Generosity

If last week’s United Methodist General Conference taught us anything, it’s that there is no victory but total victory.

That, at least, is something conservatives and liberals were able to agree on, and no wonder why. For those who view full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons as a matter of civil rights, anything short of universal acceptance is unjust. For those who view the inclusion of any such person as a collective sin, anything short of universal exclusion is a rejection of holiness.

I really don’t know how anyone deals with such absolutism.

Don’t get me wrong. I have strong feelings about full inclusion and have for many years. The strange thing, however, is that my views have flipped. As a young man raised in the South, I thought in the same traditional way that virtually everyone around me did. Then I made the mistake of taking the Bible more seriously. When I did, realized over time that my assumptions were based on using scripture to affirm my prejudices, rather than on letting scripture guide and shape what I believed. It took awhile for me to be comfortable with the shift, and still longer to speak it aloud. Once I did, however, I’ve held that conviction strongly.

What has been consistent over both phases in my adult life, however, is a certain pragmatism that makes me a poor match for zealots. My default setting is to find workable solutions even amid deep disagreements.

Unfortunately, in church as well as contemporary politics, such pragmatism is in short supply. Zealotry was on clear display in St. Louis. For many–especially the traditionalists–there could be no victory but total victory. Compromise was seen not as a sign of altruism, but of weakness. Besides, as one former colleague put it to me at a previous GC, “Why would you compromise when you know you have the votes?”

The fallout from GC2019 has continued in largely the same spirit. My conservative friends have taken some muted victory laps. They congratulate themselves and dismiss pain from the other side as nothing more than their opponents being sore losers. My progressive friends have expressed anger and outrage, variously advocating for fight with or flight from the UMC.

I can understand both sets of emotions. Twenty years ago I would have felt the former. Today, I feel the latter. But neither response moves us forward. To do that, we need a virtue that we’ve largely abandoned, both as a church and as a nation.

Generosity.

I’m not suggesting that everyone is okay or that we simply bless every viewpoint, no matter how misleading or illogical. Nor am I suggesting that anyone who throws a conniption fit about not getting his way should be allowed to hijack the better judgment of an organization.

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Hands that are open to give are also open to receive.

But I am suggesting that the no-victory-but-total-victory mindset is toxic and unnecessary. It’s hubris to think that we are the defenders of God’s holiness, and equally so to think that we can right every wrong in the span of a few decades. It’s exhausting to approach every disagreement as a high-stakes battle. We’ve grown too used to it, though, to realize the toll it takes on us.

A give-and-take solution may not satisfy anyone, but it keeps the carnage to a minimum. Plus, real compromise is perhaps the highest form of respect. Days of prayer and calls for civil dialogue may be well and good, but they only pile on words. Actual compromise, on the other hand, says to supporters and opponents alike that we value connection with people above purity of ideals.

Perhaps it’s too late for renewed generosity to make a difference for the UMC. No matter. God has also started over with his children more than once, and God will almost certainly do so again. If we want to be a part of that reconciling work–both for the once and future church, and for our nation–we have to lay aside our dreams of conquest. We have to discover a mutual generosity–courageous, unafraid of loss, deeply committed to one another as children of God.

 

What I meant to say was…

         I’ve stayed mostly silent through the latest Methodist debacle that was General Conference 2019. I didn’t want to contribute to the noise, and I still don’t. But the vote to reject a progressive approach to LGBTQ+ persons is something that I still have to address with my congregation of college students. Unfortunately, my opportunity to do that in chapel this morning was interrupted by a medical emergency with a student. Thankfully she seems to be fine, and that event did put the silliness of the Methodists’ posturing into stark relief. 

         Rather than shirk the larger discussion, however, I at least wanted to make the thoughts I was going to share available for those who might be interested. Below is the text of the sermon I would have given.

There’s an old kid’s song I used to sing for children’s sermons: at a time like this, I need the Lord to help me. Those of you who know anything about being Methodist probably know why.

