Election Blues and Faithful remnants

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation.”  Micah 4:7

Is it possible to be very pessimistic about the future of American democracy and simultaneously confident in the future of its ideals drawn from the best of Judeo-Christian values?  It is on the horns of that dilemma I find myself as I near the end of my 75th orbit around the sun.  The euphoria I felt a year ago when Donald Trump was soundly defeated in his bid to be re-elected dictator of the U.S. has given way to despair as I watch the democratic party described by Will Rogers when he said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a democrat.”  Now that inter-party warfare threatens to doom the Biden presidency and in the process throw open the doors of the US Capitol so the failed coup attempt of January 6 can be successfully completed at the polls in 2022 and 2024.

I have voted faithfully in every election since 1968, but this year I am so discouraged by the way the bitter politicization in our country has infected even local elections for school boards, city councils, and township trustees that I am tempted to throw up my hands and not even vote. Politicians have always exaggerated and lied about reality to get votes, but this year 90,000 Americans have died unnecessarily because political lies have become more deadly than the Delta variant of COVID-19.

As the news plays on my radio or TV I hear Amos warning against the sins of Israel. I see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because she would not listen to his words of salvation and peace. I see shock on the faces of those who have bought the lie of American exceptionalism as they try to wipe the mark of the beast off their faces on the day of Armageddon.

But deeper than my despair I also know that the reign of God is not dependent on sinful mortals. I feel in my dry bones the salvation history revealed throughout the Scriptures that there has always been a faithful remnant preserved from any tragedy that rises from the ashes of earthly kingdoms to carry on the eternal torch of God’s holy shalom.

There are 82 references to “remnant” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  These references are not about left-over pieces of fabric, but about those who are left out and powerless according to worldly ways.  Through flood, slavery, exile and even execution of the Messiah the solid rock of truth has survived as the foundation of life itself. The earthly power of Pharaohs, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Pilate, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the others named and unnamed in our history books is as flimsy as the fakery of the Wizard of Oz.

The creator of our universe will still prevail with or without us, even if we succeed in our blind foolishness and destroy the earth itself. Dr. King was right that the arc of the moral universe is long, so long that we cannot see the end. It is as unattainable for mere humans as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. So just now we despair because that arc of morality seems twisted and malformed in our finite ability to envision the mystery of the future. But I still dare to believe that it bends toward justice, maybe not in the dwindling short term of my lifetime, but in God’s eternal kairos.

From the perspective of 3/4 of a century of life on this planet this much I know, maybe not in my feeble brain but “deep in my heart,” the great old protest song “We Shall Overcome” is true. That “someday” of justice may not be on any human calendar, but it will come in God’s good time; and on that hope I must hang my hat, especially in such trying days as these.

Human Doings

I don’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom, but it surfaced from my memory bank today as I was mowing our lawn. The sage advice comes from that philosopher known to my generation as “Old Blue Eyes.” No, you don’t have to Google that, I’ll tell those of you too young to know, it’s Frank Sinatra. One of Sinatra’s many hit song was “Strangers in the Night,” and that song has a profound refrain that goes “do be do be do.”

That nonsense phrase truly became profound for me when someone pointed out to me that if you take the “be’s” out of that phrase all you have left is “do do.”

We all make “to do” lists, and there are even apps that will help you organize your to do list(s), and I’m guessing most of us have more than one. I’ve tried multiple ways to keep, organize, and prioritize my personal and professional tasks over the years, and if anyone tells you that retirement means you can throw your to do lists away, don’t believe them.

Most of you know I’m older than dirt; so I don’t have to worry about dating myself when I reminisce how years ago all the United Methodist pastors I knew organized their lives in a small pocket sized calendar. It came in the mail every year from our denominational publishing house, and it was free; so few of us ever questioned its efficacy. My only complaint about it was that since it also had pages in the black that served as an address book all of that information had to be updated and re-entered into the new little black book every January.

Somewhere along the line I let my human doings multiply, and I had to learn to write smaller to fit each day into a tiny space, and of course because life is full of surprises, to never write anything in ink. So when it was introduced I became an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, remember those? They were basically a digital calendar and address book that replaced paper calendars and Rolodexes in one handy gadget that didn’t have to be replaced or updated every year. And of course the Palm Pilot was soon replaced by iPhones and Androids that could do all those things and serve as a phone too, and eventually took over our lives by adding internet access.

