Who is This ‘We’?: Poetry for the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally

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photo by FancyCrave via Unsplash

I’m not going to make the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally in Onancock today (Saturday, June 30) from 11-12:30. And when asked for a statement, I couldn’t find the words.  So I contributed this poem to be read.  May we find the ‘we’ that is truly ‘us.’

Who is this ‘we’ into which I am enlisted?

What is this sweet land of liberty I invoke when I sing, “My country ’tis of Thee”?

What God do I invite to bless America?

Who are the ‘we’ who hear cries from the Valley of Texas

and wonder what ‘we’ we have become?

 

‘Our’ ancestor, we Christians say, was a wandering Aramean.

When we look to the Scriptures we hear Deuteronomy’s command

to look after ‘them’—the sojourners in our midst—

because ‘we’ were sojourners in other lands.

We are those who sing ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’

while motherless children in scattered camps feel it more.

We are those who have beaten our breasts (insufficiently)

and sought repentance (insufficiently)

and proclaimed (insufficiently)

that we see and deplore the excesses and the evils

of native peoples separated from their lands and kin

of enslaved peoples separated from their lands and kin

of Japanese American families detained with their kin.

The injury is not only to ‘them’

but to us.

 

When we use the rationale of deterrence to excuse cruelty,

we injure ‘us.’

When we meet those who have left troubled lands seeking asylum here

and offer them instead more trouble, more trauma, no room at the inn,

we injure ‘us.’

When we allow our immigration policy, debate, and system

to devolve into division and expressions of helplessness

we injure ‘us.’

 

“When was it that we saw you homeless, naked, hungry, imprisoned

and did not respond with the love you showed us

but instead with the inhumanity we know too well?,”

the separated goats asked Jesus.

“When you did not see me crying for my father, my mother, 

my daughter, my son.

“When you did not see.

“When the injury came to me,

it came to you.”

It comes to us.

 

Who is this ‘we’ into which we are enlisted?

It is you and me and them and us.

We are one people.

 

To call for a humane and fair immigration system is not a call

for the end of borders or law enforcement or thoughtful policy.

It is a call for the end of injury

…to all of us.

—29 June 2018

No One’s Anything:  A Reflection on Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason

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photo by Oscar Keys via Unsplash

Peter Surran, is a pastor, teacher, EMT, building inspector, and a good friend.  He’s also a heck of a writer.  I’ve been wanting to get him on the blog for awhile and finally roped him in with a review of Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.  Enjoy:

I bustled into my 40’s pretty sure I knew how I was going to die.  Heart disease and colon cancer run in my family, so I hit the Middle Ages with a plan of attack. I was going to go on a diet and get screened for polyps.  I have had some success with the diet (did you know it is really diet AND exercise, not diet and/or?) and I followed my doctor’s advice by submitting a poop sample. It turns out my sample got lost, or the results did, because I never heard back until I harassed the doctor’s office and he finally called me and said, “Your poop was negative.  There, don’t you feel better?” 

No, I did not feel better, and reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens For A Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved made me feel even worse.

Bowler was someone who had it all, according to her own definition: 

“Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities.” (xiv) 

Having spent so much time studying the prosperity gospel and those who adhere to it, she had, to an extent, bought into it. Until she didn’t.

The foul ball that crashed through the window of her contentment was a cancer diagnosis.  In this, Bowler was certainly not alone.  According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.  That means there will be almost 2,000,000 brand new cancer stories.  

Not all of those new patients are Kate Bowler, of course.  Not all have the educational background to reflect deeply and write so well. That’s the first thing.  Of course, not everyone had so ironically invested so much time studying the prosperity gospel, which teachings clashed so audibly with her reality. And not everyone was positioned with connections at Duke University to get their insurance to cover an experimental treatment program, which not everyone can get into because not everyone has what Bowler calls the “magic cancer,” which would potentially respond to the treatment.

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Kate Bowler

That’s what makes this book so damned scary.  The only reason that Kate Bowler lived to write it is because she is, in fact, Kate Bowler.  Everything aligned so that she might suffer through treatments which give her about 60 more days until it’s time to do it all over again.  It might not be how we would define prosperity, but it’s living, and it’s a life only she could live, 60 days at a time.

