Friday, November 18, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 41: Joe Died This Week

October 1977. I had just returned from my second week in October foray in Maine on the Town Meeting Circuit. The weekly gathering of the TM campaigners was to be in my home base at the Boston Religious House. I was greeted by a somber group including my wife, Linda with:

“Joe died this past week and all the Houses will have a celebration of his life on Sunday!”

Joe Mathews, Dean of the Ecumenical Institute/Institute of Cultural Affairs, formerly on staff at the Christian Faith and Life Community of Austin, Texas, before that on the faculty of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and prior to that a Chaplain in the United States Army during the Second World War, was a 66 year-old visionary and transformative force in the 20th Century church renewal movement. The impact of his life went far beyond the confines of the institutional church and the constraints of his Methodist evangelical background. Joe was an iconoclast, a revolutionary thinker, a master teacher, and a plumber of the depths of the human spirit.

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Stories of Joe abounded in our Order and among those who encountered him, whether on the seminary or college campuses, in the courses he taught to local church pastors and laymen, or in the many denominational and ecumenical gatherings at which he was invited to speak. There was the time he was to speak to a large gathering of church folk. The time came for his sermon and everyone in the congregation waited for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then coming to the conclusion that Joe was late, or not coming. At that point a faint voice was heard from behind the pulpit: “Grace be unto you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” Joe proceeded to give his entire sermon from the enclosure under the large pulpit.

Another time Joe was speaking to a large assembly of leaders of the church in Seoul, Korea. He was warned by one of his Korean colleagues that Korean Christians were some of the most conservative in the world, and knowing of Joe’s propensity for using profanity in order to shock the people of God out of their lethargy, he cautioned him to be careful in his speech. Joe nodded and then took the podium. Looking out over the congregation and making eye contact with as many as he could, he stood silent for several minutes and then let out a booming expletive as the first word out of his mouth, drawing it out so there could be no mistake which word he was using. And of course it was the “F---“ word.


These are of course just a few of the apocryphal stories that were told among us. I was not there so I am only reporting it as I heard it.

I first met Joe Mathews when I was teaching at the University of Nebraska, Cotner School of Religion. It was 1966. A campus minister friend invited me to attend a lecture sponsored by United Ministries in Higher Education and the campus YMCA. This was, I later learned, part of a speaking tour on college campuses all across the nation, preceding the offering of weekend courses, called Religious Studies I: The Theological Revolution of the Twentieth Century. Joe was an impressive presence and a powerful orator. To be honest, I only remember one line from his lecture that resonated with me and stuck in my mind:

“There is only one absolute! And that is that there is NO absolute!”

Having majored in philosophy and theology this appealed to me as a self-styled seeker after truth. After the lecture I got a taste of the Joe of the apocryphal stories and added a personal one to my collection. My campus minister friend invited me to his campus church office for a conversation with Joe and a handful of pastors and lay leaders. There were two women in the group who were probably in their late sixties. Joe was waxing eloquent and answering questions. One of his favorite descriptive names for the clergy of the time was “little old ladies of both sexes.” He used this term in responding to a question and then, realizing who his audience was, leaned over toward the two ladies and lightly touching one on her hand said: “I mean that in a kindly way.” Joe could be repulsive in one minute and then totally win you over in the next.

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Most of the men in our Order and many of the women wanted to be like Joe. Hell, we wanted to BE Joe. So we all adopted his little idiosyncrasies, his teaching style, his mannerisms, even his slight stutter when he seemed to be searching for the right phrase but was really setting you up for a point he was about to drive home. Not that we were all little robotic Joes running around the globe. Joe would not tolerate inauthenticity and did not welcome our devotion. Joe wanted to thrust his one life into history and encourage each of us to do the same in obedience to the one mysterious force that gave each one his/her life and would one day as he put it “stomp you into the earth as a bull pawing the ground.” Joe was a man of his time and a man for all time.

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I did not know Joe personally as many in our group did. So I did not come to love the man as I am sure those close to him did, warts and all. I only remember one other encounter with Joe. It was in the middle of the Town Meeting campaign and we were in Chicago for a meeting of campaign leaders. I was asked to give a report on how the California contingent was doing. We were in the “great hall” on the second floor at the Kemper building, so named because this 8-story ancient office building had been a gift to the ICA by Kemper Insurance Company. After my report I walked to the back of the room and had to pass right by Joe. He always sat in the back of the room by the door. Our eyes met for an instant as he looked up just as I approached and his lips curled into the slightest of smiles, sort of half-way between a grimace and a smile actually. I got the distinct feeling that even though I did not know Joe, he knew me. And I knew in that momentary encounter that my life was approved. All of my past screw-ups and all of my attempts to be somebody, the self-perceived victories and defeats, the betrayals, all of it was OK as it was. The approval I had been seeking from some father figure my whole life was freely given. Joe released me from having to go on seeking approval. That was Joe’s gift to me.

But Joe, like all of us, was mortal. He drank too much. He smoked too much. He drove himself far more than he was ever accused of making demands on others. He got cancer. Joe had a back pain while on a trip to India. He went to a friend of ours who was a nurse in New Delhi who advised him to see a doctor as soon as he returned from this trip. Not long after that he got his final diagnosis. He died in his apartment during a meeting of many of the priors of the Order so that many of his friends and colleagues were able to say their farewells. His wife Lyn and sons and his brother Jim, a Methodist bishop in Washington D.C. were with him.


