Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

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Rural Soul: Confession – Guest Blogger Sara Keeling

The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues as guest host this week, while I am in Israel & Palestine.  Today: a confessional look at the journey of call.

I started a blog in 2003.

Blogging—was THE social media platform of its time—we were a few years away from facebook, twitter was still confusing, and instagram yet to be imagined. The form of sharing our souls on the internet was not through selfies and humble brags, but longish journal style entries logging the ordinary excitement of our days.  

So when Alex (and others) recently jumped back into blogging, I thought oh how 2003. We’ve done this before.  

My blog was all about me: To document my life and the call to ministry. Without irony, I called it The Bold Journey. Because it so reflected how I felt. Called and crazy, selfish and selfless. I hoped to make sense of this change and call, and find others along the way or explain myself to others.

My call to ministry, felt fiery and intense, a demanding God finally laying hold of me, like falling in love, which I also did at exactly the same time, intensity of emotion for another human being and for God intertwining, playing off of one another, creativity and dreaming and desire all tangled up together, flesh and spirit, hopes and visions . . . The Bold Journey indeed. As terrifying and real and new as any major life changes we make in our early 20s.  

The affair of my calling ended. Crashed and burned, we might say. Leaving behind a friendship with its own lines and contours. Which is just as well. Because it made way for a marriage and family and a future that otherwise would not have been. Any connection can initially feel intense and bold, but the truth of marriage, as anyone who’s been married for 10 minutes can tell you, is it’s mundane and ordinary.  

Sara Porter Keeling

The bold journey gives way to everyday life. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of marriage is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the weekend and retirement someday. It’s figuring out what to eat and earning and living and staying entertained and happy. It’s life.

Likewise, most days, my call to ministry has not lived up to the hype. It didn’t crash and burn, but ignited and stayed alive, though its more like smoldering embers. The essence still alive, but the intensity faded.  

Because the truth of ministry is that it’s mundane and ordinary. It rarely lives up to the hype. The work of ministry is talking and listening, loving and caring, grinning and bearing, orchestrating schedules and tending to children, and figuring out what to do for the next Sunday and all of the ones after that. It turns out, every week has a Sunday. It’s life.  

Rural ministry, I suspect, is among the most of the mundane and ordinary. As is rural life. Even in its richness, its legacy, its complexity and simplicity. Most of the recent drama has come to us through our television screens and social media. Nazis have yet to march through my county. We haven’t quite decided if we’re going to do something about the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. We did enthusiastically watch the eclipse and will send donations to help in Texas. The Nashville Statement didn’t hit the radars of any in my congregation.  

I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to change the world. A decade a half later, I wonder, was this such a bold journey?  Perhaps the Mundane Journey. Which sounds awful and boring and yet . . .

Mundane also means common. Day-to-day. Ordinary. Practical. Of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. Earthly.

We spend most of our Christian year in Ordinary time. We spend most of our lives in the common and the practical.

Even the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, God incarnate, is also mundane: ordinary, earthly. Made of dirt, like the rest of us. And yet, even in our dust, we are made of the same stuff as stars, in the image of God. Our lives, our work, our marriages, our ministry are ordinary, practical, earthly, and therefore, necessarily: mundane.  

Saving the world looks like praying words over a funeral. Changing the world looks like naming racism and sin from the pulpit. It can also look like staring at words on your screen and wondering why your coffee cup isn’t fuller. Or why there isn’t enough time or never seems to be nearly enough grace and compassion in our world . . . Ministry is slow, peacemaking work. One meal, one conversation, one hug at a time.

Because what is a mundane life, but a true gift of God? When there are no bombs overhead. No flood waters threatening. There’s a lady in my congregation who prays every Sunday for “ordinary days,” because she knows all too well the days of health scares and school shootings and all of the other terrible things that can go wrong and throw us into chaos.

Which is all that that was about anyway . . . an ordinary life that is lived boldly . . . a never-ending journey of boldness.

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we 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.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

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photo by Alyssa Kibiloski via Unsplash

Any list of contested phrases in American Christianity today is going to include “social justice.”  It’s not just that talking about social justice makes folks uncomfortable.  The prophets were doing that all the way back to Amos and before, pointing out when Israel failed to hear the cry of the needy, failed to protect the vulnerable, and failed to offer legal protection to the powerless.  In such situations, Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other heirs to the tradition cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, CEB).  No one sits easy on their ivory couches in their ivory palaces when the prophet is crying for justice.

