Early June – daffodils and tulips have dropped their blooms. Now the purple allium flowers, gorgeous, stand proudly over the “weeds.”
Funny how I can miss the beauty by seeing only the weeds. Beauty — this year I saw it all around our home in the flower or vegetable beds. The allium amidst the weeds remind me of wisdom of a friend long ago — the Rev. Esther Angel.
I first met Esther in 1992 in Louisville. We were both clergy delegates to the United Methodist General Conference working in the same legislative group. That year Esther’s quiet and deeply spiritual presence made a difference. During a break in our legislative group, Esther, speaking softly, asked if she should say something to the entire group. Several of us encouraged her and then she said something that has lingered with me since. She simply and calmly said, “I fear the United Methodist Church is in a time of self-loathing. It is diminishing and replacing the joy of our work.” She went on “we are forgetting to celebrate the harvest, focusing too much on the weeds.”
That day, in the next hour, Esther rose and moved to the middle of the circle in which our legislative group was sitting. The topic was the denomination’s support for a woman’s right to have a choice when facing the tragedy of abortion. Up to this point, it was mainly men who had spoken. Raising her hand, moving to the center, turning and continuing to slowing circle, she began, “I would sing you my heart…”
She spoke of the women she had counseled facing difficult, almost impossible pregnancies and life situations. Saying she had never counseled a woman or her partner to proceed with an abortion — she could still understand how in some cases this would be a tragic yet appropriate choice. Esther spoke in a beautiful way of other ways we sought to be a denomination that brought healing and hope. She rehearsed the ways United Methodists had led over the years in civil rights struggles. She spoke on the behalf of a woman’s right to choose and wondering why none of the men, who had spoken with such strong views that week, had asked to hear from women in the room.
I thought of Esther this year when the 2016 General Conference voted to abandon our denomination’s long term support for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. In 1992, Esther spoke about the importance of welcoming gay and lesbian persons in our churches. She ended her solilloquy, her word-dance with the words, “Let’s stop harvesting the weeds.” In 1992, Esther’s quiet, yet prophetic, spirit made a difference. We missed her in 2016 — but her spirit remains.
The 2016 General Conference of the church “spent a lot of time harvesting weeds.” Esther, who died, too young several years ago, had a capacity for quiet communication. In 1992 Esther passed out a poem printed on a 4 X 6 note card. Here is a link to a copy: Re-Imagining — Esther Angel, 1992.
To my mind she captured something in speaking of our “denominational self-loathing.” She perceived then that we were forgetting to celebrate the good harvest related to who we are as Wesleyans as United Methodists. In too many places we forget our great legacy and are literally getting lost in the weeds.
Often when I hear of congreations who try to hide their United Methodist identity on signage or websites, I think of Esther. When I learn of congregations who ignore our theology of baptism or communion, who offer meager financial support to the denomination and prefer to identify themselves “post-denominational” or “community” churches rather than United Methodists, I think of Esther’s witness. When I see the stong waves of the so called New Room Calvinism seeking to capture the future theological direction of our denomination, I think of Esther.
In her poem Esther spoke of the energy expended on attacking and defending and then wrote: “Meanwhile, The poor hear bad news, Captives stay in prisons, The blind remain unsighted. Satan laughs. Wouldn’t you in his/her shoes? “Left”; “Right, both the same, in tactics and in what remains — Undone.”
At our house we are now harvesting vegetables. What joy! Still, it’s difficult not to focus on the weeds, no matter our best intentions. The same is true, I fear, in the church.
My own bishop writes compellingly that United Methodists are about so much more than dealing with issues of sexuality. Sadly, he then spends nearly every communication, every month, talking about the church and homosexuality. He may be trying to do penance for the years he has quietly aided and abetted our bigotry. Perhaps. Still, until we hear of the beauty of faithful, loving homosexual relationships or about the gift of the witness of congregations that are courageously focusing on welcome and reconciliation and rituals of support for all people, it all stays in the weeds.
We all have a responsibility. Will we speak of the beauty all around? Will we speak of the delights of the harvest? Will we speak about our denomination’s commitments to addressing poverty? Addressing racism? Our ongoing commitments to threatened immigrants in our nation and world? Will we have a constructive word about addressing the dilemmas of climate change? Will we hear about the ways the lives of persons in our communities are being changed through the love of Christ?
Esther had it right, let’s stop harvesting weeds!