She doesn’t like the Job comparison.  It can’t be helped.  But not for the obvious reasons.  Well, maybe those, but for others, too.  Mainly because Job is a thumb in the eye of the certainty crowd.  The guy you’d never expect to lose it all does somehow. He gets it all back in the end, but I suspect that was added to please the masses, like the fake ending of Mark’s gospel.  One of the beauties of Bowler’s book is that there is no neat wrap-up.  All we know is that she gets to have another 60 days.  

What would we do if we thought we only had 60 days left to live?  What would we do if we went to the doctor one day for a routine physical and left there knowing that we had, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, “cancer of the everything”?  What would you do if you found out you were in perfect health and would live another 50 years?

I came away from Everything Happens understanding that no one’s anything is ever the same as anyone else’s.   And I don’t really know how I’m going to die.  I could be polyp-free and get hit by a bus.  The main section of the book ends with the sentence, “I will die, yes, but not today.”  I hope she wrote that at night.  Only way to know for sure.  

Random House provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

You can support Heartlands by buying a copy of the book through this link:

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Peter’s the one on the right

Peter Surran lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his family and three dogs and a cat.  He is pastor of Eastville Baptist Church, works full-time for the County of Accomack, part-time for Regent University’s English Department, and enjoys reading and writing when he is able.  Book reviews give him a great excuse to do both! 

Why We Don’t Care About ‘The National Water Situation’

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“For all my love of rivers, ‘our nation’s rivers’ have not moved me once.  The rivers that move me are those I’ve fished, canoed, slept beside, lived on, nearly drowned in, dreamed about, sipped tea and wine by, taught my kids to swim in, pulled a thousand fish from, fought and fought to defend.  I’ve come to suspect, for this reason, that is only the personal geography–the one experienced in daily depth–that can in fact be in-habited, and only the personal geography that has that Yeatsian ability to connect us, root to root, to people or places we’ve never met…

“The personal geographies conveyed via the arts converge in our interiors, create resonance, expand knowing through mysterious soul-to-soul empathy.  Whereas ‘the national water situation,’ I have come to suspect, will never create anything more artful than bureaucrats.”

—David James Duncan, My Story as Told by Water, p. 72-73.

If that stirred your soul…consider joining Alex for a writing retreat where the Tye meets the James

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Everyday Apocalypse: Poetry

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photo by Joe Leahy via Unsplash

Katherine Sonderegger is right when she says:

It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, 222)

The whole thing should have ended right there at the burning bush—

Moses face-to-face with this lethal revelation of the Divine Presence. 

And yet it didn’t.  It doesn’t. 

Each moment, each atom,

does not explode the universe

despite its unlimited power. 

Here be dragons.  Here be angels. 

Here be the End of All Desires and the Furnace Forging New Ones. 

Who needs a trajectory toward apocalyptic catastrophe? 

Suns melt every day. 

Moons turn to blood. 

Stars come crashing down out of the firmament. 

And we blithely go on,

unheeding,

unmoved.

–Alex Joyner

Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.

A Quick Reminder of Why Wesley Still Matters

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John Wesley

John Wesley has been claimed by so many different heirs and used to so many and varied ends that it is refreshing to have someone like Hal Knight come along and point us back to the source.  John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, his new entry in the Cascade Companions series designed for nonspecialist readers, comes along just as the United Methodist Church is wrestling with what it means to be faithful to Wesleyan tradition in the 21st century.  Knight, who is a professor of Wesleyan Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is not going to take sides in that conversation, but he is going to point out why Wesley still matters.

In 10 brief chapters and a conclusion, Knight offers a biography of Wesley that is oriented toward his developing thought in relation to other movements of the 18th century, particularly Moravian and Calvinist strains.  Knight traces Wesley from his early (and lifelong) understanding of salvation as holiness of heart and life to his 1738 discovery of the knowledge of God’s love as gift and power, which became the engine of his later work.

We go with John and his brother, Charles, to Georgia.  We travel with him to Bavaria to learn from the Moravians.  And we glimpse his extraordinary ministry of preaching and writing throughout Britain.  But Knight keeps the focus on the controversies that fired him, the sermons and writings that revealed his deepening theology, and the Methodist apparatus he developed to support that theology.

