That Joy May Be Full

Session III:  June 15, 2021: Toward a Regenerative and Sustainable UMC

Introduction: Restorative and Joyful Communities

Not far from my home is a walking path designated as a “certified sustainable trail.” It is wide, one of those “if you want to walk far, walk together” trails.  As we conclude, let’s acknowledge a sustainable trail for the United Methodist Church is still emerging. We are, after all, God’s church, part of God’s wider economy.  We are part of God’s symphony of hope.  Many remarkable previous travelers signal us forward.  Earlier today we identified these trail markers:

  1. Loving action is our North Star and singular mark of a mature Christian.
  2. Deep evangelization extends across space and time to name, bless and connect.
  3. Each mission site can be God’s mother tree in the social forest where it is located.

The “Root Command” of Love

In 1974, at bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University the world-renowned economist Sir Dennis Robertson was asked a big question, What Do Economists Economize?” Robertson, gave an “astonishing answer: We economize on love.”[i]  Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps later agreed that indeed altruism is central to any sound economic analysis. As you might guess both economists, went on to say, ‘It’s complicated.’

Long before modern economic theories, Jesus points to love as the source of joyful communities.  From John 15:11-17 we read: The Message: 11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17 But remember the root command: Love one another.

Jesus speaks of a love more profound than economic altruism.  Moses provides ten commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There are 613 Mizvot or commandments in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus reduces the commandments to one, “the root command: Love one another (John 15:17), so that you might have joy and be fruit bearers.[ii]  Agape love, a willingness to lay down one’s life for another, is essential to joyful restoration of lives and communities. John’s gospel, was written in Ephesus a few decades after the Letter to the Ephesians and comes to a church full of interpersonal struggles, dissension and disagreement. Faith rooted in sacrificial love is said to be the path forward.  Disciples were no longer servants, but friends. Ivan Illich wrote of this as conviviality, celebrating an awareness that in love we can make our life today in the shape of tomorrow’s future.[iii]  United Methodists find our home as a community of loving activity, a community of friends.

Stories of restoration and joy come bubbling with laughter and hope from our scripture: Ninety-year-old Sarah laughs, Joseph embraces his brothers, mana comes in the wilderness, Babylonian refugees return, Nehemiah announces the joy of the Lord is strength, a prodigal returns home, magi see a star, a baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, water is turned to wine, winds of Pentecost blow across the church, and Christ is recognized in the breaking and sharing of bread. Joy and restoration are communal. Solo performances can be lovely and moving, but scientists have shown that it is in choral singing, voices raised together, that sustainable social bonds and personal wellbeing in forged.[iv]

Last month, as I watched Wesleyan Investive (UMDF) awards given to five national Innovative Leaders the joy was evident.  One awardee was DeAmon Hargis of The Learning Tree in Indianapolis, (DeAmon is a longtime friend and has been a guest of this annual conference). Years ago, DeAmon noticed folks he identified as neighborhood healers. They practiced generosity and hospitality. They knew how to host parties to celebrate others. Not a party in the church building, but in neighborhood homes.

De’Amon Harges, The Learning Tree

Did someone graduate from school? Get a new job? Retire? Complete an art project?  Start a band? Then celebrate and welcome outsiders to join: the police commander, a foundation director, the mayor, a hospital administrator, a school principal. It was a reweaving, a restoration of the fabric of a community.  A group of young men, the Cultivating Joy Cypher began to meet and celebrate the gifts and potential all around. Such imagination has been a critical starting point for the investments of dollars in housing, economic development, the arts and small business initiatives  As DeAmon puts it “We kidnap people from old routines and bring them together so that they can fall in love with each other.”

Wesley emphasized both personal and communal religious experience. Methodists were to walk with others: classes, bands, societies and conferences. Paul Chilcote writes “Christianity, according to the Wesleys, is not so much a religion as it is a relationship. It is from the outset personal AND social.[v]  Excessive individualism distorts Christianity.[vi]  Our faith is relational.  Our work is God’s corporate work, God’s song, God’s poem in human experience.

