heart-breaking this past week, the week before Pentecost, to see the images in the Holy Land.  The celebration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem this week is a picture that is the very opposite, a reverse image, of the stories we read of the first Pentecost.  This week, folks of wealth and privilege gathered to congratulate one another on the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem.  Only a few miles away, others who differ in culture, physical appearance and faith commitments were protesting.  There were more than fifty deaths and hundreds of injuries while the elites in power were giving one another high-fives. 

Both groups — those protesting in Gaza and those celebrating in Jerusalem are imprisoned.  Those in Gaza are trapped by unemployment and horrible living conditions.  They are trapped by a history many of their leaders helped create over decades of failed negotiations, broken promises and the heartless oppression from Israeli practices.  They are trapped by an inability to move past the physical and ideological fences and barriers that prevent migration to a place of greater security and opportunity.

Those who were celebrating the new embassy are trapped by arrogance and bigotry, horrible theologies and a foolish trust in economic and military power.  Some of this bigotry not only condemns all others to hell, now and in the future, but serves to daily undercut, ever more deeply, the prospect for a lasting peace.  This trap has become a never-ending cycle of fear, violence and retaliation, followed by new fears. 

Whereas the folks at the first Pentecost were able to communicate across divisions that separated peoples in the ancient world, the celebrants at the embassy opening seem to have lost any common language that speaks of hope, vision or the true source of human power.

It is amazing to see “Evangelical” pastors baptizing this embassy with their prayers and simultaneously condemning the rioters only a few miles away — persons they do not know.  Do they not know, for example, that there are tens of thousands of the Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land and there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians in diaspora? (See Richard Mouw’s To My Fellow Evangelicals, Richard Mouw.)

So we pray for peace; but we must also walk.  I do not oppose an embassy in Jerusalem — but at what price?   The decades of promises of a two state solution, of Jerusalem also being an international city, a capital city for both Jews and Palestinians, may have been permanently erased as a possibility.  We not only pray — we must walk — keep moving — keep learning from and about others.

If there was any movement in Jerusalem this week it was in the wrong direction.  Tomorrow across the world, Christians will read from the second chapter of Acts, the story that recounts how persons from diverse backgrounds were drawn forward by the Spirit into a new community.  These early followers of Jesus were known as People of the Way.  Too many of us today have become People of the Fence, or People of my Same-Ole-Stuck Place

It is a challenge for we humans, who have adapted to the power of fear, to act out of love for the stranger.  The early Jesus followers certainly had reason to hide, to protect themselves, to cluster in ever smaller worlds of kinship.  However, the hope of the Resurrection or the power loosed at Pentecost required risk.  Even when there is not clear path ahead, we walk — by faith more than sight.

 

 

 

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

I have come to understand that there is a rather simple human choice each of us can make.  It is this, will the generosity of a loving God be reflected in our lives?

In the past week two such difference makers for me, died.  Their names, James Cone – renown theologian, faculty member at Union Seminary in NYC and author of ground-breaking work on Black and Liberation theologies, and Gaye Hudson – elementary school teacher, musician and supporter/surrogate parent of students at Indiana University both passed away.

Gaye and James were in many ways different, and yet, in essential ways they were similar.  It is this — though both of them had reasons to live otherwise — they turned toward hope and healing as they lived their lives.

I remember the joy it was for me when James Cone would visit during my time in the administration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or when we were attending various academic meetings together.  I would argue that more than any other writer in the last century, James Cone named the racism that constrained and corrupted the church in the United States.  James understood the way all of our institutions, including his own alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, were diminished by the toxins of racial bigotry and discrimination. 

Still I knew him as a man of hope and… wait for it… JOY.  I can see that smile and loved the ease with which he shared a small laugh, a riddle, a pun, that betrayed an underlying sense of hope.  On more than one occasion, he expanded my ability to see past the fear-filled static and toxins of our society.  Even when his words began in anger, they found their way to the gift of transformation. John Robert McFarland writes meaningfully and beautifully of memories with his seminary  classmate James Cone — the difference maker (see: http://christinwinter.blogspot.com/).

Gaye Hudson was a member of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.  This is a church I served as pastor for almost a decade.  It was, and is, a congregation filled with remarkable folks — few more remarkable than Gaye.  For over thirty years she sang in the choir and for all of this time she was a friend to many.  Hundreds of students knew of Gaye’s care while in school.  She fed them, provided transportation, encouraged them, attended their recitals and on occasion slipped a little extra cash their way.  Some went on to teach; some became opera or recording stars; many were choral conductors, some wrote music and published books — ALL of them were in debt to their “dear friend Gaye.”

Gaye was the choir-mothercaring, challenging, sometimes lovingly disagreeing, anticipating the needs of others, and, yes, difference making.  At her funeral service on April 29th, the choir loft was overflowing with her “children.”  My, my, the music they made in her memory!  I suspect that nowhere in American — or the world for that matter — was music of praise and generosity more gloriously sung than yesterday in that sanctuary.

In a world too full of anger and blame, fear and shame, I give thanks for James Cone and Gaye Hudson, two folks who didn’t know one another, two who knew injustice and burdens, but they knew more, they knew the joy of living with generosity toward others.  I give thanks for these two who make a difference in my life.

 

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 

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In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.