Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out? – revisited

rich-brown-219577The struggles of rural communities has led a number of recent writers to ask, “Why don’t people just leave?,” an attitude I groused about in a recent post.  The Atlantic has been covering this beat in a series of articles.  Now Brian Alexander has written another piece in that magazine titled “If Declining Towns ‘Deserve to Die,’ Where Should Their Residents Go?”

It includes this humdinger of a quote from Kevin Williamson in a 2016 National Review essay:

“The truth about these downscale communities is that they deserve to die…Economically, they are negative assets…They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need a U-Haul.”

But, as Alexander documents, if your house is underwater and not likely to sell anyway and you have limited job skills that don’t promise much better prospects in a new town, moving is no answer.  And they certainly are no answer for the towns left behind.

Instead of seeing declining communities as pits to be abandoned, perhaps we need to see them as an untapped resource to be developed.

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Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters

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photo by Lumvox via unsplash.com

Isn’t this just another academic squabble full of sound and fury but signifying not very much?  The recent controversy at Duke Divinity School regarding a faculty training, (the details of which were helpfully outlined by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed), could be seen as just one more piece of evidence that the Great Divide is roiling even progressive-friendly environments like mainline seminaries.  But this matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

What happened at Duke?  One way to look at it is that a well-meaning effort to increase awareness of historical and institutional racism through a two-day faculty conference was seen by a disgruntled conservative professor, Paul Griffiths, as one more liberal harangue that distracted from the real work of teaching theology.  “I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths said in a ‘reply all’ e-mail to the faculty. “Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.”

Griffiths, who had been having other issues with the administration, especially the new dean, Elaine Heath, went on to say, “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. … Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.”

This matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

There are any number of things that could be said about this incident.  I’ll stipulate the following: I have been to far too many bromide-laden conferences and heavy-handed training sessions that result, despite intentions, in hardened barriers and confirmed prejudices.  We are heavily defended against things that challenge our worldview, and this is true across the spectrum.

I have also been in magnificent sessions, in seminary and mandatory trainings after that, in which my understanding has grown, my behavior has changed, and the course of my ministry has been altered.  Some of that was through my openness to the material, but I credit more the education and skill of the presenters and facilitators.

So, looking at this, admittedly from the outside and with no warrant besides what I read in the papers (intertubes, whatever), Prof. Griffiths’ dismissal of an optional training seems too easy.

Having said that, I also feel that Dean Heath’s reply went a little beyond the pale, implying that Prof. Griffith’s email violated an understanding that to “express racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”  Is that what he did?

Again, I am operating on the basis of emails we probably shouldn’t be privy to and without the whole story.  But I note that exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

Exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

But this is not about an email spat.  It’s about reducing theology to “reading, writing, and teaching about the triune Lord” as if that is an exercise that takes place in a vacuum.   We are always in a conversation with our tradition.  Scripture and the witness of the saints questions us and puts us to the test.  And the lived experience of the pilgrim people of God brings its own questions to scripture.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.  We need eyes to see and our eyes are compromised by the sin of racism and by the other distortions that come from being human beings in unjust human societies.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.

Twentieth century theology produced two great movements that reoriented us to this reality.  Karl Barth and some of his disciples reclaimed a Christ-centered theology and the language of the church, which had become distorted by two centuries worth of efforts to make it reconcile with the Enlightenment.  And liberation theologies reclaimed the beating heart of a passionate God who takes human existence, context, and the suffering of the cosmos seriously.

Twentieth-first century theology doesn’t belong to either of those movements.  They have their own limitations and blinders.  But we need both impulses to move forward – a commitment to living in the language of the faith and in the incarnate body of Christ in the world.

I have high hopes for Duke and our other theological institutions.  They matter.  For theology and for the church.

Shame on the Bayou – a Review of Strangers in Their Own Land

IMG_6244Shame, when its uncovered, can get you somewhere in therapy but it’s useless in healing a country.  That was my thought as I read through the later chapters of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 2016 pre-election book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Hochschild, a Berkley-based sociologist and self-indentified liberal, took her skills to Louisiana where she spent a lot of time getting to know people who approached their politics very differently.   The result is an uneven but very helpful attempt at understanding the complexities of rural white voters.

