Friday, November 5, 2021

Council of Bishops Devotion for November 4, 2021

Psalm 127 (NIV)

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,

    the builders labor in vain.

Unless the Lord watches over the city,

    the guards stand watch in vain.

2 In vain you rise early

    and stay up late,

toiling for food to eat—

    for he grants sleep to[a] those he loves.

3 Children are a heritage from the Lord,

    offspring a reward from him.

4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior

    are children born in one’s youth.

5 Blessed is the man

    whose quiver is full of them.

They will not be put to shame

    when they contend with their opponents in court.

Again, good morning, or good day, or good evening friends.  It is good to be together.  Psalm 127 upon which I was asked to reflect this morning contains wisdom and beauty.  And the Psalmist, let’s call him David, for it is to David that many of the psalms have been traditionally attributed, and, besides I kind of like the name, the psalmist David, seemed to know something about the cadences of preaching.

Can’t you just hear the opening verse of the psalm?  Unless the Lord builds the house… Unless the Lord builds the house… Unless the Lord builds the house - - - the builders labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city… Unless the Lord watches over the city…  Unless the Lord watches over the city - - - the guards stand watch in vain.  Yes, David knew something of the cadences of preaching.

Psalm 127, wise and beautiful, also has its challenges.  Verse 3 is often translated “sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord.”  As the father of one son and two daughters, all strong adults, my two strong daughters would not resonate with the privileging of sons.  And even the sense that children are a reward comes across as painful and callous to couples who though deeply desiring children are not able to conceive.  One of my strong adult daughters is a physician who specializes in women’s medicine and she hears such pain in her work.  If we must not ignore the pain of the childless, neither should we ignore our concern for a “more is better” theology related to children when, in our world, we struggle to feed people, and the impact of human related climate change is enormous.  Every child is a gift, and more is not necessarily better.

That brings us to the doorstep of what may be the deepest challenge in this psalm, a theological and spiritual challenge.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.  In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.”  The latter part can also be translated, “he provides for those he loves while they sleep.”

The theological and spiritual challenge is this, distinguishing between fatalism and providential grace.  How do we traverse the razor’s edge , walk the fine line here?

In the course of my pastoral ministry I met a young woman who was wondering if perhaps God was calling her into ordained ministry.  She explored schooling options, discussed possibilities frequently, but was so afraid that she might make a misstep, so concerned that this might not be God’s will, that she was essentially paralyzed.  No applications were ever completed.  No campus visits made.  No letters of inquiry sent.  Years later, I ran into her and she had gone into education.  That may have been the best place for her, and I hope she felt that she was living out a calling of God in her life, but there remained a certain sad regret.  Had she missed something?

We are also aware of friends for whom the Wesleyan encouragement to do all the good you can means to jump from action to action to action with barely time to breathe.  There is always another Bible study to organize, another food drive to lead, another consciousness-raising event to attend, another march for justice in which to participate.

Unless the Lord builds the house.  So do we wait until we have blueprints signed by the architect God, and duly notarized, before we ever act?  I don’t think so.  Nor should we be so busy with all the good that can be done, that we never stop to ask if this is the good I can best be involved with right now.  There is always more good to do than any of us can do.

In posing a theological and spiritual challenge to us, the psalmist, let’s continue to call him David, challenges us to grapple with the need to balance deep prayer and thinking with action.  Unless the Lord builds the house, yes, but sometimes we are not sure just what the floor plan is, and it makes sense to start to build.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, but we don’t necessarily have the watchlist from Sinai, and we still need to post the guards.  Thought, prayer, discernment, action, tentative steps and further reflection – this is the dance of following Jesus.

And if something fails, do we simply say, “God must not have built it”?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps we missed a step in our building process, or perhaps the time has come to build something new.  If in the coming years the streams of Wesleyan Christianity that came together in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church diverge in some way, do we say, “God must not have built it?”  No!  We praise God for the good we have done, the lives transformed, the justice done, the hungry fed, the lost redeemed, the lonely welcomed, and we ask about what God might be doing next.  And we ask how we can join God in God’s creative building work.  You see, even when we may misstep, God is a God who is always beginning again.  We are encouraged to live with a deep humility knowing that sometimes we had the blueprint upside down.  We are encouraged to live with a deep trust that what we do matters.

The theologian Nicholas Wolterstroff once wrote these marvelous lines: “in the eschatological image of the city we have the assurance that our efforts to make these present cities of ours humane places in which to live… will, by the way of the mysterious patterns of history, eventually provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 140).  We have work to do, tiles to lay, timbers to cut and stack, and when we place the tiles in the wrong place, we trust that God might still use them in some way we cannot yet imagine in God’s creative building work.

