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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Orphaned or Exiled?

Orphaned or Exiled?

This will not be long.  I have been avoiding adding to the verbiage surrounding the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis.  Perhaps I know too much, or is it too little?  I awoke this morning considering the actions taken yesterday by the United Methodists gathered in St. Louis.  It is certainly one of the most painful days in my more than fifty years of ordained ministry.  Whatever, I was even more painfully aware of the ways my many LGBTQI friends have been spiritually brutalized by the language and actions of this gathering.

I saw it coming… and I understood what it will likely mean for the future.  As the conference voted to continue to exclude gay and lesbian folks from the full ministry of the church and to punish anyone who would join in seeking a more open church, I found myself wondering what has happened to the denomination I joined as a young man.  Yes, I felt orphaned by mother church… or, perhaps it is that I felt exiled.

Let’s just say that as an elected delegate to four General Conferences in the past, I have been in the room and seen the “sausage made.”  The result is our guidebook, the Book of Discipline.  However, words are insufficient to capture the whole human story and the ways God keeps leading the faithful forward.  This is, after all, evidenced in the unfolding story of our scriptures.  God’s people learn and learn again of God’s faithfulness and love.

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John Wesley – Methodism’s Founder

More to the point, I have seen the ways we United Methodists have struggled to live our lives together over the past fifty years.  The intrigues, the deceits, the political distortions — yes.  I have also seen the affection and generosity of persons who come together from many places geographically and theologically to seek to discover what God had in store for a church that was willing to take risks — to be a messy church on the behalf of sharing the transforming love of Christ in the world.

 

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John Wesley suggested that Methodists should begin and end our work with a “watching over one another in love.”  Let me recommend a fine sermon by Dr. Robert Hill that looked at what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as our way to know God’s will.  (see http://www.fumcsd.org)

N.T. Wright suggests that the church is merely the scaffolding for God’s Kin-dom work in our world.  This helps.  But not much this morning.  I confess to feeling orphaned in the face of decisions being made by this “special general conference” in St. Louis this week.  Or, perhaps it is an exiling that is underway.  This is a more helpful image — from scripture.  What shall I do? — well, it is time to listen, watch and look for new connections with old friends.  I think of the dozens, make that hundreds of churches where a Methodism of the heart and mind continue to be practiced.   I think of places like Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, Illinois or… the list goes on, by the hundreds it goes on, in the U.S. and around the world.  Here gather people who are not afraid to think AND pray.  To welcome and include.  To be open to changes they need to make rather than seeking to make other fit into their categories.  Maybe there will be a gathering-of-orphans — or exiles — that will become the next chapter in our faith journey.  Would that I could stay in the familiar world of mother church.  Sometimes, however, we must leave home (or be pushed out) to grow in ways God would desire.

 

ReCentering Methodism

ReCentering Methodism

These are days of discontent and disruption (even despair) in United Methodism in the United States. Earlier this week, my friend Professor Ted Campbell speaking to a gathering of World Methodists said the following about the United Methodist denomination: “The question at this point is not whether we divide or not,” said Campbell, standing under a “One” sign that signified the unity theme of the conference. “That I fear is a given now.”[United Methodist News, 9-1-16

As a “cradle Methodist,” one who has lived and loved this Wesleyan expression of the church for more than seven decades, I have watched our common story as it is shattered apart.  As it unfolds I watch with the horrid fascination of someone who fears she is seeing a train wreck about to occur.   “A given?”  So says my friend.  I pray and hope Ted is WRONG.  Really, are we to divide over this?  This? 

Still, Professor Campbell’s comment has caused me to do much thinking about our denomination.  If we are going to speak of “givens,” I have a few to add.   Here are a few “givens” that have been firmly in place for too long and I would suggest have led to my friend’s stark assessment of our situation.

In his fine book Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe reflects on the cultural battles in our nation.  He notes James Davison Hunter’s statement that culture wars consist of “competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory.”  Wolfe continues regretfully, “The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase ‘culture wars’ is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”

Gregory Wolfe summarizes further: “Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.” Borrowing from Wolfe, I would adapt his statement to read that somewhere in our denomination’s history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than theology –especially our understanding of the church.  We stopped caring for the health of our institution and began to seek total victory through our politics.  Humility took a back seat to triumph.  Years ago, it became a given — raw politics replaced more generous theological discourse.  Outside forces played a role.  If “culture wars” are an oxymoron, shouldn’t theological wars be equally onerous?  (More on this in future.)