But in the new vocabulary of the Great Divide which has been swallowing up our common language, ‘social justice’ has become something more than uncomfortable.  It has been weaponized for the culture wars and I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about justice.  Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how we’re heard.

The big moment when “social justice” was invoked for the war came in 2010 when Glenn Beck, the TV political commentator, told Christians:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

For Beck they were code for a left-wing ideology of redistribution of wealth that was heavily influenced by Marxism.  He also offered a highly-selective reading of liberation theology, and particularly the theology of James Cone, an African-American theologian, that made it seem as if the aim of liberation theology was to divide the whole world into oppressor and oppressed and to insist on a material transfer of wealth from the former to the latter.

Even those who don’t fill out a brief against theologians every time they hear the phrase have come to suspect that they are being asked to sign on to a political agenda when they hear calls for social justice.  The tendency of every conversation to spiral down to a discussion of the current president does not help.  Are social justice advocates saying that I must adopt a particular stance towards the president in order to express my outrage at the hate spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville?  It certainly seems that way sometimes.

Amos’ image of the plumb line (7:7-8) suggests that human efforts at justice are always measured against a divine standard.  If the wall isn’t plumb, it means the building project has gotten out of line with its intentions.

So let me attempt a definition:

social justice means attuning ourselves to God’s intentions and aligning our selves and our systems to what God is doing.

Doing this work involves prayer, deep dives into the biblical witness, confession, reconciliation, grief, anger, and humility.  It means recognizing that there is no place of purity from which to do justice.  The systems of injustice are mighty and pervade our every action.

249770397_44e015d0b8_mI worry when I hear calls to silence or eliminate those people we deem evil.  The puritanical spirit of the age tempts us with the illusion that everything would be alright if it weren’t for [name your favorite bogeymen here].  But social justice invites us to see the world through God’s eyes – the God who sorrows over the pains of the world, who rages against the darkness, who sees how that darkness is present in each of us, who “delivers us from slavery to sin and death,” and who forms us into a diverse, beloved, ragtag community to be the church.  That community’s plumb line is not defined by a party political platform.

Social justice is not a plot to take over the church.  It’s the call of God to be the church.

Five Things I Learned from a Cowboy (Church)

IMG_6710I love a horse trough baptism as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that I’m a traditionalist at heart.  I appreciate the time-worn beauty of prayers passed down through generations, the mystery and splendor of a good four-part choir, the movement and purposeful flow of a well-planned order of worship, and attention paid to, you know, words.  On the other hand, I’ve been known to lead a rousing chorus of “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” with the Bishop and Cabinet.  What I’m saying is, I’m flexible.

So, recently I went to Cowboy Church and here’s what I learned.

I was in the Big Bend country of West Texas, so it was a place with real cowboys, though this phenomenon has been spreading out to many far-flung places where ranch hands are more rare, including Virginia.  The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts over 200 member congregations but that’s just one organizantion.  There are many more in the US, Canada, and even Australia.  But, of course, the epicenter and place where it all began is Texas.

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Pastor Wendal in the Pen

What did I find?  Well, the Big Bend Cowboy Church is an unassuming metal building with a Western-style wrap-around porch.  Walking in the front doors I was greeted by Pastor Wendal Elliott, who was dressed in a spotless white Western shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat.  There was all the evidence that I was in a church narthex, just with a few more frayed rope and barbed wire decorations.  There was the prayer board, the doughnuts, the coffee, the styrofoam cups.  So far, it was all feeling very familiar.

It was only when I rounded the corner to head to the worship space that the ethos of the place became clear.  Behind another door was a big warehouse space on a concrete pad.  Metal roll-up doors were opened to the Glass Mountains beyond.  An old rail fence decorated with American flags, saddles, and wagon wheels framed a…chancel?  Corral?  Let’s call it the Preacher’s Pen. There was more barbed wire, including the crown on the large wooden cross on the wall.

A large group of people were milling about greeting one another.  Some in the rows of chairs near the front, others around the cafeteria tables set up in the back.  The vibe was friendly and  aggressively casual.

