Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 1 of 3

I was standing in a cemetery near Onancock, sweating in the mid-July heat, when Chuck Reece asked me how I got from radio journalism into ministry.  I was supposed to be interviewing him, but Chuck Reece, even over the phone, is a master at sniffing out stories and he trained his curiosity on me before I got down to asking him about The Bitter Southerner, his labor of love.

I had intended to be back at the office for this.  Or at least in some air-conditioning.  But I had been detained down the road and so I had to search out some relatively quiet space to call and record.  The cicadas in the tall trees made a fuss, but otherwise the graveyard suited.  I set my laptop up to record and made the call to Atlanta.

I began with flattery, though not insincere.  Deborah Lewis, my colleague in campus ministry and a fine writer herself, had put me on to the Southern-oriented online magazine a few years back. I told Chuck, “In the course of watching you change and grow over the last five years, I’ve also started my own blog which was designed to try to understand what is happening to rural America in the wake of 2016 elections.”

And you’re doing a nice job with it actually.” He was luring me in. I fell for it.

“Oh, have you taken a look at it? Oh good. It’s been fun. I started out as a radio news director and disc jockey at a country music station and this kind of takes me back to the days of that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journalism when I didn’t have any guidance or direction. I was right out of college and they just wanted something to make us sound local. I just got to follow my curiosity wherever it went.”

What led you from journalism to the ministry?” There was the question.

“It’s a long story but probably the shortest answer is Annie Dillard.”

Well, there you go! I get that.”

Let me just say right here that Chuck Reece is awesome.

The Bitter Southerner began as the brainchild of Reece and his partner, Dave Whitling.  They claim that the spur to their five-year-old project was a beef about bartending—specifically the lack of respect that Southern practitioners of the craft receive.  If you look at the ‘About’ page of the site, that legend is there.

But their ambitions were grander than a simple blog about drinks could contain.  With a background in covering media and design and that honed ear for a killer story, Reece was always going to go for something larger.  And that’s there on the ‘About’ page, too:

Recent election results suggest that the Southern mind hasn’t evolved much, that we’re not much different from what we were in 1936, when Faulkner was struggling yet again with the moral weirdness of the South. Almost 80 years later, it’s still too damned easy for folks to draw the conclusion that we Southerners are hopelessly bound to tradition, too resistant to change.

But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It’s also full of people who face our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.

The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.

So the site has evolved into something more vibrant, more ambitious, and more weird than can be wrangled into a simple description.  It’s a collection point for new angles on Southern culture.  And for some of the best writing about the South on the web.

Perhaps you can see the attraction. For someone who was voted by his college roommates as ‘most likely to end up on a porch writing country music by a rusty refrigerator,’ The Bitter Southerner is salve to the soul. And to have all that plus an appreciation for Annie Dillard?  This was prime territory for a Heartlands interview.

 

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Chuck Reece

“So, let me tell you about my Bitter Southerner story for the day,” I told Chuck. “I got up this morning and I read your article about Who Owns a Woman’s Shoulders.” The article, by Caralyn Davis, was an uncomfortably accurate picture of the over-familiarity some male church members feel in approaching women in church settings. The article was written by a United Methodist lay woman about her mother’s experience in a lay speaking class.  

“It hit me, as a United Methodist District Superintendent, right where I live,” I told Chuck. “So I reposted it on Facebook and it’s been blowing up. It was exactly the kind of story that I think I appreciate the most about your site—it was personal, it described a subculture within the South that is definitely there and definitely ripe for looking at in new ways, and yet it touched on some really deep and bigger issues, too.”

CR: Those personal essays—that was a really weird thing. When we started, the first 12 months, all we did was the one big feature story every Tuesday. People just started sending us these things. We hadn’t asked for them and after a while the stack got pretty high—the virtual stack, of course. And you know what? Some of them were really well done and even the ones that weren’t written so well, you could tell that they were written with feeling and purpose. 

When we got through the first year and said, “OK, we’re gonna keep doing this,” and we started trying to make some money so we could start paying writers, we were like “Well, let’s start publishing one of these every week on a Thursday,” and that’s how the Folklore Project section came about. It’s sort of amazing the quality that we see in those things and I like the fact that The Bitter Southerner must feel to people like a community in which such stories are welcomed and understood.

People have felt welcomed and understood in the Bitter Southerner community.  It’s not just the personal essays that get published in the Folklore Project section.  Writers, especially younger writers, seek the site out to pitch ideas.  “I think these younger writers know that we’ll edit them with care and they know that we will make their story really, visually appealing on the web,” Chuck says. “It’s like I used to say to people when we were begging for stories for free: “At least you’ll get a good looking clip out of it.”

