Among my summer bouquet of reading — or re-reading, I have put two in my backpack to carry along with others. These are meant to be devotional books. I plan to carry them as devotional resources to be read and re-read as gifts in these challenging days. These are valuable starting points for reflection and meditation… a stopping to smell spiritual flowers.
For persons of faith, or those interested in exploring Christianity, I recommend these two theologian/prophets from the mid-twentieth Century as among the best of the witnesses of their time. First, take a look at a book about E. Stanley Jones and second, a book penned by Georgia Harkness. Both were essential Christian figures writing during our nation’s troubled times of war, depression, racial injustice and rapid social change.
In the recently publishedThirty Days with E. Stanley Jones Jack Harnish offers a fresh look into the life of Jones – the mystic, prophet, missionary, peace activist, evangelist, ecumenist and global ambassador. Georgia Harkness’ Prayer and the Common Life is written for folks in that mid-Twentieth Century, socially moble, economically bubbling and globally expanding culture. Professor Harkness, theologian and philosopher, authored more than thirty books, some scholarly and many others, like Prayer and the Common Life, are meant to be accessible to the lay audience. I believe both have much to teach us, today.
By reading these two together one can see the hoped for seeds of renewal and unity anticipated in the church and society in those years, and at the same time, they point to the troubles ahead for Christendom caught up in narrow cultural understandings. For Christians inclined to devotional reading that comes from an earlier time and yet speaks with profundity to our current dilemmas, I lift these two remarkable people of faith for our personal and common benefit.
For believers, doubters or just plan folks interested, I share these two suggestions as remarkable additions to a good summer reading boquet.
Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera
Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.
Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.
Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.
Context of prayer:
Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”
As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.
I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:
If by chance I should find myself at rest,
By falling from this jagged cliff,
I look below and I look above,
I’m surrounded by your boundless love.
Surround me with your boundless love,
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love,
You surround me with your boundless love.
Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.
We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.
After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.
A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.“
He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.
Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.
Senator Michael Braun November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Braun,
I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States. Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times. As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes. We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator.
We are better than this. You are better than this. At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.” Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Let’s see:
I pledge allegiance to the flagof the United States of America,And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands,One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California),with Liberty and Justice for all(except those Trumpists wish to exclude).
We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others? Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.
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.
“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.
My awakening came after the National Prayer Breakfast on the morning of February 6th. The annual prayer breakfast was heavily covered by the news media. For the wrong reasons. You see, following Arthur Brooks’ message about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, President Trump began his remarks with “I don’t know if I agree with Arthur,” and proceeded to question the faith commitments and prayers of those who disagree with him. It was a direct dismissal of Brooks’ message that our nation needed to move beyond a “culture of contempt.”
These are difficult days. Prayer is in short supply. Rationed? No, I fear it has “been disappeared.” Taken to the outskirts of our commonweal and imprisoned in our ideological certainties. Lost in rancor amplified by competing messages of contempt sent across social media and cable news.
The impeachment trial had ended only a few hours prior to the breakfast. The Senate voted for acquittal. Senator Mitt Romney had spoken movingly of his own deep faith commitments and these ethical commitments lead him to vote for removal of the president based on one of the charges. So, this prayer breakfast, this annual event to increase mutual respect and deepen faith, was turned into a sad spewing of invective and malice.
The national news reports missed the lead story — the truly critical message of the morning. The true-north of the gathering was Brooks’ call to step beyond our culture of contempt and ending with a video-linked benediction offered by Congressman John Lewis who reminded those present of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “I have decided to stick with love, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” O God, teach me to pray.
As the day went on, I kept thinking of the missed opportunity, the deeper story. The call to move past all the grievance and fear. To clearly name the lies and still act as neighbor with those who disagree. This is difficult work. O God, teach us to pray.
I found myself wondering what would happen if, despite what the president believes about the prayers and faith commitments of folks like me (or even Mitt Romney or Nancy Pelosi) — what if — what if my prayers, our prayers were ever more publicly visible and shaped around the core commitment to neighbor love. O God teach me how to pray.
What if there was a daily call to prayer for millions of us, as a preparing of our nation’s heart and mind shaped for acts of love? What if these were prayers of confession for my (our) failures? What if daily, there was a national call to prayer, challenging the retributive policies that require the making enemies, the telling of lies about others, the ridiculing of those who differ, the establishment of dichotomies? Such prayers could not be carried in the shibboleth of nice, soft words. They would include prayers of judgement and for deliverance from the evil of these days. O God, teach me to pray?
Such prayers will require acts of resistance and demand the courage to speak both with respect and still with clear critiques of the falsehoods and damage being done to others and to our republic. O God, teach us how to pray.
With this on my mind I came across the passage below in Peter Storey’s autobiography, “I Beg to Differ.” Storey, a Methodist pastor in South Africa, who fought the good and courageous fight against Apartheid, knew how to pray this kind of prayer — the prayer that I was now seeking to discover in this time and place. He speaks of the call to those with whom he worked in this way:
“I reminded them that “John Wesley’s theology was beaten out on the anvil of his daily battle with personal and social evil in a brutalised society very much like our own.” Real hope was born in the inward life of the soul because “hope’s final fortress is the heart”, but needed to be realised in concrete action. Rather than being part of the nation’s disease, the Church had to be the place where “the love of God leaps across the parallel lines drawn by history.” ― [from Peter Storey’s, “I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas.”]
“Hope’s final fortress is the heart,” O God, teach me how to pray.
So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself. Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon. Those eyes — that voice. That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole.
I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better. And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could! Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending. I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend. May perpetual light shine on you.
I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996. She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us. She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.
At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly. I was wrong. It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement. Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm. How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news? What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world?
We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion. It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader. She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind. I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best. Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety. Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace. I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances. Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.
Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver. Two women, two singular voices. I wonder if they ever met? Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.”
I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears. I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.