Patience and Perspective: Why Thanksgiving and Advent Matter More than Ever

“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4

The joke says “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes wisdom comes alone.” There’s some truth in that, but as one who is learning the hard way, I can attest that age does come with some perspective and experience. I am going to resist the temptation to do a general rant about the rush to Santa Claus that turns the time between Halloween and December 25 into a blur. But I do regret the de-emphasis of Thanksgiving and Advent. We need more than ever times of gratitude and patience in this anxious age of instant gratification that doesn’t satisfy. Gratitude and patience are what Thanksgiving and Advent are all about, or should be.

I heard from several disenchanted voters and analysts of all persuasions that the recent election was all about a desire for change because of voter frustration with the current political situation. While I understand that sentiment and agree that much of what goes on in government is corrupt and broken, I was struck by a phrase I heard several times from Millennials and Gen Xers who said “nothing has changed in 50 years.”

I can’t begin to address the solution to what’s ailing our democratic system, but since I’ve voted in the last 13 Presidential elections beginning in 1968 I do feel somewhat qualified to address what’s changed in the last 50 years. In the 90th Congress, elected in 1966, there were only 11 women in the House of Representatives and 1 in the Senate. In this year’s election those numbers are 83 in the House and 21 in the Senate. I have not found exact data on racial minorities for 90th Congress, but one source said there were fewer than 10 until 1969. By contrast the new Congress in 2017 will have the greatest racial diversity in the history of the republic – 102 members of color in the House and 10 in the Senate. Those numbers equal an 867% increase for women and 1120% for racial minorities in the last 50 years.

Does that mean we have achieved equality in D.C. or in our nation? Of course not; we all know we are a very long way from achieving the high ideals of “liberty and justice for all” that we all profess to believe in, but where we are today on the long journey to equality for all is a far cry from saying nothing’s changed in 50 years.
There are many examples of progress toward social justice if we take time to look for them, and gratitude requires an intentional commitment to focus our attention on what there is to be thankful for, especially in this 24/7 news cycle and social media world where we are bombarded with mostly bad news constantly and can overreact to something and make it viral before bothering to check it’s veracity. Isn’t it interesting that the word “viral” comes from a term that used to mean something contagious that makes us sick?

We can all do something about the virus of untrue and biased information besides just complaining. There have been times in the last 2 weeks that I have simply had to turn off the TV and all my devices (de-vices?) to keep from being overwhelmed and depressed about the “news” coming at me from all directions. A fast from consuming the viral spread of anger, hate and fear is good preventative health from time to time. Perhaps more importantly, we can all stop and verify information before we spread it around by reposting or retweeting. Social media makes it far too easy to just hit a button and spread a virus before we have time to evaluate the information and its source. In the heat of political conflict it is not always easy to remember that, but if we would all pause and reflect on what the consequences might be and how images and words might affect others who become our unintended audience when we hit that button we can all help in a small way to heal the growing divisions in our nation and world. If we aren’t part of the solution we are part of the problem, and if we aren’t helping create positive change in our nation we shouldn’t expect our elected leaders to do it for us.

Mr. Rogers’ has been quoted a lot lately about “looking for the helpers” in a bad situation. Please, in this week of overeating and overshopping and overfootballing, let’s all take time to look for the positive signs of change in our world and be thankful. To do that requires backing up to get a better perspective on the big picture instead of focusing entirely on our problems. Yes, health care costs and jobs and our own civil liberties are important, and we must keep working as fast and justly as possible to change those situations. But to do so requires patience and perseverance and an appreciation of how far we’ve already come. The big picture gives us a better perspective on progress while at the same time reminding us that there are millions of other people in the world who are homeless and refugees and orphans, addicted and incarcerated that we must not ever forget. From Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Genesis 4 to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” to Jesus in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10), God’s answer is “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Matt. 25)

As we have seen this week in the Trump vs. Hamilton tweet storm, artists and artistic works have great power to give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. Good drama and fiction can transport us out of our own swamp of alligators for a time and move us emotionally in ways that pure “facts” or logical arguments never will. It is no coincidence that the musical “Hamilton” celebrating diversity has taken Broadway by storm in this season of division and bigotry. And it is likewise no coincidence that the movie “Loving” began showing in theaters 4 days before the 2016 election. I haven’t seen it yet, but “Loving” is based on a landmark Supreme Court case, yes 50 years ago, in 1967. It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving who were sentenced to prison for violating a Virginia law against interracial marriage. In a unanimous decision (imagine that?) the US Supreme Court ruled that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Yes, a great deal has changed in the last 50 years, and much of it for the better. But here’s where patience and Advent come into play, and the turmoil and anxiety about what a Trump presidency may do to impede the cause of justice and equality only underscores this point. We’re not sure who actually coined the phrase “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” but it is certainly true. A major reason for the necessity of patience and vigilance in our democratic system is that what is seen as progress by some is always seen as a threat to others. The balance between individual liberty and universal justice is in constant tension, and that tension is usually part of the creative process. When the tension becomes bitter and partisan, when one or both sides want to be right more than they want justice for all, when the tension becomes more like a competitive tug-of-war instead of a cooperative teeter totter the tension can become destructive. We have had cycles of both productive and destructive tension throughout our history, and keeping the total picture in mind helps us to be patient with the process and not resort to oppressive or violent means to demand change to get our way.

The truth of the matter is that some people, not all, who voted for Trump and Pence under the banner of change do not want change at all. That minority of white voters really want to undo the changes we’ve made in the last 50 or 100 years that don’t benefit their privileged status. The reality is that in addition to seasons of gratitude and patience the USA desperately needs a season of reflection and repentance to remember all of our history. Only when we admit that this nation was built on a foundation of racism and genocide can we appreciate how far we’ve come and why we’ve got so far to go before “liberty and justice” for all is more than a pious platitude.

