L’chaim! To Life!

Yesterday morning I woke up in great anticipation. After being in a lot of pain in my back and hip for weeks I was scheduled to get an injection that might give me some relief. There were several inches of new snow on the ground, and most schools had cancelled classes for the day, but I figured that by afternoon when my appointment was the roads would be clear.

And then the phone rang. My doctor’s nurse was calling to tell me the doctor could not make it in, and my appointment would have to be rescheduled. Making matters worse the doctor only does these injections on Tuesdays; so I would have to wait an entire week.

To say I was very disappointed would be an understatement. My long-suffering wife would tell you that I am usually a glass half empty guy, and this unwelcome surprise did not help my general level of frustration with health concerns, COVID restrictions and all that entails.

But then a minor miracle happened, and I can’t explain it, which I guess is true of all miracles. I was looking at my sad sack face in the bathroom mirror, and suddenly out of nowhere I started singing some of the lyrics to “L’chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” No one else was home fortunately, or my embarrassment over my poor singing voice would have probably stopped me from expressing an emotion of joy and optimism.

I haven’t seen or heard “Fiddler” for decades, and when I do think about that musical I usually think about the title song or “Tradition,” or “Do You Love Me?” But from somewhere hidden away in my memory came these words, and there I was singing as if no one was listening, “L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

I don’t know all the lyrics to that song so I ad libbed the words I remembered:

“May all your futures be pleasant ones, Not like our present ones; Drink, l’chaim, to life. To life, l’chaim, L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!”

“To us and our good fortune, Be happy, be healthy, long life! And if our good fortune never comes, Here’s to whatever comes; Drink, l’chaim, to life!”

I don’t know what to make of that except I know it lifted my spirits for the rest of that day. Thinking about the context of that musical set in the midst of oppression of the Jews by the Russian authorities put my minor problem of waiting a week for my injection in its proper perspective.

The characters in this wonderful musical are being forced to leave their beloved village of Anatevke for parts unknown. And the lovable protagonist of the drama, Tevye, is trying to cope with a shaking of the foundations of all his traditions as each of his daughters pushes the envelope further to claim her freedom.

And yet in the midst of all this disruption and change the men of Anatevke break into song to celebrate the arranged marriage of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to the much older town butcher, Lazar Wolfe.

Spoiler alert: the arranged marriage doesn’t happen because Tzeitel protests and Tevye ends the agreement and lets her marry the man she loves, Motel Kamzoil the poor village tailor. Tevye’s daughters 1, traditions 0.

But regardless of what happens eventually the men in that bar spontaneously singing L’chaim are celebrating much more than one marriage. In the midst of all the unrest and uncertainty imposed on them by the hated Russians these men are still celebrating life.

The people of Anitevke have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Their traditions are being challenged by the younger generation as younger generations always do. And yet they celebrate love and hope in the future by marrying and bringing new life into a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

We live in such a time right now in our pandemiced and polarized nation, and yet we dare to sing with Tevye and his friends:

“Be happy, be healthy, long life. And if our good fortune never comes’ Here’s to whatever comes. Drink, l’chaim, to life!” Amen

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Writer’s Block and Political Mayhem

Sometimes the way through a roadblock is to just drive through it and see what happens. I’ve been stuck for all of 2021 so far in a writer’s roadblock. There are many reasons for that I will not list here because I fear they will sound like excuses.

For whatever reason(s) I have been a distant observer to all that’s happened in our nation since 2021 began with a whimper. COVID precautions, including a 10pm curfew in Ohio made any “normal” celebration of the new year impossible. But we still turned the calendar eager to put 2020 in the rear view mirror. But putting a new date on things did not alter the realities of pandemic living.

An imminent change in our national leadership should have given hope that a new day was dawning, but that hope was blindsided by a violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol just 6 days into the new year. January 6 could have been a good news day for Democrats like me when both D’s won Senate seats in a Georgia run off election, but that ray of hope was lost in the commotion of the Capitol riot.

