Our Unmaskings

Colin Murray, Soldier Field, 6/16/21

The weather was as good as it gets – one of those days I have been waiting for well over 475 days. My grandson, Colin Murray was graduating from Whitney Young High School. Where better in Chicago for such an event than at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan? June 16, 2021. Most of us in the large crowd of proud friends and relatives were wearing masks. It was great to be in a public place doing “almost normal things.” Lots of sunshine and cool breezes and reason to celebrate the 515 students were graduating. These 2021 grads were off to the next passages in their lives. The graduation bulletin listed their destinations to places around the world. Impressive. I confess to choking back some tears as I watched this diverse, talented group of youngsters. These graduates represent the future of our great multicultural society. Huzzah for them, and for our nation, and our world!

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of anti-mask protesters who attended other large gatherings over the past year. Otherwise intelligent persons consciously choosing to display their “liberty” by NOT wearing masks. And, too often, a few weeks later, the community where these “liberties” were displayed saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 related illness and deaths! It’s a crazy world, isn’t it? There is recent legislation allowing firearms to be carried in the open in some states, with few restrictions on weapon sales, and at the same time significant new limits are being placed on when, where and how persons can vote. Seems more than a little upside-down. All of this while the number and frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. is increasing.

We have been down a similar road before. There was the debate over seat belts back in the 1970s and the opposition to the polio vaccination, or adding fluoride to the water when I was a child. I certainly understand the need to be cautious and wise with regulations. Still, even with measures in place to protect the larger population, there is a desire by some to see conspiracy instead of a desired well-being-for-all that is intended.

I am far from being a constitutional scholar. Even so, the preamble to the U. S. Constitution is clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The idea of “promoting the general Welfare,” seems straight forward and a good foundational basis for healthy and enduring civic life. The framers of the Constitution understood the inherent competing interests of individual liberty and social responsibility. Public health measures sing in harmony with Constitutional intentions. Things like face masks, vaccinations, quarantines, building codes, safe food and drug production/sales, licenses as to who can operate an automobile, practice medicine are all part of the general welfare.

We will find our way forward from this I do believe. Even in sensible gun measures one day soon, I pray. At Indiana University there was a regulation students arriving in the fall would need to display proof of a coronavirus vaccination. Sadly, the state legislature tried to intervene and claimed such basic public health efforts were illegal. There was a recent small protest at the university against such a requirement. I loved the way the university acted like the “adult in the conversation” by saying, “Okay then, we won’t be policing the students. But guess what? We will offer incentives.” There will be a drawing open to all who provide evidence of their vaccination that includes great gift cards for the book store and other purchases around town. There will be electronic devices and for at least one lucky student, a year of free tuition. Now that is promoting the general welfare in a creative way.

It seems to me that what has been unmasked during this pandemic is the way some have believed their individual liberty trumped the promotion of the general welfare. In a word, it is a way of seeking to justify self-centered-ness. It was all about the “ME” with an absence of any sense of the “WE”.

Micah 6:8 is a fine summary of what is expected (make that required) of God’s people. It is to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” One of the great unmaskings coming out of the pandemic is the way bad theology shaped the practices of many in our churches. One day in the future, we will be able to see the relationship between political and religious gatherings where masks were discounted, even ridiculed, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 related damage done in a community.

A “religious” anti-masker protesting outside a grocery store challenged me for wearing a mask as I entered. The challenge was, “Give me one good reason you are wearing that thing.” I wanted to respond “I can give you over 600,000 good reasons. Those who died.” I didn’t. Parking lot debates are usually not very productive! Already, today, the evidence is clear. In city after city, and health care facility after health care facility TODAY those hospitalized with COVID are all folks who refused or for some other “reason” were not vaccinated against the virus.

Early in the pandemic, St. Andrew United Methodist in Highlands Ranch, Colorado offered masks with the Micah text. It has become my mask of choice over the past fifteen months. While my prayer is that we can be sufficiently past the pandemic, just in case we are not, I am looking into finding a mask that simply reads, “Promote the General Welfare.”

I find this moment hope-filled. A time to believe there is a better future is possible. Why? Because yesterday I saw 515 reasons to be hope-filled… and this is just at one school in a nation where millions of our children and youth have struggled through the pandemic and I believe the vast majority have witnessed an important unmasking. They no longer believe there are easy answers to complex public challenges but there is a path forward.

