Looking In on Lookout Mountain: A Review of I Want to Show You More

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photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik via Unsplash

There’s a lot going on up on Lookout Mountain.  The battle of Chickamauga is not really over.  89-year-old Eva Bock braves traffic to walk up Lula Lake Road to deliver snail mail to President Bush protesting the war.  A mainline church takes Corbett Earnshaw’s abrupt confession of disbelief as a sign and demolishes their building in order to move into a cave on the side of the mountain.  A woman leaves her family one night and runs down into Chattanooga to find a makeshift communion in a homeless shelter.  Oh, and there’s a whole lot of cogitating about infidelity.

Such is the world in Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More.

I came to Quatro’s collection after reading her most recent novel, Fire Sermon, a book that mystically-inclined readers like me will find impossible to put down.  That book featured a 40-something writer from Tennessee struggling with God and a long-distance lover with whom she has broken off an affair.  Those three—writer, God, and lover—are all present in these stories as well.  Quatro is exploring this theme from every angle.  But you’ll also find meditations on isolation, mortality, parenting, physical & psychological frailty, and healing.

Online reviewers seem to feel that much of Quatro’s writing is autobiographical.  After all, she, like many of the characters, lives on Lookout Mountain, is a runner, has children, spent time in Arizona.  Because of the transgressive edge of these stories, some evangelical readers are worried about her soul.  Quatro herself complains about this perception in a recent Paris Review article and a lecture at the Festival of Faith and Writing in which she talked about an all-men’s book club that shifted uncomfortably when she came to visit until one of them blurted out, “What did your husband think of this book?”

Behind that question is a fear of the writer’s freedom to explore the traces of desire and embodiment.  In her FFW lecture, Quatro quoted Richard Rohr who calls such fear more Plato than Jesus.  Flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God,” Rohr says.  Quatro is determined to mine the wisdom of the God-haunted flesh for all that it can reveal.

In one of the most affecting stories, “Sinkhole,” a teenaged cross-country runner with a debilitating fear that a hole is opening up in his chest has a transformative experience with a girl whose own physical story is marked by cancer and a colostomy.  Quatro handles the inner lives of the two with sensitivity but holds back on a potential happy ending.  Despite their close encounter which will mark both of them, there is still isolation and a ‘not quite’ consummation.

In another story, “The Anointing,” a wife brings in a team of church elders to anoint her depressed husband with oil only to be incapacitated herself by her inability to truly save her family.  In yet another, a woman’s lover becomes a decomposing wax figure that comes to dominate the relationship with her husband.

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Jamie Quatro

There’s more than a little Flannery O’Conner here.  Characters come in at angles and seem motivated by strange spiritual quests.  But Quatro is paying attention to every plane.  Like the state line that runs invisibly between the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain, (and which characters occasionally note, especially in the story ‘Georgia the Whole Time”), there are boundaries not seen with the naked eye.  If you do have eyes to see, what you find may be disturbing.  Ugly even.  But “the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice.”

That’s how Quatro put it in her FFW lecture.  The book’s title is in earnest.  She wants to show us more.  And the virtue of these tales is that if we could just pause long enough with her to notice the fulness of this human thing with its yearning, god-like fire, we might be overcome by something beyond the bounds.  Something more like…wonder.

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Rebelling Against King Jesus

Enjoyed this conversation with Taylor Mertins, pastor and podcaster extraordinaire.

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

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The Cold Aftermath of A Wrinkle in Time

28-wrinkle-in-time-book-club-storm.w710.h473It’s not solely because of A Wrinkle in Time that I’ve come to this conclusion, but…science fiction leaves me cold.  

We’re in a mini-boomlet of renewed interest in Madeline L’Engle’s children’s classic thanks to the Ava Duvernay movie and Sarah Arthur’s upcoming biography, A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madleine L’Engle.  So, I tried to do what I failed to do in middle school—get to the end of Wrinkle.  Thanks to Suzanne’s encouragement (“I’ll keep driving if you’ll finish that book”), I accomplished at least that.  

Suzanne also questions my thesis.  “You like Douglas Adams.”  Yes, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is more humor and philosophy than sci-fi.  “You like sci-fi movies,” she said.  Do  stranded astronaut movies even count?  I think my conclusion holds and my disappointing experience with Wrinkle is only the latest piece of evidence.  

So let me hate on science fiction for a moment.

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photo by Mimi Garcia via Unsplash

L’Engle was clearly enrapt by Einstein’s theories when she built a universe for Meg, Charles Wallace, Calvin, and her long-lost physicist father.  But the scenarios she creates, like so many sci-fi plot lines, seem entirely arbitrary.  There’s always a novel power or mode of transport to appear out of nowhere making the tension of the moment before seem silly.  

To wit—watching the end of the latest Avengers movie, which has been noted for its somber slaughter, we know its not forever.  No great tragic moment will be allowed to endure.  Events that signal endings in our reality are merely plot twists in the sci-fi world.

