Waves of Grief

Once upon many times I have heard/read that grief comes in waves, but I have not fully realized until recently how true that is. In the past I managed to keep myself so busy doing multiple jobs, going to school till I was 48, parenting et al, you get the workaholic picture, that I didn’t allow myself to grieve that much over the deaths of my parents. I buried myself in busyness much as I learned to dive under a wave so it would not hit me full force. Thus I was able to keep grief at arm’s length.

My mom died much too young 27 years ago this month and my dad just two years ago. But now I am a stage of life where lots of friends and colleagues are dying regularly, people much to close to my own age. Combine that with living in the suspended animation of 2020 while retired and I have more time to let those waves of grief come ashore.

I had two such experiences in the last two days. Yesterday I participated in a virtual gathering of clergy from our West Ohio Annual Conference. I confess I have not attended many of these annual clergy sessions since I retired, but since I could do so this year from the comfort of my home office I decided to “attend,” if only to see how the technology worked. And it did amazingly well, and attendance was at a record high; which may lead to a new way of conferencing post-pandemic.

This clergy session is where people are approved for ordination and at the other end of the spectrum for retirement. I had forgotten that the agenda also includes recognition of clergy members who have died in the past year. I didn’t know any of the new ordinands, but I certainly new a lot of the names on the list of those who had died, including my dear friend and mentor Russell Sawmiller who I wrote about when he died earlier this year. When those names were read and prayed for, a mini-wave of grief washed over me. It made the deaths more real to see them there in print. Obituaries do the same thing for me.

This evening I got a note on Facebook from a woman I didn’t remember, and when I asked how we knew each other she said she had worked as a secretary for a short time when Russ and I worked together at Indianola UMC in Columbus, Ohio almost 50 years ago. Darla and I chatted for a few minutes on Messenger, reminiscing about the good times we remember from that chapter in our lives, and when we finished I thought “I can’t wait to tell Russ about my conversation with Darla!” And a big old wave knocked me head over heels as I remembered I can’t go tell Russ anything.

And while I’m on a roll I’ll add another mini-wave incident. I’ve had the flag from my father’s casket for over two years now and it has been in a plastic case provided by the funeral home all that time. A very good friend noticed the flag on a book case in my office recently when we were on a zoom call with a mutual friend. He said he had made wood and glass cases for flags for other people and would like to do one for me. It came via UPS yesterday, and putting the flag in the case and finding some of Dad’s WWII medals in the plastic case all brought up feelings of regret and appreciation for Dad again.

I have spent many vacations near different oceans and have experienced all kinds of waves—gentle ones that just lap at your ankles and angry ones that beat me up and tried to pull me out to sea with strong undertows. When I first thought about writing this post I was thinking more about ocean tides than waves, but I soon realized one major difference. The times for tide changes are so predictable and regular that they are published on charts that tell fisher people and beach goers, back when we could do that, exactly down to the minute when each high and low tide will be on any given day.

Waves are not predictable. They can lull one into a sense of false security, and then when least expected smack you upside the head with a big one. Grief is more like waves than tides. There are certainly times when feelings of grief can be predicted to arise—holidays, anniversaries of memorable events and of the day of death. But more often there are unpredictable waves of grief that just happen—driving by the place a loved one lived, attending the church where a service was held, hearing a particular song, looking at a picture, or just a memory that pops into one’s head uninvited. All of that is normal, and there is no right way to experience those waves or to predict how long they will last.

I knew a woman once who had been told that the normal period of grief for a spouse was two years, and she believed that as gospel. So she expected to grieve for two years, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s great to have people come along side to share the experience when we want company, but each of us has to find our way through the grief journey in our own unique ways. As for me, I wish I had been more receptive and aware of my waves in the past, but I can’t go back and do remedial grief. I can only experience memories and emotions now in the present and welcome them with gratitude whenever they come along and actually choose to pay attention.

OUR BETTER OR BITTER ANGELS?

I have always been a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. I had the rare privilege as a Boy Scout to hike the Lincoln Trail, a 15 mile route from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, retracing Lincoln’s steps when he traveled from his home to the state Capitol. I grew up proud to be a Republican because it was the “Party of Lincoln,” the great emancipator.

But in my golden years I have begun to wonder if Lincoln made some major mistakes in dealing with the problem of racism that has divided our country from its inception. One of my most recent quarrels with our 16th president came to the surface this week when our Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine quoted Lincoln’s appeal to “better angels of our nature.” DeWine was using that rhetorical device to plead with Ohioans to comply with scientific advice with regard to the COVID pandemic.