For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, the United Methodist Church—the parent church of Dakota Wesleyan and the denomination in which I am a pastor—has been debating human sexuality for fifty years and out-and-out fighting for about the last twenty. Earlier this week, the official policy-making group of the Methodist Church voted to affirm traditional standards, meaning that the official church position is that LGBTQ+ persons are not compatible with Christian teaching.

As you might expect, this has thrilled some people. To say it disappointed others—myself included—would be an understatement. The process has already been ugly. It’s not likely to get better.

What does this mean for campus ministry at Dakota Wesleyan? I hope nothing. For a lot of years now, we have welcomed everyone who has walked through the doors. We have not disqualified people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of us have more conservative beliefs and others are moderate to liberal. But we’ve managed to find a way to love one another and hold together through a lot of difficult stuff. We’ve managed to remain friends. And I think that puts us in company with Jesus.

Among the first things Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry was to gather friends around him. He called his disciples, but they were more than pupils. In fact, he tells them directly that he doesn’t think of them as servants, but as friends. He needed people to walk alongside him, to encourage him, to challenge him, to make him laugh, to remind him he wasn’t alone. On every step of the journey right up to the cross, Jesus kept his friends close to his side.

It’s no surprise, then, that as the cross drew near, Jesus would spend his last precious hours with his friends.

The story begins in earnest in John 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that their friend Lazarus is sick and that he wants to go see him. The disciples try to talk him out of it. Lazarus lives with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. The city was then as it is now—in a state of perpetual unrest. And Jesus was not a welcome figure. The religious leaders viewed him as a heretic and troublemaker. Word on the street was that they would kill him if he ever showed his face again. So in the disciples’ view, there’s no real need to visit Lazarus. Why not send a card? Maybe flowers.

But then Jesus explains more fully. Lazarus is dead. He has to go to Bethany, and he intends to go, whether he has any company with him or not. His friends look at each other, trying to figure out what to do. If they go with Jesus and Jesus is arrested, they likely will be arrested also. They could be killed. No one wants to do this.

When someone finally speaks, it’s Thomas. The room gets a little more tense at this point, because Thomas is not known for his tact. He’s the kind of friend who will tell you straight up if your fly is open or there’s a booger hanging from your nose. Thomas is the one who, when you ask if that girl is into you or not, says, “No, dude, she’s out of your league. Aim lower.” He’s the one who, when you ask if those jeans make you look fat, answers, “Yeah, mainly across your butt.”

We don’t have a record of Thomas ever saying those exact things, but when he does speak in John’s gospel, he’s always that kind of blunt. He’s the one who, when Jesus asks if what he just said makes any sense, replies, “Nope.” He’s a skeptic, maybe even a doubter. He’s certainly a guy that could use a better filter. So when he opens his mouth to respond to Jesus’ crazy idea of going to Bethany, no one knows what he’s going to say until he says it.

“Let’s go. If we die with him, we die with him.”

That’s the kind of friend you want to have—someone who, for whatever other character flaws they might have, including a big mouth—is ready to stand beside you, come hell or high water. He’s the kind of friend who doesn’t let outside pressures get in the way of his friendship. He’s the guy that has your back, and a good thing, too. Because before long, Thomas is going to need someone to offer the same kind of friendship to him.

The most famous story about Thomas happens later in John’s gospel. Jesus has been resurrected and appeared to his disciples, but Thomas is not with them. They tell him the story, but he says, “Guys, no. I can’t go there. Unless I see Jesus for myself—unless I reach out and touch him—I’m not going to believe what you’re saying.”

“Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but that’s not really fair. Honest Thomas, maybe. Loyal Thomas, absolutely. Why would we linger on his doubt instead?

Maybe because that’s what really scares us. We’re afraid of doubt. We’re afraid of being wrong, of losing face, of being hopeless. We’re afraid that, when the world falls apart around us, there won’t be a God with us who really cares. We’re afraid of losing faith, because that means we’ll be alone. It’s easy to throw shade at Thomas because he doubts. We’re just condemning the thing in him that we fear in ourselves.

