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Note: The United Methodist press & web are going to town about a book of inspirational writings that the United Methodist Publishing House published, then recalled after it was revealed that the author (or, “author”) had plagiarized at least some of the work in the book, presenting it as if it was his own.

The author is a United Methodist pastor that most of us wouldn’t have heard of. But the book would have been a best-seller, at least in church circles, because the contents were daily reflections that he had sent to a parishioner whose name we know: Hillary Clinton.

From all accounts, it would have been a really good book, if permissions had been received where permissions were required, and if credit had been given where credit was due. But instead, it’s just a mess.

Here’s what that gets me thinking about. 


Faith Callahan with her walker, Mount Rainier in background

The week after Annual Conference one year, I visited my Grandma Callahan at Wesley Terrace, her retirement home. She was unhappy, and perplexed.

Sunday morning, she’d attended worship in her nearby church, where her pastor had preached a really inspiring sermon, a sermon that hinged on a story of something that had actually happened to him that very morning. Grandma Callahan was really moved.

That evening, she went to vespers at her retirement home.  This guest preacher was another United Methodist; he had a pretty good sermon, but it hinged on something — the same thing — that had actually happened to him that morning on the way to church.

I could help her with her perplexity. At Conference our bishop had opened his sermon with “When I was walking this morning, … .” It was a really good story, and it gathered energy because it had actually happened to him just that morning, and it was a perfect illustration for his point!

(My text-criticism sensors were going off during the bishop’s sermon. I get suspicious about preachers’ stories that are just too neat or clever. It might be my Saturday Night Live hermeneutic, with Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character announcing, “How conveeeenient!” The bishop could have gotten that story from a book of sermon illustrations for all occasions.)

Both of Grandma’s preachers had heard the Bishop’s sermon the previous week. And, perhaps weary from a week at Conference, both had used it. And both had passed it off as their own experience.

I could help her with the perplexity: how the two preachers happened to use the same story on the same day. But I couldn’t help her with the unhappiness: how two [or, counting the bishop, three!] preachers could have such lack of integrity as to tell a story that obviously wasn’t their own, as though it was their own? If my own pastor tells one experience that’s patently not their own, how can I trust them in any other thing they say? And if two out of two (or three out of three) pastors have that lack of integrity, what is to be inferred about all the others?

I still can’t help her with that.

The very idea that preachers can get “sermon illustrations” from books of sermon illustrations has always baffled me. But at the very least, the VERY least, the preachers — including the bishop — could use the line I heard Fred Craddock use (giving him credit, of course): “I don’t know if this ever happened, but it’s True.”* Where quotations are used in print or online, the citation should be complete, like a proper footnote. Where a person’s words or ideas are used in preaching or speaking, credit should be given orally, and (wherever possible) in text as well.

It’s about showing ourselves trustworthy in a few things, at least in one thing. It’s about not losing people’s trust, not only in ourselves, but in others. And it should be so easy!

I think our bishops can help with this. Let them decide to model ethical preaching & writing , and to state that it’s one of their expectations of the pastors they appoint. Let the preachers they invite to address the Conferences also model these standards.

I think the United Methodist Publishing House can help with that. Let it decide to do due diligence in considering manuscripts and screening for plagiarism before agreeing to publish, and make its policies & procedures public. When it fails, let it show how it failed, and how it is revising its policies & procedures, to minimize the chance of a repeat.

I hear the seminaries are already doing a decent job of encouraging ethical preaching & writing, and the ethical environment is far more diverse, with social media, electronic communications, and more awareness of power & privilege differentials, but ethics around use of other people’s material in preaching & writing wasn’t really emphasized in my day (except of course for academic writing).

I think my Grandma Callahan can help as well (along with the many Grandma Callahans of the church who are still in this life). Let them go to the preacher whose story they suspect, and ask pointed questions: “Did you write that, or did it come from someone else?” And give them pointed feedback: “When I notice you doing that, I lose trust in you.” But don’t just  be negative. Be just as engaged when they DO cite their sources: “I really appreciate that you shared that story from ______. Could I borrow the book? I want to know more.”

It might make the after-service handshake line a scarier place for preachers, but that’s not a bad thing.


* Substandard footnote: I remember Fred Craddock say this at Kilworth Chapel, the University of Puget Sound, many years ago. It stays with me, and I probably have the words right.

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As I write this on June 8, I’m witnessing the Senate Intelligence Committee questioning James Comey, and thinking about the importance of leadership without intimidation or coercion, with mutual trust and respect for differences. Presidents can abuse their authority, and so can pastors. We can abuse our position: rank or title, our resumé, our uniquely defined roles. We can abuse our personal characteristics: size, gender and personality traits. We can use these positional or personal realities to get our way even when it’s wrong, illegal, evil. And we can do damage.

Even in the United States, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people, presidents can seek to become autocrats. Even in the Church, which exists for God’s glory and the development of disciples of Jesus Christ, pastors and laity can abuse the authority God and church give them.

