When cleaning mental closets, it’s better not to hurry!

November 6, 2019

FCC 1 

A blogger using the name thebeerchaser commented on my recent column “Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind.” Citing his own experience, he encourages me to proceed with due care as I dump boxes full of old records and writings.

Currently, he is sorting his files, discarding many of them, and then reorganizing those that remain. His final sentence makes sense: “Perhaps they will ultimately all be discarded, but one never knows and if they are organized and don’t take a lot of space, keep the ones that are most meaningful to you.”

Some of my old papers do mean a lot to me and I might even use them at some point in the future. Taking his advice, I’ve spent the morning sorting through one stack of folders about seven inches high and will carefully reread “Liberal-Minded Religion in a Downtown Church,” the 200-page, unpublished book manuscript I wrote in 2003 that is based on these files. I need to decide if with a little more work the manuscript can be published (for limited circulation) or simply filed with my papers that are headed to an appropriate archive sometime in the future.

In contrast with the relatively useless files I mentioned in my previous post, these Portland-based folders have materials that other people could use. I have rearranged a few of them and prepared a table of contents. They now are ready to be consulted by me or by someone else. During coming months, I intend to do limited copy editing to the book and find a suitable way for a copy to be given to the church that is described for its archival collection. Conversations with a few friends at the church will help me decide whether to do any more work than that on this project that started nearly two decades old.

Between 1999 and 2003 when I was collecting these materials and drafting the manuscript, I was also doing preliminary research on a second history project related to the churches of downtown Portland. Although I would still love to write the book that was in my mind, there are two reasons why that will not be possible. First, it would require an extended period of time in Portland, which I would enjoy but which is not feasible. Second, and more important, I feel myself lurching into old age.

I remain committed to cleaning out the closets of my mind. According to Martin’s book The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, that’s one of the things that sages do. Some of my closeted ideas and the resulting paper trails are ready to go away right now. Others, like this Portland project, are going to take a little time.

Churches, schools, and political parties: better to build than to burn

January 23, 2016
A Church in the Heart of the City

A Church in the Heart of the City

I was born early in the Great Depression and spent my first nine years living in desperate rural poverty. At the low point my family made do in a shanty with no electricity or running water. Mother was eight months pregnant and Dad had lost the farm job that had provided a subsistence livelihood for the five of us.

This first chapter of my life helps me sympathize with the condition that David Brooks describes in a column entitled “The Anxieties of Impotence” (New York Times, January 22, 2016). In its details our world is dramatically different from the one in which I grew up. In both, however, a rapidly growing number of people lived in deepening economic distress, and the result is an ever greater sense of impotence.

When I was a boy, the rise of Hitler and turmoil all across Europe threatened the well being of Americans despite the security that two oceans were thought to provide. It might have been true, as President Roosevelt told us, that all we had to fear was fear itself, but most people were afraid. In our time, terrorist movements, especially in the Middle East, and escalating pressures against the middle class, are causes of anxiety and the feelings of powerlessness.

Brooks points out that in such times some people join groups and take steps to better themselves. Other people, and today they seem to be the most vocal, “feel dehumanized, forsaken, doomed and guilty.” They distrust not only themselves but also their institutions—family systems, economic processes, schools, political institutions, and religious institutions—often lashing out to destroy them.

Brooks follows his diagnosis with a prescription: “To address these problems we need big, responsible institutions (power centers) that can mobilize people, cobble together governing majorities and enact plans of action.” While his column deals with political institutions my reflections focus on two other institutions of American life: churches and public schools.

Two months before Pearl Harbor our family moved to the semi-rural outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Over the weekend, I transferred from a one room school with twenty-one students to a K-8 Portland school with more than 500 students. At the same time, we were embraced by a traditional church and for the first time in my life I began my participation in a full range of church activities.

These two institutions opened new worlds to me. They provided an enlarged family and friends that I had never experienced previously. They shaped my heart and stocked my mind with ideas, hopes, and a new sense of what I and my world could become.

I know, of course, that the world keeps changing and therefore its institutions also must change. Schools and churches suffer from systemic challenges as do the political institutions that Brooks describes. Just as many people, including politicians, seek to destroy political parties and governments, so others undercut public education and recommend the abandonment or dismantling of churches. They cast about for impromptu forms of schooling and group activities designed to express and encourage “spirituality.”