So, there is the previous “given” of politics being more salient than respectful theological discourse.  I would suggest two other “givens” that underpin this. 

It is increasingly scientifically clear that there are biological, hereditary contributors to  a person’s sexual orientation.  Year by year, the science keeps mounting — this research is a “given.”  It is not that United Methodists have been unaware.  In the 1980s and 1990s biological scientists like Sally Geiss were encouraging a more scientifically based view of human genetics.  However, by narrow majorities, the General Conference chose to ignore this work.  This, my friends, is another “given” that should be set along side the one Professor Campbell mentions.  We have been MADE by our creator to have differing sexual proclivities and desires.  I believe this is a “given” that should inform our theological reflection and transcend the political and the theological divisiveness we face.  I fear on this issue our denomination continues to operate with the ignorance of those who once believed the earth was flat, even in the face of solid scientific evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I suggest it is a “given” that the true disagreement among us, the issue that divides, isn’t primarily human sexuality but how we interpret scripture.  For years I have asked my friends, who wish to exclude homosexual persons from full participation in the church, to share with me their hermeneutic of scripture.  I ask on what basis they interpret the five or six passages of all of scripture that MIGHT refer to what we understand today as homosexuality?  How is it that my colleagues, with whom I disagree on this one matter, find more space to interpret scripture in less literal ways when it comes to divorce, the role of women in the church, support for slavery, polygamy, the eating of pork or even being left-handed?   How is there this latitude in interpretation on some important matters like divorce, slavery, the role of women and at the same time a restrictive interpretation of passages on homosexuality? 

I believe it is a “given” that until we can sit down respectfully and reason together about our interpretive approaches and differences, we will live more by political strategies than by theological respect.  As one wag recently confided in me, “I wonder if this increasingly openness to schism, to the dividing of the body of Christ first rests in an openness to divorce, even though Jesus spoke against it?  Perhaps once you accept divorce as normal, you are more open to a dividing of the church!”  Interesting and troubling thought, this — even as I find it slightly off key.

Another friend has said that there can be grace-filled endings of marriages, but there seem never to be grace-filled divisions of a congregation or denomination.  In this I fully agree.  Over the years I have watched the damage done by the exclusionary practices, theologies and splintering activities of the Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist denominations.  It is clear that the seeking of some mythical purity has left both groups less focused on mission and imaginative ministry.

It is my belief that United Methodism has been shaped by too many “givens” already, without our easily accepting another, even if it is proposed by the good Professor Campbell.  What if we worked on some other prior givens like: politics being more highly valued than theology, the scientific evidence we have at hand, or the inability to speak constructively about differing hermeneutical interpretations.  What if folks in the emerging Wesley Covenant Association were to include all of these givens in their upcoming deliberations?  What then?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mentors of Hope

Mentors of Hope

Visits with my best friends typically include the question, “what are you reading?”  Sometimes I am embarrassed and tongue-tied because I don’t want to admit that I can’t even remember the name of the author or the title of the book in that moment.  I know it is a good book and can even tell you the color of the cover or quote several passages from it.  But the name of the author? — Ah, the joys of being 70 keep coming!  Still, I am grateful for this question and for these friends as they are asking a deeper question, more fundamental question.  It is “who is teaching you these days?”

Good reader, who are your teachers?  This is not asking you who were your teachers? Rather what is informing you today?  No doubt lessons from the past are critical to shaping who we are.  I do remember elementary school teachers like Ms. Kerns, Ms. Schindler, Ms. Williams, Mr. Glass all offered lessons that still shape my living.  Occasionally I hear echoes of Ms. Schindler, third grade teacher saying “Philip, you are too good not to be better!”  What an enduring word — her legacy on my life.

Lessons from today are even more essential — essential to shaping who we will become.  Who teaches us now?  In a time when ignorance and falsehood is the trademark of one Donald Trump, the question “what are your reading?” is critical.  If you find Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy troubling, “what are you reading?”  What gives you perspective beyond the same ole talking heads on television?

