The following keynote address was delivered by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton to the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia, gathered in Pickens, SC this past Monday. I think Bubba done a right nice job!
Luke 24:1-7 – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
A few years ago I ran into an old friend in a shopping mall in Raleigh, NC. It had been 20 years since we had seen each other while students at Duke Divinity and I wasn’t sure it was him. He wasn’t very sure about me either; especially since he had been laboring under the illusion that I was dead. We stared at each other for a long time and finally I spoke his name and identified myself and he turned as white as a sheet and sat down on a nearby bench.
He was very shook up. Someone had told him I had died in a car accident. Well, actually, they told him about another Chilton from Surry County who had died and, not being familiar with the large number of Chiltons there are in Surry County, he had somehow gotten the impression that it was me who passed. Once we got that cleared up he said an interesting thing. “I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.”
I sent that out to my church and a few friends around Easter. One of them, Bishop Gordy of the Southeastern Synod, emailed back – “sounds like the motto of the post-Christendom church”. “I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.” It has taken those of us in the mainline a long while to get used to the idea that the church we knew in the 40s and 50s and 60s, maybe the early 70s in some places, is really dead.
I was ordained in June of 1977. I was 23 years old. About two weeks later I went to my first district minister’s meeting. The District Superintendent spent the hour telling us how the United Methodist Church was in decline, it was losing members and influence, but he had a plan. We all leaned forward expectantly. We were to go out door to door with our “lay leader” and knock on all the doors in a 5 mile radius of our church and invite the unchurched to come to our church. We were also required to send him a quarterly report on the visits we had made and our attendance and membership statistics. He handed out postcards for us to use in mailing him the reports. (long pause) His plan did not work.
I spent the summer going door to door as he said. I found no one who would admit to not having a church.
I only found one person who would admit to not liking her church or her pastor’s preaching; but that was my wife and I decided her data was skewed.
Over the years we in the church have attempted many reorganizations and mission strategies and ecclesiastical pep rallies; all in a futile effort to turn back the clock.We have tried small groups, and contemporary worship, and men’s ministries, and youth rallies, and wild women weekends, and mass mailings, and word and witness, and Facebook pages, and glitzy websites, and, and, and . . . you fill in the blank – and for the most part none of it has really worked. Listen to what my friend said one more time: I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.
We in Appalachia have spent most of the last 40 to 50 years getting used to the idea of being dead. It is time to wake up from our long Holy Saturday of mourning and to recognize that the Easter Vigil is over – it is time for us to embrace the resurrection, to welcome the new things God is doing in our midst. We need to begin getting used to the idea that while Appalachia is different, it is not dead.
I was born and raised in Appalachia; Stuart, Virginia in 1954. I grew up in a world of tobacco farmers and cotton mills. From generation to generation people were born, lived, worked, and died in the same community, doing essentially the same things. John Chilton was born in Prince William County Virginia in 1620. I can trace a direct line from him to my father, Lowell Chilton born in 1923, in the house where he was living when he died in 2003. Migrating west and south, the Chiltons had been in the same area along the Virginia border since the 1820s. And they had been doing the same things, farming and logging and occasional “public work,” for all those years.
That world does not exist anymore. No more tobacco allotments and farming, no more cotton mills, no more inheriting one’s place in life from the prior generation. Though the economic engines are different in East Tennessee and West Virginia, in Pennsylvania and New York and eastern Ohio; across our region the same story can be told. Life has changed. Close knit, traditional cultures have been slipping away and poverty has been increasing in many areas. And the churches have been struggling; many wondering exactly what it is that they have been doing wrong.
My mother was for many years the treasurer at her church – Hatcher’s Chapel Methodist in Claudeville, VA. When I say many years I mean it – I think the final count was thirty. I asked her one time how she ended up as treasurer. She said they found out she drove by the bank on her way to work and asked her to drop off the deposit, then they asked her to go on the bank signing card, and then they asked her . . . you get the idea. When she got in her 80’s she asked me how she should go about getting rid of the job. I told her to start bouncing checks. It worked. They gave her a potluck retirement dinner and passed the job off to a younger person. I believe Myrtle is 65.
