Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Bishop James K. Mathews

Posted by John Montgomery on September 8, 2010

[From New England UMC e-Connection]

Bishop James K. Mathews died this Wednesday morning, September 8, 2010.  Bishop Mathews was one of the longest-serving bishops in the United Methodist Church.  His career spanned many continents, including India, Africa, and Asia. 

Born in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, on February 10, 1913 Mathews was one of eight children born to Laura Mae Wilson Mathews and itinerant Methodist preacher James Davenport Mathews.   Mathews received his B.A. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1931, working his way through college as a baker.  He had originally intended to study medicine, but his brother, Joe, had just returned from the Olympiad of Religions in Los Angeles that ran in tandem with the 1932 Olympics, and convinced him to enter the clergy. 

Mathews received his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from Biblical Seminary in New York City, earning his way teaching newly arrived immigrants at the Five Points Mission on the lower East Side.  This experience sparked a life-long passion for mission work and evangelism.  He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1937.  He then entered Boston University School of Theology, where he studied for his master’s degree in theology.  During his first semester, he heard a lecture by Bishop Azariah of Dornakal Diocese in South India and decided to become a missionary.  He withdrew from school, and in February, 1938, sailed for India on the Queen Mary, arriving in Bombay (now Mumbai).  As part of his mission work, Mathews mastered several Indian languages, including Marathi, Hindustani, Urdu and eventually, Sanskrit.

In 1939, Mathews traveled to the Sat Tal Christian Ashram in northern India to hear the well-known evangelist E. Stanley Jones lecture.  While there, he met Jones’ daughter Eunice.  The two married on June 1, 1940, and celebrated their 70th anniversary earlier this year.  In 1942, Mathews enlisted in the United States Army CBI Theater (China-Burma-India) in New Delhi, and was appointed First Lieutenant and assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, while Eunice worked for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA.

Mathews and his wife returned to the United States in 1946 where he worked for the Methodist Board of Missions in New York City, eventually serving as associate general secretary of the Division of World Missions.  As part of this position, Mathews traveled constantly, crossing the Atlantic Ocean 220 times, making more than 60 trips to India, 28 to Africa, 16 to Latin America, and a dozen to Korea and Japan during his lifetime.  Throughout his life, Mathews maintained close ties with India, and remained close friends with Raj Mohan and Arun Gandhi, grandsons of Mahatma Gandhi. 

After the war, Mathews enrolled in Columbia University under the GI Bill, where he pursued his PhD in theology.  His dissertation was on Mahatma Gandhi, whom he had met in India, and who was a close friend of his father-in-law, E. Stanley Jones, whose book Gandhi: Portrait of a Friend, inspired Martin Luther King to embrace non-violence as the core principle of the Civil Rights movement.   In 1955, Mathews moved his family to Cambridge, England, for six months, where he researched Gandhi’s earlier writings.  The family lived in the village of Grandchester, in “The Old Vicarage,” made famous by British poet Rupert Brooke in a 1916 poem of the same name.  Mathews’ dissertation on Gandhi was published as The Matchless Weapon: Satyagraha in 1994.  In 2003, 90 year old Bishop Mathews was invited to discuss Gandhi and answer questions as the featured guest on an hour-long, live phone-in edition of Washington Journal on C-SPAN.

Mathews was first elected Bishop of the Methodist Church in 1956 in Lucknow, however he declined, suggesting that Indians should be ministered to by their own people.  In 1960 Mathews was again elected Bishop by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Washington, DC.  This time, he accepted, and was assigned to the New England Conference, which included 755 congregations in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and parts of Connecticut and Vermont. 

Bishop Mathews served on the boards of Boston’s Deaconess Hospital, Boston University, American University and Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D. C., and Santiago College in Chile.  He was a member of the Methodist Council of Bishops, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches, as well as chairman of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief, and active in the ecumenical movement in the World Council of Churches.  Mathews also belonged to the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C.

Bishop Mathews was active in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  As early as 1960, Mathews met with Jackie Robinson and other prominent African-Americans to discuss growing racial tensions.  In 1963, Bishop Mathews was invited to join President Kennedy at the White House to discuss civil rights.  He participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was present at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.   On Easter Sunday in 1964, he and African-American Bishop Charles Golden were barred from entering an all-white Methodist church in Jackson, Mississippi.  In 1978, Bishop Mathews joined Mohammad Ali, Vice President Walter Mondale, Dick Gregory, Buffy St. Marie, Stevie Wonder, and Marlon Brando in “The Longest Walk” in Washington, D. C., which drew national attention to the plight of Native Americans. 