So, here are a few folks who are shaping my thoughts today for the future:

  1. Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  In her blog “Practicing Restoration” Sara recently wrote of Beauty in the Borderlands (Wenger Shenk, Practicing Restoration).  Very nice — and full of wisdom like the importance of “caring for the institution you are trying to heal.”
  2. President Wenger Shenk mentions Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World and I am reminded of another wonderful teacher for these times.  I have only started the book but find it so compelling, I can even remember the name of the author!
  3. Then there is the work Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler that points to the power of our networks of friends and their friends who touch our lives in ways that shape our worlds for benefit or disease.
  4. I would mention the daily meditation pieces from Richard Rohr, at the Center for Action and Contemplation – see Richard Rohr meditations.  He has recently challenged my tendency to think too often in binary ways and reminded again of the powerful benefit of paradox for us if we are to find more hope-filled ways forward.
  5. Lastly, I would mention Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History at Revisionist History podcast.  He has just completed the first ten podcasts for this summer season.  They are richly rewarding and will make you think!

In a period of history when the temptation is to watch my favorite news channel (Fox or MSNBC or CNN or…. you name it) our communities and our body politic deserve our efforts to think more clearly and not find ourselves trapped in our limited cul de sacs of narrow analysis.  Read on good folks — think more broadly.  Our world deserves the best we can know, even if we can’t always remember the name of the author or the title of the work.  Where do you find hope?  Who mentors you in that direction?

It is all too easy to focus on some issue of discontent.  Okay, I hear your complaints.  What I want to know is where do you find hope — where do you see folks coming together?

I write trusting that in some small way I can act as a mentor of hope today.  I will have my issues of disagreement with others, of course.  I challenge you to join me to read more widely, think more broadly, our world needs you to do so.

Filet

 

Harvesting Weeds

Harvesting Weeds

 

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Allium in Bloom, Walstead Farm 2016

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.

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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!

Phil A

Count it All JOY!

Joy in It!

I am told that Thomas Langford when dean at Duke Divinity School had a license plate on his pick-up truck that read “JOY N IT.”  My suspicion is that folks who didn’t know Tom, might have mistakenly thought he was expressing his joy in driving that truck.  Others of us who knew Tom, knew better.  He was perhaps speaking of the joy of the truck, but suspect he was also talking about the joy of a life of faith, of living and leaning forward, of imagining the joy of a life of gospel relevance.

After writing about the current United Methodist General Conference an email came that challenged my call for repentance and accountability on the part of all of us, if we are to find a way forward.  The writer said he had no complicity in the current impasse and didn’t IMG_1003need to repent.  He said I offered no positive alternative.  Or, as he put it, “you call us to a whimper and a pout in our separate corners.”  Yikes, I thought.  Whimpering and pouting?  People who know me, know I like little more than a GOOD “conversation” — a solid and respectful debate often helps all sides come to fresh understanding, new truth.  There is, for me, Joy In It.  For me, a good learning experience is akin to my grandson Gus’ delight in cleaning up a bowl of chocolate cookie mix.

Conference gatherings for Methodists began in 1744.  The goal was to reason together about what should be taught, how it should be taught and how Methodists should live.  In recent decades our annual conferences leave little space for such conversations.

Annual Conferences are held in expensive (and expansive) convention centers where various interest groups and caucuses meet to plan on how to “win.”  Candidate slates are put together, text messages fly through the ether as partisans do their work.  Little time to listen to others here.  Worship becomes a show where some, up front, perform and we are to passively listen, or perhaps clap along.  I wonder when it was last suggested that we might sing together in harmony?

In my annual conference the expense of the big convention center means that we need to shorten the length of annual conference to avoid any extra expense.  Thereby we avoid more floor debate, time in small legislative gatherings and time for the inadvertent joy of making new friends.  “Come let us reason together” has been turned into “come-let-us-pass-the-budget, hear-reports, nominate-and-elect, have-performers-on-stage-and-avoid-lengthy-controversial-conversation.”  And then, a dear brother assigned to the role of speeding things up, comes to the microphone and moves to limit the number and length of speeches.  We are reminded of the expense of meeting in the convention center and we press onward and downward.

