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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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.

In Which I High-Five a Bishop

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Bishop Sharma Lewis, photo by Virginia UM Communications

If you had told me last week that I would get to high-five a bishop in the middle of his sermon at Annual Conference, I would have told you that you were dreaming.  Bishops don’t do that.  But bishops do do that and there I was last Saturday as the visiting bishop from Mississippi, James Swanson, wandered the floor of the Hampton Roads Convention Center preaching about the good news at the end of the book (the Bible) and telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Swanson preached twice, each time confounding the sign language interpreters who gamely tried to keep pace as he went gleefully off-script.  He spun in a circle to emphasize a point.  He thundered.  He engineered an impromptu altar call that brought hundreds to the front.

[Bishop Swanson] wandered the floor…telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Not that it was all about the theatrics.  Or even about Swanson.  Our own bishop, Sharma D. Lewis can unsettle your expectations about preaching, too.  (And she admits that she has learned a thing of two from her mentor, Bishop Swanson.)  She ended the conference by standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd calling out young people and old people and all people to join her in a mission.

No, the thing that was most impressive about this super-charged 235th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodists, was the way it embodied the hope of a new day with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  We didn’t just hear about the Spirit’s work; we were invited into it body and soul.

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Bishop Lewis with her family

Bishop Lewis, presiding for the first time in her new role as Virginia’s episcopal leader, began the Conference by sharing that she has the gift of faith.  This sounds a little unusual.  After all, isn’t faith what we all should have?  Well, yes, in that faith is what restores our relationship with the One who made us.  But that faith comes as a gift.  If faith is just an exercise of the will it places too much confidence in our own ability to enact it.  It is a gift to trust that God has done and will do everything necessary in Jesus Christ to bring about God’s purposes. Bishop Lewis has that gift in abundance.

In her closing sermon, she cast a vision, which is “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners, who influence others to serve.”  We’ll be unpacking it for awhile.  It’s a deceptively simple sentence born of her many hours in Chat and Chew sessions across Virginia.  But in the context of what we saw in Hampton, it is clear that the vision is not just words – it’s a total immersion in the work of God in the world.

In the music, in the people she brought to participate in this conference, and most especially in herself, Bishop Lewis gave us the best of where she has come from.  What we saw is firmly rooted in the African-American tradition where she has been nurtured, but basic and universal enough to speak far beyond that context.

I have seen this dynamic in my bishop before.  She is always ‘on’ but when she is preparing for a big moment, there is a new gear.  It’s as if she is saying, “I know you’ve got doubts.  I know there are trials.  But I know Jesus.  So follow me.  Hop on my back if you need to.  We’re going with him.”  The Rev. Morgan Guyton noted this gear in a very insightful and personal reflection on the Conference: “All I could see was that she was all in.”*

She is.  We are.  So we go.  And I’ll high-five anybody who wants to go with me.

Churches & Dysfunctional Government – An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – Part 2 of 3

IMG_5610We are repenting from our assumption that government can be an adequate expression of our faith.  That’s one of the marks of these times for Christians on both sides of the Great Divide.  

When Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkley sociologist, went to Louisiana to try to understand the deep story of people on the American Right, she found that churches were a significant part of the story.  In the last part of my interview with Hochschild, we talked about her project which led to her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Today we talk churches, dysfunctional government, and, O yes, a fishing trip across the Great Divide:

 

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Arlie Russell Hochschild

You evidently spent some time in a lot of churches down in Louisiana while you were there.  What was your impression of the role religion plays in this whole narrative?

Oh, it’s enormous.  I think this may be one source of the partition, between red and blue, but certainly not entirely.  The churches were hugely important as a source of community, and solace, and practical help for particular problems.  We were at a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church.  I didn’t make it to the Methodist church.  They’re known to be more progressive.  And the Catholic church less so.  But these large churches—I came to understand why they feel important.  People tithe to them very willingly and happily, so taxes to the government–which help the line-cutters and not them–are more resented, because they feel they’re already being taxed in a way, but for something they believe in.