Sorry to get distracted going down memory lane. My initial point was to reflect on being and doing. We all have to do lists regardless of how we record them, but who has a “to be” list? My reflections on that question emerged because I am home alone this week while my wife is visiting family in Texas. I had grandiose plans for the week: to organize my office that resembles the aftermath of a natural disaster, to clear out and donate clothes I no longer need, and even to sort through several drawers in my desk and bathroom which should say “Enter at Your Own Risk!”

Oh, and my to list for this week also included the simple task of assembling a new exercise bike that is still in a million pieces in my basement. I am now more than half way through the week, and not one of those major projects is even started and somehow my to do list is even longer than it was on Sunday. And I have been busy all week – going to doctor appointments, running errands, swimming at the Y to maintain what little physical fitness I have left, and oh yes, dealing with the aftermath of a car accident I had about a month ago.

I may deal with the latter issue in another blog, but suffice it to say for now that I have been somewhat overwhelmed with the complexities of filing insurance claims, arranging rental cars and other transportation, while still trying to keep up with my daily activities as much as possible.

Another big item on my “to do” list for this week was to do some writing. I’ve had multiple ideas for blog posts in the last three weeks but have not had or taken the time to pursue them. So today while mowing the lawn (which should not still be growing in October, right?) I made an executive decision to just stop, put the to do list on hold, and see what emerges if I start trying to capture a somewhat chaotic collection of thoughts and feelings in writing.

What I’ve been reminded of in doing that is how difficult, if not impossible, it is to flip a switch from being a human doing governed by the almighty to do list to reflecting on being itself. I believe the reason for that is that digging into our inner lives is 1) hard because we aren’t used to going there, and 2) scary because we may not like what we find. And once we look honestly at what meaning or purpose our lives really have we can’t unknow it. That toothpaste will not go back into the tube no matter how hard we try to put it there.

What I know for sure from trying to write this after a busy day of doing is that awareness of my being needs to inform all of my doing. If I try to separate the two I am too tired from doing to really give any meaningful attention to my inner/spiritual being.

Grief and Hope in Darkest Days

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job moving through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, and acceptance. The first seven days of Job’s time on the “dung heap” of pain are spent in silence, the immediate response matching the first stage—denial. Then he reaches the anger stage, verses in the Bible in which Job shouts and curses at God. He says, in effect, “This so-called life I have is not really life, God, it’s death. So why should I be happy?”

That quote is from Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion on August 2 of this year. I want to share the rest below because it speaks powerfully to the chaos of emotions I’ve be feeling for the last few weeks. Pressures of time, more physical health problems, depression about the resurgent Delta variant, and all the other “slings and arrows” of life have damned up my creative writing urges for weeks; so I apologize. In advance if this post gets too long. It has been worth it for me to ride it out, and I hope will be so for you as well.

After reading Fr. Rohr’s words that day I journaled the following dialogue of lament with God. “These words struck a chord with me about my anger and depression about my life and the mess our world is in. I have been stuck in unproductive anger for decades and its time to move along. Some connection there with shame the way Brene Brown discusses it. Help me Yahweh, the burden is literally breaking my back and I don’t know how to let it go. I feel trapped in a vicious cycle of pain, anger and shame that keeps me crippled and /or paralyzed with fear and doubt, layer upon layer piled higher and deeper over the years like a blind mole digging tunnels that go no where, afraid of the light that alone can overcome the darkness of gloom and despair. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, you think it is I who have done the forsaking – but I have lots of good excuses – my parents, my church, my teachers all failed me and put me on the path of darkness and guilt trips that go nowhere but deeper into the muck and mire. I really want to turn around, I think, but I don’t know how. I am so deep in darkness I don’t know which way it is to the light.

“I am the way.! The path is narrow and full of challenges, but I will provide you strength you do not know you have. Trust and obey – choose and move. There’s no other way.”

It’s my move, and I will never be any closer to the truth than I am today.”

“Follow me.”