Having served 12 years in New England, in 1972, Mathews was appointed Bishop of the Washington, D.C. area, with some 900 congregations in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia.  During the first Bush administration, Bishop Mathews was instrumental in the effort to construct an interdenominational chapel at Camp David.  Bishop Mathews along with then Archbishop (later Cardinal) William Baum created an ecumenical initiative called the Inter-Faith Conference of Metropolitan Washington in 1978 which is now the most widely representative such body in the country.

At Bishop Mathews’s retirement service in 1980, addresses were made by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, John Brademas.  

In 1985, Bishop Mathews was called out of retirement to replace Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Methodist bishop of Zimbabwe, who had to flee the country after challenging Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in an election.  He served in Harare for a year, and helped to found Africa University.  In 1987, he was recalled a second time to form a new area in the Northeastern Jurisdiction.  He then served another two years as bishop of the Albany Area in upstate New York.  His sixth and final assignment was to the New York City Area.  He finally retired in 1996, sixteen years after his first “retirement”.

In May, 1995, Bishop Mathews was invited by the Department of Defense to join an ex-CBI military delegation to India and China to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.  A few months later, he was invited by General Mick Kicklighter to fly to Honolulu on Air Force One with President Clinton to lead ceremonies at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the end of the war and to introduce President Clinton. 

Bishop Mathews was the author of 9 books, including, South of the Himalayas, 1955, Eternal Values in a World of Change, 1957, The Road to Brotherhood, 1958, To the End of the Earth, 1959, A Church Truly Catholic, 1969, Set Apart to Serve, 1985, The Matchless Weapon: Satyagraha, 1994, A Global Odyssey, 2000, Brother Joe: A 20th Century Apostle, 2006.

He was preceded in death by sisters Daisy Mathews, Elizabeth McCleary, Margaret Hotaling, Alene Watson and Alice Neill, and by brothers Joseph Wesley Mathews, and Donald Mathews.   Mathews is survived by his wife, Eunice, his daughters Anne Mathews-Younes, Director of the Division of Prevention, Traumatic Stress and Special Programs at the Federal Center for Mental Health Services and Janice Stromsem, a retired Federal civil servant and now a senior rule of law advisor on the Haiti Task Team at USAID, and son, J. Stanley Mathews, professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, as well as six grandchildren and soon to be three great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 11 am at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, 3401 Nebraska Ave., NW, Washington, DC.  (202) 363 4900.  A luncheon will follow the service  In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made on behalf of missionary work in India through the E Stanley and Mabel Jones Foundation at the General Board of Global Ministries, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY  10115


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From My Archives – Standing For The Gospel

Posted by John Montgomery on August 14, 2010

[Note: This post was first published in June of 2008.]

Does your congregation stand for the reading of the Gospel?

A friend who knows that I am interested in this subject put me on to this wonderful video. Enjoy! They do!

Now most of us Methodists don’t do a formal “Gospel Procession” as part of our worship, although they do one at Duke Chapel each Sunday morning. Most of us are Episcopal light (as in not heavy, as opposed to dark!)

At the same time, a lot of us have embedded in our morning worship a series of lectionary readings – sometimes three, more likely two. Following the assigned morning texts, they begin with a reading from the Christian Old Testament (not the Jewish Tanakah), followed by a reading from either a Pauline epistle or one of the later writings, and then usually we have a reading from one of the four Gospels (Gospel as in literary type).

At Glenn Memorial where I attend, we usually only do two readings, but clearly, if the second reading comes from one of the four gospels, the congregations stands. If our second reading does not come from one of the four “gospels,” we seem a bit confused!


The Lutheran website that talks about this liturgical element in our worship describes the ritual as a gesture of respect, but don’t the other texts need similar respect?

Are those four texts privileged? You would not be surprised that a study of Christian responses to that question yield at least two different answers. Some say yes, the rest of the texts are commentary. Others, ofttimes the same author says, no, in the Christian Bible, all texts are potentially a vehicle for the gospel. Paul clearly talks of his teaching as the gospel, probably 20 years before Mark is written.

I prefer the latter. My current fantasy is that at the time of the second reading, our pastor will say the following, “Please stand for the Gospel reading taken this morning from the book of Exodus.”

To make things worse, in my mind, our last pastor reserved the Gospel reading for clergy! No way….