Jesus said to them, “The rulers of the nations lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. … I am among you as one who serves.”   — (Luke 22:25-27 NRSV, alt.)

I, and most pastors and laity I know, desire to lead like Jesus, without domination or manipulation. But now and then, in our denomination and in our congregations, we “throw our weight around.” (Isn’t it interesting that this common saying portrays aggressive use of physical size as a metaphor for inappropriate coercion using positional authority!) Now and then we seek to get our own way using force or emotional manipulation: we threaten; we use anger, we take offense, we withdraw, we use financial pressure, and more. Instead, we should work together as partners who seek to understand and collaborate, appreciate, and come to a shared way that’s better than our own.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with this prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
           — source: Book of Common Prayer

May this be our prayer as we work with each other, especially if we are called to lead, in church and in nation.

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Incredible find!

Rare Wesley Hymn Fragment
Found in Farmhouse

Charles WesleyA manuscript fragment found in a Cotswold farmhouse under restoration appears to be the first draft of an unpublished hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).

The draft, in Wesley’s own hand, includes several edits, with whole lines crossed out and re-written. Only the first verse is relatively intact. The refrain, however, is un-altered. Cambridge hymnologist Edmund Wren, who authenticated the manuscript, writes, “It’s quite clear that the refrain is the inspiration for the hymn. The verses are only an afterthought.”

Wesley was a prolific hymnodist, with over 6,000 hymns published in his lifetime. With his brother John (1703-1791) he is considered a co-founder of the Methodist movement. Charles Wesley is known to have visited the Methodist Societies of the Cotswolds several times in the mid-1700s, spending several weeks there with his wife Sally in the summer of 1754 after her devastating battle with smallpox. “The refrain’s profession of steadfast faithfulness to God mirrors Wesley’s steadfast devotion to Sally,” Wren notes.


Lord, Thy Prevenient Grace we Know

        88 88 88   (refrain 77 74 77 74)
Lord, Thy prevenient grace we know,
Both love and law within our heart.
A full commitment we would show;
Our sole Redeemer Friend Thou art!
Thy faithfulness to us we feel,
And ours to Thee, O such a deal!
refrain
Never shall we give you up,
Never shall we let you down,
Never shall we run around and desert you.
Never shall we make you cry,
Never shall we say goodbye,
Never shall we tell a lie and hurt you
CW
First day of April, A.D. 1754
Down Astley, Glouc.

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For me, the past weekend was a time of family celebrations and road-tripping across Washington. Thus, I was only briefly aware of the murders in Orlando, and haven’t had time to sit with the reality of it until today.

Because I was away, I was didn’t have the responsibility in worship yesterday morning to put it all together, do instant theology, make quick sense. I didn’t have opportunity to write post a statement on Facebook, or to read more than a very few. I watched very little news. I’m blessed to have been prevented from rushing to righteous anger and self-righteous posturing. (My anger and posturing are mellowed 36 hours to perfection?)

But more than ever, I am feeling the emptiness of those pat statements we make, things like “Our thoughts and prayers are with … .” Especially the statements by politicians, but also by preachers, and other partners in faith communities. (more…)

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After Easter

“After Easter.”

That’s my response, all the way through Lent, to almost any request that I do, or even think about doing, something new.

Anna Smith Children's Park - Beach Path

Lent and Holy Week and Easter are stressful, for pastors.* The ongoing administrative and programmatic events of a church don’t usually shut down for Lent, but additional elements are added. It all culminates in Holy Week, when the number of worship services to prepare trebles or quadruples, without trebling or quadrupling the amount of available preparation time. To make matters worse, of course, Easter is a high-expectations Sunday: expecting maximum attendance, maximum quality, all while participating in not simply the two usual services, but a Sunrise service, a between-services brunch, and something to do with children, eggs, and candy.

And it’s not easy preaching Easter. It’s a challenge to proclaim the Resurrection to a congregation who, for the most part, skipped the crucifixion. (Not to mention that many of those also skipped every other gospel proclamation since “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all people.”)

So, with these seasonal tasks on short deadline … and of course, the normal but random assortment of pastoral & personal crises, memorial services, marriages, and beyond-the-church events as well … whenever an idea comes up for doing something really, utterly wonderful, creative, transformative, I’m liable to say, with all earnestness and honesty, “After Easter.” When I say it, I mean it.

You do NOT want to know how many reminders I’ve set on my smartphone, for the Tuesday after Easter. And you really don’t want to know how many times I’ve said, to others or to myself, “After Easter,” but not written it down. Or not written it down anywhere I can find. Or I’ve written it so cryptically that I can’t possibly figure it out (“DP. ord. smtlr” on a post-it is not really useful by the time After Easter rolls around!).

If you’re one of the people to whom I said, “After Easter,” … please be good enough to touch base with me, to remind me (compassionately, patiently!) that I said I’d get to it.

But please, do it after Easter.

Love,

Wes


 

* A clergy version of the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory pegs Lent/Easter as twice as stressful as Christmas, and more stressful than moving to a new home.

 

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