There is growing evidence of the health benefits associated with choral singing, the value of listening and harmonizing in song.  During our debates over human sexuality I have been aware that our Mennonite brothers and sisters are in the midst of a similar controversy.  Yet, they seem more able to hear those who differ, to make a welcoming space for diverse points of view.  Along with the Mennonite commitment to peacemaking, I can’t help but wonder if their practice of singing hymns in harmony (and not just having only performers on stage) might be of benefit to the health of the whole body gathered.

Today, J. Steven Harper wrote a hopeful piece regarding the decision made to support the U.M. bishops in hosting another meeting in a couple of years based on recommendations of a study commission on human sexuality (Steven Harper).  While I am more doubtful about a positive outcome, I join Steve in believing any positive way forward will require those who are involved to come with a humble and contrite spirit — a willingness to listen and set aside preconceived agendas.  If this could happen — what joy there might be.

Joy in it!  Hear the words from the epistle of James 1:2-5:  My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.  If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (NRSV)

Compass&BibleAt root, our differences will call for us to struggle with our interpretation of scripture and our various “captivities to local cultures” and step away from the worlds of narrow experience.  Folks like me will need to know how we can focus so narrowly on excluding gay folks based on a limited and questionable scriptural basis, and at the same time ignore other scripture “rules.” There are also “scriptural rules” on the role of women, divorce, the eating of pork, the wearing of synthetic clothing or the call to stone folks to death for many of our modern practices.

Fortunately there are good people who differ and yet who can joyfully engage in conversation with others who can provide us with helpful interpretive guidance.  Knowledge, reflection, empathy, relationship with those who differ can be helpful. I would like such a group to respond to questions about the dimensions of a scriptural hermaneutic behind the exclusionary paragraphs in our current Book of Discipline.

So… I offer to my friend ,who sent his email critique, more than a whimper or a pout.  My response might come with singing — learning again to sing in harmony.  It might come in talking and moving our annual conferences beyond being just about budgets, reports and votes.  It might change the ways we do charge conferences.   Might we sing and offer constructive conversations?  If we could, we just might be that we could again find JOY in being together.  If we could learn how to have annual conferences and charge conferences that offered space for relationship and for honest debate and conversation, we might lay the groundwork for more constructive general conference gatherings.  The burden is not just on the as yet unnamed study commission — it is on all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Of Blessed Memory

“OF BLESSED MEMORY”

Only yesterday I was thinking of the three words spoken all too often these days — “Of Blessed Memory.” This is a phrase that typically follows the mention of the name of a friend who is now deceased.  That list among my friends “of blessed memory,” sadly, continues to grow.

Little did I realize that today, less that 24 hours after this awareness, I would speak those words about two GREAT women — Harper Lee and LaVerta Terry. They were both 89 years old — they certainly experienced life over the same decades, yet in very different ways.  I think they probably saw the world – its joys and challenges – in similar ways and would have been dear friends had they met.  Both will remain among my greatest teachers.

Harper Lee

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Harper Lee 1961 Monroeville Courthouse

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Although I met Harper Lee only through her writing and the occasional news stories about her, I felt she was a friend.  We had a mutual friend, Thomas Lane Butts.  Tom who for years would visit with Harper weekly would keep me updated about Ms. Lee.  A treasured book on my shelf is a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that he arranged for me during one of his weekly visits. I did meet Harper Lee’s older sister, Miss Alice Lee, at a church event over twenty years ago.  Every United Methodist active in denomination-wide activities knew of Miss Alice.  She was that remarkable lay leader and attorney from Monroeville, Alabama.

Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 which was an immediate success.  I can still remember reading late into the night while a senior in high school, caught up in the drama surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It was fictional but I knew it was about real life, real bigotry, real threats, real racism.  I loved picturing Scout, Jem, Boo and and most of all Atticus Finch in my mind’s eye.

So, it was a quite a joy this past year to read Go Set a Watchman, a

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Harper Lee 2006

novel that was written prior to Mockingbird.  It was not as polished… and less idealistic.  It was not published back then.  Too bad.  In Watchman, Good and evil are not as easily separated… and Atticus?  Oh, sadly he turns out to be more true to real life as he buys into the racism of the town — for a larger “good.”  Alas.

