Sunday, January 27, 2008

Last Sunday night and last Monday, January 20 and 21, I was a part of local celebrations of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday night I had the privilege of participating in an ecumenical worship service at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. Worshipping with persons from different denominations and different racial-ethnic backgrounds seemed a wonderful way to celebrate a person whose life was dedicated to taking down walls that separated people, among other things. Monday I attended the local MLK breakfast and heard Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s speech, simulcast from Minneapolis. I remember her from the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS, but was not aware of her story. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Georgia (1962), and one of the first two African-Americans admitted to the school. She shared some of her experiences, including receiving death threats simply because she was African-American and attending the University of Georgia. This was less than fifty years ago in the United States! After the breakfast, I went to the local elementary school where I mentor a young boy. Mondays are my usual day to do this, but somehow it seemed even more appropriate to be doing this on the MLK birthday celebration. Then I joined the local march and attending the rally. That afternoon, Laura, our church’s youth director, had arranged a service project for our youth – a “scarfenger hunt.” Teams of youth were given money and sent out to purchase hats, mittens and gloves for needy children in our area. Again, it seemed a particularly appropriate activity for the day. By that evening, I was tired, but frankly, I get tired often enough from the busyness in my life, and it was really nice to be tired after doing some things that made some small difference in the world.

I thought it appropriate to share a couple of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes, along with a quote from Bobby Kennedy, from the speech he made the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. I do so to honor a person who has meant a great deal to me over the years. While not a perfect man, Martin Luther King, Jr. combined a deep intellect, a powerful gift for communication, and a passion to see the world made different. When I was in college, I purchased a couple of records in the cut-out bin and a local record store. They were records (on the “Gordy” label – Barry Gordy, Jr. of Motown) of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking. One record is a speech from Detroit in 1963, parts of which were used in his march on Washington speech later that year (“I Have a Dream”). The other record collects two of his well-known addresses – the sermon “The Drum-Major Instinct” and his Mountaintop speech delivered the night before he died. Along the way I also have an old, rather beat-up cassette tape of King speeches, including, “I Have a Dream.” Whenever I hear his voice, or read his words, something calls to me deep inside – calls me to dream more creatively, to think more deeply and to work more passionately for peace and justice in the world. In Martin’s voice, the voice of the Spirit often speaks to me.

Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer.
The Strength to Love, 1963

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1964

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness…. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve…. You only need a heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love. The Drum-Major Instinct, 1968

I could go on for pages…, but I am not alone in being inspired by Dr. King.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country…. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.
Bobby Kennedy, April 4, 1968, Indianapolis, after announcing the death of
Martin Luther King, Jr.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, January 21, 2008

Shhhh!!! Please don’t tell anyone but I have been listening to country music lately. Not exclusively, mind you, but more than I have for awhile. When I was in high school in the mid to late 1970s (graduated 1977), you did not listen to, or admit listening to, country music. That taboo has remained fairly strong over the years, though as time went by, there were those exceptions – Hank Williams (a precursor to rock ‘n’ roll), Johnny Cash (who was early rock ‘n’ roll) and a few others. I knew things were changing for kids when I was a youth pastor in Dallas and some of the youth in my youth group could listen unabashedly to country music. I began to loosen up, then, but it still feels kind of odd.

And now I have been listening to Garth Brooks, cowboy hat and all! I share this because I have found in a couple of his songs something I had not really expected – wisdom. Now I am not classing Garth Brooks with Buddha or Plato or Solomon, but when I put two of his songs together, there are the beginnings of a decent theology of life. Most surprising to me is that this theology includes a deep social conscience.

For whatever reason, not long ago, when it was on sale, I bought a two-CD, one-DVD hits collection of Garth Brooks music. I liked some of the songs well enough, but after hearing two in particular, I wanted to watch the accompanying videos. The videos were not simply light visual accessories to the songs, they added to their depth. One song, “The Dance,” seems to be about lost love – a frequent theme in country music (o.k. maybe I’ve listened to more over the years than I would readily admit). The singer recalls a moment of closeness, a dance, and then wistfully acknowledges that the relationship ended. He thinks about this. And now I’m glad I didn’t know/The way it all would end, the way it all would go/Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain/But I’d of had to miss the dance. So I watched the video, and Garth Brooks has pictures of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, yes, John Wayne is in there, too – I didn’t say this was deep theology in every respect! The idea, that while we might have been glad to miss the pain, we appreciate life’s joys, is powerful. When there are challenges and we strive to meet those challenges, and we know disappointment along with success, we usually would choose the same course. When we work for change, the road is long and hard, but we would not want to miss the dance. We don’t seek pain or relish it, and there is much we can and should do to lessen pain, but it seems to come with the territory of living, and we can choose to try and avoid it and stay cooped up, or be open to life.