The Wesley that emerges is not the rigorous obsessive we sometimes imagine from his journals, but a man truly fired by a notion of God’s love.  Wesley, in Knight’s telling, even has a warmth that keeps him in relationship with others, like George Whitfield, who could have been styled fierce opponents.

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Dr. Hal Knight

In the end, Knight chooses to highlight how Wesley could challenge Americans of our day.  In opposition to those who think that Christian salvation “is solely about our post-mortem destiny,” Wesley insists “it is about receiving a new life in the present, one that lasts through all eternity.” (141)  American spirituality, so prone to the belief that “there is a wonderful self inside of us waiting to be actualized,” could use a dose of Wesley’s realism about the human condition and the way “salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a free gift of God, given through the cross of Jesus Christ and actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit.” (142)  And Wesley’s focus on the need for accountable community and spiritual discipline could upend “the pervasive privatization of religion in American culture.” (143)

Talking about these things is a much better goal than trying to draw Wesley into the denominational anxieties of the largest Methodist body that traces back to him.  Wherever the UMC goes, it will need to come back to Wesley’s genius if it is once again to be about “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”  That holiness is an appealing goal in Knight’s retelling.  And the book itself whets one’s appetite to know what has been and what will be.

Cascade Books provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  You can buy this book through Amazon and support this site:

Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

Trusting God (or What To Do When You’re Just Not Feeling It)

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photo by Paulo Nicolello via Unsplash

There are mornings when I’m just not feeling it.  During my prayer time, as I review the plan for the day, I say to God, (out loud sometimes), “Remind me again, why me?”

Those are the days I write it out.

I turn to a fresh page in my journal and continue the conversation.  For instance, here’s a recent entry with my annotations in italics:

First I write a question I have for God: What good do I have to offer this day?

My fierce clarity.  (I know!)  I never have fierce clarity.

My deep wisdom.  (I know!) The ‘I knows’ are me turning to a friend and saying “Can you believe God is saying this?”

My dedication to Christ’s Church.  (I know!)  This sounds a little more earnest than I usually am.

My savvy and unwillingness to put up with stuff. ( I know!) Again, not my usual M.O.

My subversive intentions.  Now that’s more like it.

The effect of all this is to claim the gifts that seem beyond me but that God can give.  And often does.

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells his followers in Mark 13:11 [NRSV].  Even when the one bringing you to trial is your own self-concern.

IMG_7791In a technology-driven world where there is always something for which there is an app and people are ever in search of a life hack to overcome a problem, it’s easy to see why God has become an after-thought.  If we don’t have the words, we’ve come to believe that it’s on us.  We just haven’t learned the right trick to get us through.

But Jesus knows the dangers of relying on our competence.  The words we need are not within us but given to us.  Our most effective practice is to trust that God will provide…that the Holy Spirit will speak.

When I visit churches I sometimes…no, often…get a whiff of anxious desperation in our worship and work.  Because the culture no longer credits the church with the prominence it once had, we have lost confidence in what we have to offer.  Is it really a killer product if nobody’s buying?  Maybe, we think, we should round off the rough edges and downplay the parts of the Christian message that don’t go down easy.  Maybe we should make Jesus more user-friendly.

Newspaper editors call it “burying the lede” when a writer tells an interesting story without highlighting the main point.  We’re in danger of burying the leader.  (BTW-It’s been tried before. #emptytomb)

What I pray for Sunday mornings and beyond is a warm and gracious invitation to a mystery that isn’t easy to understand or live into.  I pray for a community that isn’t worried about what it thinks it doesn’t have, but instead recognizes that it has all it needs in the gospel of Jesus.  God used Balaam’s donkey.  God can use our willing hands, too.

My other journal exercise on days when I’m not feeling it is to allow the negative voices in my head to have free reign.  I write down all the reasons why I don’t have any good to offer this day.  And then I write—all caps—LIES.  Because they are.  And I’m a savvy guy who has a God-given unwillingness not to put up with stuff like that.

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

IMG_6997I don’t talk much on this blog about Palestine and Israel, even though you’ll see a link here to my 2014 book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine.  That’s partly due to the fact that the commitment of this site is to understanding rural life and ministry, particularly in the United States.

