The lion and the lamb shall lie down together; The kid and the panther shall play in the sun; No one shall know the strange word "soldier"; And war shall be a shameful deed that long ago was done. And rest for the weary, and food for the hungry, And peace for the comfortless shall not be far to seek; And beauty in labor, and beauty in laughter, And beauty in loving shall come to the meek. Mountain calls to mountain top - Sinai unto Calvary; Whispers rise from ancient fields - They push up through the sod; "Tell all the children To tell their children's children To dream this dream for God." Ernest Cadman "Pomp" Colwell President, Claremont School of Theology (1957 - 1968)
Free Ukraine, Free Joey
He showed up after most of the group had gathered. Speeches were being made against the war in Ukraine. There was also a clear accounting of the continuing threat of nuclear conflagration in our world. The group started small, perhaps two dozen. I recognized some from demonstrations thirty years earlier. It was an interfaith gathering. Truth is, it was mostly folks from the Quaker, Unitarian and Jewish traditions. There were a few Methodist types attending — but not many. Here we were, gathered again, persistant voices against violence and war. I had shown up early to join “my people,” and I also came to observe and to learn. As the speeches began, others joined, the crowd slowly grew. Some had brought Ukranian flags. Others carried signs calling for the end of war and stopping the aggression by Mr. Putin.
As the crowd grew, by my count, to just over one hundred, others passed by enjoying the warm March weather. We were on the south lawn of the County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana. One woman wove her way through the crowd distributing packets of Sun Flower seeds, a sign of peace in Ukraine. A few passing motorists blew horns in support. Mostly, people on the sidewalks barely noticed, on their way to the coffee or ice cream shops nearby. A speaker, standing beside an old Civil War canon, finished his reflections by saying “I don’t have any easy answers, but we must stay vigilant. In these difficult days we must do all we can to stop such tyrrany.”
From the back of the crowd a man shouted “Bomb Ukraine.” He scolded the speaker, “What do you mean you don’t have any answers?” We turned to see him, swaying behind us, clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He erupted again, “That’s no good. We need to bomb the hell outta somebody.” As the inebriated shouts continued, someone begain to sing “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
I joined in for a verse or two and watched as the man uncertain on his feet swaying and occasionally shouting. It is not surprising that this too was ridiculed by the drunken man. “Singing ain’t going to do any good against bullets and bombs. This is stupid.” He weaved and stumbled before shouting again, “Bomb Ukraine. Get Poland to join the fight, they are mean SOBs.” Folks moved away — others began to disburse — still others sang louder.
Slowly approaching him, I asked, “How are you do’in? Anything I can do to help?” Our eyes met and we both understood. He knew my modus operandi as much as I knew his. Laughing, he slurred, “You a preacher or someting?” Caught. I chuckled and said, “My name is Phil.” “Phil the pill,” he responded. He had me pegged, preacher, social worker, or a physician or counselor, or someone experienced around addiction. I asked his name, “It’s Joey, showy Joey.” We talked on for a few minutes. Not arguing but speaking out of our deepest hopes. Joey said he had recently lost his job, was from Texas. When he asked again if I was trying to “save him,” I replied, “God is already working on you… and on me too. You are about to be caught. God bless you, showy Joey,” I said. He stuck out his hand to shake. I touched his shoulder. Our eyes met again. Two children of God recoginizing each other.
Turning for home, this all seemed to me to be an apt metaphor. Joey, shouting for attention. Others like me who only know to sing the songs of Zion from our past while in this wilderness, while many of our politicians, drunk on narcissism, grievance, or thirst for power speak as foolishly as Joey about bombing and killing. The greed and drunkeness for power in our nation has contributed to our dilemma. The senior senator from South Carolina publicly calls for an assination of the Russian leader. Violence is the only tool he seems to know. While the senior senator from West Virginia, so drunk on his addictions to fossil fuels, calls for increased drilling and mining in the U.S., not wanting to miss the opportunity to supplant the Russian production of petroleum and turn a profit for himself and his friends. Will this violence, greed and hunger end without an enormous expenditure of life and treasure? I fear not; even as the violence spirals across Ukranian communities? We grope for a way forward amid the darkness and grieve the suffering of the innocents.
