Monday, December 31, 2007

Another Letter to the Bish

So -- when I drafted this letter I sent it to a few friends. Phil Amerson said to me, "When I read the article in Together I wondered what your letter would say?" Another friend wrote and said, "Bishops don't have that long of an attention span" (fair point). So - this is the draft of the letter. I have actually broken this letter into four letters -- the first one I mailed on December 2nd. The second one I will mail on January 2nd (and so forth). I trust and believe that you (dear reader) have a longer attention span than a bishop (I'm pretty confident that no bishops are regular readers of this blog -- part of it is the whole attention span thing). goes the original drafted letter...

November 23, 2007

Bishop Michael Coyner

Dear Bishop Coyner,

Greetings! And Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you and your family had a lovely time together, and that you had a much needed and deserved time of rest.

When I picked up the mail on Friday morning I discovered the November/December 2007 issue of Together and read on the front page the article headlined “North Indiana United Methodists repent for neglect of inner city.”

I was glad to read the remarks made by you and Rev. Cobb at the auspicious occasion of the celebration of the establishment of a “ruin [?] park with garden.” Those words cut close to the bone. Perhaps it was mistyped – but it may also have been one of those type of errors that reveals more than we want it to.

You are quoted as saying, “we are here to learn from our mistakes.” I think it would be very helpful for all of us in the church to hear you say concretely and clearly what those lessons have been. Such words then have the opportunity to be standards upon which we can measure ourselves and hold one another accountable. I am honestly afraid – as I’ve heard such words of commitment down through the years – that we are much more adept at uttering such words than at even attempting a step in the direction of actually doing something new – behaving in new ways – changing old patterns.

I too desire repentance – and not a repentance that looks back on the past – but a repentance that looks forward. But my concern is that we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

For example, we continue to downsize and close churches in our most ethnically diverse communities (not to mention our most low-income communities – both rural and urban). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do that – I AM saying that if we are going to do it we should at least talk about it. We should gather together and talk and pray together about the future of the church in our most ethnically diverse and also low-income communities. Jesus’ commitment to the poor and to those on the margins is widely acknowledged – at least in word – by most all of established Christendom. Why can’t we talk about the abandonment of these communities, because of racism – but also because racism and other forms of moral blindness, have left us without imagination – without a capacity to trust in the spirit of God working in the midst of our communities and our congregations.

What would it look like to “learn from our mistakes?” I really do want to hear from you. But lest I be accused of criticizing without offering any thoughts on my own (and I’m not arguing these are good thoughts – just MY thoughts), I will offer a few thoughts.

What would it look like for us to make a major decision, an out front vocal decision, to invest in new ministries (not necessarily new buildings) in low-income communities, in diverse communities, throughout urban areas in particular? What would happen if instead of acting out of scarcity, we began to make plans, real plans, solid plans, to not only NOT downsize, but multiply (at least 10 fold) the number of ministry sites in low-income communities.

What would it look like if we were to go into urban communities and not say how can we help – but – something like this that William Stringfellow said nearly 40 years ago in a meditation he did on the book of Hebrews entitled Free in Obedience.

…[I]f I were a bishop in one of the great cities, I would not show my compassion for the trauma and violence of city life by building, financing, and consecrating any more church buildings or parish houses. Maybe some of those are needed, but first there has to be a depth and passion of involvement that, for the most part, there has not yet been. Only then can there be intelligent deployment of financial resources and shrewd location of physical facilities. If I were a bishop, I would first of all devote myself to walking the streets, trying to see the inner city for myself. I would, so to speak, make myself available to the actual inner life of the city; I would visit and try to listen to the voices that can be heard in the taverns and the tenements, on the street corners and in the shops. First, I would try to hear the city, if, indeed, the city would tolerate my presence long enough to permit me to listen.

Then, I think, I would go scour the land to find perhaps five hundred Christians—men and women, clergy and laity—to commission and send into the city. When I had found and called these missionaries I would tell them that they were to go and, probably in pairs, into the city and just live on whatever means of survival prevailed in the block or neighborhood to which they were sent; they would have to live, in so far as possible, as those to whom they were sent. I would instruct them that upon their arrival they should do only one thing: knock on every door. Most doors would not be opened, at least not readily. But when a door was opened, the missionaries would say: ‘We have come to be with you because God cares for your life, and because God cares for your life, we also care for you.’ Period. There would be nothing more—no invitations to join the Church, no programs to offer for the people or their kids, no rummage to give away, no groups to join or meetings to attend, no gimmicks, no concealed motives, and no hidden agendas. There would be just the bare announcement of God’s love and the freedom which that love gives people to love each other.