Regenerative Root Systems

About 200 miles due south of the Red Wing Barn portrayed in Ted Kooser’s poem is a place called The Land Institute (TLI) near Salina, Kansas.  TLI has been much on my mind in thinking of root systems.  I had the privilege of meeting Wes Jackson, co-founder of TLI two summers ago.

Jackson left university teaching and research nearly fifty years ago to go back to his home state of Kansas. He shifted from genetics research to investigating crop sustainability and teaching about regenerative agriculture. He later won the MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the “genius award” back in 1992 for this work.  Wes works to restore communities in the soil and among humans.  Professor Robert Jensen, retired from University of Texas says of Wes, Jackson has perfected the art of “seeing small and thinking big.”[vii]  Uncomfortable with traditional religious language, Jackson jokingly describes himself as a 5/8th Methodist! His Methodist roots are displayed as he speaks of a Creaturely Worldview. It is Wes who says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

A large photo, perhaps twelve feet long and three feet wide, is placed down a stairway at TLI.  It’s two root systems, actual size, side-by-side. On the left are thin winter wheat roots grown and replanted annually less than one (1) meter long. The other, a perennial plant, has roots over three (3) meters long reaching broadly outward. Jackson proposes a mix of wheat, soybean and oilseed (like sunflower) plants grown together as perennials.  Imagine the mutual benefits for soil and water preservation from deeper root systems and the activity of diverse plants, with some preventing erosion and others restoring nitrogen in the soil.

From The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

What do root systems in the Kansas River Valley have to do with the vibrancy of congregations in North Texas?  Or, ministry in towns, rural settings or the Dallas metroplex?  Imperfect, as all metaphors are, our places of ministry might be seen as regenerative sources for communities and personal lives. What if we sought deep regenerative roots of faith?  Do we plow under our ministry investments too quickly as we shift from one strategy to another?[viii]

Being “fruitful” is a fixation for many North American denominations. We do a lot of plowing-under-and-replanting. While understandable, many of these efforts are counterproductive, increasing stress and diverting local, indigenous innovations. Rather than the vision from Jeremiah of a tree planted by water, anxious North America Christians turn to questionable spiritual husbandry. Perhaps, in anxiety about institutional decline, many have been, as the song by country singer Johnny Lee goes, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”  What if we focused on being sustainable as well as fruitful

Recently a pastor friend of a large church put the challenge succinctly, “Programs that attracted people two years ago, pre-pandemic, are no longer effective. Expectations and attention spans shift month to month. There can be a constant churning.  We have learned to take a longer view.”  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last made a distinction between “time telling” and “clock building” cultures.[ix]  Time tellers can tell you the latest industrial fad while clock builders build sustainable institutions.

Change comes to the doorstep of all institutions, including church. Some call it “creative destruction.” Some see a slow and steady entropy, a post-denominational society, a decline to be expected and accepted?  I think of Ezekiel’s haunting question looking at a Valley of Dry Bones, “Can these bones live?”

Wes Jackson reflects on the ecology of human institutions saying we quickly seek the “how to?” and insufficiently focus on the “why?”  Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky distinguish between Technical and Adaptive Challenges. Technical Challenges seek a “how to” response.  Adaptive Challenges, on the other hand, require new discoveries, more imagination and an adaptive leap for a culture. Adaptive Challenges require a look at core mission and the “why” questions.[x]  Have too many of our ministries lost the “why” behind our activities? 

Several years ago I directed a mentoring program for pastors.  At our first gathering, apprentices were placed in one group and the mentors in another.[xi]  The apprentices were smart, thoughtful, energetic, committed folks, typically younger, though not always. Their early conversations were about what they were accomplishing – new programs and successes. Voices brimmed with a confidence.

