“I will send you”: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey

The disaster has happened.  It is a concrete fact that cannot be altered or undone.  A bright day turned to shadow, and by the time the clouds lifted, everything had changed. In the wake of tragedy, the question is “What happens next?”

This describes the experience we have all just had.  It also describes, exactly, where Moses finds himself in today’s reading from Exodus.  The Book of Genesis ended on a sunny and bright note.  Jacob and his sons had left their land of famine and traveled to Egypt, where they not only discovered grain in plenty, but also Joseph, Jacob’s lost son, who had risen in rank from slave to become the governor of all Egypt.  But Joseph died, and over time the relationship of the Egyptians to the Hebrews soured.  Jacob’s descendants became an underclass, and then slaves, and finally, when Pharaoh felt threatened by their numbers, he killed their baby boys.  Sunlight turned to shadow.

Moses survived because his mother’s love was as shrewd as it was powerful, and Moses was raised as an Egyptian.  As he grew, Moses despaired at the conditions all around him, and he eventually fled, until, Exodus tells us today, he was “beyond the wilderness.”  This is biblical speak for telling us Moses was out of options, and so frayed he couldn’t think straight, and all alone, and on the very edge of panic.  Moses wondered in his exhaustion, “What happens next?”

Flood evacuees

Very like us.  Skies were sunny, and Houston was a shining emblem of that which is good in our country.  And then the world ended.  Beginning Saturday a week ago, and continuing for days, Houston experienced more than fifty-one inches of rain.  That’s more than twenty-four trillion gallons, breaking every U.S. record. Harvey also retained tropical storm force longer than any storm in Texas history.  If Harvey’s rain had been snow, the snow would have reached forty-two feet.  That’s level height, not snow drifts.[i]  More than three hundred thousand people have already applied for FEMA relief.  Forty-two thousand people are presently housed in shelters.  Forty people have died.  Rockport was devastated.  Beaumont drowned.  One runs out of superlative adjectives to describe things, and then one simply runs out of the energy to speak at all.  By last Monday night, many Texans, including a fair number of our own parishioners—including the roughly three hundred downtown homeless who rely on the Beacon for water and food—were out of options, and so frayed they couldn’t think straight, and all alone, and on the very edge of panic.  We all wondered, “What happens next?”

For Moses, what happens next is most unexpected.  In the wake of disaster, beyond the wilderness, when everything is stripped bare, Moses meets God.  God appears in a bush that burns but is not consumed, and we mustn’t let the power of that metaphor escape us: The powers of nature are great and fierce, but they cannot touch the power of God.  God says to Moses the very words Moses longs to hear.  God says, “I have seen the misery of my people.  I have heard them crying out.  I know their suffering.  And I have come to deliver them.”  Sweeter words were never spoken.  Sweeter words were never heard.

 

But lest Moses exhale, relieved that God will deliver him and his kinsman and wondering vaguely how God will accomplish this, in God’s very next utterance God says to Moses, “I will send you.”

Moses and the burning bush

Very like us.  By Tuesday morning, flotillas of boats replaced this city’s deluged cars.  The George R. Brown opened its doors.  The Coast Guard sent helicopters. And thousands upon thousands of Houstonians responded to the call of God.  “What happens next?” we ask.  And God responds, “I will send you.”

I want to tell you some stories.  On Wednesday morning, I worked the breakfast shift at the George R. Brown.  As I visited with people, hearing their experiences, a man in street clothes named Bob Merrill approached me to tell me that he is a bi-vocational Episcopal priest.  The Red Cross is afraid that clergy volunteers will try to proselytize (even though I explained to them that Episcopalians don’t really do that), and I said to Bob, “You were smart not to wear your collar; the Red Cross won’t question you.”  To which Bob responded, “Oh, I don’t have my collar.  I was flooded out.  I’m mainly here as an evacuee, but I’m also trying to help.”  He’d lost everything, and his first instinct was to his calling: I will send you.

Chris and Allison Bells’ home was flooded this week for the third time in as many years, but, as for everyone, this time was far worse.  The Bells’ flood drill had almost become routine, and Chris, Alison, Atlee, and Connally moved to the second story as the water crept in.  But this time the water didn’t stop rising.  Eventually, a boat plucked Chris and Alison, their sons, and their dogs from the house, but next the Bells’ endured a rain-soaked ride in the back of a county dump truck before being left on the side of the road shivering alone in darkness.  (Be in that moment for just a second.)  Finally, the headlamps of a jeep emerged, and a young man name Brandon, a stranger, picked up the Bells and navigated a slow path to safety.  The Bells’ saga was long, meandering, and frightening, but when I talked to Chris two days later, this is what stayed with him.  These are Chris’ words, “Every time I [think of] Brandon, our rescuer, I start tearing up.  It’s overwhelming when one realizes there really are saints among us.  He came from nowhere at a time when four people and three dogs were incredibly cold and helpless.  Perhaps not from nowhere.”  God says, I will send you.

One more: Throughout the storm, I worried about the Cathedral campus.  I take the stewardship of this historic and sacred space very seriously, and I feared both flood waters and bad actors.  On Sunday, our head sexton, Ardell Ray, had made it to the Cathedral before the water rose too much.  But on Monday Ardell had to go back home to check on his own house, and he barely made it; his car nearly stalled in water on the way.  So, on Monday afternoon I put on my rain boots and decided to try and drive downtown to check on the Cathedral myself.  Before I could do so, Ardell called.  (Which is odd.  Ardell takes my calls, but he rarely calls me.)  He was on his bicycle, pedaling through the city in the storm at a snail’s pace, making his way back downtown to protect this holy place.  “Dean,” Ardell said, “You don’t have to worry about a thing.  I’m going to take good care of it.”  And God says, I will send you.

Ardell and me

Ardell and me on Wednesday morning last week, by which time Ardell had been traveling back and forth to the Cathedral through the storm for five days.

When God tells Moses that Moses is to be the instrument of deliverance, Moses’ momentary relief turns to anxiety and terror.  Moses is inadequate to the task, he says.  He has not the voice, the skill, or the will to do what God says must be done.  And God does not disagree.  But rather than removing the responsibility from Moses, God gives Moses Aaron, recognizing that none of us can navigate the storms, and none of us can deliver one another, without all of us.

