The Gift of Imagination

It has often been said that Tom Godwin’s story The Cold Equations is the best science fiction story ever written. It is a story about how wishful thinking simply does not work. No matter what we would like to have happen cold hard facts will always win out in the end. The space ship only has enough fuel to safely land carrying up to a certain amount of mass. The stowaway on board must be ejected into space if the craft is to land safely. There is no getting around it. Force is not a mystic energy of the universe. It is mass times acceleration. The stowaway must be sacrificed.

The story is fiction with good science driving the plot. America’s space program lost a great deal of romanticism when Neil Armstrong was asked what he would if he could take with him to the Moon. His reply was, “More fuel.” There is a fatalism in the scientific enterprise that makes us gloomy.  Yet, as some other critic pointed out, while Godwin’s plot may be driven by good science, it is bad engineering. Yes, there are limits to what can be done. But name one designer that does not plan for possible problems to arise. If the spaceship had better design, then it could potentially accommodate the extra weight. Wishful thinking is one thing. Better planning is a difference.

I know it is odd to write a religious/philosophical reflection on the topic of engineering. Ask yourself this question, “what is the point of human living without planning?” Human beings possess imagination that allows us to look just a little bit into the future. If I throw the rock at the bird and miss, it will likely fly away to escape the danger. Therefore, my aim needs to get better. I must practice my throwing. That very thought occurred to somebody in prehistory. I guarantee it. The Olduvain hand axe is a prime example of how to aim better and make it count. A human made that weapon. A human used it. And modern humans figured out how it was used. There is one other most important point to be made here. It did not work on the first try. How do I know? Because human thought and knowledge is nothing more than trial and error until one succeeds ( or dies trying).

All human religions, philosophies, and belief systems are arrived at the same way. We have arrived at them by trial and error. An ancient King may have decided to take some action. The successor of that monarch either continued it or changed it. The action (or tradition) either succeeds or not. But, human beings also make contingency plans. Imagination has helped us survive, build, conquer, conserve, preserve, and steward. All too often, we think we have the final and better plan. And that thought is destroying humanity.

Human life is facing an extinction level event of our own making. We have, since the industrial revolution, overused earth’s resources. We appear to only be dealing with this problem by trial and error. Imagination is the only tool we have. And as the most advantageous tool, imagination is very limited.  We cannot see all the contingencies. We are looking at a process that is very difficult to comprehend. Humans crave security and stability. We want our lives to be regular and predictable. We want assurances that we aren’t making errors that cannot be corrected. We really want cold equations to tell us what must be. Unfortunately (and thankfully) that is not life.

Our religious traditions are often thought of as programs of stability. One only needs to look at where the saints and sages were to know that is wrong. Monasteries do not often make Saints. Sages must learn how to live in this world as it is. First, though, they must really see the world as it is and not what they assume it to be.

The world is a gift. Life in this world is a gift. Technology is a gift. Other people are gifts. Our institutions are gifts. All human being have to do is figure out how to use those gifts. When humanity learned to make use of the energy released by wood, charcoal, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy we failed miserably in viewing these avenues to energy as gifts. Instead we think of them as a curse when we see the negative effects of using these avenues. The Saints and the Sages would tell us that we misused the gifts and for some reason blame it on the gifts.  All that has happened is that we refused to allow imagination to continue being used. A great irony to ponder is how we use technology developed using fossil fuels to produce devices that allow humans to use renewable sources of energy.

Consider this then, Robert Thomas Malthus envisioned an extinction level event derived from the misery of overpopulation. He published his work on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. His prediction did not come true because the world as he knew it changed.  He was not wrong. His imagination was limited. And he was only looking in one direction.

How did our prehistoric human decide the bird would fly away if he missed it? Because that person (and the tribe) knew that was how birds react. They saw it happen too many times before to doubt it and even told one another about it. Imagination is governed by wisdom. Wisdom is from the past.

