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.

Stop, Hear, Do!

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, Lectionary text for 8/29/21)

There are 29 references to “widows” and 16 to “orphans” in the NRSV of the Bible. They are mentioned so consistently throughout Scripture of course because without a male protector they are the most vulnerable people in patriarchal biblical society; and that means they need the most help. I get that, but sometimes I just need a rest from the Social Gospel.

This is one of those weeks. Call it compassion fatigue, burn out, or just too pooped to participate. This week’s 24/7 news cycle has gone over the top with natural and human catastrophes. I’m sorry, Lord, but I’ve just had to turn the news off. One more report of a hurricane on top of an earthquake, wind and wild fire, one more gut-wrenching video of Afghan refugees climbing on to a moving aircraft to flee their homeland, one more story about school-age kids and teachers being caught in the political theater of the absurd about masks and vaccines for COVID may just be the final straw that pushes me over the edge.

It’s the blame game that is wearing on me the most right now. In the midst of all this chaos instead of joining forces to solve any one of these crises our state and federal leaders are redoubling their tug of culture war to find some political advantage in the worst situations. They seem oblivious to the reality that we are entering COVID 4.0 because the whole pandemic was politicized from Day 1.

Maybe the first step for people of faith or political leaders should be “First, Do No Harm” from the Hippocratic Oath. Not only are we failing miserably in taking care of widows and orphans, self-serving decisions have produced more poor, more widows and orphans left behind by the 623,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID so far. One headline today said, “Couple from LaMarque, Texas Who Didn’t Trust the Vaccine Have Died Leaving Four Orphans Behind.”

With all the resources the United States has, leading the world in the number of COVID deaths is beyond inexcusable. Scoring political points has trumped the use of time-tested public health tools like masks and vaccines to protect the most vulnerable.

Sure some of the finger pointing and political posturing goes with the territory because we are all caught in the matrix of a never-ending campaign cycle. I remember thinking last November after the election that I would get a breather from requests for campaign donations bombarding my inbox! How naive I was! And the requests just keep growing, coming from all over the country, not just from my own state. Perpetual campaigning leaves no time for actual governing! It is madness, not to mention an obscene waste of time and money. And the constant struggle for power and influence by the wealthy class is threatening to erode the very foundations of our democracy. How absurd is it that we may still be litigating the election results of 2020 when it’s time to cast votes in 2022.

Back in 2005, a time that seems so quaintly simple compared to the 2020’s, my wife and I participated in an intensive personal development program offered by Klemmer and Associates in California. There were many great life lessons we learned experientially in those workshops, but there is one gem that stands out for me, especially in a time like the one we are in now.

The focus of that program was learning how to set SMART goals for oneself and learning skills to overcome the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them. The blame game is one major hurdle most of us have to overcome to change a habit and get unstuck. To lose weight, to risk pursuing a new career, to be vulnerable enough to take a significant relationship to a new level of intimacy, whatever the goal may be one commonality is that blaming others for why we cannot achieve a dream or a goal is totally counterproductive.

The most helpful advice I learned from Klemmer is that instead of blaming others or circumstances for whatever we want it is much more productive to ask three simple questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? What next?” How different might the current catastrophe in Afghanistan look if we asked those pragmatic questions instead of just trying to pin the blame on somebody else. There is more than enough blame to go around for 20 years of killing and mayhem in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even count the equally bad track record the Russians and the British had there before us.

Just like COVID war produces widows and orphans. For what? Victory? How does one keep score in the game of war? The long bloody trail of human history should have taught us long ago that there are no winners in war. Each war begets the next ad infinitum. What might it mean for Americans to ponder what it means that World War II was the last war where we can count any kind of victory? Could it be that war has finally outlived its usefulness 2500 years after Isaiah and Micah both dreamed of the day when we would “beat our swords in to plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Isn’t that the word that James wants Christians to be doers of? Talk is cheap. We pay lip service to pious platitudes about loving our neighbors and even our enemies, but who among us is really brave enough to walk that walk?

What have we got to lose? The way we have been trying to use “power over” others, especially in a toxic version of masculinity, simply isn’t working. Gun violence, raping the very planet we depend on for life itself, bitter partisanship instead of collaboration to solve problems that threaten the existence of the human race itself are all symptoms of humanity’s terminal illness.

Is it to late to be doers of the word instead of just hearers? Maybe a better question is are we even listening to the Word any longer? Do we have ears to hear? Are the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of greed, consumerism, zealous nationalism, and rugged individualism so loud they drown out the “still small voice of God?” (I Kings 19:12).

Matthew Fox describes our plight quite well in his Daily Devotion from August 9: “A prime idea of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is its very straightforward critique of misuses of power. From the very beginning, the Bible undercuts the power of domination and teaches us another kind of power: powerlessness itself. God is able to use unlikely figures who in one way or another are always inept, unprepared, and incapable—powerless in some way. In the Bible, the bottom, the edge, or the outside is the privileged spiritual position. This is why biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. Powerlessness seems to be God’s starting place, as in Twelve-Step programs. Until we admit that “we are powerless,” Real Power will not be recognized, accepted, or even sought.”

