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Good day friends!

We have been doing a slow read of Parker Palmer’s short book Let Your Life Speak at our small-and-wonderful Blues Prayers service.

Yesterday, this was the passage we considered, from pages 5 and 6:

“I sometimes lead retreats, and from time to time participants show me the notes they are taking as the retreat unfolds. The pattern is nearly universal: people take copious notes on what the retreat leaders say, and they sometimes take notes on the words of certain wise people in the group, but rarely, if ever, do they take notes on what they themselves say. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.

I urge retreatants to turn their note-taking around, because the words we speak often contain counsel we are trying to I’ve ourselves. We have a strange conceit in our culture that simply because we have said something, we understand what it means! But often we do not – especially when we speak from a deeper place than intellect or ego, speak the kind of words that arise when the inner teach er feels safe enough to tell its truth. At those moments, we need to listen to what our lives are saying and take notes on it, lest we forget our own truth or deny that we ever heard it.”

My reflection on this was fairly simple. We often have our wise inner teacher buried deep and cannot listen to its wisdom because of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that we have experienced in life: our injuries, trauma, abuse, diminishment, embarrassment. All of it. “The full catastrophe” to quote Zorba the Greek very much out of context!

We need deliberate practices and locations that create safety and invitation for that inner teacher to speak to us, and for us to listen to it. Palmer likens the soul or inner teacher to a shy animal that is in the woods. To hear it, to see it, we must move gently, taking time and careful and deliberate steps to move to a place where the shy soul animal will come out and be present to us.

This is not mere navel gazing. Thomas Merton long ago point out in “A Letter to Young Activist” the danger of trying to create change in the world without paying good and prior attention to what’s going on inside oneself. He warned that enormous damage would result. Not unlike what Jesus said to the Pharisees: “You make them twice the children of hell that they already were.”

So we need this inner teacher. And the world needs us to listen to our inner teachers. Quietly, urgently, joyfully, compassionately.

Hello friends,
My father sent me several documents from the years he was working in denominational leadership. This would be the early 2000s – post-integration, a time of struggle, new hope, and negotiation in the wake of the challenging times our two former denominations had at St. Louis in 1999.

Here’s what I would highlight (from the document “Restructuring Perspectives”)

Organizational Culture

1. Churchwide structures focused on influence rather than control.
2. Flexibility and Networking – assume a somewhat continual process of transformation.
3. Rather than managing all parts of the church, encourage innovation and creativity in various entities such as area conferences and congregations.
4. Dispersion of authority rather than a hierarchical “episcopal” structure. A more centralized governing structure needs to be balanced by a healthy respect for dispersion of authority particularly as expressed in area conferences and congregations.
5. Cultural diversity in the makeup, role and discernment process of structures. How we do the ‘business of the church” should reflect the cultural diversity found in the church. This requires a deeper transformation than simply adding a certain ratio of representation from various ethnic groups.
6. Connecting structures do not serve as ends in themselves. These need to continually justify their existence rather than claiming entitlement through their agenda and maintenance.

I would love to see these insights honored in our work together today.

And here are the whole files, for you avid readers!
Restructuring Perspectives
Several Trends Transforming Mennonite Church USA
Review Report to Assembly 2007

Some Mennonite words to which I say “arrgh!”
“Foundational documents”
“By-laws”
“It says clearly on line 172… (pick a line)”
“Need to comply, become aligned, follow rules”
“That which was voted on….”

I am increasingly unhappy with what I have been calling “para-legal” talk among Mennonites – talk that focuses on by-laws and other “foundational documents”, etc.

There are not so many of us Mennonites that we couldn’t just talk to each other for awhile without any maneuvering for votes or documents or things that become “official”. And what would happen if we more and more started to just go for a summary of the “sense of the meeting” among delegates rather than voting? Then leaders would take their cues from this and lead, and make decisions on a daily basis aware of the sense of the meeting. And then back to more conversation. And then back to more leadership. A tidal flow of process and discernment. (I saw this modeled in a very “proto-” way in our Mountain States Mennonite Conference listening circles and then the action of the leadership board).

I was chatting with Parker Palmer about this last March, and he noted that among Quakers there is a “Book of the meeting” and it’s most key components are simply testimonials about how the meeting has made a difference in their lives, and what that difference is. At least that’s how I understood his description. I’d like to see something more like that – more wholehearted story telling and less organizational structuring.
FYI here’s a quote from a Quaker website about the books: “While Friends traditionally do not have creeds, most yearly meetings (regional bodies of like-minded Friends) do adopt a book of “discipline,” often called “Faith and Practice.” These books generally describe the practices and procedures used in the yearly meeting, offer inspirational extracts from Quaker literature, and contain “advices” and “queries” (guidance and questions to help Friends examine themselves and their lives as they strive to live more fully in the Light).