Meanwhile, down the hall very different conversations were unfolding. The mentors demonstrated what I came to call the “three-experience-based-attitudes:” encouragement, forgiveness, and laughter.  Apprentices were confident, even prone to a little bragging. Many of the apprentices were emerging as righteous interrupters. Among mentors there was confession of failure as mistakes and lessons learned were shared, stories of regret often followed by words of forgiveness. There was laughter, and sometimes tears. This pattern seemed true in class after class.  I now see mentors regenerative connecters.  They were perennials with an ability to adapt and keep growing. Their roots were deep and wide.  Encouragement, forgiveness and laughter.  Over a year, as apprentices and mentors prayed and dreamed together, the joy of a common calling bubbled up. They learned the truth of the adage that leadership is often better caught than taught.  A community of joy was born.

If we had time, I would tell you of similar patterns among lay persons that I have witnessed.  Gene, blind from birth, and Carol his spouse offered their infectious joy that helped sustain and restore an old core-city church as new, younger members were attracted to the journey unfolding in that congregation.  They were generative root system that sustains this faith community.[xii]  These folks were clock builders.[xiii] 

Fifty-three years ago, here is Dallas, Dr. Albert Outler preached at the birthing of the United Methodist Church.  “The heart of the gospel is startlingly simple,” he said, “that God loves you and me and all [men] with a very special love and that Jesus Christ is sufficient proof to this love.”[xiv]  Outler challenged United Methodists to be true Protestants — reformed and ever reforming.[xv]  He closed the sermon, “This is the day the Lord has made, Let us really rejoice and be glad in it[xvi] – glad for the new chance God now gives us: to be a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church cruciform in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for all [humankind].”[xvii]    

Albert Outler, United Methodist Uniting Conference

Like the early church in Ephesus or Eighteenth Century Methodists, today, there are multiple obstacles, threats and challenges.  Let me suggest that considering the questions of sustainability, we need to think about the far horizon for the church and not just about the next General Conference.[xviii]  If we are to develop sustainable ecologies, we will move beyond the patterns of sickening denominational self-concern.[xix]   We must shift from denominational preservation to be mindful of the opportunities for witness all around whether reducing racism, welcoming the stranger, addressing economic injustice, or protecting our natural world.[xx]

So, there is much work to do.  Would I advise throwing a few more parties and inviting strangers to join?  Yes.  Should we celebrate righteous interrupters and regenerative connectors who build communities of restoration and joy – Yes, definitely! 

When considering the challenges that too easily appear to impede our future, to block our flow, I am reminded of

Wendell Berry’s poem, Our Real Work.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and when we no longer know which way to go

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. Counterpoint, 1983

Albert Outler called for a cruciform way of proceeding. We know from our Gospels that “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… will find it.) It is paradoxical.  So, here are my seven paradoxical endnotes for a reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church:

The trail markers noted here are:

  • Following the Jesus of scripture leads to Christ alive today;
  • Stepping away from Christendom is a step to being church;
  • Calmed and converted to Forever-Beginning-Disciples.
  • God loves each as none other and God loves all equally;
  • Strong local hub trees interconnect to global forest;
  • Diverse, linked, perennial roots encourage, forgive and laugh;
  • The impeded stream is the one that sings.

The calling for United Methodists today is to ripple and splash with delight in one an other’s company as we reinvent our ecology in interconnected and restorative ways.

Samuel Wells writes of A Future that is Greater Than the Past in this way “The church is a work of art. God is the artist, who makes the church, through the action of the Holy Spirit, in the form of Christ, out of the material of human beings… The church is not beautiful in a detached, distant sense: but if and when it is well and honestly made, it exhibits that overflow of presence that generates joy.” Reflecting on Ephesians (2:10) Wells says “we [the church] are God’s ‘work of art,’ or perhaps better, ‘God’s poem.’”[xxi]

Amen.