That brings me to the heart of this psalm.  The heart of this psalm is not setting before us the quandary of the relationship between the action of God in providential grace and our human action, though it is part of the psalm, the heart of this psalm is grace.  “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for God grants sleep to those God loves.”  It is a tricky business, this dance with God praying, thinking, discerning, acting, reflecting.  Don’t be anxious.  It seems to me Jesus says that more than once. Don’t be anxious, don’t be afraid, don’t let your hearts be troubled.  This doesn’t mean we don’t let ourselves get uncomfortable, as our anti-racism work demands, and in sermons I preached at my annual conferences this past year I said, “God’s grace is found in increasing our capacity for discomfort.”  The discomfort of grace is always surrounded by the grace that says “you can do this hard thing” and “there is always the room for refreshment.”

Stephen Mitchell is a poet who often works to translate or render poems into English that were not originally written in English.  He has worked with the psalms, and in his introduction to his work A Book of Psalms, Mitchell writes that the dominant theme of the greatest psalms is “a rapturous praise, a deep, exuberant gratitude for being here.”  Grace and gratitude.  Turn Psalm 127 just a bit.  Unless the Lord builds a house the builders labor in vain - - -  Why should I then work?  Turn: Unless the Lord builds a house the builders labor in vain - - - I have meaningful work to do, but it is not all up to me.   We have meaningful work to do, but the fate of God’s work in the world is not all up to us. We can be less anxious.  Mitchell renders Psalm 127:2b this way: “he gives joy to those who love him and blesses them with peace.”  Grace.

Friends, this is an anxious time, in our church, in our world, in our lives, in our work.  In this time may we know that God’s grace in Jesus Christ surrounds our action, and that we, in grace, continue to be invited into this dance of prayer, thought, action, reflection, next steps, missteps, recalibrations, and that God uses our efforts to provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight.  May such grace surround us, overflow us, flow through us, and give us a measure of joy and peace.  Let us pray.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A New Song

“Confronting Michigan’s Climate Change”
15th Annual Keep Making Peace Conference
Saturday April 1, 2017