The service began without warning.  Pastor Wendal just leaped up into the Pen and we were off.  There were a few announcements.  “The Cowgirl Gathering is coming up next weekend.  Thanks to those who showed up to the rodeo yesterday.”  Then he invited up a man who leads a ministry to those in prison.  He shared a heartfelt testimony about his son’s incarceration and about the importance of reaching out to the children and families of those in prison.  I was moved.

IMG_6699Then it was time to sing…briefly.  A man with an impressively groomed mustache and a bright green flowered Western shirt got us to our feet to sing songs “which I’m sure you know.”  There was a songbook, but I don’t think these were included in it.  There was also a screen that we didn’t use.  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Do Lord,” back to “I’ll Fly Away,” one verse each, all to the accompaniment of a single guitar.  Then we sat down while Brother Mustache’s wife came up to join him a medley of country-western gospel tunes, some self-written.  Good folks with good voices, but I couldn’t help feeling shorted on the music front.  This constituted the whole of the music for the day.

I also wondered how and if this music would connect with the theme of the day, which turned out to be self-control.  Pastor Wendal quoted Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” Then, he shared his experience in the cutting competition at the rodeo the day before and how winning requires discipline, training, and preparation.  We looked at other Bible verses praising self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and an essential feature of the Christian life.

Pastor Wendal struck me as a perfect Cowboy Church pastor.  He was direct, humble, not flashy, and seemed to be thoroughly of a piece with the culture the church so clearly celebrated.  He had authentic twang and the dramatic hand gestures so common in rural Texas.  (Think Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.)  The message was the kind of life application preaching heard in so many non-denominational and Baptist churches these days.

fullsizeoutput_1877Then it was time to go to the stock tank.  Two teenaged worshippers came forward to be immersed by Brother Mustache, who apparently is a pastor himself.  He offered a straightforward believer’s baptism explanation of what was about to happen and then proceeded to the act.  The United Methodist in me longed for some…any…description of God’s act in the baptism, but the emphasis was definitely on personal witness.

Pastor Wendal followed it up with a low-key invitation to faith.  “Meet me in the back if you’d be interested in baptism yourself.”  And then, as suddenly as the service had begun, it was over.  Pastor Wendal jumped out of the Pen, without a benediction (or an offering!), and it was over.  People headed for the pick-up trucks and rode off into the sunset.

So what did I learn?

1) The emphasis falls heavy on the ‘cowboy’ and much less on the ‘church.’  This is by intention.  “Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” Frank Sanchez, a cowboy church planter told the Waxahachie Daily Light. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”

I heard the same thing from the police chief in Archer City when I talked to him about cowboy church over chicken-fried steak at Murn’s Cafe.  “I don’t have to dress up and I understand everything they say.”

Surely, it’s a good thing that people are working to lower the barriers and to help people who have been alienated from the institutional church, and institutions in general, to find their way into worship.  By so heavily emphasizing the Western heritage culture, however, is Cowboy Church failing to be church?  Is it so identified with the culture it promotes that it cannot stand against that culture when needed or initiate those who come in to the culture of the reign of God?  That’s a question for every church, by the way.

2) For a place with no dress code, there was a dress code.  Cowboy hats, boots, jeans, your best Western shirt, cowgirl chic for the women—you definitely had to be duded to the nines to feel at home in this place.  Even the children were outfitted appropriately.  I don’t think this was out of the norm for this community.  I saw this dress everywhere I went.   So, the police chief was probably right that people didn’t feel they were having to dress up by dressing this way.  But if you came dressed otherwise, you would have felt out of place.

3) Connection with the church of every time and place is not a priority.  Pastor Wendal was headed to a convention of cowboy churches and asked for travel prayers, but otherwise, the focus of the service was entirely on the individuals present.  It was not just the baptism that was individually-focused, everything was oriented to individual choice.  The multiple US flags seemed to be the most prominent nod to any kind of larger community.  It was the Sunday after the protests in Charlottesville and not a word was said.

4) Cowboy Church didn’t tell me how to be a disciple.  How does a church that is so focused on removing barriers to participation move those who attend to greater discipleship?  There was not even an offering, which made me wonder how people are challenged to think about the discipline of generous giving.  There were men’s and women’s groups meeting later in the week, but I did not feel that I was being told much about how to grow in the Christian life beyond advocating self-control.

fullsizeoutput_18765) I like cowboy duds.  I could get used to this get up.  And for bald guys, (check that—persons with baldness), a cowboy hat is a very practical piece of headwear in the Texas sun.  I did meet people who probably wouldn’t have been in church otherwise and there were a lot of them.  They felt comfortable.  But a cowboy church, like every church, has the challenge of being not only accessible, but faithful to the world-challenging message of the gospel.