Fr. Rohr’s meditation continues: “W. H. Auden expressed his grief in much the same way in his poem “Funeral Blues,” which ends with these lines:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.” [1]

Perhaps some of us have been there—so hurt and betrayed, so devastated by our losses that we echo Job’s cry about the day he was born, “May that day be darkness. May God on high have no thought for it, may no light shine on it. May murk and deep shadow claim it for their own” (Job 3:4–5). It’s beautiful, poetic imagery. He’s saying: “Uncreate the day. Make it not a day of light, but darkness. Let clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.” Where God in Genesis speaks “Let there be light,” Job insists “Let there be darkness.” The day of uncreation, of anti-creation. We probably have to have experienced true depression or betrayal to understand such a feeling.

There’s a part of each of us that feels and speaks that sadness. Not every day, thank goodness. But if we’re willing to feel and participate in the pain of the world, part of us will suffer that kind of despair. If we want to walk with Job, with Jesus, and in solidarity with much of the world, we must allow grace to lead us there as the events of life show themselves. I believe this is exactly what we mean by conformity to Christ.

We must go through the stages of feeling, not only the last death but all the earlier little (and not-so-little) deaths. If we bypass these emotional stages by easy answers, all they do is take a deeper form of disguise and come out in another way. Many people learn the hard way—by getting ulcers, by all kinds of internal diseases, depression, addictions, irritability, and misdirected anger—because they refuse to let their emotions run their course or to find some appropriate place to share them.

I am convinced that people who do not feel deeply finally do not know deeply either. It is only because Job is willing to feel his emotions that he is able to come to grips with the mystery in his head and heart and gut. He understands holistically and therefore his experience of grief becomes both whole and holy.”

[1] W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” Another Time (Faber and Faber: 1940), 91. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (Crossroad: 1996), 53–55.

And today (Aug. 6) Fr. Rohr provided these encouraging words of hope: “It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

I would add it is a life-long journey, and with God’s help we can embrace all of life and death in all it’s many forms. Thanks be to God.

Like a Woman

[Note: I was going to write a note of appreciation for the many mother figures in my life, but I remembered I had written something similar a few years ago. I think it is still relevant and appropriate for a Mother’s Day post; so I’m republishing this post from January 2018.]

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”

No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

DREAMS AND VISIONS

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.”  I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.  

Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel:  “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.”  He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”

That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel.  That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’”  (Joel 3:10)

I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2.  My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase.  Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind. 

We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.  

And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.

But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense.  As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living.  God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.  

As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people sharing all the world,

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Simple Things that Heal

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

That verse is from the wonderful story of the healing of a Syrian military commander named Naaman.  You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but here’s the abridged version.  Naaman comes down with a dreaded case of leprosy, the grossest curse of biblical times.  But in Naaman’s household is a political prisoner captured in Israel.  The slave girl is Naaman’s wife’s servant.  This nameless girl overhears Naaman whining about his plight and tells him there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his leprosy.  Even though this referral comes from an anonymous and powerless slave girl, i.e. someone on the very bottom rung of the cultural ladder, Naaman assumes such healing can only come from an important and powerful ruler.  So he sends a letter to the King of Israel who freaks out assuming this is some kind of political trick to make him look bad.

And then the prophet Elisha hears about the King’s dilemma and says, “Send him to me.”  Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house and gets all upset because Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him.  He just sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times.  Naaman balks at this because he was expecting Elisha to come out and stage a spectacular miracle healing, and besides they have better rivers in Syria where he could have washed without making this long journey.  He is ready to go off in a huff, unhealed, but his servants (note how the least powerful characters in this drama are again the wise ones) deliver the line at the beginning of this post.  And reluctantly Naaman listens to reason, washes in the Jordan and is cured.  

Naaman’s story came to my mind in the midst of this pandemic because like Naaman all of us are being asked to do very simple things that require no special skills or knowledge.  We can all wear a mask and stay a distance from each other, and yet for different reasons masses of Americans refuse to do the only things we can do to combat this virus that has already killed over 225,000 Americans.  

Will we listen to those wise enough now who are saying to us, “Hey, if you had to do some super heroic deed to stop the spread of this deadly disease, wouldn’t you do it?  So how much more should we do the simple things.”

Naaman came to his senses and was humble enough that he listened to his servants and was healed,  Give us ears, O God, to hear and heed the simple things we can do to be restored to health.  

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.

Say Thanks While You Can

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

Here’s what I wrote:

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

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

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

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.”