I must say, however, that I found Watchman to be a great read, full of humor and a clear-eyed view of life.

LaVerta Terry

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Source: Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times

LaVerta Terry became my friend and mentor when I served as her pastor in Bloomington, Indiana.  You can catch a glimpse of her dignity, intellect, her direct manner and memorable presence in this brief piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRrZTKik8L8

Nothing was better for me than hearing LaVerta Terry laugh — and usually at my expense.  She would tease and I would tease right back.  She usually won. However, one evening when Elaine had other commitments, I asked LaVerta to accompany me to the opera at the Indiana University.  (The opera is one of the great gifts of I.U. and LaVerta was a fine musician.)  When we arrived at the auditorium, LaVerta looked at me and said “What will people think, the two of us out on a date.”  I was ready for her and replied, “Don’t worry, they will think you are Elaine.” LaVerta was still laughing at the end of the first act.

In 1963, LaVerta Terry was the first African American hired by Public Schools in Monroe County.  Twenty years earlier, in 1944 she had won a scholarship to the Indiana University School of Music.  The remarkably sad story is that she had won first place in auditions with the Metropolitan Opera; however, when she arrived at I.U. with her luggage, she was denied a place in the dormitory because of her race.

Sadly, the persistent racial discrimination she found led her to complete her bachelors degree at Jarvis Christian College after some study at Tuskegee Institute.  What a sad story and yet she was a great spirit.  Later she became Assistant Director and Director of the Groups program at Indiana University.  This program focused on encouraging and supporting racial ethnic minority students, most were the first generation from their family to attend college.  Her students now are in places of leadership all around the world.  When I was pastor in Bloomington, I would often meet them and hear of the way Mrs. Terry had been a “difference maker” in their succeeding at the university and in life.

Laverta-Terry-1455972308 My friend La Verta Terry taught me much.  Mostly, she tried to teach me to speak the truth about difficult things with grace, elegance and style.  I will never match her in this; but often I can hear her voice in my head cheering me on.  And, like many of my dearest friends, she knew how to be a loving critic if I said or did something she thought might have been handled better.  LaVerta, lived on the other side of the white-privilege Harper wrote about.  They both knew the bitterness of racism and shaped beauty and meaning from the ugliness.

There are many, many others about whom I speak of with the words “Of Blessed Memory.”  Mostly I speak these words about folks I knew, some very well, and folks who shaped me for the good.  People like Daphne Mayorga Solis, Carl Dudley, Earl and Ethel Brewer, Stella Newhouse, Bob Greenleaf, Clarence Jordan, Scott Lawrence, Ernie and Polly Teagle, Ray Dean Davis, Bob Lyon, Gil James, Dow Kirkpatrick, Parker Pengilly, Liz Shindell, David Stewart, Jerry Hyde, Kenda Webb, Will Counts and Jane Tews… I am realizing this list could continue on and on.  It does.  Yes, the list goes on and on.  It is called “the Community of the Saints.”  Blessed are we who have known them, in person or otherwise; blessed are we indeed.

(You can read more about Tom Butts in the February 4, 2015 post Southern Exposure.  See: https://philipamerson.com/2015/02/04/hands-of-the-strong-southern-exposure-people/)

The Last Apple

THE LAST APPLE

November 2015

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Autumn sharpens one’s imagination.  Days are filled with transition.  The weather teases — do we chance leaving the tomatoes on the vine one more day?  Was it frost last night, or nearly frost? When will the leaves turn?  Will they be mostly golden or red or brown this year?  Day to day, transition comes, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a burst.  Some things end, some things anticipate a spring.  

This year, again, I have been planing bulbs (300 of them in the last week).  Tulips, daffodils, allium.  I know better, especially setting those tulips in bed for the winter, as the deer find them irresistible in the spring.  I foolishly calculate that if 100 bulbs are set this fall, maybe 50 will survive, especially if I spred some deer repellent nearby next spring.  Okay, so sign me up as an eternal optimist!  Still, there is something compelling about autumn.  A thinking person and/or a person of faith will see this as a time for hope… or, so I tell myself.