But if Thomas embodies our fears, he also gives us the best example on how to deal with doubt. Because he does his doubting among his friends.

Not long after he tells the other disciples he needs to see to believe, Thomas does see Jesus. In fact, he does more that see. He makes a declaration—a political statement. He kneels before him and calls him “my lord and my God.” That was a title reserved only for the emperor. At this point, however, Thomas isn’t afraid of powerful men with the trappings of wealth. He’s ready to proclaim Jesus as the one true king, and to pledge himself to him.

Don’t miss the context in which all of this happened. Where was Thomas? Not out in the desert sulking in solitude. He was back with his friends. Even though he doubted, he didn’t do it alone. He hung around people whose faith carried his until he got it back.

Feelings are great liars. They tell us that what we experience is the great truth of the world, when in fact our feelings are only a reflection of the way we perceive the world, and sometimes even that is colored by the chemical workings of our brains. Sometimes—especially when our feelings threaten to overpower us—we need to put them in their place. As friends, we can help one another do that.

At a time like this, we need the Lord to help us. And we need each other.

Those at GC2019–some of them very powerful people–handed down a decision early in the week that they think the entire UMC will live by. But I have no intention of letting someone else’s doctrinal agenda scare or injure the flock I’m entrusted with. So let’s not allow other people’s passions to tear us apart. Let’s love one another. Let’s keep praying, even if it feels like no one is listening. Let’s keep gathering for worship, even though we are afraid of what the future holds. Let’s keep waiting for the Lord to reveal himself to us.

In time, I trust that he will–not to any bureaucratic gathering, but to his friends.

A Minority Report

Last weekend, the Area Community Theater opened a production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a murder mystery in which I portray a jealous innkeeper who plays host to a cast of oddballs and charlatans, all of whom are suspects. It involves a lot of deception and finger-pointing, sprinkled with a fair amount of righteous indignation, In this way, the play is not all that different than contemporary political or theological discourse.

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Here I am as Giles Ralston. Yes I had to shave my beard. No, this pose is not really acting.

Being onstage, though, is easy. The lines are scripted, the character interaction fixed. I have to try to embody what my character thinks and feels–including how I relate to other characters. But I don’t get to choose what I say or how I feel or who I offend. Those things are already set. I just have to bring them to life.

The difficult part is in the dressing room, where the dialogue isn’t set and the relationships are not defined. On show nights, actors and crew spend hours together getting ready before the curtain opens. We wait in close quarters, with plenty of time to talk. To paraphrase one of Detective Trotter’s lines, it’s great fun.

Mostly. This past week provided a few thorny conversation topics, especially around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. True to Midwestern Red State form, the four other men in my dressing room felt victorious, to varying degrees. They enjoyed the win for their political persuasion, and they enjoyed watching their opponents–or at least the most radical of their opponents–lose.

I can empathize with where they are coming from. Nearly twenty years ago, I was a political moderate and a social conservative myself. I voted for George W. Bush in his first term, mostly because I was worried about pending Supreme Court vacancies. When I hear my fellow actors stating their conservative views, I hear echoes of how I once thought.

I think differently now, of course. A thousand different factors moved me away from my young-adult assumptions–the most important and surprising of which was a shift in my understanding of the Bible. My theology and my politics have moved a great deal, and the transition has been neither neat nor tidy.

All of which leaves me as the minority among my dressing room colleagues, and as such left with a quandary. How do I hold my convictions authentically, express them genuinely, and still keep peace among fellow actors than I now consider friends?

One answer is that I can’t do all of that. Keeping peace is out of my control, not just in this but in any situation. We live among free individuals who get to choose their own responses. If someone wants to fight, it doesn’t matter how considerate I try to be.

But that’s not the way most of us want to live. We want to get along, to work together, to build a better world for everyone. Or at least not to punch each other in the face all the time.

I think many of my friends are wrong in their conclusions, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of respect. We need each other, if we are going to address big problems like climate change–the greatest current threat to human thriving by almost any measure. For that matter, we need each other, even for small things like putting on a play at the local ACT.