I was curious when Lincoln used that metaphor; so of course I googled it and discovered it was in his first inaugural address on April 4, 1861. Here’s the full sentence: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln was dealing with a deadly situation as we are today and was appealing to the southern states for unity, something still fatally lacking in our country today. Lincoln’s appeal failed big time as the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter just 8 days after his reference to our better angels, launching the deadliest war in U.S. history.
From what I have witnessed in person and on the news Gov. DeWine’s appeal to our better angels will fare no better. Which leads me to this question: Are there any/enough better angels of our nature then or now to believe human nature is redeemable? I have long been a proponent of the concept of Imago Dei, namely that we humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But the more I see of human nature the more I wonder about that theological affirmation. Human inhumanity to each other and to the rest of creation is so rampant today and in all of human history that it is hard to make the argument that we are created in God’s Image unless God is as evil and selfish and short-sighted as we humans.

I don’t want to go down that road; so I ask myself where did the concept of humankind being a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5) or the earlier affirmation in Genesis come from? The answer of course is from humans! I believe in the historical-critical school of thought when it comes to biblical interpretation. I do not believe our Bible was dictated by God but is a collection of inspired writings by fallible human beings who were recording their experience with the unnamable mystery we call God. So if human authors are declaring that humans are created in the image of God, might there be a bit of a conflict of interest? Would an indicted criminal get to testify as his/her own character witness in a trial? Of course not. How might our creation story differ if it had been written by an elephant or a dolphin, for example? Might we feel and act differently if some other species claimed they were told to “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth?” (Genesis 1:28). By the way, that’s the only commandment we humans have actually obeyed! Might the whole notion of Imago Dei be at the root of humankind’s selfish and not better angels? I’m not sure where to go with that for my own theology, but it intrigues and troubles me.

As a student of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, I am also troubled when I find myself arguing with a great orator like Lincoln. I understand that the metaphor of better angels is intended to be aspirational rather than descriptive, but from a critique of rhetorical effectiveness based on practical results Lincoln bombed (pun intended), and I believe DeWine will also, both with deadly results. We humans unfortunately seem to require external agents of enforcement to whip our better angels into line. We need someone to hold us accountable for our behavior which differs from being responsible, i.e. to do something like wearing masks not because it’s mandated but because it is the right thing to do.

Which brings me to my second argument with President Lincoln. I have read a great deal about and many biographies of Lincoln, and I am always impressed with his wisdom, political skill and courage. His commitment to preserving the union at all costs was the driving force behind his political agenda. His more famous second inaugural where he pleaded the case for “binding up the nation’s wounds” might have been more likely if he had lived, but we will never know as that task was left to lesser mortals. But what, I wonder, if Lincoln’s whole purpose of preserving the union at any cost was mistaken? Perhaps the cost of that union has been too dear? Not just in terms of those killed in the Civil War, but also in the continued strife in our country over issues of race 160 years later and counting?

The issue of slavery has been divisive in our country from day one. The framers of the Constitution had to tie themselves into knots, counting a slave as 3/5 of a person and claiming “all men are created equal” while most of them owned other human beings, all to reach a tenuous compromise to even create our nation. Those divisions have never been resolved and can be seen today in the unbelievable battle not just over race but in the culture wars at every level, including the unbelievable battle over wearing masks.

What if instead of one Un-united States of America we had admitted there were two irreconcilable countries from the beginning? What would our history look like? That is a purely speculative question since we can’t go back 144 years and start over, and I also realized that even as I write this I am painting myself into a corner I do not want to be in. My two nation notion would mean that the Confederate States of America would have been a nation based of slavery, and that is not morally acceptable. Am I just weary of the battle and tired of the better angels losing? Perhaps. I certainly am tired of our history of resorting to violence as a means to resolve cultural and political differences, and my biggest fear is that is where we are headed in the great Red vs. Blue political cataclysm we seem to be rushing headlong into.