Our religious and philosophical traditions are built on recorded history. The era of Western modernism sought to explain, examine, and dismiss outmoded traditions. The methods of thinking developed were based on the traditions. Then the methods were questioned and dismissed because they rested on old foundations. Fortunately, people from other cultures saw the value of wisdom. Western culture is rediscovering that sense of traditional wisdom. This is not the first time one culture rescued another one. Averroes, a Muslim scholar, helped Medieval Europe rediscover the roots of its civilization. The gift of the Six Nations was to impress on English colonists in the Americas the importance of communities. The colonists arrived from cities. I am sure there are other examples.

The Christian Church, with all of it’s faults, contributed to Western Culture the idea that life, the world, food, water, shelter, indeed everything worth having, as a gift. It is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible.

We have come to believe that each of us must overcome all obstacles in order to reach the promised reward of life. I am sorry that I once thought that way. I now realize that we have gifts we could not have imagined. And that we can imagine how best to use the gifts. I believe we can change the culture of death to a culture of life by remembering that we cannot force anything by dictating how it must be. We can learn again to appreciate the gifts for what they are.

The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

Annual Conference this past summer was very different for me than it had been in previous years. I attended a few sessions. I was and am still on medical leave. I was automatically excused from attending any part of it. I attended when I could. I prayed, sang, listened, and took part as I could. I was also a witness to what could very well be a final united Annual Conference. Depending on what the General Conference does next May, our next Annual Conference could involve talk of how we will separate as a church.

I have read enough material and spoken to enough people to know the consensus is that the denomination should either dissolve or separate. What I find interesting is that few people who agree that the denomination should separate also agree that their home congregation should not dissolve or separate. It is enlightening to know that many people realize there will be pain and recriminations if congregations separate. They simply do not see pain and recrimination if the denomination does. The reason is obvious at least to me that regardless of how one views the issues on which division is based no one wants to lose their friends, the people with whom they experience a connection.

Connectionalism is the feature of United Methodist polity that has made the denomination what it is. I once worked within a denomination that was based on the “call system” of ministerial leadership. The ministers in that denomination were not really friends. They were actually rivals. If a minister announced he was leaving a certain church, many resumes and sermon tapes and videos would begin arriving the next day. The itinerant system of The UMC cut down that sense of rivalry and allowed friendships among clergy to blossom. Itineracy has problems as well. The phenomenon of the “Kitchen Cabinet” among clergy was all about envy and covetousness. Who was getting what and whether or not they should was the issue. And there is no denying that motivated the people who took part in it. Another problem of itineracy has been that congregations did not believe they were getting what they wanted in a pastor. I never heard a Pastor-Parish Committee express what they needed in a pastor. For all of its faults connectionalism works fairly well. The failure has been among those who were selfish and craved power. Human beings make up the church after all.

My experience in the last Annual Conference was very heartening though. I got to spend time with clergy members and the lay delegates that I knew. The most important discussion I had was with one colleague in particular. I was walking back to Stuart Auditorium when this person stood up. He appeared excited to see me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Brother, you keep doing what you have been doing.”

I was surprised. I knew what he was talking about. I just didn’t know he knew my situation (even though I have been open about it on social media and other places). And there we stood on the sidewalk, my reconciling ministries rainbow ribbon on my name badge while he had his WCA pin on his, and he was encouraging me to keep getting better as I recovered from my addiction. I won’t name the person here. I will never be able to forget him or his gesture.  Our differences over church polity and denominational direction did not matter. Issues surrounding “justice” and “biblical authority” and “inclusion” became words when we two beings that used words used them to support one another. He was retiring. I was encouraging him to continue serving in a new capacity. He was encouraging me to stay alive.

I said that was the most outstanding example. Other times there were examples of kind words exchanged, meeting a friend who was battling cancer, talking to a colleague and apologizing for something I did, shaking hands and hugging people I had not seen in a long while. Recently, a colleague said to me, “I have been keeping up with you and pray for you every day. I have agonized with you and celebrated with you.” My congregation, my home church, is the Annual Conference. And, like any congregation, we have times we don’t get along. Most of the time we do. And I will be sorry to lose it or any part of it.

