Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday Quotes

Every week I come across interesting things in my reading. I thought I'd share a few of them here.

I came across this in some reading today. "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavour to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

The author of these words? Abraham Lincoln.

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
G. K. Chesterton

The Baptist sage Will Campbell calls televangelists "electronic soul-molesters." I like the justified revulsion in this comment, but as a believer in the Vedantic atma I feel that the soul, though being capable of being smothered, is ultimately unmolestable. Televangelists remind me more of people who, on a cold dark night, when you're huddled up by a small, carefully tended, soulful little campfire, drag over thirteen plaster statues of Jesus and the Apostles and a fourteenth bronze statue of that fine old sexist, St. Paul, plus a three-ton titanium-covered edition of the Americanized and bowdlerized and reified Metallic Bible, and throw them all on your little fire, smothering the flames. As you huddle in the dark, freezing your ass off, the televangelist defends his effrontery by claiming it's the plastic statues and Metal Bible you need, not your life-giving fire. He then pulls out an offering plate and asks you to pay him for what he's done. David James Duncan

In organizations of the old story, plans and designs are constantly being imposed. People are told what to do all the time. As a final insult, we go outside the organization to look for answers, returning with benchmarks that we offer up as great gifts. Yet those in the organization can only see these packaged solutions as insults. Their creativity has been dismissed, their opportunity to discover something new for the organization has been denied. When we deny life's need to create, life pushes back. We label it resistance and invent strategies to overcome it. But we would do far better if we changed the story and learned how to invoke the resident creativity of those in our organization. We need to work with these insistent creative forces or they will be provoked to work against us. Margaret Wheatley

Monday, July 10, 2006

Where's the New Territory? Maybe it's the Old Territory?

Today I finished a long letter I wrote to Bishop Coyner. It probably won't go anywhere -- but I offer it here, nonetheless.

Dear Bishop Coyner,

Greetings! Ever since Annual Conference I’ve been thinking about something I heard you say and then read in the Daily Hoosier United Methodist dated Friday, June 10th, 2006. You are quoted as saying (and that’s how I recall it also) that “generation issues are our new territory.” You mentioned Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen Xer’s, and Millenials.

I just wanted to offer a few words in response to your comments.

For over 20 years while attending Annual Conference I’m trying to remember a time, even in the Board of Global Ministries reports, where we the lay people and clergy and congregations of the Annual Conference were challenged to see our “new territory” as the poor (of any generation). Those generational categories (and I’ve looked at a lot of the materials on the subject) seem to be aimed pretty specifically at the middle class and above. It seemed to be so as well in your comments – as I thought of how few IPODS and computers I see in the ears and hands and homes of the young people of our parish.

I thought Randy Maddox’s “teachings” were a good reminder of what Wesley had to say and I assume that you had invited him as a reminder and challenge to us to see Wesley’s commitments and theology as fundamental (basic) to our own struggles and vision today.

Wesley had an incredibly strong commitment to the poor – first and foremost as the “new territory” for the church (he felt that the Anglican Church had wandered far from this, as I understand – though I’m certainly no scholar). And it was something much more substantial (to use that seems way too light) than the meager stuff we do now – like tutor kids (Wesley started schools), hand out food (Wesley invested in the poor through micro-lending and other ventures – not to mention his out-and-out advocacy of ending slavery), and send money to Operation Katrina (while Wesley was out advocating the redistribution of wealth). Personally, I think we should be embarrassed. I am.

This simply reminded me that whether in rural areas, suburban or urban areas our commitment to the poor is not based on where we are situated. It is based on where our hearts are situated.

We spent a lot of time at Annual Conference talking about “tithing.” It seems to me that for Wesley – giving and stewardship were more about our commitment to the poor than anything else. And that meant something far different than asking people to make sure to give to the “missions” part of the budget. For him the whole ministry of the church was situated in our commitment to the poor. And yet our discussion on tithing hardly touched this at all – it was all about keeping the institution up and running.

