Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

All Saints Day 2020 arrives two days ahead of the Presidential Election. We remember lives well lived — and others lived not so well. We consider the fraying of our national identity and the evident threats to our commonweal. Mortality lurks as a backdrop on the nation’s theatrical stage this year. I think of the friends who have died. Many wonderful folks. There are 230,000 others in the United States and 1.2 million around the world who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic since February. We know only a handful of their names or life stories. Still, this is ALL SAINTS DAY.

The New York Times today (11/1/2020) carried an opinion piece entitled “Obituaries for the The American Dream 1931-2020.” It was inspired by Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist and museum curator, who asked other artists When and How The American Dream Died For You? The Times opened the question to a wider audience and invited readers to respond.

One of the original responses was from, Marsha McDonald who wrote: “The American Dream died for me when I realized how many of my fellow Americans valued selfishness over community, power over justice, prejudice over generosity, demagoguery over science. For me, the 2020 pandemic is very real, but also a metaphor. How sick our national soul is! The old dream should pass away. Isn’t it time for us to dream new dreams, better dreams, that include us all?

Since All Saints Sunday 2019, I have spent countless hours looking into the history of Methodism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.** This research led to libraries, books and articles, old newspapers along with dozens of conversations and email exchanges. There are mysteries yet to be solved. Even so, I have sadly learned more of the broad swath of racism and religious bigotry that infected (and still infects) the church. At the same time my research uncovered the lives and witness of dozens of remarkable persons of faith in the early 20th Century who opposed the Klan and worked against this corruption of the Gospel and human dignity. In their day, these women and men dreamed “new dreams, better dreams, that included us all.”

If I were I to write my letter as a part of an Obituary for the American Dream today it would be a rolling set of dates — times of death, trauma and despair — and times of hoped for rebirth. Scores of times, a refrain, recurring rhythms of loss and return. Times when the dream died – along with Dr. King or the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, or the twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or the treacheries of hunger, violence, betrayal and death witnessed while working in impoverished settings filled with saintly people in the U.S. and Latin America, and on and on and on. THEN – times when hope was rekindled.

Shortly after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 author Morris West wrote an appreciation titled “Good Pope John” for Life Magazine in which he wondered: “Will they canonize him and make him, officially, a saint in the calendar?  In a way, I hope not… I want to remember him for what he was — a loving man, a simple priest, a good pastor and a builder of bridges across which we poor devils may one day hope to scramble across to salvation.” In 2014, Pope John XXIII was canonized — so much for the wishes of Mr. West.

I don’t know that any one American Dream should be canonized. In truth all of our best dreams will end up in some graveyard of good intentions. In fundamental ways, our society and culture are flawed and destined to continuing corruptions — as are all human political and institutional designs. Our hope is not in finding the perfect president, or political ideology or government program. In truth, there is no “draining of the swamp”; instead we require an honest assessment of the human dilemma and self-critical response — where better oversight and care of all of our swampy places is required — social and personal. The future is not yet clear, even so I join in cautious hope.

I pray that Jon Meachem is correct in offering that: “In our finest hours…the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

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Thomas Merton wrote: “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p 57)

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Ordinary Saints, Malcolm Guite

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, 
Our too-familiar family and friends, 
When shall we see them? 
Who can truly show 
Whilst still rough-hewn, 
the God who shapes our ends? 
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold 
That is and always was our common ground, 
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold 
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound 
From which the light we never noticed fell 
Into our lives? 
Remember how we turned 
To look at them, and they looked back? 
That full- -eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, 
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. 
But one day we will see them face to face.

(Malcolm Guite, From Plough, March 22, 2018)

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**[My interest was in part linked to my appreciation for the research by retired Indiana University Professor James Madison, whose book The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland arrived in September 2020. Madison rightly argues that the Klan was made up by more than the “hillbillies and Great Unteachables” as some claimed. Klan membership extended into the ranks of community and church leaders. My interest, of course, was given more urgency by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the past year.]

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Hope and Freedom are inextricably linked — twin sisters of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America. Both are best defined and lived out in the future tense. Mark Twain put it this way, “Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope-tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” In three days, I pray a tidal wave of voters in the United States will choose Hope and Freedom. It is a critical moment for the nation to move forward and step away from the politics of division, despair and fear.

I miss the easy sense of hope and freedom I knew before the COVID-19 pandemic savaged our nation. Still I am most fortunate; I know this. I have benefited fully from HOPE and FREEDOM. So my struggles in this time of pandemic are minimal, modest. My challenges center in a missing touch with family and friends, mask wearing, safe grocery shopping or the absence of gatherings like Sunday worship.

In a strange way, pandemic offered opportunity to join others in online worship. On a typical Sunday, I check in on my home congregation and then roam across the internet. Sometimes checking out three or four other congregations. Okay, I know this is atypical — make that downright strange! Call it an occupational hazard of a retired preacher. Better, know it is the joy of discovering gifts other women and men offer as they lead worship. From New York to Colorado to California I watch. There is the exceptional pipe organ offerings of Jaebon Hwang in San Diego or the profound words of my friend Michael Mather in Boulder.