God hears our cry.  God takes note of our suffering.   And though the power of Hurricane Harvey was mighty, it was no match for God.  “I will send you,” God says to us.  So, what happens next?

Here’s what happens: Fellow parishioner Seth Hinkley has accepted the call to serve as our Cathedral Hurricane Relief Coordinator and parishioner Gary Krause has agreed to assist Seth.  Beginning tomorrow, Seth and Gary will coordinate all of our parish relief efforts.  The email at which to reach them is hurricanerelief@christchurchcathedral.org.

We will have ample resources with which to do this work.  In the past five days, the Cathedral has received more than twenty thousand dollars in hurricane relief contributions, and more funds are streaming in.  Every dollar will be used to help those in need.  We will help with housing; we will help with transportation; we will help with groceries; we will help in whatever ways help is needed.

We will open the Ballard Youth Center as temporary housing for relief and restoration work crews from across the country in the coming weeks and months.

These things we will do, but we have not waited until now to respond to God’s call.  Since the middle of last week, Cathedral work crews, under the able foremanship of Jeremy Bradley, are every day helping our parishioners tear out soaked carpet and drywall and moving belongings to safer places.  Additionally, we have matched parishioners who are displaced from their homes in temporary housing with parishioners who have a garage apartment or available guest room.

Hurricane Harvey work crew

One of our Hurricane Harvey work crews

We have also compiled a list of parish attorneys, who have graciously offered their knowledge pro bono to assist those dealing with the arcane language of FEMA or insurance.

We’ve made plans for The Beacon temporarily to expand its mission, to offer service seven days a week rather than five, and to serve three meals per day rather than one.  This will, by the way, require our parishioners—those of us here in this room—to step forward and volunteer, especially Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are days The Beacon is normally closed.  Register to volunteer on The Beacon’s web site, http://www.beaconhomeless.org.

And, we’re working far beyond our parish boundaries.  At the Bishop’s request, the Cathedral has taken the lead in organizing a network of Episcopal parishes throughout the city, including St. Martin’s, St. John the Divine, Palmer, St. Mark’s, Trinity, St. Francis, and Holy Spirit, to connect aid with needs across the city in the most efficient and effective way.  Our CUSE director, Christy Orman, has been named Hurricane Relief Administrator for this effort.  The results of this work will have an enormous long-term impact on Houston’s recovery.

sunrise over houston

In the wake of disaster, beyond the wilderness, when everything is stripped bare, the God whom fire cannot consume and water cannot drown comes to us and says, “I will send you.”  God is calling nowus, this Cathedral, this community of disciples—and he does not send us alone.  We are Christ Church together, and we will see the dawn.

________________________________

[i]“Exactly how much rain Harvey has brought to Houston, elsewhere in Texas.”  The San Diego Tribune, August 29, 2017.

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The Transformation of Our Minds

Four priests were having an argument about the nature of God.  Three of the priests sided against the fourth.  The fourth, dissenting priest prayed, “Lord, I know I’m right.  Please send us a divine sign to prove it.”  A big storm cloud materialized, and there was a clap of thunder.  “See,” said the single priest, “It’s a sign from above.”

The three other priests disagreed, saying that thunder is a common phenomenon.  So the dissenting priest prayed again.  “Lord,” he said, “My colleagues are stubborn.  I need you to send a bigger sign.”  This time a bolt of lightning crackled to earth and slammed into a tree.  “See!  I told you I was right,” the priest said.  But the other three insisted still nothing had happened that couldn’t be explained by natural causes.

Finally, the dissenting priest prayed to God, “I need a clear and direct sign to convince my colleagues,” and the voice of God replied loudly to all in the room, “This priest is right!  Listen to him!”  The dissenter turned to the others and asked, “Well, now what do you say?”

“Okay, okay,” they conceded.  “You made your point.  But it’s still three against two.”[i]

Stubbornness.  The fixedness of opinion.  The closed view of the world.  How does it come about in us?  When does it come about?  And do we even have a choice in the matter?

The answer given to us by scientific research is not encouraging.  One hundred years ago, the great American psychologist and philosopher William James said, “In most of us, by the age of thirty our character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.”[ii]  The century of research since James wrote those words substantiates his opinion.

It turns out that we’re a lot more stubborn than we think we are.  And this does not depend upon one’s ideology, religion, or interests.  For the vast majority of us, if, by age thirty, we are conservative, or liberal, or Christian, or agnostic, or interested in poetry, or addicted to college football, we are almost certainly to remain that way.  The bandwidth within which we’ll see substantial change in our perspectives is very narrow.  Cambridge psychologist Brian Little puts a fine point on it when he says, “You’re doomed!  What you’ve got now—that’s it,” and he’s only half-joking.[iii]

change personality

Can we change our character and worldview?

Psychologists refer to five big traits that form our personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.[iv]  These are the things that make us who we are, and they become unconsciously fixed by our fourth decade.  This may be depressing to hear, but it’s also clandestine, meaning we don’t consciously realize this about ourselves.  I assume the “me” that I’ve settled into is the norm, that my personality is the model, and so I get confused and antsy when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to agree with my personal degree of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  Something seems to be wrong with them.  I’m surely right, despite any evidence.

This fixity in our personalities is the root of much of our disagreements and misunderstandings.  This comes out even in today’s Gospel, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Anyone who has encountered Jesus recognizes that he is something rare and remarkable, but even as they try to stretch their understanding, they revert to defining Jesus by categories they already know.  The disciples reply, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned, and others say you are Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet.”  Any of these possibilities would be incredible, but none of them breaks the mold.  They keep Jesus within the realm of expected possibility.

How, then, do we make sense of Peter’s own response to Jesus?  Peter doesn’t plumb the known for Jesus’ identity.  Peter’s worldview isn’t fixed in hardened plaster.  First, Peter—who is likely, like Jesus, just beyond that pivotal thirtieth year—stretches his understanding to its very limit and says, “You are the Messiah.”  And then Peter somehow takes the final step, crosses the threshold, and breaks the mold of his understanding of what is real and true to declare that Jesus is something wholly new: “You are the Son of the Living God.”

st-peter

Peter is the first human being to declare the identity of Jesus.  And Jesus’ response to Peter is equally remarkable.  Jesus says to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Note the domino effect here: Peter has been able to break free of what the world has engrained in him is normal, and concrete, and unassailable, and true.  And by doing so, he is granted the power and the ability to do things in the world that further break the mold, that are new, and true, and real.  Things before only imagined in heaven can now come to be on the very earth, Jesus declares.  All because Peter crossed the threshold of belief that, in Jesus, God is doing something new.