Of course, at first, because the world is so accustomed to guile on the part of those who come in God’s name, the message would not be either welcomed or believed. But with persistence, some would receive the message. Then there would be time enough to deal with all of the other issues of Christian witness beyond the event of merely caring, such as whether some should be baptized or join a congregation, whether a new congregation should be called into being, whether any particular facilities were appropriate to the witness in this place, and so on. But first of all, the Christian (the Church) must simply be in the world, sharing in and caring eloquently and honestly for the life of the world—or the life of any…[person]—just as it is.

Now what Stringfellow has suggested here is a fairly impressive act of repentance that looks forward not backward. But the words I read, in the Together article and in your regular E-pistle – didn’t have much concrete to offer. Please offer something beyond words – that those of us in ministry in these places and across our conferences could lift our voices to support.

What if we were to take some lessons from the Episcopalians and their Living Stones movement that recognizes NOT the lack of professional clergy that they have in isolated rural areas – but the abundance of gifted people in those areas. What if we treated places like Gary, NOT as if they are poor destitute communities, but as if they are places full of people who are bursting with gifts that will enrich us all?

During Advent we often recall the words that Mary spoke when she felt the child, Jesus, leap in her womb. She sang a very practical (and challenging) word about what the coming presence of Jesus had, in fact, already brought into the world. Would anyone looking at us today say be able to accuse us of singing Mary’s song?

Our mission, as the General Conference has clearly stated, and as the Bishops have emphasized over and over again, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in this regard, we have seemed to think that those who are to be “made” disciples of Jesus Christ are those who are not present in the church –perhaps it would be more appropriate if we who are already in the church focused less on “making” others disciples and more on “making” ourselves disciples.

I remember the words of the Gospel of St. Matthew – where Jesus asks the question about which son does the will of the Father – the one who tells him that he will do something and doesn’t – or the one who tells him he won’t and does it anyway. I think that the answer is that it is the second. But my real concern is that we will be the first son.

Words are not enough (as I’m sure you know) – but the presence of the Living Word IS enough.

I know that you cannot be all things to all people. But you can create the space and encourage and support those who are called to this conversation. And you could then use your office (appointment making, etc.) to support such an effort.

Perhaps you already have folks talking about this at cabinet meetings and in other places around the Annual Conference. But if not – perhaps you would consider bringing together folks from urban congregations AND urban communities (who may or may not be in the church) to talk and pray together about how to move forward.

Keep tellin’ the Story,

Rev. Michael Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"I Don't Know" -- the beginning of Wisdom

Lately I've been reading poets. A friend, Kevin Armstrong, recommended a collection of Poems: New and Collected by Wistawa Szymborska -- and I came across the following that she wrote in the introduction:

"Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets and artists. There is, there has been, there will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners--I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. What ever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous 'I don't know.'"...

"That is why I value that little phrase 'I don't know' so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include space within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself, 'I don't know,' the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones, and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself, 'I don't know,' she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families and ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying 'I don't know,' and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize."

"I don't know" sounds like what I heard in South Africa that I loved so much. That is to say -- people struggling to find their way into the future and willing to risk not knowing...stepping out in faith. And willing not to do just what others think might work -- but trusting the Spirit at work among them. It is that type of humility with which we need -- I need -- to approach the world. I read that passage early on Christmas morn. I hope that "I don't know" was re-born with me this Christmas.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ninth Commandment

My dear friend Mary Ann Moman stopped by (as usual) around Christmas this year. And as usual we exchanged gifts (that is to say, books). The one she gave me was by Miroslav Volf entitled The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. It is a good book to have read with recently returning from South Africa and thinking a lot there about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (and the more I think about it he more remarkable and holy the whole thing seems).

But, I digress. In this book I came across the following passage that got me thinking about something else. The author offers some insight on the 10 Commandments and the ninth commandment in particular that I had never thought of before. Here is what he says, "Many Christian theologians view the prohibitions of the Decalogue as the negative side of implied positive injunctions. For Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, the ninth commandment does not only prohibit false witness; it also urges us to speak well of our neighbors. What fulfills the ninth commandment, he insisted, is not just 'a manner of speech with harms no one,' but further, a manner of speech that 'benefits everyone, reconciles the discordant, excuses and defends the maligned.' The way we talk about neighbors should be more than just formally true; it should also benefit them individually, as well as help repair and sustain bonds between them. This broadened interpretation of the prohibition against false witness is a consequence of Luther's belief that we should be concerned as much with our neighbors' interest as with our own. We fulfill the prohibitions against bearing false witness when we love our neighbor (including our adversaries) as ourselves by speaking well of them."