I remember in 1997 how alarmed I was when the then-named “Mennonite Church” denomination voted to say that marriage was only between a man and a woman. 90% supported the notion; 10% did not. I was not a voting delegate, but I found myself with the 10%. Subsequently, all the statements were that the denomination decided _______, or believes ________. That left the 10% essentially voiceless in the wake of the vote. Even if the tables were turned now, I would not simply want to be part of a “winning” vote. How would the people who disagreed feel?

So this is a call for a great process of listening and consensus and avoidance of win-lose voting and structural maneuvering to “get things to pass.” Let’s do more maneuvering to listen to the Holy Spirit and to each other. We have the time to do this; it is invaluable. In fact, I would argue that doing anything else is simply a distortion and a waste of time. But when we do listen deeply and well, we actually tend to “get everything done” that we need to.

“The power of story-in-action:
reversing trauma and finding joy”
Summer Fine Arts series; August 17, 2014
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014

Bible reading Numbers 23:18 – 24a

Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:
‘Rise, Balak, and hear;
listen to me, O son of Zippor:
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
See, I received a command to bless;
he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob;
nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
acclaimed as a king among them.
God, who brings them out of Egypt,
is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
“See what God has done!”
Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
and rousing itself like a lion!

Let’s go down
(begin with reggae “Down to the valley…”)
Okay let’s do this a bit
(Em – first note is “B”)
The words are:
“Oh sinner let’s go down
let’s go down, let’s go down
Oh sinner, let’s go down
Down to the valley to pray

Now with a slow clap – to claps per line
and listen for the chunk
of shovels digging hopeless holes in the desert

Our movie for consideration
in connection with a few words
from old Balaam in the book of Numbers
and in connection with our lives

is Holes, directed by Andrew Davis
based on the award-winning children’s book
by Louis Sachar.

in the beginning of our movie
the camera pans over an oddly pocked landscape
a desert full of holes

at ground level,
we discover that the holes are being dug
by boys in orange prison jumpsuits

Why are they digging?
There’s something wrong
young boys digging holes
in a waterless region

there are rattlers, and worse dangers in the desert

Shoes from the sky
In our Bible reading, Balaam declares
that there is no enchantment
or divination against Israel

but there does seem to be such
enchantment and divination
against Stanley Yelnatz the 4th

It’s the 150-year-old Yelnats curse
And so it catches Stanley the 4th
as he is laconically walking
in his neighborhood

as always, trying to stay out of trouble
and, as with all Yelnats’, failing

Beautiful running shoes fall from the sky onto Stanley
like an OT revelation from the Almighty

On impulse, he picks them up and runs
so purely by happenstance,
he is running with stolen shoes

which of course is exactly what they are
and soon he will be headed for the desert
full of boys digging holes
in, as the prophet Ezekiel so succinctly puts it
“in a dry and thirsty land”

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water. Its strongest stem became a ruler’s scepter; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it stood out in its height with its mass of branches. But it was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried it up; its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it. Now it is transplanted into the wilderness, into a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its stem, has consumed its branches and fruit, so that there remains in it no strong stem, no scepter for ruling. This is a lamentation, and it is used as a lamentation.
(Ezekiel 19:10-14)

Have you ever had a day like that?
When your vine, the place of your joy
your means of doing something good in the earth
has been scorched by fire

or has just dried up
and it may even seem like a family curse
as Ezekiel says “your mother”

almost like one of those “your momma…” rants
Your mother was like a vine
but now that vine of yours
that vine of your family

is dried up, cursed
it is transplanted to a dry and thirsty place
and scorched by fire

and is an instrument of lamentation
only an instrument of lamentation

Sing “O sinner, let’s go down”

150 year old curse
Stanley is falsely accused
of stealing the shoes

It’s true that it was not smart
to just pick up shoes that have fallen
and run

but he didn’t steal them
he was just walking along
“minding his own business”
as the saying goes

Now he is faced with an 18 month sentence
at a reform camp for boys
Camp Greenlake

Ironically named, since there is no lake
no green, only holes in the desert

The way the camp looks
is the way you feel
when you are falsely accused

A very minor point, but I was was accused of lying
in Child Evangelism Fellowship
in 3rd grade or so

The teacher asked rhetorically
don’t we all cuss sometimes

First of all, I didn’t know what “cuss” meant
Then when she enlightened me
good two-shoes that I was

I informed her that “no, I didn’t cuss”
she categorically informed me
that I was lying

Well, whatever
but I do remember it
because of the sizzle of the accusation

I also needed to learn to keep my mouth shut
but that’s another part of the story

The “Innocence Project”
has exonerated 317 people through DNA reexamination
18 of these were on death row

Can you imagine being put in a cell?
Can you imagine being put in a cell for
something you didn’t do?