The song that surprised me most, however, was a song called “We Shall Be Free.” It has as much a gospel feel as a country music feel to it, and the lyrics are powerful. Here is just one verse: When the last thing we notice/Is the color of skin/And the first thing we look for/Is the beauty within/When they skies and the oceans/Are clean again/Then we shall be free. There is something of the hopeful vision of the prophets in this song, and the video does a great job of helping us see the beauty and misery of the world as it is, while fostering hope for a better future. Sometimes the video is too sanguine about change for the better, but hope is a precious commodity in our day and time, and I will take it from anywhere I can get it. Toward the end of the video, you hear Garth Brooks say, “Now there’s faith, hope and love… and the greatest of these is love. That’s cool!”

Garth is no Barth, but that faith, hope and love thing is pretty cool.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I have become convinced that we need to find ways to express our problems and challenges so that we don’t undercut the energy we need to meet them. This is an art that needs attention.
Personal notebook, November 1, 1998

When I left the Iron Range as a pastor to become a district superintendent in June of 1998, one gift I was given was a blank hardcover notebook. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but it was a thoughtful gift from pastors in Chisholm. As I moved into my new ministry, I found myself using this notebook to record occasional thoughts – maybe a mini “With Faith and With Feathers” before there were blogs! The thought recorded above comes from this notebook, and emerged early on in my ministry as a district superintendent. Once, when I shared it, I received some push back. Wasn’t I just too afraid to “tell the truth”? That’s the danger, but the other risk is that you tell the truth in such a way that you leave those you are telling fewer options than you might otherwise. It is often less a matter of whether or not you speak the truth than how you speak the truth.

Last week I was in Detroit for a United Methodist conference combining urban and rural ministry concerns. There were times in the course of the three days when I heard some of the familiar hand-wringing about the mainline church, The United Methodist Church in particular. Yes, our numbers are declining. Yes, we need to ask hard questions about how well a M. Div. degree prepares persons for ordained ministry. Yes, we have to ask about our structures and systems. I have no problem asking hard questions and looking difficult truths in the face.

During the week I was also witness to some incredible work being done by United Methodists. Second Grace UMC in Detroit founded a free clinic in their medically underserved neighborhood. Cass Community UMC started a social service ministry during the depression, and in the early part of this century it spun off into a separate social service agency with a current budget of six million dollars.

If we are going to tell the story of our denomination, we need to tell the whole story – the good, the bad and the ugly. We cannot ignore what we don’t like, but how we tell ourselves what is going on matters. If we only talk about our failings, our faults, our decline, and forget to talk about how this “hobbling” denomination still sparks incredible ministry, still touches people’s lives, we undercut the energy needed to change what needs changing.

I am currently reading an updated edition of the book Rabbi Edwin Friedman left unfinished at his death, A Failure of Nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix. I read an earlier version of this work while I was a district superintendent, but wanted to re-read it now that it has been edited. Friedman is critical of our society’s addiction to data, information, and technique. Not only do we overwhelm ourselves with data, Friedman argues, but the way we present that data often serves to increase anxiety, neglecting the fact that our response to crisis is also an important variable in how things finally turn out in any situation. Friedman uses medical studies as one example. The data themselves are formatted in anxiety-provoking formulas that, precisely because they leave out emotional variables, give a deterministic impression…. They are always phrased in a way that stresses damage (which is so much more easily measured) rather than the chances for survival.

While reading Friedman, I also came across the following in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review. It is a quote from the book Break Through, a book about environmentalism (a book I have not read and am not endorsing – except insofar as I found this quote illuminating). “We know from extensive psychological research that presenting frightening scenarios provokes fatalism, paralysis and… individualistic thoughts of adaptation, not empowerment, hope, creativity and collective action.”