[i] Phelps, Edmund, ed, Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory, (New York: Russell Sage, 1975), p. 1.  See also Timothy Taylor’s Is Altruism a Scarce Resource that Needs Conserving, at: https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2013/11/is-altruism-scarce-resource-that-needs.html.

[ii] My father lived to be 92.  In the last decade of his life, when greeted and asked how he was doing, he would answer, “I’m rejoicing.”  Those who knew, him knew it to be true. A pastor friend shared that his mother who would often say, “I have the rhythm of rejoicing.”   Personal joy is a good and holy thing. As John’s Gospel, Ephesians and, yes, Albert Outler suggest to truly rejoice and be glad in this day the Lord has made will involve a community of loving activity, a community of friends.

[iii] Illich, Ivan, Celebration of Awareness (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), 19.

[iv] Launay, Jacques and Eiluned Pierce, “The New Science of Singing Together,” Greater Good Magazine, December 4, 2015, available at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_singing.  See also, Dina Kraft, “In Israel, Singing for Social Harmony,” Christian Science Monitor, February 12,  2019.  In Isreal in recent years there is an event known as Koolulam that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to sing.  The musical director, Ben Yefet, directs the crowd with this instruction: “If you can’t hear the person singing next to you, you are singing too loudly.”  Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Music/2019/0212/In-Israel-singing-for-social-harmony

[v] Chilcote, Paul Wesley, Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004) p 20.  Chilcote proposes that Wesley’s vision comes in eight conjunctions, starting with Free Grace, Inclusive Love, Shared Experience and Enthused Disciples,

[vi] Bellah, Robert, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California, 1985), 221, 235.  Robert Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart, identifies the growing phenomenon in 1985 he called Sheilaism   He writes of this is an individualistic understanding of faith.  Radically self-focused, the sole determinate for each person’s beliefs is a home-made theology.  It is a DIY (Do It Yourself) faith, popularly expressed in the phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.” 

[vii] Jensen, Robert, “Intellectual Grounding: Podcast from the Prairie,”  add link:  Also see Jensen, Robert “The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.”

[viii] I would assert local community ecologies have far deeper roots than easily seen on the surface.  As Willie Jennings said, there may be a lot of “unused gospel” we have missed.  Or, as the line in the Kooser poem suggests, “The good works of the Lord are all around.”

[ix] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, (New York: Harper, 2004).

[x] Heifetz, Richard and Marty, Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 31.

[xi] In this mentoring program for pastors, we had to determine who were mentors and who apprentices. After considering several formal research approaches, a remarkable Roman Catholic sister and university administrator advised, “Just ask.”  Ask denominational leaders and lay persons to name parish pastors who have done their work effectively with grace for seven or eight years and which ones showed promise as apprentices.  So we did.  As we welcomed each new group into the mentoring program, an interesting pattern began to appear.  We quickly saw, that for most, there was a distinction between time tellers and clock builders

[xii] Gene and Carol were interrupters, connectors and ambassadors of joy in a congregation I served.  Each Father’s Day we held an ugly tie contest.  Men were asked to wear their ugliest tie to church.  I was always nervous that someone might be chosen who didn’t know about the contest, who just wore ugly ties.  I recall the year Gene gathered a piece of elongated orange cloth and several white balls of cotton.  He asked Carol to sew these onto an already disgusting looking tie. It was, he said, his “rabbits in the garden” motif.  Gene won that ugly tie contest — for the third consecutive year.  In his acceptance speech he said “Now that I have won for the third year, I will now retire from entering in the future.  I just have too much of an unfair advantage.”  Laughter filled the room. You see Gene was blind from birth.

