Words from Washington: The Glory and the Dream

This is the second installment of reflections that grew out of our visit to Philadelphia and a week in Washington. IMG_0477.jpgWhile the first installment  was a hope-filled Psalm of praise, this one is more like a Psalm of lament.

Where Is The Glory and The Dream?

I’m often surprised by the way the lectionary-assigned texts speak to an immediate situation. This week Psalm 105 calls the covenant people to praise by reminding them of God’s “wondrous works” in their nation’s past.

Standing in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed and looking out across the Mall at the Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson Memorials were more than enough reasons to be inspired and grateful for the intellectual depth, visionary spirit and moral character of the leaders who gave birth to our nation.

Experiencing the new National Museum of African American History and Culture was a powerful witness to the unfinished task of fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Walking past the White House was a reminder of the long line of leaders who have inhabited it. Whether we agreed or disagreed with their policies, most of them maintained the dignity of the office.

By contrast, it is excruciatingly painful to watch the continuing degradation of the Presidency by the sheer vulgarity, incessant dishonesty, arrogant bullying, and childish meanness of the current occupant of the White House. The great danger is that we will become numb to the way this behavior is demeaning our life together and undermining our nation’s standing in the world.

The contrast between our past and our present reminded me of a line from Wordsworth that became the title of William Manchester’s narrative history of our nation: “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

A Prayer for Leaders 

The Old Testament reading this week is Solomon’s soul-stretching prayer when he became King of Israel.

“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in…Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon’s prayer points to two elements of character that are absolutely necessary for effective leadership.

First is Solomon’s humility. He begins by acknowledging that the task to which he has been called is beyond his ability to fulfill. He knows that there are things he doesn’t know. He would never say, “I alone can fix it.”

Second, Solomon prays for wisdom to know the difference between good and evil. He prays for a strong internal rudder to guide his decisions for the welfare of his people; what our founders called “the common good.”  It’s what Charles Wesley was describing when he prayed:

I want a principle within
Of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wand’ring of my will,
And quench the kindling fire.

Quick as the apple of an eye,
O God, my conscience make;
Awake my soul when sin is nigh,
And keep it still awake.

Sadly, the consistent behavior of our current President demonstrates a disturbing lack of “principle within” that would define the boundary between truth and falsehood and a self-absorbed inability to acknowledge any weakness, failure, or need for wisdom beyond his own.

When Silence Equal Assent  

David Brooks, who is just about the closest thing we have to a contemporary biblical prophet, wrote this week: .

“Do you ever get the feeling we’re all going to be judged for this moment? Historians, our grandkids and we ourselves will look and ask: What did you do as the Trump/Scaramucci/Bannon administration dropped a nuclear bomb on the basic standards of decency in public life? What did you do as the American Congress ceased to function? What positions did you take as America teetered toward national decline?… Silence equals assent.”

I offer this blog, not as a political statement, but as a moral witness because I can no longer understand how faithful, bible-believing followers of Christ can continue to make excuses for the moral and ethical deficiency in our President and of those who enable him.  I also offer it as the starting point of my consistent prayer for my nation and for all of its leaders.

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I pray that we will reclaim the “glory and the dream” of our founders and that with Solomon, we will discover the gifts of humility and wisdom that will lead us through this time to a better day.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

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Words from Washington: Waiting Resurrection

Through the generosity of some close friends, we’ve spent the past week in a Washington, DC, condo that looks out across the Tidal Basin and directly down the Mall with a perfect view of the Lincoln and Washington Memorials all the way to the Capital.  As a result, this will be the first of two blogs on different themes from our nation’s capital.

On the Way to the Grave

One of my favorite places in Washington is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, deep beneath the nave of the National Cathedral.  It is formed by the massive piers that support the Gloria in Excelsis Tower that rises 300 feet above the highest point of land in the District of Columbia. Twelve descending steps create the feeling of descending into the tomb while sensing the full weight and glory of the tower above.91824857.yynO45Mq.ChapelofSt.JosephofArimathea

Behind the altar, a mural by Jan Henrik De Rosen depicts Joseph leading the procession to the tomb. All the heads are shrouded or bowed except for one young man who helps carry the body and looks directly toward the congregation. Looking into his eyes, I often listen for what he is saying to or asking of us.

We made that same pilgrimage last weekend when we carried my mother’s ashes to the hillside cemetery in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where she lived most of her life and where many of the people she loved are buried. In an old tradition that isn’t practiced much any more, each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren added their shovel of dirt to her grave.

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We then gathered with our extended family in the church where my brothers and I were baptized, confirmed, and from which I was sent into ministry.

Sooner or later, we all make that same journey. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, we carry the remains of our loved ones to the grave. But knowing the rest of the story, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope.”  (I Thessalonians 4:13)

That truth was affirmed when I received a sympathy card from two faithful friends who are the same age as my mother. They ended their message with the words, “We know there’s more.”