A lot of social services are associated with these churches.  They’re filling in where the government is lifting out in a way.  So, there’d be a gym.  “Oh, my mother-in-law lost 50 pounds at the Baptist gym.”  Or, “Oh, when our marriage was in trouble, we went to the counselors at the church.”  Or, “There’s a teen area.  My 12-year-old likes to go with her friends there and to summer camp.”  It really had a surround sound kind of feel to it, like you weren’t just there an hour and a half on Sunday.  It was more a way of life.  There were several services during the day.  I kind of felt that it had absorbed the space that a dysfunctional government had left.

Yeah.  When you say ‘dysfunctional government’, which of the levels of government did you feel was the most dysfunctional, or impacted the people the most? 

The state.  There was big petrochemical development, and they proudly called themselves the buckle in America’s energy belt.  But oil was the dominant economic force.  The oil companies had really–I came to conclude–bought the state of Louisiana.  The environmental agencies that were designated the job of protecting people from pollution weren’t doing that.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_There was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  It didn’t even have the name ‘protection’ in it.  There were permit hearings [to determine] ‘Could Sasol lift out so many metric tons of water from Lake Charles, and disperse–they call it ‘produced water,’ well, it’s got toxic chemicals in it–back in.  Well, yes, the permit would go right through.  People would object, but it went through anyway.  That was the state department of environmental quality that was doing this.

So, people came to think, “Oh, goodness.  I’m paying taxes for the nice house for this officer for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not protecting me.”

If you step back three steps, you could say that the state was doing the moral dirty work of the oil company.  It works like this: Oil companies were given, by Governor Bobby Jindal and the state government, $1.6 billion in incentives money to lure them to Louisiana, (as if they would go somewhere else).  With that money, they had a lot of money to give out, which they did in donations to the Audubon Society and so on.

Meanwhile, the state government also made sure that its office of environmental protection, on the one hand, promised to protect people from pollution, and didn’t, so that the Louisiana Industrial Alliance could proudly boast that regulations were as swift and easily guided–easily bypassed, in essence–more so than in any other state.  I put it differently in the book, but that’s what it amounted to.

So, people felt the state isn’t doing its job, and that a federal government is just a bigger, badder version than this captured Louisiana state government.  That suggests that we really ought to find out: Are these Red states actually more corrupt, more bought by industry, than Blue states?  Are people actually responding very reasonably to the disappointments of living with a captured state?

Does that mean that they’re also being redirected—turning that anger towards the federal government and letting the state get off free?

Yes, right.  When I say ‘captured’, I mean captured by industry.  The state becomes captured by the industries that settle in it.  That’s because they actually pay the election fee; they pay candidates political donations.  They are a source of revenue for the mass media, so that radio bites its tongue on reporting on environmental disasters.  You just don’t hear about them.  Or ads to newspapers.  The American Press in Lake Charles never mentioned problems with the environment.

So, various branches of civic society have been bought, in fact.  I think that is a realistic worry.  I didn’t go in knowing that, but I came out thinking, “Well, I get it, why they’re so cynical about government.”  If they think all government works like this government, wow.  I’d think the same thing.

IMG_3306This Mike Schaff that you uncovered was a really interesting character.  He seems like a really rare flower, combining being an environmental activist and a Tea Party member.  Are there more like him out there? 

You know, there are more like him out there.  Right where he is, no, he remains a rare flower.  But in northern Louisiana, since the book came out, there’s a group of Tea Party people that say, “No.  Our water…the salt content is going up, because of…I think, fracking.”  And they want to stop that.  So, yes.

Actually, Yale University has an environmental polling data source.  There’s a center for research on attitudes towards the environment that has the latest and best data on that.  Renewable energy is a crossover issue.  The Right believes in it not quite as much as the Left, but it’s crossover, and we could really agree on that.  Donald Trump isn’t playing to that, but if you look at how right-wingers really feel, they’re very interested in it.