The struggle we are now in for the heart and soul of our democracy is so difficult because it is so old and so deeply ingrained in our history and DNA that we don’t recognize it. We learn at an early age about the early European immigrants coming to America in search of liberty and freedom, but most of our schools, families, churches and other civic organizations fail to teach white Americans the rest of our history. We don’t learn about the evils of slavery or we naively think it is a nasty little problem that was resolved by President Lincoln. We don’t learn about the founding fathers being slave holders. We don’t learn about the rape and pillage of Native American lands from people who were here for centuries before the first Europeans “discovered” America.

Why? Because our parents and their parent before them didn’t learn those lessons either because to learn the whole truth about who we really are is too painful. But ignorance is more painful in the long run. Without knowing our past we are condemned to repeat it generation after generation. Our lack of knowledge and the successful use of fearmongering racist tactics to win an election are an indictment of our education system, but even more they are an indictment of the church of Jesus Christ for being co-opted into a conspiracy of silence instead of proclaiming a John the Baptist Gospel of repentance for our sins. John and Jesus told it like it really is. Contrary to Jack Nicholson’s famous line in “A Few Good Men,” not only can we handle the truth only truth and the whole truth can set us free. As Frederick Buechner said so well in “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale,” “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.”

Ironically the bad news of the Gospel and of our current political state is something that we should be thankful for. I’m not one bit thankful for hatred and racism ever, but as one commentator pointed out nothing new happened on November 8. The anger and divisions have always been a part of our history, clear back at least to the Continental Congress. The silver lining in the Trump election is that the dark underbelly of hate and anger is out in the open where it can be dealt with.

The struggle for liberty and justice is never easy, but when we look at the big picture and understand why change is so hard and how long it has been going on, we can appreciate and be thankful for the progress we’ve made; and we can be confidently patient that from God’s perspective the outcome of the battle between justice and evil is not in doubt. The road to justice is not linear but full of curves and detours and switchbacks, but we have a roadmap from a God who is always on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. Justice probably won’t happen in our time, but because we also live in God’s time where a thousand years are but as yesterday, we live in gratitude and hope even as we continue to wait and work for liberty and justice for all.

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Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class

Overhearing the Gospel is a great title for a book on preaching by Fred Craddock. Craddock argues that an indirect and subtle approach to hearing the difficult truth of the Christian Gospel is often the most effective method of communication. It’s why Jesus relied so heavily on parables to share his truth. Stories have a way of bypassing prejudices and ideology by touching hearers at a deeper level than purely rational arguments can do. Stories personalize concepts and appeal to emotion and morality in a holistic way that is more persuasive than a more direct imperative approach.

That’s why listeners who first heard Jesus urge them to “love their enemies” or “turn the other cheek” probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when convicted by the truth of the Good Samaritan story, even the lawyer who started out planning to “test” Jesus had to admit the real neighbor in the story was not the religious leaders, as one would expect The surprise hero of that parable is the hated enemy from Samaria who showed compassion on the man who was mugged and left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho. (See Luke 10:25-37).

I learned some great life lessons via the indirect approach 50 years ago in high school. Blessed with a good memory, I was always a “good” student, which simply means I knew how to play the education game well and regurgitate answers that teachers wanted to hear on tests. But I realized recently that some values I learned in “extra-curricular” activities were far more important than any quadratic equations I solved or verbs I learned to conjugate. The irony is that the lessons I value most from my high school education came from our choral music teacher, Walter Kehres. What makes it ironic is that I cannot and never have been able to carry a tune in a bucket. I am also not very technologically or mechanically gifted; so I don’t remember how I ended up as one of the students asked to run the light board in our school auditorium, but I’m very grateful I did.

As part of the stage crew I had a priceless opportunity to participate in two major musical productions. To explain the value of that experience I need to set some historical context. I attended high school in a small, conservative rural Ohio community from 1960-1964 during a time of great tension and change in American history. My wife and I recently saw the excellent movie, “The Butler,” that is yet another example of the power of narrative. The film covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Eisenhower to Obama, and was a painful reminder to me of how isolated and unaware of what was happening in our own country I was in my youth.

That isolation was a function of the culture and ideology that defined my community and my education. For racism to be addressed directly as part of our academic curriculum would have been met with strong opposition from the community. That’s why the indirect approach to controversial issues was necessary and effective. I will never know for sure if addressing social justice issues like racism and multiculturalism even factored into our music director’s decision when he was choosing the shows to be performed each year. I hope it was, but what I do know is that my junior year our big musical production for the year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes “South Pacific:” “It centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.”

Here are the lyrics to that prophetic song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Had that message about racism and an inter-racial couple been preached from any pulpit or taught in any classroom in my hometown it would never have been tolerated by anyone, including me. But hearing those words sung dozens of time in rehearsals and performances in the context of a “story” sneaked them past the censors and filters in my head. The words and emotions of that great show are so memorable that 50 years later, I can still sing most of the score to this day (fear not, only in the shower).

I have no idea if that production affected anyone else the way it did me, and the message was so subtle, or I was so obtuse, that I didn’t realize until recently what am impact it had on me, even though I’ve quoted “Carefully Taught” in numerous sermons and classes over the years. In that high school auditorium when I thought I was just running a light board, seeds of tolerance and social justice were planted in my head and heart that slowly began to germinate. That made me open to more direct messages and experiences about racial equality in the very formative years of my formal and informal education that followed.

I don’t know if Walter Kehres, our music director, is still living or not, but wherever he is, I send a very belated thank you from one of the most non-musical students whose life you helped change forever.