“But wait!” you may be saying.  “I saw your review of the Skylight Inn BBQ.  I saw your takedown of online surveys.  Heck, I even saw that ridiculous picture you posted of a screen window captioned with a dad joke.  Your editorial standards are pretty darn lax.  I think you could fit in more about one of the major conflicts in the world today.”

To which I say, “Thanks!  I had no idea you were reading so closely!”  But also.  Yes.

In my defense (and just why am I being defensive, anyway?), I did post a reflection last fall after my last trip to the region.  But there’s more to say.  Much more.  And some of it feels like a strange mirror on our own divides here in the U.S.

Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s exquisite new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, I am aware of how much Halevi’s way of talking about the conflict has given me a language for speaking about it.  Halevi is an American-born Israeli who lives in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, separated by mere yards (and a security barrier) from his Palestinian neighbors who live…where?  Palestine?  The West Bank?  The Occupied Territories?  Judea?  The conflicting names for the same land form part of the disparity Halevi wants to overcome in this book, which is structured as ten letters intended for his unknown neighbors on the next hill.

Halevi has been attempting this journey for many years, though he started out as an unlikely candidate for the job.  A writer and commentator, Halevi began as a right-wing Jewish idealist.  His vision for the land of Israel included not only the West Bank of the Jordan, but the eastern bank as well.  

Since the 1980s when he moved there permanently, however, Halevi has been evolving along with his country.  “Few societies are as malleable, so prone to fundamental change in so short a time, as Israel,” Halevi says. (172) And he himself has undergone major shifts, thanks to a stint as a soldier patrolling Gaza, a spiritual journey into the Palestinian territories in the late 1990s that resulted in his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden, and his current role as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he has been trying to build bridges with American Muslim leaders.

I met Halevi in 2011 on my first trip to Israel.  He is a wise, warm soul who is more than ready to acknowledge that Israel has its flaws.  The 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation?  “It was your side that suffered the most devastating consequences,” he tells his interlocutor.  “Some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.” (82)  The occupation?  “It penetrates the soul” and Israel must end it “not just for your sake but for ours.” (108) The fatal flaw of the settlement movement? “The sin of not seeing, of becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” (106)

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Yossi Klein Halevi

But don’t let these insights convince you that Halevi is a dove.  He sets out with all his spiritual openness to understand the Palestinian situation, but he is just as insistent that the Israeli narrative be heard as well.  “Can we,” he asks, “see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice?” (21)

For the Palestinian neighbor to see this, s/he must hear about the long longing of the Jewish people, which was always a desire for return to this land.  In the 19th century, “the impetus for creating a political expression of the longing for return—restoring the Jewish relationship to Zion from time back into space—was dire need,” a need for an end to homelessness and persecution that gave birth to Zionism. (35)  

The only home that the Jews had ever had was in this land.  When suggestions were made that perhaps another place might suffice, (Uganda was offered in 1903), the Zionists refused the option of becoming colonialists and pursued the dream of return.   And when the opportunity arose, they came, from Eastern Europe, yes, but from all across the Arab world as well, to join the Jews who had remained in the land.

Halevi effectively shows the inaccuracy of the saying that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel.  But the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again.

“Jewish history…spoke to my generation with two nonnegotiable commandments.  The first was to remember that we’d been strangers in the land of Egypt and the message was: Be compassionate.  The second commandment was to remember that we live in a world in which genocide is possible, and that message was: Be alert.  When your enemy says he intends to destroy you, believe him.” (110)

These commandments haunt the Israeli response to Palestinians today.  They are, at the same time, called to see and respect the Palestinian, but also take seriously the constant denials of Israel’s legitimacy that permeate Palestinian media and culture.

“We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless…’cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty.  The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.  That is the cycle we can only break together.” (115-6)

There is so much more here, as there is to any discussion of this seemingly bottomless relationship between the two peoples.  Halevi pushes hard on the religious understandings of both sides, believing that diplomats have been wrong to ignore this dimension.  “For peace to succeed in the Middle East,” he says, “it must speak in some way to our hearts.” (7)  In doing so, Halevi mostly reduces the conflict to Jews and Muslims, despite the fact that Christians still make up a significant minority of the Palestinian population.