Now those who know me understand that the real reason behind these comments is my suspicion that there lurks a subtle assumption that Christianity supersedes Judaism and post-holocaust, most of us find that doctrine an abomination. Still, every morning, we begin with a reading from the OLD testament before moving to the NEW testament and then we eventually liturgically climb up the stairs of the temple to exalt the Gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a Christian and for me Jesus is the key source of my understanding of the Word of God, but what that means practically is quite another question.

This all got brought to a head this week because our pastor preached on the Isaiah text and the second reading came from Psalms. So when we were ready to stand, instead we just sat there.

I’ve got two ways of dealing with this. First, why don’t we stand for every reading? Second, perhaps we should put the main reading for the day in the first position and follow-up with one or two related readings. During Advent, we experimented with the key text of the day functioning as the call to worship. I likes that model, it set the tone for the whole experience of worship.

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Empty Collection Plates…

Posted by John Montgomery on August 8, 2010

Now if you opened this post hoping to talk about dwindling finances in some of our churches (not all), then you are in the wrong place. Today’s post is about worship!

Our technology is outrunning our liturgical practices. I’ve seen this coming, but this morning starkly brought it home.

Now school starts tomorrow here in the Atlanta metro area, so worship attendance, following a summer of sparse crowds was quite good. It was helped by the fact that this is the Sunday we give 3rd graders their own personal Bibles and therefore there were lots of family visitors –  aunts, uncles, etc.

It was full enough, that my usual seat down front right was taken and I had to sit about 15 rows back. which was okay, I was in a watchful mood today, so I didn’t mind the view.

I like the rhythm of our worship. I have written about this before, starting with the gathering of the congregation including the children, then moving toward a time of prayer, the scripture reflection (with sermon) and then closing with a high period of  dedication symbolized with our collection.

Collections are important to me – I suppose that my father commiserates about the fact that I did not complete the ordination process by noting that as a professional fundraiser, I still take collections (sort of).  Isn’t that how you know you are at a Methodist gathering – there is a collection. Right.

So here I am sitting 15 rows back – my best guess is that we have about 450 people in attendance this morning. The ushers are dutifully passing the plates and when it got to my row…..THE PLATE WAS EMPTY!

Why John, I didn’t know your church was facing such hard times!

No! We made budget last year and had a surplus. What is going on?

I am sure there are a couple of things going on, but I can’t help but notice that about a month ago, we started taking contributions made on our website by credit cards. For the last 3 or 4 months, since – for the life of me – I can’t find my check book, and since I pay everything else but my pledge on line, I started to use my financial institution’s bill pay functions to deliver on Monday of each week, right on time, a bank cut check to our church office.

But, that’s Monday, not SUNDAY.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,

Praise God, all creatures here below,

Praise God, above ye heavenly host,

Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost…

And from my colleagues up north, the pastoral invitation  is….

“Jesus calls us to follow him. One way in which we respond to this call is to offer our gifts—of time, talents, and treasures.”

Seems to me that something’s got to give. Some of you may remember the “Daily Office” liturgy that was first developed at the Faith and Life Community at the University in Austin,  TX – Jack Lewis’ provocative campus ministry cooperative during the 1950s. Or, perhaps more may have run into this experimental liturgy as it became part of the covenant community associated with the work of Joe Mathews at the Ecumenical Institute based in Chicago. My late wife, Judy and I spent some 15 years as members of that “third order.” Daily Office was usually at 4:30 in the morning, a habit that I did not take long to break after leaving the community and returning to grad school.

Nevertheless, the collection (offering) was a bit of a suprise to people. I remember explaining to a group of visitors – “that this is not about paying bills. It is about a renewed commitment to be the church.”

So at either side of the doors coming into the liturgical space, there were baskets of pennies. Upon entering, everybody takes a penny. When the liturgy comes to the time of the offering, as the baskets are passed, everybody (kids, rich, poor, choir, morning clergy) places their penny in the offering plate as a symbol of giving their lives.

Frankly, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the practice of averting my glance from the usher every Sunday indicating that I have nothing to put in plate…

I don’t have a proposal yet. I’ve been thinking about prayer cards. It’s all symbolic, but what it symbolizes is so important. Our liturgy gives us a chance each week to rehearse and remake our Christian commitments – that’s finally what worship is about.

Yes, the check is in the mail, but our lives are in the plate.

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Photo Used by Permission: I-Stock Phote – DesignEthic

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Gospel Remakes and Sequels…

Posted by John Montgomery on August 5, 2010

It seems to me that there have sure been a lot of movie “remakes” this season. I’ve certainly not seen them all, but I have caught a few. My youngest son, Matt talked me into seeing the remake (more accurately – the prequel) of Robin Hood.

