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
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
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)
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/.
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.
Of course, first we pray for all of those who are infected with COVID 19, including especially the president and those around him. Sincerely, as a person of faith, my heart and prayers go out to those who have learned and are learning of their real or potential infection with this virus. We pray for Melania Trump, Hope Hicks and others around them.
Second thoughts go to lessons learned as a child. This wisdom is drawn from Proverbs 16:18 (“Pride goeth before destruction“). When did I first hear the expression “Pride goes before the fall”? I suspect it was at some point in elementary school. Over and again in life, this wisdom has been illustrated. This ancient wisdom asks us to live with humble respect for knowledge and the care of others.
Sadly the president is disrespectful of science and the well-being of others. Only a day or so before his infection was discovered, Mr. Trump said “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”
This is a tragic morality tale. I suspect Mr. Trump’s words and behaviors over the past nine months will become a core illustration of the scriptural proverb. Pride does go before the fall. Hubris, in action and/or words, can boomerang back on the head of those too arrogant to accept such a basic human reality.
Now, a proud man, a stubborn man, one who with arrogant pride ridiculed others, illustrates this truth. He who thumbed his nose at medical experts; he who spoke dismissively of others who wore masks; is coming to terms with his overblown hubris. Gallons of hydroxycloriquine can’t fix this. What a strange new test this is for our democracy that is already being severely tested. There is no bunker to protect him from his own pride.
The virus was politicized but the virus wasn’t political. This is not a reality show. Children will be learning this real-life-example of hubris and linking it to this Biblical wisdom for decades to come.
Yes, we pray for our president and for all of his maladies.
“Take time to grieve.” I have offered such counsel while standing with families and friends at the time of loss. Take time. I have counseled myself when facing crises. Time to pray, time to reflect, to breath deeply; take time to embrace family and friends; time to gain perspective for the journey ahead. It will take months, years perhaps, decades maybe. Time is necessary to better understand the whole of pain and healing.
On Friday last, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. She was 87.
On July 17th, Congressman and Civil Rights leader, John Robert Lewis died. He was 80.
Over the past six months, in the United States’ more than 200,000 folks have died of COVID-19. Of these more than 150,000 were fellow citizens over the age 65.
We have much grief work to do as a nation. We have lost leaders and icons. Many of us have lost loved ones and dear friends to coronavirus.
We have grief work to do!
Cormic McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, and the movie that followed, comes to mind in this moment. It is a powder keg of a book. Played out on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. It is a tale that moves all too quickly and violently upending the quiet lives of those caught in the unwelcome drama. Like James Lee Burke’s recent novel A Private Cathedral, McCarthy’s story plumbs the depths of human good and evil and the world of truth and lies.
Our nation’s future appears to reside in the hands of many old men (and a few old women). Some are seeking to rush past the national grief work so needed now. This is needed grief work to celebrate the service of Justice Ginsberg or Congressman Lewis — grief work that remembers the lives of those hundreds of thousands struck down by the coronavirus.
Let this also be added to our grief work: to stand against the corruption and lies offered by those who seek only to hold on to power. Let our grief work be to move our nation beyond the grievance of bigotry; let us move past unproductive racial, religious and cultural divisions. Let our grief work seek compassion for all, young and old. Let our grief work involve prayer, reflection, reaching to friends and family. And, mostly, let our grief work be to join those who will work and protest and vote for a society that values all people.
Prayers for our nation today — and a resource for hope.
This week, my friend, Mark Feldmeir’s book,
“A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion,” will be released. It offers a hopeful way forward in these challenging times. Mark is pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Regarding racism, Mark offers these axioms:
How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race.
Race is the child of racism and not the father.
Colorblindness is a myth that blinds us to the truth about racism.
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters, in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racial attitudes behaviors, and speech that demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. Amen. (A House Divided, page 30)
Prayer for Today, August 31, 2020:
Dear God, calm the fears of our nation. We think especially of the events in Kenosha, Portland, Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis and in so many other places. We pray for our own home towns. [Silent prayer] Show us the way to greater justice for all as we seek understanding. Even as we go about our lives in this restricted world of COVID 19, awaken us to, and remind us of, the gifts and value of our neighbors. [Silent reflection]. Make of us, who are your church and who live outside the church, advocates for non-violence and renewal. [Silent prayer] Amen.