            I am pleased to be here with you today.  Thank you for this invitation.  This is your 15th annual “Keep Making Peace” conference, and we know that the call to be peacemakers is deeply rooted in our Christian faith, as it is in many other religious traditions.  We are people who carry with us the image of beating swords into plowshares, and who hear the echo of the words of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers.”
            As a United Methodist bishop, I am deeply rooted and grounded in my faith.  I am also someone who grew up in the popular culture of my day.  I know movies and television and music, and sometimes find that as I am preparing to speak, the jukebox of my brain reminds me of songs.
            Here are some songs that might fit today’s topic, “Confronting Michigan’s Climate Change”: “Heatwave” (a good Motown song), “Too Hot,” or if you want to reach back long ago, and among the music I love is jazz, there is the Fletcher Henderson song, “Hotter Than ‘Ell.”
            With only a slight pun intended, climate change remains a hot topic.  Just this week the president signed executive orders rolling back portions of the previous administration’s clean energy plan.  Exxon-Mobile issued a statement in favor of the Paris Climate Agreement.  Climate change has become deeply politicized in the United States.  In her recent and highly-regarded book about the political landscape in the United States Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes, “politics is the single biggest factor in determining views on climate change” (7).
            I have been asked to provide a United Methodist Church perspective on climate change.  While I will be referring to a number of our denominational statements, I want you to know that some of what I am going to say is simply this United Methodist’s perspective on climate change.  My perspectives are rooted in my denominational tradition, but also in the wider Christian tradition – making use of Scripture and reason and experience.  Though this is a hot political topic, I want to focus on the spiritual dimension.  To be sure, the spiritual, the moral and the political overlap.  My Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics focused on theology, ethics and democratic political theory.  The spiritual, the moral and the political overlap, and my focus is on the spiritual and moral, though the political cannot be simply bracketed off.
            In Psalm 134, the writer poses the question, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (7).  It is a heart-cry from a people in exile.  How do we sing the songs of God in a strange place, or perhaps in a strange time?  I desire to speak of the spiritual and moral dimensions of climate change when speaking about climate change and the environment have become embroiled in partisan politics.  I am 57, and I remember a time when the environment was not a partisan issue.  Ad campaigns ran on television raising awareness of pollution and of the human impact on the environment.  Richard Nixon was president when the Environmental Protection Agency was formed.  The times have changed and become strange.  How might we sing the songs of God in this strange time?  How do we move the songs currently be sung about climate change in a different direction?  The prevailing songs have become songs about jobs versus the environment, about human economic well-being above the well-being of owls.  Arlie Hochschild writes poignantly about the people of Louisiana whose livelihoods seem to depend upon the very industries that have polluted the bayous that the people love.
            We need a new song, rooted in spirituality.  For the rest of my time I want to develop two themes that I think are an important part of a spirituality as we confront climate change, two themes that are an important part of the song of God for our time.
            The first is probably quite uncontroversial among we who have gathered here today.  Care for creation is an important element in our spiritual lives.  If an important indicator of one’s spiritual condition is the fruit one’s life produces, one important such fruit is caring for creation.  As United Methodists we know the mission of the Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We have not spent enough time on digging deeper into what we mean by disciples, or what disciples look like.  I think creation care is integral to discipleship.  Being a disciple is about growing in God’s love, about enlarging our hearts, widening the circles of compassion to include more people and to include creation itself.
The theme of caring for creation can be found throughout the Christian Scriptures, from the first book to the last.  The beautiful image from Genesis 2 is that of the human put in the garden to “till it and keep it.”  In Revelation 11 there is an image of warning, those who destroy the earth will themselves be destroyed.  Years later the image of St. Francis inspired Christians to care for the good of creation, of “all creature of our God and King.”  Caring for creation is a prominent theme within The United Methodist Church.  Here I am going to regale you with quotations from United Methodist documents that remind us that care for creation is an integral part of Christian spirituality.
            In 2009, The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church issued a pastoral letter and accompanying document entitled, “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action” in which the bishops stated: We believe personal and social holiness must never be separated….  We practice social holiness by caring for God’s people and God’s planet and by challenging those whose policies and practices neglect the poor, exploit the weak, hasten global warming, and produce more weapons.
