Laity Lunch Speaker Tom Jackson Has Strong Methodist Roots, Deep Faith, and Great Hope for the Future

6/12/2019

More than 600 laity gathered for the North Georgia Conference laity lunch on Wednesday, June 12. Speaker Dr. Tom Jackson, a long-time member of the Conference and an active member of Athens First UMC, spoke to the laity. Afterward many asked if he would share the text of his message and he agreed. His address is below:

Address By Dr. Tom Jackson to the 2019 Laity Lunch
 
When Bill Martin extended his most gracious invitation to speak to you today, I was humbled, I was honored, and frankly, I was rattled.  What? Me? Speak to the Methodists? This year – of all years? 
 
I know that this room is filled with friends from over many years, and you’re my friends whether you agree with me or not. I trust that this room is also filled with open-minded folks – and not the kind of folks who watch only CNN or only Fox, because to change that channel means they might see and hear something with which they disagree, heaven forbid. 
 
My thinking today – my very life path – has been greatly influenced by my many involvements in the Methodist Church. I am thankful for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you today.
 
An early lesson, in fact, the first lesson I learned in college made a big impression even before I set foot in a classroom. The fall convocation speaker my freshman year at Oxford College of Emory University was the Emory historian Henry M. Bullock. His message to the little student body of some 400 gathered in the historic sanctuary of Allen Memorial United Methodist Church that September evening in 1969 was on the topic, “What’s Past is Prologue,” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He further quoted the eminent Harvard philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
 
I’ve spent a lifetime reading history, writing history, reporting news as a first account of history, occasionally being involved in making some history (or at least some news) and writing two large works of specific history. These points from Shakespeare and Santayana underline the importance of researching and studying our history, and learning from it. “What’s past” is indeed “prologue.” And “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
 
Many of us here can say we were born into the Methodist church. For me, it was almost literal. My mother and I spent the last night before I was born at the home of her parents, which was the Methodist District Parsonage at Griffin. My grandfather, the Rev. Henry H. Jones, served this conference as an elder from 1917 to his retirement in 1962. He may have been best-known for writing the weekly Sunday School lessons which were printed in the Wesleyan Christian Advocate – he did that every week without fail from 1930 to 1974. My grandparents Jones lived for many years across the street from Glenn Memorial Church, and I remember as a child many times crossing North Decatur Road to go to conference sessions at Glenn. So I’ve been going to annual conference since before I was even 10 years old.
 
Granddaddy Jones’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, built that house. He was James E. Dickey, president of Emory at the time it moved from Oxford to Druid Hills. He was later elected Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, serving in Texas, then Kentucky. Bishop Dickey’s father was James Madison Dickey, also ordained an elder in the Georgia Conference, serving through the time that it divided into the North and South Georgia Conferences. So yes, Methodism is in my blood.
 
I could spend all my allotted time singing the praises and giving thanks for the many dedicated pastors and lay people of the Methodist churches of which I have been a part – and what a profound influence they have had on my life. Each pastor, youth minister, choir director, Sunday School teacher and other laity who were involved in leading and directing me over my lifetime comes to mind – at Manchester First, LaGrange First, St. Paul UMC in Columbus, Allen Memorial UMC at Oxford, and of course, Athens First, where I’ve been now for going on 50 years. I owe my very existence to LaGrange College and LaGrange First UMC – my parents met in the church choir there while my mother was a college student. Through those early years our family was in church twice on Sundays, on Wednesday evenings, and for youth group, Boy Scouts, Bible School – it was, and still is, a central point of our lives and community. I love Athens First UMC with all my heart.  As I suspect it is with you, my first loyalty to the church is rooted in my home congregation. The role of the annual conference, and the general conference, is to facilitate the work of the local church through unity – and not to get in our way.
 
My work in radio, in t-v, and at the University of Georgia, gave many opportunities to advance the church, and to put into practice the lessons the church had taught me. Once, when I was reporting for channel 11, I told the assignment desk that the biggest thing happening in my area that June day was that the Methodist pastors were moving. What? Yes, this is moving day for Methodist pastors all over North Georgia. That evening my story on 11-Alive News was Bev Jones departing Athens for Northside UMC and Bill Floyd coming to Athens, complete with video of him riding in on his motorcycle. I interviewed them both for the piece, and it actually was pretty interesting news – I wish they did more stories like that today.
 
The opportunities to work with conference communications, on the Commission on Higher Education, the board of the UGA Wesley Foundation, and now the Foundation for Wesley Woods – all are extensions both of my church involvement and my life vocation.
 
Four times in the past three-plus decades, I offered and was elected to represent North Georgia in the General Conference – in 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2008. I was first elected at age 36 – and folks ask why I haven’t offered every four years since. Well, it’s very hard for a working person to take off the time from work even to be a delegate to this annual conference, much less to meet the very heavy obligation of being a General Conference delegate. 
 