With Brooks, I am convinced that solutions are not likely to come from those who rail against institutions, urging that they be discarded, burned down, and abandoned.

“If we’re to have any hope of addressing big systemic problems we’ll have to repair big institutions,” which for Brooks means rebuilding political parties. For me, this means supporting public education despite its many challenges, and participating in the on-going life of churches—established, well-staffed, with well-rounded programs, and commodious buildings.

In the seventy-five years since urban schools and a traditional church gave me a new life, much has changed, but churches and schools are still vital to the life of a society in which people can live with freedom from fear and in hope of a better life.

So today I’m publishing this personal testimony. More important, I’ve just cast my vote in favor a a tax levy for public schools in the city were I live and getting ready to go to worship and the annual meeting of my church—an old line Protestant church in the heart of Portland’s cultural, political, and economic life.

For churches and schools, as well as for political parties, it’s better to build up than to burn down!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A life lived with steadfast purpose and grace: a personal remembrance for All Saints Day

November 4, 2014

Remembering the life of Billie Lee Caton Watkins / July 19, 1931 — August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins July 19, 1931—August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins
July 19, 1931—August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins was born on July 19, 1931, in Helena, Montana, the first child of Ellen and Edgar Caton. She was christened Wilhelmina Leontine, but Billie Lee was the name her mother really wanted. The family soon moved to Portland, Oregon, and Chester, Sandra, and John enlarged the family circle. Billie Lee attended Richmond Grade School and Franklin High, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Friends invited the Catons to Central Christian Church, where Billie Lee was baptized. She was active in Camp Fire Girls and Christian Endeavor, delivered the evening Oregonian, and took violin and piano lessons.

During her senior year in high school, her pastor offered a class in New Testament Greek. Since Billie Lee planned to attend Northwest Christian College (now University) in Eugene, Oregon, she enrolled. Among the 32 students was a high school senior from another congregation, Keith Watkins. At the end of the year, only Billie Lee and Keith remained in the class. They were married after their junior year at NCC.

After graduation in 1953, Billie and Keith moved to the small farming community of Somerset, Indiana, where Keith served as student minister while attending seminary. There, Sharon and Marilyn were born. In 1956, Keith was called as pastor to the Christian Church in Sanger, California, where Michael joined the family. In 1959, the family moved to Richmond, California, 3 weeks before Carolyn’s birth. Keith was called to the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary in 1961, and the family moved to Indianapolis. Kenneth was born a year later.

Billie managed a limited household budget and encouraged the activities of her five kids, acting as car-pool mother, Girl Scout cookie chair, and library volunteer and math coach in the local public schools. At University Park Christian Church, Billie taught the kindergarten class, was a mainstay in Christian Women’s Fellowship, and sang alto in the church choir. She joined a community choir and was a founding member of a recorder ensemble that played at community gatherings, the Indianapolis Art Museum, and Governor’s Mansion.

In Indiana and later in Oregon, Billie was a leader in Church Women United and served on regional Nurture and Certification Teams that counseled seminary students preparing for ordained church leadership. She expressed her commitments to love and justice quietly but vigorously by participating in work projects and demonstrations in the communities where she lived and elsewhere in nation and world.

Upon Keith’s retirement in 1995, they moved to Sun City West, Arizona. Billie joined another recorder group, enjoyed line dancing, and participated in regional church work. She joined Keith in interim ministries in Portland and Albany, Oregon, before she and Keith settled in Vancouver, Washington, in 2002. During her decade as a member of First Christian Church in Portland, she sang in the Sanctuary Choir, served on the World Outreach Committee and as an elder, participated in the Christian Women’s Fellowship, and ministered lovingly to many.

Through all of thesBillie in Pink Blouse 2e years Billie maintained a home marked by tranquility and love. She provided an ethical barometer for her five children and nine grandchildren, recognizing the light of God in each of God’s children, and treating every person she encountered with dignity and respect and love.

Billie spent 1993 in a full series of treatments for breast cancer. Her cancer returned in 2006. Through a long series of treatments, she continued her life with steadfast purpose and grace. She died at home on August 12, 2014 in Vancouver, Washington, surrounded by family. Liturgies celebrating her life were conducted at First Christian Church in Portland and Central Christian Church in Indianapolis, with burial in Crown Hill Cemetery, close to her long-time Indianapolis home. “Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in newness of life.”