            Our United Methodist Social Principles state: All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it.  Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings.  God has granted us stewardship of creation.
            Elaborating upon the UMC Social Principles, are resolutions which continue to emphasize the importance of care for creation.
            “Caring for Creation: A Call to Stewardship and Justice”: Our covenant with God calls us to steward, protect, and defend God’s creation….  The story of the garden (Genesis 2) reveals the complete and harmonious interrelatedness of creation, with humankind designed to relate to God, one another, and the rest of the created order.
            “Environmental Health”: God gave us a good and complete earth.  We must care for that which is around us in order that life can flourish.  We are meant to live in a way that acknowledges the interdependence of human beings not just on one another but the world around us, the mountains and lilies, the sparrows and the tall pines which all speaks of the nature of God.
            One final statement – “Climate Change and the Church’s Response”: The natural world is a loving gift from God, the creator and sustainer, who has entrusted it in all its fullness to the care of all people for God’s glory and to the good of all life on earth now and in generations to come.
            One has to turn a bit of a spiritual blind eye to not see how important the theme of caring for creation is in Christian faith and spirituality.  One task of the church in our time, as we confront climate change here in Michigan and around the world, is to remind each other of a shared concern within the Christian tradition of caring for creation.  Perhaps such conversations can help move us beyond thinking of climate change and environmental care in narrowly partisan terms.
            One has to turn a bit of a spiritual blind eye to not see how important the theme of caring for creation is in Christian faith and spirituality – and that brings me to my second theme that is an important part of the spirituality of confronting climate change, vision.  How often in our Scriptures is the metaphor of vision used to describe the spiritual journey – blindness as missing the mark and sight as God’s healing grace made real.  If we are to sing a new song, God’s song in this strange time, we need new sight, new vision.  I am sorry for mixing my sensory metaphors.
            Part of our spiritual problem in confronting climate change is not simply a lack of care, but it is a lack of sight, and often even a willful blindness.  Part of the reason some may not care as deeply about the environment is that they fail to see the interrelatedness of creation, the interdependence of human beings not just on one another but the world around us, the mountains and lilies, the sparrows and the tall pines which all speaks of the nature of God.  Certainly part of the reason some may not care about climate change is the failure to see – to see its reality, though study after study confirms that something is happening to our climate, and our own experience tells us the same – three years in a row of record average warm temperatures. 
Let’s admit that seeing something as abstract as climate change can be difficult.  Let’s admit that a part of the reason some don’t want to see is that this is a difficult truth.  So much of our economy, our “way of life” is intertwined with the use of fossil fuels, and we are concerned for what change might mean.  Might we even admit, among those of us gathered here at a conference on climate change, that there is a part of us, something inside of us, that wishes it were not true, that climate change isn’t happening and isn’t the result of our activity?
In the recently published book, Days of Awe and Wonder, a collection of writings, speeches and interviews of Marcus Borg, Borg reminds us of the rich roots of the Christian concept of repentance.  Looking at the roots of the Greek word translated “repentance” Borg asserts that “to repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have” (129).  A Christian spirituality confronting climate change is a spirituality that encourages us all to go beyond the mind that we have.  It seeks to sing a new song in this strange and difficult time, a song that celebrates the interconnectedness of all creation and roots our care for it in that celebration.  We need a new song that acknowledges our connections with each other as human beings and our willingness to do the difficult work of persuasion, not from the heights of our own self-righteousness but in recognition that we are all in the process of going beyond the minds that we have in some way or another.  Persuasion is not all the work we have to do.  There is political work, for instance, but the work of persuasion is vitally important.  We need a new song that always sings us forward to God’s new creation.
One form of song is poetry, and as part of the work of helping us go beyond the minds that we have, I would like to share with you, in closing, a poem by Denise Levertov – “Tragic Error.”
The earth is the Lord’s, we gabbled,
and the fullness thereof –
while we looted and pillaged, claiming indemnity:
the fullness thereof
given over to us, to our use –
while we preened ourselves, sure of our power,
willful or ignorant, through the centuries.

Miswritten, misread, that charge:
subdue was the false, the misplaced word in the story.
Surely we were to have been
earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.

That would have been our dominion:
to be those cells of earth’s body that could
perceive and imagine, could bring the planet
into the haven it is to be known,
(as the eye blesses the hand, perceiving
its form and the work it can do).