Hochschild uses environmental policy as her “keyhole” to understand what’s going on.  Louisiana has major environmental issues ranging from coastline degradation to managing byproducts of major oil and fracking operations to ongoing pollution from chemical plants.  It also has a lot of voters who’d like to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.  It’s this kind of thinking that Hochschild calls “the Great Paradox” and which she tries to understand.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The first half of the book is a meandering introduction of individual characters, (like Mike Schaff who is trying to pull off the unlikely combination of being both an environmental activist and a Tea Party member), and larger actors on the stage, (like Texas Brine, a drilling company that pierced a salt dome at the bottom of Bayou Corne and caused a massive sinkhole that destroyed a whole community).  Hochschild is sympathetic to the people she talks to, but she can’t restrain herself from building a case against industry, government, media, and church.  The particulars she discovers are scandalous, but they seem incomplete.

Her analysis of Louisiana religious life seems particularly superficial and reductive.  Encountering the emotionalism of a Pentecostal service, Hochschild says, “the needs [the service] fills seem like those met in less religious cultures by psychotherapy and meditation, as well as family and friendship” (120).

I feel like Hochschild is on stronger ground in the second half of the book where she outlines a “deep story” to ground her understanding of the culture she is encountering.  The story is grounded by two major elements – 1) a sense by white voters that the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them, and 2) a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

I recognize this story.  It’s a variation on the narrative I grew up with in a rural Southern town.  It’s also a variation on the narrative of the Lost Cause, which offered Southerners a way to cope with the trauma of the Civil War.

I’m trying to understand this strange moment in time and the stories that shape it.  It’s one of the main purposes of this blog.  Hochschild’s observation, made at a Trump rally, that one of the strongest unifiers of Trump voters was not economic but emotional self-interest, feels right.  “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest–a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land” (228).  There is also a kind of release from shame.

There’s only a short walk from the accusation often made by those on the left about Trump supporters–“They should be ashamed”–to “They should be shamed.”  Shame is crippling.  It exerts a moral weight that prevents the flourishing of human life and it leads to distorted expressions of our true selves.  When we try to impose it on our political opponents, we are reaching for a powerful weapon.

Shame is crippling.  It exerts a moral weight that prevents the flourishing of human life and it leads to distorted expressions of our true selves.

The church is often brought to the bar to answer for the imposition of shame, but it should be a critical resource in helping us confront the effects of shame.  After all, “for freedom Christ has set us free.”

That’s not a Tea Party kind of freedom.  It’s a freedom that recognizes the devastating power of Sin, including the age-old evils of racism and sexism, to twist us into unrecognizable shapes.  It’s a freedom that holds human beings up to the light of God for what they are–flawed, contradictory, and beautiful in their capacity for reflecting God’s intentions.

Hochschild has done us the service of pausing long enough to really see people and to understand their longings to be at home.

How Bad Memory is Afflicting Your Ministry (& Maybe Your Marriage)

one-wedding-251029Could your church (or community) be suffering from faulty memory?  I thought about this last Monday when I attended a presentation on the Missional Wisdom Movement.  The movement is relatively new and it is supporting the creation of new forms of Christian community that take the form of everything from a laundromat ministry to co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

What isn’t new are the roots that the movement draws from.  They are building on the contemplative tradition that draws people into the presence of God for discernment of insight and releasing God’s vision into the world.

The possibilities intrigue me.  (What might an intentional Christian community do and be on the Eastern Shore?)  But the presentation also hit me right in the memory bank.  This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

The marriage researcher, John Gottman, says that one of the telltale signs of a troubled relationship is bad memory.  As it says on his website, “In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together.”*

On the other hand, couples that have difficulty recalling those formative days of the relationship are usually struggling.

IMG_5611I worry about churches that are so caught up in conflict or in the mechanics of ministry that they can’t remember why they are doing what they’re doing.  I also worry about clergy who have lost their first love and their sense of calling.