Saving Soul and Soil

Saving Soul and Soil

Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology

The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared.  Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready.  Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond.  Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i] 

kernzatli
Field of Kernza at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood?  The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others.  We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health.  What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.

The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment.  I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii]  A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort.  He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii] 

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.”  People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world.  More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures.  Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward?  This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be.  Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv]  The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.”  Both are required.

My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism.  We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century.  As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared.  We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles.  There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences.  We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work.  We were not ready to be at our best.

BloomingtonFUMC
First United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity.  There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future.  In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani.  Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo.  No.  I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins.  Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together.  Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus.  In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith.   We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.

In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.

++++++++++

[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.

[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31

[iii] Ibid, pp. 27-28.

[iv] Ibid, p. 2

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.

We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.

Indiana University, Veterans Day 2020

After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.

A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.

Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.

++++++++++++++

Senator Michael Braun                                                       November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Braun,

I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States.  Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times.  As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes.  We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator. 

We are better than this.  You are better than this.  At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.”  Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Let’s see:

I pledge allegiance to the flag 
of the United States of America, 
And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands, 
One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California), 
with Liberty and Justice for all 
(except those Trumpists wish to exclude). 

We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others?  Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

Choose Your Conspiracy Carefully

The people in the U.S. are navigating through the choppy waters. I think of this as the gulf of conspiracy. Less than a month ago, my visit to the dentist demonstrated this. Prior to entry, much care was taken — “Call before entering when you arrive. Let us know if you have a fever or other symptoms? You must wear a mask.” Good. A place of care. Once inside, however I found another contagion. A pandemic of conspiracy, spread by a friendly staff member. As we talked, she opined that “COVID-19 deaths are exaggerated so that doctors and hospitals can make more money.” Okay, I thought — that’s a new one — a pretty sad and inaccurate one — given the risks being taken by medical staff and the financial distress many healthcare systems face in this dramatically changed economic reality.

Sidewalk art, Indiana University campus, 2020

However, that wasn’t the first touch with conspiracy that morning. A phone call earlier from a friend began, “Don’t you think Donald Trump is pretending to have the corona virus and doing this for political purposes?” “No,” I responded, “How would this be helpful?”

Our nation seems to be swimming in a sea of conspiracies. Today there is the claim of “widespread voter fraud” by President Trump and his most loyal supporters. There is no evidence. Election officials, including Republicans, deny this in states where such “fraud” is claimed to have occurred. This conspiracy joins ranks of others in 2020 like the anti-vaxxers who oppose all vaccines, the belief that Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump and the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately produced in a Chinese lab.

I hear multiple conspiracies each day. Some are minor and some perhaps carry a small grain of truth. Ever hear of Area 51 in Nevada or the various theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, or that Neil Armstrong didn’t really walk on the moon? Other conspiracies offer more existential and long-term danger: like those labeling all media as “Fake News” so as to undermine all news sources, or the claim that climate change is a hoax even as our natural environment may be irreparably damaged, or the astonishing QAnon assertions that Tom Hanks joins the Democrats in cannibalism and child sex-trafficking.

Alaskan Highway

Presidential elections are fertile ground for new conspiracies. Those who start political conspiracies behaved like rabbits this year, breeding and releasing multiple distortions and threats into our civic life. We need take great care in choosing which conspiracies shape our understandings. You say – “Hey, wait a minute there, fella, I don’t fall for conspiracies!” Sorry, I have some sad news to report. From many research quarters (universities and sophisticated research centers) comes the knowledge that everyone is prone to accepting ideas that bolster preconceived notions. Confirmation bias is alive and well. It is the notion that we choose the information that reinforces our beliefs and values.

Am I saying that we are stuck in our conspiracies? Well NO, and, sadly, potentially yes. Conspiracies do not an entire worldview make; however, our worldviews do make us more susceptible. Here is where the value of the intervening correctives come into play. Reason, research and faith-informed reflection are a critical trio for me. Other correctives are enshrined in our nation’s constitution and bill of rights. Still others are operational — things like continuing education, practicing critical thinking, reading widely, legal precedence and community engagement each can assist in holding our hubris and distortions in check.