But one thing I learned at General Conference is that there are a lot of sincere people there doing their best to serve Christ – and they often disagree on how to get that done. As we all know, there’s no disagreement quite like a church disagreement, because it is about something so close to our hearts. But I’ve never had occasion to question anyone’s motives, no matter how deeply I might have disagreed with their position.
 
My first time in General Conference, the big issue was revising the hymnal. The flash-point was – what to do about Onward Christian Soldiers – is it too militaristic? -- and whether to change to gender-inclusive language. We may not have realized at the time that it was a civil war among the Christian soldiers themselves! When I first offered for election that year, it didn’t occur to me to ask management at Channel 11 in advance whether I could have the time off to actually go to General Conference. When I was elected they at first said they couldn’t spare me for the two weeks. So I turned to my friend Guy Sharpe. Guy was our weather forecaster on channel 11 at the time – they called him the Grey Ghost because of his shockingly white hair. But before being a weather forecaster, Guy had been a pastor in the North Georgia Conference. Guy had a tendency to be a bit long-winded, but he had a heart of gold, and soon determined his calling might be elsewhere than the pulpit. Guy convinced the t-v station’s management that the hymnal story and the other issues facing the Methodists that year were real news, and that it would put the station in a great position to have a live reporter on the ground there in St. Louis. So management allowed me to go – I did my duties representing North Georgia on the conference floor, and ran to the broadcast facilities at the back of the hall to file my reports -- Live from St. Louis, 11-Alive was the only station at the General Conference!
 
Profession, family, and church all melded in my doctoral dissertation. It’s a scintillating (really, it is!) 500-page biography of Bishop James E. Dickey, but it also is an in-depth history of Emory University and the North Georgia Annual Conference from the 1880s to the 1930s. If you ever want to read it, you can find it online. It is astounding to me to realize that my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather sat in this conference from the 1840s until I arrived in the 1970s – so the family has been here at conference for about 175 years running! Bishop Dickey often spoke at North Georgia Conference – including right down the street when conference met in the sanctuary of Athens First Church in 1897 and again in 1910. By the way, in 1897 a resolution to split the North Georgia Conference into two conferences was laid on the table by a very close vote – how would it be today if that had passed? 
 
In reading letters, minutes, and news articles written 100 to 150 years ago, one learns how people acted and thought – and that some things never change. It gave me a chuckle, for example, to read the Official Board minutes from Atlanta First Church. From 1917 to 1920 they are full of references time and again as they discussed “what to do about the choir.” 
 
My work-in-progress is a history of the University System of Georgia. In all this historical research, it has been my privilege to meet and interview a lot of well-known people, learning about the crises faced by the leaders of our church and of our state over the decades, the battles they fought. I have concluded that each of these people – whether family member, church pastor, governor, college president, community leader – was trying to do the very best they could as led by God and their conscience. But every action they took, indeed every thought they had – was in the context of their times. Sometimes it is very difficult, indeed almost impossible, to see beyond the context of our own times.
 
“For all the saints, who from their labors rest” echoes in my mind and in my heart – I’m standing on their shoulders, but they’re looking over mine now. For 200-plus years my ancestors have been going about the Lord’s business here in Georgia. Almost all of my family arrived in America through acts of religious conscience…. 
 
After one of my Rogers family ancestors was burned at the stake in England for his religious beliefs, his great-grandson came to America on the Mayflower, only to die that first winter in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The five-year-old son he left behind in England came over on his own in 1630, establishing that line of the family here. 
 
My ancestors in the Few family were Quakers who came to Philadelphia with William Penn, but moved South during the time of the Revolution and became Methodists. Bishop Dickey was descended from Benjamin Few, whose brother William Few was a founding trustee of the University of Georgia and signed the U.S. Constitution for Georgia. Ignatius Few was the founding president of Emory University.  William Preston Few was the founding president of Duke University. It’s quite a heritage – out of which comes much that is good – but there were some rough and tumble times for all three of those gentlemen.
 
The Jones family was actually named desBrough in England. One of them was a member of Parliament who got on the wrong side of Cromwell and had to flee…when they got to the Georgia coast, they changed their name to Jones so they couldn’t be traced. They became large plantation owners in Liberty County, and yes, slave owners – a sad product of their times. But even then they were considered flamingly progressive and came under great criticism from their fellow plantation owners because they built schools to educate the children of those people they held in servitude. Oh my goodness, thought the rest of the community – if we educate these people what could that lead to? But yet they all sat in the same sanctuary together on Sunday – the owners downstairs, the slaves in the balcony, as the preacher preached the love of Jesus Christ to them all. In our retrospective rearview mirror, this all looks quite bizarre. Yet in the context of their times…they could justify it in their own minds.
 