            Can we sing a song that helps us see ourselves as those cells of the earth’s body that perceive and imagine, that dresses and keeps created by God for just such tasks, and out of this new mind work to confront climate change?  May it be so.

And a Rock Feels No Pain

Ann Arbor District Leadership Training
February 25, 2017

            I am really pleased to be here with you today.  I think this is my first official visit to the Ann Arbor District as your bishop, though I have been in the district for a couple of events – a chicken dinner, and a Trustees meeting at Adrian College.  I am grateful to your district superintendent, Mark Spaw, for inviting me.
            In issuing this invitation, Mark did not give me a specific topic to speak about, except to tell me that the day was about relationships - building relationships that build churches.  You have a wonderful selection of workshops to follow.  In this keynote address I want to speak about relationships, focusing on the capacities important for building relationships of all kinds – within our congregations, with those who are unchurched or de-churched, with those whose backgrounds are different from ours.  Not knowing what is to follow, I may repeat some of what my fellow presenters are also sharing, but that is o.k.
            I like to find titles for sermons and presentations, and this is more a presentation than a sermon, by creatively appropriate phrases from popular culture.  Now that I am in my later fifties (57) I have come to realize that many of my popular culture references are dated, and partly that’s just because I’ve lived with some songs or movies or television shows longer than I have with others.  I remember “Book ‘em Danno” from Hawaii Five-O from the 1970s.  I have not seen its recent incarnation.
            All that is a long way of getting to the title of my remarks today: “And a rock feels no pain.”  Anyone know where that comes from?  It is a Paul Simon song, recorded by Simon and Garfunkel, “I Am a Rock.”  It is a wonderful song that you can probably find on Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, etc.  I still have a vinyl copy!  The song gets me thinking about emotions, about feelings.  The singer suggests that we can avoid painful feelings by walling ourselves off from emotions.  It highlights an important truth, working with emotions can be difficult.  I want to acknowledge that.  I also want to say that working with emotions is critical to building the kind of relationships that build churches.  We call it emotional intelligence and that’s what I want to speak about this morning, emotional intelligence for church leaders who want to build relationships that build churches.
            When I was elected a bishop last summer I had just begun my twelfth year as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota.  I began my ministry there like most of us United Methodist pastors do in the middle of the summer.  When I arrived at First UMC, Duluth they had a summer worship schedule, 10 a.m. Sunday morning worship.  The pattern, though, was that come September, the church would return to two worship services – one more traditional and one more contemporary.  Within my first few days at the church I was asked what our fall worship schedule would be like.  Would we return to two worship services or have only one? There were people with opinions on both sides.  After speaking with staff and some key leaders, thinking and praying, it seemed to me that the wise decision was to continue with two worship services come September.  I wrote a newsletter piece explaining my reasoning.  The Sunday following the publication of that newsletter, a woman named Dorothy, since deceased but then a long-time member of the congregation approached me in the greeting line following worship, shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and shared her disappointment about my decision.  She ended by saying “I thought you were going to unite us.”  I can still feel the mixture of sadness and anxiety I felt that morning as I tell the story.  I listened and thanked Dorothy for sharing her view.
            Hear this story: Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”  And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”  (John 8)
            Jesus’ dilemma is more fraught than mine.  I may have felt like a rock had been thrown at me that August Sunday morning as Dorothy left church, but no one was going to lose their life.  Jesus is put in an anxious situation.  He takes time, bending to write on the ground.  He reads some of the undercurrent, that some folks want to put him in a corner.  He responds non-anxiously and defuses the situation.
            A rock feels no pain, but human beings do, and if we are to be fully human, and if we are to build relationships that build churches, we need to care for our emotions with intelligence.  Emotional intelligence is crucial for building relationships that build churches.  I want to say a word about that connection between relationships and mission.  Sometimes I hear voices in the church speak as if there is a dichotomy between relationships and mission.  We hear people say that the problem with the church is that we are too inwardly focused and the answer is to be more missionally focused.  There is truth in that critique, but we need to take great care.  In some work I did a few years ago on conflict style, I was given an inventory to help me understand my own conflict style in terms of task and relationship.  Was I a more task-oriented person, we might say “mission-focused,” or a more relationship-oriented person?  I was smack dab in the middle, and I happen to think that’s not a bad place to be.
            The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In their book The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, Roy Oswald and Arland Jacobson, with whom it has been my privilege to be in workshops with over the years, write, “the end product needs to remain the spiritual transformation of members” (126).  We must never lose sight of our mission, and it is true that sometimes we do just that.  It is also true that sometimes that focus on mission will mean letting some people go, wishing them well as they look for another faith community that helps them along better.  That is often painful.  Yet mission is also about relationships, about people.  Making disciples of Jesus Christ is about creating the kind of community with its web of relationships that fosters deep transformation of persons in the love of God and by the power of the Spirit.  Oswald and Jacobson are right when they say: Transformed people naturally seek justice, mercy and peace in the world.  They live by forgiveness and are able to forgive others.  They continually work at loving their enemies. (126-127)  I think they are also right when they say: Without a positive relational climate within a congregation, a superior theology or dynamic vision will produce few results.  Once members of a congregation create a warm, supportive, and caring climate, however, they can effectively develop a common understanding of who they are as Christians and embrace an exciting vision of where they ought to go next (105).  I would only caution that all three of these things need to be worked on simultaneously – relational climate, theology, vision.
            Relationships matter, and they matter to the mission of the church.  Emotional intelligence is critical for creating healthy relationships.  I want to spend the next few minutes exploring in more depth some of the dimensions of emotional intelligence as crucial for relationships.  I will do that by linking stories, Scriptures and citations.  Allow me, though, just a couple of words about bringing the idea of emotional intelligence into the conversation about the church.  I first encountered the concept of emotional intelligence through the work of Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Goleman.  He was not writing for a church context, but what he wrote about emotional intelligence has implications not only for leadership, but for spirituality.  While a district superintendent, I attended a workshop lead by Roy Oswald on emotional intelligence and church leadership.  Again, I was impressed by the spiritual dimensions.  Oswald and Jacobson make a strong case in their book The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus: relational smarts for religious leaders that Jesus’ teaching and ministry resonates with this more recent work on emotional intelligence.  Jesus responds non-anxiously to critics.  Jesus evokes faith in people, leading to their healing.  Jesus reads emotionally fraught situations well.  Jesus is able to manage his own inner feelings and makes time for retreat.  Jesus’ teaching on caring, forgiveness, and loving even one’s enemies have deep dimensions of emotional intelligence.
            So what’s emotional intelligence about?  Among other things it is about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