Can you imagine waiting to be executed
for something you didn’t do?

We have probably all experienced
the false accusation, in some form
it is a form of trauma, great or small

It should at least give us a great deal of humility
in dealing with so called “offenders”
in our justice system

the swagger and pushing and berating
of what is known as the “Reid Method”
of interrogation,

that is so often seen on TV and in movies
where suspects are subjected to being
“sweated” and made to be thirsty,
tired or nervous or lonely
so that they “break”

do we really have the character and knowledge and grace
to use such a system wisely
in our criminal justice system?

According to some more recent analyses
(eg. The New Yorker, December 9, 2013)
the “Reid Method” is increasingly discredited
as a fount of false confessions and convictions.

And yet it is pervasively reflected in our cop procedurals
such as Bones, or C.S.I.

And then there is the question of incarceration
as a solution in general

In Holes, we see some of the prison tropes:
casual bullying among the population
and from the staff

from “Mr. Sir” the guard
with the really nasty little sideburns that curve forward at the bottom toward a point
and the also-nasty gold-framed sunglasses

Deprivation and cruelty as punishment
supposedly for the sake of reform

“You take a bad boy and make him dig holes all day in the hot sun. An’ it turns him into a good boy. That’s our philosophy here at Green Lake.” intones Mr. Sir.

Balaam: no enchantment or divination against…
But redemption comes to Stanley Yelnats

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
no divination against Israel;
says Balaam

And what precedes that is of course
the old story recitation

God, who brings them out of Egypt,
is like the horns of a wild ox for them.

God who brings them out of Egypt,
out of incarceration and false accusation
the making of bricks without straw

like digging holes in the desert
and for what reason?

But God brings them out!
This Spirit who does not lie
because this is a Holy Spirit,
not a person,

the One, as Henri Nouwen says,
who is “free of wounds”
and so does not need to wound

the one who participates in our pain
and is wounded, and is a wounded healer,
and is healed of wounds
and heals all wounds

because of the infinity of love
that never fails, that never lacks
resource, that is like water
in a “dry and thirsty land”

the land of our traumas and hurts
and indignities great or small
into that land flows the river
of God’s love

as we offer ourselves to each other
and as let ourselves receive love

so we are healed, so we find forgiveness,
as we make amends, and others make amends
and the world is set free
from some measure of trauma

The story for Israel is freedom from slavery
in Egypt

the story for Stanley is that his great-grandfather
is able to survive in the wilderness
because of finding an oasis
in a place called
“God’s thumb”

in case we don’t get the significance of the place.
And so Stanley the 4th finds his way to survive
in the wilderness

Lynching
All very well,
but the beating heart of the trauma
and the redemption in the movie

the deep resonance of the human soul
is the story of lynching

lynching is the reason that Greenlake, Texas,
went from being a green lake with a town
and well-watered gardens
to being a dry and thirsty place

Back a couple of generations in old Texas
– forbidden love – called miscegenation!
Illegal, by the way, in the state of Virginia until 1976.

Under the social constructs of racial colors
white woman and black man
like gay and straight being absolutes distinctions
of separation and identity

The peach woman and the onion man
they love each other
A teacher and a peddler

But that doesn’t matter…
what matters is their skin color –
that’s what matters most
In the kingdom of the curse

That’s what matters in ancient Biblical Egypt,
the place of bondage
in the United States
united with a history of deep
and persistent racism

In the movie, as so often happened,
the beast comes calling, and lynching is performed,
which is popular execution of the scapegoat other,

thus keeping the soul of the town pure
keeping us clean and spotless from the feared other
whoever that may be.

James Cone has a powerful book in it –
The cross and the lynching tree
on the church and the U.S. history of lynching.

Whew! It’s a read.

So the young man is shot in his boat
full of onions and bottles of peaches
While the sheriff got drunk

Terror and force layered upon terror and force,
in the camp and in racial history

Resurrection
In the Biblical story
resurrection comes after Jesus experiences
utter forsakenness
Eloi, eloi lema sabachthani
my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In the movie
redemption comes after Stanley
and his friend Hector
come near death in the desert

and they enact friendship
beyond race and beyond all the brutalities
layered into their lives

of poverty, and homelessness, and neglect,
and meanness, and a false justice system

the enact friendship
risk for each other,
choose compassion

It is perhaps not a fully resonant answer
to all the trauma
for an adult
I found myself asking
“does that really answer lynching?”

It is a children’s story
but perhaps it is deeply resonant
because what else can we do but risk
for the sake of friendship
beyond all the prejudices and tramas?