Each fall I think of the haunting passage written by E. B. White who described his wife Katherine, as she aged, still kneeling each fall to plant bulbs.  He wrote: “As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical in her bedraggled appearance… her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” [Forward in Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.]

I’m with Kathrine White — calmly plotting the resurrection, indeed.  As I plant bulbs and trees I am aware that I may or may not be around to enjoy them 15 or 20 years hence — but my prayer is that someone will benefit and thereby be reminded of the beauty and promise found in these autumn days.

This year I also planted trees — decorative plum, pear and magnolia.  They stand all along the driveway.  And there were three apple and two cherry trees planted last spring.  I find I have to protect them all from the deer, who like to munch on the apple or cherry tree leaves or, in the case of the other trees, the bucks will come and scar the trunks during rutting season. 

IMG_1064 We lost the old apple tree in the front yard this fall.  A friend who knows about such things tells me the tree was approaching its 100th year… but we watched as it slowly faded in health over the past three years.  Someone, a century or so ago planted this apple tree; perhaps, like me, hoping it would be appreciated by another in a distant future.  This fall the time had come; we had to cut that tree down.  Sad, as the old apple tree in the front of the house was one of the features we loved when we bought the place three years ago.         

In  mid-September, walking past the tree, I noticed one last apple hanging up among the few branches still clinging to life.  (For those of you wondering, I took a cutting off that branch, in the hope I might plant it next spring — yes, my hope springs eternal!)    The tree is now down, the wood cleared and stump ground up.   That last apple — tart and memorable — has now been eaten and enjoyed.  In my imagination, that last apple lingers, remaining for me as an autumn metaphor.

IMG_1052As my seventieth birthday approaches on the cusp of a New Year, I still think of myself as young.  I do this even when I am sometimes offered the “senior discount.”  And this without my even asking!  More and more often, when speaking of friends, I add the words “of blessed memory” upon mentioning their names.  Time passes, life’s autumn season arrives.  Thankfully it does not mean that imagination disappears.

It is not only friends who have passed on.  I find institutions and organizational cultures are often “of blessed memory.”  Some gifts of courage and quality of thought I saw in the life of others seem to have evaporated in recent decades.  I confess to grieving the loss of courage and imagination among many who lead my denomination, the United Methodist Church. 

It is strange to go to denominational gatherings and realize that there is little appetite or awareness of the need to speak prophetically on matters of justice.  In this early autumn season of my life, when I look at Indiana United Methodism at least, it is easy to feel like I am one of the last apples. 

(Thankfully there are a few other ‘last apples’ around, but too few.  Hopefully we are not the “bad apples” as some now seeking to reform United Methodism seem prone to suggest.  Please know that I am all too aware of the inadequacies that were abundant in earlier generations.  I remember the bigotries and peevishness of some laity, clergy and denominational leaders — I remember these well.  I also remember courageous bishops and pastors who spoke prophetically about racism, war and peace, sexism and economic injustice.) 

Today, few wise and clarion voices are speaking.  The denomination is knotted up a homophobic dystrophy.   There is silence.  Or worse, we find a continuation of bigotry and exclusion toward gay and lesbian folks, lay and clergy.  There is more — there is too often silence regarding issues of economic injustice or environmental destruction.   In May 2016, the denomination will join in another General Conference — signs are not encouraging.  In Indiana, I find so-called United Methodists have little in common with those who provided a place for the prophetic tradition over the past century. 

Maybe the old tree has been removed, chopped down, and I missed the felling of it.  Maybe.  There is an old saying the “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”   I wonder.   Sometimes I look around and think the whole orchard has been moved or chopped down.  What was once Methodism has become something wholly different.  Perhaps this new orchard is one of persimmons or crab apples.  I am surprised by the way a pathetic, poorly articulated and distorted Calvinism (dividing the world into the “saved and the fallen” with no hope for transformation or renewal) has replaced the Wesleyan vision of redemption and perfect love.

Even so, I can’t stop kneeling and planting the bulbs — and trees — of the future.  I will still try to take cuttings from the old tree and see if these can be brought to life — and perhaps appreciated by someone 100 years from now.  Maybe I am not among the last apples after all.