We have been offered a magic pill — Hydroxycloroquine. We are told by “him-who-will-not-be-named” that he takes “a pill daily” to protect from infection by the COVID-19 virus. This simplistic prescription is mimicked by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Both men share certain anti-scientific, anti-democratic tendencies that result in disasters for their nations whether environmentally or in terms of public health. Brazil and the U.S. now lead the world in deaths from the corona virus, surpassing Italy, Spain, Russia and the United Kingdom. Still, these two men propose simplistic answers to complex challenges. Sadly this is accepted by millions as reasonable. Why not? It is easier than taking the time or thought to offer complex options that are more difficult to implement.
This prescription of C₁₈H₂₆ClN₃O as the magic pill would be sad enough, if it didn’t point to the multiple ways good science is being undercut in other human arenas. Quality scientific work is complex and, if done properly, usually doesn’t result in a single, easy-to-use form. However, hucksters across time and around the world still suggest they have the magic potent, “the cure.”
Like the salesman “Professor Harold Hill” in the Broadway Show The Music Man, contemporary hucksters abound. Often what is being sold can be beneficial, if used wisely. Hydroxycloroquine, medical research has demonstrated, can be beneficial to folks struggling with malaria or lupus. Now research shows that “this magic pill” may do more damage than good. Just as young people learning to play band instruments, as “Professor Harold Hill” prescribed to the good folks of the fictional River City, Iowa the remedy misses the mark. However, seventy-six trombones, new band uniforms or even one-hundred-and-ten-coronets are hardly effective cures to the so called social diseases as diagnosed by the huckster. A marching band might engender appreciation for music and even civic pride but will do little to change the behavior of young folks hanging out in pool halls or gambling on horse races.
Every day, I am amazed by the hucksters who deny research, good science and even basic logic. The simplistic solution is offered where other positive actions could be taken. There are so many ways we could act rationally that can make a difference. Instead of taking a daily pill, what if “he-who-will-not-be-named” modeled a healthier alternative and actually wore a mask, worked to provide a national testing and vaccine options, let medical experts speak openly to the nation or demonstrated compassion and wisdom for those who are suffering. No — that would be too complex, too scientifically informed.
I watch phony cures being offered in other venues. We keep seeking the “magic pill,” the simple answer to complex problems. For example:
What if we decided to seek a well-reasoned response to climate change? This would mean a comprehensive program moving away from fossil fuels. It would mean rebuilding infrastructure so some future tragedies like the dam failure this month in Michigan might be avoided as altered weather patterns bring more rain and floods.
Or, what if we addressed the need for universal health care? Tens of millions are suddenly out of work and without health insurance, isn’t this the occasion to move as a nation to address health care for all rather than simple encouraging “reopening” to get back to a “normal” that will leave tens of millions without health benefits?
Or, what if religious leaders stopped prescribing the “magic pill” of congregational development, or the perfect traditional doctrine, or a new leadership initiative or a restructuring? What if instead we focused on listening to and connecting with others, especially the poor? What if focus turned outward rather than seeking the one magic remedy of propping up their ever more irrelevant institutions?
What if as a nation we decided to offer safe housing to every citizen and stopped relying on shelters for those who languish in our alleyways, out-of-sight skid rows, or living out of a car?
What if we followed the excellent research available regarding opioid addiction and instead of making it a moral failure, or something that leads to imprisonment, we understood this as a health and medial problem?
We have done many remarkable and complex things before as a nation, in our corporate life, in our health care and religious institutions. There are examples like establishing the interstate highway system, public education, the Marshall Plan, the polio vaccine, the G. I. Bill, religious and legal circuit riders, or Medicare. The list goes on and on.
For now, however, I fear we are destined to a future where the small mindedness of magic pill thinking will prevail. We have moved the small-minded, ideologically rigid to the front of the line in too many arenas. It is the choice offered by too many political, corporate, healthcare and religious hucksters all eager to protect their power and profits.
Recently I raised three queries as to ways forward for people of faith responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This posting focuses on the last question of the three: what shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
The first question (May 7th) was: Shall our choices be limited to Life or Livelihood? I told of my stealing a small pocket knife as a six-year-old, with the inscription on it: “God is Love.” My dad saw this, taught me a lesson about the true meaning of love and this has lead to a lifetime of learning the importance of moral choices. Life or livelihood is a false dichotomy. Still it has been promoted as a political agenda — “we must open,” we are told without clear plans for how this is best done. Now, in dozens of states in the U.S., we see the chaos of such either/or thinking. I know small business owners who are facing bankruptcy — it is heart wrenching, speaking with them. There are better ways to proceed that honor both livelihood and life as demonstrated in other nations just now. In the U.S. the political games continue.