And it’s in such settings that national healing starts–not at caucus meetings or strategy sessions, and certainly not on the troll playgrounds that social media platforms have become. Our public discourse has no hope of improving until we humanize and converse with those who are so easily vilified for thinking differently than our tribes.

So the way I deliver my minority report matters. I don’t have to sacrifice conviction or content, but I do have to pay attention to other people’s feelings. If I want to be heard, I first have to listen. And when I speak as either the minority or the majority, I have to do so with understanding, if the show is to go on–and if the show is to go anywhere.

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The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT. 

Praying Twice (for real this time)

Last week, I created an unnecessary problem for myself. I dove down a rabbit hole with rockets strapped to my feet, wondering for more than 600 words if something I knew to be true was really true, creating unnecessary insecurity that required a fair amount of intellectual meandering before I could resurface.

My wife tells me I overthink things.

She’s right, of course. But it’s not always a bad thing. I’m committed to intellectual and spiritual coherence. In other words, I want things to make sense. I don’t want to be duped by religious fairy tales, and I don’t want to ignore facts right in front of my face. Doing so is the path to all kinds of idiotic behavior, from denying climate science to thinking the president is somehow on God’s side. The last thing I want–and I mean literally the last thing–is to fall into that abyss of mass stupid.

But my tendency to overthink can be paralyzing at times. When you try to see the world from every perspective, you end up with a fly’s vision. You get lots of angles, and all of them fuzzy.

Every summer I end up trapped in overthinking hell. My job as campus pastor slows way down, which is a welcome relief at first. As the weeks drag on, however, I find that I have too much time in my own head. I think-think-think, and as I do I question everything from the meaning of the universe to my own mortality to the inevitability of the designated hitter coming to National League baseball (all of which are equally disturbing propositions to me).

In this state of mind, religious observance gets more and more difficult. Prayers become obligations at best and embarrassments at worse, litanies of worries recited to a God who may or may not be listening, if God is even real. There’s too much noise in my head to sort it all out, and I wonder if my being a pastor means I’m a fake. By the beginning of August, I’m usually pretty depressed.

What lifts me out of it is music.

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Students gathered in my back yard for WUTS–Worship Under the Stars. When we sing, we pray twice.

Each year when school starts, part of my task is to gather musicians to be part of a worship band. If I’m honest, however, that’s not really how it works. My students form the band. They invite their friends, arrange many of the songs, handle most of the logistics. I’m theoretically in charge, but that doesn’t do much for my soul. What brings me back to life is being invited into the music, included in the circle of musicians.

This year more than any other, I’ve been struck by how song and prayer are one and the same to me. So much of my life revolves around words, words, words–rooms of words piled upon words. A good song sweeps away words that are lazy or inconsequential. It gets at the essence of prayer–people and God, working in time, trusting the worth of the moment itself.

Playing and singing with these young adults gets me out of my own head. It forces me to listen to what’s around me–to tuning and voices and instrumentation. It calls me to stop worrying so much about the physics of harmony or the transient nature of sound in our temporary universe. It reminds me that my faith is intellectually plausible, but not dissectible. I can’t know everything. I don’t need to know everything.

Except that we love and are loved, which is reason enough to pray and to sing.

 

 

Praying Twice (Take 1)

“The one who sings prays twice.” 
                                                           –???

It’s the question marks beneath that quote that bother me. I don’t like loose ends.

IMG_2926Despite my wishing, however, no one seems to quite be able to pinpoint the source of this bit of spiritual wisdom. The signs I’ve seen in choir directors’ offices usually attribute it to St. Augustine, if it’s attributed at all. Others credit Martin Luther, although I’ve heard some Methodists suggest Charles Wesley best embodied the saying. In the end, however, no one can definitively say which of our spiritual forebears coined the maxim about praying twice when we sing.

I suspect that the general population doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the origins of such meme-able quotes. Unfortunately, I am a member of not one but two nerd tribes–academia and clergy–for whom sources matter a great deal. The question of originality thus drives me bonkers.