Great-great-grandfather James Madison Dickey not only was a member of this Conference at the time it divided into North and South Georgia, but also during the time the larger Methodist church split in two – north and south. The precipitating issue was the fact that a bishop had inherited a slave. In the context of the times – it was a matter worth splitting the church over rather than resolving in a way that to us today seems so obvious. Pastor Dickey’s wife gave birth to their son, James E. Dickey, in May 1864 at the parsonage in Jeffersonville, Georgia, and within a few months watched General Sherman’s army march past in front of their home. 
 
During his time, the Methodists were strict moralists -- both clergy and lay could be brought up on charges before the Annual Conference.  Such proceedings show up regularly in the conference minutes and journals. Methodists could be charged with taking God’s name in vain, profaning the day of the Lord, being involved with spirituous liquors, fighting, engaging in unprofitable conversation, wearing gold jewelry or costly apparel, singing any song not to the glory of God….and on it went -- very moralistic and rule-oriented rather than focusing first on loving God and loving one another.
 
As Emory president, great-grandfather James E. Dickey taught Bible to the college students – he was described as a lion roaring with his great shaggy mane of hair, teaching the letters of Paul to the college boys. But he also had serious issues at Emory with a faculty member, Andrew Sledd, who wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly, a national magazine, describing a lynching he had witnessed and decrying the Southern attitudes that led to that. It blew into a massive controversy for Emory, front page in the Atlanta Constitution for weeks, and Sledd was dismissed from the faculty for the embarrassment he had brought to Emory. The Constitution wasn’t upset that Sledd had decried lynching, they were upset that he had disparaged the South. Now you may know that Sledd was the son-in-law of Bishop Warren Candler.  Sledd went on to be the founding president of the University of Florida and later came back to Emory as the first faculty member hired when the Candler School of Theology was established – but his dismissal in 1902 was a blot on Emory’s history – a decision made in the context of the times by well-meaning people who thought they were doing what God directed them to do.
 
By 1918, Dickey was pastor at Atlanta First, and was the odds-on candidate to be elected Bishop that year. But the hot issue at that conference was whether women should have voice and vote in the church. Dickey stood against the issue, based on scripture.  He truly believed scripture required that women not have voice and vote in the governance of the church – we need to protect our Southern women from such political battles, he believed. I guess it’s all in the interpretation, because we certainly don’t see the scripture that way today. What Dickey didn’t realize was that by 1918 in the aftermath of World War One and with women’s suffrage newly granted, the tide had turned on the issue of women having voice and vote. He was not elected Bishop that year – primarily because of his stance on that issue. I’m not sure he had changed his mind by 1922, but it wasn’t a main point any longer, and he was elected bishop in 1922 by a delegation that included female delegates.
 
As Bishop, Dickey fought against reunification of the northern and southern branches of the church – with the main concern being that unless the black churches were set aside into a separate Conference, then a black bishop might wind up presiding over a white church.  Ironically his son-in-law, my grandfather, Henry Jones, was a North Georgia delegate to the reunification conference in 1939 and voted in favor of putting the pieces of the Methodist Church back together some 75 years after the end of the Civil War. Even then, the only way they got reunification through was by setting the black churches aside into a Central Conference, a situation not rectified until merger with the EUB church in 1968.
 
Through the 1950s and ‘60s. I remember some devoted church members deciding to leave our home church because the pastor was preaching in support of racial integration. Imagine – putting the races together – it would be the ruination of society, wouldn’t it? That pastor was Bevel Jones – and it was a turbulent time. A prominent Baptist deacon in town and a close family friend of my father’s wrote a widely circulated book (nationally circulated) at the time examining the scripture that supports racial separation. “I’ve got to go with the scripture on this,” folks would say, and they would cite those verses. I guess it’s all in the interpretation.
 
Every time I’ve been at General Conference – the church’s stance toward homosexuality has been at the forefront of discussion…for more than 40 years now. We didn’t solve it then – and I’m not sure we’re going to solve it now. But I’ve learned a lot over those years. I’ve had many fine friends and colleagues at work, and at church, who are gay, and I have no doubt that they are called of God. I’m beginning to wonder if the church’s attitude toward this issue is just like some of these other issues through history. 
 
Throughout the history of our church, the Discipline was silent on the issue of homosexuality until 1972, when language was inserted declaring that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. I know you understand that this was a political compromise – a give-and-take among the forces on the left and right of the church – the beginning of the struggle with pluralistic theology that still vexes us all today. I stood before this Annual Conference in 1988 and again in 1992 and declared that I would vote in General Conference to keep that language unchanged – and I did just that, and I’m not proud of it. Research has shown me how the church inevitably seems to pick the wrong side in history and hang onto it for all it is worth. I fear it is not that the church has “picked” or “chosen” the wrong side, but have sort of fallen into it through an evolutionary process that we’re in before we realize it, and then have to dig ourselves out.
 