For years I have felt something important is lost as religious congregations have become more and more monolithic in make-up theologically and culturally. Genuine and durable democracy and respect across ideological divisions was often bolstered in friendly disagreements across the table at the pitch-in dinner or visits after worship in the parking lot.

There is a sign along the Alaskan Highway that reads “Choose Your Rut Carefully. You’ll Be In It For The Next Sixty Miles.” I hate to admit it, but I am old enough to remember such signs as my family traveled across Missouri and Oklahoma back in the early 1950s. Of course, then it was only a few miles in the same rut. The conspiracies to which we may fall prey can turn into ruts that mislead and distract for years.

As I think of conspiracies and the rut I choose, I am am reminded of Ivan Illich, priest and social critic. Illich speaks of “conspiratio” and “comestio” as essential to faith and the civic life [See David Cayley’s conversations with Ilich in “The Rivers North of the Future,” Anansi Press, 2005].

Illich asserts that conspiratio is not a bunch of rebels trying to undermine or overthrow a political order. It is not the sowing of misinformation or deceit. It is more radical than this! It is about living by a new narrative. It is a changing of the “I” into a new “We.” It is the Gospel narrative set out in the parables of Jesus. Stories of Good Samaritan, the Importuning Widow, the Ten Bridesmaids, and on and on and on the parables go. There are stories of those celebrating the finding of that which was lost, and of the best wine served late and with abundance. There is a conversion of what is presumed to be a suspicious and limited existence toward a community of abundance and conviviality. It is the narrative of God’s grace and the joys of faith over against the dominant grim order. It is about that which was lost, being found. Conspiratio is “breathing together,” represented in the “kiss of peace” offered as believers come to celebrate the Eucharist. Comestio is the sharing of a common meal where all are welcome at the table.

I have not done justice to Illich here; still let me affirm that he points to the conspiracy into which I choose to live.

This morning as I walked my normal route contemplating how to end this reflection an incident occurred that surely comes as a sign for me of the conspiracy I choose. My walk took me through a neighborhood park named in memory of Dr. Ernest Butler, an African American pastor in Bloomington and friend of mine for many years.

Along the trail, between the playground and tennis courts, a man in his mid-forties approached. He motioned and asked if I could help. I nodded yes, not certain what he wanted. He said, “Have you seen a boy on the trail, sandy haired?” Raising his arm he gave indication of the young man’s height. “No,” I replied, “If I see him what do you want me to tell him?” The man choked back his words, wetness welling in his eyes, “Tell him, his father loves him. He should come home.”

I walked on. A half an hour or so later I saw the father and boy sitting together on a bridge, talking. May I live to see such conspiracies often.

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)

+++++++++++++++++++

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)

+++++++++++

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)

++++++++++++++++++

**[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)

++++++++++++

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 – Day8: Social Self

Fortnight – Day8: Social Self

Today, consider please, the presumed dichotomy between the personal and the social, the individual and community. For too long our politics, religion, economics and charity have been misshapen by this fraudulent binary. At a fundamental level, there is a web of mutuality between one’s self and others. Americans tend to live with a heavy focus on individualism and “individual rights.” This is a good thing — however, if this is the sum total of what is valued or the singular basis for action– it will lead to trouble.

Social Psychologists George Herbert Meade and George Cooley posited decades ago the understanding that every human being is a Social Self. From the beginning, we learn who we are by interacting with others, as if in a looking glass. The language we learn, the games we play, our habits and our pains are fundamentally shaped in social contexts. It was from these insights that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the ethics classic, “The Responsible Self.” Niebuhr suggested that the reflexive self could act as the responsible self.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson a slip of paper listing “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” These were:

  • Politics without principles.
  • Wealth without work.
  • Pleasure without conscience.
  • Knowledge without character.
  • Commerce without morality.
  • Science without humanity.
  • Worship without sacrifice.

(see Donella Meadows, Gandhi’s Seven Blunders — And Then Some, Sustainability Institute, August, 18, 1994)

++++++++++++

In the United States this week (10/25/20), a young man, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, stood on the White House lawn in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” He dismissively suggested that in response to the George Floyd “situation,” individuals “in the Black community” were unwilling “to break out of the problems they were complaining about.” He expressed doubt that African Americans “want to be successful.” Upon hearing the interview with Jared Kushner, I thought of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.