Most Sundays since the pandemic began, I drop in on music and preaching at St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This past Sunday, October 27, I sat straight up in my chair as Mark Feldmeir quoted from Toni Morrison: The function of freedom is to make someone else free.” Yes,” I thought. That is what makes this election so important! Freedom should never be quarantined to self absorbed, individualistic, personal freedom — or, even to the idea that freedom should be restricted to the boundaries of one nation. Freedom is to be shared. Hope is to be shared. So, borrowing from Morrison, let’s say that the function of hope is to offer others hope!

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road having just left Jerusalem. They are heart-broken by the crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger joins them who asks why they are so downcast and defeated. According to Taylor they reply:  “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” She then notes: “We had hoped Hope in the past tense, one of the saddest sounds a human being can make.  We had hoped he was the one.  We believed things might really change, but we were wrong.  He died.  It is over now.  NO more fairy tales.  No more illusions.  Back to business as usual.” (Gospel Medicine, p. 21)

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Hope is a thing with feathers,  
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.   - Emily Dickinson 

Prayer:  Remind us, O God, that the warp and woof of creation are hope and freedom. It is in these we discover joy. In these we are called to delight and praise. May we know the tremors of bliss, the winks of heaven, the whispers of hope, the pathways of freedom that signal the grand consummation of all things. Amen. (adapted by P. Amerson from Thomas a’Becket) +++++

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?

A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”  (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.

Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?

It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors.  Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.

Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”

J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)

Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”

Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics.  Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.

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Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):

In the end is our beginning; 
in our time, infinity; 
in our doubt there is believing; 
in our life, eternity. 
In our death, a resurrection; 
at the last, a victory, 
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

  (From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)

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My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.
                               -- Christian Wiman

Fortnight – Day9: Restoration

Fortnight – Day 9: Restoration

Restoration is a powerfully motivating message — as is evidenced in 2020 by Joe Biden’s call to “restore the Soul of America.” When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 his slogan was “Make America Great Again.” With clever marketing, the shorthand MAGA brand appeared on baseball caps, flags and t-shirts. Of course, he was borrowing from the vision Ronald Reagan offered in 1980, the difference being that Reagan spoke of American as “a shining city on the hill” and Mr. Trump focused on “American carnage.”

The discerning reader, as I am certain you are, is asking “restored to what?” Not all restorations are desirable — we don’t want to return to the racism, violence, misogyny or other bigotries of the past. I am speaking of those things that would restore strength, health and joy where they are lacking. It is a restoration toward flourishing. Restoration, in every understanding of the word, needs to be shaped in terms of the values and virtues mentioned early on in this series: the good, the true and the beautiful. It is in the implementation of such restoration that difficult conversations will be required. How might there be polycentric options for flourishing in our society?

The focus on this the ninth day of the fortnight before the 2020 election will be threefold: Natural Environment, Justice System and the Common Good.

NATURAL ENVIRONMENT:If you haven’t already discovered it, I encourage you to view the series The Age of Nature currently showing on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and produced jointly with The Nature Conservancy. The first episode is entitled “Awakening” and to my way of thinking stands as a master metaphor for the restoration needed across all of our systems — humanly constructed and the natural world.

Brice Canyon, Utah

This Awakening episode includes stories of how ecosystems are restored, with a little human assistance, around the globe. Natural ecological “awakenings” are highlighted from Panama to China to Norway to the coral reff off of the Bikini Atoll. I found particularly compelling the efforts of philanthropist Greg Carr in putting his wealth and knowledge to work assisting in the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. (You can read more about the early high stakes effort by Carr in the May 2004 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/greg-carrs-big-gamble-153081070/). This is but one of the astonishing examples of restoration shared in Awakenings.

July 4th, 2017 Parade, Bloomington

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: For too long the criminal justice system in the United States has focused on punishment only, on retribution. Even though there was lip-service to the idea about “rehabilitation,” the core motivation was to punish someone for a crime. However, restorative justice is about more than prisons or a court system. It can be as basic as how discipline is handled in school or at camp. Restorative justice involves restitution by the offender in a process that includes the victim and often representatives of the wider community. Rupert Ross’ book “Return to the Teachings” explores the ways Aboriginal cultures have been effectively incorporated into restorative justice.

COMMON GOOD: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has offered a remarkable resource in his work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Basic Books, September 2020). Sacks offers a framework for the public task of reconstructing a shared sense of virtue and values. He writes that we need to look beyond the perceived solutions found in politics and economics toward the deeper, bedrock set of moral assumptions. He shows “that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility, arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.”

Again, I mention the more accessible and excellent resource for congregational study, Mark Feldmeir’s A House Divided: Engaging Issues through the Politics of Compassion. Earlier this week, my local congregation held an online discussion about Feldmeir’s work in which serious and respectful agreement came that we all have a responsibility to work at reweaving the torn fabric or our democracy.

There are currently scores efforts across the nation to encourage a stronger civil community. Good reader, you have probably thought of a several. This is our work, the responsibility ahead as we seek to RESTORE a commitment to seeking the Beloved Community.

So, on Day Nine — with five days remaining between now and the election — I would seek restoration of that which leads to strength, health and joy for persons, communities and nation.