Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?
A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.
Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?
It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors. Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.
Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”
J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)
Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”
Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics. Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.
Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):
In the end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
(From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)
My God my bright abyssInto which all my longing will not goOnce more I come to the edge of all I knowAnd believing nothing believe in this.
-- Christian Wiman
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.
This fortnight, unlike any other of my lifetime, seems a good time to post thoughts on faith and human flourishing; a time to review gifts of hope, community, love, conviviality, and grace. This fortnight, as the cold wind of autumn arrives, a sharing of this folio of reflections seems apt. Why? This fortnight will culminate on November 3rd; if one counts the days, that’s fourteen. If one ponders epochs, however, this fortnight faces into a test for a nation’s soul. This fortnight culminates with a pivot point.
Samuel Johnson wrote “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.“This fortnight for me, then, is a time when the mind is wonderfully focused!
In the fortnight ahead, leadership is on the ballot in the United States. We will better know what Americans prefer in terms of a leader — not just the “who,” but the “how” of leading. What will be seen as leadership strength? What vision, language and actions are seen as most desirable?
Leadership or Connectorship?
All the focus on leadership development over the past two decades has left me bemused. One can only guess at the resources (dollars, graduate courses, research, coaching and consulting) that been given to teaching leadership. I do not doubt there is some benefit; still I am unconvinced the fruit harvested has been worth the expense.
Just as there are times when listening is more valuable than speaking, there are times when following is required in order to later lead. Jesus put it this way, “if you would be master, first be a servant.” On occasion I preached sermons suggesting follower-ship is every bit as important as leadership.
Years ago, in a visit with Robert Greenleaf, I asked if he thought leadership could be taught. He had been an executive with ATT and had written a popular book on Servant Leadership. He had consulted with a wide array of foundations, religious and civic institutions. Bob smiled at my question, paused and said he was “an institution watcher, simply a student of human behavior, noting what I see and not intending to change anybody or anything.” He went on, “Being a leader,” he suggested is “a little like playing violin. If you can’t hear the pitch you shouldn’t try to play.” [There will be more lessons from Bob Greenleaf later in these fortnight briefs].
I was at lunch with a couple of friends. One, the president of a fine academic institution; the other was John McKnight, proponent of asset based community development among communities around the globe. The academic leader spoke in glowing terms of a new leadership development initiative at the school. McKnight, the wise observer of institutions and advocacy efforts over the years, waited until lunch was ending to comment. With good humor and a kind smile he offered, “You know, you may want to consider giving attention to connector-ship more than leadership.” Connecting people is likely to have a longer term pay off… and allow the new, the not yet foreseen, the leaders already present to join the effort.”
Connecting has been much in my thoughts as a critical element of community as we enter this fortnight; even more, CONNECTING is an essential in not only claiming a faith but living it. Faith as a verb, a way of life, is what is missing from so much of the religious lingo and posturing around leadership.
From the Gospel of Mark, 10:42-43 we read: Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. [The Message].
As this fortnight continues, it is worth considering who seeks to serve and who seeks to be served? It is worth considering who seeks to connect and who seeks to divide? Even as the leaves fall from the trees this autumn revealing what has been hidden in the hills across the valley, may clarity come to our nation as to how to follow and how to lead.
Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem “Autumn Overdue” is identified as a “Fortnight Poem“:
Autumn OverdueCold wind of autumn, blowing loud
At dawn, a fortnight overdue,
Jostling the doors, and tearing through
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,
I know—for I can hear the hiss
And scrape of leaves along the floor—
How many boughs, lashed bare by this,
Will rake the cluttered sky once more.
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown;
When, having but to turn my head,
Through the stripped maple I shall see,
Bleak and remembered, patched with red,
The hill all summer hid from me.
Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.
As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.
There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.
This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.
When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”
Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.
I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”
Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.
We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.
Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.
It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.
Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.
I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.
Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.
This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.
They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.
I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.
I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.
I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.
I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.
Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”
I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.
Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.
As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.
No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!
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.”
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.
I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.
The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
The poem goes: “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.“ (NRSV)
Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.
As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and “all should stand in awe before God.”
So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!
On Wednesday, December 18th the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump. It was a day of sadness and a day of hope. For me the hope didn’t ensue from the debate on the floor of congress or even the the vote to impeach. Rather it came from a surprising place, Christianity Today magazine.
Galli writes, this president’s actions and words are “profoundly immoral.” Trump, Mr. Galli asserts, “has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
Was I surprised? Well, in truth my surprise was only that it has taken this long for an Evangelical leader with moral courage to surface. Over the past three years my Evangelical friends have lowered their gaze and voices when speaking of the wholesale surrender of Christian virtue to Donald Trump. They spoke of his enablers, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., having strayed far from any biblically normative ethic. Just how solid is the support for Mr. Trump?
There has been growing discontent and concern near the heart of important parts of the Evangelical universe. For years, words of concern have come from Fuller Seminary that the racist language and the horrific immigration policies of the Trump administration are not to be endorsed. Respected Evangelical colleges across the nation, places like Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, Wheaton in Illinois, Seattle Pacific, Houghton in New York have seen a growing willingness to say “enough, this is not who we are!”
In May 2019 there was widely expressed faculty and student discontent at Taylor University in Indiana when Vice President Pence was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed a petition of concern regarding the racism and bigotry of the administration. There was a request to rescind the invitation, to no avail. Mr. Pence spoke; but dozens of the graduates and faculty did not participate or wore symbols of protest saying “We Are Taylor Too.”
In the state universities, like in my hometown, Evangelical student organizations are finding young Christian students who are embarrassed by the claims that Trump represents an Evangelical agenda. They discover alternative voices and perspectives.
I listen to the pundits who say the Evangelical support is a solid wall, eighty percent (80%) or more of the Evangelicals will support this administration. I doubt it. I doubt it will be there in November. O yes, I suspect a majority of those who wear the “Evangelical” label will march in line. However, there is dissent, especially among the young.
So, my belief, my hope at least, is that December 18, 2019 was an inflection point, a crack in the silence, a step by the honest adventurers away from all of the aiding and abetting. The gift of truth was spoken even amid the threats to “stay in line.” This crack in the facade of official Evangelicalism is an opening for small virtues like manners, and greater virtues like truth, altruism and beauty. I want to express gratitude ahead of time to our courageous Evangelical sisters and brothers speaking words of truth in the new year. May your tribe increase.
I am reminded of words of Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring,Forget your perfect offering.There is a crack in everything.That’s how the light gets in. (From Anthem by Leonard Cohen. See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)
Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way in the year ahead that we may see your pathways of hope. Amen