In fact, I took my son, who is a big environmentalist.  He’s a member of the energy commission here in the state of California—a big environmentalist and very interested in solar energy.  I took him down with me last time, after the book was published, to spend a few days with Mike Schaff.  I said, “Let’s just go out fishing.  I want you guys to see if you can come to some common ground on renewable energy.  I’m just going to hold the tape recorder.”  And they did.

In the end, Mike Schaff said, “Oil’s end is coming–we’re running out of it anyway.  I think solar energy–I’d love to have it on my roof, on my boat, everywhere.”  David, my son, pops up, “Well, and it would also mitigate the effects of global warming.”  Mike said, “No, no, no.  I don’t believe in global warming.  People around here don’t, but if you want to sell solar energy here in our oil country for right-wingers like myself, what you should say is that when you have a solar panel, you’re an independent producer and you are feeding clean energy into the grid and getting paid for it.  You’re independent.”  So, Mike Shaff was telling my son what to say to sell this idea to people like himself.

Part 3 – Talking with Anarchists.

Newspapers, Food, & Churches: An interview with Ted Shockley, part 2 of 2

Version 3In the previous segment of this interview, I talked with Ted Shockley, publisher of Eastern Shore First, our new local paper, about his approach to his work and the way that the community is changing.  Ted has a preference for print (as opposed to online news) and I was particularly impressed with the way he sees a page layout as a visual representation of the community, with businesses existing side by side as they do in real life.  He’s also got an eye for the humanity of the people he covers in those businesses.

In this segment we talked about newspapers, food, and churches.  You know—-the essentials.

So, how has it been?  Working on your own, is that a good thing?

It’s exhilarating. It’s hard to describe, because I’ve always felt like when I worked for any publication, I worked for them like I owned it.  I always wanted to go home and say I put more into it than I got out of it.  I always felt that way until it was my publication.  I like it when it’s up to me to pass or fail.  I like that challenge.

I don’t want to be challenged in anything else.  I was never a great student, and I don’t want to do any chemistry, and I don’t wanna be challenged in any other area.  But I enjoy writing and communicating to a community. That’s been a fun challenge for me.  I like it coming down on my shoulders.

Fortunately, the reading public has responded very well.  It’s been very humbling that people responded the way they have.

Well, I think it was something we needed, right?  

Thank you for saying that.  It’s probably a bad analogy, but I think of this as food.  This is locally grown, organic, farm-to-table journalism.  There are not huge corporations.  There are no investors.

No antibiotics.

No antibiotics.  This is organic.  People want that in a dining experience, and I hope they also want it in a reading experience.  I think of it like delivering a food.

You do the photos?

I do the photos.  I’ve worked with people who are fantastic photographers.  I’m an adequate photographer,  just trying to catch moments.  When I go to an event, I really want to take pictures of the people there.  I might go and cover a concert, and never take a picture of the singer.  I might take a picture of everybody in the audience, because I really want smiling faces.

Yeah.  

FullSizeRender 2When I was a kid and worked at the Eastern Shore News, I would go to Assateague in the summertime.  I had a summer job there for three years, and they let me write summer stuff.  I would go to Assateague, and I’d take pictures of people, and I’d never get their names.  That’s like taking half a picture.   If you don’t get their names, you really don’t have much.

That’s really good.

I also want, whenever possible, when I write about somebody, I want to know who their parents are.

That’s an Eastern Shore thing.

I want to put them in the paper.  If you’re in the ESO ballet, and you’re one of the stars, I want to say you’re the son or the daughter of so-and-so, because nobody does that.

I am doing a story in next month’s issue on the Eastern Shore bakeries.  We have these wonderful bakeries.  I’m talking about an authentic bakery experience where you walk in and the smell.

All of them agreed to do it.  So, I walk in and I’m talking to Shirleen [at the Anointed Hands Bakery].  She looks at me and she says, “You don’t have on your green shoes.”  I said, “How did you know that I wore green shoes?”