Today we would agree 100% in this room that slavery was wrong. The idea that a slave-owner would educate his slaves and be criticized for it seems almost absurd today, but the church was in the middle of it all – sanctioning the system, supporting it, and its members going off to war to fight to maintain it.
 
Look around this room and imagine what this church would be today without women in roles of leadership. What if those in our church who insisted that women did not belong in places of leadership and in ordained positions had prevailed?
 
It goes without saying how wrong the church was on the issue of racial integration – with the southern church splitting off in support of a bishop owning a slave, and then taking nine decades to put the church back together – and even then, with special rules for black churches.
 
And now comes the issue of sexual orientation, history repeating itself. I think back to those lessons learned in freshmen convocation at Emory at Oxford – “What’s past is prologue,” and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
 
Incivility is historic and it is chronic – At least we seem to be past the days of duels among members of Congress and fistfights on the Capitol floor – yet, this is a time of tough discussion in the United Methodist Church. Discussing the issue with love and respect is important. I watched with sadness as the 2019 Special General Conference transpired – and clearly failed to meet Wesley’s mandate of “first, do no harm.” As a trusted friend said to me recently, “Are we capable of being Christian in the midst of this disruptive moment?” Because being Christian – reaching others for and in the name of Christ, is what we are about.
 
Some of us are afraid to open our mouths about how we really feel, for fear of the reaction we’ll get. Too many Americans don’t want to hear opinions that differ from theirs. They live in neighborhoods of people who think just like them – we can even draw them into blue and red voting districts because they congregate that way. But it’s a rare argument that is simply two-sided – issues are multi-faceted. We need to engage friends and colleagues who are on all sides of an issue so that we can learn from them. All your friends don’t likely think alike on everything. If they do, you need a wider circle of friends. 
 
Do those who say “we should follow the scripture” on this issue really think that those with a differing opinion don’t believe they’re following scripture, as well? People on all sides of our issues think that they’re the ones who are Bible-believing and God-fearing. People on every side are sincerely trying to follow the will of God for our lives and our church.
 
An important lesson I learned during my public relations career came in some sage advice from one of my senior vice presidents – he said, “Tom, you box yourself into a corner if you don’t understand that the other guy could be the one who is right. Listen carefully to what they are saying. Often you are not hearing what they intend…you are listening from the context of your own echo chamber,” he said. Indeed, at times, others had a viewpoint and experience on a particular matter that my background, culture and intellect just had not prepared me to handle or hear. I needed to grow, I needed to listen.
 
We know that our ancestors were good people – at least in the context of their times. If we judge them by today’s standards, some don’t hold up so well. Today, some folks want to tear down the statues they erected, remove their monuments, and erase that history – instead of taking the much more reasonable path of learning from that history.
 
When the North Georgia Conference meets 100 years from now – or whatever group has evolved in its place depending on the decisions we are making today – what will they think of us? How will we stand when judged in the context of their times? How will our actions in 2019 look to a historian writing in the year 2119?
 
The church has been at such junctures before. The Methodist church has reorganized over such issues in the past – generally about every 60 or 70 years. It seems unavoidable that we will undergo a reorganization on this issue, although I think it is a strange topic on which to build the structure and polity of a denomination. It is possible that the closing benediction of the 2020 General Conference will mark the end of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. The warring factions of the far left and/or far right may feel freed up to go join whatever denomination is better suited to their convictions – with a newly configured church for whatever is left of the Methodist Middle. 
 
Whatever comes out the other side, I am convinced each will still be dedicated to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their own way.  People have always chosen different paths to do that, and that’s not going to change now. What hurts in contemplating all this is that the real split, the real division, will have to play out in the local church, as each individual member of each individual church makes his or her own decision about how they feel. The majority will rule in each local congregation – and those in the minority opinion will be hurt and likely leave. How is that “do no harm?”
 
So my prayer today is that we can calm down and take a deep breath. 
 
Let’s apply the Wesley Quadrilateral – even though we have differing views of whether scripture and tradition take us in one direction, while reason and experience take us in the other.
 
Let’s recall the teachings of Wesley “in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity.”
 
Let’s follow the General Rules of the Methodist church handed down by Wesley – “First, do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”
 
Let’s examine that which Jesus taught us is essential – to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself. And the Great Commission to win others to Jesus Christ. Let our beginning point not be judgment, let it be love … As we remember that the context of the times often doesn’t hold up in the great retrospect of history.
 
God bless you and God bless the North Georgia Conference.


comments powered by Disqus