John Wesley once accepted the call to field preaching with coal miners by saying, “I submitted to be more vile.”  I think he’d have donned a bolo and submitted to be more Western if the occasion had arisen.  But for what purpose?  I ask the same thing of Cowboy Church that I ask of all the churches I visit these days.  And we’re doing this why?

What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

DHMudULVYAEEq0QLet me begin with the ‘ought to’s.  It ought to go without saying that what happened in Charlottesville at a gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists was an ugly display of our divisions in this current moment.

It ought to go without saying that an ideology that believes the white race is superior to other races is a discredited relic of some of the darkest moments of our American history.

It ought to go without saying that such an ideology is antithetical to the gospel and the inclusive message of God’s intentions for all creation and all people.  If Christ is our peace, as Ephesians 2:14 says…If, as the verse goes on to say, “he, with his body, broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” then there can be no place for another message, especially one claiming the name of Christ, that would perpetuate hatred and division.

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Heather Heyer

It ought to go without saying that the deaths and injuries over the weekend—of Heather Heyer, a young Charlottesville woman who died in the vehicle attack, of two state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who were patrolling in a helicopter that crashed, of the many others wounded—are tragic.  We rightly weep for them and for their families.

It ought to go without saying that Charlottesville, a place where I have studied, lived, and worked at different times of my life, should not be defined by this act.  It is a city that has struggled, perhaps more so than most, to understand and learn from its history, including its troubling racial history.

All that ought to go with saying, but I’m saying it, because the fact that people openly espouse racist and Nazi ideas in America in 2017 shows that we still have the capacity to nurture evil in our hearts and minds.  We have not escaped the human condition.

19884025_490881374591713_1163294255372840333_nWhat more should we say?  On social media this weekend I saw many calls to pastors to speak about Charlottesville from the pulpit on Sunday.  Clergy were very visible in Charlottesville on Saturday – walking arm in arm in a silent witness against the hatred on display.  I was glad to see United Methodists in the midst.  On Sunday, in the Texas church I attended, no one offered a word about Charlottesville in sermon or prayer.

Some would say that to make a big deal about the violence at the protest would amount to “virtue signaling”—a marker so that others can see that we’re on the right side of the issue.  This kind of concern is a sign of the fallen nature of our public discourse these days.  There are many people who feel that, by acquiescing to the request to make a statement or a prayer, they may be coopted into a whole set of agendas that have far more to do with a political worldview.  If I put #Charlottesville in my Facebook post, am I putting myself in a camp?

There are also those who worry more about those who didn’t say what they thought ought to be said.  If my attention and my ire turns to those who didn’t bear the witness I felt they ought to make, am I distracted from doing the hard work of community building that it will take to overcome the Great Divide and renew our commitment to shared values?

I do expect that the clergy and lay leaders of the Eastern Shore will address Charlottesville and I expect that many did in services on Sunday.  But they should address it not because it is the issue of the day, but because the gospel illuminates it for what it is.

The truth is that racism is one of the powers that rule in our day.  It is a sin that infects us all, not just the ludicrous gatherings of white men with tiki torches and vile flags and signs.  They claim it openly, but racism is in the air we breathe, and if we were to get rid of every little pocket of supremacists, it would still be there in our souls to struggle with.  And to do that will take faith in God’s liberating work in Jesus Christ and the communion of the Church which invites us to continual confession.

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The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh

The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh, a United Methodist and a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, was one of those clergy at the protest on Saturday.  He talked about his experience there on the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice on Sunday.  While the clergy were committed to a non-violent witness, he confessed that he found himself wanting “to grab a rod and start hitting a Nazi.”

In the aftermath, he found himself appreciating the ongoing work of learning to be a disciple, a work that kept him from taking up a rod.  “Christianity is a daily practice,” he said.  “It’s a daily practice of inculcating certain disciplines of the heart and soul that we might be those people that can stand in these moments of trial.”