Carol played second base on our church softball team.  Occasionally, early in the season, before other teams knew Gene, Carol would help position him behind the catcher.  Someone would tell him to announce, “Play Ball!”  He would then act as the umpire calling balls and strikes. Seriously, there were a couple of games, early in the season, when he went through the first three batters before the other team caught on!  Laughing he would say he was doing better than most major league umpires!  Helped to return to the bleachers, he would loudly cheer the exploits Carol and the team.  They assisted that church in rejoicing at the gift of being Christ’s community.  On Sundays there was no pretending. Rarely could a visitor leave worship in this city congregation who wasn’t first welcomed by Carol and Gene. Carol would follow up with a note shortly thereafter.  They practiced a generative, life affirming love, an ability to treat others with dignity and respect and thereby assist us all in remembering the community in which we were privileged to worship.  I am convinced that these two joyful disciples were a critical reason this urban congregation has grown in mission and ministry.   

Or, I think of a pastor who understood the importance of communities of joy.  The first holiday season in her new appointment, she watched as hundreds lined up in freezing weather for an annual charity giveaway – a few groceries and a frozen chicken.  Leaving her office and going outside she visited with folks waiting in that line.  Later she thought, “We can do better than this.”  Shortly thereafter she shared her concerns with the congregation’s outreach team. Some old-timers were offended. Who was this new pastor anyway?  She listened, explained her concerns, and suggested more conversations.  They met again, prayed and talked, and prayed some more.  “Those who stood in line were not our clients,” she said, “they are persons with names, families, stories.  They are part of our community.” Slowly a new idea emerged.  First, they would visit and invite some neighbors to join in planning.  The next year a “holiday store” replaced the frozen-chicken-give-away.  Several neighbors who only a year before stood outside, now volunteered as fellow workers.  Many neighbors received vouchers and were invited to come and “shop” for items of new clothing, toys and food. That day, no one stood outside.  Everyone was inside.  Carols were sung, laughter filled the hall, some helped wrap gifts. ALL were neighbors.

[xiii] Herman B Wells was a member of the parish in Bloomington, Indiana. A cradle Methodist, he was president, then chancellor of Indiana University over several decades.  Herman was a rotund, brilliant man who enjoyed good conversation.  His eyes danced as he shared from his encyclopedic memory. During one visit he winked as he said, “It is important to think about things in fifty-year blocks.” Chuckling, he added, “Of course it helps if you are ninety-five years old!” As Herman was at the time.

[xiv] Outler, Albert C., “A Sermon for the Uniting Conference of the United Methodist Church,” Dallas, Texas, 23 April 1968, p. 39. In the Albert C. Outler Papers at Bridwell Library.  Available at: https://www.umnews.org/-/media/umc-media/2018/04/09/20/43/outler_sermon_for_uniting_conference.ashx?la=en&rev=4181d891f1fc4aa3a645ae0dfd337593&hash=FC63DFB4E79C09A9A97933FAFA0DA8BDDF77A132

[xv] Ibid.  Drawing on the Consultation on Christian Unity (COCU) he named as our rootage “unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform.” 

[xvi] Ibid, p. 41.

[xvii] https://www.epaumc.org/news/rejoice-in-our-united-methodist-heritage/

[xviii] I believe parish ministry, denominational witness and shaping the future of the church as one-hundred-year work.  I have been inspired by religious and social movements beyond Methodism.  Movements like the Danish Folk School movement begun in the late 18th Century, inspired by Lutheran Pastor N.S.F. Grundvig.  This movement focused broadly on democratic education of the peasantry in the arts, literature, music, sports, dance, gardening and what he called “the living word.”  Over the next century social and cultural realities in Denmark were reshaped.  So much so that a century later a majority of the Danish legislature were graduates of a folk school.  While we hold dear our heritage, we must also be open to what I believe was Dr. Outler’s evangelism and ecumenical project and what Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon suggests when he writes The Future of Methodism is not Methodism.  Wes Jackson, for example, reminds us of need to reduce our dependance on energy-rich-carbon extracted from our soils, trees, coal, gas and oil.