I thought of this for two reasons. One is I have had some anger recently toward someone who has been getting under my skin. I had not thought of my outward response to this person as "bearing false witness" -- but I will, now. The second thing is that I recently discovered that an acquaintance of mine had taken a shot at me, in print, without talking with me about their concern/issue with what I had said. I realized, in the wake of this, that I will think more carefully about what I say about others, obliquely or not - and try to find ways to keep the ninth commandment so that people are built up, rather than feeling attacked or torn down. It was a good thing to think about as the new year moves ever closer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What's Your Annunciation?

Denise Levertov published an amazing poem entitled "Annunciation" that I share with you now (even though, I know, I know - it's "post-Christmas" -- still).


‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?

Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, "I cannot, I am not worthy,"
nor "I have not the strength."
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

And now a few reflections....

I was young and flip. Some say to me now that they find me old and flip (flippant, that is). But I was even more flip when I was younger. In my first church, after worship one Sunday morning, a fellow asked if I would come by his Sunday School class that morning…an adult class I should note. I agreed that I would. And I did. When I came in these were the first words said to me, “We know that this is the job of the Pastor-Parish Committee (the personnel committee), but since we are the men of the church we decided to talk with you about something.” At that point I should have realized this wasn’t going to go well and walked out. But I wasn’t that smart.

I just thought I was.

The men of the church said to me – “We want to know what you think about the Virgin Birth?” I said (remember I was young and flip) – “Well, I don’t think about it much.” They asked again, “We want to know what you think about the virgin birth,” and again I said – Young and flip that I was – old and flip that I am – “I don’t think about it much.” And the next words took me completely by surprise. They were these – “you are saying that the virgin Mary is a prostitute!” -- “What,” I stammered out. I said, “you’ve got be kidding. The only two choices for a woman are not virgin or prostitute…but let me ask you a question,” I said. “How important is Mary to you?” -- “Well,” someone answered, “she’s not – because that would be Catholic.” Ah…now we were treading in the land of prejudices – I knew it, they knew it, we all knew – ancient prejudices rearing their head. I just didn’t realize that in my prejudice I was as blind as my questioners.

“So,” I said smugly, “It is important to you that Mary was a virgin, but not that she was a human being. Let me tell you,” I said, “I believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – you asked me what I think about the virgin Birth and I told you I don’t think about it – and I don’t. It’s not important to me. What’s important is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.” And then I was done. The meeting continued for a couple of minutes more, before I walked out – too late – but I walked out. I was feeling smug in my rightness. And I have told that story many times over the years feeling smug all along the way.
Earlier this year we had an event here at Broadway, called Mari and Fran and Chocolate. At that event Fran Quinn read a poem by Denise Levertov entitled “Annunciation” which has been at the center of my considering what we are talking about this morning. In that poem, Levertov, sees the truth, the real truth, that I missed in the story, because I wanted to be a cute, smart, seminary graduate about it.

It is important for me to be smart. But it is not my calling. There are things that I am good at. Things that are my gift…they are just not always helpful. To me. To others around me. Perhaps you know a bit of what this is like yourself?

But when Fran read that poem, I found myself going back to it again and again and again. And each time I did…I saw something more – something I hadn’t seen before.

I remember being told by a wise friend of mine once – all stories are true; some of them actually happened.

This story – this one about Mary is true. It is a story that we would do well to take into our hearts. It is a story that we would do well to remember. It is story that we would do well to learn from. And that is why we are here this morning. To learn from the annunciation – to learn from Mary and from Gabriel.

We are told, Levertov points out, that Mary showed “meek obedience” – but we are not told – “courage.” Levertov reveals to us that Mary chooses, agrees, and it is not just meek obedience – courageously she receives her annunciation…she takes it upon herself…she chooses it. But not before she wonders. And this is an important thing, to me – do you hear the wonder in her voice when she asks, “How can this be?” She does not ask it in any other way – but the way in which you and I ask the very same question – “How can this be?” -- we ask it breathlessly. For ourselves. The choices come before us – we believe we are to do something – we try to shake it out of our head – out of our heart…but we can’t, we don’t.