I pray that we can be grounded in something far more than a stance.  We need to do far more than showing up in Charlottesville the next time the racist circus comes to town.  We need to show up every day to the places we live and the people we interact with, helping to expose and root out the racism that is around and within us.  We ought to be about the daily practices of being Christians.  And that ought to go without saying.

 

Attention Must Be Paid: Writing Young People Into My Life

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Photo by Derick Anies via Unsplash

How do you write about the activities of people who don’t act in ways you can see?  I’m spending this month in West Texas writing a novel that has, as a main character, a 16-year-old boy.  Of all the characters in the book, this was supposed to be the easy one, since he’s loosely based on me at that age.  The challenge I presented myself is that the setting of the book is a small town circa 2017.  A lot has changed since I was 16.

One of the most obvious changes is that technology has radically changed the way that people, and especially young people, interact.  Some of the most important connections people have are now facilitated entirely by virtual means.  So how do you set a story in the physical world that includes those interactions?

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

There are clever writers doing this, I’m sure.  But as I try to put myself into a contemporary teenager’s world I realize that the kind of connections I had that came from just roaming around my town may never happen or would not happen in the same way.  With my main character walking the streets, I have to figure out why he would meet anyone his own age on those streets.  Why would they leave the house?

Atlantic magazine has an article out entitled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  What’s that, you say?  ‘Isn’t the title a little histrionic?’  Well, yes, I’ll give you that.  But the statistics are sobering. “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”  Why?  The lure of the screens.  “Teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”  Why?  Well, there’s this:

“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less.”

The thing is, the story I’m hoping to tell may seem implausible because it’s taking place in, you know, the time/space continuum.  The only physical impact of an online life may be one that a teenager quoted in the article offers:

“I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people…My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

There are lessons here, for writers and churches.  One is, we can pay more attention to how the lived experience of young people is changing.  Sure, we could retreat to a ‘get off my lawn’ mentality and say, “They just need to put down the screens and smell the roses.”  (And by ‘smell the roses’ we mean, ‘be like we were.’)  But we’re all addicted to screens and we’re none of us being very thoughtful about how we use them.  I see an opportunity for shared conversation on how we live meaningfully in the digital and analog realms.

Secondly, we can invest our offline interactions with the attention they deserve.  The holy nature of a conversation, the sensual beauty of broken bread and shared cup, the visceral power of singing and live music.  As Linda Loman says in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

Also, there’s a public health warning for all of us.  The evidence suggests a real positive link between mental well-being and in-person interactions with others without screens.  It suggests we use our accountability partners to develop spiritual practices around use of technology.  (It also suggests we HAVE accountability partners!)

Here’s my tech tip related to this: turn off the notifications on your phone.  When that little circle on my mail app disappeared I was no longer thoughtlessly checking throughout the day to keep the number down to zero.

There’s more to learn, I’m sure, and I’m trusting this teenage character of mine to lead me deeper.   As well as real people…of course.

Never Call Retreat?

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photo by Elias Ehmann via Unsplash

I’m going on renewal leave.  What does that even mean?  I’ve spent the last six months trying to get my mind around it, preparing for it, and anticipating it with a strange mixture of joy and dread.  I do believe, because I’ve seen how it has helped others, that renewal leaves can refresh us for the new things God has in store for us, things we sometimes can’t see when we are in the midst of the day-to-day.  It’s also good for us not to imagine that we’re so indispensable that God can’t manage things without our help for a while.

I’ll be doing a lot of writing, which means I won’t disappear from this space, but I’m trying to fight against the urge to produce.  One of the lessons of Sabbath that I am learning with great difficulty is that rest is a great antidote to our tendency to justify our worth based on what we’ve done.  It’s very tempting to direct God’s attention to a pile of accomplishments and say, “I must have earned a spot in your heart, God.  Just look at how busy I’ve been.”

God loves our work, but God blesses our rest as well.  Even our play.  Because God invented Sabbath and God knows that the world is not in our hands, but in God’s.

In her poem “Camas Lilies,” Lynn Ungar uses Jesus’s image of the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27) to explore our obsession with being ‘useful’:

Consider the lilies of the field

the blue banks of camas opening

into acres of sky along the road.

Would the longing to lie down

and be washed by that beauty

abate if you knew their usefulness

Ungar then goes on to imagine taking that image seriously:

And you—what of your rushed and

useful life? Imagine setting it all down—

papers, plans, appointments, everything—

leaving only a note: “gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through blooming.”