Much more than windows were shattered on January 6. Any notion of a peaceful transfer of power were trampled in the dust. People died, and that is tragic; but near fatal blows were also struck against our democracy. I believe a second impeachment trial is necessary given Trump’s role inciting violence on January 6 and for the whole 4 years of his reign, but I am very sad that the trial will inflame passions and make any desperately needed attempts to heal our nation’s gaping divisions much harder if not impossible.

I am personally pleased that the Biden administration has begun to roll back some of Donald Trump’s most egregious actions and has begun an organized national response to the pandemic. Unfortunately dealing with the virus of hate, delusion and conspiracy fueled paranoia will be much harder to cure.

The main reason that other pandemic is so intractable is that it has been infecting our nation for 300 years or more. Racism was firmly entrenched in our American psyche long before a gang of slave owners wrote the foundation documents for our experiment in democracy. To patch together a fragile union between deeply divided cultures in the northern and southern colonies a lot of compromise was necessary. The question is whether those compromises were worth the divisions that continued and deepened.

The first 90 years of our democracy were full of debate and conflict over the issue of slavery. That conflict boiled over in a deadly civil war. In the simplified and whitewashed version of American history that many of us were taught in school that was the end of racism. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to our Constitution gave Blacks all the privileges of citizenship. Problem solved.

I came of age in the 1960’s when Civil Rights for our black sisters and brothers emerged from the days of Jim Crowe and the cruel joke of “separate but equal.” The ugly truth of lynchings and Klan violence and intimidation that went on for the 100 years after the Civil War never penetrated the enclaves of white privilege I grew up in. Blood was spilled in that iteration of the civil rights movement. Progress was made at a glacial pace, but when Barack Obama was elected President we again thought our ugly heritage of racism could be laid to rest.

But along came Donald Trump with his birther lies that fanned the embers of racism into a raging blaze of white supremacy which Trump fueled with more lies for the entire duration of his Presidency. On November 3, 2020 Trump’s campaign of lies and hate was soundly defeated by a record turnout at the polls during a pandemic, no less.

So the pampered president who never had anything denied to him in his life could not face the reality that he had lost. And thus began the biggest lie of all that was eagerly digested and propagated by Trump’s conspiracy consumed minions.

In one last gasp to retain power Trump invited his armed fanatics to DC for a rally on the day the election results would be confirmed by Congress. And we know how that infamous day ended. On TV we witnessed an attempted coup against our democracy.

By the grace of God the insurrection failed to stop the finalizing of the election results making Joe Biden our 46th President. If this was a novel that would be the end of the story with the forces of truth and freedom victorious.

But this is reality, not fiction, and the struggle to preserve our democracy continues. Dangerous Qanon conspiracy believers have made their way into the chambers of Congress by election. What Congress, and especially the Republican leadership does about their armed and dangerous colleagues will either help our nation build on the return to Constitutional democracy begun on November 3 or surrender again to the forces of lies and conspiracy.

The biggest truth of this whole saga is that the GOP senators who failed to remove Trump in his first impeachment now have a chance at a do-over. It’s too late to undo the damage inflicted on our nation by Trump and company in the last year. His acquittal by the Senate last year gave Trump carte blanche to do or fail to do his Constitutional duty with no consequences for his behavior and incendiary rhetoric.

If enough GOP senators had been courageous enough to remove Trump from office a year ago thousands of our citizens who died from COVID and Trump’s incompetence in managing this crisis would still be alive. And furthermore if we had had competent leadership in the White House that trusted scientists and public health experts thousands of Americans would not be unemployed and facing financial ruin. Our kids would not have lost a crucial year of their education and the socialization that goes with it. What the long-term damage to this younger generation will be only time will tell.

What we do know for sure is that the party of Lincoln has another chance to regain the integrity and respect worthy of Honest Abe by once and for all excising the cancer of Trumpism from the body politic, or at least from the halls of Congress.