Amy Piatt’s not very nice sermon

April 16, 2013
First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon

First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon

Nice sermon, pastor.” That’s what folks sometimes say at the door as they leave church. It’s an easy thing to say, positive in tone, neutral with respect to what the preacher said. The only response it calls for is “Thank you. It’s nice to see you today.”

But what do you say at the door when this is what the preacher said during the sermon a few minutes earlier?

“Anybody can be nice. But there is a difference between being Nice and being a Christ follower.

“Nice” never stirs the waters. It never makes people uncomfortable. And it certainly never asks people to do anything that would compromise their security.

“Jesus was not a nice man. He was a good, compassionate and loving man.  And for that, his security was certainly compromised.

“We’re not here just to be liked – we’re here because we need to be LOVED and we need to love others…and that is risky business.

“But, God is in the business of taking risks.”

After church, comments went in different directions. “Sermons like that will make us a different kind of church,” one person told me.

“How would people who’ve never been in church before respond” someone else asked. “What they need is a sermon that invites them into the church because it is a community that accepts them as they are.”

“That’s one sermon we sure talked about after we got home,” was a comment later in the week by someone else who has been going to church for a long, long time.

And since Sunday morning I’ve been thinking about it more than I usually do. Here’s what I liked about the sermon.

  • It was a logical development of the gospel reading for the day which was the stiff and challenging way that Jesus dealt with Peter on the beach: “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
  • It was phrased in the indicative mood rather than the imperative. The preacher was making factual statements about one aspect of the church that has marked its life from the beginning. She was not telling us how it ought to be and how we as church members ought to be doing things.
  • We were not being scolded. Instead, the preacher was calling attention to one aspect of life in the church that has always been there but is often not mentioned in conversations about what it means to be part of the life of a Christian community.

The preacher had this to say about Jesus:

“Jesus isn’t nice, and he couldn’t care less about his public image. Here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus has finished his life on earth…at least as the man who walked around teaching and healing and loving everybody – remember?

“That’s what got him killed.  He stirred things up and raised a few too many questions. The people in power couldn’t have him running around questioning their authority. That would be chaos. Where’s the order?  Where’s the line? We can’t have this! We’ve got to keep things under control here. And so, they crucified him.”

Then came the question: “Who are we without Jesus?”

And then the answer:

“We are a bunch of nice, orderly, folks.…And a people without hope. What is required of us? What’s our job? Why do we keep showing up here – week after week, year after year? For a common life of fellowship, prayers, meals, service and study. To put love into action.

“This is nourishment for the soul. And food for the body of Christ. That’s what the church is. Jesus has not left us.  His spirit is still with us. In order to keep Christ alive we are called to BE Christ to the world. Entering into the body of Christ is a process of discovering a new humanity. Ours is a story of a God who throughout history has brought change and upheaval to our neatly structured lives.

The sermon ends with an appeal. “Let’s be faithful enough to give all that we have so that the world may receive all that God has to give. No more mister nice guy, no more Miss Manners.

“Hear Christ’s call Brothers and Sisters:  He says it to us as he says it to Peter on the Beach: ‘Follow me.’ We don’t get to play Church, we’re going to be church.
We are going to embrace the spirit of Christ. By getting past the facades and pleasantries and by tending and feeding others in a way that makes love real.

“Nice just won’t get it done, but we by the grace of God WILL live into a new life – a resurrection life, A future of hope.”

To hear the sermon, preceded by the scripture reading and a musical interlude, click this link: A Nice Church.


Churches, social justice, and public health

July 31, 2012

Continuing a series on the “citizen” mode in ecumenical Protestant churches 

There was a time when churches were committed to helping sick people get well. They sent some of their most committed young people around the world as medical missionaries and here at home they used their resources—money and people—to establish hospitals. Around the country, some of these hospitals still carry their religious origins in their names: Methodist, Sacred Heart, Presbyterian, Adventist, Emmanuel, Jewish, Providence.

Churches and church-related organizations continue to be involved in healthcare issues. Many of these efforts have been widely publicized, however, because they focus around controversial aspects of the larger field of activity, such as birth control, pregnancy, abortion, and HIV-AIDS.