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photo by Jane Miller via Unsplash

Then she concludes:

Even in sleep your life will shine.

Make no mistake. Of course

your work will always matter.

Yet Solomon in all his glory

was not arrayed like one of these.

So I’m not going off to be useful.  I’m going off to be lovely.

Nunc Dimittis: Words for a Church Closing

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Berea Church, New Church, VA

What’s the import of a church closing?  We struggled with that question last Sunday at Berea United Methodist Church as we held its final worship service.  I offered some words for this country church that has been at the center of a small Virginia town, New Church, for 132 years…

 

When I was young, I used to love to go on short trips with my dad.  Sometimes, he’d take me bowling and that was great.  Very occasionally he’d take me fishing at the lake, but he wasn’t much good at that and neither was I.  Our best trips, however, were when we went to cemeteries.

Now, I get it that you might find that strange.  After all, cemeteries have a reputation for being creepy places, especially for kids, and while we’re grateful they are there, there are usually not places where people hang out.  They’re definitely not on the list of top places fathers take their sons.

But I am so grateful that my dad did.  My dad’s passion during the years when I was growing up was genealogy.  I’m not sure what fed that passion for him.  Maybe it was the fact that his own father had died when he was only 8 years old and he was trying to piece together a family life he never had.  Maybe it was the fact that he grew up in Southampton County, Virginia, a place where history haunts every corner and peanut field.

simeon-muller-3505Whatever it was, my dad was always looking for lost relatives.  And a lot of the lost kin folk were in overgrown cemeteries, sometimes hidden in groves of trees or tall grass.  Sometimes with stones that were so weathered that you’d have to rub them with paper and a crayon to decipher the names.  Sometimes there were only small rocks with a set of initials painted on.

Something important was happening as I tramped around these places with my dad.  He was teaching me the importance of connection to what had gone before.  He was telling me who my family was even as he was learning himself.  He wasn’t just recording the dead, he was putting us, the living, within a tradition that was still moving ahead.  I learned how to love my dad and how to tell stories about life in those cemeteries.

I’m not going to make an easy jump from that story to Berea church and what we’re about here today.  Sure, you could tell a similar story about how, as we come here to remember all the ancestors who have preceded us in this place through the years, we are becoming connected to what has gone before and how we learned to become who we are through what happened here.  All of that is true.

But when the people of God remember, it should also be in anticipation of what God is doing next.  Because it’s all bound up in a story that began a long time before we got here and that story includes a remarkable promise that all of history takes place within God’s intentions and it’s not over until it’s over.  We say this whenever we get to that part in the Eucharist that we call the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  This is what it’s all about.

The Isaiah passage this morning is one we have been using within the Annual Conference as a theme verse this year.  It sounds a little scandalous to bring into this service when we’re doing so much remembering.  Maybe it’s in bad taste even.  “Don’t remember the prior things,” Isaiah 43:18 says.  “Don’t ponder ancient history.  Look!  I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?”

Well, no, God.  It’s kind of hard to see a new thing right now.  As we read Kirk Mariner’s history of Berea Church, we feel a great sense of loss.  Our 1880s ancestors carved a place out of the wilderness—the hardwood trees that lined the road between the old post office and the new railroad.

They were the ones who saw the new thing that was happening in old New Church.

They were the ones who placed this building here that represented confidence in God’s presence at the center of the community.

IMG_6517They were the ones who held camp meetings on the back lawn and expanded the building and placed this stained glass in the windows.  John & Esther Brittingham, Hester Covington, Rev. G.H. Stockdale—they saw the community and the church grow.  They saw the new thing.

We?  We wonder, in our darker moments, if God still has a place in the old town.  We see our children, our grandchildren, leaving town or not leaving town, but certainly leaving church.  We know the church doesn’t have the central place it once did in the community.  People pass it by without a thought.  Going out, going home – living lives that are too often defined by what they lack – not enough work, not enough income, not enough time, not enough confidence, not enough skills, not enough education, not enough self-control, not enough love…not enough.

We wonder the same about the church.  Were we…not enough?  Could we have have done more?  Could we have held on longer?  Could we have tried some new program?  Could we have believed harder?  Could we have worked harder?  Could we have loved better?  Could the District Superintendent have sent us the right pastor?  Could we have been…more?  Could we have been…enough?