All Saints, Birthdays, and Elections

I just completed my 74th trip around the sun and feel like I should have some wisdom to foist on my readers; but I’m coming up dry. I suspect it’s because of my stress level over the election and my recovery from back surgery 5 weeks ago. I’m doing well on the latter, but not so much on the former. The non-stop crisis du jour coming out of Washington, and the ominous record numbers of COVID cases is exhausting. I have tried to cut back on reading and listening to the news, but it’s like the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop watching.
This much I know for sure — I cannot wait for the incessant requests for campaign contributions to end. Each one tells me that the sky is falling if I don’t give or give again. Enough already!!

This election reminds me a lot of the Nixon-McGovern election in 1972. Then too an embattled and corrupt incumbent was running for re-election against a liberal Democrat. Only that time around the Democrats overreacted to Nixon’s far right agenda and chose a candidate who was way too liberal for the country, and McGovern lost in an embarrassing landslide. Since that was only the second presidential election I could vote in my idealism was badly deflated not only because my candidate lost but because McGovern carried only one state and the District of Columbia. It was the worst whuppin’ any presidential candidate ever suffered, and I was devastated—lower than a snake’s belly. So to help pull me out of my funk a very wise friend/mentor gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten.

That friend, Russ, died early this year as one of 2020’s first of many low blows. And I miss him a lot, but when I remember his advice I feel like he’s still speaking to me from beyond. The particular piece of wisdom I’m remembering just now went something like this: “Elections are like city buses, if you miss one there will be another coming along soon.” In other words we can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move forward.

That advice didn’t sink in immediately. I remember writing a very dooms dayish letter to the editor shortly after that election bemoaning that since not even an election could get us out of the disastrous war in Vietnam all we could do now was to wait for the ultimate judgment of God. I’m glad I was wrong about that prediction. But as apocalyptic as my younger self thought that election was 48 years ago the 2020 version seems so much more critical to the future of our democracy. In part I feel that way because looking back on the 70’s we all know that the Watergate scandal took Nixon down when the election didn’t. And Nixon resigned because there was bipartisan agreement in Congress that he would be impeached if he didn’t. Such a spirit of valuing justice over party loyalty seems totally out of reach in the hyper partisan 2020 world, and that scares me.

I have now voted in 13 presidential elections, and I am much older than my friend Russ was in 1972 when he gave me that advice; but I don’t feel as wise as he was. Perhaps that is because all the foundations and norms we have lived by have been shaken by the 45th president. We are living in a far different reality than 1972 and that concerns me very much. Fortunately in my many trips around the sun I have learned a few things, none more important than this: God’s time is not our time, whether it’s daylight savings or not. We can change our clocks all we want, but the eternal truth is that all earthly kingdoms and super powers come and go, but God’s reign is forever. My tiny spin around the sun, no matter how long it lasts, is but a nano second in God’s time.

So whatever the outcome and whenever this ugly election ends that truth will won’t change. Our salvation history teaches us repeatedly that no matter what earthly calamities human disobedience to God’s will causes, there will always be a faithful remnant to carry on. God will raise up as always unexpected leaders from the most unlikely places here or elsewhere in the universe.

I have used words from Psalm 46 to comfort those who mourn at many funerals, but they also apply to national crises, of which Israel had plenty; and those words still speak to us today:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Weeping Jesus

Almost anyone who grew up in Sunday School or is familiar with the Bible knows what the shortest verse in the Bible is.  John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.”  In that instance Jesus was mourning the death of his friend Lazarus. In that case Jesus weeps because his friend Lazarus has died.  This was a very personal kind of grief that most of us have also experienced.  Death is a part of the human condition, and the incarnate Jesus knew all the heights and depths of humankind’s emotions. 

 Less familiar are the other two times in the Gospels that we are told Jesus cried.  In both of those cases he is again grieving but on a macro scale for the city of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish people.  Luke 13:34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

And then on his final trip to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus weeps again. And no, Jesus is not weeping over his own coming passion and death.  He weeps not for himself but again for the city of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish community.  Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”  (Luke 19:41-44)

The nation of Israel has had multiple chances not only from the Messiah but in generation after generation of prophets who have proclaimed the word of God to them.  But they have been tone deaf and in extreme situations have “stoned and killed the prophets.”  