She said, “You don’t remember writing about me?”  I said, “Well, I remember the green shoes.  I remember the year.  It must’ve been 2012.”  She said, “You wrote several stories when my son was burned to death.”  I said, “Well, I remember exactly talking to you.  I remember all of those stories.”

It’s good to talk to people three years later, four years later.  These people who you had covered during their worst moments of their life.  And now, they’re successful and happy, have found this great calling, and created this great business.  That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.  She’s a great person.

Those are neat stories.  I know that the mainstream news is important, and we need people to cover when things catch on fire, people die on the roads, and when there’s a shooting.  But I want to write about the new bakeries.

That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.

Okay.  

I’m glad to see that there are places [like the Crossroads Coffee Shop where we are meeting right now].  I mean, you can have a McDonald’s experience at any town in America, but we have places that can only be experienced here on the Eastern Shore.

My analogy for newspapers, in addition to restaurants, is that they were like churches.  You have these traditional, faithful readers and they are getting older.  What does this church do, what do newspapers do to bring in younger readers?  I don’t know the answer.

I started from scratch.  It’s a lot easier to start a newspaper from scratch or start a church from scratch than it is to change this 150-year-old tradition.  How do you change that without making everybody mad?  Because you’ll alienate the people who are your bedrock supporters.  And I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I see them playing out everywhere.

One of the movements within churches is to try to get outside the building; moving into places like this which are third spaces, they call them, which is not a private space.  It’s not a church space, but it’s a third kind of space where community can happen and where connections can happen.  

So, we’ve been encouraging people to take their Bible studies into restaurants and coffee houses, and make connections with people who you just meet incidentally.  Even  meetings.  I do a lot of meetings out now.  It’s a whole lot less of a barrier for somebody to walk into a place like this than to walk into a church if they haven’t been there before.

Right.  I’m always looking for these parallel roads.  That’s a good way to think about something like this.  It’s almost like a third space where, as you said, community happens.  Community is a hard thing to make happen.

And when you try to make it happen, it’s forced and artificial.

It’s not very organic.

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Ted’s Truck

When it rises up from relationships, that’s different.   Because we talk so much about needing to get younger and needing to reach people of different generations, sometimes older people hear that as an indictment against what they’ve done and who they are.

It’s all about finding the right words to make everybody part of it.  About finding the commonalities. It’s just fascinating, because it’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include, in my opinion.  What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

It’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include…What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

I hope it’s not sacrilegious to align my newspaper analogies with church, but if people leave and say that they’ve been bored, your church doesn’t survive, and your newspaper doesn’t either.

Guest Blogger – C. Christopher Smith: Stirring the Economic Imaginations of Churches

 

I’ve learned a lot about books from C. Christopher Smith.  Chris is not only the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, to which I occasionally contribute.  His press is also the publisher of my book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine

He’s a great observer and interpreter of where the church is and what it could be in the 21st century.  He’s also charting new paths by caring about books and the people who write them, or as he puts it: “We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”  Today he’s guest blogger on Heartlands:

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C. Christopher Smith

As I’ve traveled across the US talking with churches about my recent book Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison), I’ve found that many mainline churches and some evangelical ones – largely in urban or rural places – are struggling with shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets. Many leaders of these churches are bordering on despair, because like most people in the Western world they have been formed by an economics of scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around.

A careful reading of the scriptural story, however, reveals a God who abundantly provides for the health and flourishing of creation. Maybe we can no longer fully rely on meeting our budgets by passing the offering plate, but this economic reality in many churches does not mean that we have to despair.  Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us. Specifically, our churches should reflect on the assets God has provided in our people, our buildings, and our land.

Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us.

I’ve been fortunate to see and hear stories of churches across North America that are thinking creatively about these resources and drawing upon them as a means of sustaining themselves economically. In order to get your own imagination moving, I wanted to briefly share some of the creative economic activity that churches are doing.  (I don’t expect that all of these ideas will be applicable to every church situation, but hopefully there might be an idea or two here that might have potential for adaptation in your church.)