The one place where a Christian does make an impact on Halevi’s story is on a joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz.  A Melkite priest from Nazareth, Abuna Emile Shoufani, takes a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to the concentration camp—a group that included Halevi.  Despite his skepticism, Halevi was moved by the experience and appreciated Shoufani’s idealism.  “A Christian with an open heart to both sides had managed to bring Muslims and Jews together in Auschwitz.” (189)

American Christians try to bring so much intensity to Israel and Palestine.  We either accept Israel uncritically as a sign of God’s end-time plans or attack it mercilessly for the suffering of the occupation.  We are generally pragmatists who want to choose sides and fix things.

But what the Christian Shoufani brought was an openness to hear and see the people in front of him, in all of their humanity and with all of their story.  It’s the same openness Halevi is striving for.  He recognizes that the ongoing conflict is devastating to both peoples and it is “a spiritual crisis.” (186).  He wants to be heard, but he is listening, too.  There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

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Jarena Lee and the Day the Preacher Stumbled: Exhortation and the Methodist Future

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The preacher was in trouble.  It’s hard to take the life out of the story of Jonah, but somehow he had. Struggling preachers are not unusual.  We’ve all had a Sunday.  Or several.  But in early 19th-century Methodism, including the AME branch of Methodism, (of which this preacher was a part), the official preachers had a back-up—exhorters—and Jarena Lee was just such a person.

Listening to that poor preacher, Jarena was convicted by “supernatural impulse” to stand and expound on the same text.  It was a daring act because it sure looked like preaching.  And women didn’t preach in those days, (although a number of Methodist women had taken the lead in what looked very much like preaching roles in Wesley’s movement, though they never had the title).  

Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:

“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”*

Jarena was a forerunner of all the women who now have their calls recognized in denominations like my own—the United Methodist Church.  But something else gets my attention in this exchange—the role of insiders and outsiders in a local church.

514UrBuBTgL._SX425_Early Methodism was on the move.  Its circuit-riding preachers traveled large circuits and they were frequently reassigned to new circuits on an annual basis.  They were not meant to become enmeshed in a particular church or community.  They had “nothing to do but save souls,” as John Wesley put it, and to organize small groups to continue the work of growing in holiness.  They couldn’t help but be considered outsiders, or in the lingo of the Eastern Shore where I live, ‘come heres.’

The exhorters were the insiders, the lay leaders who kept the Methodist societies going when the preachers weren’t around.  They were the ones who could encourage and inspire.  To use a modern word, they were the ones who could contextualize the message that the preachers proclaimed.  It was a role that men and women fulfilled.

Even when the preachers were leading the worship, the exhorters would supplement their sermons in the way that Jarena Lee did, sometimes offering fiery, charismatic, and evangelistic calls after the preacher did his best.  One Methodist exhorter, Thomas Saunders noted, “It is common with us for men and women to fall down as dead under an exhortation,” accompanied by numerous conversions.**

IMG_6635Methodism has changed since the days of Jarena Lee.  Our clergy now settle in and are encouraged to become real residents in the communities that they serve, even if they still retain their membership in the larger Annual Conference.  Lay servants, lay speakers, and certified lay ministers are the heirs of the exhorters.  Women and people of color now take on leadership in all these roles, hopefully without worry that their call from God might lead to their expulsion from the church.

The insight that early Methodism had, though, that ought to be retained is that a vital and healthy church depends on the interlocking wisdom of insiders and outsiders.  Outsiders bring new ideas and a broader vision of the Church.  People in the community bring a knowledge of the history and deep currents of a particular place.  Both have gifts to give.

So much of the tensions in rural America these days relate to how much agency local communities have in determining their future.  With declining populations, changing economies, and other challenges, small towns begin to doubt their capacity for building a vibrant community like they remember they once were.  

It’s the same for churches.  But the Methodist genius of connecting the native capacities of the local and the animating energy of the committed “traveler in the midst” still has the potential to renew the Church.  It’s how God moved Jarena Lee.

*David Henson, “Jarena Lee: The Pioneering Female Preacher You Never Hear About,” Patheos.
**Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 80). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.