I call those Scriptures to mind because I believe that Jesus is weeping again today over the United States.  Like the Jews 2000 years ago way too many of us have not had ears to hear the Gospel of unconditional love that Jesus lived and died for.  I can hear Jesus saying today, “Oh, America if only you had listened.”

We have refused to accept a boat load of scientific evidence about climate change for decades.  This dangerous denial and refusal echoes the way the church treated Galileo and Copernicus 500 years ago.  But our current situation is much more urgent and dangerous.  Look at the recent evidence: so many hurricanes in 2020 that we have run through our alphabet naming them and now are well into the Greek alphabet.  Devastating wildfires all over the western part of our country are still burning today because of years of drought due to climate change.  The scientific community has been warning us for years that we are running out of time to stop poisoning Mother Earth.  The rest of the world is taking this crisis much more seriously than we Americans.  We are much too addicted to fossil fuel consumption because of the corporate greed of big oil companies.  Our leadership still unbelievably calls the climate crisis a hoax because once more profits and stock dividends trump concern for the future of our children and grandchildren.  And Jesus weeps.

Scientists and public health professionals have warned us for generations about the possibility of a global pandemic.  Movie producers have frightened us with pandemic thrillers, but we have not been scared enough to admit and listen to the experts when we are actually living that nightmare.  Numbers of COVID cases all over the country and world are increasing daily at alarming rates exactly like the scientists told us they would.  Other pandemics like the Spanish Flu 100 years ago followed the same trajectory.  Public health officials warned us that the fall flu season would be deadly if we all didn’t do our part to control the virus.  Those warnings fell on far too many deaf ears plugged up with greed for political power and economic rewards superseding our value for human life.  We ignore the experts and reopen businesses, bars, and bistros much sooner than is wise.  The virus spreads like wildfire, and Jesus weeps.

When I reread the first Scripture about the death of Lazarus I noticed something I hadn’t before.  The Gospels are carefully organized to show truth with a capital T.  The stories in the Gospels are not randomly placed but are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle with each one making the total picture more complete and vivid.  So immediately after the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead the very next thing John tells us is that Jesus went immediately into Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the temple.  

Why is that significant?  It’s John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ purpose here on earth was not just to work miracles and minister to individuals.  The complete Gospel message tells us that Jesus’ redemptive work then and now also includes confronting the systemic injustices found in our earthly institutions.  That part of Jesus’ ministry just like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and all the other prophets remains unfulfilled today.  Racism, endless wars, increasing injustice in the way economic power and wealth are distributed, and turning our fearful and angry communities into armed camps, just to mention a few, remain further from any workable solution than ever.  And Jesus weeps.  

I woke up this morning with the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical “Godspell” running through my head:  (I apologize for the weird formatting, but I gave up fighting with WordPress after multiple attempts. I hate the changes WordPress has made in its site.)

“When wilt thou save the people?

O God of mercy when?

The people, Lord, the people,

Not thrones and crowns, but men!

God save the people, for thine they are,

Thy children as thy angels fair.

God save the people from despair.”

Dear God, when will you save us from this interminable year of 2020?  When O God, when?  And even as I uttered that prayer I knew it was the wrong question to ask, because we are a people of free will.  God does not micromanage our lives but gives us freedom to make our own choices — and to take the consequences.  You might say that God gives us enough rope to hang ourselves, and that noose is now tightening around our necks.  God has given us the scientific knowledge to defeat this pandemic.  What we are asked to do is not difficult.  Yes it’s hard to give up all the activities we used to enjoy.  I miss seeing my friends and family.  I’m almost 74 years old and I hate having a year or more of the time I have left on this earth taken from me by an invisible enemy.  Yes, it’s a nuisance to wear a mask and social distance, but those are not difficult things to do in order to save the lives of my neighbors; and I will continue to do them no matter how many fools around me refuse to do so.  I’m sure Jesus also weeps for those who are too paranoid and taken in by conspiracy theories to do the right thing.