There is some strong Christian symbolism in the Trinity of “witches” that guide the children through Wrinkle.  Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are entertaining presences.  The Black Thing and IT are effective manifestations of a Christian view of evil (and the mid-20th century specter of totalitarianism).  The ultimate power of love that saves the day—I get that.

But too much of the plot seems like unnecessary complication.  The characters wobble in tone and never really become three-dimensional.  Despite the empowered female characters, this is still a patriarchal world where little girls are frightened and have to be comforted while boys get/have to be brave and reckless.  (And just how did the witches get a Mrs.?)

In her Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech in 1963, Madeline L’Engle proposed that books, like stars, are “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.” If A Wrinkle in Time is that for new generations, I am content.  I’m also happy to own that I’ve got a permanent blind spot with regard to science fiction.  L’Engle and I have met each other.  Nothing exploded for me.  So, I’m going to tesser on over to that Appalachian fiction book I’ve been eyeing on my nightstand and stay earthbound for awhile.

Two Big Reasons for Churches to Talk About Race

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Bishop Greg Palmer

These are dangerous days to talk about race.  If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes.  In impolite company, well, who knows?  For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda.  For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.

It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.

Why?  First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us. 

Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes.  Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites.  Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman.  The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community.  Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB). 

We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race.  When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.

Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together.  We are broken people living in a broken land.  A people of unclean lips.  That’s what Sin does to us.  And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.

I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong.  I’ll say the wrong thing.  Cause unintended hurt.  Expose myself as less than I want to be.  I don’t want to be racist.

But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine.  Racism is in me.  Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.

I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future.  Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings.  The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”

There is realism and hope here:

 “The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship.  “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”  

That sums it up.  Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.”  But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury.  And some of those rebellions are within us.

I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us,  I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry.  And I know there is more to do.  Why shouldn’t it start in the church?

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Look for my interview with Edward Ayers coming soon to Heartlands.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.

6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people.  In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive

This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.

But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?

If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?

If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.

  1. Find a mentor or coach

As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.

In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

 

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby.  You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.

The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years.  Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)

In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.

It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start. 

Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.

Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?

I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.

Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?

Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”

  1. “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith

In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.

Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”

Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.

89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

The Country We Live In: Race, Sin, and the Birthday of the UMC

hannah-busing-423069-unsplashBehind every discussion in American life is the question of race.  At this stage in our history, with the long shadows cast by slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and last year’s gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, the impact of race is not something we can ignore if we want to be honest about who we are.  Race and racism are still the ocean we swim in, even if the vast majority of us are trying to shed old racist ways of thinking and behaving.

Recently we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on our racial history.  Two weeks ago, some of my United Methodist colleagues participated in activities in Washington D.C. to recall the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this month.  Last weekend, the Virginia Conference sponsored the Bishop’s Convocation on Religion and Race in northern Virginia.  Both gatherings recalled how Christians can be challenged by the gospel to confront the effects of racism in our nation and in our churches.

imagesNext week we will recall another 50th anniversary—the birth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) from the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  The uniting of those two churches was not a sure thing.  The Methodist Church still carried, as part of its legacy from a previous 1939 merger, a racially segregated Central Jurisdiction for its African-American churches.  The integration of those churches into the larger church was a condition for the creation of the UMC.

When delegates gathered in Dallas on April 21, 1968, just 17 days after Dr. King’s death, there was a conviction among many of them that whatever this new UMC would be, it would have to be honest about its difficult racial history and commit itself to racial inclusion.  There were losses in the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction.  It had been an engine for developing African-American leader in the church.  But the vision was for a church where racial equality could be achieved.

We’ve still got a ways to go.  Fifty years later, our churches are still largely segregated.  The practice of open itinerancy has brought clergy of color into largely white congregations and some white clergy have made the move in the other direction.  But those appointments still bring unique challenges due to the lingering effects of our racialized history.

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The 1968 Uniting Conference

There was a time when the Christian churches might have imagined that they were on the forefront of the movement toward racial equality in the US, but now it seems we follow rather than lead.  Sometimes we even resist. For all the progress we celebrate, we are still in the grip of principalities and powers that rule in our day.

Our national conversations spend a lot of time trying to delineate what and who is racist.  Individual white people wonder if they are racist and try to convince themselves that they can be free of racism, like kicking a smoking habit.  As an expression of purity, we can try to be free from racist sins.

But the truth is that racism is a manifestation of big ’S’ Sin and the only honest stance we can hold in relation to Sin is to admit that it infects our every action.  It is the environment into which we are born.  It is the air we breathe.  And from that we need a Savior, not a resolution to do better.

There’s one more thing to say about Sin, though: God says ‘no’ to it.  Said it definitively on an Easter morning.  Delivered us from slavery to Sin and Death, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving.  Has died.  Is Risen. Will come again.

A conversation about where we are with race needs to start here—in confession that we all live in the deformed world that Sin has wrought and in confidence that God will reveal the restored cosmos announced in the cross and resurrection.  If we’re all in this space, there’s no room to step outside into an imagined America that doesn’t have to deal with race anymore.  We all live in the country where racism remains.  We all need the conversation (not shouting match) on race that we’re avoiding.  And Lord knows, we all need each other.

Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.