Anyway – they have about 15-20 regulars at Hatcher’s now. Mama asked me what was wrong with them. I told her nothing really. I said – “Look at the pew where you sit next to Daddy’s window.” (The five children and Mama paid for a window in memory of Daddy when they put in stained glass a few years ago. We asked for the one in the back row and closest to the door seeing as how Daddy was just barely in the church anyway)
I continued – “Back in the day – there were seven people on that pew – you and Daddy and five children. For generations those five kids would have gotten married and the girls and their families would have ended up at Hatchers, with the boys going wherever their wives told them to go (you know it’s true) because they would have most likely stayed around here. Now – look at your five kids. Because farming is gone and the mills are gone, four of the five of us went elsewhere, following the work and the opportunity: over the years -Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, Tucson AZ; now Mooresville, Greensboro and Murphy in NC and Salem, Oregon. Only Tony is here and he goes Terrie.” The story is the same all over. The young adults go where the opportunities are. In the county where I live now, the only jobs for people with a college degree are to teach or to work for the government.
We also have fewer children in Appalachia than we used to, especially among the mainline Protestants. i.e.
Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. – My grandparents had ten children, my parents had five, I had two. My boys are 29 and 27 and unmarried and childless.
All of this is to say, the culture has changed, greatly. The church we have was built, was constructed, was organized, for a culture which in many ways, no longer exists. The unfortunate thing is that we have gotten used to the idea of the culture, and the church with it, being dead or dying, and we too often operate as a hospice, holding the hand and commiserating with either the dying or the bereaved.
Years ago I took Black Church studies with Dr. Herb Edwards at Duke Divinity School. I learned a lot in that class, but the thing I remember most is this. Dr. Edwards used to say that, “The trouble with the white church is that it does not believe in the resurrection. When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.”
Let me say that again: “The trouble with the white church is that it does not believe in the resurrection. When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.
It is my humble and quite limited opinion that too much of what we do in ministry in Appalachia is an attempt to stave off death instead of embracing life.Too much of what we do is an attempt to either die in peace or go down fighting in defense of a past that either never was, or, was not that great to start with.
Too little of what we do involves turning our faces like flint, to go through this time of death and uncertainty
into the new Jerusalem of God’s intended and inbreaking future for us and our communities and churches.
We must acknowledge the death of the old; but we must also embrace the rebirth of the region and with it the renewal of God’s call upon our lives to serve these people in this place.
I am what is sometimes referred to as “detailed challenged.” My sons have long had a nick-name for me. It is “Dr. Half-right.” because I can usually get half of some famous person’s name right but then mix it up with some other loosely connected name.
For example: I might refer to “the actor Harrison Jones” – combining Harrison Ford with the character Indiana Jones. What’s funny about it to them is that I am so sure I am right until they show me other-wise. So as Dr. Half-right I have long been convinced that “ELCMA” stood for the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition on Ministryin Appalachia and have told many people that’s what it means, including my replacement on the Southeastern Synod staff, Pastor Paul Summer.Then I looked up the website and found that is stands for “Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia.” And I thought. “Gee, I wonder when they changed the name.”
Dr. Edwards said that to believe in the Resurrection is to embrace life and take risks for the sake of the Gospel.” It would seem to me that “taking risks for sake of Gospel” equals “being on a mission.” For “The Evangelical Coalition FOR MISSION in Appalachia” to begin to get used to being alive, we must find and embrace a new calling, a new vocation, a new mission for the 21stCentury.
Charles Malik was a Lebanese Christian Philosopher who studied under Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Heidigger and received his Ph.D. at Harvard. All he wanted to do was teach and philosophize. Instead he found himself immersed in the world of politics both in Lebanon and at the United Nations. Professor Mary Ann Gleason of Harvard Law School published a tribute to Malik, in which she outlined three distinct lessons about vocation she had learned from his life:
1 – God’s plan for your vocation may be different than yours.
2 – finding your vocation does not mean you will find comfort.
3 – we may never see the most important fruits of our vocations in our sojourn here on earth.
(Sacerdos, July-August – 1999 – p.7-15)
I would like to take the last few minutes of this talk to apply these thoughts to the future and mission of ELCMA
1 – God’s plan for your mission may be different than yours.
I well remember my Ordination as a United Methodist Deacon. June, 1977. It was in the big auditorium at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC. There were 25 of us that night. Bishop Joseph Thomas, the African-American Bishop of East Ohio Conference preached. I don’t remember what else he said, but this has stuck with me all these years. “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go. If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.” Let me say that again – “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go. If you wanted to go there, the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary.”