The Heartlands interview with Chuck Reese continues here…

When Flo (and Other Storms of Life) are Raging

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

—Isaiah 43:2

As I write this, it looks like the Eastern Shore will be spared the worst of Hurricane Florence, (or Flo, as I’ve come to call her this week).  I’m praying for the people of the Carolinas who seem to be receiving that ‘worst.’  I’m expecting that the United Methodist disaster response efforts, through UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) and UMVIM (UM Volunteers in Mission), which would have come here if Flo had turned our way, will now be headed south.  And I know that United Methodists here will be generous in their support of these efforts.  (Look for special giving opportunities in the next week.)

We did have an epic downpour on Sunday night here.  Roads in the Belle Haven area washed out.  Our camp director, Michael Henry, his wife, Alison, and son, Isaiah, had a harrowing, multi-hour trip back to Occohannock on the Bay that night through the pouring rain.  Also, high tides this week flooded Tangier, Wachapreague, and other low-lying areas.

IMG_7723Incidents like these remind us that we live on a small, strip of sand on the verge of a great, vast ocean.  Most days I don’t take the ground beneath my feet for granted, but when I see the power of the wind and water, I marvel that we can live so many days without thinking about whether the weather will threaten our lives and our homes.

There’s a measure of grace in each day.  There are things we can trust.  Most days we get to live without thinking about the dangers and we receive what we need.  God will provide and God does.

And when the hurricanes come, as they will…when the storms of life are raging…God will stand by us.  Islands may shift, property may be lost, but didn’t we get to discover again this week that we are bound together more in the face of such dangers?  And didn’t we lean into our prayers a little harder?

Whatever Flo may bring, I want to trust that the God who calmed the waters of Galilee and piled up the currents of the Jordan and the waves of the Red Sea is still present in the storm.  And I give thanks for the connection of United Methodists who answer the call when there is a need and remember the promise of Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.” [8:7]

Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Reminder of Why Wesley Still Matters

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John Wesley

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Hal Knight

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

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

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

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

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

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

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

Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The UMC & The Which Way Tree

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photo by Victor Zambrano via Unsplash

Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill.  They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance.  Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did.  Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back.  Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.

“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said.  “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse.  There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord.  We would do well to call upon him.” (180)

I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next.  As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear.  We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do.  He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God.  In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely.  It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much.  “You did not say it fair,” she says.  “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back.  Amen.” (181)

Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line.  So Preacher Dob amends his prayer.  “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.

Something happens in the night.  The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect.  Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:

“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)

I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission.  I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”  

Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us.  But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future.  A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made.  I have no doubt there will be losses.  But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us.  And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us.  When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.

How does the story end?  I’ll let you read the book to find that out.  But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery.  Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.

“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said.  “He has told us to complete the journey.  He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing.  We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)

Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Find a mentor or coach

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

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

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

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

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

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

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 1968 Uniting Conference

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

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

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

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

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

Spring and A Way Forward

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photo by Ethan Robertson via Unsplash

You’ve heard it before in a thousand different forms: change is hard.  In churches it can often come as a variant of the old stock phrase: We’ve never done it that way before.  Even when we take the first steps of a journey toward something new, it’s easy to give up when the going gets tough.  For the Israelites in the Bible, recently freed from slavery by God’s miraculous deliverance, it only took the first hardship in the desert to start the mumbling about how good the fleshpots in Egypt were.  Even when your destination is the Promised Land, change is hard.

Our own denomination, The United Methodist Church, is headed for a time of change.  In the next few months the Commission on A Way Forward will be handing over its work to the Council of Bishops and the bishops will produce a proposal for what the church could look like as we navigate a time of great divisions over issues like human sexuality.  A special General Conference in February 2019 will consider the proposal (and probably others that will be introduced).

I’ve talked before about my fantasy of a time, following February 2019, when everything would go back to “normal.”  It is a fantasy and I know in my heart of hearts that what would really cause me despair is not the stress of where we are but the idea that things wouldn’t change.  My soul knows that it longs for the possibilities that come with old things breaking open (and apart) rather than everything remaining the same.

The skeptics of our day look at the church and the world and see only what’s not working.  We inhabit structures, (bureaucratic, financial, and physical), that were built for a day that has passed.  The energy we have for doing what we used to do is flagging.

But seen through God’s eyes, within those structures there are people waiting to be unleashed upon the earth to be engaged in some new great movement.  John Wesley was one of those people in the 18th century who came out of the old at the compulsion of the Spirit.  Today, new leaders and new energy are poised for the launch of God’s next new thing.  Whatever the outcome of the next General Conference, I want to see that.

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photo by Anisur Rahman via Unsplash

Which means we should be ready.  When Spring is in the air, there is a natural impulse to plant seeds, clean the house, prepare the lawn, and get in shape for all the activity that will come with the new warmth of the season.  There will be challenges in getting our churches and our souls ready because, you know, change is hard.  But Spring IS in the air.  I believe it.