On the bright side, one of these two tribes offers me a way to quiet my unease at the sing-pray ambiguity. And it’s not the one you might expect.

There is an aspect of the Christian faith that involves giving yourself over to a set of standards that are outside your wishes or expectations. Loving your enemies or giving away your money isn’t the most natural thing in the world, and yet those are clear expectations set forth by Jesus. When you sign up for the Jesus life, you agree to be shaped by the Bible, among other things.

But when you rely on a standard outside yourself in a search for truth, sources become critically important. If you follow an untrustworthy source, you’ll end up in some sketchy neighborhoods.

Church scholarship doesn’t offer any definitive answer as to who first suggested the link between prayer and song, and that’s a problem. There is no shortage of voices who say the exact opposite–that music gets in the way of a faithful life, that it causes us to turn our eyes and ears away from God and onto ourselves. Whom to believe?

Thankfully, my second tribe–academia–comes to the rescue, and in a surprising way.

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Jonathan, my bassoon-playing 12-year-old who knows my love for music, carved a lego-sized guitar for display in our office.

For all of its neuroticism and occasional arrogance, the academic world strives to be honest. What drives most of the researchers and professors I know is a search for truth in a methodical way. Those who fail to abide by basic intellectual and experimental standards usually get weeded out over time, brought into line by peers who challenge dubious practices or results.

Ironically, those who try to downplay science on religious grounds fail to realize that a similar thing has happened in the development of Christian faith. Much of what we hold to is the result of long-term experiment, the testing of what was passed down to us from Jesus and his followers. What we believe is tried by practice and then kept or discarded, not based on individual tastes but on long-range evaluation.

Kathleen Norris tells us in her brilliant book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that we go to church to sing, and theology is secondary. This is wisdom borne out by centuries of experiment, of which I am now a part. And the results from all these various laboratories give me confidence that when I sing, it’s more than just belting out a tune. It’s an act of devotion that is both creative and formative.

More to come…

A Dry Spell

As a kid, I was mostly a failure at farm life. I lacked the attention span and patience, and I dreaded all the work that had to be finished, only to be restarted again as the seasons changed. And as I’ve mentioned before, I hated summer.

For farmers, summer is always a time of anxiety–even without a man-child president launching trade wars. In a normal year, farmers fret about too much water in the spring, which hinders planting and makes pastures impassable. In June, when Mother Nature turns off the sprinklers, they worry about too little water, about the hot sun and dry soil burning up their crop.

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The creek along the southern side of our farm, mostly dry but ready to be filled.

My family’s farm is in western Arkansas, where the soil is too rocky and devoid of nutrients for serious crop farming. But even in an operation focused mainly on raising cattle and baling hay, we were never secure. My parents told stories of watching summer rain showers fall along the fence line, soaking the soil of our neighbors’ land while ours continued to burn. The distribution of rain was never equitable. The things we most depended on were largely out of our control.

It’s not an ideal scenario, but that’s pretty much the human condition, both literally and metaphorically.

Summers have always been a dry time for me, spiritually speaking. Every congregation I have ever been a part of–from the country church that tended my roots in faith to the campus ministry I now serve as pastor–changes in the summer. People go on vacation or work seasonal jobs. Kids go to camp. College students leave for internships. Life gets much busier in some ways, but less involved with people. Who has time to linger over a cup of coffee when the lawn needs mowing and the kids have baseball tournaments?

Perhaps what I notice most is the lack of music. During the school year, I’m constantly engaged in rehearsals or performances (if church can be called a performance). We sing a lot, play a lot, try new songs and new instrumentations. In many ways, music is my prayer life. It’s my clearest path to believing.

During the summer, however, the songs dry up. I still play with my church’s worship band, but that’s only two hours per week. Strumming or drumming by myself doesn’t cut it either. I need the sound of other voices. I need to be a part of an ensemble more than just once a week on the weeks I’m in town.

