First, a confession. As important as protecting sea turtles is, I hadn’t thought much about them. I didn’t intend to make a gift to this charity in 2020. In fact, saving turtles was not on a top ten list in my charity giving. Why, then, did I just make a gift to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation? (http://savetheseaturtle.org/.)
Why sea turtles? There is a young woman behind it named Eleanor. She is seven and lives in Oakland, California. Sea turtles? Why? Eleanor Amerson, you see, is my grand daughter. We asked our grandchildren what charity they wanted to support this Christmas. Eleanor’s older brother, Gus, said give to a group that helps feed hungry people. Good on you, Gus. So a gift is sent to Phil’s Kitchen at the Beacon Center (Shalom Center) in Bloomington, Indiana (http://beaconinc.org). Phil’s kitchen is named for Dr. Philip Saunders, a friend and former economics professor at Indiana University. Phil, now deceased, left the legacy of a commitment to feeding the hungry.
Our other grandchildren, Colin and Zach Murry will let us know soon their preferences as to charities they wish to support. I suspect one of them will be the Lincoln Park Community Services in Chicago where their mom serves on the board. (https://lpcschicago.org/)
In recent years, each year, we have selected the gift to charity in honor of our grandchildren. We have given to Heifer International (https://www.heifer.org) which assists persons around the world toward food security and the acquisition of live stock or The Land Institute (https://landinstitute.org) where research is underway for more sustainable agricultural models around the world.
This year, we are asking our grandchildren what they want to support. And, we are being schooled by them as to what is important — for them.
You get the point!!
There are many worthy organizations. Most (many) need our attention and support in the economic realities emerging in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I understand the limits of charity and the ways a systemic reordering of our political, religious an service institutions is needed. I do. We must move away from such a heavy dependence of fossil fuels. There is no reason for persons in the United States to face homelessness, food insecurity or the deficits we face in educational resources. Of equal importance is the climate crises and tragedies related to immigration and refugees around the world. There is much to be done — systemically, long-term and immediately through charities. Turtle saving is one of these.
At this juncture I have learned that the temptation for many is to allow “the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Okay — right. This doesn’t mean we stop giving effort to make deep change in our systems, in our communities and even our personal lives. We do what we can, now and at the same time aspire to a more just and sustainable world.
Sea turtles were not top of mind for me when December 2020 came. Thanks to Eleanor, I will be more attentive and learn more about sea turtles. What lessons will you learn during this holiday season?
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.]
Restoration is a powerfully motivating message — as is evidenced in 2020 by Joe Biden’s call to “restore the Soul of America.” When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 his slogan was “Make America Great Again.” With clever marketing, the shorthand MAGA brand appeared on baseball caps, flags and t-shirts. Of course, he was borrowing from the vision Ronald Reagan offered in 1980, the difference being that Reagan spoke of American as “a shining city on the hill” and Mr. Trump focused on “American carnage.”
The discerning reader, as I am certain you are, is asking “restored to what?” Not all restorations are desirable — we don’t want to return to the racism, violence, misogyny or other bigotries of the past. I am speaking of those things that would restore strength, health and joy where they are lacking. It is a restoration toward flourishing. Restoration, in every understanding of the word, needs to be shaped in terms of the values and virtues mentioned early on in this series: the good, the true and the beautiful. It is in the implementation of such restoration that difficult conversations will be required. How might there be polycentric options for flourishing in our society?
The focus on this the ninth day of the fortnight before the 2020 election will be threefold: Natural Environment, Justice System and the Common Good.
NATURAL ENVIRONMENT:If you haven’t already discovered it, I encourage you to view the series The Age of Nature currently showing on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and produced jointly with The Nature Conservancy. The first episode is entitled “Awakening” and to my way of thinking stands as a master metaphor for the restoration needed across all of our systems — humanly constructed and the natural world.
This Awakening episode includes stories of how ecosystems are restored, with a little human assistance, around the globe. Natural ecological “awakenings” are highlighted from Panama to China to Norway to the coral reff off of the Bikini Atoll. I found particularly compelling the efforts of philanthropist Greg Carr in putting his wealth and knowledge to work assisting in the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. (You can read more about the early high stakes effort by Carr in the May 2004 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/greg-carrs-big-gamble-153081070/). This is but one of the astonishing examples of restoration shared in Awakenings.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: For too long the criminal justice system in the United States has focused on punishment only, on retribution. Even though there was lip-service to the idea about “rehabilitation,” the core motivation was to punish someone for a crime. However, restorative justice is about more than prisons or a court system. It can be as basic as how discipline is handled in school or at camp. Restorative justice involves restitution by the offender in a process that includes the victim and often representatives of the wider community. Rupert Ross’ book “Return to the Teachings” explores the ways Aboriginal cultures have been effectively incorporated into restorative justice.