Comprehensive guidelines for the common good, both in terms of public health and commerce, were offered in a 17-page document from the CDC two weeks ago. However, it was shelved by the White House. Governors, mayors and other leaders are left with an assortment of one page, scaled-down “suggestions” that arrived only today (May 15). These are vague directives full of “sorta-perhaps-you might-want-to-if-it-seems-right” guidance given in one page documents to separate groups. The message from the top is that we will love our “treasures,” more than life. Aid to small businesses, hospitals and cities may never arrive. The vulnerable ones (businesses and people) are set aside as so much “collateral damage.” And so… commerce, especially large corporate activities, has been pitted against the common good. If health officials are correct, we will see the results of this foolishness in two and three weeks when a resurgence of the virus appears — and even before that, tens of thousands more will succumb to the virus.
The second question (May 8) was: what shall we consider to be normal? Should our national and global experience in 2019, before the virus arrived, be considered normal? How long before we are past this pandemic? Is this a blizzard, long winter or ice age? For Christians we consider the question of idolatry — is money more to be treasured than the life of another? Believing this virus will not end soon, and wanting a better future than we have known, we asked what compass and a guide will help us live toward an even more flourishing future for all? Drawing on John Wesley’s counsel of “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God” it was noted that even if we could go “back to normal,” we could do better than that.
Just ten days ago or so, we were approaching 60,000 deaths from the virus in the United States; today over 80,000 persons have died; conservative projections are that this will total over 100,000 by the end of May.
This brings us to the last question (May 15): what shall we truly treasure and love in the future? Let’s begin with basics — What is meant by “love” anyway? Few persons in the Wesleyan tradition have thought more about this than theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Dr. Oord suggests that love is “an intentional act, in relationship with others, that promotes the overall well-being.” In other words, love involves an action. It is in sympathetic or empathetic relationship with others, including God and the community. It is for the purpose of doing what is good for the whole. (See: “Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love,” The Table podcast, 11/15/2018) Another valued theological voice is that of Steven Harper. Dr. Harper explores the lives of people of faith over the ages and offers regular insights into a theology of love in his postings at: https://oboedire.com/.
So, if love is anintentional act in relationship with others for the common good, how might we act now and in the future? How will we welcome the stranger? How will be live with hope, imagination and resilience? Ancient rituals thought essential like shaking hands, passing the peace, singing congregational hymns and corporate worship will be sidelined or radically modified. What of the sacraments of communion and baptism? How will we behave in loving ways to demonstrate a belonging to one another, offering words of meaning and the gifts of mutual empowerment? And what of ministries with the poor and the immigrant?
For this, I turn to you good reader. What do you imagine? How do you suggest we proceed? I will not leave you stranded with these questions. Let me turn to two persons who can help us “think forward together.”
The first is D. J. McGuire, who on a recent The More Perfect Union podcast, noted that in U.S. and world history we can see differing paths after a societal tragedy. For example, McGuire opines, “After WWI, the nations of Europe, especially Germany, were left in disarray and the U.S. turned to our own self-interest. President Wilson tried by failed — for many reasons — including his health. This led almost inevitably to the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War.”
McGuire contrasts this with U.S. and international response following WWII. He observes that here “we aspired to something larger than our previous ‘normality.’ We sought to build international strength and an economy built to include many.” The years after WWII were not easy ones — there was the conflict in Korea, the nuclear arms race and deep systemic racism continued.
Even so, aspirational actions like the establishment of the Marshall Plan, the G. I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the establishment of the United Nations and dozens of other efforts from NATO, to NASA, to the Civil Rights Act, to cures or treatments for polio and tuberculosis. None of these efforts were perfect — like all human activities, there was corruption and abuse; however, the trajectory was set toward a better world and not merely a return to normal.
These were two almost contradictory impulses following a major crises. Within each trajectory there were (and are) multiple ways forward… many options.
The second voice is that of Rev. Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark calls us to a Politics of Compassion (https://www.gostandrew.com/resources/livestreaming/). It is a way of considering how love can be put into action. His sermons can be viewed on the church’s website and his book “A House Divided” will be released in September (Chalice Press).
I will not rehearse aspects of Mark Feldmeir’s message here. Suffice it to say that he calls us to recognize our common humanity, our belonging to one another. He suggests that we shape our actions in terms of kinship, kenosis (or self-giving) and delight. Employing the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually one tree that spreads over miles in Fish Lake, Utah, he says: “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.”