I understand the issues that are dividing us are important. Still, I believe our biggest issue to overcome is our own self-importance. If the denomination divides, we will all require repentance for this point. I will go where my conscience requires. I will also grieve the loss of the connection.

 

THANKSGIVING AS IT WAS

One congregation I served hosted a Thanksgiving meal every year for clients at our local food bank. This dinner was almost always done on the Saturday before Thanksgiving day. That one night the church would serve anywhere between two hundred to three hundred people in our area. It was a massive, exhausting, frustrating, and yet rewarding work. I recall one young lady who came in that night on her dinner break at a local Wendy’s. She told her coworkers that she wasn’t hanging around there for break. “I am going to eat a great meal.” She said.

I cannot say the dinner was better than any other that could have been put on. It was (and I hope still is) an amazing experience to witness. Eighty-something year old people guided young adults in serving while the middle-aged adults cooked, wiped down tables, and washed utensils the whole time. I marveled how I could not get my oldest son to pick his socks up off the floor while an eighty-three year old lady could have him carry heavy serving trays of food. And I was proud of him for doing it too. I wonder what he would have done if he knew I was watching?

Being the Pastor, I was usually in three places at once. I might be greeting people as they arrived. I was easily recognized by food bank clients because I helped there every week. Or I may have been helping to clean or carry out garbage. Or I could be sitting at a table just being company to someone who otherwise had no one else there. Once-in-a-while I would be helping those lay persons who were managing the whole program cope with some problem.

After one meal ended, the person coordinating serving said to me, “I was afraid we would run out of food. But there are two turkeys back there we haven’t even carved yet.” I replied, “I once heard a similar story about loaves and fish.” Her response was, “Had to be.”

One year we added a thanksgiving dinner to the one we already did. I for one do not like the idea of churches feeling like they need to do something every holiday. I never thought much of “trunk r treat.” A congregation is more than a service organization trying to get its “brand” out there. A church is most of all a community of those people who want to be disciples of Jesus as Christ. Many times that means acting as a community for one another. I do not mean merely doing activities as a group. I mean acting in ways that support each other. That is where the added Thanksgiving meal came in to our work.

While I served that congregation we lived more than a few hours away from our extended family. We did not live far enough away to make a major trip home to stay a few days. If we went “home” for Thanksgiving, it would mean spending most of the holiday on the road. We usually stayed home. Something really wasn’t right about that either. We talked to some other families and individuals at church to see what could be done to remove the burdens of traveling or isolation. We learned there were quite a few of us. And we learned that some of the older church members would be alone on Thanksgiving day itself. We decided we would have Thanksgiving day at the church fellowship hall for people at the church who wanted to come and to bring friends if they wished.

We had a time of devotion before the meal. I told the story of how Thanksgiving observances began from The United Methodist Book of Worship. It was not the story of the pilgrims and native Americans we often tell. Then we ate, talked together served each other, and cleaned up together. It really was a fun time for everyone. I thought it had been a good idea and a good plan executed. And then I found out it was something more.

One older couple that attended our church usually spent their summers traveling the northeastern rural areas of the United States and the plains of Canada. They had an itenerary of churches they visited every year to host Vacation Bible Schools. The work they did was not a “retirement project.” No. This was a mission for them. And they worked very hard at it. They were able to be present for the Thanksgiving dinner.

I saw him sitting there appearing to contemplate what was going on. I walked over and asked, “What do you think?” It was then I saw his eyes were red.

“This is the way Thanksgiving always was for my family when I was little.” He said. “We ate at church.” He went on. “I never really knew my Dad. He was a very violent and vicious man. He had children everywhere. He didn’t take care of us. I don’t believe he was legally married to my mom. We weren’t the only family he abandoned. My mom did the best she could and the church always helped us. We always had Thanksgiving at church.” He said.

I nodded. “I am glad you got to be with us this time.” I said.

There were a lot of people in the church who believed he and I would never get along. I was seminary educated and well-read. He was not seminary trained. He was pretty much a fundamentalist in how he thought. He could be a little awkward. Some said he was arrogant.