To use the Gottman analogy, if a church can’t remember the excitement that got them into a project and celebrate they strength they discovered by going through it together, then perhaps its time to recall their mission.  If clergy fumble for the words to say why they are in ministry, it may be time to get reacquainted with the Lover who turned their lives around.

So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.

This applies to the connection as a whole, too.  So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.  No disciple lays aside her plans and life in order to save a system.  Disciples became a part of the body of Christ because they heard a call that rearranged their world and the work they do as a result only makes sense in light of that call.

When I am attuned to the voice of God in my life, I know that it because the task before me is a part of a greater joy.  It’s the same joy I knew as a youth coordinator in a West Dallas community center.  That’s a memory I savor.

86 Sermons on Song of Songs

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photo by Alexander Lam via Unsplash


The 12th-century monastic, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs…

86 Sermons on Song of Songs

Bernard of Clairvaux no

doubt wrote many more.

The more scandalous never made it out of his cell.

But he knew that there was nothing more essential

than the one theme of desire.

If he couldn’t make that means of communication work

we might as well be damned.

But who would cop to such hunger, unseemly

as it is?

To look out

on our fields of plenty, our beautifully

stocked shelves in innumerable super

stores, over waves of

grain, our full tank of

gas, and say ‘It’s not

enough’?

I want more.  I want the burning

engine of purpose, the alluring

seduction of beauty, the cause converting

me into roiling motion and threatening

to reduce me

to essence or

oblivion, the release

from solipsism, the laying

myself at Her feet,

the mystic union, and yet

more!

I am insatiable in this desire.

I am transgressive in my wants.

86 sermons is a drop in the bucket compared

to what I will do for Love.

Alex Joyner

How to write a good country song

IMG_3306When was it that a hit country song became a list of country-fried images?  Seems like all you have to do is string together bare feet, pickup trucks, fishing poles, and mama and you’ve got you a bestseller.  (And, yes, I do know that I was a country music DJ back in the day when John Anderson was “Swingin’” on the porch with Charlotte Johnson while her daddy was in the back yard rolling up a garden hose and he was feeling love down to his toes.  But this is a rant with a point, thank you very much.)  And that point is that easy call-outs to a romanticized rural lifestyle somehow work.  So Josh Turner can laud his “Hometown Girl” who grew up “where the corn grows up to the road side” and who “couldn’t hide her beauty with a baseball cap” and he’s got a Top 10 hit.

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Adia Victoria

Meantime, I’ve been listening to Adia Victoria, whose own version of the blues has been described as Southern Gothic.  Adia, like Josh, was born in South Carolina, but her view of the place is decidedly darker.  “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles,” she says in “Stuck in the South,” “but I can tell you something about Southern hell.”  Her music, as her voice, growls with subversive energy.

But I didn’t come to do music criticism.  (Although, Sam Hunt…”Body like a Back Road”?  Are you serious?)  I just came by today to say once more that we need a little more texture in our view of the places we live.  I say this as somebody who is a sucker for gauzy sentimentality.  A fireworks show after a baseball game can get me misty and a far-off train whistle stirs my high lonesome sensibilities.  It’s not healthy to remain in those places, though.

As a church leader, I know the comforts and the dangers of nostalgia.  When a church defends itself against self-reflection by glorifying an idealized past, it is preferring not to see the world as it really is or people as they really are.  It could be that the children and youth who used to populate Christmas pageants as bathrobes shepherds (I’m getting misty again) still bear the image of God (they do) and could enrich our lives and our worship if we chose to engage them deeply (they could).

We rightly bristle when our communities are lampooned and real people are reduced to stereotypes, but I worry that we do it to ourselves, too.  We grasp an identity or an ideology that reflects a piece of who we are and see all things through that lens.  Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

The role of good worship and of good art is to offer us a frame to see the world in its depth and to resist final declarations about it.  In both we pause before mystery and use what resources we have to give voice and notice to what we see.  Perhaps we sing.  And with any luck we rise above schmaltz to poetry.