I too weep for our nation.  These are the darkest days in my lifetime, and yet to carry on honestly facing the realities of our lives in 2020 I must dig deep and humbly ask God to empower and guide my life.  And in those depths I hear words of faith like these from Psalm 30:  

“Weeping may linger for the night,     But joy comes with the morning.”

Or, as Maureen McGovern sang for the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” about a world literally turned upside down, as in a capsized ship:

“There’s got to be a morning after If we can hold on through the night 

We have a chance to find the sunshine, Let’s keep on looking for the light.”

No matter how deep the darkness or how long the night lasts, joy will eventually come in God’s dawning of a bright new day

Prayer for a Damascus Road Moment for President Trump

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

O mighty God of transformation, I pray today for the healing of our President from the Coronavirus and for all others suffering from this deadly virus with access to far less health care resources available to presidents and government leaders. And I pray this Walter Reed sojourn will be a dramatic healing of Donald Trump’s soul like what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. You, O healing spirit, who transformed the murderous, zealous Saul into the most ardent evangelist of the infant church, hear my prayer.

We know you have the power, Lord, to redeem the coldest heart and to forgive the most grievous purveyors of suffering, even on those closest to them. I do not have it in my heart to forgive Mr. Trump’s lies and onslaught on our democratic values. But I know you can. You have showed us in the risen Christ who turned Saul’s life around that unimaginable conversion is possible through a savior who turned the hierarchy of Roman society on it’s head by feeding, healing, touching and forgiving those who were left behind by those who had broken their covenant with you.

Now, O loving God, when this virus has brought Donald Trump as close to humility as he has ever been use this moment of his vulnerability as an opportunity to break through his facade of superiority. Embrace him with compassion that will melt his cold heart. Remove the scales from his eyes, unplug his ears so he can finally see and hear the plight of those who are suffering from his misguided view of the world. Move him with such gratitude for your healing love that he will use his worldly power to extend the privileges he enjoys to the marginalized — to all people of color, to immigrants in cages, to the working poor and those with inadequate food, education, and opportunity to have a decent quality of life.

I know I’m asking a lot, dear Lord, so much that my imagination is stretched to the limit. But I know the story of Saul/Paul whom you turned from vicious Christian killer to one who endured prison, shipwreck and unbelievable persecution to share the life-changing power of your grace because he had experienced it personally in such a drastic way that he would not let anything stop him from taking the Gospel to the very seat of worldly power in Rome.

I humbly implore your healing power to break into my unbelief and into the deluge of terrible news that has bombarded us for this longest year in my lifetime. We need a miracle, God, to heal the dangerous and increasingly violent differences in our culture. I fear we are nearing the point of no return as tensions mount leading up to this election. I have never before been afraid of my neighbors because of their political views. The spiritual healing of Donald Trump could lead to a healing of our nation’s pandemic of hate and violence. I pray with all my being for his healing and conversion and for the transformation of our nation to be worthy of our highest ideals of liberty and freedom for all of your children. In the name and for the sake of our Risen Christ, Amen and Amen.

Prayer for a Broken Nation

O my God, are you as alarmed about the state of our nation as I am? I am in mourning today for civility, decency, and shattered dreams that our broken body politic can be healed. Yes, I know all things are possible with you. I know the stories of how you have delivered your people from Egyptian slavery, Babylonian exile, and German genocide, but our situation seems more desperate. We are not suffering at the hands of an external enemy but from a cancer within that is more insidious.

The high ideals espoused in our nation’s foundation documents lie trampled in the boot prints of greed, fear and falsehood. I’m grieving the death of discourse, reason and collaboration in a time when tribal loyalty has trumped even the desire to build bridges across the gaping chasms that divide us. This is one of those Romans 8 moments when we “don’t even know how to pray,” but you assure us that in such dark days the “Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26).

Come, Lord Jesus! Walk across the waters of despair that threaten to consume us. Feed us as you have always done in wilderness times, be it manna for lost Hebrews, bread to nourish Elijah as he fled from Jezebel’s wrath, fish and loaves for the 5000 hungry for Jesus’ words of truth, or breakfast on the beach for frightened disciples with a resurrected savior. We are so weak from our 24/7 diet of partisan vitriol that it’s hard to even turn off our many devices and throw ourselves on your mercy.