Oh, I have never hoped to be wrong so much before. I do hope and pray that our better angels will emerge victorious, but I know they will not if we surrender to the pessimism eating at my soul. I believe, Lord, Help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24)

The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

Stages of Grief in a Pandemic

I have been angry and depressed a lot lately, and I have been reflecting on how the stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might help us figure out how to navigate a pandemic better. The five stages of grief Dr. Kubler Ross described are: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages are not linear or in any particular order and are most often thought of in terms of dealing with grieving the death of a loved one. But they can be helpful in understanding any kind of significant loss, including the loss of freedom, normal routines, contact with friends, family, etc. caused by Covid-19.

Denial: we have all been in this stage from time to time in the last few months, from the President on down. Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. None of us wants to believe a loved one is gone forever or that our health and ability to do normal activities has been drastically curtailed. I remember hearing the news that the Arnold Classic, a huge annual event with huge economic ramifications here in Columbus, Ohio had been cancelled. It was the first real evidence we had a serious problem, and I found it hard to believe when I heard that news. In retrospect it was a great decision made with courage and great insight by our government leaders. An event of that size that brought thousands of people to Columbus from all over the world would have been devastating to Ohio and made the death toll from the Coronavirus so much worse.

Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism that helps shut our bodies down the way novacaine numbs your gums to withstand the pain of a tooth filling or extraction. But denial is a stage, not a destination. We need to go there to survive a shock, but we can’t pitch a tent and stay there as a way to deny reality on a long term basis. Unfortunately the U.S. has failed in our response to the the pandemic because key leaders, including the President have hindered essential responses to the virus by denying the reality of the crisis. People who follow the lead of those who ignore the uncomfortable advice of experts from the medical and scientific communities are living in denial and get stuck in the grieving process, which in this case has deadly consequences not only for them but for our whole society.

Anger: Like spoiled children we all feel some level of anger when told we can’t do something we really want to do. I was really mad in the spring when my all time favorite sports events were killed off one after another in just a few days in March. College basketball tournaments died first and then in rapid order March Madness and the Masters golf tournament. In a blink of an eye my favorite few weeks of the year were felled like dominoes lined up back to back.

Students and families were robbed of graduations, final sports seasons for seniors dropped like flies, wedding plans trashed and countless other special occasions died painful deaths. And as the whole rest of the school year was cancelled and our economy shuttered the frustrations and anger increased exponentially as weeks dragged into months. Since it’s hard to be angry at an invisible enemy our anger got directed at public health officials who were just trying to do their jobs, at courageous governments leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions to shut down any and everything we enjoy doing. Throw that kind of anger into an already politically divided society and you have armed protestors descending on state houses and the homes of public health officials, and that anger gets misdirected into rebellion against simple requests for the good of us all like wearing masks.

A friend of mine expressed that anger well when he said he rebelled at being told he had to wear a mask at a local retailer. His response, more fitting for a child than an adult, was to wear his mask on the back of his head. His argument, like those who decry the loss of their personal liberty, was that if asked to wear a mask he would have complied, but when he was told he had to that offended his personal freedom.

Depression: As our ability to deny a loss or lessen the pain with anger prove ineffective it is easy to fall into depression. When we feel powerless to change a situation and helpless to do anything about it depression is a natural and normal emotion to feel. And because we are still not good at talking about mental health issues it is easy for this one to be compounded by denying our depression. I was at the doctor this week and had to fill out a medical history and check any previous or current illnesses, and when I came to “depression” and “anxiety” I was reluctant to check those boxes even though I am currently in therapy and taking medications for both. When we are already feeling down or overwhelmed by other life issues or crises throwing a pandemic into the mix is like putting gas on a fire. Depression and its cousins, fear, worry, and despair in some degree are affecting us all just now, and as we are seeing a new surge of cases it is easy to play the blame game, go into victim mode and be overwhelmed.

Multiple grief over jobs, chronic illness, loss of contact with loved ones and friends, and support communities, loss of physical closeness and contact with others all compound the tendency to despair and surrender to our frustrations. Zoom contacts with friends, teachers, business colleagues, congregations and other significant contacts are a godsend, but they cannot replace real live human contact. Even those of us who are introverts are admitting we need people.

Bargaining: In the case of physical death and mortality this stage is characterized by promises to do x, y, or z if we or a loved one can just live a little longer or a miracle cure can be found to postpone the inevitable. In pandemic grief I’m not sure what this stage looks like. For some of us it may be if we are spared from this plague we will change our ways and correct some flaw in our lives. It may be a bargain for a loved one to be kept safe from the virus in spite of their risky behavior. This stage can take many forms; so it’s just good to be aware of when we find ourselves in that deal making mode with God or whomever we are negotiating with.

