Restoring Broken Connections 

Restoring Broken Connections

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.”

quote-only-by-restoring-the-broken-connections-can-we-be-healed-connection-is-health-wendell-berry-87-40-31-1.jpgBerry 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.

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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. 

How can I not strive to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

An Ecology of Hope

Truth on the Scaffold and An Ecology of Hope

I find it difficult to be hopeful these days — about many things — especially our nation’s commitment to the care of God’s creation.  With Scott Pruitt confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency we quite literally have a case of “the fox guarding the hen-house.”  What might we do and where might we find hope?

I spoke to this yesterday at the University of Evansville Founder’s Day event.  In this address (attached below) I cited the comments made by environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken.

Harken gave a surprisingly hope-filled address at the University of Portland in 2009. It was titled You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring.  When asked,” he says, “if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse… Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, re-imagine, and reconsider.

Like Paul Harken, I am hopeful, despite the climate change deniers, skeptics and so-called “luke warmers.”  Still optimism does not come easily.  It requires that we join our voices in full-throated demands that we dare not continue to destroy the gift of God’s creation.

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Trains loading at Gibson County Coal Mine

In my address at the university I noted that “There are more toxic super polluting power plants around Evansville, Indiana than around any other large or midsized city in the nation.  Millions of pounds of toxic air-pollution are produced within a thirty-mile radius each year.  Of the twenty-one plants identified as super polluters in the United States, four of them are in this circle. (There are five super polluting plants in Indiana and four of them are within fifty miles of the campus.)” 

See full address at: ue-founders-day-2-19-17.

Dr. Stephen Jay of IUPUI’s School of Public Health notes “In Indiana industrial greenhouse-gas emissions are second only to Texas domestically, and exceed those from Israel, Greece and 185 other countries.”Emissions from coal-burning plants are not good for our health and they bring rapidly increasing destruction for our planet. A growing number of studies demonstrate this. Such pollution is correlated with higher incidences of heart disease, pulmonary problems and certain cancers.

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Cayuga coal power plant in Vermillion County

Way back in 1979, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, I quoted the Spencer County coroner who seeing the increasing incidence of serious health problems and death said, “If the people knew the truth, they’d panic.” Long time local activist and photographer John Blair puts it simply, “we’re subsidizing the coal industry big time with our health.”

James Russell Lowell’s poem spoke of times when “Truth was on the scaffold.” Today is such a time – regarding our environment – and so many other issues of morality, human respect and basic governance. 

Bee Cause — To Bee or Not to Bee?

Bee Cause

“Slowly Learning?” — I scratch my head in wonderment.  Where did I read those words?   I have become aware that some slow learning is what I need at this juncture in life.  How about you?  This is a way we can slow down, be attentive to overlooked dimensions and gain knowledge we otherwise might miss?   Our culture is often better at fast-forgetting than slow learning.  To be labeled a “slow learner” in school is problematic  — it is a stigma, a barrier to future success.  In my search for abundant life, however, I have come to recognize this is a label to which I aspire.

New condos for the hives, just bee-cause.
New condos for the hives, just bee-cause.

I enrolled in a particularly challenging “slow-learning” curriculum this spring.  My teachers, all 14,000+ of them, arrived in late April.  They came in two small packages, 16x8x6 inch boxes with over 7,000 honey bees in each.   I prepared for their arrival by constructing two hives.  One hive was named “BEE WARE” and the other christened “BEE CAUSE.”  The bees arrived on April 21, the day before Earth Day.  At this point my learning curve went up in an almost perpendicular direction.  Can I learn from such a large faculty of over 7,000 in each hive?  I fret.  The weather is cold.  And, then I remember — slow learning may be my best option.

I kept bees before.  My first lessons in beekeeping came when I was in graduate school in Atlanta in the early 1970s.  It was a different time, before we heard of Africanized bees or the threat from a changing climate or the failure that results from an overuse of pesticides.  Having forgotten the little bit I once knew those many decades ago, I began again in the slow-learner class.  After attending the Indiana Bee School in March, I read and watched videos for beginning beekeepers.  It was clear much had changed.  Today bees are increasingly understood as critical, make that essential, to a healthy environment.

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Bee-ing attentive to the lessons at hand.

Upon retiring as a seminary administrator, a friend gave me Bill McKibben’s evocative book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.   (I had mentioned to my friend that I might return to bee keeping and he kindly sent me the book.) 

Oil and Honey speaks of the challenge before our civilization as we face the relentless and greedy forces determined to ignore the damage done by our heavily carbon-based economy.  There is an interesting counterbalance between the two commodities.  As oil production soars, honey production is in jeopardy.  McKibben, “an unlikely activist” he says, because his primary identity was as a college professor and United Methodist Sunday School Teacher.  McKibben’s research left him little choice but to do something more dramatic.  He began to organize against the growing overuse and dangerous distribution of petroleum products, especially the development of schemes like the Keystone Pipeline.  There are other things much more important than making profits — one is providing for a sustainable environment.  This is a much more worthy goal.   (These other lessons require a slower leaning.  They can be learned by staying home, listening and learning from the world around.)

Sadly, too many in our nation’s political leadership don’t seem to desire to learn these lessons at all.  Are they moving too fast?  Or, are they blinded by their attachments to wealth and power that actually encourages ignorance and denial?  It is, frankly, amazing that in the face of the dramatic changes in our environment, congress votes over-and-over on bills that deny any environmental changes are occurring.  And, how many absurd television commercials does it require to tell us that BP really cares about the environment or that fracking is a safe way to provide for our insatiable carbon appetites?

McKibben notes there are many ways to address the challenges we face.  One way is through activism — he is the leader of the 350.0rg environmental coalition.  McKibben also notes other ways we can continue to learn and make a difference — by staying at home and doing small things like keeping bees.  He speaks of his friend Kirk, the bee-keeper.  Kirk becomes a counterbalance to McKibben’s admittedly contradictory rushing around from protest to protest in petroleum fueled airplanes.  He notes some need to protest and others need to give primary attention to care for the earth before we lose much more of our environmental carrying capacity.  One small example of this earth care is by beekeeping.

Upon reading Oil and Honey I sent an email to McKibben including this message: “I chuckled when I read of your friend telling you that you were not a ‘mild mannered Methodist Sunday school teacher.’  You have perhaps proven her correct — at least regarding the ‘mild mannered’ part of your self description.  However, you stand high on the list of unlikely activists in my life, among them many great Methodist Sunday school teachers!” 

I mentioned that he would be in my prayers and that I was taking up bee-keeping again on our small acreage in northwest Indiana.  McKibben wrote back this response: “Dear Rev. Amerson–your words made me very happy, and even more so the thought of you donning the beekeeper’s veil again after those decades! all best, Bill.”

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SLOWLY LEARNING — I remember now.  It comes from the last line in the poem “Thirst” by Mary Oliver. 

Thirst

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

— Mary Oliver, Thirst,
Beacon Press, Boston, 2006

This poem, this prayer, is my prayer during the spring of 2015.  “Love for the earth and love for you [God] is having a long conversation in my heart.”  So, I make this small act of learning from my bees… and perhaps they will give a little something extra in return.

We all can learn, we can move beyond intentional ignorance, we can agree that we can join in slowly learning a new way forward.

Grandsons Colin and Zack Murray get ready to help check on the hives.
Grandsons Colin and Zack Murray get ready to help check on the hives.