[xix] As to unity, we have work to do.  As to ecumenism, I find myself agreeing with Professor Edgardo Emerick Colon, that The Future of Methodism is not Methodism.  When we focus on the words of Jesus in John 15 we need to remember that just two chapters further on we have the prayer of Jesus that his followers might be one. https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/10112/the-future-of-methodism-is-not-methodism

[xx] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31.  Noting our personal and social insatiable appetite for lifestyles built on energy-rich carbon, he says homo sapiens as a “species out of context” (page 2) Soil, timber, coal, oil and gas – resources from ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground – have eased our labors, providing wealth and comfort to many. This he says, is our “carbon imperative,” or as his friend and co-author, Bill Vitek puts it, rather than human-nature, we would better speak of ours currently as “human-carbon nature.” (pages27-28).  If we are a species out of context in the natural world as Wes Jackson suggests, the pandemic in 2020 revealed North American Christians may be a faith group out of context. Might we find ways to live more fully in terms of our “human-spirit-nature”?  Wes Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”  I want to argue that inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.” Both are required. Scientists report this winter that over one-third of the carbon rich topsoil in Corn Belt in the Midwest (nearly 100,000 acres) has been completely lost.  See University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Corn belt farmland has lost a third of its carbon-rich soil.” (See ScienceDaily, 15 February 2021. Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210215160227.htm.)

[xxi] Wells, Samuel, “A Future That’s Bigger than the Past,” London: Canterbury Press, 2019, pp 126-127.

Fortnight – Day10: Forgiveness

Fortnight – Day 10: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the last thing I want to be reminded of with five days until the 2020 presidential election in the United States. When considering the racism, the lying, the demeaning of women, the denial of climate change, the damage to our national and international reputation done by Donald Trump and his minions, I find little room for the idea of forgiveness. It is a word I don’t want to hear, a concept I want to deny, a theological category I don’t want to consider. Still, I must. I must consider and pray toward forgiveness BUT I cannot forget.

Tragic as it is, the human dilemma remains — we can be shaped as much, or more, by what we hate as by what we love.

One of the liberators of a Nazi death camp found a note near the body of a child — written on a piece of wrapping paper, ” O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we brought to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.  Amen. (Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones, p. 134)

I am haunted by such prayers and the one I pray often: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It seems so complex and then I recall J. Ruth Gendler’s opening sentence in a reflection on Forgiveness: “Forgiveness” she writes, “is a strong woman, tender and earthy, direct.” (Gendler, The Book of Qualities, p. 54).

DIRECT — right in front of me — Forgive? Can I ever? Will I ever, forgive? I have preached so many sermons on forgiveness and counseled so many people toward that act that I should know the way. However, I don’t. Perhaps it is the shrill voices all around and the wounds to our body politic that I see that have been inflicted. I can’t muster the desire or energy to forgive the damage that has been done to our nation, to democratic institutions but mostly to people. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I won’t continue to confront those who seek to destroy or wound. It doesn’t mean I won’t oppose evil and injustice. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.

So, it is paradoxical — I wish to forgive and I will remember not to forgive. David Augsburger spoke to this dilemma in book, published nearly forty years ago. If you have seen it, you will know it is two books in one binding. Reading in one direction there is attention to the idea of “Caring Enough to Forgive” and turning the book around is another set of ideas entitled “Caring Enough to NOT Forgive.” [Later, Augsburger wrote a companion piece entitled “Caring Enough to Confront.”]

In the Epilogue of the volume Augsburger offers these insights:

Although in "forgiving", release unfortunately may be easier to achieve than reconciliation--       
Although one in error may choose to move over, away from, against the other --                 
Although one in weakness may attempt to live off of, without, in spite of the other --                 
Yet we dare not hesitate to take any step toward forgiving, no matter how faltering or fallible.                 
Yet we must not refuse to move toward another in seeking mutual repentance and renewed trust.                 
Yet we cannot despair of forgiveness and lose hope that reconciliation is possible.                 
So let us forgive as gently and genuinely as is possible in any situation of conflict between us.                 
So let us forgive as fully and as completely as we are able in the circumstances of our misunderstandings.                 
So let us reach out for reconciliation as openly and authentically as possible for the levels of maturity we have each achieved.               
So let us forgive freely, fully, at times even foolishly, but with all the integrity that is within us.    
[David Augsburger, Caring Enough to (Not) Forgive, 1981.] 