Acceptance: There’s no timeline or “normal” prognosis for how long it takes to get to the stage of accepting a loss we are grieving. Every person and every situation and relationship is different. Sometimes when we know a loved one or even oneself is dying there is time to do anticipatory grief, to be prepared, to say good bye, to make peace with the coming reality. Other times loss is sudden and unexpected and all the grieving must be done after the loss of a job or a relationship or a life. But regardless of the circumstances or timeline, good grief moves us toward a state of acceptance and peace with a new reality. This stage does not mean there will not be days when anger or denial come surging back like Covid-19, but those pangs of sadness become less frequent and less painful the more accepting we are of our new normal.

And so it is with this nasty virus. The more we can accept the reality of how pervasive and deadly this disease is, the better we can cope on a daily basis and the sooner we will be free of its hold on our lives. If we are impatient and fall back into denial and angry foolish behavior we jeopardize everyone’s life and prolong the hardship both personal and economic.

Acceptance does not mean being happy with the new reality. I am not happy that my parents are dead but I have learned to accept the reality that I am now an orphan and the oldest living member of my family. Am I sometimes angry or depressed about that, sure, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe all those things are true. Am I tired of wearing a mask and debating if it’s safe to go shopping or to see my kids, you bet. I’m exhausted by having my routines in life screwed up for over 3 months and for the foreseeable future.

I know that our collective denial in the early days of the pandemic cost us many lives. I know that on-going denial of the cold hard facts by the President and misinformation by his favorite news outlets is going to cost more lives and economic hardship. If wishing could make this virus go away it would have disappeared months ago. If firing the messengers who bring us inconvenient facts would change reality I’d be all for it. But that’s not how viruses work, and the sooner we as a total society accept the reality of our situation we will begin to win this fight. And if we don’t the awful history of how people rebelled against masks and restrictions during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and created a second and third wave much more deadly than the first will be repeated. So please friends, wear your mask. It won’t kill you, but denying the need to do so may kill us both.

Saving Ourselves and Our Democracy

It has become tragically apparent that having a U.S. President campaigning for re-election in the midst of several major crises creates an untenable conflict of interest. Very few people, and certainly not Donald Trump, can be altruistic enough to sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good of the nation or world. I’m sure others must have considered this problem, but I have not read any discussion of what may be a better alternative.

If our presidents were limited to one six-year term the conflict between what is good for my re-election vs. what is the right thing to do for the American people would be somewhat mitigated. The current non-stop campaigning and the obscene amounts of money that corrupt our political process could also be curtailed. The founding fathers could never have conceived of the unhealthy effect super partisanship is having on our democracy or on our very ability to save ourselves from a dangerous virus. And sadly Trump’s unbelievable denial of the inconvenient realities facing his administration is literally costing thousands of human lives. We have the ability to amend our constitution when it isn’t working, and this is one of those cases.

Happy Father’s Day to My Village

My relationship with my biological father wasn’t all Hallmark warm and fuzzy. Dad and I butted heads over lots of things, from rigid rules in my teen years to how to parent my kids, politics and theology. We made our peace before he died and I’m glad we did. But I just realized recently how unfair it is to expect any parent to provide all the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture and guidance a child needs. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village.”

That has me reflecting today on all the father figures who helped shape who I am: uncles, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, friends, colleagues, bosses, professors and mentors of all kinds. I’ve even learned a bunch about being a better human being from my own kids and step-son. Watching them grow and become the wonderful parents and good human beings they are is the most rewarding part of my life.

The thank you letter I wrote earlier this week to a former boss was just one of so many letters like that I could write. I remember a young pastor from a Lutheran church in my home town. He probably didn’t even know who this young Methodist was, but he had a big influence on the path my life took without ever knowing it. I was a teenager struggling with my call to ministry. Up to that point in my life the only pastors I had known were older men that were hard for me to identify with. To be honest they were both very uncool. But one day I was in the park near our home and I stopped to watch a church softball game on one of the diamonds. And there playing third base like a regular guy was Lutheran Pastor Dave Ullery. I immediately had a huge ah hah moment – I could be a pastor and still be a regular human being. Pastor Ullery had unknowingly removed one of the obstacles to my accepting God’s call on my life, just by being himself.

That softball memory triggered another sports one about several of my uncles who played catch with me and let me practice with their little league teams when I was still too young to actually be on the team. My dad wasn’t into sports at all, and I missed being able to share that love of mine with him, but these other father figures were there to play a role that he couldn’t.