The alliance of conservative Christians and conservative political groups further confuses the witness of churches because specific economic principles and the role of governmental action trump convictions concerning the accessibility and cost of medical services.

Ecumenical Protestant churches, which once were active participants in the public debate about these matters, have become strangely silent.

One reason is that their current commitment to freedom of thought makes them reluctant to urge particular points of view upon their members. Another is that it is always easier to cry out against things that are wrong and proclaim broad principles and hopes than it is to endorse specific polities and programs.

Another reason for silence is the fact that churches depend upon the voluntary support of their members if they are to stay in business, and these very members often represent both sides of any seriously disputed topic. Whatever one says is likely to alienate part of one’s constituency.

The current debate over healthcare in the United States is an example of the impasse. Most people believe that the current system needs major revision, but there the agreement rapidly disappears. Some people are unable to acknowledge any aspect of the Affordable Care Act as useful or promising. Even its most ardent supporters recognize that some parts of the Act are flawed and need improvement.

It’s hard to know what to say and do.

One way for ecumenical Protestant churches—those that stand in the liberal Protestant tradition—to engage in public witness is for them to regain their citizen mode of participation in the public sphere. In the citizen mode, these churches study, inform, analyze, and encourage. They bring people of various points of view together for debate and new understanding. They stimulate other forms of participation in public life.

The citizen mode of engagement can be distinguished from the activist mode, which includes advocacy of specific programs and policies and direct engagement in the process that brings them into being. Even with respect to the intensely debated issues, many members of ecumenical Protestant churches—and some congregations, too—will move from citizen to activist mode.

An example of how a church in the citizen mode can participate constructively in the discussion of health care is the forum on this topic conducted recently by First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon. This forum was one of eight during the summer months in which congregants are considering a wide range of hot button issues including immigration, gang violence, and caring for the earth.

Each session begins with scripture and prayer. One or more prominent representatives of the topic, some of them members of the congregation, present facts and representative points of view about the topic, and there is opportunity for discussion. A packet of materials for further study and action is given to all people in attendance.

The point of view presented by speakers and the printed materials lean left, as does the tradition of this congregation. But no one is demonized, no position is labeled as “the one Christian point of view.” People can go away from the session free to think things through for themselves and act in ways they believe to be right.

The morning devoted to healthcare featured, Martin Donohoe, a Portland physician who has dual associations with a major provider of health services and a public university. He used the forum and a later luncheon gathering to present a highly compressed picture of the complex and dysfunctional state of the health care system.

The speaker opened the door for action by citizens, but that aspect of the forum was pushed forward with the materials in the packet. Among the most provocative were two documents, one describing “a moral vision for our health care future” and the other entitled “Engaging Faith Communities in Working for Health Care Justice.”

These forums at First Christian Church do have an advocacy factor. Each week the packet includes a list of specific ways that members of the church can become involved. This week, the list included ten possibilities, including suggestions on becoming more acquainted with the Affordable Care Act, checking out and participating in opportunities for advocacy, and becoming a volunteer in a specific healthcare activity. To read the full list, click Health Care-You Can Get Involved.

With ideas like those on the list, there’s something that everyone of us can do regardless of what we think about the Affordable Care Act.


Portland shows that “soft answers” work

November 14, 2011

With many other Portland-area people, I spent most of the early morning hours of Sunday, November 13, watching local TV channels give non-stop, commercial-free coverage to street drama of the highest order: the closing of a tent city on city property.

For five weeks Occupy Portland had used two city parks as the site of an increasingly dense tent community. On the previous Friday (Veterans Day, it happened to be), Portland’s mayor announced that at 12:01 A.M., the rules and regulations regarding park usage would be enforced. This meant, of course, that Occupy Portland was being given the official notice that the occupation of those parks would have to be discontinued.

The chief of Portland’s Police Bureau then spoke. It was clear that a full plan of action had been developed aimed at an orderly, peaceful enforcement of all rules and regulations regarding these parks. In answer to questions, both city leaders spoke respectfully of Occupy Portland. They repeatedly stated that they would not discuss tactics.

Because I am in downtown Portland three or four times a week, many of these times on my bicycle, I have either cycled or driven through the Occupy Portland encampment. My interest in the enforcement action was increased significantly because my wife and I are members of First Christian Church, six or seven city blocks distant from the tent city.

