• I had a chance to visit my parents this week.  My dad continues to enjoy company and does not seem to be losing any ground.  He has short-term memory problems and significant aphasia (trouble putting thoughts to words) which leave him needing people with him all the time, but much of his thinking is very clear...and his spirit continues to be strong.  My mom is stuck with continuing physical exhaustion and low feelings, even though her vital physical signs are stable.  I have appreciated all that my brother Steve (and his family) who live in Springfield have been able to do...and all that their friends and church members and relatives (who live distant) have meant to them in getting them through all this.  My best friend from high school, Jeff Koch, has stayed the night several times with them so my brother Steve can get home once in a while.
  • Reading Richard Russo's latest novel, Chances Are.  He is one of my favorite authors, but so far I'm not as taken by this one as much as I have been the others.  But I've still got 70 pages to go...so...maybe I'll change my mind.

November 17, 2019
Getting Along Better with Hillbillies
The youth were in charge of the worship services today. They held the event in the downstairs worship center.  Culture shock.  Sort of.  Mostly for the 9 a.m. folks.
We normally worship in the sanctuary at that hour:  stained glass, organ, grand piano, four-part choir, rows of pews, candles, hymn singing, ushers passing out detailed program bulletins, gold-painted offering plates...  People at 9 a.m. don't usually bring their breakfast into worship, or even their coffee. At 9 a.m., parishioners should be seen and not heard... unless you are singing out of the hymnal or reading the liturgy along with everyone else. If you laugh out loud during the service... it's awkward.
But today at 9 a.m., the sanctuary folks were invited downstairs.  They sat at round tables.  The youth had "discussion questions" and asked them to talk to the other people sitting at their table.  The event featured high tech, guitars, drums, and keyboards.  Stained glass was replaced by nightclub lighting.  There was a coffee bar next to the stage. Corny jokes slipped into the call to worship.  The strange songs were made up of endlessly repeated words with a romantic twist.  The room remained dark most of the time.  Youth walk around with microphones and asked people to talk.  The old seminary-educated man was replaced by kids who spoke through the TV.  If you didn't laugh out loud at the humor it got awkward.
The culture shock was significant enough that a number of our sanctuary people chose to stay away from worship today.  I know the feeling.  I'm one of those who is much more comfortable worshipping in the sanctuary than in the downstairs worship center.  And at the age of 65, I figure I've spent enough time in my life sitting through things that make me feel uncomfortable. And I also get really crabby at this stage of my life...especially when I'm disoriented.  So, don't expect me to use this Sunday letter to try and take the speck out of my brothers' and sisters' eyes who sat out the service today because of cultural discomfort.  I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the log in my own.  
But as the pastor of the whole congregation, I'm pondering how I can possibly bring my people together in unity...as one body...when so many of us are entrenched in our cultural ways of doing things.  In the olden days, a church would die whenever too many of its members became home-bound.  These days, churches die whenever too many members become culture-bound.  Just how many cultures can you have in a church...and still be a viable organization?
We are asking that same question in our country.  These days there is the culture of "Trump" and the culture of "never-Trump."  The only thing both sides agree on is that the country has one culture too many!  
Of course, this is an over-simplification.  There are many cultures in the United States.  And those various cultures often exist side by side in mutual benefit...sometimes.
The summer after Jie and Scarlette immigrated from China, we took a family camping trip to the Smokey Mountains.  I found myself trying to explain what a Hillbilly was. Foreigners quickly learn that there is no one American culture. 
As an experiment these past couple weeks, I've been asking some good people (some of the kindest people I know) to characterize the following cultures:  hillbilly, high school, college, big city, Chinese, Amish, Pentecostal, gated communities, inner city...  I asked folks what they would expect to find in the way of language, morals, dress, social interaction, friendliness, artifacts, education, etc.  The answers I got back were interesting, things like: dirty, uneducated, lazy, drugs, always on the cell phone, wasting parents' money, stuck-up, cold, poor, unfathomable, out of date, stubborn, crazy, over-emotional, elitist, condescending, out of touch, violent, criminal...
While some of the answers people gave me were laudatory, virtually everyone seemed to have something negative to say about cultures other than their own.
America:  land of the free and home of the brave.  We are free to preserve pockets of culture...all over this land.  But only the brave dare wander from their own cultural base, without prejudice, to cross into other spheres...armed only with genuine curiosity.
Part of the problem is this:  while we are genuinely entertained and often amused by cultures different from our own, we are simultaneously uncomfortable.  Hence we employ comic relief when talking about people who are different.  This is almost never intentionally cruel...this laughing at others...but it quickly diminishes a fellow human being.  We unwittingly erect cultural barriers...and never suspect our own role in spreading alienation in the neighborhood.
As an individual in a complex society, I find myself constantly moving in and out of multiple cultures.  It is indeed stressful.  I spend quite a bit of time in the culture of First United Methodist Church in Mattoon (which itself is home to multiple cultural cells.)  I am part of the culture of the United Methodist Church (which is being torn apart by internal cultural conflicts.)  I live in Mattoon, which envelops me in a culture vastly different from the culture my last residence, Urbana, Illinois.  And I am part of several family cultures.  My parents (in Springfield, IL) are at the hub of one of those extended families...fluid and fraying as our family goes through decades of marriages, moves, accomplishments, misbehaviors, deaths, divorces, and kids growing up.  
I have to make cultural calculations each time I talk to my friends who live in China.  And I am mindful of other cultural adjustments I make in order to enjoy many of my African-American friends.  

And then there is politics.  I have no trouble talking politics with certain people.  But I simply avoid current events with my many friends (and relatives) who voted the wrong way last time (in my mind!)  Cultures.
Our culture is the way we do things and the stuff we do it with.  It is the way we talk and the way we eat.  It contains the pattern for making decisions and designating who is in charge of what.  It is the stuff we keep around the house and the stuff we gift to others.  It determines what we talk about and what we keep secret.  It is our music and our stories, our rituals and our habits, our do-s and our don't-s.  It is who we trust to tell us what is true and what isn't.  It is what we try to pass on to the next generation.  If you want to be a part of "us," we expect you to adjust...to be like us ...and try not to act like they do back where you came from.
Lest I seem overly negative about how oppressive culture can be...how all cultures can be...I want to point out that cultures are not only simultaneously valuable, but they are also essential to the good life.  A culture connects us to each other.  Being part of a culture saves us from rampant individualism.  Culture keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel every day.  Culture inspires, disciplines, and equips us.  
Human beings are wedded to culture, for better or worse.  Culture is so omnipresent and prevalent that we seldom pay it any attention.  

But the divisiveness of cultural diversity has become a major threat to our faith, our families, our nation, and our communities.  Our future is at risk.  

So, it is essential and urgent that we take a pause and learn some things.  What are the specificities of the cultures that make up our own lives?  How do those various cultures pull us apart and weaken us?  What needs to be critiqued and reformed in our own cultures?  How can we foster curiosity about other cultures and reduce judgment and fear?  How can we check the "lies" that every cultures tells its own people?  

How can we assure our mutual survival by intentionally crossing into other cultures...with nothing but peace and goodwill and curiosity?  How can we make sure our children have necessary cross-cultural experiences...so they can survive and not kill each other off in tribal conflicts?
If we want to continue being the land of the free, it behooves us to be brave...brave enough to think critically about our own selves...brave enough to venture open-mindedly into other cultures...

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I used to write it when I first woke up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation. Now I write it on a Saturday, revise it, and send all of them out by email.This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than pontificating.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


Quick Links