Know When to Walk Away and When to Run

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others.” in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.

Not a Spectator Sport: Matthew 7:24; James 1:22-27

One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.

Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.

That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.

On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.

No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.

After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.

Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.

In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.

Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.

All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.

All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.

Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.

The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.

We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”

“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”

“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”

“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27