Human Resources: What has God provided in the gifts and skills of your congregation (and/or your neighbors)?

And how can these gifts be leveraged in a way that benefits the church, the neighborhood or both? Many churches are starting businesses that draw upon skills in their congregation or neighborhood to bring in additional income.  Some churches start coffeehouses, restaurants or gathering places. University Christian Church in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, for instance, has started the very successful Roh’s Street Café.

61DJ2UqrooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, we have started half-a-dozen businesses over the last two decades, each of which began on a very small scale with the intersection of a gift that we had in our congregation and an opportunity to serve others in our neighborhood (or beyond).  Our businesses include an early childhood education center, an affordable housing operation, a hydroponic farm, and our magazine The Englewood Review of Books. Other churches have started businesses in catering, cleaning, and painting among other things.

Building Resources: What has God provided in the building(s) that we own?

While there are many missional advantages to owning a building, we should always be mindful that many churches through the ages – including most in the New Testament stories – have flourished without owning a building. Selling your building may be the most extreme case, and may not even be possible for some churches, given their denominational arrangements, but it is good to be reminded that churches can survive without owning a building.

Many churches are finding creative ways of sharing their buildings, and the cost of their operation. Sometimes these creative uses intersect with businesses that the church has started (such as Roh’s Street Café mentioned above). With careful coordination of schedules, some churches share their buildings with other churches. Other churches make space in their building available for rent: for office or co-working space for non-profits or entrepreneurs; for studio space for artists; for meeting space for neighborhood groups; or if they have a commercial kitchen, for catering or other food-based entrepreneurs.

And building assets might include more than just the traditional church building. Some churches own parsonages or other residential buildings. If these residences are empty or under-utilized, they could be sold, rented out through a traditional lease, or even operated on a short-term rental basis through services like AIRBNB.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we have a former 5-bedroom parsonage that we have renovated and use as a hospitality house for retreats, for people who are visiting us from other places, and for other situations where friends need a short-term place to stay.

Land Resources: What are the assets God has provided us in our land? 

Many churches are starting community gardens that provide good, home-grown food for church members or neighbors.  Community gardens may not be the most profitable venture, but there are ways to generate small profits from them.  In addition to selling some of the produce, there are many grants available for community gardens, and some of these may allow for a portion of the grant to go to the personnel who administrate the grant, or for a minimal lease of the land being used for the garden.

Some churches like Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta have allocated part of their land as a nature preserve. Under-utilized portions of church land could be developed or sold, particularly if doing so would benefit their neighborhood. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, BC realized several years ago that it had more parking lot than it needed, and in one of the highest cost housing markets in the world, they are in the process of developing affordable housing on this land, which will be affordable because the land – the most expensive part of any development in Vancouver – was already owned by the congregation.

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God has indeed provided abundantly for us, and for the flourishing of our neighbors in this place! 

May we have eyes of gratitude that see the riches God has provided for us, and imaginative minds that discern how to use these resources in ways that sustain and bless our congregation and our neighbors. As our eyes and minds are opened to God’s provision, we will be led out of despair and into hope.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He and his family are members of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris’s most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).

Fidget Spinners, Coffee Mugs, and the Hope of the Church 

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photo by Alzinous

What the church really needs for revival is to be socially relevant.  No, it all starts with a great music program.  Wait, we need a mission statement that’s clever and quippy.  How about a Bible study that offers applicable principles for everyday living?  Don’t forget the giveaway mugs!

There’s no end to prescriptions for turning around churches.  And there’s an element of truth to most of them (although I wouldn’t build a revival around coffee mugs!).  But if the main actor in the proposal isn’t God, then you haven’t started in the right place.