I have yet to see a stewardship program – either one that is sold as a program or one that a particular congregation or conference has created to fit themselves that makes as its very foundation our commitment to the poor (since that seems to be so central to the Biblical witness)). I imagine it is because we are afraid it “wouldn’t work.”

Now…I don’t have anything against having the institution up and running – but the question always arises “for what purpose.” A lot of folks here at Broadway work very hard to keep our institution up and running – but it really takes up a lot less of our time and energy and conversation than does our ministry (and by “our ministry” I don’t mean our official programming – I mean what we see happening in the lives of our members and friends and neighbors). Even our annual charge conference is mostly spent talking about the things that we see bubbling up in our neighborhood and in the lives and ministry of the people in our congregation in the larger community.

I had an experience as I left Annual Conference that shed some light on this…

On the way home, Scott Collins (Broadway’s lay delegate) and I, stopped off at Bear’s to get a bite to eat. Afterwards Scott needed an aspirin so we stopped in the Seven-Eleven around the corner. When Scott was up at the counter I heard him say, “Words of wisdom? You need to talk with my friend!” – and he was motioning me over. When I got to him the cashier explained that a friend of hers was graduating from high school that day and that she was collecting words of wisdom in a notebook, from all the customers in the store that day, to give to her friend.

I stepped off to the side, because I couldn’t think of anything to write. The next two people in line stepped to the counter and she explained the same thing to
them. “Cool,” the young man in line said and he wrote down two words…”Don’t die.” I thought…”oh yeah, sure…that’s what a teenager needs to hear – ‘be immortal’.” Later on I was thinking – you know when that teenage young woman gets to be 30 or 40 and is going through a particularly rough time – she may look at those two words and be encouraged. I stepped back to the counter as they left. I said – “would a quote be alright?” “Sure,” she answered, “I already have quotes from the Grateful Dead and Elvis.” “Well,” I said…”I was thinking of St. Augustine.” “That’s alright,” she said. And so I wrote, what I say every time we share communion, “Be What You See, Receive Who You Are, and Say Amen!” Scott wrote something (I don’t remember what it was now) and we left.

The Gospel lesson from John the next day was that text where Jesus says, “you must be born again…” and then goes on to say, “the wind blows where it will.” I kind of think that he was telling Nicodemus that while Nicodemus may think that salvation comes to the righteous, the good law abiding religious folk, I think he’s saying – you never know where that wind is going to blow. I thought about the gathering of United Methodists in the auditorium, all talking about ourselves (for the most part – heck, even when we talked about the devastation of Katrina it was almost exclusively, about the destruction of United Methodist Churches there). In Annual Conference when the stranger was talked about they were talked about as someone to be “helped” or “saved.” And then as we leave I go into a Seven-Eleven of all places and am met by a woman who sees every stranger who walks in the door as a person with a gift to give, and invites the giving. Yes indeed – “the wind blows where it will.”

With Randy Maddox there as a speaker at Annual Conference – don’t you think that one of the truly Wesleyan answers to that question of where our new territory is -- is not “generation x” and so-on, but instead one of the answers to that question is the poor? At least don’t you think that is one of Wesley’s answers? I think it odd (okay, maybe not really so odd) that we can have an entire annual conference – heck an entire 21 years for me since I graduated from seminary – and not one, not one bishop, not one annual conference, not one annual conference speaker has challenged us to center our ministry, our congregational life, our budget – around the poor! Instead we are challenged to “serve the poor” – certainly a Matthew 25 type of activity. But Jesus did much more than feed and clothe and visit the poor in prison (actually that last one we don’t have any story about in particular – he even sent his disciples to visit John the Baptist rather than going himself) – still you get the point…but instead Jesus hung out with the poor (and tax collectors and sinners). He tells stories where it is clear that the poor are invited to the banquet (not invited to come pick up a doggie bag at the door and then head on out).

We add people to our conference staff on clergy recruitment and retention. We have people who work on congregational development (and redevelopment?). We have people who work in camping…but no one to work to intentionally to strengthen our witness among and with the poor? And the Bishop’s Initiative on Children and Poverty is certainly very, very far from fulfilling any type of commitment to this.