And so my prayer is for comfort for those who are mourning, renewed faith in a time of doubt, peace that passes understanding, and strength to carry on when things seem hopeless. Remind us, God of all creation and Ground of our Being, that nothing can separate us from your love, no fear or failure, no panic or pain, no worldly power, no virus or vandalism, no injustice or inhumanity to others, not even death itself. For we follow a risen savior who is our guiding star no matter how stormy our skies may be. He is the way, truth and life, and in times such as these help us dig deeper to find the bedrock of faith when our foundations are shaken.

I ask these things in the name of the one who was so grounded that he slept as the storm at sea was raging. Give me that courage and faith I pray. Amen

How Many?

As I watch the steady rise of the number of American deaths on the COVID scoreboard I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song: “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” It’s apparently more than 177,000. It’s apparently more than George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and a host of other people of color cut down much too soon. It must be more than the police officers who fear for their lives because we live in an armed camp.

When I think about mounting death tolls I am taken back to the years of the Vietnam War. That war lasted on so long that I graduated from high school, college and seminary while it dragged on and then continued 4 more years! Like 2020 the death count in that war was served to us with dinner every evening on the national news. We thought we were winning because the scoreboard usually indicated we killed more of them that day than they killed of us. The scoreboard of course didn’t include the more than a million Vietnamese civilians killed, part of the infamous “we had to destroy the village to save it” mind set of our leadership. I guess Walter Cronkite thought that to know that ugly truth might have spoiled our appetites.

Dylan’s haunting question “how many?” can be asked about wars, hurricanes, floods, wild fires, even those caused by climate change, gun violence, racism, cancer, drunk drivers, and pandemics. How many must die before we say “enough!” What does it take to move us to action to correct the centuries-old injustices of racism? Or to suspend personal or political ambition to create a unified strategy for combatting a pandemic? Or meaningful reform of law enforcement? Or to enact reasonable gun regulations? How many, Lord? How long till we learn that violence in any form only creates more violence, over and over again in a vicious cycle.

For way too long we Christians have taken Jesus literally when he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus didn’t mean we should turn ourselves into punching bags. He was talking about interrupting the cycle of violence which will never end until enough of us realize that as long as we keep trying to achieve peace by unpeaceful means we are perpetuating more of the same.

Just before that verse above Jesus says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evil doer.” Someone has said that living by the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth philosophy just produces a world of blind, toothless people. Instead of that outcome Jesus later in that Sermon on the Mount goes on to instruct his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

2000 years later we are still trying to do things the old way and expecting different results. We have failed to learn the critical lesson that someone has to dare to go first to break the cycle of getting even instead of being peacemakers. And until we learn we will continue to ask “How many deaths will it take?”

33 Conventions

In one of those sobering moments I dread I realized this week that I watched my first National Political convention 64 years ago this week! I have no idea how that’s possible, but I do have at least one vivid memory of the Democratic convention in 1956. That was shortly after my parents bought our first TV. It was also back when the conventions really mattered because they weren’t the choreographed pep rallies they have become in recent years. The conventions were actually the places where nominees for President and Vice President were chosen after much bargaining and compromise among state delegations. There was real drama because often we did not know what the outcome of the convention would be.

In 1956 the Republican convention was a slam dunk as the incumbents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were renominated. My memory is a little foggy after all these years, but I am pretty sure there was a much more competitive environment at the Democratic gathering. What I do remember clearly is that a young senator from Massachusetts made his first appearance on the national stage in a surprising but failed run to be the Vice Presidential nominee on the ticket led by Adlai Stevenson. I certainly had no idea then who this upstart was or that the same John Kennedy would emerge four years later as the Presidential nominee and eventual winner.

You may wonder how weird it is that an 8 year old would be watching a political convention in the summer when I could have been out playing ball with my friends, and I suppose it is. But I have always been interested in history and politics. Even at that tender age I knew that what happened in the political arena was important, even though I had little comprehension of what it all meant. I have watched at least some of all 30 conventions since that summer of 1956 but none like the conventions of 2020.