Before he went to prison for his resistance to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his students to report the death of three friends. “Now they sleep with all the brothers who have gone before them, awaiting the great Easter Day of Resurrection. We see the cross, and we believe in the resurrection; we see death, and we believe in eternal life; we trace sorrow and separation, but we believe in an eternal joy and community.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 220)

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we face the stony silence of Joseph’s tomb in hope. We carry our loved ones the way we will one day be carried to the grave knowing that there’s more!

The Book of Common Prayer includes this prayer for Holy Saturday:

O God: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 283)

Awaiting the resurrection with hope,

Jim

P.S.  Full disclosure, this blog is based on the Holy Saturday devotion in
Easter Earthquake, next year’s Lenten study for The Upper Room.  41HPb-i2sIL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

 

It’s Not About Mika & Joe

The Power a Free Press 

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis, Missouri, who worked as an editor at the St, Louis Observer where he wrote editorials opposing slavery.

After anti-abolitionists destroyed his press for the third time, Lovejoy moved across the river to Alton, Illinois, and started another abolitionist paper.  In 1837, a pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse where he had set up his fourth printing press. Lovejoy was shot and died on the spot.

I tell Lovejoy’s story as a reminder of the importance of freedom of the press established by the First Amendment and as a witness to the forces that are always at work to undermine or destroy it.

It’s Not About Mika & Joe 

I also tell that story to say that there is more at stake in the President’s Twitter tirade against “Morning Joe” and his continuing attacks on the “media” than morning headlines or cheering crowds.

Anyone who was surprised by Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough’s comments about the President simply hasn’t been paying attention.  They are who they are — cable news commentators who join a long line of journalists, cartoonists, and editors who have debated, criticized, mocked, or pointed to the duplicity of our leaders throughout our history.  A free press is not about whether we agree or disagree, but about the freedom to speak, write, debate, and argue with and about our leaders.

Anyone who was surprised by Donald Trump’s visceral, vulgar, sexist attack on Mika hasn’t been paying attention either.  This is who he is.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current myth-spinner in the White House Press Room, told the truth when she said that the American people “knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”  (She lied when she said the President had never in “any form or fashion” encouraged violence.  Just watch the campaign rally tapes.)  The President is what he has consistently demonstrated himself to be: thin-skinned, impulsive, mean-spirited, and perhaps sleep-deprived.  (I’ve had crazy thoughts at 3:00 AM, too, but I try go back to sleep!)

But Donald Trump is the President of the United States and that makes all the difference.  There is a “double standard.”  We need our President to rise above either the praise or the critique of TV commentators.  In fact, these continual attacks on the press are undermining the freedoms we celebrate on the 4th of July.

“A Nation Conceived in Liberty…” 

As I’ve reflected on the meaning of this day, I’ve realized that it is my respect for the values and vision enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill 19511086_10212095438212834_2575473102798889724_nof Rights, and the Gettysburg Address that inspires my patriotism and causes my concern.

I respect the Presidency too highly to respect a President who drags the office into the fake world of professional wrestling.

I respect the flag “and the republic for which it stands” too highly to be passive when our President diminishes respect for our nation around the world.

I respect the Christian faith too highly to allow it be to coopted by a leader whose behavior is a consistent contradiction of everything the New Testament says about what it looks like to be a follower of Christ.

I respect freedom of religion (all religions) too highly to allow the church to be wedded to any political party.  (When the church and political power go to bed together, the church becomes an abused spouse.)

I respect those who have given their lives in the service of their country too highly to allow their sacrifice to be tarnished by crass nationalism that masquerades as patriotism.

It’s About Us! 

In the end, “the present crisis” (to borrow James Russel Lowell’s phrase) is not about Mika and Joe, and it’s not entirely about the President.  It’s about us — about who we are.  It’s about how we choose to live into the yet-to-be-fulfilled vision of “liberty and justice for all.” It’s about how we practice the freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights. It’s about how we commit ourselves “to form a more perfect union.”  It’s about the way we choose to treat the people who disagree with us.  For those who claim to be Christian, it’s about how we shape our behavior into the likeness of Jesus.

After the fireworks are over, may this day remind us of who we are called to be. And  may we “be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that we here highly resolve…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government  of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.

It’s particularly about us as men.  I’ve had it with people calling on the women in Congress and in the White House to speak out against the President’s vulgar attacks on women.  We men are the ones who bear the responsibility for the way women are treated in this culture.  Particularly white men like me who have unintentionally benefited from the coincidence that we were born white and male in a culture that historically has been infected with white prejudice to any person of any color or ethnic minority and which continues to been infected by an inbred bias in favor of male leadership.