In today’s reading from Romans, St. Paul boldly offers the transformation of Peter to all of us.  “Don’t you be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”  We, too, says the Apostle, can break free of the plaster in which our worldview is set.  We can see God and God’s hopes for the world through the lens of Jesus, and once we’ve been transformed by that vision, we can loose on earth the things of heaven.

What would we loose on earth?  If we discovered ourselves transformed, how would we use that power?  Frederick Bruner shares that Matthew himself has already told us.[v]  Only a few chapters earlier in the Gospel, Jesus sent his disciples out into the towns of Galilee, and into those villages the disciples loosed the shalom of God.  Shalom means peace, but it is much more than a lack of conflict.  Shalom—God’s peace—means wholeness, harmony, a concurrence of God’s will and our will.[vi]  It is that centeredness of soul that the Celts will call in a later century and in a different land, “deep peace.”  By sharing God’s shalom, Jesus says to his missionary disciples, you actually share God.[vii]  When someone you meet encounters the deep peace of God in you, another domino falls, and that person is able to break the mold and see the world anew.

deep peace

“It is that centeredness of soul that the Celts will call in a later century and in a different land, ‘deep peace.’”

But is it possible, I mean, from a scientific point of view?  Behavioral scientist Paul Costa says, “It’ll take some…powerful change in the environment” to remake our character and worldview.  Brian Little adds, “There is increasing evidence for neuroplasticity in human brains, such that it is possible that changes in the neural mechanism underlying [personality] traits may be rewired with sufficient practice.”

Some power change in the environment, like an encounter with the Incarnate God.  Sufficient practice, such as sharing that transformation by passing on the deep peace of God.

Friends, that is how the world is saved.  We encounter through the life and sacraments of Jesus the deep peace of God, and it transforms us.  It upends what we understand the world to be and to be for.  That transformation is not a minor adjustment of our old expectations, but a breaking of the very mold.  Our openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness are increased, and, God willing, our neuroses diminish.  We encounter wholeness.  And then we loose that shalom on God’s earth, breaking down barriers, sharing hope, extending love.  We pour out that power, until God’s deep peace runs through all things.

Why not break the mold this very day?

__________________________________

[i] Adapted from a joke found on the internet.

[ii] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/personality-change-past-age-30-is-it-possible-psychology-kirsten-godfrey-david-buss-carol-rothwell-a7757866.html

[iii] http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/11/how-much-can-you-really-change-after-30.html

[iv] Ibid

[v] Bruner, Frederick Dale.  The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, pp. 133-134.

[vi] http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7965.htm

[vii] Matthew 10:40

On Civil War Monuments

Slavery is the blight of American history.  It is irredeemable, and no mitigating factor can dilute its scourge.  In any discussion of the antebellum South or the Civil War, slavery must play a central role, because it was a central cause of the war.  A review of the several Southern states that issued “Declarations of Causes” to accompany their acts of secession makes this clear.[i]  The declarations focus much on economics, but the economics are thoroughly and explicitly undergirded by slavery.  The declarations of Mississippi and Texas are the most forthright in their admission that secession intended to preserve and perpetuate slavery.  The Mississippi declaration crescendos, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”  The Texas declaration says, “[In 1845, Texas] was received as a commonwealth [by the United States] holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”  Whatever other contributing factors to which one may point with regard to the Civil War, the war was certainly about slavery, and as the first nation in the history of the world founded on the premise that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” we continue to struggle with its blight.

The Contemporary Struggle

Today, that struggle manifests itself in conversations about the removal of Confederate-related statues across the South.  Some of these statues are of Southern generals such as Robert E. Lee.  Others are memorials to Confederate soldiers who died in the war.  In virtually every instance, the argument over whether statues should go or stay is fraught with urgency and emotion.  In my own city of Houston in recent weeks, the furor has overflowed to envelop statues of such figures as Christopher Columbus, who died a century and a half prior to the Civil War, and Sam Houston, who vehemently opposed secession, spoke in favor of the gradual elimination of slavery, and was the nineteenth century’s greatest advocate of Native American rights.  Regardless of one’s point of view regarding Civil War monuments, making weighty decisions in the heat of emotion almost always leads to unintended consequences.  I write this essay in the hopes of offering a tempered perspective.

Why did they fight?

My son is named for my great, great, great grandfather, Ira Griffin Killough.  Killough moved to LaGrange in Fayette County, Texas, in 1851 from Bolivar, Tennessee.  He married a Texan woman.  He became a landowner and a farmer.  He established a hard but prosperous life.

20150421_222556

Captain Ira Griffin Killough, Co. I, 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers

Before the war, Ira Griffin Killough owned no slaves.  During the war, he served in the Confederate Army and took up arms against the United States.  After the war, he served in the Texas legislature, and in 1876, he traveled north of the Mason-Dixon Line to attend the Philadelphia World’s Fair, where Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone.  His life begs the question: Why did he fight?

In 1860, seventy percent of Southern Americans did not own slaves.[ii]  Why did any of them fight?

Part of that answer is that, despite not owning slaves, Southern soldiers fought to perpetuate the Southern way of life, which was borne on the backs of slaves.  Even for non-slave owners, slave society was, in the words of author Gordon Rhea, Southerners’ “foundation experience”:

“More than 4 million enslaved human beings lived in the south, and they touched every aspect of the region’s social, political, and economic life.  Slaves did not just work on plantations.  In cities such as Charleston, they cleaned the streets, toiled as bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and laborers.  They worked as dockhands and stevedores, grew and sold produce, purchased goods and carted them back to their masters’ homes where they cooked the meals, cleaned, raised the children, and tended to the daily chores.  ‘Charleston looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people,’ a visitor remarked.”[iii]

It is also worth noting, however, that in the first half of the nineteenth century, a time exceedingly different from our own, citizens identified much more closely with their various states than with the nation.  Life was locality, and “the United States” was, for many, much more abstract than Texas, Fayette County, or LaGrange.  Indeed, to an extent it was Abraham Lincoln’s soaring wartime rhetoric that birthed the conception of the nation that we hold dear today.  To read such a conception backward into the antebellum worldview—especially in the South—is an anachronism.  Only if we remember and grasp this can we understand a primary motivation for war of the majority of the Southern rank and file and, indeed, very many Southern officers: They fought to defend their homes—their states, their counties, their hometowns—from invading armies.  Acknowledging this historic fact does not excuse slavery.  Memorials to those who died, in the communities from which they hailed and for which, in part, they gave their lives, is common among both victors and vanquished in war[iv].  This ought, perhaps, to affect our consideration of some Southern Civil War memorials.