Jesus’ commitment to the poor – heck the whole Biblical testimony to the commitment of faith to the poor is dramatic – if we cut out all the references to the poor in the Bible it would look like Swiss cheese (name anything else of which you can say the same – the only thing that would appear more often are variations on the word God – and I’m not sure the count wouldn’t be close).

I’m not asking us to add a staff person to increase our commitment to those who are poor – but at the least, at the very least, our Episcopal leader could remind us in words like those that appeared in the Together piece that we are called to be with the poor – not for THEIR salvation – but for our very own!

For example, what would it look like for our bishop to make a clear statement that the cabinet will make their appointments and base their actions, their lifestyles, and their public statements around their commitment to children and poverty (as the Bishop’s Initiative on Children & Poverty would seem to suggest)?

What if our congregations were challenged not to “help” the poor – but to go and listen to the poor (because we trust and know that God’s abundance is present there)?

What if we were to ask our conference staff members not to spend their time “resourcing local congregations” but instead, we ask them to invest in what God is doing among the poor of our communities and ask them to connect congregations to what God is doing in and among the poor?

Well…I’ve certainly gone on and on. If you are interested I would certainly like to talk with you about this.

Keep tellin’ the Story,

Rev. Michael Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Marriage Besieged?

Tonight I was watching Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS (I recorded it from Friday night). The first report was on the Pope's recent visit to Spain where Catholicism is declining. The Pope spoke about how "marriage is besieged on many fronts." And the thing I can't figure out is -- I'm married -- where is it -- how is it being besieged? I swear I can't figure out where in God's name there is any threat to the relationship Kathy and I have going on.

Today as we were driving back from the movies we heard on the radio someone talking about being married 14 years. I told Kathy that it sounded like a long time -- and then I realized we've been married almost twice that long - 26 years. It's such a weird feeling. So -- across these 26 years I can't think of a single way in which I feel like our marriage is threatened by anything happening in the larger community -- nation or whatever.

I can't figure out for the life of me why, for example, people talk about the desire for gay and lesbian people to have both the right and the rite of marriage as a threat to me. Heck, it seems to me that if someone wants to get married so badly even though it is not legal for them to do so - you ought to sign those people up for marriage right away.

When I hear people talk about this -- particularly religious folk (not only Christians but predominantly Christians) -- I keep wanting to hear specifics. How do they experience the threat to marriage in their personal lives?

I've met with a few couples recently who are planning on getting married. None of them seems to feel threatened by anything in the larger culture in preparation for getting married. It just seems so nuts.

It feels like something that would happen if children were running the country rather than adults. This is what I mean -- if you are a kid (okay...let's be more specific -- when I was a kid) -- if I had something and somebody else I knew had the same thing I could be a little envious of it. I could convince myself that somehow they had a better version of what I had. It's juvenile. But I grew out of it, thank God. Is our country in arrested adolescence? Aided and abeted by our political and religious leaders?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Today Kathy, Jordan and I went to see the movie An Inconvenient Truth. It is a documentary following Al Gore as he talks with groups around the world about global warming. It was interesting to see what he laid out -- and it got me to thinking again about what a crazy world we live in when science can lay out a pretty clear picture and still there are people who say that it is wrong. Not on the basis of science - but on the basis of what they call "belief." I think the most inconvenient truth these days seems to be that religion and science can in fact go hand in hand. There seem to be plenty of people on the religion side who have a hard time believing that as well as some on the science side.

But it also got me thinking about the inconvenient truths of our faith: like Jesus calling us to love our enemies -- personally this is one that I find to be a real pain in the behind; like Jesus announcing good news to the poor, saying that it's been fulfilled and then expecting us to act like, to live like it's true; like Jesus calling us to trust the little and the least and the lost as the places where God's abundance is bursting out -- I much prefer to find it in the big glitzy places (really).