My father figures list could go on forever. Harold Taylor, my high school chemistry and physics teacher who invited me to his home in the evenings to help me prepare to take state scholastic tests, a campus minister who opened my eyes to new ways to think about religion and social justice, numerous professors in college, seminary and grad school who widened my whole perspective on the world and beyond.

Were any of these men perfect role models? Nope. Have I been a perfect father-figure for my kids and others in my churches and youth groups? Heavens no! I cringe to remember all the times I wasn’t there for my kids and youth group kids. I remember writing a story in a college English class about a Dad who was so active in his church and community service that he neglected his own family — not intentionally, but because of the other good things he was doing. He wasn’t hanging out the bar or the country club. He was doing “good” stuff. Did I heed my own advice when I became a father? Somewhat, but there was far too much time spent out in the evenings at church meetings, too many weekends on youth retreats or wrestling with difficult sermons.

How do parents balance family and career? If I had any easy answers I’d gladly share them for free, but I don’t. I just know that we dads (and moms) need to cut ourselves some slack and be grateful that we share parenthood with a whole village of others who can be there when we can’t, who can be there in ways that we can’t. And together that village weaves a tapestry that is a picture of our lives. So, love your fathers and celebrate the whole cloud of witnesses who helped raise you and are still supporting you today, even if it’s on zoom or from heaven. I’m giving my village a big virtual group hug, and I hope you will to.

As I reread this piece I had a sharp pain as God reminded me that there are millions of kids in our nation and world who don’t have a village to raise them, who have no father to provide for them and protect them. That both makes me more grateful for my own village and makes me pray for guidance about what I can do and we can do as a society to be better at creating villages where fewer children fall through the cracks.

P.s. I am not excluding all of the women in my village who were just as influential in my life, but this is Father’s Day. I’ll get to my mother-figures and sister-figures another day.

Say Thanks While You Can

I just wrote a long overdue thank you letter to an old friend that I haven’t seen or talked to in over 40 years. I worked for this gentleman and his wife in their florist shop my first two years in college, and felt the need to say thank you to him for the powerful influence he had on my life. He’s a 90 something now, a widower living in a retirement community, and I share this in case there’s someone you need to say thanks to before it’s too late.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m writing this because I want to express my appreciation for the good times I enjoyed working for you and especially for the kind and compassionate way you treated me. I hope you don’t even remember all the times I messed up by wrecking your vehicles or by driving around the block so I didn’t have to parallel park the truck there by the back door of the shop. We worked ridiculously long hours around holidays, especially those Thanksgiving weekends getting ready for the Christmas open house. I trust you figured out how to simplify things in your more mature years!! But even if you didn’t I know you made the work fun. I’ve been so lucky to have really good places to work MOST of my life, but I have always appreciated what I learned from you about how to work with people under some pretty stressful times and still get along and laugh together.

I confess I have used you several times as a sermon illustration of how kindness and understanding are not only the Christian way to treat people; they are actually the best way to call forth the very best effort and loyalty from others. My case in point that I will never forget was the day sometime in the mid 60’s you got a bright new Pontiac convertible – I think it was yellow. This was after I had already wrecked your truck, your car and even your lawn tractor while mowing your lawn. We had a delivery that needed to be made and the truck was out on another run; so you handed me the keys to that brand new car that I don’t think your wife had driven yet and trusted me to take in to make a delivery. You could have knocked me over with a feather, and my old heart is still warmed at that memory.

You see at that point in my life no authority figure in my life had ever treated me with that kind of trust and respect, and I have treasured that memory and all the other life lessons I learned working with you for lo these 50 plus years. And I just wanted to say thanks.”