Feldmeir goes on: “We may be inclined to believe that the antidote to this politics of contempt is a politics of compromise, which seeks to end disagreement and claim consensus. But in our politics, as in our religion, we have often made idols out of centrism and the ‘middle ground’… we can transcend a politics of compromise in favor of a politics of compassion, which fosters a way of relating to people and responding to real human issues with universal care, concern, and commitment.”
You see, good reader, we don’t have to create a Pandemic of Compassion — we already belong to one another. The question before our nation and world is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift… this place of belonging where we already reside. How will we act like we are aware that we are part of and called to love and care for this living creation?
Friend and gifted hymn writer Ruth Duck offers these words as we seek to spread a Pandemic of Compassion:
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.
When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?
In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?
Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?
Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”
When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.
So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).
Is Normal Our Best?
My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!
In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”
In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”
As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).
Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.
I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.
If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.
Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.
Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)
So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.
Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.
Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?
Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?
As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.
Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!
I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.
As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.
I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?
With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]
The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.
The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!
Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?
Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.
What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.
A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.
In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?
I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!
Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?
This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.
We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.
For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”
Late in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I came across a surprising passage from an economics text. Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and professor at both Columbia and MIT, edited a book back in 1975 (Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory). In his introduction he writes, “When Sir Dennis Robertson lectured at the bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University, it was therefore expected that he would address a question of grandeur: What Do Economists Economize?” His unexpected answer: We economize on love.”
We economize on love. How apparent this has become in recent weeks. What or who do we love most truly? What or who do we treasure most dearly? It is an ancient religious question that has been raised to the highest levels of our consciousness by this pandemic.
Life or Livelihood? The debate ramps up. Will we preference saving lives or saving livelihoods? My congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, was an early voice (April 14) proposing we should “put on our big boy pants” and accept some loss of life to secure the ‘American way of life.’ The genie was out of the bottle — there would soon be a wider call to sacrifice some people to the benefit of others. We shouldn’t let the “cure be worse than the disease,” meaning, of course, that a national effort to shelter-at-home shouldn’t get in the way of quickly returning to “business as usual.”
Since that time, in a rising crescendo, the American people have been called on by folks like Larry Kudlow, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and the governors of Texas, Georgia, Florida and other states, to “wage a war” on COVID-19 by… you guessed it — restarting the economy. It is that simple? Really? These folks admit such actions will threaten the lives of many, especially the most vulnerable, still they persist. Why? The true purpose, in far too many cases, is the protection of wealth, property and businesses of those who are at the top of our economic system. I am not unaware of the damage that is being done to small businesses — what I do argue is that we can find a better way.
How far we have come from early American leaders like William Penn who wrote: “A good end cannot sanctify evil means: nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it… let us then try what love will do.” What might love do differently? What might faithful people seek in this time. As a Christian, I ask myself, “isn’t there a better way to proceed?”
Life or livelihood is, of course, a false choice. Why are we not approaching this with a third option? Why are we not asking how can we save as many lives as possible and at the same time do as much to stabilize economic interests as well? The answer may be that what we truly love, what we most deeply cherish, is exposed by this pandemic.
Like so many of the choices offered, things are being boiled down to simplistic dichotomies – either/or – either the wealth some have accumulated or the life of many others. In some places (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California), after the tragic loss of life, there seems to be a slowing of new infections. Yet, even this is at risk, if we are not prudent.
In other places where the COVID-19 virus is only now appearing, governors and mayors are being urged “open up the economy and immediately get back to normal.” My fear, based on considerable experience and research, is that we will see, not only many persons in poor and/or rural and/or isolated communities succumb to this virus, and in the process we will see the destruction of the economic life of these poor and already weakened communities, their businesses, hospitals, social services and safety personnel. All of this will be due to this false choice that has been unevenly conceived with a preemptive “restart” and “return normal.”
A few days ago Donald Trump projected that “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” lose about 60,000 lives, then a few days later it was “ONLY” 75,000, and as I write, he suggests “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” see perhaps 125,000 die but, he argues “we must all fight the war and restart our economy.” One wonders what will be the “tragic as it is” number of lives that will be counted among the dead from this virus by mid-summer? One wonders what is most loved and most treasured?
All of this begs several questions for people of faith, and especially for those of us who are Christians. Here are three that come to mind today; questions we will consider in the days ahead:
1) Which livelihoods are to be preferred and saved?