I love the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It seems to me we’ve about exhausted “everything else.” Maybe we’re about ready to be doers of God’s way – collaborating, sharing, caring more about all of humankind and creation than our own bottom line? That’s what James calls “pure religion.” Others call it the peaceable kin-dom that God has put within each of us. That beloved community can only emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis if we can learn to be unstained by the deadly values of the world.

The other very familiar verse from James is 2:26 which says “Faith without works is dead.” Without a major shift in our values, so are we.

Critical Race Theory and the Road to Reconciliation

I spent part of the pandemic studying and discussing systemic racism with other Christians concerned about living out our faith as anti-racists. In that process I have learned many hard lessons about the dark side of American history that most of us did not learn about in our schools or churches. It is very uncomfortable work, and while there are signs of hope, the current pseudo-debate over Critical Race Theory reminds us how far we have to go to heal 400 years of injustice and the wounds caused by racism.

I know much of the anti-CRT rhetoric coming from the Republican Right is just more red meat for the Trumpist base, but it also occurs to me that part of the problem that has gotten us where we are must be owned by the Christian church. A large part of the reason we have not learned about the horrors of lynchings as public spectacles or events like the Tulsa massacre is a failure by the church to teach and live out the true good news of the Christian Gospel.

Most of us can think of events in our own lives or of our families that we would be very embarrassed to have made public. I certainly have plenty in my life. It’s no different for a nation to want to put the best face on our actions and accomplishments as a country. For example, if we are writing a history of 1969 we Americans would much rather focus on the Apollo 11 moon landing than the My Lai massacre. But both are part of that year’s history, and we can’t get an honest picture of American culture in the ‘60’s without knowing about both.

Criticism is never easy to swallow. A favorite push back against critics of the Viet Nam war was the slogan “America: Love it or Leave it.” Such a defensive reaction to having unattractive aspects of our history exposed is easy to understand, but unless we can get comfortable with being uncomfortable about those embarrassing parts of our lives as individuals or as a nation we can never learn from them or move beyond them.

Much of our failure to embrace all of our history stems from a misunderstanding of God and God’s justice. Father Richard Rohr describes the difference between human and divine understandings of “justice” this way in his daily meditation this week (7/6/21): “When we think of justice, we ordinarily think of a balance: if the scales tip too much on the side of wrong, justice is needed to set things right. But God’s justice does not make sense to human ideas of justice! We define justice in terms of what we’ve done, what we’ve earned, and what we’ve merited. Our image of justice is often some form of retribution, which we then project onto God. When most people say, ‘We want justice!’ they normally mean that bad deeds should be punished or that they want vengeance. But Jesus says that’s simply not the case with God. The issue is how much can we trust God? How much can we stand in the flow of God’s infinite love? How much can we let God love us in our worst moments?”

This means that understanding God’s grace as unconditional love, even if we can’t wrap our minds around it completely, frees us from the fear of being punished for our sin. It is what Jesus means in John 8:32 when he says “the truth will set us free.” The truth is God’s love for us is so much greater than our worst behavior, even centuries of systemic racism, that we can face the truth, confess our sin and be set free to live in right relationships with our sisters and brothers.

When we read the many stories in the Bible about God’s relationships with sinful humans we can experience for ourselves what God’s grace feels like. Time after time in Scripture God calls and uses fallible human beings to further God’s reign of righteousness. Jacob deceived his blind father to steal his brother’s birthright, Moses murdered an Egyptian, David was an adulterer and murderer, Rahab was a prostitute, Saul was a vicious persecutor of Christians before God turned him around on the road to Damascus. These stories and what we hear on the nightly news are all examples of how all of us fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

The pantheon of American heroes is no different. Most of the brave men who pledged their “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” by signing the Declaration of Independence owned other human beings. Even our patriotic songs recognize that we are always in need of creating a more perfect union. “America the Beautiful” includes a line asking God to “mend our every flaw.”

We are a flawed nation made up of flawed human beings, but there is no shame or fear in showing God and ourselves that contrary to the famous line in the movie “A Few Good Men” we can and we must handle the truth. The alternative is that the lies about our history that we have passed down from generation to generation by commission or omission will continue to fester and poison our nation with hate and fear.

I John 1:9 Says it best: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But confession is the key word in that verse. Admitting our failure is the only way to be free of the burden of guilt and move on to a place that is closer to the peaceable kingdom God intends for all of creation. Friends, there is no reason to fear confession or humbly learning about the dark side of our history because God’s love and mercy are guaranteed. Thanks be to God!

Free At Last!