There are two things I have been my entire adult life – one is married and the other is a minister. And neither one has turned out to be anything like I thought it was going to be 35+ years ago when I got into it. Not that either one has been bad, but God’s plan for my life in both has been other than I could or would have ever imagined. And in order to survive and thrive in both I have had to learn to let go of my notions in order to embrace God’s plan for the future.
We in the church talk too much and listen too little – as a general rule. Mostly, we talk too much to each other and spend too little time together listening to God. It is not the purpose of this speech to outline techniques for group spiritual discernment; rather I want to encourage us as individuals and as congregations and as synods and as a coalition, to find the time to listen to what God wants to do in us and through us in this region in the future.
Let us be humble enough to remember that God’s plan for our mission may be different than our plan.
2 – Finding your mission does not mean that you will find comfort
I would probably rephrase that to say for us that finding our mission does not mean we will find anything like what the world defines as success. Mission in a “post-Christendom,” “post-Appalachia” world will have a different template of success than before. In finding our new place in this new reality; we may well find that that place is more around the edges than in the center, more alternative viewpoint than general consensus, and more out there in the midst of the world than in here away from the world.
We will not be building institutions and careers and facilities in which to house them; rather we will be creating temporary networks of like-minded folk that will function and then dissolve so that folk can move on to the next concern and new networks can evolve. We will be involved in multiple organic connections and relationships and it will be difficult to keep track of what’s happening and who’s in and who’s out. At the center will continue to be Word and Sacrament, but the delivery system will have to evolve into a more flexible organization or it will continue to wither away into insignificance. This will push most of us far outside our comfort zones, but
Remember – “finding your mission does not mean you will find comfort.”
3 . We may never see the most important fruits of our mission here on earth.
A member of a synod staff told about something that happened to him. I am going to disguise it a bit. Anybody here have Dr. Park at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary? He used to start these types of true stories with – “in a church not a thousand miles from here.”
So – in a church not a thousand miles from here a synod staffer walked in on a Sunday afternoon for an installation service. Walking down the hall with arms full of Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal and sermon notes and vestments bag, he was almost run over by a man coming out of the men’s room. The man recognized him and said,
“Gosh Pastor Jones, I’m glad to see you. I bet you don’t remember me do you. You did my uncle’s funeral when you were pastor at St. John’s by the Gas Station in Hubbardsville.” Pastor Jones had to admit that he did not remember the man or the funeral; he did remember being pastor in Hubbardsville, though sometimes he wished he could forget.
After considerable conversation, it was determined that the funeral was one that Pastor Jones had done for a friend of a friend of a friend whose family had no minister and would Pastor Jones help them out. Pastor Jones would and did. He did not actually remember anything about it; it had been a good while ago.
The young man went on to say, “At that time I didn’t go to church, but something you said in that funeral made me want to go back. I don’t know exactly what it was you said that stuck with me, but something did. The next Sunday I decided to go to church and I had seen the word Lutheran on this church’s sign, so I came here that Sunday. And I just kept coming back. I’m the church council president now.” Much of ministry is like that. God acts within the things we are doing to accomplish things we never imagined possible.
We may never see the most important fruits of our mission here on earth. And that’s okay, because it’s not about us; it’s about God and God’s love for God’s people. It is a humbling thing to think about – the fact that God is working through us and we are not in charge. God has called each of us to for a purpose, but it may not be the purpose we have in mind. ELCMA’s purpose, its mission, its most important contribution to the Kingdom of God, not only may not be what we think it is; we may never know what it is or ever see the results. We who have lived and worked and served in Appalachia for a long time have certainly been able to get used to the idea that the Appalachia we once knew and loved is different, but it’s not dead.
The church we have lived with and worked in and served for so many years is also not dead, but it is different and it is time to not only get used to that fact, but to embrace and celebrate it. For us to move forward, we must discern a new mission for a new day, we must be ready to fail and suffer on behalf of that mission, and we must hold on to the eternal promise that God is working in Christ and in us to reconcile the world to himself, whether we see that reconciliation come to fruition or completion or not. Our call today, as the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia, is to commit ourselves to getting used to the idea of being alive for God in the 21stcentury.
Amen and amen.