Maybe how we tell the truth matters. Maybe in the midst of difficult times and challenging circumstances, we need to find where things are also going well, where flowers are finding their way through the cracks of sidewalks, where life is emerging in deadly surroundings. Then we may have the energy needed to nurture life, to foster faith, to grow in love, and to make needed and necessary changes.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, January 6, 2008

But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Bob Dylan

I was so much older then. When I was young.
Eric Burdon and The Animals

Well, this is not really going to be a reflection on growing younger as one grows older, though I like both of these songs. I do want to reflect on an interesting shift in my mind, and I think in the minds of others, over time, about Christian faith and life. If I were to give these remarks a title, I would call them “The Pendulum of Practice.”

When I was younger, in my teenage years, just after a fairly dramatic religious experience within Christian faith, I thought and felt that the essence of being a Christian was experiential. I thought that the essence of being a Christian had to do with what one thought and how one felt. Yes, there were things to do in being a Christian. At the time the list had to do with reading the Bible, praying, worshipping with others, sharing my faith, avoiding some obvious sins, and doing good (though this could be a little vague). While these were important, they were in some sense secondary to the experiential. I even looked down on those whose idea of being a Christian was primarily focused on attending church and being a good person. I would have said they were missing something essential, were possibly not even genuine Christians. In some ways, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. (Of course these songs use “younger” as metaphor for more open-minded, and “older” as a metaphor for being more close-minded and resistant to change – I think I’ve probably changed my mind about the appropriateness of those metaphors, too!)

I don’t think I was alone in privileging thought and experience over practice. When I went to seminary, the kinds of things I was reading seemed more focused on thought and experience than on practices and disciplines. To be a Christian was to grapple with certain ideas, to have one’s frame of reference for life be determined by the language of Christian Scripture and Christian faith. There was a sense that to be a Christian meant having one’s life shaped and formed in certain ways, but the shaping and forming had to do with letting one’s mind and imagination lead one’s living.

More recently in my life, the pendulum has swung. Practices matter. One’s life is formed not simply by exercises in thinking differently, but by practices and disciplines. I look much more favorably on the day to day practices of Christian living – Bible reading, prayer, worshipping in community, intentional acts of compassion and justice, authentically sharing one’s faith. Some might argue that as a clergy person, of course this shift makes sense. I want people to attend church, and so my definition of being Christian is more favorable toward church attendance. Sure, I like to see people in church, but there are deeper reasons for this pendulum swing in my thinking.

Over time, I have arrived at a richer and more complex understanding of the human person and the formation of a life. Yes, our thinking is important, our imagination matters, but there is not a simple one-way street between thought and action. We don’t simply think something then do it. What we do also forms our lives and shapes our character. I have arrived at this place through a deeper understanding of psychology, philosophy, ethics and religious traditions. Across religions, practices are an essential part of those traditions, and one has to take that seriously. Buddhism, for example, is not just a way of looking at the world, but involves moral and meditative practices. One can study its ideas, but one only gets so far in understanding Buddhism that way. To understand it more adequately is to see the importance of practice. The same holds true for Christians. I see this richer understanding of Christian faith, life and practice reflected more adequately in more recent writings in theology and ethics and church life. The pendulum has swung not just for me.

Now the pendulum has not swung completely to the place where I see Christianity as only a series of practices. It is a way of thinking, feeling, and practicing that forms a life. And the formation of life is in a certain direction – the direction of love. In one place Paul writes, “let all that you do be done in love” (I Corinthians 16:14). Of course, this formation of a life in love is a response to the God who we claim first loved us. If one’s Bible reading and church going and good-deed doing, don’t also form a person in love, something is missing. The experiential dimension remains important. But the answer to such a dilemma in our lives is not simply to go off and have some experience (though that can happen) it is often to continue the practices and seek some new ways to understand them, deepen them, combine them.

I love the old joke about the visitor to New York city who asks a local policeman, “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?” The policeman responds, “Practice, practice, practice.” I have come to see that as an important way to think about the Christian life.

With Faith and With Feathers,