An even greater sense of connection is the fact that the police chief and his family are members of our church. He and his wife are elders, regularly offering prayers at the communion table.

The question that has haunted me is this: How would his Christian faith affect his actions as the leader of the city’s instrument of power and control? Although I have not discussed these matters with the chief, here is what I observed.

The newscasters frequently used the word restraint to describe the police presence. And the word is appropriate, because throughout the nightlong engagement five factors had to be apparent to any observer:

  1. Police officers maintained a steady, disciplined presence that shaped every aspect of the engagement of Occupy Portland and public authority.
  2. They had the full capability, if they had chosen to use it, of  rapid and violent, coercive action that could easily have resulted in a pitched battle with injury, loss of life, and significant property damage.
  3. They manifested their power more by persuasion than by duress.
  4. Throughout the tensest period of the action, only two people were injured.
  5. A serious level of respectful relationship was maintained with leaders of Occupy Portland, a relationship that had gradually developed during the five weeks that the tent city had been allowed to exist.

When I drove to church about 8:30 Sunday morning, the primary drama had played itself out. A biblical text popped into my mind: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) The next verse continues the idea: “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Other verses in this chapter also recount themes that resonate as I think about Portland’s most recent street drama:

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit…Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention” (Proverbs 15:4, 18).

Especially interesting, in light of Occupy Portland’s primary purpose, which is to call attention to the increasingly unjust distribution of power, privilege, and wealth in American society is this verse:

“In the house of the righteous there is much treasure, but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” Proverbs 15:6.

At the beginning of the 9:00 o’clock service at First Christian Church, the pastor offered a prayer that acknowledged the events that had galvanized the city’s attention. Only then were we ready to move into the rest of the morning’s Eucharistic liturgy.

For me, however, the most significant liturgical language of the morning was included in a prayer when the congregation’s offering was received. Another of the congregation’s elders, a science teacher in a Portland area school, gave thanks for the “love and leadership” that had been manifested in the actions of the night. Although he probably was thinking primarily of the attitudes and actions of the mayor and chief of police, this combination could appropriately be used in reference to some of the people who gave voice to Occupy Portland.

Do religious convictions and practices that focus on love, respect, persuasion, and risking self for the sake of the public happiness work in real life?

In Portland, on a dreary weekend in November, they did. And for this confirmation of religious principle I give thanks.

Note: The photo by Beth Nakamura is published in The Oregonian and can be accessed here: The Oregonian

“A socially conscious, activist denomination”

May 10, 2011

In his history of Portland State University, Gordon B. Dodds refers to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a “socially conscious, activist denomination.” He makes this comment because Stephen E. Epler, founder of the university, was an active member of this church and through him, Dodds writes, the spirit of this church influenced the early development of what is now the largest university in Oregon.

While Dodds’ description of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an accurate portrayal of one of its important characteristics, it provides no information about how this church came to be, how it fits in the spectrum of churches today, what it believes, how it worships, and how it is positioning itself for continuing presence in the increasingly complex religious scene of our time.

As part of the educational program of First Christian Church in Portland (Epler’s congregation for many years and immediately adjacent to the university he founded), I conducted a four-session course of study on this topic. Although these matters have been in my mind for a long time, this was my first attempt to write them down in a succinct and reasonably coherent form. The result is a sixteen-page folder—preliminary and provisional, in need of fact checking and verification, and (because of its brevity) cryptic.

Session One provides an overview that describes the emergence of the major segments of the church—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and locates the Christians-Disciples movement in this pattern.

Session Two outlines phases in the historical development of this American religious movement.

Session Three describes major characteristics of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Session Four proposes some of the implications for congregations of this “socially conscious, activist denomination” in the years ahead. I suggest these goals:

  • Be a church in the most basic and comprehensive manner that is possible.
  • Represent the enduring patterns and practices of the Disciples tradition adapted to contemporary circumstances.
  • Move to the forefront in working on the issues of our time (both the enduring and the new)
  • Embrace the new ecumenism.

Despite the provisional character of this outline, I have decided to make it available to people who might be interested in the subject. Your comments, corrections, questions, and suggestions will be welcomed. Click here…Understanding Disciples.

(Note: The booklet is laid out on half sheets so that they can be printed as a sixteen-page folder with 5.5 x 8.5 dimensions.)