Memorials to the Common Soldier

And yet, there is an additional critical, complicating factor: The vast majority of Confederate monuments trace to the era of Jim Crow, after the end of Reconstruction and the passing of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 until the 1920s.[v]  Jim Crow laws were Southern state and local governments’ de jure method of enforcing an underclass existence upon black Americans.  Hand-in-hand with Jim Crow, communities across the South erected monuments to the “Lost Cause” as an emotional and psychological reminder to both white and black Americans who was superior and who was inferior.  Some of these monuments were statues of Southern military leaders on horseback, while others were of the common soldiers.

The plaques on such monuments often include a simple dedicatory phrase, along with the date of installation, but when one digs into the origin of particular monuments, the intention behind their erection is revealed.  The statue known as “Silent Sam” on the University of North Carolina campus is a good example.  Silent Sam is a statue of a common soldier, installed on June 2, 1913, and the dedication speech was delivered by North Carolina industrialist and former Confederate soldier Julian Carr.[vi]  Carr’s speech is long and florid,[vii] and he does, indeed, honor the memory of the common soldier.  Yet, as he warms to his subject, Carr refers to the Daughters of the Confederacy, who paid for Silent Sam, and says, “God bless the noble women of my dear Southland, who are today as thoroughly convinced of the justice of [the Southern] cause.”  He then defines that cause:

“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and today, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”

Silent_Sam

“Silent Sam”

Carr immediately follows his homage to the Anglo Saxon race with a personal story that reinforces for both the white and black communities the penalty for a black person forgetting her place, a place of which the memorial itself serves as a visual reminder:

“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison…”

So which one prevails in our consideration: The memorial to the common soldier, or the original intent of that memorial as a tool of societal oppression?

Memorials to Generals

Beyond monuments dedicated to common soldiers, we must also consider statues to Civil War leaders.  There are more Southern statues to Robert E. Lee than any other Civil War figure.  Who was Lee?  He was a reluctant rebel who, like the soldiers who served under him, most closely identified with the state from which he hailed.  Lee wrote to his sister on the eve of the war, “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”[viii]

After the war, Lee strove to reestablish the bonds of union.  Lee wrote to Virginia Governor John Letcher, “The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessing of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote and elect to the State and general legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.”[ix]

Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

In addition to his words, Lee dedicated the remaining years of his life in contribution to the commonweal, most notably serving as president of Washington College.  He became a lay leader in his church and even paid the minister’s salary when collections proved insufficient.[x]

Robert E. Lee, like other Southern planters, owned slaves.  He took up arms against the United States.  He also fought to defend his home state.  And at war’s end, he became a laudable, and even extraordinary, citizen.  Again we must ask, which aspects of Lee’s history prevail in our consideration?[xi]

A Way Forward

I offer this: The National Park Service preserves and operates more than seventy parks related to the Civil War, many of these on the sites of Civil War battles.  My family visited many such parks during my childhood, from Shiloh to Gettysburg.  The Civil War parks are equal parts solemn and educational.  At both the pristine Union cemeteries and the cannonball-marked Confederate mass graves, there is an air of introspection and prayer.  A century and a half after the war, in these places the sense of grievous loss to our nation, and of the tragedy of brother killing brother, is palpable.  These parks are our great national memorials to Civil War dead, both Northern and Southern.  They should continue to be such, and they should be treated as hallowed ground.  As education laboratories, they are also the most appropriate places for Civil War generals to have prominence, with the focus on military strategy and tactics.

Shiloh

Shiloh National Military Park

With regard to Civil War monuments in other public spaces, the time period in which they were erected, and the intention for their construction—often explicit and recorded—should be complicating factors.  It is unreasonable, and perhaps unthinkable, to ask black Americans to acquiesce to the continued presence of monuments on public ground (i.e.—spaces that belong equally to black Americans) that honor the very people who fought for the overarching cause of keeping black Americans’ ancestors in bondage, and were erected a half-century later with the intention of declaring to black Americans that they are an underclass.

In the case of Civil War monuments that do not face these complicating factors, Confederate monuments should at very least be supplemented, side-by-side, with monuments to those who lived and died under the scourge of slavery, those who championed the freedom and rights of black Americans, and those who risked their lives helping slaves escape to freedom.  If there is, indeed, a pantheon of Southern heroes, surely these deserve the places of greatest honor.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman. “If there is, indeed, a pantheon of Southern heroes, surely these deserve the places of greatest honor.”

If, in the end, we are to look retrospectively to Robert E. Lee, perhaps we should evaluate Southern monuments taking our cues from the General himself.  When asked his opinion about the creation of memorials to the war, Lee said in 1869, “I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to…obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”[xii]

It may be that only then can the specter of our national blight be exorcised.

________________________________________

[i] https://www.civilwar.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states#Georgia

[ii] http://www.civilwarcauses.org/stat.htm

[iii] https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/why-non-slaveholding-southerners-fought

[iv] This past June, I traveled to Germany.  In the city of Worms, in a public park, I was surprised to find an enormous World War I statue memorializing local German soldiers who died in that horrific conflict.  On one level, the First World War was history’s greatest folly to chauvinistic pride and military aggression, and in it the German Army utilized weapons so egregious that they were subsequently universally banned.  I had not expected to see any German war monument from either world war.  On another level, World War I included millions of young German men who fought and died to defend hearth and home.  They served bravely for a local cause—the defense of their home communities such as Worms—which was itself subservient to a sinful cause, the aggression of the German Empire.  I considered the memorial with detachment, since the First World War is a century past and I have no familial or cultural relationship to anyone who died in it, and I walked away from the monument concluding that yes, a monument to the local fallen is an appropriate expression of the community’s loss and that no, it does not excuse the sin of German militarism.

