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

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.

Spring Cleaning the Temple

One of the most dramatic stories in the Holy Week narrative is what we know as Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Matthew’s Gospel describes it like this: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

I had forgotten until I looked it up that John’s Gospel puts this incident, not during Jesus’ last week on earth, but right at the beginning of his Gospel in John 2:14-16. In either place it is the most dramatic challenge Jesus makes to the religious authority and practice of his day. He often rhetorically calls into question the “old” ways of doing things in radical ways, but here he goes a little Rambo and drives the money changers physically out of the temple.

As one of my seminary professors cautioned me long ago we should not take this story as typical of Jesus’ behavior. In fact it is so powerful because it stands in stark contrast to almost all of what we know about Jesus’ personality and character. He teaches loving enemies and turning our cheeks, going the extra mile, and laying down one’s life for a friend. But here he’s had enough and takes bold action that certainly won him no friends among the temple authorities. But Jesus is more concerned with doing what’s right that winning popularity contests, and immediately after the above description Matthew tells us in the very next verse that Jesus reverts right back to his usual compassionate self: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

But what struck me most in looking at this story today was a slight difference in the translation of one phrase. I grew up mostly hearing stories from the Synoptic Gospels where the phrase “Den of thieves” is used to describe the money changer temple. But John uses a different term. In John Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

I love exploring the Scriptures because every time I do it I can be surprised by hearing something I’ve missed before or maybe just wasn’t ready for. But my Ah Hah moment today was how this story speaks to the pandemic crisis we’re in. We’ve all been struggling at one level or another with balancing our concerns for health and survival of this plague with the economic impact it is having on the marketplace. Some are feeling that pain much more than others, and my heart breaks for them. But I suspect even as he comforts the unemployed and those who have lost their livelihood, Jesus is really angry at those who have price-gauged and tried to profit off of the suffering of others.

I applaud the companies that have donated essential goods and services to defeat this invisible enemy, but woe to any who have done insider trading or hoarded supplies. Woe to any who have put economic decisions or political priorities ahead of life-saving, sacrificial decisions that will flatten the curve and save thousands of lives. Woe to those who refuse to stay at home and practice physical distancing to engage in their own unnecessary activities. Woe to churches that have continued to gather in large groups against all advice from medical experts.

The Easter message is that we will get through this plague, but the Jesus I know says we will get through it sooner and more of us will survive if we drive the money-changers out who worship the idol of the marketplace more than the God of love and compassion.

GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus came up from the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This guy in a dress was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and I see the meaning of those words in a whole new light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

By its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Peace and Goodwill

Note: I am pleased to share these good words from the Christmas letter of a fellow pastor. Bill Hull was a classmate of mine in seminary and has been a cherished friend now for over 50 years. I am pleased to share his thoughts as a guest contributor and offer a hearty Amen.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 RSV

As we draw near to Christmas, this is a season of anticipation, a time of promise. It is the promise of peace and goodwill, not as pie in the sky by and by or among only heavenly beings, “but on earth…among people with whom God is well pleased.” I take that to be all people.

When God created, God proclaimed the work to be “good” as in “God don’t make no junk.” We on the other hand tend to criticize or to reject and exclude those whose sins are different from ours. To do so, we pick and choose from the buffet of laws and prohibitions in the Scripture to justify our inclusion among those “with whom God is pleased.”

The promise of peace and goodwill is sometimes hard to believe. We live in a time of deep division within our own country, of alienation from those who have been our historic allies and of threats of destruction from our enemies. We live in a time of domestic and foreign terrorism, a time of increasing hatred for those whose skin color, religion or lifestyle are different from ours. We live in a time when violence, death and duplicity are all around us. How do we believe in the promise of peace and goodwill among people?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I believe that a part of the answer to believing the promise is to be the promise. I believe that part of the answer is to act as if being loving is more important than being right. I believe that part of the answer is treating all people as beloved of God, created in God’s image. I believe that it means being peacemakers, that it means being neighbors to all who need what we have and what we are.

To be the promise is eternal life here and now. It is all that we can do. The rest is up to God.

Prayer for Military Veterans and Veterans of Life

O Gracious God of our past, present and eternal future, we give you thanks for all the lives, memories and stories gathered in this place, for the treasure of wisdom that only life experience can teach us. We especially are thankful this day for those who have worn our nation’s uniforms in the past and those currently in the service, and for their families who sacrifice so much to help protect our freedom.

We confess we have not always treated our veterans with the respect they deserve, nor are we currently caring for their well-being after their active duty. Help us improve that care and assure that our nation’s priorities for those things that matter most are in harmony with your divine will and guidance.

We elders often feel that we too are not respected and honored for the wisdom life’s ups and downs have taught us. Grant us wisdom and courage to share our stories, to set good examples for the generations to follow, and even to celebrate what our descendants can learn from our stupid mistakes.

Do not let the challenges of aging keep us from mining the treasures found in our memories and experiences. Help us humbly to laugh at our own foolishness and to continue to learn and grow from each other and from people of every age, especially the innocent joy of children.

As we remember how Jesus taught the elders in the temple when he was only 12 please open our hearts and minds to the beauty and wonder of your creation.

We offer our prayers in the name of that 12 year-old who grew in wisdom and stature to show us how to live, how to love, and even how to pray.
(Pastoral Prayer, Nov. 10, 2019, Wesley Glen Retirement Community Vespers service)

Prayer for Eagle’s Wings

It’s me again, God. As you already know I’m feeling very, very hopeless and helpless about the state of our country and world, and that makes it very hard to be motivated to do anything. Knowing that elected officials are stuck in their partisan foxholes and not about to venture into the demilitarized zone to work in a bipartisan, collaborative manor makes it feel useless to even write to them to express concern. There’s so much to be upset and concerned about; is this empathy fatigue? Are my minor physical limitations a valid excuse for not doing anything?

Where is my niche Lord? Pre-retirement I knew who I was and what I was doing each day; but now I’m lost in the ambiguity of despair and need guidance. Shine a light or give me a sign so I can see where I’m supposed to go and do what for the kin-dom. I don’t want to surrender to old age or despair, but I’m so tired, so very tired. I’m waiting, God. You promise that if I wait for you I will not be weary; I will fly on eagle’s wings. Sounds wonderful, but how long do I have to wait? Isaiah doesn’t say how long – he just says “wait.” Does that mean napping or staying busy with distractions of the world while I wait? Does it mean having my phone with me constantly so I don’t miss your call that will tell me what I should be doing? Waiting is tough, especially when I don’t know how long the wait is. Can’t you tell me how long like when companies do when I’m on hold on the phone? Or give me a number that tells me where I am in line? Or can I leave my number so you can call me back when it’s my turn?

You can see how impatient I am. Impatient with all the things my body can no longer do. Impatient with no clarity about what “retirement” means. That word isn’t in the Bible, Lord. Does that mean there is no rest for the weary? Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” didn’t he? Or did Matthew slip that into the Gospel because he was tired and needed R & R from kin-dom work?

I’m waiting, Lord; I’m on hold. You know my strengths and weaknesses; so please let this old, weary servant know what you would have me do in this world that feels like we are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I’m waiting for my eagles wings!