ONE VOTE REALLY MATTERS

Until very recently if one of the most important names in Ohio history were to be a Final Jeopardy answer I would have been clueless. And I’m guessing that most of my fellow Ohioans who took the required Ohio History class in middle school would also not be able to identify Ephraim Cutler. I would still have no idea of the critical role Cutler played in shaping the history of my state if a friend of mine had not recently moved to Marietta, the first white settlement in what became the Buckeye state. Because this colleague of mine now resides in Marietta she made mention on social media of David McCullough’s recent book about Ohio’s beginnings, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”

I am a big fan of McCullough and am very glad to be reading this book. I must say it started slow and took me awhile to get into it, but it was worth the effort for one of the most relevant stories in the book that lit up for me like a Christmas tree because of our most recent unrest about the evil of racism in our nation. Cutler and his father were prominent leaders in establishing the first settlement in the 1790’s in the newly acquired Northwest Territory and because of their prominence in Marietta Ephraim was elected in the early days of the 1800’s as one of two delegates to represent Marietta and Washington County at the convention responsible for creating a constitution for Ohio statehood.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most heated debates at that convention held in the Territorial Capitol at Chillicothe was over whether slavery would be permitted in Ohio. And even more shocking to my naïveté was how close the vote was on the provision about slavery. Ephraim Cutler was one of the most vocal opponents of the slavery provision, but on the day of the critical vote on that item Cutler was so gravely ill that he could barely get out of bed. His friends pleaded with him and physically helped him to get to the chamber for the vote, and it was a very important thing they did; because the proposal for Ohio to be admitted to the union as a slave state was defeated by that one single vote.

My mind is still blown by that piece of history. I am shocked at how close my home state came to being a place where human slavery was allowed. I have been self-righteously smug that we Ohioans are better than that, but we came within the narrowest of margins of becoming a slave state. That history has helped me understand better the depth of the political divisions in our state and our country even today. I knew there have always been deep-seated disagreements about race from day one in these United States — which have never been united on that issue. But realizing how heated that debate was at the very inception of statehood here in Ohio helped me understand at a deeper level why it is so hard to resolve this issue.

Ephraim Cutler also taught me again that one life and even one vote can make all the difference in the world. Imagine what Ohio history would look like if we had become a slave state. Would we have joined the Confederacy? Would we have statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being removed here in our state capital? I thank God that brave pioneer dragged himself out of bed to take a stand for justice that day in Chillicothe. His bravery and integrity inspires me to do my part in that on-going struggle for America’s highest ideals today. I hope I do not soon forget who Ephraim Cutler was, and I thank David McCullough for telling his story. It has never been more important to study and learn from our history.

Pandemic Pentecost Prayer

O God of creation and re-creation, as we sang this morning “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us” even in our brokenness. Just as you spoke and created out of chaos in the beginning, speak to us now in our distress. We are weary and discouraged by so much we see around us. We don’t like the violence. It scares us, but help us understand the injustices that have created the protests. Some of us remember previous times of riots and civil unrest, and we are tired of so little progress toward the high ideals of our nation. But at the same time we can’t begin to imagine how weary our beloved sisters and brothers of color must be after centuries of oppression.

This morning we read the Pentecost Scripture about violent winds and tongues of flames that touched Jesus’ disciples. On our TV screens we have seen other kinds of violence and different kinds of flames that frighten us. Faith and discipleship are scary too, Lord. It’s easier to accept the status quo than oppose injustice when we are it’s beneficiaries. Renew our faith in your power to find us wherever we are and blow away our fear and break down communication barriers. Give us ears to hear the pain of all the George Floyds and the anguish of our black neighbors who do not feel safe in our society. Teach us to speak the universal language of love to oppressed and oppressors alike.

Forgive us in our comfortable havens of white privilege where we have failed to insist on liberty and justice for all of your children. We’ve been here before, Lord, but not in the middle of a pandemic! The timing of this unrest couldn’t be worse, but we know your time is not our time. We know the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries before you liberated them. It’s so hard to trust in your inevitable justice when we live in broken dreams here and now.

Give us ears to hear and really listen, Lord. We don’t know how we can help address this crisis. Let us really listen to those who have different perspectives and are just as confused and weary as we are. Let us listen to those who have lost businesses and livelihoods because of looting and vandalism. Let us listen to the first responders who literally are putting their lives on the line for all of us. We lift up all of our government leaders who are struggling to balance the rights of the oppressed to voice their concerns with the protection of property. Those are difficult decisions that never will satisfy everyone. But don’t let us settle for the false peace of a return to where we’ve been, but only for a peace grounded in just reforms of any and all systemic injustice and inequality.

We lift up to you those who are unemployed and underemployed, those already living in poverty exacerbated by the COVID virus. Show us how we can help to move things ever so slightly toward your will for our nation and world. Help us lift our eyes beyond the overwhelming problems to concrete actions and solutions that matter. But that’s hard too just as daily life is. Without “normal” routines, every decision we have to make takes more energy in these pandemic times. Sometimes we just plain cannot find the words to express how our weary souls are feeling. Remind us again, O God, that when words fail us the Pentecost spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too great for words.”