[v] https://www.splcenter.org/20160421/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy

[vi] http://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html

[vii] The Rev. Greg Jones pointed me to the Silent Sam monument.  Greg also gave me the description of Carr’s speech as “florid.”

[viii][viii] http://www.brotherswar.com/Civil_War_Quotes_4b.htm

[ix] Ibid

[x] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/22/this-is-the-church-where-robert-e-lee-declared-himself-a-sinner-should-it-keep-his-name/?utm_term=.03b7fd323858

[xi] Occasionally, the question arises with regard to the appropriateness of monuments, school names, street names, etc. to other American historic figures, such as the Founding Fathers.  Considering the sum total of a figure’s life seems to me a good means for evaluating these cases, too.  In my opinion, outside of Civil War figures, the contributions to our nation and world by most other figures in our national pantheon almost always outweighs those figures’ vices, especially when their vices are pervasive of their historic context (such as racial attitudes).  Judging past historic characters solely by our contemporary moral standards is fraught with pitfalls.

[xii] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/robert-e-lee-opposed-confederate-monuments/

“All Israel will be saved”

In June, forty-two Cathedral parishioners traveled to Wittenberg, Germany, to pray, learn, and pay homage to the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  We walked through that picturesque village to the City Church, where Martin Luther pastored and preached for decades in the sixteenth century.  In the sacristy of the church we held a prayer service and raised our voices to God in praise.  It was a remarkable experience, across time, space, and language, that reminded us of the Communion of Saints, that great cloud of witnesses to God’s love, grace, and mercy of which we are a part.

After the service, we left the church through a side door and entered the courtyard.  As we looked up at the church façade, we saw there, in a place of prominence and even honor, the most grotesque sculpture I’ve ever seen.  It is not a traditional gargoyle.  It is not even some hellish scene of the damned such as one finds in the Duomo in Florence.  No, what we saw on Martin Luther’s church, in the very crucible of the Reformation, was a Judensau.

It means in English what it sounds like in German: Jewish pig.  Rather than me describing the sculpture, let me read to you Martin Luther’s own description, which he wrote in 1543: “Here on our church in Wittenberg, a sow is sculpted in stone. Piglets and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her…which is certainly where [the Jews] get their [understanding of God].”

The Judensau was installed on the City Church in 1305, high and prominent so that it could not be missed.  Two hundred years later, the Father of the Reformation praised it and joked about its humiliating depiction of Jews.

Judensau-Wittenberg

Judensau on the City Church in Wittenberg

Does that shock you?  It did us.  That evening at our hotel, our group’s memory of worship in City Church, so sublime just a few hours before, had faded.  The experience that stayed with us, that made us fidgety and uncomfortable, that we felt compelled to verbalize (and yet for which we had difficulty finding words), was of that sculpture, through which centuries of Christians who claimed God’s love, grace, and mercy also proclaimed that Jews were animals, that their understanding of God was nothing more than what would come from the tail end of swine, and that they were beyond the bounds of salvation.

The debate within Christianity about the status and stature of Jews actually goes back more than a millennium before the Judensau was installed on Wittenberg’s City Church, all the way to the decades just after Easter.  In fact, that debate is a primary reason that St. Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans.  Under the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius in the first century, Jews were expelled from Rome.  During their absence, the young Christian Church in Rome gained ground, and after the Emperor died and the Jews returned, Christians began arguing among themselves about the Jews.  Now that Jesus had died and been resurrected, they asked, were the Jews still God’s chosen people?  Weren’t Jews cut off from God, now and forever?

Paul is never one to avoid the hardest questions, and he tackles this issue head-on.  First, Paul reminds his fellow Christians that they themselves do not deserve God’s grace.  They haven’t earned it. They haven’t achieved it.  In fact, it’s not even their faith that leads to their salvation.  Rather, it’s the faith Jesus demonstrated in his allegiance to God and his willingness to undergo the Passion that leads to anyone’s salvation.  Hear that: Paul says it is not our faith that saves us.  It is Jesus’ faith that saves us, and saves anyone.[i]

Paul then constructs the metaphor of a foot race toward salvation.[ii]  He says that though the Jews took off from the starting blocks, they stumbled along the way.  But the gentiles, he adds, never took off at all.  When the whistle sounded, they sat idly by, picking daisies.  Paul is scathing in his ridicule.  The mental image is of all the runners—Christians, Jews, everybody—bumbling around incompetently like the Keystone Cops.  Out of such a human mess, which describes our world as much as Paul’s, no one could achieve communion with God, either in this world or the next.  It must be only through God’s action and not our own that anyone finds God.

Keystone Cops

“Bumbling around incompetently like the Keystone Cops”

And then Paul comes to his conclusion about the Jews.  Yes, Paul believes in the centrality of Jesus.  Yes, Paul’s own faith in Jesus has changed his entire life.  And yet, Paul says in today’s reading, including a few verses that our lectionary omits, “I ask you, then, has God rejected his people?  By no means!  …So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers, and sisters, I want you to understand a mystery…all Israel will be saved!  …for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. ”[iii]

With power, Paul’s declaration echoes through time.  It shakes the foundation of the City Church in Wittenberg.  It should make the soul of Martin Luther shudder, who so loved the Letter to the Romans but failed to receive all its truth.

Paul is speaking specifically of the Jews, but the truth is broader than that: Who God redeems, and how God accomplishes that redemption, is up to God, not us.  And while we should surely rejoice in our communion with God and effusively share that joy with others, it is ridiculous—literally, worthy of Paul’s ridicule—for us to act as if we get to decide, or even that we know, to whom God extends love, grace, and mercy.

Why does this matter now?  Here is why: Just a few days after we visited Wittenberg, our group made pilgrimage to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.  Martin Luther, Father of the Reformation, gave his casual assent to, and then participated in, the denigration of a minority group—both ethnic and religious—that was vulnerable and lacked his power in society.  And there is a direct historic line between the anti-Judaism of Martin Luther’s day and the deadly anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany.  The former morphed into the latter.  And Germany is not a unique example.  Again and again in Christian history, among those with power and privilege in society, the pretension of superiority and the religious arrogance of one generation, when unchecked, morphs into the scapegoating and persecution of a later generation.