What gets me through the summer dry spells is the same thing that gets farmers through stretches of unfavorable weather–the knowledge that it won’t last forever, that the rains will come, that feeling alone doesn’t mean being forgotten. That dry creek beds are not less creek beds, just because the water doesn’t run. They are still what they were–vessels waiting to be filled, conduits for sustaining life.

The last day of my summer visit to my mom’s farm, the thundershowers we’d been seeing all week to our north and east finally made their way to our land. In about an hour, we got about 3/16 of an inch–not enough to get the creek running, but enough to reassure us that it would run. Enough to get us through until the dry spell gives way and the rains fall again, the sound like the very music of heaven.

Diversity and Belonging

If you ever see me walking through an airport during a layover, know this: I’m not exercising. I’m eavesdropping. Consider these snippets from a recent layover at DFW:

“Two supervisors! Why do they need two supervisors for that shift?”

“I told him, listen Dad, I just can’t keep doing this.”

“She said she’d meet us there, so I guess we’ll just ride with her.”

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Flying over the Midwest, vast but not empty. 

Almost all the conversations I could make out fell into similarly mundane categories–people conducting business or complaining about spouses or working the tiresome logistics of modern air travel. And those I couldn’t understand–those spoken in heavily accented English or in one of the seven other languages I counted–seemed to be no more exotic than the rest. Judging by body language, everyone seemed to be carrying similar burdens and fighting similar battles.

With this in mind, conclusions about how we are all different, but all really the same are easy enough to draw–until you look more closely at the interactions among the individuals in the crowd.

The airport had plenty of diversity, which made for an energizing atmosphere. But it did not guarantee personal connections, and in fact may have hindered them. Most of the people I encountered were either alone–reading or wrapped up in some electronic device–or with people in their traveling party. For however much people love diversity, they also tend to retreat toward the familiar, especially in stressful situations like travel.

The lone exception? The airport staff. Proportionally speaking, they appeared even more diverse than the traveling population. Yet they communicated constantly. Supervisors coached new employees, cart drivers shared information about passengers that needed a ride, cashiers wandered near enough to converse, breaking up the monotony of retail for a mostly disinterested clientele.

They were not a well-oiled customer service machine, nor were they a family with evident warm feelings for one another. Rather, they were a group of individuals working together on a common task, and so they were connected.

I found myself a bit jealous of the airport staff, if only briefly. They existed in the same swirl of interesting, eccentric, harried and haggard people that I did. But they had something I did not.

Belonging.

During one of my strolls down the back hallways between terminals, that changed for

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Empty hallways where the electric carts charge–and away from the cable news on every TV in the DFW airport.

me, if only briefly. Two men noticed my Dakota Wesleyan Tigers shirt and stopped me. They were investors who managed the assets to one of DWU’s employee benefits programs. We talked maybe two minutes, took a selfie for them to send to our university’s president–part personal connection, part PR opportunity–and were on our way. For those moments, however, my feelings about the airport crowd changed. I felt less alone, and more able to enjoy the swirl of people around me.

As I think back on that layover, I wonder if the goal of diversity pursued by so many businesses and institutions isn’t a bit misguided. Diversity may get people in the same room, but it doesn’t make them connect. There’s another step–belonging–that comes from working together on common tasks that benefit us all.

That, I think, is the point at which diversity becomes more important–when it opens the doors for different people to belong to the same larger endeavor. This is a necessary condition for a building a better world, because belonging increases security and reduces anxiety. It builds trust so that we are able to share appropriately, not just guard what is ours.

In this sense, the Christian gospel is a source of hope to me. The Pentecost story of Acts 2 is revolutionary not because of the number of converts (as American churches so often assume) but for the breadth of inclusion–everyone hearing the stories in their own languages. Paul, the much-maligned apostle, spent his entire career reaching out to people who did not belong in the ancient world–slaves, Gentiles, women, and so forth.

Buried in the bastardized nationalist “gospel” that defines a wide swath of American Christianity are the seeds of a better world–one in which an incredibly diverse cast of people are brought together in working toward the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. The message of the faith is that everyone can belong. Everyone has to make room, but no one gets left out.

That’s an aspect of faith I can get behind.