            Self –Awareness.  “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  (Matthew 7)  This is a strong call for self-awareness, the core of emotional intelligence.  If we are not aware of our own inner lives, our own emotional lives, how can we manage them?  How can we be wisely aware of the emotions around us?
            When Dorothy said to me, ‘I thought you came to unite us,” it felt pretty awful.  Often, defense responses kick in pretty quickly, and I know how to “defend” myself.  At that moment, though, I was able to feel what was going on inside of me, and simply stay connected.  There were others in the congregation who had really been connected with my predecessor.  They had developed a warm relationship with him.  He was someone who was good at preaching about contemporary issues in light of the Gospel.  I often make those same connections, as you may have seen if you read my essay on immigration and refugees.  I come at things in my own way.  I am a trained ethicist with a Ph.D.  My dissertation was on Christian social ethics.  My way was different, and some of the folks at First UMC Duluth were disappointed, and I sometimes heard about that through the grapevine.  It did not feel very good.
            A rock feels no pain, but if we are to be more fully human, we not only feel, but we are aware of those feelings, even when they are painful.  The cornerstone of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, being aware of the ache, the sorrow, the grief, the joy, the delight that is in our hearts and souls.  There are many spiritual disciplines in our faith tradition that encourage such self-awareness: contemplative prayer, lectio divina, spiritual journaling.  Often we affirm that as we are clearer about listening within, we are also better able to discern the movement of God’s Spirit within.
            Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness, but it does not end there.  Knowing what we are feeling does not automatically tell us what to do with our feelings.  Working with those feelings is also a part of emotional intelligence – self-management.  When Dorothy offered her criticism, I was able to hang in there, even though I was feeling anxious and hurt, and just listen.  Over time, Dorothy, who could be a rather difficult woman, Dorothy and I developed a caring relationship.  Dorothy eventually lost her sight, a tremendous blow to a very bright woman who loved to read and think and discuss.  We were able to have some deep conversations about why she was still around, because she wondered that.  When Dorothy died, I officiated at her funeral and told the story of our early encounter and of how we had worked through that initial bump in our relationship.  With others at First UMC, Duluth who may not have always been delighted with how I was their pastor, at least at first, I was able, though hurt by what I heard, to hang in there with them.  Sometimes issues were addressed directly, and sometimes I just kept on caring and relating and the relationships grew.
            Self-management has to do with adaptability, positivity, assertiveness, and self-control. I think it is about being able to be non-anxious, to be self-differentiated while staying connected, to use the words of family systems theory.  I am sharing some helpful stories with you.  You need to know that I continue to grow here.  I have my moments of reactivity.  In responding rather than reacting, there is a spirituality here.  Jesus, put in a difficult situation where a woman has been caught in adultery, manages whatever is going on inside, pauses before responding.  One of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is “self-control.”  Such self-control is a spiritual discipline all its own, strengthened as it is practiced.
            A favorite author of mine is Parker Palmer, and one of my favorite essays of his is “Leading from Within” (Let Your Life Speak).  We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety (94).  That speaks to me about self-management as part of emotional intelligence.
            Self-awareness as the critical dimension of emotional intelligence, is also meant to help us be more socially aware, to read the emotions in a group or in a room.  Social awareness has to do with empathy and also with awareness of group dynamics.  I know that the leadership author Edwin Friedman cautions against being too empathetic as a leader.  He would even have us get rid of the word.  His point is well-taken, if exaggerated.  As leaders we need to understand the feelings of others, even when we know that decisions that need to be made for the sake of the mission of the church will be painful for some.
            Social awareness is gained through practice, through listening and reflecting with others.  Elements of it are also strengthened through the discipline of reading.  A few months ago I was reading an essay in The New Yorker about leadership.  It mentioned all the kinds of workshops and books that were out there, and how many trendy leadership ideas were not always helpful.  Then the essay introduced a book by a woman named Elizabeth Samet.  She is a professor of English at West Point, and her book is an anthology of writing on leadership.  Most of the essays or pieces come not from the social sciences but from the humanities – essays, poems, stories.  John Wesley was a believer in reading, and I think we have underestimated the power of literature to deepen our capacities for empathy and understanding.
            A final dimension of emotional intelligence I want to touch on before wrapping up is relationship management, which has to do with conflict transformation, understanding influence, with team building and with developing resilience.  Relationship management builds on the other dimensions of emotional intelligence.  Let’s take conflict transformation.  We ask who am I and what am I feeling in this situation?  What other feelings are present and what are some of the dynamics?  How can I best work with my own feelings in this situation to move it forward, to build up the relationships, to increase relational resiliency?
            Over the years, I have had the privilege to read about and reflect on leadership in the church, even as I have practiced it.  I continue to be impressed by the overlap between various ideas about leadership, the work that has been done on emotional intelligence, and Christian faith – spirituality and theology.  I want to make some of those connections here.
            There is a great deal of discussion about adaptive leadership coming out of the work of Ron Heifetz at Harvard.  Adaptive problems are issues that require learning both to help us understand the problem and then respond to it.  Heifetz writes about the need to be learning leaders and the need for us, as leaders, to create a holding environment where organizational learning can take place.  A helpful holding environment is one in which we monitor the temperature, doing what we can to facilitate learning, while not overwhelming people in the process.  It seems to me that adaptive leadership requires emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, relationship management.
            Other works on leadership build directly on emotional intelligence research: primal leadership and resonant leadership.  Moving organizations forward has much to do with the emotional environment of the organization and the relational webs created.
            There are, for me, deep resonances between work on emotional intelligence, relationships, leadership and Christian theology.  The God we know in Jesus Christ is often described in relational terms – as a God who loves, forgives, is compassionate, merciful.  We can engage in wonderful theological debates about how such terms apply to God, but there is an important core truth here about the God we worship and in whose service we find perfect freedom.  As human beings, created in the image of God, we are created for relationship with God and with others.  We have capacities for emotional intelligence, and we can grow in those capacities.
            Let me conclude with a final quote from Oswald and Jacobson, and then we should have time for some questions.  While everyone wants churches to grow, increase giving, and function more smoothly, the real goal of the church experience is an on-going process of conversion toward a more deeply interiorized, lived-out, compassionate, generous, grateful, and grace-filled Christian life.  When this is realized, pastors are energized and congregations are energized.  Such congregations matter in the lives of their communities. (159)
            When we do the kind of spiritual work to build emotional intelligence and through that deepen relationships, we can become more compassionate, generous, grateful and grace-filled followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who transform the world and who with joy invite others to this transformational journey.