Everything about 2020 has been strange; so of course the virtual conventions are no different. I’m starting this post on the first night of the Democratic convention, and so far I like what I’m seeing. There’s more content and less rah rah. More common folks from our diverse population are being given a voice. It’s biased of course as all conventions are, and in many ways it’s a two-hour political ad. I fear many in our badly polarized nation will only watch the convention that reinforces their political viewpoint. That will only widen the chasm between us.

I confess I already know I will not be able to watch 8 hours of the GOP convention next week. The lies that continually fall from President Trump’s lips make me too angry to consume very much of what he will have to say. But even more disturbing to me are the multitude of Republican officials who have refused to do their Constitutional duty and provide checks and balances on a man who is clearly dangerously incompetent and unstable. If just a few of those Republican senators had shown the courage in the pre-COVID days of early 2020 to vote for honesty, integrity and justice and remove Trump from office our nation would not be in as much trouble today as we are. The people who have put party loyalty over the good of the nation, those who value personal power and prestige over true patriotism are the real villains of this tragedy.

That 8 year-old kid watching this new invention called television in the summer of 1956 proudly identified as a Republican, the party of my hero Abe Lincoln. I liked Ike because everyone I knew was Republican; so I understand life-long devotion to the values and ideals we are taught as children. But the party of Trump is no longer the party of Lincoln or Eisenhower. Do you know that the divisions between our two major parties in 1952 were so small that both parties wanted war hero Eisenhower to be their candidate! Can you imagine such a scenario in 2020?

Of course we all know that America in 1956 was far more complicated than my naive self could imagine back then. The political universe was so different then that the “Solid South” was the stronghold then of the Democrats, the party of segregation from pre-Civil War days until Lyndon Johnson’s famous prediction that in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had lost the South for a generation. How about a half century and counting? That political flip paved the way for Nixon’s evil “Southern Strategy” and the GOP has not been the same since.

In the ‘50’s women were still mostly seen as only homemakers and baby factories; we actually believed that separate but equal was true and just, and oh yes, we were just beginning to get involved in the politics of a place none of us had ever heard of, Vietnam. So I am not nostalgic for the days of my 8 year-old self. We were a long way from living up to America’s ideals in 1956, and we still are. But I’ve been around a long time, and I am very proud of the progress we have made for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights or at least I was until 2016. In the words of an old Kenny Roger’s song, “I’ve seen some bad times, lived through some sad times:” the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, the assassinations of 1968 and the burning American cities that followed, the violent Democratic convention of 1968, Kent State, the protests against the war in Vietnam that drove LBJ out of office, Watergate, the My Lai massacre, the impeachment of two presidents, 9/11, unending Middle East wars, way too many mass school shootings, immigrant children locked in cages, climate change, the on-going crisis of COVID-19, and now zoom calls, distance education, and virtual political conventions .

But I have also lived through some good times: the passage of civil rights act and voting rights acts, the establishment of Medicare, multiple lunar landings by American astronauts, including the very first one who was from my home town. I have witnessed the first women on the Supreme Court and increasing numbers of women in leadership positions. I was inspired by Dr. King’s dream and rejoiced when we elected our first black president and legalized same sex marriage.

We may differ on my list of good and bad things, but I hope we can agree that through all the ups and downs of our history the American Dream may in dark days be hidden behind clouds, but it never disappears. It rises and shines as faithfully as our daily sunrises. This political season like many before it is unique. But the process of selecting a president every four years has continued through Civil War, World Wars, the Great Depression, hanging chads, and the recession of 2008 to name a few. We still have a dream even in this weird suspended animation of 2020. That dream is stronger and truer than any challenge because it is a vision of liberty and justice for all people in this great diverse nation.

That dream is only as strong in our generation today as those of us who participate in the democratic process to become informed and responsible citizens. Voting this year like these conventions will look different than any election in our history, but not even a pandemic can stop us from letting our voices and votes determine the future of this great experiment we call American democracy.

