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!

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.

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.

Hanging Together: Collaborative Leadership

“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.” Those words from a great him by Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of the 20th century seem most appropriate for Memorial Day 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.

What does wisdom and courage look like today, and what kind of leadership provides it? All that got me to thinking about my own evolution in my understanding of what effective leadership is. My journey down memory lane took me back to the summer of 1962 when I was 15 years old and completely screwed up my first real opportunity to be a leader. I was an Explorer Scout, a part of the Boy Scouts of America for 14-18 year-olds, and our Post took an annual canoe trip to the Boundary Waters just north of Minnesota in Canada. Even though that summer was my first time making that trip I was made a patrol leader of one of the two small groups even though there were other scouts who had been on that trip before. I assume it was because I was one of two Eagle Scouts who were making the trip.

It was my first experience of the Peter Principle, though I didn’t know that term at the time. In fact the book by that title by Laurence J. Peter wasn’t published until 1969, but its basic premise that people in a hierarchy rise the “level of their incompetence” was a pretty good description of my week in Canada. For example, when we arrived at our first campsite and had our tents up a couple of the scouts came to me as their “leader” and asked me what they should do next. I didn’t have a clue and hadn’t thought about it, but I couldn’t admit that to them or myself; so I said something stupid like, “I don’t know. Go entertain yourselves.” I had missed a critical leadership moment when I could have said, “Look guys, I’m new here. Some of you have been on this trip before. Can we sit down together and you help me figure out a list of things we need to do and who is best equipped to do them.” What a difference in the tone of the whole trip that would have made, and better yet if we had begun those discussions before we left home or in the car on that long road trip. Ah hindsight!

And in retrospect here’s my analysis of why that didn’t happen. There was a serious flaw in the Eagle Scout program in those days which has since been addressed with the addition of an Eagle Scout Project requirement to attain the highest rank in Scouting. I’m not sure when the change was made but for many years now a Scout has been required to develop and carry out a community service project as the capstone of the necessary advancement through the ranks. The official language includes this statement: “Eagle Scout projects are evaluated on the benefit to the organization being served and on the leadership provided by the candidate.”

That leadership training was lacking in my days as a Scout. The only requirement back then for an Eagle award was the successful completion of a prescribed list of 21 merit badges, including basic scouting skills like camping, hiking, canoeing, swimming, lifesaving etc. and a number of elective merit badges. When we had met those requirements we had to be recommended by our troop or post leaders for the rank of Eagle and then successfully be interviewed and approved by a panel of District Scouting leaders. That was no small task, and it took me 3 plus years to get there; and I don’t mean to be critical of the experience I had. My 10 years in Scouting, starting as a Cub Scout at age 8, provided me with many of the core values I try to live by today. My observation here is simply that all of those 21 merit badges I earned were based on individual achievement. Many were done in groups of scouts, but each of us individually had to meet the requirements. I had to hike so many miles. I had to swim so many yards and perform lifesaving techniques by myself. The athletics merit badge meant I was the one who had to run a certain distance in a specified time, etc. In none of those activities was attention paid to intentionally developing interpersonal or leadership skills.

And that was not my only experience being chosen to lead in my youth, but the pattern is similar. I was elected President of our high school student council for my senior year, and again it was not because of any leadership skills. I didn’t play any team sports or play in the band where I could learn about teamwork. I was deemed a leader because I was an honors student who always ranked near the top of my class, and I don’t say that to brag. I got good grades because I was blessed with a gift to easily memorize stuff, and I knew how to play the academic game. But getting good grades, like earning merit badges, was an individual activity. Language arts, math, science and history were all good things to learn but they had nothing to do with leadership.

My other shortcoming was that the only models I had of what leadership looked like were all hierarchical. My dad was a second lieutenant in WWII and most of my heroes and role models were military leaders. Leaders in my mind then were authoritarian figures who gave orders that others carried out. So when I was given a leadership role in scouts, school or church youth group my default modus operandi was too often to scold people for their behavior or failures rather than offer any constructive criticism or promote collaborative teamwork.

But here’s the redemption in my lifelong, still-unfolding lessons in leadership. As fate would have it I made a mid-life decision to return to graduate school when I was about 38 years old and God led me to enroll in a doctoral program in Rhetoric. I was drawn there because of my love of preaching and because a member of my church, Dr. Bill Brown, was a member of the Rhetoric faculty at Ohio State University. Rhetoric has a bad reputation these days because it has come to mean empty political posturing, but in the classic Aristotelian sense in means the art of persuasion – not to be confused ever with “The Art of the Deal.”

I must admit that after 14 years in parish ministry I still thought of preaching as a solitary and yes authoritarian activity. The theological movement to narrative and more dialogic preaching unfortunately arrived in seminaries just after I graduated. So grad school for me was an opportunity to catch up with the most current thinking and research on public speaking and the place I learned finally about teamwork and persuasive discourse that comes not from a “sage on the stage/pulpit, but from a guide on the side,” a fellow seeker of truth sharing my experience rather than an expert sharing pearls of wisdom.

But it was not just in the classroom at Ohio State that I learned about leadership. There was a very practical matter of how to make a living and help support my family while I was pursuing my academic goals. And again God provided an opportunity for me where I learned as much and probably more about leadership than I did in the classroom. A good friend from my college and seminary days just happened to be directing a program at OSU called the Commission on Interprofessional Education and Practice. I looked Mike up one day when I was on campus just to catch up over lunch. When he learned I was back in school he asked me if I would be interested in working with him as a graduate assistant. That would not only provide me with much needed income but would also pay my tuition.

To make this long story a little shorter, I worked with Rev. Dr. Mike Casto at what became the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio for the next 18 years. No, it didn’t take me that long to finish my doctorate. That part only took 4.5 years, but by the time I graduated I was so intrigued and integrated into the mission of the Interprofessional Commission (ICO for short) that I stayed as part of that staff until I retired. The ICO mission was to teach and promote collaboration among people in the helping professions, i.e. Allied Medicine, Education, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Theology. We did that through academic classes and continuing education conferences for practicing professionals. That program is nearing its 50th anniversary of existence.

The basic reason the ICO was created was because some visionary leaders let by Rev. Dr. Van Bogard (Bogie) Dunn, Dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Dr. Luvern Cunningham, Dean of the College of Education at Ohio State, realized that the issues facing American society in the late 20th century were too complex for any one profession to address them on their own. Bogie loved to quote President Harry Truman who once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I was reminded of that quote recently when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has done an excellent of job of addressing this crisis because of the way he described his collaborative philosophy of dealing with the current Pandemic this way. He said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

These are unprecedented times that require the best leadership possible, and that means drawing on the expertise of professionals in every relevant field. It means learning from the experience of other countries through global collaboration with the World Health Organization and with experts in China who have been dealing with this crisis longer than anyone else. It means putting aside egos, jealousy and professional or political pride to achieve the common good. It requires both/and thinking and not the dualism of either/or. Specifically it means that we all know we need to save people’s jobs and livelihoods, but we also need to do that in ways that are safe and preserve as much human life as possible. It’s not just one or the other, and that means we all need to figure it out together. It means wearing uncomfortable masks, even it hot, humid weather because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good of other people who are more at risk that you are. Leadership in this time means bipartisan collaboration and compromise. With such leadership we may be able to learn to live with this virus as individuals and as a global community. Without such leadership, not so much.

One final quote comes to mind from the infancy of American democracy, and it’s even truer today. In those early days the red and blue colonies were just as divided on many issues as our red and blue states are today. Ben Franklin addressing the founders of our democratic experiment and the great odds they were facing said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”