Thank you.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Faith Story

At the recent meeting of the Council of Bishops, my first, those of us newly elected to the episcopacy were invited to share a brief version of our faith story.  This is what I shared.

Bishop David Alan Bard
Faith Story for Council of Bishops

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                                                            Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

The words belong to Mary Oliver, but I have heard the question as a whisper of God’s love, the voice of God’s Spirit.
I heard them first, I think, as a thirteen year old boy at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota – a thirteen year-old struggling with all those lovely junior high school issues, but also with a family with parents whose relationship was tense, and who disagreed, among other things, about church.  My father was not a church person, and never would be.  My mother walked us to church when she could.  My eighth grade Sunday School teacher talked about God’s love for me in Jesus Christ, and her own care and compassion made her speech more real.  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I gave my life to Jesus.  I accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I was born again.  I was saved.  I said “yes” to the God who was saying “yes” to me in Jesus Christ.
The road from that moment into ordained ministry was not a straight one.  I went from a passionate intensity of a Jesus People church and street witnessing to wanderings, wonderings, questions, doubts, ponderings in my college years as I was discovering philosophers, psychologists, poets, novelists and musicians – William James and Abraham Maslow, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane.  The Gospel of John tells us that the Word became flesh, and for me the Word also became words and notes and an important part of the story of my life and faith is the story of who I have read and what I have listened to.  I was discovering a wider world – a  world that was both beautiful and brutal, marked by tenderness and marred by tragedy.  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I needed a faith that was thoughtful – engaging a developing mind, compassionate – engaging a broken world, and passionate – engaging a developing heart and soul.  Through it all, my United Methodist Church provided space for grace.
I went to seminary not following a call to ordained ministry, but instead in response to that whispered word Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I went in search of a thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate faith.  Julie and I met in college and were married after my first year in seminary.  I remember the version of the Prepare inventory we took.  “In my love for my partner, I understand more deeply the phrase, ‘God is love.’”  Yes.  The Word became flesh, and became flesh again in that relationship, and with the birth of our three children David, Beth and Sarah.  Seminary also added new conversation partners: Tillich and Niebuhr and Hartshorne and Cobb and Wesley among many others.
At seminary, the question came again, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  Only this time, there was a direction to it, a call to ordained ministry.  I said “yes.”  I have continued to say “yes.”  I said “yes” to my first appointment by Bishop Emerson Colaw at the edge of the United States in Roseau, Minnesota.  I said “yes” to moving to Dallas, Texas from Roseau to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University.  I said “yes” to the Central Mesabi Parish on Minnesota’s Iron Range, an appointment made by Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher when I returned to Minnesota, new Ph.D. in hand and new conversation partners in my mind and soul – Schubert Ogden, Joe Allen, William May, Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, Wallace Stevens.  I said “yes” to Bishop John Hopkins when he asked me to be a district superintendent.  I said “yes” to Bishop Sally Dyck when she asked me to be pastor at First United Methodist Church in Duluth, and have continued to say “yes” as Bishop Sally and Bishop Bruce Ough appointed me there every year thereafter.  I said “yes” to the inkling that I should offer myself for consideration as a candidate for bishop in 2004, 2008 and now this year, though I was pretty sure this year was going to be the last time.  I am grateful that the North Central Jurisdiction said “yes.”
I once wrote that identifying my favorite poem is like identifying my favorite breath.  The same could be said of my favorite Scripture.  I have come to choose I Corinthians 16:14 – Let all the you do be done in love.  But then the verse preceding has grabbed my attention.  Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.

To the whisper of the Spirit, embracing me in love and wooing me into the future with the question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  that same Spirit of God in Jesus Christ gives me the grace to respond: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.  Letting all that I do be done in love, a love with which I am loved, means acting with justice, loving tenderly, serving others, and walking humbly with the God whose nature and name are love.

Friday, August 5, 2016

My Final "Love Letter" to First UMC, Duluth

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart  [the last phrase can also be translated: because I hold you in my heart].                               Philippians 1:3-7a

            In his wonderful, lovely and delightful poem “The Lanyard” former U. S. poet laureate Billy Collins writes of himself as a boy making a lanyard for his mother at summer camp.  He compares his gifts with what his mother has given.  Here is one comparison from the poem.
            Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
            strong legs, bones and teeth,
            and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
            and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

Then Collins ends the poem powerfully, speaking as his adult self.
            And here, I wish to say to her now,
            is a smaller gift – not the archaic truth

            that you can never repay your mother,
            but the rueful admission that when she took
            the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
            I was sure as a boy could be
            that this useless, worthless thing I wove
            out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

            As I write these words I realize how inadequate they are for all you have given me in our eleven years together – your time, your attention, your energy, your prayers, your gifts in service.  You have given me your children to hold and bless and baptize.  You have given me the lives of loved ones and offered me the last word in gratitude to God for them. You have listened as I proclaimed and puzzled.  You have given me trust.  You’ve surrounded me with a community of love and forgiveness.  You have been a gift of God’s grace to me and I have grown tremendously from such gifts.
            I hope I have given you some things – new ways to think about faith in Jesus Christ and some inspiration for living out that faith with joy and courage.  I hope I have helped you think more creatively, dream more imaginatively and daringly, pray more honestly and deeply.  I hope I have helped you cultivate a Christian faith that is thoughtful, passionate and compassionate.  I hope I have painted a compelling picture of a life of discipleship as a life of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice.  I hope in some ways I have been a gift of God’s grace to you.
            Yet as I reflect this time is not simply about what you have given me, though it is significant, or what I have given you, but about how God’s grace has been made more evident and real in what we have done together.  Together we have formed a community committed to cultivating a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate faith in Jesus Christ.  Together we have sought to live into joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  Together as a community we have welcomed babies, families in all configurations, people in all their blessed diversity, and said good-bye to good and cherished friends.  We have laughed together, sang together, prayed together, wept together, and together we have sought to be a community of love and forgiveness for each other and for the world.
            So I will continue to thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now, and going forward.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart and you hold me in your heart.
            In nearly every funeral I conduct, I share these words from May Sarton, “the people we love are built into us.”  We don’t have to wait for someone to die to remember that.  You are a part of my life and always will be.  You are built into who I am.  From the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul, thank you.
Grace and Peace,


This appeared in First Family, the newsletter of First United Methodist Church Duluth

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Remarks for the Minnesota Conference Clergy Gathering

        It has been my privilege for the past couple of years to be part of a small advisory group that has met with Bishop Bruce Ough, United Methodist Bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area to discuss how the Minnesota Conference could continue to discuss issues around human sexuality, inclusion and church unity in a healthy and helpful way.  Bishop Ough proposed to this group that it might be helpful to schedule a special clergy session for the Minnesota Conference between General Conference and our scheduled Annual Conference meeting.  Our clergy met on June 1, and while much of the day was for discussion among ourselves as a clergy community, there were times of worship and times of sharing.
        I was asked, prior to our open space conversations to help set the table by providing a few remarks about General Conference.  I was asked not to share my opinions on what occurred so much as my experience of what happened as the General Conference worked with human sexuality, inclusion and church unity.  I was honored to be asked to do this as the head of our delegation to General Conference, and the following words are what I shared:

It was thirty years ago this year that I was ordained an elder and became a full member of the Minnesota Conference.  We have known each other for a long time, and been through a lot together.  I really appreciate this opportunity to share a few words with you about General Conference. 
So how did we get to today?  I have been a voting delegate to General Conference since 2000, and I am genuinely grateful that you have given me that opportunity.  In 2000,  I was one of six clergy delegates from the Minnesota Conference among 1,000 voting delegates, the strong majority of whom were from the United States.  There were delegates from Central Conferences, and there was translation happening, but this was a distinct growth area.  Together those 1,000 people worked at the challenging task of considering changes to The Book of Discipline, which can be submitted by any person within The United Methodist Church, and considering changes to our Book of Resolutions.  It was a daunting and time-consuming and complex task.  Many committees met late into the evening.
Fast-forward to Portland, 2016.  I was one of two clergy voting delegates from the Minnesota Conference, now among 864 voting delegates, about 40% of whom are from Central Conferences outside the United States.  There is now simultaneous translation, though the Daily Christian Advocate which tracks daily proceedings and legislative progress is not translated.  In addition to that complexity, these 864 delegates are working with parliamentary rules and procedures that sometimes require English to English translation.
Make no mistake about it, at General Conference, as at no other place, we celebrate the wonderful and rich diversity of our United Methodist Church, and that was true again this year.  I was moved by many moments, times when we paid attention to the best of who we are.  It was also at General Conference that we see that our current decision-making structures are not serving us particularly well, and we are reluctant to change them.  We spent more time on the Rules of General Conference this year than in any of the previous General Conferences I’ve attended, particularly on “Rule 44” which provided an alternative decision-making structure, something like what we have used here when we have structured “holy conferencing,” except that it also had a legislative component. Rule 44 failed to pass, and it took a long time to do so.
Week two, Monday night, rumors were swirling that members of the Council of Bishops had been meeting with persons from the “progressive” and “evangelical” “wings” of our denomination and that there was going to be a proposal about separation coming to General Conference.  With the defeat of Rule 44, and with the election results from the Judicial Council and University Senate on Monday , it was clear that there would be no new space created within our denomination around same-sex marriage or the consideration of  LGBTQ persons for ordination.  Tuesday morning, Bishop Ough, newly installed President of the Council of Bishops, stood to address the body, and began by acknowledging our deep divisions.  I began to tear up as I anticipated he was going to say that for the rest of General Conference we would be working on some kind of plan of separation.  Instead, he ended with a call for unity and said that the bishops were there to preside and pray.  The General Conference, in a historic gesture, called upon the bishops to do more, to lead.  The next day the bishops came back with a document asking General Conference to postpone discussion of human sexuality legislation and proposing the formation of a commission to study the issue, along with church unity, and offered the possibility of a special session of General Conference.  You have seen the document that was circulated the Wednesday of General Conference, - “An Offering For a Way Forward.”  You have seen the follow-up press release and letter from the Council of Bishops.
Whether you have an initially favorable opinion or negative opinion, space has been created – open space that I also pray will be Spirit space.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, II

If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band.
                                                                        The Righteous Brothers

            Just a couple of days ago, I posted my reflections on some of the wonderful musicians we have lost this year.  The morning after that post, and my linking it to Facebook and Twitter, my friend Dan Doughty “liked” my tweet.  The moment I read Dan’s name, I knew I had forgotten to write about Glenn Frey who died January 18.  Dan is a huge Eagles fan, and Glenn was one of the founding members of that group.  Glenn’s death occurred just near the death of David Bowie, so was not given all that much media attention, but his music also touched many.
            I don’t think you could have been a teenager in the 1970s without hearing Eagles music, whether you liked it or not, and I really liked it.  The Eagles Their Greatest Hits album, which I still have in vinyl, became the highest selling album of the twentieth century when it was released in 1976.  Every song was a gem – “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Already Gone,” “Desperado,” “One of These Nights,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Take It to the Limit,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” and “Best of My Love.”  In high school and college you could put this album on and sing to every last song.
            Late that same year, the  group released their biggest album, “Hotel California,” with that remarkable title track and “New Kid in Town.”  The album was an important part of the soundtrack to my senior year in high school.  Driving my old Buick LeSabre to and from work or school, I loved hearing an Eagles song play on WAKX, big wax.
            Glenn Frey wrote many of the songs, with other members of the group and was lead singer on “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “New Kid in Town.”  The songs ranged from a celebration of freedom, to finding a quiet center, to feeling alienation as the new kid in town.
            So the rock ‘n’ roll heaven’s band is even richer because Glenn Frey is already gone.  Yet we can be grateful for the peaceful easy feeling his music leaves with us.  Take it easy.

With Faith and With Feathers,