Remind us, Lord of all, that your voice isn’t always in the earthquake, wind and fire, but sometimes can only be heard in the souls of those who are still, even in the midst of chaos, and know that you are God, the one in whom we can always trust. Amen

Deja Vu All Over Again

A few weeks ago I thought about writing about a time 50 years ago when the National Guard was sent into Kent, Ohio to put down protests against the Vietnam war. I didn’t get that piece written, but now those scenes of violent clashes in American streets are playing out all over again on our 24/7 newsfeeds. I was a young seminary student that spring of 1970 and part of our response as a seminary community to the tragic deaths of four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. to share our concerns with our elected representatives in Congress. I made a whirlwind trip to D.C. with two of my fellow students. We were too poor to stay overnight; so we drove 8 or 9 hours through the night, visited with Congress people during the day and then made the return trip that night. I don’t think we had any impact on our reps, but that bonding experience turned good friends into lifelong ones I still cherish today.

One memory I have from that day on Capitol Hill was the response of our Congressperson, Sam Devine, to our concerns. He said something like, “Well, we can’t just let people destroy property.” Protestors at Kent had burned an abandoned ROTC building in their anger over President Nixon’s escalation of the war into Cambodia. That was certainly an act of vandalism and was wrong, just as the property destruction last night in cities all over America is wrong. That destruction hit at the heart of my hometown in Columbus, Ohio last night 700 miles from where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day.

Here’s one of many questions running through my mind today: how do you compare the value of an old ROTC building with the lives of four young people and the damage done to the 9 who were wounded on May 4, 1970? How do you weigh the worth of buildings and other property against the life of George Floyd? Or against the nearly 400 years of racial injustice in this country? That comment from Rep. Devine came to mind when I heard about the President’s tweet last night which said, “When the looting begins the shooting begins.” That’s a deja vu quote from civil rights protests in the 1960’s, FYI. I much prefer a quote from another President, JFK, who once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable.”

You don’t have to condone property destruction to understand the cries for justice that inflame an oppressed people when those pleas are unheeded for centuries. Racism is alive and well in this country and has been from day one even though sometimes it recedes into the background when those with white privilege power think we have responded to it. As a child I was convinced that the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had solved our American race problem for good. I was naive and the teachers in my all white community were negligent when they failed to teach me about Jim Crowe, “separate but equal,” the KKK and lynching of blacks. It does no good to grant a people citizenship and the right to vote if they are systematically denied access to a good education, adequate employment opportunities and decent health care!

I cannot begin to understand how it feels to be a person of color in this country. I also can’t understand those who feel so threatened by the loss of white privilege that they can kneel on the neck of another human being until he dies. What I do understand all too well is my own frustration that 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggles of my youth we are reliving this nightmare of riot gear clad police, National Guard curfews and cities on fire. It makes me question what good my life has been, what more could I and should I have done to work for a more just and peaceful society?

Like many Americans I celebrated prematurely when we elected Barack Obama President just 12 years ago. Little did we know that having an African American in the White House did not mean we had arrived but would simply allow the likes of Donald Trump and Fox News to fan the smoldering flames of hatred and racism to a fever pitch. To those too young to remember Kent State or the Democratic Convention of 1968 or the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, some of us have seen this movie before. Only in this remake we’re being forced to deal with our racism in the midst of a pandemic!

It seems too much to bear! But this I know, the scourges of injustice and racism upon which this nation was founded will never be solved by curfews or armaments. Peaceful demonstrations turn violent when the burdens of injustice become too great. Riots and protests are not the problem. They are the symptoms of an insidious illness that can only be cured with repentance, compassion and understanding. Empathy for the oppressed, not bullets and tear gas to protect property are the only hope for a just and lasting peace in our culturally and racially diverse nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the injustice and inequality in our nation in vivid terms as people of color lacking adequate health care and decent paying jobs have died at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19. American capitalism in the last 40 years has become a tool for perpetuating injustice. The American dream has become a nightmare for most of our citizens. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are sadly just the most recent and well-publicized incidents of injustice for our sisters and brothers of color that have again ignited the smoldering anger of an oppressed people.

Will we listen to their pain and cries for justice this time or will we once more suppress them by superior fire power making the next version of this movie even more violent than this one? The answer is up to you and me.