Bishop David Bard reflects on this season of life and ministry and says nuanced thinking and tragic optimism are needed during a time of grief, trauma, and challenge.
BISHOP DAVID BARD
It has been a hot summer. According to weather data, July 2021 is the hottest July on record. Michigan has often been hot and humid, but more on the high range of normal. We have experienced some significant rains and are dealing with flooding, particularly in Wayne and Washtenaw Counties. Minnesota has been hot, and many areas of the state are experiencing significant drought. Fires burning near and within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness led to the closure of that area for two weeks in August and the smoke from these fires has adversely affected the air quality in all northeast Minnesota.
To the anxiety and stress of a resurgent pandemic, ongoing racial reckoning, acrimonious social divisions, and denominational divides, add climate change.
Yet summer often affords us opportunities to set aside some of the weight of the world, to get away – even if with caution, to read something just for fun, to bike, hike, swim, camp, binge watch something escapist, watch the sunrise or sunset, just be. I hope you all have found opportunities for this kind of renewal, and especially our clergy and congregational leaders whose work has been made so much more complicated by the times we live in.
Music often captures or evokes pleasant summer experiences. For some of us of a certain vintage (the vintage that mourned the death of Henry Aaron in January, and is mourning the death of the drummer Charlie Watts now) music from The Beach Boys is quintessential summer music. A two-record compilation of their music, released on the day I turned 15 in 1974, was entitled “Endless Summer.”
But I have been thinking about another Beach Boys song recently, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Sometimes I feel very sad/Can’t find nothin’ I can put my heart and soul into…. Every time I get the inspiration/To go change things around/No one wants to help me look for places/Where new things can be found/I guess I just wasn’t made for these times. This song is melodically beautiful even in its tender sadness. Endless summer punctuated by the more difficult realities of the world in which we live.
These are trying and troubling days, a resurgent pandemic, an ongoing racial reckoning, acrimonious social divisions, denominational divides, climate change with its droughts, fires, and storms. Leading in such times is tremendously difficult. The feeling that we just weren’t made for such times emerges now and again. Maybe it emerges more frequently as summer winds down and we think about autumn and church and how we will be the community of Jesus as the Delta variant surges, and we have to think again about how we can best worship and engage in ministry.
We are living through a time of multiple challenges, multiple traumas, and deep grief, and many of the resources offered by the culture are shallow and inadequate. In an essay on how the Delta variant is requiring us to look at the COVID-19 pandemic in new ways, physician Dhruv Khullara writes, “to navigate uncertainty, we need nuanced thinking” (The New Yorker). Our time requires nuanced thinking, and social media offers limited responses – thumbs up or thumbs down, a few emojis. Political polarization quickly moves thought into “us vs. them.” These are difficult days.
In another essay I read recently, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes about what he calls “toxic positivity.” “Telling someone to ‘stay positive’ in the middle of a global crisis is missing out on an opportunity for growth, not to mention likely to backfire and only makes them feel worse” (The Atlantic). Kaufman argues that to counter toxic positivity we should cultivate “tragic optimism.” Such an attitude accords well with our deepest theological insights about human persons as being both created in the image of God, “a little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5), and also capable of incredible hurt and destruction. It fits well with our theological understanding of a God who works in the midst of profound brokenness to redeem, to heal, to make whole. Yet this, too, is nuanced thinking, difficult when the choices offered are often either toxic positivity or pervasive cynicism. No wonder we can feel like we just weren’t made for these times.
Let me offer three additional thoughts.
You are not alone. If the song, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” seems to ring true for you at times, even if you know nothing of it but its title, you are not alone. Many of us have those moments when we feel overwhelmed, when we wonder if we have what it takes to lead at this time. We are in this together, and we have one who promised to be with us, “to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
We should not let wistful nostalgia blind us to the fact that every time has had its unique challenges. When I was in high school, the 1950s were looked at with that kind of wistful nostalgia. “Happy Days” became one of the most popular television shows in the United States. Fifties dances and dress-up days were popular, and at the time I had hair I could slick back. What was neglected was that the 1950s remained a time of segregation, explicit in the South, implicit in the North. The benefits of the GI Bill which helped create the middle class were not widely available to veterans of color. In the 1950s, school children practiced drills in case of nuclear attack. While our time has significant challenges, unprecedented perhaps, in the way trauma is piled upon trauma and challenge upon challenge, every time has had its unique challenges and opportunities.
Finally, maybe it is just such a time as this that you have been made for. It is certainly in this very time that you have been called to lead God’s people in the Jesus Community called The United Methodist Church. The biblical witness is replete with persons who probably felt that they just weren’t made for the challenges of their time – Abraham, Moses, Ruth, judges, and prophets. Might we hear Mordecai’s words to Esther, “perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) as words of the Spirit speaking to us? Perhaps you have come into leadership for just such a time as this. We need to lead through grief and trauma and challenge, lead into theologically-rooted nuanced thinking, help cultivate a theologically-grounded tragic optimism. Even when we need to grow in our abilities to lead grief work and respond to trauma and cultivate nuance, we still have the beginning gifts and skills to do this work.
I will continue to listen to “I Just Wasn’t Made for This Time,” knowing I am not alone in having this feeling creep in from time to time. I will listen to music that just makes me smile and dance. I will listen to songs that speak of courage and hope and determination, songs that remind me of God’s call to us in this hour and of God’s assurance that God’s Spirit is with us.
On this Joyful Journey with you, listening to music,
Coda 1: One More Time. A song that brings joy and a smile is Count Basie’s “April in Paris.” At the end, Basie tells his band, “one more time,” and they play the chorus again. Let me encourage you, one more time, if you have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19, please get vaccinated. Vaccinations and mitigation practices including wearing masks indoors and in other crowded spaces are what will move us beyond this pandemic. The surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths has been largely a surge among unvaccinated people.
Coda 2: One More, Once. When the Basie band finished their one more time chorus, you hear Count Basie say, “one more once” and the band plays an exuberant final chorus. Among the weighty events of the summer are the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the deadly ending of the United States war in Afghanistan. United Methodists who would like to help are encouraged to use our General Board of Global Ministries networks and UMCOR to provide aid. You may designate your gifts to UMCOR International Disaster Response, Advance #982450. Our conference will continue to explore additional opportunities to provide help. Thank you for your prayerful consideration.