Dachau entrance gate

The entrance gate at Dachau

As I said at the outset, we belong, across time and space, to the Communion of Saints.  But we also belong to a communion of sinners.  For good or ill, we are connected to the Christians of Luther’s Wittenberg.  And, we are connected to the Christians in this country’s past, who sometimes mistook and abused the Gospel to afflict and dispirit others.  We inherit the legacy of both communions, saints and sinners, good and bad.  We surely celebrate the virtues of the past, but if we deny or ignore the sins—if we don’t take care with the words we use, the claims we make, and the stands we take or fail to take—we risk allowing the sins of the past to gestate and be reborn in the future in even more destructive forms.

Today, we find ourselves in another time in which suspicion, vitriol, and the scapegoating of people of different religions, ethnicities, races, and orientations are all on the rise.  How are we to respond?  With silence?  With casual acquiescence?  With behind-closed-doors participation?

I pray we will respond as people who know that we are redeemed by the grace of God and not by anything we deserve or have done.  I pray we’ll respond as people who believe in St. Paul’s word that God’s abundant grace extends to people we might not expect and in ways that are a mystery to us.  I pray we’ll respond with love, extending our arms wide to embrace, and honor, and protect when necessary, all of God’s children.  In other words, I pray we’ll respond as followers of Jesus.

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[i] This crucial point is often lost because of a common, poor translation of Romans 3:22, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”  A more accurate rendering of the Greek is “the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

[ii] Romans 9:30-32

[iii] Romans 11:25-26

Mount Tabor and Armageddon

Those with keen eyes will notice that the stole around my neck is not one I normally wear at Christ Church Cathedral.  The Cathedral owns a set of lovely, embroidered white damask stoles, and, admittedly, my stole doesn’t match our beautiful Cathedral hangings.  Even so, it is important to me to wear it today, because today is August 6, which is the date on which we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration.  The Transfiguration is, as we just read in Luke’s Gospel, that event at which Peter, James, and John first experienced Jesus in his truest form, in divine glory.  But why this stole on this day?

Going back almost to the time of Jesus himself, Mount Tabor in Galilee has been considered the site of the Transfiguration.  And a little over a year ago, I stood on the summit of Mount Tabor with a group of fellow pilgrims, and I celebrated the Eucharist in the open air using a rock as an altar…and wearing this stole.  Perhaps on the very plot of ground where Jesus stood; perhaps, rather, where the three apostles grew heavy with sleep; or perhaps on the spot to which Peter pointed and said he’d build three booths.  Regardless, we were on holy ground.  That day, this very stole was a companion for me, connecting me to one of the Bible’s most auspicious events.

Communion on Mt. Tabor

Celebrating Eucharist on Mt. Tabor

But what is the Transfiguration, and why does it matter?  In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Transfiguration is the hinge, the pivot of the entire Jesus story.  The first half of that story, before Jesus and his friends climb Mount Tabor, is about a teacher and wonder worker who travels around Galilee healing the sick and exorcising demons, making life more bearable for the people he meets.

The second half of the story, after Jesus and his friends come down the mountain, is about a man with his face set hard toward Jerusalem, who marches without wavering toward his own death, and who finally defeats death on Easter.  After the Transfiguration, Jesus performs few miracles, and he offers relatively little balm.  Instead, he shows the depth of God’s love by giving his very life in love, by refusing to match destructive power with destructive power, and by breaking the bonds of the grave.

It’s two different stories, really, with a pivot in the middle.  And that pivot is the Transfiguration.  What makes the difference?  What changes on that mountain?  We’ll come back to that in a minute.

From the top of Mount Tabor, if one looks to the southwest, one sees another hill, this one much shorter and flat on top.  It is Tel Megiddo, and it stands sentry at the northern end of the only pass through the Carmel Mountains.  Long before Jesus climbed Mount Tabor, Megiddo had an illustrious and bloody history.  For centuries, Egyptian armies from the south and the armies of various empires from the north collided at Megiddo, as it opened up to the Jezreel Valley northeast of the Carmel Mountains.  The Jezreel Valley was the first flat expanse of land for many miles in any direction, and so it became the site of more epic battles than one could count.  The great Old Testament king, Josiah, for instance, died at Megiddo, when he vainly tried to stop the Egyptian Pharaoh from moving north.   And not all the battles were ancient.  As recently as the First World War, British General Edmund Allenby decisively beat the Ottoman Turks at Megiddo.

Mount Tabor from Megiddo

Looking across the Jezreel Valley toward Mt. Tabor from Megiddo

You may think you’re hearing about Megiddo for the first time this morning, but I promise that you are not.  You see, in biblical times the history and myth about bloody Megiddo were so potent, so well-known that in his great vision of apocalypse St. John the Divine imagined this hill and the plain surrounding it as the site of the world’s great, final cosmic battle.  But St. John wrote his Revelation in Greek, and the Greek name for Megiddo…is Armageddon.

So you see, on that bright day last year when the pilgrims and I looked down from Mount Tabor, we were staring at Armageddon.  And the same is true of Jesus two thousand years before.  As Jesus pierces the veil between the material and spiritual worlds and confers with God’s prophet Elijah and God’s lawgiver Moses, he does so while gazing down at the most devastating place the world had ever known, one of the bloodiest places the world would ever know, and—if St. John is to be believed—the place where the ultimate pitch between good and evil will finally be fought and won, one way or the other.

Jesus would have looked down on that plain of death, that center of destruction, and intuited the end game of what humanity does to humanity, the pain we cause, the violence, the disregard.  He’d have seen through the eye of his soul the havoc to come in human life, perhaps all the way to our own day, and I suspect it was then that Jesus had had enough.

If shadows could cast upward, then surely Megiddo would have enshrouded Tabor in darkness, except in that moment Jesus, the light that darkness cannot overcome, chooses for the first time to shine in glory.  He is transfigured, and suffused with that light everything looks different.  You know how the world looks through the first sunbeam after days of rain?  How new?  How innocent?  How full of promise?  Imagine that magnified exponentially.  In that moment, Peter, James, and John see the world for the first time as it truly is, as God created it to be, not dark with death, but alive with splendor.