Servanthood

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That familiar quote comes at the end of a discussion between Jesus and two of his closest disciples. James and John have asked a big favor of Jesus, they want their faces carved on Mt. Rushmore. Oh, no, that was someone else who is even more foolish and full of himself.

James and John actually asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes in his glory. And Jesus, ever the patient teacher told them “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

This story got me to wondering what Jesus meant when he tells us to become servants. What does it mean for us today to be a servant? In this election year when we will choose those who we want to be our public servants that’s a very important question. Those who run for public office do it for a multitude of reasons, but for many of them servanthood is not high on the list of their motivations. They may want power to shape government policy in ways that favor them or their friends. They may want the perks of government service like a cushy lifetime pension. They may want the kind of glory and fame that James and John thought they were worthy of even though they had no idea, as Jesus points out, what they were asking.

Jesus had rejected the temptations of earthy power and glory immediately after he was baptized and began his public ministry. (Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4). Satan teases Jesus and dares him to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple to prove God will protect him, and then with power and glory over everything he can see from the mountain top. Of course those things are not Satan’s to give, just as Jesus tells his disciples that the kind of glory they are seeking is not his to give.

Jesus instead relies on his God-granted power to say a firm and definite “no” to worldly temptations of narcissistic grandeur and even to the basic comforts of home and family. In his novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” Nikos Kazantzakis tries to show that point, but it often gets lost in our obsession with sex. The movie version of that novel drew loud protests because part of the temptation for Jesus was to forgo the suffering the way of the cross leads to and to just settle down as a family man with Mary Magdalene.

My point is that service or servant leadership is the road less traveled because it requires sacrifice. Running for public office in our hyper partisan society means giving up all hope for any personal privacy and having every part of one’s entire life put under a microscope. It can lead to physical danger for the servant and his or her family. Dr. Amy Acton, former Director of Public Health in Ohio, served our state brilliantly in the first few months of this pandemic in a reassuring but scientific way, but she paid a price for her firm insistence on sound medical practices. Those who were primarily concerned about the economy and those who refused to accept her advice drove her from office. She even endured protestors armed with assault weapons outside her home.

Candidates for public service in the age of social media (which is often anti-social) are especially vulnerable to attacks that are spread by people on every side of the political spectrum without bothering to fact check. Lies and insults can go viral in minutes. For example, just 24 hours after she was introduced as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate vicious, racist and sexist lies about Kamala Harris’ citizenship began circulating on the internet and in the White House briefing room. The same birther B.S. used against Barrack Obama has reared its ugly head again.

Senator Harris has devoted her entire adult life to public service at the local, state and federal level. She has overcome obstacles inherent in her gender and race, and she threatens the status quo, namely power in the hands of white males who have run this country for over 250 years. Why would anyone subject herself to such slander and lies? Why would Gandhi or Dr. King or John Lewis endure beatings, imprisonment and even death to be a public servant? Why not give into the temptation to live a safe, comfortable life at home with family?

The answer is in the words of Jesus, “One who would be greatest of all must be servant of all.” Those who lay up earthly treasures and glory that thieves can steal and rust consume are never satisfied. They always want more. More money, more power, more fame and glory because they have not learned the lesson of servanthood. They have rejected the truth:” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25). Too many of us have been so indoctrinated with the prosperity gospel that we can’t imagine putting our trust in a dark-skinned carpenter who refused to save himself when he could have. The tempter was still there even on Golgotha hanging on a cross next to Jesus begging Jesus to “save yourself and us.” But the other thief knew what it meant to be at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory, and Jesus recognized that request to be with him in paradise while ignoring the other thief who was only looking out for himself. (Luke 23)

Our nation is at a critical crossroads here and now where we must recognize the value of servant leadership and reject false claims of glory. If we fail to do so we will lose our national life by trying to rely on saving ourselves. To survive and thrive we must follow the example of the one who washed the feet even of those who would betray and deny him because he walked the walk as a true servant leader. He knew the truth that true greatness is found in service to others. Do we?

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!