He turned out to be one of my best supporters at the church. He took notes during my sermons. He attended every Bible study that I taught when he could. He showed me the materials he used on what I thought of as his “missionary journeys.” He asked if I had any advice or ideas that could help him. If he had friends visiting, he made a point to introduce me. “This is our Pastor Don.”

I have tears in my eyes now just thinking about the friendship we shared. That Thanksgiving meal became the one of the best I have attended because it meant so much to him.

The hosts of a podcast I listen to asks their guests questions. The last one is “Assuming Heaven is real what do you want to hear God say?”

My answer is “Charlie has been waiting on you with the others.”

PATIENCE

It happened again today. What was it? A lesson for me to ponder came to me today. A lesson that points out a true weakness I possess.

I was leaving the grocery store parking lot when an elderly lady pushed her cart alongside the driver’s side of my pickup. I saw her mouth move. I rolled down my window.

“I said, ‘you got in your car too fast.’ I was pushing my buggy up here as fast as I could to get you to help me pick this up.” She pointed to a bag of kitty litter in her shopping cart.

“Oh,” I said as I turned off the ignition and got out of the truck. Generations of southern Appalachian heritage, Boy Scout training, and practical ministry all made my response automatic. I quickly got the medium sized bag into the backseat of her car.

Only when I got back into my car did I realize she said something else. “Usually I just stand here and wait for someone to come along.”

The thought of this woman waiting in a parking lot for “someone” to come help her meant she possesses one virtue that I am not known for – patience. She had to practice patience in order to wait with peace of mind until a person would show up to help her. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do that even when the time comes that I have to do it.

My father taught me the following prayer. “Lord, grant me patience and hurry it up!” One motto I live by is “let’s get started and get it done.” My mother used to say, “I am not a doctor so I don’t have to have patience” (yes, it is a terrible pun). I can safely claim I come by this lack of patience in my life honestly.

Now, if we join that lack of patience with my tendency to procrastination, we have a very disturbing situation indeed. I tend to experience guilt for not doing some tasks in a timely fashion. And I further procrastinate by beating myself up emotionally for procrastinating. As insane as this sounds keep in mind I used to use alcohol to help with depression. Try not to think too long about that.

Getting back to this lady who stopped me earlier today, I can guess that her patience is a part of a plan she makes. She has to consider what time of day someone is most likely to be in the parking lot who can and will help her. I know having a plan and putting it into play is important to having peace of mind. The real question is what if the plan does not work when it meets with reality. How is it possible to keep peace of mind with it?

I recalled the time in my teen-aged years when I often stopped at a convenience store in Alcoa named The Pantry. I was there one day when, after I got in line for the register, an older man came to me and asked, “Can you make me a hot dog?”

I quickly saw his drawn up and paralyzed arm would keep him from getting one of the hotdogs from the rollers and placing it in the bun let alone get any toppings for it. “Oh,” I said, “Sure.” I got out of line and followed his directions for his hotdog. When I was done, he said, “Make yourself one too.” I begged off saying it was getting late. And there would be supper at home. Then, I thanked him for the offer. As I said previously, generations of southern Appalachian culture and Boy Scout training were involved here. I had no idea how much money the man had to live on. I wouldn’t take any from him.

I think of him too as someone who went to that store planning to get the clerk to help him get what he needed. But the clerk was busy that day. So his practice of patience gave him the ability to ask someone else and to make allowance for extra expense. It is pretty amazing to be able to look at these situations that happened about thirty years apart and to reflect on what they mean.

I was glad to be of help. I knew I had done a daily “good turn.” I just wasn’t the hero I think I was. I was and am the student in these situations. I can’t say I got the real lesson yet. It has been said that the longest distance is between the head and the heart. I know this is true for me. And I am told I am a compassionate person. I try to be. I realize though intellectually that practicing patience is important if I am to grow in compassion. No if I can get this lesson impressed on my heart.

“Compassion is patient; compassion is kind; compassion is not envious, or boastful, or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way; it does not irritable or resentful.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)