COMMON GOOD: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has offered a remarkable resource in his work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Basic Books, September 2020). Sacks offers a framework for the public task of reconstructing a shared sense of virtue and values. He writes that we need to look beyond the perceived solutions found in politics and economics toward the deeper, bedrock set of moral assumptions. He shows “that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility, arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.”
Again, I mention the more accessible and excellent resource for congregational study, Mark Feldmeir’s A House Divided: Engaging Issues through the Politics of Compassion. Earlier this week, my local congregation held an online discussion about Feldmeir’s work in which serious and respectful agreement came that we all have a responsibility to work at reweaving the torn fabric or our democracy.
There are currently scores efforts across the nation to encourage a stronger civil community. Good reader, you have probably thought of a several. This is our work, the responsibility ahead as we seek to RESTORE a commitment to seeking the Beloved Community.
So, on Day Nine — with five days remaining between now and the election — I would seek restoration of that which leads to strength, health and joy for persons, communities and nation.
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.
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)
And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here. (Wendell Berry)
If the presidential election, nine days hence, is to address the anxieties and despairing so many carry, it will require more than replacing one person with another. It will require more than changing the nameplates on office doors. It will require a transformation in us. It will require Sabbath. While many swamps may need to be drained, the primary swamp needing attention may be within the human heart.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, whether known in a few hours or several weeks, the temptation then will be to continue in the patterns and habits established out of anxiety, grievance and distrust. Sabbath will be required. Walter Brueggemann reminds: “Sabbath is the occasion to reimagine all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity. Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms.” (Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 44)
I fear many things. I am anxious about much. Mostly, however, I desire to move from patterns of constant anxiety to another way of life. A way where I know the gifts of sabbath. The joy of rest, restoration, re-imagination and resistance. Joan Chittister wrote: “Sabbath is that period for holy leisure when I take time to look at life in fresh, new ways.” She encourages “contemplative leisure.”
Sabbath can serve as the great equalizer — it is a time when we are freed to set competition aside. As a great equalizer we are freed to recall that all share in creation; each other person is neighbor. Again Walter Brueggemann writes: The task is to SEVEN our lives. — On the Sabbath Day these vulnerable neighbors shall be like you. Sabbath is not simply a pause, but the occasion to re-imagine all of society away from coercion and competition. (Sabbath as Resistance, p. 43)
A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:
And we walk sightless among miracles.
The final presidential debate of 2020 was held last evening. I didn’t watch. Couldn’t watch really. Not because I had already dropped my ballot in the box with the County Clerk. More than anything else, I suspected it would be a pretty joyless exchange. Wasn’t interested in more distraction, grievance, dreary argument, spin, grumbling or blaming others.
Joylessness — this is what I anticipated from the debate. I am fatigued by it all. If the follow-up analysis offered by pundits is accurate, I guessed right. Apparently Mr. Biden attempted to tease Mr. Trump about being Abraham Lincoln. The president missed the humor, as he does about many things, especially if his fragile ego is threatened. The reruns from the debate seemed to confirm that even though Mr. Trump seemed to use his “in door voice” more than in the past, he still seemed to offer more vinegar and acid than balm.
Thinking back over the years, to sermons I have preached or talks I have given, I often spoke of joy, laughter, or delight. Why? Well, I think joy, laughter and delight are recurring marks of faithful living. We all face suffering, pain, burdens and betrayals, but at the core of it all, God offers us JOY. Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 93).
Serving as an interim pastor in a couple of congregations that had passed through some challenging times, it was clear that in the face of difficulty, humor can help. Laughter can offer an antidote to despairing. After one wise layperson observed “we have forgotten how to laugh in our parish,” we offered an entire series of sermons entitled “Count it all joy: Faith Crowned with Laughter.” I invited other friends to come and join me in the sermon series and we each shared stories of times joy made a difference in our work. As Steve Allen once put it, “Humor is the social lubricant that helps us get over some of the bad spots.”
I was not attempting to follow the current trend suggesting that worship should be a time of entertainment or avoiding challenging topics. Heaven forbid! Just the opposite, in fact. Humor often is a good way to approach difficult topics. More than three decades ago, in the late 1980s, when a congregation I served made the decision to fully welcome LGBTQ persons, it was the laughter and joy that helped us move forward. It was joy and an ability to delight in the gifts others might share and the abundance already present that offered us hope. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we did act with respect for the variety of beliefs in that church. Someone recently asked, “how did the people in that parish act in such a courageous way?” I didn’t reply, but I know they didn’t act out of courage so much as JOY.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century mystic said, “God laughs out of an abundance of life, energy and love. I believe in a pleasurable, joyful, laughing God.“
A favorite reflection comes from Wendell Berry’s collection of Sabbath Poems (A Timbered Choir, p. 18).
