When Mercy Trumps Trump…and All of Us

Who Needs Mercy? 

Shortly after his grandiose descent on the gold-plated escalator in his self-named tower, Donald Trump was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness. Trump said:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so.  I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”(http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/)

 Trump’s largely fact-free campaign of inflated statistics, exaggerated half-truths, and over-blown self-aggrandizement combined with his thin-skinned reaction to even the slightest suggestion that he might need to apologize for anything have largely demonstrated the truth of that confession.
The problem, of course, is that there is something of Donald Trump in all of us.  It’s not easy for any of us to acknowledge that we can’t make everything right by our own actions.  Sooner or later, we all need forgiveness that is unearned,  grace that is undeserved, and mercy that “trumps” our self-confident assurance in our own power and goodness.
When it comes to describing mercy, it’s hard to improve on Shakespeare:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.  (“The Merchant of Venice,” Act 5)
Ask for the Bleeding Charity
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis tells the story of a bus-load of residents from Hell who take a day-trip to Heaven.  One Trump-like guy whom Lewis calls the Big Ghost — and who could be a lot like all of us — thumps his chest and says, “Look at me, now…I done my best all my life see…I only want my rights.  I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity.”
His Heavenly guide responds, “Then do.  At once.  Ask for the Bleeding Charity.  Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.”  (Note the way Lewis used caps to personify the Bleeding Charity.)  That’s mercy.  That’s grace.
On Good Friday we stand beneath a rugged, Roman cross where the mercy of God  trumps (“to win by playing a card from the suit that beats the other suits”) all of our selfish pride and humbles us before a love we cannot earn or control.
The old hymn (you can sing along with it here.) gets it right:
Upon that cross of Jesus 
mine eye at times can see 
the very dying form of One 
who suffered there for me; 
and from my stricken heart with tears 
two wonders I confess: 
the wonders of redeeming love 
and my unworthiness. 
On this Good Friday, I pray that each of us — including Mr. Trump — will ask for the Bleeding Charity and experience the undeserved mercy, the extravagant grace, the unbounded love that was poured out for us at the cross.
Grace, peace and mercy be yours,
Jim

What Holds Life Together When Everything Is Coming Loose?

Rely on the Cantus Firmus

Watching the daily news, we would have good reason to identify with one of the angels in the Broadway play, “Green Pastures,” who sees the mess people have made of the world and tells God, “Everything nailed down is coming loose!”

So, what holds your life together when everything seems to be coming apart around you?

In one of his letters from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drew on his musical training to encourage his family to “rely on the cantus firmus.”   

I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has firm support and cannot come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole.” (Letters and Papers from PrisonMay 20, 1944, p. 151)

The dictionary defines cantus firmus as “a fixed melody to which other voices are added.”  To understand what Bonhoeffer meant, you need to experience it here.  The “fixed melody” provides firm support so that the music doesn’t “come adrift or get out of tune.”

When he was stripped everything else, Bonhoeffer found the cantus firmus in obedience to God in Jesus Christ.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God.  (p. 4)

On the Way to the Cross 

Preparing for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I’ve been drawn back again to Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship in which he defined what makes a  Christian different or unique.

In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ…The cross is the differential of the Christian religion, the power which enables the Christian to transcend the world and to win the victory.  (p. 170)

Like Bonhoeffer writing from his Nazi prison cell, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison. He defined the cantus firmus of the gospel by copying a hymn or creed from the worship of the early church.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Isaac Watts expressed it in one of the greatest of all the English hymns.  (You can hear/see it here.)

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

 As we begin the journey that leads to the cross, may we find in it the cantus firmus that provides firm support and keeps our lives from coming adrift or going out of tune.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Lessons I Learned at “Downton Abbey”

Farewell to Downton Abbey

My wife and I are preparing to go through major withdrawal after the final episode of “Downton Abbey”.

In contrast to the drivel that passes for drama on the commercial networks and the non-stop political chatter on the cable news channels, the PBS series has been as good as television can get; a masterpiece (appropriately) of story-telling and production combined with superb dramatic portrayals of characters about whom we actually care. We feel like we are losing old friends.