There is so much light that they are confused and terrified.  Their minds become foggy, because they—like us—are so accustomed to seeing the world as a dark and foreboding place, and mistaking the shadows for reality.

transfiguration

But not Jesus.  The splendor that shines through him, through his connection to God, makes him resolute.  From Mount Tabor, he walks down into Armageddon, into that place of so much human destruction, through it, and turns south toward Jerusalem.  From that moment on, Jesus will not stop or stumble.  He will give everything to walk through our Armageddons, to dispel our shadows, to break open the tombs in which we encase ourselves, to burn away all the clouds that confuse us, and to reveal to us that love is the only real thing and that it suffuses the world.

Just as for Peter, James, and John, this is the moment when we, too, must decide which world is real and which one we will live in and live for.  What are we to do?  We are to see this world transfigured, and to make our decisions—to hate or to love, to brood or to shine, to cower in booths or to walk steadfastly through the plains of destruction in favor of light and life—all in the wake of the world’s splendor.  Christ is transfigured, and Christ transfigures the world.  It has never been more important than it is right now.  Do you see it?  Will you bring Mount Tabor into Armageddon?

God’s Spiritual Agriculture

Everyone recalls the life science project in which a child takes an egg carton, a handful of beans, and some potting soil.  The child fills the cups in the carton with soil and then pushes a bean directly into the center of each cup of rich dirt.  Soil is carefully brushed over the top of each bean, and the child then selects the windowsill with the best direct sunlight on which to place the carton.  Daily, a bit of water is added to the experiment, until to the child’s wonder and surprise shiny green bean stalks rise from the cups, a windowsill lesson in the miracle of life.  Remember that project?  In a huge city like Houston, and, indeed, in our increasingly urbanized world, this may be the closest to sowing the soil that many children will ever get.  But even in miniature, the experiment teaches an important lesson about sowing: Everything is precious.  The soil, the sunlight, the water, and especially the seed…nothing can be taken for granted.  Each component, however small, is essential to the success of vitality, growth, and life.

Egg carton bean plants

When I lived in Virginia, I bird hunted in corn fields.  By far, the best field we hunted was one owned by a farmer who had a habit of taking to the bottle early in the day.  Consequently, he was a sloppy farmer.  Both when he sowed and cut his field he tended to leave as much grain scattered on gravel, inclines, and the surface as he did in furrowed rows.  That made for great hunting, but it didn’t make for much of a harvest.  The farmer had forgotten what every child knows, to take deliberate and tender care with the seed.

Such care is important even in the ridiculously rich and fertile farmland of the Mississippi River delta around which I grew up.  It is doubly so in more parched areas of the world, with thinner soil and less predictable rainfall, such as the ancient Palestine of Jesus’ day.  There, every seed matters, and careful coordination of seed, soil, sun, and water is necessary for a successful and sustaining crop.  With all this in mind let’s look again at the Gospel reading today: the Parable of the Sower.

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the footpath, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they just as quickly withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

For the villagers and subsistence farmers to whom Jesus first told this story, it was scandalous.  Do you see why this was so?  With precious seed—the very difference at harvest time between life and death— not to be wasted, the sower in the story is sloppy.  The image is of a farmer walking, or perhaps stumbling, through the field almost as though drunk, throwing seed hither and yon, taking no heed of where it falls.  And, the farmer reaps what he sows.  In every case but one, the seed fails to find purchase.

Were Jesus’ parable only a pithy story about a careless farmer, the people might shake their heads in amusement and call the man a fool.  But the sower in the story isn’t just any farmer.  He is God himself.  So, what do they—what do we—make of that?

Parable of the Sower

Before we can form an opinion of God in Jesus’ parable, it is worth considering again the second half of the Gospel reading, where Jesus reveals the identity of the soils in the parable’s metaphor.  If the seed God sows is the Gospel, then each of the soils, it turns out, is a different kind of hearer.  One hearer is the footpath, where feet trample the seed; another is rocky ground where the seed cannot take root; yet another is a briar patch, where thorns choke the new shoots.  And only the fourth is good soil, where the beanstalks grow.  Four different hearers; four different soils.  And the question begged for each hearer of the parable is, which kind of soil am I?

And yet, reality is more complicated than that.  I have read this parable a hundred times over the years, on different days, in different phases of life.  And like a tableaux that shifts with each reading, I discover that my identity in the story changes each time.

Once when I read the parable, my life is harried, and deadlines loom.  My prayer and study, I believe, steal precious time from the work before me.  And so, I goosestep through the parable, trampling its message underfoot, and I get up from my chair as quickly as I can to take care of the important things on my to-do list.

Another time I read the parable, it connects with me in a way that warms my heart and gives me joy.  I get enthusiastic for God and the wisdom of scripture and the ministry of this place, and I leap from my study renewed.  But then I check the news feed online.  And I remember the financial pressures that ministry faces.  And the drudgery of the day takes over.  The shallow root of the Gospel withers until I can’t remember why the parable first moved me so.

Another time, I study this parable as I am also working with a grieving family, or visiting a loved one in the hospital, or navigating a vicious argument with a cherished friend.  The parable tries to speak to me, but I am choking on the thorns of life, and I cannot hear it.

Do you see?  The different soils are not different people.  They are all me.  And they are all you, depending upon the season of our lives.  You see, despite what some more evangelical Christian traditions might contend, the life of faith is not a steady march toward attention to God and spiritual perfection.  Faith is rocky, and thorny, and sometimes shallow, and can often be trampled underfoot.  And the lived experience of our lack of attention, or our fickle and transient commitment, or of a world that seems to conspire against us, can be deflating.  In those moments we might ask in near despair, as God sows the Gospel in the world, why would God waste precious seed on us?

Sower quote

And that is the very reason Jesus tells this parable.  It turns out that God is not a careful farmer, and in the economy of God’s spiritual agriculture, the seed of grace, while surely precious, is not scarce.    You see, no matter what soil you are today, God sows grace upon you and within you.  You may be distracted (even from this sermon!) and wishing you were somewhere else.  Or maybe your heart is moved, but you have the sinking feeling that your enthusiasm will wane by the time you get to Sunday brunch.  Or maybe there are anxieties or dependencies in your life that are consuming you and, even as you sit here, are choking you like thorns.  And yet, even now—even now—God sows grace.  Hither and yon, on the rocks and inclines and shallow ground in our lives, God sows grace.  In ways so small that, in the moment, we may not even notice, God sows grace.  That is the miracle of the parable.