I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of advice that churches are given, (I’m sometimes the giver!), and usually underwhelmed by the amount of actual turn-around that happens as a result.  Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Our emphasis, as Virginia United Methodists, on deepening our practice of spiritual disciplines, begun under Bishop Cho, and Bishop Lewis’ current invitation to engage in daily Bible reading points in another direction.  God doesn’t need new techniques or slogans – God desires a people who have been claimed by Jesus Christ and whose identities are now inseparable form his.

God’s work is to transform us and the world.  The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

Instead, we get to embody hope.  In a recent article in Faith and Leadership magazine, Allen T. Stanton says that’s something rural churches can offer to their communities – not because it’s a niche to be exploited, but because it’s who we are.  Churches should stand out because their identity is not grounded in the narratives of decay that afflict so many of our rural communities.

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Alex with Bishop Sharma Lewis

“In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural,” Stanton says. “While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.”

Why?  Because we know a risen Savior who has conquered sin and death.  Plus…somewhere around here I’ve got a mug that says that.

How to Preach a Bad Sermon

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photo by Jon Collier via Flickr

Yesterday, I preached a bad sermon.  I quoted and misquoted Mark Twain, King, and Ghandi without attribution.  I cruelly mocked my child by telling stories of his misdeeds.  I violated the privacy of a parishioner with health issues to highlight my prowess in pastoral care.  And I managed to talk far more about myself than I ever did about God.

It was hard work to be that bad.

Fortunately, it was a video exercise I was doing for the Ethics Committee of our Board of Ordained Ministry.  I was asked to do an intentionally bad sermon that illustrated some perpetual bugaboos in preaching – plagiarism, inappropriate use of family, and making the sermon entirely self-referential (the sermon title was “It’s not you.  It’s me.”).  Those tendencies may not be a bar to the presidency (O no, I didn’t), but they can be the marks of lazy preaching.

So what makes for good preaching?  Dick Murray, my professor of Christian Education at Perkins School of Theology and a creator of the Disciple Bible Study, used to say that every good sermon, like every good Bible lesson, ought to have a mixture of ‘about-ness’ and ‘so what-ness.’  You need to spend some time exploring what the Bible passage is about and you also need to answer the question, “OK, so what?”

IMG_6203If a sermon spends all its time mining the depths of Scripture, adorned with word study and historical context, and never makes the leap to lived experience, its going to be deadly.  Though to be truthful, I wish more preachers erred on this side since a lot of sermons I hear don’t seem to have been cooked sufficiently in the oven of the pastor’s study.

On the other hand, a sermon that sounds like it is simply a variation on “4 Ways to Boost Productivity and Happiness,” (and there are far more of these), usually fails to grapple with what the Bible really has to say about who God is and who we are.

Good preaching is visceral.  It gets beneath our surface concerns and the superficial fidgeting we do in response to the latest headlines.  It strives for encounter with the God who is revealed in Scripture and in our dreams, in those unguarded places where our vulnerable self casts about for a firm foundation.  It strips the veneer off of our lives and says, to quote Will Willimon, that most of us don’t have needs worth having.  Something bigger is at stake.

The writer Annie Dillard is relentless in pointing to this dynamic.  In her deep observations about nature she refuses to paper over the raw beauty and terror of encounter.  She sees angels in barren fields and transcendence in a shriveled up frog carcass.  In ‘A Writer in the World,” Dillard says:

“We still and always want waking.  We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.  It should find, in our holy text, not only an opportunity for intellectual exploration, but the sublime experience of awe in the face of the living God.  When we are ‘woke’ (O no, I didn’t), we are trembling on the edge, drawn out from our quiet desperation, and open to transformations – glorious and painful.

“Good preaching should have a little gourd-shaking.  That’s what I say.”

A good preacher has to go there herself.  He has to find an authenticity and honesty to offer himself to the task of being vulnerable before the text.  And if that preacher is thus alive, petty, heartwarming stories or overworn quotes will not be a temptation.

Come to think of it, it’s hard work to preach a good sermon, too.

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

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photo by Anna vander Stel – via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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