Kirk Mariner’s history is helpful here.  You know he had a kind of maudlin mood at times and it shows up in his history of Berea that he wrote in 1974.  He outlines the traditional measures of successful churches – a quaint, lovely structure, endurance through many years, crowded Bible classes and giving to missions.  “By any of these yardsticks,” he says, “Berea Church has never been much.”  He wouldn’t even credit the fact that it had nurtured him in childhood as a sign of great success.

But Kirk found some comfort in the way the church accompanied the town in its history.  “Nothing will redound quite so much to its credit as our being able to say, ‘Berea and New Church lived every moment of their lives together.’”

I can’t read that without thinking that, with Kirk’s death just a few short weeks ago, he wasn’t just talking about this town which he identified with so much, but himself.  Berea and Kirk lived every moment of their lives together.  My last conversation with Kirk took place just a week before his death and we were talking about this service.  He was planning to take part in it, but he wasn’t happy about it.  He spent the whole conversation with me rearranging the coasters on the coffee table between us, trying not to think about this day.

But he knew the virtue of what this church, what this congregation, what you have done.  You accompanied this town into its future and held out a promise.  The word was proclaimed from this pulpit.  Lives were touched by your ministry.  You were all any of us can be—open to God’s using what we have.  In that sense, you were…you are…enough.

The reason Isaiah tells the exiled people of God, “Don’t remember,” is not because there is no virtue in looking back, but because God is not through with them yet and God will do even more in what’s to come.  The parting of the Red Sea—-that’s going to be nothing compared to what God will yet do.

fullsizeoutput_2dI’ve been reading a book of poems about old churches.  It’s called Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches.  Every morning I read a poem and every morning I get mad.  Because most of the poems are by people who have no idea what they’re looking at.  Most of the poets are people who have become disconnected from the church or who are longing for a connection to God and haven’t found it yet.

I don’t fault them for that.  But when they come to these old churches and the cemeteries that surround them, most of them only see stories that have ended.  One poet walks through a ruined abbey and he says:

“And now the wind rushes through grassy aisles,

And over the massy columns the sky arches.”

Well, sure, the wind rushes through old buildings and grass grows in ruined aisles.  That’s what happens to human artifacts.  They all suffer the effects of time and the elements.  We can look around New Church, around the Eastern Shore, and see what time will do.  We know what it does to us, too.

What I long for in the poems is some recognition that the stories begun in old places are not over.  We carry them in us.  They are embodied in us.  What happened in this sanctuary as we shared a hymnal with a spouse,

and a child got restless,

and Luther snoozed during the sermon,

and Mary wept quietly during the prayers,

and the piano got out of tune and we wondered when we’d get the tuner in,

and the preacher told a tale and we felt it strike a nerve,

and she placed a hand in the font to bring water to a grandchild’s head,

and he broke the bread and stumbled over the words of the Great Thanksgiving…again,

and the bread tasted like yeast and grace,

and the light streamed through the window and we marveled at the color,

and the wind howled against the roof and we wondered if it would survive one more storm,

and in all those things…even in those things…the living God was present and in these small human ways we felt something huge, something transcendent, something impossible bigger than us.

We knew somehow in those moments…in this place…that even when we didn’t feel like we were enough, God was enough.  That God was at work.  That God was not falling apart at the seams.  That God was able.  That God was holding things together.  That God was doing a new thing.

It would be enough if we could just point to that.  If we could just say, “God is here.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.”

God has a habit of taking people who thought that were at the end of their journeys and giving them one more surprise.  It happened for Abraham and Sarah, who in old age, had one more great trip in them.

It happened for old Eli, whose life as a failed priest in a land where the voice of the Lord was rare, was surprised by the boy Samuel who could hear God whispering in his ear.

It happened for Simeon and Anna, two old prophets who hung out at temple in Jerusalem…waiting.  Waiting.  Fasting.  Praying.  So long.  So long.

Then a couple brought a child for the traditional presentation in the temple, as couples did every day.  It was an ordinary moment.  But Simeon went to the young couple and asked to hold the child.  So long.  But he believed that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

He holds the child and looks at him.  He looks to God and says, “Now, let your servant depart in peace.  Because my eyes have seen your salvation.  I can go now because I know that You are trustworthy and You keep your promises.”