Inconvenient truths are no stranger to any of us. Watching that documentary was a good reminder of that -- and a good challenge to pay attention and take responsibility for my own little place in this world. It was a reminder to speak even when it doesn't seem particularly popular or that anybody is even listening.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Farming Magazine

Back in February my friend Biff (Mennonite Pastor from Elkhart, IN) and I took a train and car trip out East to visit authors and old friends for a week. While visiting with some delightful friends of Biff's in New Hampshire, farmers who graduated from Earlham with him 30 years ago...they mentioned a magazine they liked a lot called Farming Magazine: People, Land, and Community. So...I subscribed. I think every urban pastor should subscribe...not to mention every person I know. They suggest interesting books...they mention great recipes (the recent issue has some great raspberry recipes) and they talk about things that are important. What more could you ask for?

I particularly like David Kline's articles -- observing the world around him and commenting on it. I like the pieces by Gene Logsdon (a regular contributor) who always writes in a way that informs and sometimes (delightfully so) provokes. The very last article in this month's issue is subtitled: Creating Agriculture that builds community & wealth. Now I think -- I wonder if our newsletters at the church could use that as a guide -- "building community & wealth." Hmmm. We would need to tell more stories. We have wonderful writers -- why not. We'll see.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Summer is a time I remember playing games in the yard and around the neighborhood when I was a kid (not so much now). In a variety of those games as the light would begin to fade everyone would be called in with the words "Ollie-ollie-oxen-free."

A favorite writer of mine is Harry Middleton who wrote the following in his book The Bright Country:

And Dr. Mutzpah closed her notebook and said to me what she so often said to me.
"There, there," said Dr. Mutzpah.
"There, there...
"Well, so you've met a real life swami, have you? In all of my years of practice, I can't say I've met even one. So, tell me, has the swami any words of enlightenment?"
"No, but his parrot has," I said.
"The same ones all the time.
Swami Bill's parrot kept yelling "OLLIE-OLLIE-OXEN-FREE" in Swami Bill's crepitating voice for the same reason that Odell Euclid was always saying, "Roll out Jeremy," or that Dr. Lilly Mutpah so often leaned close to me saying, "There, there..." as I sat in the deep warm folds of that black chair in her office.
"OLLIE-OLLIE-OXEN-FREE" was Swami Bill's way of commenting, thorugh his stuffed parrot's vanished yellow beak and dead, cherry red glass eyes, on how silly life can be, how fragile human beings are. It was his way of coping with life's regular doses of torment and misery and pain. Whenever he met another human being, no matter the circumstances, Swami Bill would shake that person's hand generously. Then Bill would cover his mouth with one hand, work the parrot's wires with the other.
As the parrot flapped it's dingy wings, it screamed:
"Pass it on.
"Pass it on."
Almost every human being knows the phrase, remembers it from his childhood days of endless play and games. It is what one child would yell out when the game was over and everything was okay, when everyone was safe from being tagged, chased, noticed, tormented, ridiculed, tricked, safe from being IT! Whenever you heard "OLLIE-OLLIE-OXEN-FREE," it was the all clear. You could come out of hiding, stop being afraid.
Swami Bill and his stuffed parrot with the cold red eyes were sounding for all clear, too, letting grown up human beings know they could let go, stop hiding, come back out into the sunshine.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Tonight the Committee on Lay Leadership met at Nancy's and after we ate they noticed I brought a little book from Parker Palmer along with me. They asked if I wanted to read from it. I hadn't planned to -- but I opened it up and read this:
"Then we get into small groups to learn more about our own natures through the two cases. First, I ask people to help each other identify the gifts that they possess that made the good moment possible. It is an affirming experience to see our gifts at work in a real-life situation--and it often takes the eyes of others to help us see. Our strongest gifts are usually those we are barely aware of possessing. They are a part of our God-given nature, with us from the moment we drew first breath, and w are no more conscious of having them than we are of breathing."