Those of us who were out on the Town Meeting circuits were informed of Joe’s death on that October weekend. We held a memorial service around our dining room table with a meal and communion service, as did those others in Religious Houses in the 50 or so nations that were now part of the Order: Ecumenical, the Ecumenical Institute and the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Following the weekend we were all sent out to continue our work on the mission of facilitating human community and helping people to see that their lives counted.

And Joe would have had it no other way.

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Joseph Wesley Mathews—A 20th Century Phenomenon

Friday, November 4, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 40: Maine Welcomes the Snow

The first snowfall was early that year—October 1977. And it was to keep coming. The driving along I-95 was hazardous enough as it was. In the cold rains of Maine or especially when the night fog came in from the coast you longed for a warm fireplace to come home to. I remember the many late nights driving back to Portland and on Friday nights all the way to Boston or Hartford after a long day and a longer week, singing, turning up the volume on the radio, drinking McDonald’s coffee that had been in the pot too long, trying to stay awake. And sometimes getting so sleepy I just pulled off to the side of the road and barely had time to put the car in park before slumping over the wheel with the motor still running.

Two nights are burned deeply into my memory bank. I got onto the Maine turnpike, the section of I-95 from Augusta to Portland, in fog so thick I could barely make out the tail lights on a semi ahead of me. The highway was two lanes going one way, but I decided to follow the tail lights ahead of me all the way and not venture out in the left lane. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made because, not very many minutes after leaving the toll booth I was jarred by a flash of light streaking by in the left lane going the opposite direction. A driver had apparently got confused and got in the wrong lane coming from the toll booth from the south. This was not exactly a near-death experience because it happened so fast. However, there was no more temptation to pass the vehicle I was following.

That was a story I could tell in years to come of my adventures in Maine on the Town Meeting circuit. It would have been a good story by itself had not the very same thing happened on another trip a few days later. Same turnpike, different foggy night, different semi, and different car (I assumed). Who would believe it?

My most humorous encounter with the weather as a driver in Maine was in the snow. I came from Minnesota so had much experience navigating partially plowed streets and roads after snowstorms. The back roads in Maine were more of a challenge. And I had been away from Minnesota for several years. The ‘69 Chevy Nova I was driving had seen better days. Cars in Boston and other major cities that have lots of snow tend to become rusted around the edges within a short time. My trusty steed had seen more than enough Boston winters, so what happened should not have surprised me. But it did.


I was driving on a snow-packed country road that had just two tire tracks with a foot and a half of packed snow between them. Suddenly I became aware that the floorboard was growing. As I drove along the rubber mat was lifted up so that my knees were now against the steering wheel and now pushing my legs up on either side of it. I stopped the car right there in the middle of the road to figure out what was happening. When I pulled the floor mat up I discovered a hole in the bottom of the floor board just large enough to act as shaver so the car was skimming the top of the packed snow and shavings were accumulating inside the car. I had to run the car heater with the car sitting idle for about a half hour to drain the snow which had now become hardened into ice. I had to laugh out loud at myself and my rusty Nova and still chuckle to myself whenever I think of or tell this story.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 39: New England Singing

Every movement has its songs. Every movement in history has sustained itself through continually rehearsing its reason for existing. Keeping the vision alive through the stories of its everyday heroes, regularly celebrating the smallest victories and even what could be called defeats, and singing the songs that lifted spirits and moved souls to stay on the march.

In the Town Meeting 76 campaign songs were written by each and every community where a meeting was held. Local residents would get together on the day of the forum and choose a familiar tune and then a small group would go off and write a story of the past, present and future of their town, design a symbol, and write lyrics to fit the chosen tune. These would be presented to the entire gathering in a rousing closing plenary session along with the reports of recommendations for action.

Campaign volunteers also had songs that we wrote for each region where we worked. And we sang at every one of our weekend R & R meetings. We sang at meals together. We sang in the morning. We sang at night. Whenever discussions got too long or too heavy, someone would break out into one of our songs and we were off. Sometimes we even danced. But always we sang.

One night as I was driving back from the Maine Town Meeting circuit, in the rain, heading for Harry and Ellis’ place in South Portland where I was staying during the week, I started humming tunes to myself to stay awake. Some of them were coming to me from my local church days. Then I started singing the words: “When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there!”

“That would make a great song for Town Meeting New England.”


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Singin’ in the Rain – in Maine

Well, it caught on. We sang it at every weekend gathering of the New England teams. Harry especially loved singing it. Every time I made it back home for dinnertime he insisted on singing every verse at the table, with just him and Ellis and me. Harry died about ten years ago, but I can still see and hear him singing with gusto, throwing his head back and belting out the words.

I can remember only the first verse and the chorus now:

Oh Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts were the font

Of a future bright with hope and liberty

Then the hardy pioneers of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont

Carved a home from rocky soil and lusty sea.


When New England wakes up singing

And New England bells are ringing

Then her people all are swinging

To the beat of marching feet just as before.

Where are the songs that will sustain the movement that is spreading across the globe today?