As the sun set, I journeyed to prayers at a local church. On a different liturgical calendar, this year the Lenten Season in Eastern Christianity begins a week after ours. Lent starts with “clean Monday” or “pure Monday” and prayers are held on the Sunday evening prior with a time of forgiveness. At the service in Bloomington there were prayers for Ukraine and for Russia… and for Europe and for Ethopia and for Syria and for the U.S. There were prayers for our leaders – the wise and the foolish. And there were prayers for all the people of Ukraine. And there were prayers for Joey — and the Joey that resides in each and every one of us.
I Choose Stories for Good
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I chuckled when I first heard this — and understood the truth it contained. This wisdom, first heard years ago, is both whimsical and helpful in appreciating the gifts of insight and delight offered by a good story.
Stories provide a doorway to new understandings, new vistas on human realities and may even offer broader faith understandings. Jesus of Nazareth knew the value of parable — story laid alongside life’s experience and opening the listener to deeper truths. Stories are durable and can both deepen mystery or provide clues to one of life’s many puzzles.
What of the converse? Can we say, “Never let story get in the way of fact?” As the impeachment hearings in Congress began on November 13th we heard Ukrainian Ambassador William B. Taylor and George Kent, long-time expert on the Ukraine, speak of dueling narratives, competing stories. These career civil servants were troubled by a counter narrative being peddled among certain American leaders based on conspiracy and contrary to the deep expertise of those committed to our national security.
What is a good story, for you, dear reader?
A deep, and I believe, good narrative has guided our nation’s best actions for decades. Based on our constitution and constructive alliances with other nations it encourages the strengthening of human rights, democratic goals around the world. Do we sometimes get it wrong and stand with the tyrant — I fear we do and we have. However, the core narrative we share runs counter to tyranny and oppression. The current “irregular narrative” dismisses our nation’s long-held values and seeks to divide, destroy common understandings and undermine trust relationship.
What irony that on the day impeachment hearings begin, Mr. Trump entertained President Erdogan of Turkey and said he is “a big fan.” A big fan? A fan of a man whose strong-arm tactics destroy democracatic institutions, who jails those who disagree, whose recent aggression in Syria destroyed a delicate peace in the middle east and has set the stage for the reemergence of ISIS? A big fan? What irregular narrative is being promulgated? Why? Who benefits in the larger history being written for our grandchildren?
The idea of “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” contains the word “GOOD.” And, what is lacking in an “irregular narrative” is a link to our values and a moral compass. A good story is built on that which is constructive and beneficial to human communities and societies. The good story is one that encourages freedom and seeks to diminish tyranny. Abraham Lincoln used good stories as a critical part of his political legacy. Even though his legacy is imperfect, overall he chose to resist the temptation to divide and destroy those who disagreed. The alternative, the irregular narrative is based on a mountain of lies, of half-truths and a poisoned concoction of bigotry and deceit. Ambassador Taylor identified this story as dangerous to our security.
What makes a story good? Good for you? Good for your neighbor? Good stories are, at root factual, they contain truths, even though some of the “facts” may be elaborated. Good stories seek to help and not harm. Good stories build up and strengthen others.
Falsehoods are being dressed up and widely shared on social media. Memes and tropes are invented that are specifically designed to undercut that which is good. Truth is victimized and a search for the “good” is jeopardized. We are living through a time when false narratives are employed to hold gain and hold power and do harm. The temptation to accept the torrent of lies that come from politicians, tyrants and even television commentators seems too strong to be countered. However, I will live believing truth will prevail. What is “good” may appear to be lost in the tsunami of false information that seems to go unchecked. Still I choose a commitment to the commonweal, the beloved community, a community that includes all people.
Good stories are powerful things — at a fundamental level they reinforce and magnify the truth. In the end, I believe the good in stories will prevail… but this good is fragile and under attack. How do we know the good? Well, there is being attentive to our history and our ongoing struggles with tyranny. There is also the identification of truth-tellers. I believe the narratives shared by patriots and long-time civil servants like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman will cut through much of the disinformation and deceit.
There is our faith… and with it, there is joy.
Like the license plate I saw on a crimson pickup truck years ago driven by a theology school dean which read “JOY N IT.” Good stories, stories of faith, typically bring new insight, laughter and delight. I choose stories that are good, in large measure because they also lead to joy. The gift of honest exaggeration, of teasing, of hope-filled truths will always make clear the gift of sisters and brothers who can smile, and understand it when they say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”