Lamp Post Literalists

Hands of the Strong: Lamp Post Literalists. 

Amid the twists and turns of everyday life, I have been reflecting on the “recipes for a significant life” offered in our culture these days.  If you are like me, you long for certitude — for the right idea, the perfect politician, the road to true happiness.  And, if you are like me, you are tempted to believe there is a shortcut to such significance and joy.

Such hunger for certainty and clarity is, I have come to believe, the seedbed of fundamentalism.  Before your ask, yes, I believe fundamentalism is a shared human dilemma — make that a shared human flaw.  Fundamentalists can be clothed in many garbs.  Yes, there is “Islamic Fundamentalism” and also “Christian Fundamentalism,” “Jewish Fundamentalism,” “Hindu Fundamentalism,” or, even, “Atheistic Fundamentalism.”  We can too easily, in our search for the simple answer, turn to criticize persons of other faith traditions.  I have come to believe that we must first speak clearly to persons, tempted to fundamentalism, in our own tradition.

William Sloan Coffin, of blessed memory, put it this way: “Some Christians use the scriptures like a drunk uses a lamp post — more for support than for illumination.”  Bill Coffin was at the time pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.  He spoke of the human temptation to selectively use scriptures, or our faith, as a prop for our own shallowness, even our weaknesses.  Coffin suggested that we ALL are tempted to be “selective literalists,” — each of us eager to find the easy way forward, the simple formula, the one confirmation for what we already believe.

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This desire for the one formula, the simple rule, is too much at play in shaping our politics and our religious life.  It is astonishing, for example, that the mission of the United Methodist Church has been diverted, and in my view almost lost, by a focus on homosexuality.  This is based on 5 or 6 verses of scripture that are literally (and in my view wrongly) applied to our day.  How long will our mission and message be held captive to such sad smallness of vision?  In Indiana, we recently saw how this selective literalism of these scriptures was employed to pass legislation that would allow for discrimination against LGBT persons.

In our nation’s life, selective literalistic interpretation of the second amendment to the constitution has led us to a foolish worship of fire arms.  Such interpretations ignore any emphasis on “a well regulated militia.”  The “right to bear arms” is the predicate, not the subject, of this amendment.  As a result of this selective interpretation, we live in a nation where persons too easily trade in guns (even assault weapons) without background checks or any proof of competency.  This flawed literalism has lead to neighborhoods too often like war zones  — places where our children’s lives are under daily threat.

What then shall we do?  Columnist David Brooks’ new book The Road to Character is helpful.  Brooks suggests that the development of character requires humility, discipline, perspective and practice.  He notes that we too easily substitute our narcissistic desires for the gift of mature faith and the richness of the life well-lived.  He speaks of the dangers of smug superficiality — this, too frequently, reinforced by our fundamentalist instincts.  Finding strength and significance in our personal lives and in our national conversation will require a broader imagination and the admitting that we still have things to learn — that we are vulnerable to the siren songs of selfishness and narcissism.

The path to being spiritually healthy people, living emotionally substantial lives and sustaining healthy communities requires something more, something deeper.  Brooks speaks of dimensions of faith beyond our desire for personal validation or easy certainties.  He points to a better way forward offered by thousands, great and small.  He notes that in every community there are persons who are little recognized, yet seem to radiate the gift of faith as they relate to others.  And he notes several of the great thinkers and actors of faith.  Folks like St. Augustine offer a richer way forward, shaped by an understanding that we are all children of God, easily tempted to forget our place and to focus on our selective biases.

In my best moments, I am able to read the scriptures in a more holistic way and see there the deeper trend lines of God’s activity in human history.  There is a larger narrative at play than my self interest.  I see that for faith to be vibrant and meaning-filled will require attention to many dimensions and not my desire to exclude or simplify.  It will require head, heart and hands.  (See the sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SgvnUrT7tk.)

The poet Marianne Moore calls for us to live beyond the “insolence and triviality” around us and to become “literalists of the imagination.”  She suggests that we explore “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”  So speaks the poet — and the columnist — and this pastor who seeks to keep learning.  I too often get focused on the real toads and miss the larger vision of the garden.  You?