As abhorrent as Mr. Kushner’s words are, I recognize their ideological fountainhead. It is the reductive belief that only “personal responsibility” is required for the thriving of a community or nation. Individual liberty is the supreme goal and good and personal responsibility is the tool. Fix individuals and everything else will fall in line.

At this juncture, I have sat beside too many persons who worked hard, risked much, withstood adversity and still were crushed by immoral constructs in the social order. A wise front-porch, neighborhood philosopher, named Doris Danner once taught me, “You can build a crocked wall with perfectly straight blocks.” In a pandemic, is “personal responsibility” sufficient? Shouldn’t there be a societal expectation, even a mandate, that everyone wear a mask? Sadly, we are seeing, living with, and many dying from, the results of a mistaken notion of individual freedom as the ultimate and exclusive good.

I recognize Mr. Kushner’s perspective. You see, as an adolescent, my religious understandings were focused on personal salvation. I had to want to have a personal relationship with Jesus and that would fix everything else. Personal salvation was separate from justice. Yes, I was taught that if I was saved, I should be compassionate toward others. It was however, always with the motive that I could see that they were a saved individual, just like me. Whether I would admit it or not, racial segregation, economic or educational discrimination, or poor health care were best overcome if persons were saved and then “wanted to be successful.”

In my individualistic understandings, my paternalistic role was to see that others were “fixed” like me. There was little awareness that others, who saw things differently, might have something to teach me; nor was there the sense that God was at work for the the common good, for the realm of God.

While I prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” in those years; I failed to hear that it was a communal prayer. It was a prayer filed with the corporate words, “our,” “us” and “we;” a prayer about our neighbor and our world.

Jane Addams Helping Hands Memorial, Chicago

Years after receiving the note with the Seven Blunders listed, Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.

+++++++++++++++

Dr. Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist and early writer on sustainability who added to the list of social sins. A professor at MIT and McArthur award winner, sadly, she died too young, in 2001. Still her words fall in line with the call of H. Richard Neibuhr that we are to act as a Social Self — a Responsible Self!

Somehow our public discussion has become dominated by either-or simplicities... This simplistic thinking seems incapable of embracing the idea of BALANCE, which was Gandhi’s central point. He wasn’t calling for work without wealth or humanity without science, he was calling for work AND wealth. Science AND humanity. Commerce AND morality. Pleasure AND conscience.

Life is full of unsolvable problems. Pretending to have solved them by choosing just one or another of profound opposites can generate even more blunders than the ones Gandhi listed. Justice without mercy. Order without freedom. Talking without listening. Individuality without community. Stability without change. Private interest without public interest. Liberty without equality. Or, in every case, vice versa. Listen to our public debates about health care, crime, taxation, regulation. You will hear the Gandhian blunders, the frantic search for a permanent simplicity, the passive violence that leads to active violence. There’s no point in taking sides in these debates. There’s only an opportunity to point out that balance, discovered through love, is what we should be seeking — and what we will always have to be seeking. (Donella Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1994)

Fortnight – Day5: Joy #2

Fortnight – Day5: Joy #2

When I read that comedy clubs were not allowed to be open in certain cities due to the corona virus, I confess to being sad. This was a time when the good medicine of humor was needed. We had already lost the joy of choral groups singing together and now, now comedy clubs!

As we face the presidential elections what evidence is there that Donald Trump or Joe Biden might encourage joy? Too often, when a little lightness of heart might be a gift for our nation, we instead are offered a tour of potential fear and places of distrust. I am eager to have comedy clubs open again — even more — I am ready for congregations that help us know the joy of faith. For now, this may be limited to online worship.

There should be more laughter in our congregations; not necessarily the comedy club type but not excluding that either. This is a sign of liberation, of healing, of joy. (I am not speaking of what was called “Holy Laughter,” associated with the phenomenon known as the “Toronto Blessing,” popular a few years back. That always seemed to me to be contrived.) I am speaking of joy related to the everyday lives and troubles of a people… things that can be best spoken of in worship, with other believers. Some of the best laughter I remember occurred at a funeral.

