My brain was working overtime on Presidents’ Day Monday. I just finished Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of Abraham Lincoln, “And There Was Light.” Ash Wednesday is only two days away, and a Monday book club I am in is reading “Saving Us,” an excellent book on climate change by Katharine Hayhoe. I think the latter probably explains the song I had running in my head most of Monday morning. I have always found a lot of meaning in song lyrics, including several from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that our choral music department produced many decades ago when I was in high school. Monday’s song was the title song from “Oklahoma,” or rather one line from that song: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand. You’re doing fine Oklahoma, Oklahoma OK.”
Those words got me wondering what a difference it would make if we humans made a simple paradigm shift to believe we belong to the land instead of vice versa? The whole notion of individuals or corporations owning pieces of the earth was a foreign concept to Native Americans when it was introduced by the European invaders, and given the way we have raped and pillaged the earth and started endless wars over “ownership” of the land it seems the “uncivilized” peoples may have had the better idea.
The Lincoln story of course deals in great detail about one of those horrible wars fought over expansion of and control over the vast territory that makes up over a third of our current United States geography. The final question that pushed the slave owners to resort to violence was whether the western territories would be settled as slave or free? The best minds of the 19th century, men like Henry Clay and Lincoln could not find a peaceful resolution to that moral and existential question of human equality, and the racism upon which the U.S. Constitution was built still plagues us today. I am reminded of Exodus 20:5 which says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” It has been far longer than three or four generations since Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation. The institution of slavery was made illegal, but the dreadful racism at its core is still visiting iniquity on us. How long will it be until that evil has been exorcised from American hearts?
Much has been written about the spiritual revival going on the last two weeks at Asbury University in Kentucky. Whether that event is a true revival or just a very long worship service remains to be seen. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” in Matthew 7:16, and my litmus test for the fruits a true revival will bear is succinctly stated in Micah 6:8 where we read,
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Ash Wednesday is but a few hours away as I write these words now, and that day marks the beginning for Christians of a 40 day preparation of our hearts and minds for the celebration of Easter. Forty days holds great symbolism for those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Great times of testing and reflecting on the meaning of our faith are often identified in Hebrew and Christian Scripture by the number forty. In the flood story the rain fell for 40 days. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days when he received the 10 Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. And it was forty days after Easter when the resurrected Christ ascended to Heaven.
In our troubled times we dare not cheapen the forty days of Lent by just “giving up” something we should never have had in the first place. To make Lent 2023 a significant time of spiritual awakening and renewal of a right spirit within us we need to look deeply into our souls and do an honest inventory of what’s in our spiritual pantry. Are the fruits of the spirit fresh in my life or are they rotting and moldy from lack of use. Galatians says, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (5:22-23) Those are all wonderful qualities the world desperately needs, but what do they really mean for our lives if they are to be more than pious platitudes? And what about those two words ‘by contrast” at the beginning of that list? Sometimes we can learn what certain words mean by exploring their antonyms. So it may be helpful to look at what Galatians has to say about other human qualities that are the opposites of the fruits of the spirit?
The verses preceding 22 and 23 say, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. “ (Verses19-21).
What if this Lent we made a commitment to pick one of the fruits of the spirit to focus on for our spiritual growth? Pick just one so as not to be overwhelmed and look for examples in others who embody love, joy, peace, patience, or one of the other gifts. Pick just one. Pray about it and for it. These are gifts, something we receive from God, not something we can just make up our minds to do. And when we fail to live generously, for example, as we most certainly will, don’t give up, but ask for grace and forgiveness and try again.
One of the best ways to learn a new behavior is to model our own actions after someone we admire. When I was thinking about these intertwined themes of Presidents’ Day and Lent I was reminded of another President who has been in the news this week. Jimmy Carter has gone into hospice care and is nearing the end of a long and remarkable life. President Carter was not a very successful president by worldly standards. He was denied a second term by an economic downturn and the Iranian hostage crisis. But oh what a mark he has made on the world in the 43 years since he left office. He and Rosalynn, his wife and partner of 75 years have lived simple lives of service to others, building homes for the poor with their own hands, building peace by applying their Christian values to international crises, being honored with a Nobel Peace Prize, and all the while continuing to live in the same humble home and teaching the Bible in their church and with their lives.
We would all do well to pick a fruit of the spirit exemplified in the life of the Carters and spend this Lent nurturing and watering that fruit so it can multiply and feed the souls of those around us.