"Then we turn to the second case. Having been bathed with praise in the first case, people now expect to be subjected to analysis, critique, and a variety of fixes: 'If I had been in your shoes, I would have...," or "Next time you are in a situation like that why don't you...?" But I ask them to avoid that approach. I ask them instead to help each other see how limitations and liabilities are the flip side of our gifts how a particular weakness is the inevitable trade-off for a particular strength. We will become better teachers not by trying to fill the potholes in our souls but by knowing them so well that we can avoid falling into them."

What a different way of seeing the world and seeing one another!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What do we get?

So, today...I sit with my friend Marc in the Starbucks and we attempt to solve the problems of our little universe. We talk about health care. We talk about poverty. We talk about social work. We cover it all. It seems an appropriate set of things to be talking about on the celebration of our nation's birthday.

I've heard of a tradition somewhere that on birthdays the person whose birthday it is, instead of receiving presents, gives presents. I've often thought of this myself (but no I haven't tried it). But I've thought if we were going to get birthday presents from Uncle Sam this year --what would I be hoping to receive?

Here's my list:

A black Ipod (just kidding on that one)
Churches that care more about justice and peace then they do about judgement and hostility
An end to using people's lives as political squeeze toys
A commitment to building citizenship
A commitment to developing alternative fuel sources
An investment in the lives and gifts (rather than needs) of the citizens of this country
Politicians who told us what they really think (rather than what they think we want to hear -- or in fact, what we do really want to hear)

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Early Arrival of Dreams

Meet Chandra and BJ. They are two amazing people I met in our church and then had the privilege of marrying them this spring. They then (two months later) headed off to China for two years of teaching English as part of the Peace Corps!

I recently read a book by Rosemary Mahoney entitled The Early Arrival of Dreams. Ms. Mahoney taught English for a year in China -- in an exchange program with her college. The title of the book comes from a conversation between the author and a very bright friend of hers, a student that she meets by the name of Ming Yu. She asks Ming about Ming’s wish to study abroad and what her parents say to her about that. Ming responds:
“To do my present job properly and wait with patience for my turn to come is their advice for me. My father would like to see his children go abroad to study, but he also knows the system well enough to understand that it is foolish to hope for the early arrival of dreams.”

What I want to say to Chandra and BJ is that this movement into this new form of mission is a step into your dreams – and you will be living and working among people in a completely different situation. As my friend Tracy Jones who lived in China for over 20 years made clear to me – it is only in living in such places that you truly begin to understand what it is to be poor. Poverty in this country is startlingly different than it is in such places. When our family went to India and Bangladesh that was one of the really difficult things I faced within myself. Hearing about it, reading about it, is an entirely different thing. And living in the midst of it as you will be – is an opening into a whole new world.

To try to speak a little more clearly about this – it is not the poverty and the dramatic intensity of its presence that got to me. It was what followed in the wake of it – two dramatically different realities. The first reality was the genuine and true joy that I saw in the midst of the poverty. That’s a difficult thing to come to grips with. And the second thing was the sense of despair and resignation that often hung in the air that things would not get better (and I don’t think I was bringing that to the situation). That both of these things could be true seems impossible, I know – but it is that paradox that I grappled with constantly there.

Patience in ancient culture can be a real virtue -- and we in a society that is more looking for the quick fix can really learn from that. I appreciate the notions that dreams have a timing all their own. At the same time I feel a need for a sense of holy impatience...a yearning to see things set right, right now. So...I struggle with balance between these things. Chandra and BJ -- blessings as you grapple with the issues that will arise for you. Blessings as your eyes and hearts are opened to a whole new world. We can't wait to hear what you have learned and what you have to teach us.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Holy Anger

Stanley Hauerwas wrote this wonderful prayer that appears in his book Prayers Plainly Spoken.