I was reminded of an exercise on discovering more joyful living prepared for persons at a spiritual retreat. A copy is attached below.

The scriptures are filled with joy and rejoicing. There are parables of Luke 15, where there is rejoicing over the return of the lost sheep, the coin, the son. As Psalm 30:5 observes God’s intentions are that we should discover that, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

In the early 1980s I traveled with a group called Witness for Peace to the war zone between Honduras and Nicaragua. One evening we joined a group of villagers for worship. Even as there were distant rumblings from mortars exploding a few miles away, I was struck by the joyous character of the outdoor worship. There were songs accompanied by guitars and drums and tambourines. At one point in the liturgy a woman came to the center of circle. Barefoot, in a frayed, modest dress, she called us to prayer. She began, “And now we remember all the poor and suffering of our world.” It was a prayer of gratitude for the goodness of God. As the prayer ended, and the congregation shouted “AMEN,” a mortar shell echoed across the valley. It was as if in refrain. We all laughed. In that moment we saw the absurdity of war and violence so nearby as we gathered at the table of the Lord!

++++++++++++++

Mary Oliver’s Mindful

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

“Mindful” by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press, 2005.

+++++++++++++

From the Epistle of James, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Vs 1:2-4)

Fortnight – Day3: Compassion

Fortnight – Day3: Compassion

In this fortnight of our nation’s soul, we reflect on Compassion, the human virtue of seeing the world as others do — and when there is distress — acting to alleviate the suffering of others.

There appears to be operative in some places of power and privilege a callousness toward others. One cause is what I would call a hardening of the categories. It is an atherosclerosis of imagination. It is a different type of heart disease, hardheartedness, the inability to see the world as others do and understand the challenges they face. More than a lack of awareness or lost sense of common humanity, it is a lack of desire to reach out to others. Not long ago we heard a lot about compassion fatigue. I wonder, was this an easy excuse to go on one’s way ignoring others in trouble?

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.” (New Seeds of Contemplation and Connections 11/1/92)

As I pulled into the grocery parking lot I am confronted by competing categories of understanding. On either side are two cars festooned with bumper stickers. On my left among the stickers are the words “Christians for President Trump” and “Let’s Pray for America.” On my right a car with even more stickers. Not certain the political ideology of this driver, but “Are You Kind,” “Human Being,” and “Live the Life You Love,” cause me to believe the two drivers function in very different universes of reality. (Okay — it’s a university town — sometimes the stickers appear to be all that hold a vehicle together!)

In such a world filled with divided loyalties, how does one proceed? Frederick Buechner suggests, “There is only your own heart, and whatever by God’s grace it has picked up in the way of insight, honesty courage, humility, and maybe above everything else, compassion.”  (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 81-82.)

Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado provides us with an outstanding resource during this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. His book A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion offers wise counsel on how love of neighbor can be put into action (Chalice Press, 2020). You can read more at http://www.markfeldmeir.com/blog/.

Pando Aspen – actually a single tree.

Speaking of our commonality, Feldmeir employs the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually a single tree spreading over miles in Fish Lake, Utah. He writes: “Universal care, concern, and commitment fueled by creativity and collaboration are the keys to the salvation of the aspen grove. And to our own. We need the wisdom and compassion of the aspen that can only come from a deeper sense of connectedness and belonging, and a deeper commitment to the common good.”

The question before our nation in the Fortnight is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift, our shared life, this place of belonging where we all, already reside.

Thomas Merton put it simply (excuse the gender language insensitivity of the 1950s): “The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be in a bad dream.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.48)

Compassion is the circular system of human imagination, distributing hope to a world where hearts are open — to others — to all. For, like it or not, we are all one family.

In these days when the COVID 19 pandemic threatens and divides, the remarkable hymn writer, Ruth Duck, offers this verse of hope:

In Fear the World is Weeping

In fear the world is weeping, and longs with every breath.
For life and hope and seeking, new paths beyond this death.
And loving hearts are risking, their lives that we may thrive.
Praise God for those who labor. O may they stay alive.

Our lives are bound together, in sorrow and in prayer.
In life and hope and nature the Holy One gives air.
Around the world show wisdom; with open hearts give care.
A new world calls us onward; sing hope now everywhere.