Now I grew up seeing Robin every Saturday morning played by Richard Greene. The plots were predictable and the outcomes always certain. I can still sing the theme song – some of you are old enough to remember.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

Ridley Scott’s  latest version of Robin Hood tells the details of story that happened before our varied episodes of “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor” came to be told. This present version of the legendary hero stars  Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett, of course, plays “Maid Marian,” but in a plot twist, instead of Crowe playing  Robin of Loxley (De Lockesly, Locksley), he is Robin Longstride, a happy archer who assumes Loxley’s identity to lead villagers against an invasion from France. Marian is the real Loxley’s widow and the plot develops – need I say more?

This past year during Lent, I focused on takes of Dicken’s The Christmas Carol. Actually, we had a small group at the church reading the original text (in English) and as part of the study we went back and looked at some of the remakes. The list is huge – see wiki article. Of course, this year’s remake was Jim Carrey’s version. With Three-D glasses and all along with Robert Zemeckis’ direction and the Disney animations, we soared across space and time until I was just plain dizzy.

Each remake is a little bit different and some give a significantly nuanced view to the story. Some remakes are more different than others. I was struck at how in Brian Henson’s 1992 Muppet’s take on the Christmas Carol, there were two Marley brothers, not surprisingly played by the well-known curmudgeons usually found weekly in the balcony for the TV show. (Is that where I got the name for this blog?) Of course, one of the most significant updates in Juhl’s script was the special music that punctuated the narrative.

Not surprisingly, the Muppet’s version was mainly aimed at the children. In that context, I was a bit taken aback when in the scene with the young boy and girl symbolizing want and ignorance, the young girl morphs into an obvious prostitute!

The best remake for me this season was the Karate Kid – Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s son, Jaden and Jackie Chan adapt the classic Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita movie setting it not in Southern California, but Beijing. I am told that there is a previous remake, this time with a young girl as the hero, but I have not seen it yet.  Chan’s movie was elegant. Of course, it it not about Karate, but Kung Fu. Nevertheless the parallels are obvious. Some are spoofs of previous scenes like the famous attempt to use chopsticks to catch the fly. With all due respect for Morita, Chan’s martial art routines are awesome. Morita is a great actor. Chan is a Master.

It’s actually been 26 years since Avidsen’s movie was first released. I rented the original and I was shocked at how much of the dialogue remained – in many cases, word for word.

* * * * *

It seems to me that “remakes” function on several levels. Sometimes, we get better information. I’m told that Scott’s Robin Hood is more true to the tradition.

Of course, remakes are not simply tales of the past, but speak in powerful ways to the present situation. In  our period where populist Ayn Rand fundamentalism is shouted back and forth at a political rally “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor” takes on the flavor of socialism and Marxist redistribution of the wealth.

Finally, a narrative pluralism goes a long way to form our imagination – building a deeper appreciation of diversity and some patience with divergent perspectives.

* * * * *

So… has occurred to me that we might talk about our various versions of the gospel narratives as a series of “remakes.” I don’t think it stretches the facts to say that Acts is Luke’s sequel. But is Matthew a remake of Mark? Luke is perhaps a remake of Mark and Matthew, and John…well that is another post. Not only do Matthew and Luke correct Mark’s questionable grammar, but they sometimes tell a different story.  They are not movies, but I believe that the more we can see the gospel narratives rather than simply hear them, the word is more powerfully expressed.

If all that had survived had been Mark, we would have not known that it was Peter with the sword in the garden. Mother Mary would not have been at the cross, in fact she would have been absent because she thought Jesus was crazy. Where is the Passover supper in John?

Now a blog post is not the place to detail all of the changes that accompanied the gospel remake process, we can do that later. I’ve avoided the question of lectionary. after all, would Men in Tights have even make the Robin Hood canon?

But, having said that, in our multi-faith world, perhaps the more we focus on how each subsequent author told the gospel story differently, if we stop assuming that the texts say the same thing, the texts themselves might begin to form our imagination and our sense of hospitality in the face of real religious diversity.

I am glad that there are several versions of Robin Hood. I am glad that there are also four gospel traditions.

* * * * *

I’ll close with a small gift. My thanks go out to James F. McGrath who recently shared Duke professor Mark Goodacre’s You-tube fun on the synoptic problem. Enjoy.

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