I’ve been thinking about lessons I’ve learned at Downton.

The Relentless Force of Change

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Beginning with the sinking of the Titanic, the story has been about dealing with change, most of it unexpected, much of it unwelcome, and all of it beyond the power of the Crawley’s upstairs and the servants downstairs to control, although the Dowager Countess, played impeccably by Maggie Smith, has done her very best!

Lord Grantham upstairs and Mr. Carson downstairs have kept their feet firmly rooted in a way of life that is rapidly fading away. Everything in the house ultimately depends on how they are able to maintain their core values and personal stability while adapting to the radically different world in which the find themselves.

A fellow pastor pointed out the scene a few weeks ago in which Barrows interviewed for a job in an old, largely abandoned, decrepit house in which a lonely, bitter, old man was reminiscing about the days gone by and holding on for those times to return.  But we know they never will.

Sound familiar?

It’s an understatement to say that much of the anger in our country is a visceral reaction to seismic change in the world around us.  Every time I hear people say they want to “take back America” I want to ask: Back to what? Back from whom?

Some of the answers became clear in a poll that found 53% of Americans (72% of Tea Party supporters) believe that “American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950’s.” For good reasons, 60% of African Americans said that things have changed for the better.

I grew up in the ‘50’s. Although my home never lived up to the perfectly-ordered, perfectly-patriarchal world of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver,” it was typical of the middle-class mythology that has grown up around that time.  As a middle-class, white, male, Protestant I inherited opportunities that did not exist for women, African-Americans, or persons of other religions. For folks like me, it was a cozy, comfortable way of life.

But there’s no going back.  I wouldn’t want to if I could.  While change always carries risk of loss and change for change’s sake is a dangerous fantasy, we are a greater country because of some of the cultural changes we have experienced in my lifetime.  I’m grateful that my daughters and my grandchildren live in a more racially, ethnically and religiously inclusive culture.  I’m grateful that the promise of “liberty and justice for all” continues to be expanded to other people.

If the real question is not about going back, but going forward, the key is finding the wisdom to hold onto the values and commitments that will sustain us through times of change.  We’ve seen that at Downton, too.

The Power of Love 

We’ve watched Robert, Carson and Lady Violet adapt, albeit reluctantly, to the changes that have been forced upon them.  Robert has found his way to accept gigantic change in his daughters precisely because he loves them.  Last Sunday, even the Dowager Countess told the strong-willed Mary that she believes in love.

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There is, sure enough, loss along the way.  There are things about the past that we need to hold onto.  There are traditions that are the ballast that keeps our ship afloat.  We need core values that stand the test of time and guide us through change.

But in the end, it’s about relationships and about finding the way through change by drawing on deeper resources of character, respecting tradition and reshaping it in new times.

James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
who would keep abreast of Truth.

The Gift of Memory

Edith, who has had more than her share of pain, had one of the most beautiful lines of the series last week when she reminded Mary, with whom she has had more than her share of conflict, what it means for them to be sisters.  It was, in a sense, the word for all of the “Downton” fans as we come to the end of the story.

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In times when the relentless force of change causes us to be angry and afraid, we need to be reminded of the deeper things we hold in common, of the people who matter to us, and of the power of those memories to sustain us into the future.

We talked about “Downton Abby” with some old friends last week.  Over a long dinner, we remembered the things we had experienced together across more than three decades of friendship.  Some memories caused us to laugh out loud. Others made us hold back a tear.  All of them reminded us of just how important those relationships are.

In the end, we will remember and we will give thanks for the way God’s faithful love has sustained us through change.  The words of an Anglican hymn they would have sung in the village church at Downton Abbey still says it well.

Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.

O magnify the Lord with me,
with me exalt his Name;
when in distress to him I called,
he to my rescue came.

Fear him, ye saints, and you will then
have nothing else to fear;
make you his service your delight;
your wants shall be his care.

For God preserves the souls of those
who on his truth depend;
to them and their posterity
his blessing shall descend.

Grace and peace,

Jim