The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

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Considering Our Hearts (& the Future of the UMC): A Review of The Anatomy of Peace

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photo by Gerome Viavant via Unsplash

Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book.  If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book.  The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.

Whew.  That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality.  The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.

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Tom Berlin

Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book.  In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue.  “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”

Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully.  It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’  The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children.  He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.

By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians.  “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28)  Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)

If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you.  Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could.  I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best.  I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again.  But I digress.

41XwiBMyjRL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The point of the book is very simple.  The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects.  When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace.  When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.

The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations.  The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one.  When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us.  “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)

There are some good psychological insights here.  The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against.  There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts.  And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.

There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace.  Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies.  That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer.  Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying.  We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths.  We are thirsting for something more.

Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question.  I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day.  The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions.  In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there.  I’m praying we find hearts of peace.

Security in An Age of Gun Violence

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photo by Kathy Hillacre via Unsplash

The recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas got our attention because of its grisly violence and its location – a church in the midst of Sunday worship.  It was a church like many of ours on the Eastern Shore.  A video of the church’s service the week before the shooting made the rounds on the Internet and it shows a praise band, not entirely in sync and singing a bit off-key, but nonetheless joyfully.  Children fidget in the pews.  The passing of the peace goes on a little too long, but there is genuine affection among the congregants as they wander the room and hug.

Police say the same camera that records the services was running last Sunday, too, when the gunman came to First Baptist Church.  I don’t need to see its horrors.  They’ve been repeated too many times in too many places – in country music concerts, nightclubs, elementary schools, movie theaters, and other churches.

Following the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we had a meeting of our Eastern Shore clergy to discuss church security with two law enforcement officers.  We discussed practical ways to improve security during our worship services.  Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter offers some very useful pointers in a recent article that appeared on Ministry Matters, and I commend it to you for review.

There are things we can do to be wise and we should.  But we should never be under the illusion that we will eliminate our vulnerability.  It’s part of what being a follower of Jesus means, coming together with the armor of God, which is very different than the armor of the world.  In fact, United Methodist churches are officially “weapons-free zones” by action of the General Conference.

What churches do, in their vulnerability which is their strength, is to bring light to situations where death and darkness seem to reign.  Rev. Stephen A. Curry is the pastor at La Vernia UMC in the same county with First Baptist Church.  In a recent New York Times editorial, he talked about the things churches have done since Sunday:

“Immediately after the shooting the churches started receiving and making offers of help. They rushed meals to those grieving and to the emergency workers. They were called on to help fund funerals and host a blood drive. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, nondenominational — it didn’t matter.”

The larger conversations about reducing gun violence need to happen, too, but we ought not to overlook the strength Christians can show to others in times like these.  Advocacy for new laws and casseroles to grieving families are what “thoughts and prayers” look like.

Ultimately, Curry says, we are at our best, not when we become armed fortresses, but when we are church:

“A church in Wilson County [where La Vernia and Sutherland Springs are located] is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”

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.  

We’ve Got an Open Door Problem

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

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

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

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

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.