Feathered, Pleated Strength – Psalm 36 loosely translated

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photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash

Psalm 36

I know the sinful utterance of the wicked–

know it like the back of my hand,

know the sound of it,

the taste of it as it passes my lips.

I have heard myself quickening the dead letter of law

while God whispers in my ear,

“Let it die!”

I protest my innocence by acknowledging my guilt

yet wallow in the protestation.

I cannot trust my own words.

Authenticity,

truth

speaks only in silence

But this spring spewing lies

has been my mother tongue

for ages

upon ages.

Bare beneath the heavens

on some island or plain

I sense your Love,

immense and free

righteous.

It saves all creatures,

draws all to an end.

Like some great wing

or flourished skirt,

You cover us with feathered,

pleated strength.

A table is set.

There is drink and food.

A river flows

and a new fount gurgles.

It is as if we had never drunk before,

never seen the light.

If I have any place of pure desire

let it be met by your Love.

Don’t let it be trampled by my arrogance

or chased by my confusion.

Here I lay aside my dead body

and deader soul

to be sustained by You.

–Alex Joyner

The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the UMC

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photo by Anna vander Stel – via Unsplash

The last thing I want to talk about is the United Methodist Church’s legal wrangling around the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who came to her office last year as a lesbian pastor in a same-sex marriage. Last week the Judicial Council of the denomination ruled that her consecration as bishop was carried out in violation of The Book of Discipline and now the Western Jurisdiction, where she serves, will be asked to review her standing through the complaint process.  We know this terrain all too well and it is news to no one that questions of human sexuality still divide United Methodism.

The Judicial Council provided some clarity about what the official stance of the church is with regard to non-heterosexual clergy and I expect the Western Jurisdiction to provide more clarity about how deep the divide still is over that stance.  I continue to pray daily for the Commission on A Way Forward, which is tasked with conferencing around the Great Divide, and for an institutional consensus that will allow this church that I love to move forward together.  I also pray for Bishop Oliveto, who seems to be a fine and faithful leader.  But my heart aches to talk about something else.

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Bishop Oliveto shaking hands with Dixie Brewster at the Judicial Council hearings last week – photo by UMC.org

To those who are carrying out ministry with an explicit or implicit threat that if things don’t go the way they desire in this debate they will leave I say, “Enough!”  You are wounding the body of Christ.  And we need a community of creative, covenanted, committed Christians to navigate this age.

There are biblical metaphors about such things.  No one can serve two masters.  When you set your hands to the plow don’t look back.

I know the rejoinder—“We can’t go forward until we have clarity about this one thing.”  We can.  We have.  It took over four centuries to get our Christology right and look what the Church did during that era!  We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.” Methodists, in particular, are the people of AND.  We adapt our structure, our means, and our location for the sake of our mission.  As Paul puts it, “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means” [1 Co. 9:22, CEB].

We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.”

Clarity comes down to knowing what and who holds us together.  Our fidelity is to the one who has changed our lives and who calls us to an untamed holiness that is constantly stretching us to “adopt the mind that was in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 2:5].  That’s the reason for my heartache.

I believe it is God’s desire to have a Church that is not constrained by its bureaucratic apparatus.  And I worry that we are not creating spaces for new things to grow.

41ibb2XofKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In their book Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker talk about the opportunity this age presents for reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan and Christian message.  “We are in a full-blown institutional crisis. Is this a bad thing? [We] don’t think so,” they say.  “Self-serving institutionalism is dead. The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead. That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us” (9).  And yet…”Today there are plenty of seekers looking for a model for creating down-to-earth yet spiritual expressions of community. What is needed are multiple examples of how to do it” (20).

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.  These will be small — like yeast and mustard seeds, two other biblical metaphors for the kingdom — but they will be places that are receptive to God’s new thing as it is revealed in local community.  And they will muddle through, gloriously!, until the fruit is ripe.  These are the conversations I want to have.

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.

Full inclusion and diversity of biblical interpretation, the issues that swirl around the UMC’s current impasse, are important.  But I wonder if we are able, in our current state, to talk about them if we don’t first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.  And we have better things to talk about.