Part of the movie’s end is deeply unsatisfactory to me.
The warden, played by the ever-amazing Sigourney Weaver
has her own back-story of trauma
being made to did

and she turns and with what’s often called
the “repetition compulsion”
does to others what has been done to her

Michael Lerner uses this analysis in the middle-east
and gets death-threats for his trouble

But she and her fellow cruel staff members
at the camp, get their comeuppance,
which is supposed to be satisfying

but I think it just perpetuates the cycle
whenever indignity is answered with indignity
and cruelty is answered with cruelty

more satisfactory to have found a paradoxical
pathway out of all the cycles of harm

then there would be true joy,
that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, I think

to reject all strategies of revenge
and dealing of harm
and punishment

and rather to seek to find our way
together in joy and difficulty
so that all the “dry and thirsty” places among us
are watered with God’s love.

Sing a bit of “O sinner, let’s go down…”

I think this excerpt of Merton’s writing is so powerful and important in times of deep struggle and longing for change.

Vern

LETTER TO A YOUNG ACTIVIST

By Thomas Merton

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

…The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your even thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand . . .

I had a very good discussion with an Ohio pastor friend this morning. We chatted about some key life and ministry experiences, about our families, our children. In so doing, we reinforced our relationship. And we talked about the argument in our denomination around sexuality. We don’t agree about questions of gay (GLBTQ, affectional orientation) membership or marriage or leadership. He stays with the MCUSA 1995 confession. I walk outside several of the definitions in that confession. But we can definitely work with each other. I would even say we can work with each other better than with some folks who would happen to agree with us.

It is even difficult for me to say “agree” and “disagree” in this context, because these words may imply static positions from which we relate. And with someone like this friend, what I experience is a solidity of personhood and relational capacity, rather than the more raw solidity of a simple position.

He talked about a wonderful preaching series he did, which included the question of sexuality – something that was very challenging for his congregation. This series invited folks into conversation, and these meetings were good. They engendered some lovely surprises, including thoughtful perspectives from history and even apologies and forgiveness offered. Powerful!

I talked about how I was deeply committed to being in community with gay folks, to the point that this is like a “civil rights” movement for me. But that deep commitment doesn’t mean for me that I am right and others are wrong. It means I’m working whole-heartedly to see something new be born on earth. But I’m also deeply committed to remaining available for learning and relationship from wherever it may come. This includes learning from, and relationship with, those who differ from me.

I think what’s at stake here (and I’ve written about this before) is Ed Friedman’s distinction between “certainty” and “clarity”. Certainty is characterized by having a rigid position, the need to convert others to my position, and the inability to be present with difference. This means when I’m in disagreement with others I need to either win-over and convert them, or I need to banish them from my circles, or I need to avoid them. Rigidity tends to be fragile. A good argument can break everything.

Clarity is characterized by deep commitment. But that commitment is held with a sense of openness to new light and more information and receiving counsel and care from others. In clarity, I remain flexible and resilient, with a pliable strength, even in argument and difficult conversations. This allows me, as Parker Palmer puts it, to be present with “all of myself”. In so doing, I carry far more wholesome and powerful resources into conversations and meetings.

I think this is true about my Ohio friend and his ministry, and I pray that it is more and more the way I am in my person and work.

I’ve been on retreat with Parker Palmer for several days in Wisconsin. One thing he said about “truth”: “Truth is a matter of the life long work of attempting to navigate the layers and turns and new moves in our lives. You have to get into the conversation. You can’t rest in the conclusions because things keep changing.” (not a direct quote, but my memory of what he said this morning)

I think I understand the desire for fixed truth, whether in the form of Biblical reading or church practice. We long for something solid in our lives.

Nevertheless, things do keep changing. And that which is fixed often eventuates in harm to someone. This is because the fixed truth is somehow incomplete, and being incomplete, it fails to account for everyone properly. So people are harmed. This evokes the need to pay attention to change, the need to “get into the conversation.”

This idea of getting into the conversation can be a clue for us. Perhaps it is in sound and true and authentic conversation that truth lies. That is, truth lies most clearly in well-tended relationships rather than in propositions, by-laws, or guidelines. All of those may have limited value, but they are not the thing we are going for. What we want is not a timeless set of words, but an authentic community of love.

In the Christian tradition, this is Christ-like love, that has that particular deep commitment to relationships both divine and human. Jesus shows a deep passion and delight for living in the flow of such great relationships. How often is Jesus’ great love expressed in wholehearted devotion to his “father in heaven” and to his friends.

That’s what we want, I think. That’s what will serve us well as a denomination, and make us a blessing to each other and in God’s good earth.

One final quote from Palmer: “It’s better to be in right relationship than to be right.”

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