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Last week as we at long last commemorated the first official Juneteenth these familiar words from John’s Gospel took on new meaning for me. When the news finally reached Galveston on June 19, 1865 that our black sisters and brothers were free from the bondage of slavery the truth is that they had already been free for a year and a half and didn’t know it.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and the fact that it took 18 months to reach Texas is hard for us in the 5G Information Age to imagine. But technology aside it is even more embarrassing to realize that it has taken 156 years for America to officially recognize this historic event.

The parallel observation for me when thinking about John 8:32 is that far too many of us who strive to follow Jesus Christ have been prisoners to sin, guilt, fear and the spiritual death those things bring for all our lives without knowing the good news that we are already free. In the words of Father Malcolm Boyd‘s book by the same title we are “Free to Live, Free to Die” because the chains of death were broken once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What will we do with that freedom? It is not a gift to be hoarded as a personal prize, for if we do our efforts to protect our own privileges will poison the well of eternal life. If any of God’s children are enslaved none of us are truly free.

So recognizing Juneteenth is not an end in itself. It is one more step on the long road to liberty and justice for all, to the day when we all can say together, “Free at Last, Free at Last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

First Come, First Served

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” John 5:2-9

This poor invalid had been trying to get in that pool for 38 years. In today’s time frame that would mean he has been there since 1983! And no one has bothered to help him. Instead they push and shove to get in the healing water themselves. People with headaches, hangnails or allergies are still quite mobile and can get in first.

I was reminded of that story when I heard on the news recently an account of COVID vaccine distribution in a southern Florida County. In that county they announced a date for when those 65 and over could get the vaccine, first come, first served! And of course that resulted in chaos and confusion as those who were able-bodied camped outside the night before so they could be first in line. And as in John’s narrative about the pool by the sheep gate those who were sick or feeble and needed the vaccine more were left out in the cold because there was a limited number of vaccines available.

But along comes Jesus and upsets the apple cart as he usually does. Jesus doesn’t join the frenzy, jostling the crowd so he can carry the man into the pool. Jesus simply ignores the protocol altogether and heals the man himself.

The idea of first come, first served looks on first glance to be very fair. But when we look deeper into how it actually works in reality we realize how unfair it is to those most in need. Where does that show up in our society? Wealth and privilege buy the best school, healthcare, hotel accommodations and modes of transportation.

Some would argue that’s fair because we privileged ones have worked hard to earn enough to have all those benefits, Really? I have never been “wealthy” by worldly standards, but as a white male there were and still are more doors open to me and fewer arbitrary roadblocks or glass ceilings than women and people of color face.

My takeaway is that I want to pause and reflect on how a lucky break or good news for me may be just the opposite for the underprivileged. Recognizing the injustice is only step one, the hard part is figuring out how i can make the situation more just.

Those actions can be as personal as offering my place in line at grocery checkout to a frazzled father with two unhappy kids or to a woman with mobility issues. Or they run all the way to contacting government officials and helping them see the need for policy changes to level the playing field for the underprivileged. What is not an option for Christians is to ignore injustice hoping it will go away. It won’t. It just grows and embeds itself in the culture and becomes systemic.

Christmas Morning

The first thing I saw this Christmas morning in our beautiful snow-covered back yard was a large flock of black birds on, around and below one of our bird feeders. I can’t name most of the birds that visit our feeders but these birds were larger and more aggressive toward each other than the smaller, more colorful varieties we normally see. The size and darkness of the blackbirds was amplified by their contrast with the pure white snow. My first thought was to recall an old nursery rhyme that says, “Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie,” but that soon passed since it didn’t sound at all appetizing.

I’m also embarrassed to admit my other first reactions were less than Christ-like. I thought, “Oh, no. I didn’t brave the cold to feed blackbirds!” I was tempted to go to the door and chase them away so the smaller, “prettier” birds could get to the food. And then I stopped. I realized these birds are all creatures of our God, equally deserving of eating “our” food, which of course is not ours at all, but a gift from God that we are able to share.

And then an even more uncomfortable thought emerged in my mind as I asked myself if my aversion to these particular black birds was another example of my latent racist attitudes that I must constantly be on the lookout for. Pretty heavy stuff to look at before I had finished my first cup of coffee, but we can’t choose the times when God knocks on the door of our souls with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.

But God wasn’t done with me yet. When I perused the morning news on my iPad I found an article about Pope Francis’ Christmas message where he challenged the wealthier nations of the world to share the COVID vaccines with other parts of God’s family that are most vulnerable. Again my first reaction was uncomfortable. I thought, “That’s fine Pope, but not until I get my vaccine!”

How often do we offer to God or others the leftovers from our tables, after we have taken care of our needs first? But the ultimate gift of Christmas is not ours to hoard! The startling message delivered to the shepherds is one we still need to hear today. “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

The Christ child is a gift “for all the people.” And we who celebrate that gift cannot hoard it but are called to “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Please take time today to listen to what the angels are whispering in your ear.

A blessed Christmas to all.

OUR BETTER OR BITTER ANGELS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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