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
Whatever happens on November 3rd, we have work to do. Our joy must “be lived out from day to day.” It is a relief that there are no more presidential debates to avoid. Now, could someone do something about all of the email, television spots and fliers that seem to appear daily in the mail?
This is my goal for the remainder of this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. I will remember the JOY of living as a child of God. I will sing (not in a public choir of course), I will dance a little, I will laugh, read poetry, call friends, encourage persons to vote and give generously to good causes. I will choose to be joyful.
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.
October 21, has been designated Global Ethics Day by the Carnegie Council for International Affairs. It’s a good and timely thing to give attention to virtue as we approach the selection of leaders in our nation. In this fortnight we reflect on virtue or ethics. What is “the best” way forward? What values, principles, intentions should be reflected in our personal and corporate actions? Where do we see evidence of the good, the true and the beautiful?
Virtue is born of our deepest beliefs, values, attitudes and desires. It finds expression and shape in our habits, our learned behaviors as these are repeated over and again until they are taken-for-granted as the “right” way. In this second fortnight post, we focus on the care that needs to be given in challenging what some believe is to be normative. I would ask, where is the virtue of immigrant children who have been separated from parents? What is valued in the denial of climate change? Should wearing a mask be a political statement when others may face harm by a neglect? Can any ethical person, let alone a Christian person, ignore the value of the health and well-being of another?
Aren’t these critical questions for all persons of faith — who is my neighbor? — how shall I therefore live my life? Will deception or lie be seen as normal? Will perpetual shading or spinning of the truth, or “gas lighting” (offering false stories) become appropriate for our leaders?
Aristotle offered four virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These have become known as the “cardinal virtues.” The church later added the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope and charity (from I Corinthians 13). These became “the seven virtues.” Others have said virtue is evidenced in that which is good, true and beautiful. Okay — nice overview — but how will we therefore live? And what is the test for these seven virtues or this this triad? How will we know the good, the true, the beautiful?
Few ethicists have shaped my thoughts more than Glen Stassen. He spoke of the guidance offered in the Sermon on the Mount where over and again Jesus points to the fruit borne in lives well-lived. In his work Living the Sermon on the Mount he writes: “I am suggesting that even though we do not know all there is to know, and we do not have the certitude of a universal viewpoint, we can see within our own history what kind of ethic comes through, which is truer because of the fruits it bears.” The theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount is “doing,” “producing,” “acting.” Here is joy and deliverance from deceit. (See Living the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 192-199).
Ivan Illich spoke of virtue as the “habitual facility of doing the good thing.” With a sharp and critical eye on our institutions (schools, hospitals, church and our politics), Illich notes a failure to accomplish primary stated purposes. Other values, he suggests, are given preferred over that which is truly the good. The love of neighbor is somewhere lost in the maze of social interaction. Some are excluded. “No category, neither law or custom, language or culture can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (see David Cayley’s The Rivers North of the Future, p. 30). Illich often points to the parable in Luke’s Gospel spoken of as “The Good Samaritan.” It is the “expert in the law” who says he has kept all the customs and rules who challenges with “And who is my neighbor?” There is a rupturing of traditional categories in the answer Jesus gives. There is a call to conversion, to change.
Theologian Nancy Bedford calls on Christians “To Speak of God from More than One Place.” When leaders are reluctant to speak against White Supremacy or suggest that other nation’s and peoples are to be disrespected, there is an effort to link God’s purposes to my small, small world of my self interest… to my unwillingness to share. There is a signpost along a country road not far from my home. I chuckle each time I pass. It simply reads “Entering-Leaving Gatesville.” A single sign, same message, front and back, all on one post. For many, the reach of virtue, of ethical concern, begins and ends in one place.
The folks of Gatesville are lovely people I suspect. They clearly have a good sense of humor an perspective. This is important. Sadly, when awareness and care for the neighbor is lost, when our beginning and ending is at the edge of our own skin and ego, then we lose an ability to know the gifts we are offered in community, in diversity, in journeying to new understandings.
When thinking about practical virtues of in daily life, I am also helped by folks like Shirley Duncanson, a retired United Methodist pastor in Minnesota. Her posts in “A Pastor’s Heart: Thoughts on Life and Faith” offer clear and practical assistance. Writing on “Recovering Christian Ethics in an Age of COVID-19,” Rev. Duncanson offers cites the work of Barbara Brown Taylor’s pastoral experience in wise counsel: “The only way out of a pandemic is by all of us working together . . . Each of us doing our part . . . Each of us caring for people around us . . . Each of us using the means available to us to protect one another . . . Each of us holding tight, (in our hearts) to one another . . . And all the while, making sure that no one, but no one, is left behind.” (see: https://shirleyhobsonduncanson.com/tag/barbara-brown-taylor/).
“Love does no wrong to it’s neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10.