++++++++++++++++

Enemies  
If you are not to become a monster, 
you must care what they think. 
If you care what they think, 
how will you not hate them, 
and so become a monster 
of the opposite kind? From where then 
is love to come — love for your enemy 
that is the way of liberty? 
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go 
free of you, and you of them; 
they are to you as sunlight on a green branch. 
You must not think of them again, except 
as monsters like yourself, 
pitiable because unforgiving.
-- Wendell Berry

+++++++++++++

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.” (Berry, Wendell, The Art of the Commonplace: the Agrarian Essays)

Fortnight – Day4: Joy #1

Fortnight – Day4: Joy #1

The final presidential debate of 2020 was held last evening. I didn’t watch. Couldn’t watch really. Not because I had already dropped my ballot in the box with the County Clerk. More than anything else, I suspected it would be a pretty joyless exchange. Wasn’t interested in more distraction, grievance, dreary argument, spin, grumbling or blaming others.

Joylessness — this is what I anticipated from the debate. I am fatigued by it all. If the follow-up analysis offered by pundits is accurate, I guessed right. Apparently Mr. Biden attempted to tease Mr. Trump about being Abraham Lincoln. The president missed the humor, as he does about many things, especially if his fragile ego is threatened. The reruns from the debate seemed to confirm that even though Mr. Trump seemed to use his “in door voice” more than in the past, he still seemed to offer more vinegar and acid than balm.

Thinking back over the years, to sermons I have preached or talks I have given, I often spoke of joy, laughter, or delight. Why? Well, I think joy, laughter and delight are recurring marks of faithful living. We all face suffering, pain, burdens and betrayals, but at the core of it all, God offers us JOY. Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 93).

Serving as an interim pastor in a couple of congregations that had passed through some challenging times, it was clear that in the face of difficulty, humor can help. Laughter can offer an antidote to despairing. After one wise layperson observed “we have forgotten how to laugh in our parish,” we offered an entire series of sermons entitled “Count it all joy: Faith Crowned with Laughter.” I invited other friends to come and join me in the sermon series and we each shared stories of times joy made a difference in our work. As Steve Allen once put it, “Humor is the social lubricant that helps us get over some of the bad spots.”

I was not attempting to follow the current trend suggesting that worship should be a time of entertainment or avoiding challenging topics. Heaven forbid! Just the opposite, in fact. Humor often is a good way to approach difficult topics. More than three decades ago, in the late 1980s, when a congregation I served made the decision to fully welcome LGBTQ persons, it was the laughter and joy that helped us move forward. It was joy and an ability to delight in the gifts others might share and the abundance already present that offered us hope. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we did act with respect for the variety of beliefs in that church. Someone recently asked, “how did the people in that parish act in such a courageous way?” I didn’t reply, but I know they didn’t act out of courage so much as JOY.

Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century mystic said, “God laughs out of an abundance of life, energy and love.  I believe in a pleasurable, joyful, laughing God.

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A favorite reflection comes from Wendell Berry’s collection of Sabbath Poems (A Timbered Choir, p. 18).

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

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Whatever happens on November 3rd, we have work to do. Our joy must “be lived out from day to day.” It is a relief that there are no more presidential debates to avoid. Now, could someone do something about all of the email, television spots and fliers that seem to appear daily in the mail?

This is my goal for the remainder of this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. I will remember the JOY of living as a child of God. I will sing (not in a public choir of course), I will dance a little, I will laugh, read poetry, call friends, encourage persons to vote and give generously to good causes. I will choose to be joyful.

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

Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

xrayview
Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

xraybrain

What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>