Anna is right down the way and she’s been waiting too.  So long.  So long.  And she joins in the praise and she says, “I have seen what God can do.  I know what God will do.”

IMG_6519You have seen what God can do.   You know what God will do.  You have brought your deepest hopes and deepest sorrows to this place.  You have brought your children and your spouses.  You have brought those places and those situations that seemed beyond any power to redeem.  And God has met you here.

Now, let your servants depart in peace.  Because our eyes have seen your salvation.  We know that You are trustworthy and that You keep your promises.

When you pass this building in the weeks and months and years to come.  Pray a prayer that it will continue to be a place of blessing.  The District Board of Missions has met and will continue to meet with the District Board of Church Location to discuss how this property can continue to bless ministry on the Eastern Shore.  So pray as we release this building to God’s future.

But pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the ways this place has blessed you and told you who you are and reminded you of God’s continuing grace.  You are now the legacy of Berea Church for the world.

 

The thing is, that I never thought I could hang with my dad.  He seemed beyond me when I was young.  But when I came back from those trips trudging through cemeteries for family history, I knew I didn’t have to be anything other than I was to have a place.  I was in.  I was part of that story.  And wherever I am, what happened on those trips goes with me.

You are in.  You can tell the tale.  God is enough – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.

We’ve Got an Open Door Problem

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I’ve always been a little worried about our open doors.  When the United Methodist Church adopted the slogan “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” some twenty years ago, it captured a sentiment that many United Methodists have about themselves.  Whatever else we may be, (and that’s an area of great contention), we have been the broad middle, accepting and celebrating a wide variety of peoples and viewpoints.

When the planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, our then-new slogan had just been unfurled on a giant billboard in Times Square.  In the aftermath of that attack and in the wake of the other scares of that awful fall (anthrax, the elusive sniper), the whole tenor of the country changed and the impulse was to close every door and to go into lockdown mode.  Our openness stood out in prophetic contrast then and that slogan helped us adhere to our faith in the One who made himself vulnerable and who, in his crucifixion, “broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” [Ephesians 2:14].

But there were always dangers in the slogan.  One was that it might get confused as a mission statement—as if openness was our reason for being.  In that case, openness might as well be emptiness because the slogan doesn’t speak to its source.  Open hearts, open minds, and open doors are a byproduct of a vital faith in Christ, not an end in themselves.  What we’re about is the worship of a God who is making all things new and one sign of that is that walls are coming down.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A larger danger was and is that the slogan might be taken for a description of how things are rather than as an aspiration of what we hope to live out.  Fleming Rutledge goes after this in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:

Congregations are claiming for human beings what is possible only for God.  No congregation can include everyone.  No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself.  Many a person who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church coffee hours without being greeted by anyone…The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Downs syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street…Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming, and all-inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this life, all-embracing.  (576-7)

If the danger were just false advertising, we might just tweak the slogan: “Mostly open hearts, minds, and doors.”  Or better yet, choose another one.  But Rutledge points out that the problem is ultimately theological.  We are overestimating our potential to do what only God can do and has done.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t be about the work of hospitality.  Lord knows we could use some freshening up in how we acknowledge and include new people, and all kinds of people, in our churches.  But we could also use some real honesty and humility about our need for God in order to understand how openness happens.

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photo by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

John Wesley invited the same danger when he talked about Christians moving on to perfection.  When you separate such language from a bedrock trust in God’s work in Jesus Christ, it sounds like Wesley is putting his faith in human efforts.  But Wesley understood the ways that the we are warped by slavery to Sin and Death.  He knew that human work was always done in the light of Christ’s prior work on the cross to free us, despite our lack of potential, to nevertheless follow where he leads.

All of this to say, that the slogan needs some grace.  Grace that will allow us to stop using it as a weapon to needle our brothers and sisters for not living up to it.  Grace to accept the freedom God gives us, not just for earnestness, but for joy and wonder.  Grace to not attempt to be more than we are called to be.

For generations, we have tried to be too much as a church—social scientists, political theorists, psychologists, urban planners, non-profit charities.  And all-inclusive at that.  God bless our curiosity and ambition.  But God forgive our forgetfulness and lack of faith in the centrality of being a Church living out of the deep well of its faith in the crucified and risen Christ.  It is enough.