Poem by Linda Ori, 2004
The Time of Truth
The time is now
Let change begin,
Blend heaven and earth
In an endless spin,
Wherever you're going,
Wherever you've been
Now change your direction
And travel within;
The time is now
To take a good look
Examine your life
And the roads that you took,
From cover to cover
You've written your book
Did you swim in the river
Or sleep by the brook?
The time is now
Get your head on straight
No more indecision
To love or to hate,
Since you are the author
Don't blame it on Fate,
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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.
I was surprised, shocked actually, by the thousands who read my letter to Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana, 9th Congressional District). Hollingsworth said that in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic we had to choose securing our livelihood even if it meant sacrificing some lives. Since then, the congressman has walked back his statement. Now says he was “only saying this was a difficult choice.“
While I appreciate the congressman’s more moderate verbiage, his underlying message remains the same and is obvious: even if some people have to die, we should give greater preference to commerce over the current efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
Responses to my letter were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there were only a handful who argued that this pandemic was God’s will. God’s will? Sadly, I find such perspectives as not only wrong-headed, but dangerous. Is it God’s will that children are abused? Is it God’s will that persons are afflicted with cancer? Was the holocaust God’s will? This pandemic is in no way God’s will! I hold that God expects us to do something about this suffering and death. It is in our response to such tragedies where we can begin to discover God’s will. Over the centuries we have seen God’s will displayed by folks like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer or Father Damien. Many of the horrific realities human beings face are rooted in poor, uninformed, and sometimes evil, human decisions.
I believe God’s will is now seen in heroes, like Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauchi and Dr. Francis Collins. Even more, God’s will is demonstrated in the nurses, grocery clerks, physicians, police and fire personnel, truck drivers, medics, researchers, and all who risk their own health for the sake of others every day. In my reading of scripture and knowledge of other faith traditions, such neighbor-care is at the core of what God wills for all of us.
Too much of what goes on in our nation these days is misconstrued somehow as God’s will. It is not. We humans have moral choices to make each and every day. There has been an emergence of phony-Calvinism evident in our nation over recent decades that somehow suggests certain events, tragedies and even election results are “predestined” as God’s will.
Those who genuinely read John Calvin’s work know he understood the importance of human agency as part of God’s plan. Anyone who knows the story of John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva knows the remarkable way he responded to the plagues in his time. His actions involved the quarantine of those who were ill, the seeking the best medical advice possible and an understanding that some brave persons would be called on to risk the care of those who were sick and dying. This was the core of God’s will. Calvin himself visited these plague hospitals to pray with those who were suffering, knowing full well that he was putting himself at risk.
Those who know me, know I am Wesleyan. I have my disagreements with Calvinist thought although the richness of his understanding of God’s intentions for human life are of great value. My reading of the theology of John Calvin offers absolutely no support for a nonsensical notion that this pandemic is God’s will! Nor, should his view of predestination be thought to support a passive approach to this pandemic.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved away from Calvinism. Still he also saw the important role of Christians as ones who expressed Gods’ will though wise medical practice. Now is a time to affirm that all life is to be valued and protected. All of life! We need to learn new ways to care for God’s creation, across the entire ecology of our human, animal, plant, water, air, stone and soils.
Yesterday, in what appears to be a coordinated effort to push for this false choice between lifestyle and life, “supposed” medical epidemiologist “experts” like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (not an M.D.) made similar arguments to those made by the congressman. Dr. Phil suggested that car accidents and smoking kill more people every year than this virus. Okay — first, one wonders how he knows, as this virus only started claiming victims a few months ago (it has not yet been a year). And secondly, while people choose to drive and smoke, I haven’t heard of anyone who chooses to be infected by this virus.
Even worse, Dr. Oz said that if we returned now to free movements and social contacts it would “only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality.” Two or three percent? In the United States that could mean over six million deaths! Really? One wonders why we must suffer from a pandemic of confusion and poor logic along with this virus. How many will needlessly die from such pandering?
There are better ways to help our businesses than sacrificing the lives of millions. In fact, the return to the “normal” of 2019 too quickly, very well could lead to even more mortality AND long term economic and commercial damage. Congressman Hollingsworth is right in saying these are difficult choices. However, he is wrong if he fails to consider the likelihood that this pandemic will come in waves, just like the Spanish Flu, in the early Twentieth Century. He is also wrong if he buys into a simplistic either/or of commerce or life — he says the question is complex. Okay how will the policies he supports demonstrate this?
This pandemic will bear a cost in both lives lost and economic suffering; our response needs to begin with an understanding of human agency. Are we responsible? Do we decide what our economic theory and practice should be? Or is this a time we will make our economic theories into our “Gods” that will determine and limit our ethical choices? What we need now are clear-eyed, well researched medical, economic and, yes, I would argue ethical/theological responses to this crises. That is, in my view, God’s will.