Here is where Levertov is particularly helpful to me – she writes – and this is truly what I believe…“more often in those moments, when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair, and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. God does not smite them. But the gate closes, the pathway vanishes.”

The gate closes, the pathway vanishes. The choices come and we gulp and look away. I think it is less that the gate closes, but that the pathway really does disappear. It is unused. We don’t set foot on it. A path that goes untrod, gets overgrown. But Mary chooses that path.

When I was in that church in Evansville, those people asked me a question and they deserved a better answer than a flip answer of “I don’t think of the virgin birth.” A better answer might have been – “I’m not sure what it means – but I know I want to explore it with you. Will you go along with me? Will you take this journey with me? Can we see where God is calling us?

I think of the birth of a child. Karen and Marc McAleavey are having a child in a couple of months – less than a couple of months if all works out well. That child is a child they have chosen. Haven’t you asked – How can this be? Talulah was chosen by Wayde and David – and haven’t you asked – “How Can This Be.” A year ago around this time we celebrated Lonnie and Sierra becoming a family… Didn’t you ask – “How Can This Be?” On Friday morning, several of us from Broadway gathered to be part of the procession, or part of the gathering at the State House to remember Julia Carson. One of the things that struck me on Friday morning and in accounts of the worship service is people in wonder that this woman, this black woman, this African-American woman, the first woman and the first African-American to represent Indianapolis in Congress achieved what she did, led where she did, remembered people who others forgot as she did. And though the grief was real – I thought that wonder was the main feeling in the air – people asking in wonder and joy “How Can This Be?” When we follow an annunciation – we don’t know where it will lead.

Harold and Diana Metheny could hardly have drawn a road map of the last 50 years, that brought them to a celebration at Broadway UMC, where their daughter is pastor!

Levertov writes that "Mary did not cry, ‘I cannot, I am not worthy,’ nor ‘I have not the strength.’ She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans consent illumined her. The room filled with its light, the Lilly glowed in it, and the iridescent wings. Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”

Take a moment and think, think, think – ponder in the silence the annunciation that comes to you in your life. It is a path that lies before you. I don’t know what it is. But you do. Be inspired by Mary. Live with courage unparalleled. Be opened – utterly.

So Much To Say...

Yes, yes, yes. That's what people say "ALLLL the Time." So much to say -- so little time. But there it is. Everytime I've thought about posting on this again, I've been overwhelmed by how much has happened over the last several months. We've traveled. We've returned. We've read. We've written. We've seen Conor off to college. We've seen Jordan off to new heights (he's grown a whole lot). Kathy's job was given away while we were gone. So -- though it looks similar things are a bit different for her.

And now today...the day AFTER Christmas. And it was another full, full day. But let me begin my return, by going off on a small rant, that I've been holding onto for several months.

Back in October...I attended the Indianapolis Prayer Breakfast (may God save me from another visit). It's been a long time since I've been to something so ostensibly Christian that felt so inhospitable to Christ. But that isn't what really bothered me.

They gave an award. They called it the Isaiah 58 award. I love Isaiah 58. They read the following excerpt from that chapter (beginning with verse 6):
Is not this the fast I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

They then gave the award to a group that gives money to help pay the utility bills of those who can't afford to pay their own, and has a food pantry for people to get food. Here's what made me crazy: That isn't what the passage says. It says to "share YOUR bread with the hungry" - your bread, implies your table. We know that because the next says that you "bring the homeless poor into your house." That's not the same as giving them a ride to the Mission or paying a utility bill (that's just a stop gap in overwhelmingly most cases). Isaiah 58 is a real challenge -- a real fast that God is requiring. And it's tough. But it's not the same thing as that which we call charity (which is a good thing in its own right -- but it is not the same thing).

I couldn't get over the thought that if a group that really deserved the Isaiah 58 were to get that award that most of the audience there that morning would have walked out -- offended by the very idea of such people. Just as most people back in Jesus' day complained about him "eating with tax collectors and sinners" - they would have had much less of a problem if he had just run a food pantry where they could pick up a few food items rather than hanging out with such folks. It's the hanging out part that got Jesus killed (or so the gospels would have us believe).

It simply served to remind me that we are raising a generation of Christians who think that justice is something very different than what Jesus seemed to think it was. (sigh)