In addition to miracle, Jesus’ parable ends in promise: As people of faith, no matter what soil you were yesterday, no matter what soil you find yourself to be today, God is slowly and meticulously preparing you and enriching you.  With love like sunlight, through the sacraments like nourishing water, and in the soil of this cathedral, God tends each of us like the farmer tends his plants, so that the day will be (maybe even this day) when God’s grace growing in you and in me will bear fruit one hundredfold, and when our very souls will bloom.  Let those who have ears hear!

Birth: A Reflection for Independence Day

Seventeen years ago on this very day, my wife was due to give birth.  We were in Jackson, Tennessee; it was blazing hot; and Jill was ready to burst.  We walked our neighborhood incessantly, hoping to entice and coax our firstborn child to make his entrance into the world.  He was having nothing of it.  Day after day, Jill and I walked.  Day after day, the baby obstinately stayed put.

Of course, our attention to this child had been attuned for a very long time, even longer than the nine months he had been forming in the womb.  For the previous five years of our marriage, Jill and I had talked about the child we hoped, one day, to have.  We had debated the values we would seek to instill in him.  We had negotiated how we would plan for his future.  We had dreamed of what impact he might make upon the world.

A full week after the due date, on July 7, the baby still offered no sign of his appearing, and our obstetrician decided to induce labor.  We entered the hospital early that morning, Jill was given a healthy dose of Pitocin, and we expected that soon we’d have a cooing, gurgling baby.  July 7 passed in discomfort but with no child.  Twenty-four hours turned into thirty-six before Jill’s body and the baby showed any inclination to give birth.  When things finally did start to happen, the baby became lodged in the birth canal, and there he stayed for what seemed like forever.  Finally, his heartrate fell precipitously, and with such speed that I didn’t realize what was happening, the doctor used forceps to retrieve our son and pull him, seemingly against his will, into the world.

The baby didn’t cry.  He was limp and lethargic.  Looks of concern spread across the faces in the room.  A special care nurse was summoned.  An oxygen bag was applied.  And I, a new and first time father, stood to the side paralyzed, wondering whether this event would end badly, whether the plans we’d made for nine months, whether the hopes we’d carried for five years, would leave us bereft.

Griffin first Halloween

My son on his first Halloween

It is impossible for me to celebrate my son’s birthday without dwelling upon, and sometimes losing myself within, the memory of his birth.  I daresay my gratitude to God is deepened because, for a moment, I teetered on the very edge of loss.  I also carry a potent sense of the precariousness of the project that is my son.  Each of his birthdays, like the day of his actual birth, is a moment filled with hope, and anticipation, and apprehension for what the coming year may bring.  All that preparation and planning that began five years before he entered the world is still operative.

My son’s birthday is the same week as Independence Day.  Sometimes the two events get muddied in my thinking.  I love them both, my son and the United States.  The coincidence of these auspicious dates also reminds me that Independence Day is a birthday, the anniversary observance of the entrance into the world of something uniquely new.

For years before our nation’s birth, there were those who debated the values this new thing would embody.  They planned for its arrival.  They imagined the impact it would have on the world.  What was born was not only, or even primarily, the legal entity of a nation, but rather an idea.  And though the Founders’ understanding of God was not, on the whole, orthodox, the idea gestated by them was commensurate with the Gospel.   The idea was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is an idea about shared human dignity and worth, about the commonweal of which we are all a part, about being a city on a hill rather than a society in which any must crawl in the gutter.

Declaration of Independence

The birth was announced on July 4, 1776, but the announcement came at the beginning rather than the end of the birthing process, and labor turned out to be painful, lengthy, and precarious.  It began at Lexington and Concord, and it endured through Appomattox, two world wars, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, September 11, 2001.  In truth, it continues today.  There were times when the idea being birthed seemed stuck, when its heartbeat seemed to fade, when Americans felt paralyzed as events swirled around them, and in their fear didn’t know how to act or, worse yet, acted badly.

At such times, they might’ve given up on the idea.  We still might.  The laboring process faces us anew in every generation.  We might decide that the idea isn’t what’s valuable, that it doesn’t matter, that we can abandon labor leaving the idea half-birthed, and live as Americans anyway.

But we cannot, any more than I could have walked out of the labor and delivery room seventeen years ago.  My son was being born.  There was nothing in this world more valuable or precious.  All the planning, all the passion, all the love that brought us to that day hinged on the birth of that child.  Whatever happened next, life would never be the same.

And the same is true of the United States.  We are only American to the extent that our lives are dedicated wholly to the birth, health, and growth of a land marked by liberty for all.  It is the land we bequeath to our flesh and blood children.  It is the land that continues to be the iconic hope of the rest of the world.  If we ever walk away from birthing the idea of the United States, then it will be stillborn, and in spirit, at least, this great nation will cease to be.

When my son was in peril in the moments after his birth, our saving grace was the doctor, who all the while tended to Jill and offered us both confident words of encouragement and resolve.  In moments of our nation’s peril, sages and prophets have emerged who do the same.  In December 1862, a year and a half after the outbreak of the Civil War and three months after the Battle of Antietam, which is still the bloodiest day in American history, Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress.  He spoke to encourage the emancipation of Southern slaves, but his words are timeless, and they apply equally to any moment in our nation’s history when the laboring process is distressed, when we Americans allow our divisions to paralyze us.

At the end of his speech, Lincoln considered his generation’s legacy with both warning and hope.  Hear his words, but allow them to speak to us. “We cannot escape history,” Lincoln said, “We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the [United States]. The world will not forget that we say this. We…hold the power, and bear the responsibility…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth…The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”[i]

lincoln_life_b

As I post this, my almost seventeen-year-old son is on his way home from Costa Rica with fifteen of his fellow parishioners, where they have served as the hands and feet of Christ for people in grave need.  All that planning, all that apprehension, all that hope…I am, this day, a proud father.  I love my son.

I also love the idea of the United States, for which so many before us have given their hearts, their hopes, and their lives.  With one another, and for those who look to us in hope across this globe, I pray that we will follow the way that is peaceful, generous, and just.  If we do, then God will, indeed, forever bless.

Happy birthday.

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[i] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.