Dear Lord, I am filled with anger born of frustration. I confess I know not whether all my anger is of you. I just know I am filled with hope, which makes me angry that others are not so filled. Take away the self-aggrandizing righteousness that so often accompanies such anger. It is energy. Make it to be of service. Help me pass it on. We are taught by the world to fear anger. Yet we know that you are just judge, angry because we are not justly angry. We want you to be like us--get along by going along. You will not play that game. You expect your church to be faithful--yes, angry. Make us a people with dark brows capable of scaring a few folk. May they look at us and say, "Those guys are so filled with love their anger overflows." Amen.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Now That's Freedom (at the hem of a garment)

This is De'Amon Harges, the Roving Listener for Broadway and the Mapleton Fall Creek Development Corporation. De'Amon sat down to talk with me at the end of last week. And, as usual, I came away aware once again that here in the midst of this low-income neighborhood our cup overflows! I think again about what Helen Keller wrote in her collection of essays I recently read -- that sight doesn't have a lot to do with the capacity of our eyes...but with our recognition of what is before, around and within us. De'Amon has been doing his "Roving Listening" for a little over six months now. A few months ago, as winter was ending, he told me that of the 170 plus folks he had interviewed over 50 of them are gardeners! Many people have talked with me about community gardens - what they fail to notice is that community gardens abound -- in peoples back yards and side yards and front yards. Our cup overflows.

This time De'Amon tells me that he is more and more running across people who tell him that they love to fish. Hmmm. Our cup overflows. What do we do with that? If nothing else, perhaps, invite our "fishing folk" together and ask 'em what they see and what if anything they would like to do that they aren't already doing. And what, if anything, is getting in their way.

De'Amon also tells me that he has just met a neighbor named David Cunningham who lives over on New Jersey Street just a few blocks away from him (and me, for that matter). David Cunningham is an artist who specializes in Still Life painting – and he recently won a very prestigious award. Just another reminder that our cup runneth over.

This neighborhood is a place that often is seen as a "Bad" neighborhood -- but man, oh man, oh man, our cup runneth over. There is such an abundance in this place... the biggest frustration is trying to keep up with it.

As I started to write this piece I was preparing for worship on Sunday and reading the Gospel lesson from Mark about the woman with the hemorrhages for 12 years, who has spent every last nickel (or shekel) on doctors. In verse 27 it begins from there,
"She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, 'If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.' Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she flet in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, 'Who touched my clothes?' And his disciples said to him, 'You see the crowd pressing in on you, how can you say, 'Who touched me?' He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, 'Daughter, you faith has made you will; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'"

As De'Amon and I talked I remembered that at Pentecost last year Ellie had said that one of her dreams (she is a public school teacher) is that there would be a decent grocery store in this neighborhood. I can't count the number of times people who live around here have told me the same thing. I thought of that because De'Amon told me that one of the other people he had talked with this week was a man who I recently married here at Broadway who owns a restaurant downtown. His name is Matt. He told De’Amon he wanted to open a grocery store in this neighborhood.

All of a sudden I wondered if any of these pieces could come together. Matt wants to open a grocery store, neighbors want a grocery store, neighbors are gardeners as well as fisher folk, Ellie wants to be helpful to a grocery store coming in here, the Development Corporation is developing a strategic plan. Maybe these things are coming together! After more than 12 years of people wanting to have a decent grocery store – and spending all of their money on places that are lousy…and finding no healing -- maybe something can happen here. Perhaps it is partly through the ministry of this church – through the church, through De'Amon, recognizing these voices as the actions of the woman touching the hem on the garment of Jesus.

That is what De’Amon is doing – he is providing us the opportunity to touch the hem of the garment. For too often we have just thrown up our hands in despair. Others have said – “you can’t do anything…don’t even try. It’s not worth it.” I think of how easy it is, like the disciples, to not see this abundance that is around us, to not be paying attention to where hands are reaching out to touch the hem of the garment.

The crowd that presses in is our busyness...our not paying attention -- or not seeing as Helen Keller would say. Maybe this is too much of a stretch.

As we get close to July the 4th I think that woman experienced her healing as freedom. That freedom is there for us along it

Freedom – true freedom leads to healing…that was possible all along – it just takes us reaching out our hands. And it takes us paying more attention than the disciples did to the hands reaching to touch the hem of Jesus' garment.

Real freedom lies there -- in the recognition of the power that is present in our shared life together. In our acting together on that power. I don't know what will happen around here -- but I'm encouraged by the story.