The Danger of Certitude

There was a time, not long ago in the scope of history, when it was considered laudable – honorable even – to entertain the idea you might be mistaken. 

It was in the immediate aftermath of World War II – the scent of the gas chambers still in the air, the graves of soldiers dotting the landscape of Europe freshly dug, the bombed-out villages still smoldering, the mushroom cloud over Japan’s evaporated cities still vivid. 

After these horrors, for period of time, something emerged among enough people to make a difference – humility. While that post-war period was hardly a golden age, there was a resisitance of sorts to anything that smacked of totalitarianism. Hitler was the embodiment of that philosophy that some called totalism. It was a way of thinking that painted everything in the hues of in or out, black or white, with me or against me, good or evil. No room for conversation or debate or dissent, no space for nuance, no time for reflection. You had to be, in more modern parlance, “all in.”

In the post-war humility there was space for a national coming to terms with Jim Crow, for the creation of bipartisan consensus on a host of initiatives that improved the nation. 

I worry that we are flirting with totalism again. Maybe it never really goes away, but, like the devil tempting Jesus, “departs until a more opportune time.” 

I’m troubled by the certitude I see in others. I’m troubled by the certitude I see in myself. I worry we are too quick these days to huddle with the like-minded and subscribe to totalisms of the right and left that leave little room for nuance, conversation, or the possibility of change. I’m troubled because we’ve seen in history what totalism does, what certitude wroughts. Down this path is violence. Down this path is annihilation of the “other.”

David Brooks recently wrote, “We live in a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats.” 

I’m writing this as I try to absorb the talk of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. I’m reflecting on these things as I watch a car rush headlong into a crowd of counter protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen. And immediately the same voices start shouting, blaming, condemning; looking everywhere but within for the cause. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little humility. Those of us who take the name Christian say that we are saved by grace, that not one of us is perfect or even good. We are all of us broken. 

Grace. Not certitude. This is the path that leads to life. May God grant me the grace to walk it. 

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It Springs Forth

Do you not perceive it?

In the shimmering ebony snake’s sudden plunge from a warming rock

In the mountain laurel on the swollen edge of bloom reaching for the sun

In the easy laughter slipping on the mossy rock drenched in the icy stream

In the rhythmic shake in the packed dance hall

In the sun drenched colors pink white yellow green, new shades each dawn

In cold and clean rain, unexpected grace of an April fire kindled in the stone hearth

In late conversations of old friends, spirits warming the night

In steps long and slow by lakes and trees up hills and down hand in hand heart in heart life in life

Life. 

It springs forth. 

Do you not perceive it?

What Do You See?


What do you see? 

A bloom of sunburst beauty, illiminating the cloudy morning of a well-groomed yard. 

The carefully cultivated return of spring, seeds planted in the cool of autumn bursting forth after a long winter’s germination. The result of planning and hard work on the part of a faithful gardener.

Look again. 

What do you see?

A weed. It springs up overnight in the midst of slumbering Bermuda; Bermuda which will soon enough assert itself and choke the life out of the interloper, if the chemicals from the lawn service don’t get to it first. 

I have been wanting to pull it for a week now, ever since it jumped from the earth after a long rain. It is embarrassing, I say. What will the neighbor’s think? I exclaim. 

Kim will have none of it. There’s beauty there, she says. Let it have its moment in the sun, she insists. 

Then we read together in our Lent book these words from someone grieving the loss of children in a bombing: “Then she burst into my room and grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Hurry.’ We raced two blocks to an abandoned house where a front yard had just been attacked and overtaken by wild violets, by Johnny-jump-ups. We stood in silence for three long minutes and cheered the victory of beauty.”

It is a grace how beauty finds a way, even in the midst of desolation and dormancy, even in the dark, in spite of all we do to snuff it out. 

Kim is right. We should celebrate beauty even in the most unlikely of places. We should certainly not be embarrassed by it. Sometimes all it requires is perspective, eyes to see. 

So, probably out of fear I will sneak out and pull it up, she brings the weed inside, sets it in a place of honor. 


Soon enough the Bermuda will awaken, the “normal” flowers we planted last year or bought and carefully controlled and cultivated will bloom. But here, especially in this week we call Holy, it is time to contemplate the life that comes unbidden, unexpectedly, completely out of our much-vaunted control, and in its wake a mysterious beauty that hints at a love beyond all telling. 

And when, after the long dark night, it springs forth,  we join our alleluias to the host of heaven. 

This week asks the question of us. 

What do you see?

Epiphany

It is the forgotten day

Buried by the Christmas twelve

The Magi journey alone 

Most of us back to work

To the calendar 

Looking forward to ashes

Dancing palms

A piercing cry

And alleluias at dawn. 

But this year

Epiphany dawns white

Sun striking snow upon snow

With brilliance 

And wonder

And we are left

With wise ones of old

In silent reverie

Bearing our gifts

Shivering

Good Hope

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” writes the author. Most say the first letter to the church in Thessalonica was written by Paul. It has all the trademark signs of his writing. And it is also deeply apocalyptic, proclaiming that Christ’s coming is imminent. The second letter, which in style and tone is quite different from the first, seems to have been necessary because the thing the first letter said was imminent had not yet happened. Years were going by, and still Christ had not come.

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” he says. Remember the truth about things. Remember you are children of God, chosen to be a blessing. Do not give yourselves over to anxiety.

Someone told me the other day he was having trouble sleeping at night, because of the election. “If Hillary wins…I just think our country will be ruined for a generation. I’m thinking about moving to Canada.” When I laughed, he said, “I’m serious.” I responded, “You know they have single-payer health care there, right? It’s not a nation known for its conservatism.” “Yes,” he replied, “but they don’t have Hillary.”

And not long after, I had the mirror-image conversation with someone else, about Trump – not sleeping at night, would be devastating to the country, right down to moving to Canada. “Trump will be the destruction of our Republic,” he said, “the end of the American experiment.”

Both conversations put me in mind of a “story” in the satirical newspaper, “The Onion,” with the headline, “Man Who Threatened to Move to Canada Before Election Still Here.” “For weeks before the election, Ron Glick kept saying, ‘I swear if that clown wins, I’m moving to Canada.” “Glick has threatened to renounce his citizenship every four years since 1980, when Reagan’s victory was supposed to precipitate his emigration to Spain.”

This long election season is almost over, and for many across the land it has produced the kind of fearfulness that is reserved for times of war. People are afraid to talk with one another about it because tensions are riding high, families are divided, and church folk are known to drop their heads and walk the other way if the topic is even mentioned.

So, with all that said, here on this All Saint’s Sunday of 2016 I am going to tell you who to vote for. My bags are packed, the car is running outside, my plane ticket to Canada bought, so here goes. On Tuesday, you, along with every Christian you know, should vote for Jesus. There, I said it.

“But,” you might protest, “Jesus is not on the ballot.”

Yes, you are correct. You’re going to have to write him in. But, let me be clear, you’re going to have to write him in after you get out of the ballot box. Somebody besides Jesus will be elected, and some in here will have voted for the winner and some for the loser, but we will all, all of us who bear Christ’s name in baptism, need to be about the business of writing him in, no matter who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We are not the first generation of Christians to experience anxiety about the times. The earliest Christians, who always lived on the edge of persecution, were an anxious lot as well. You can tell by the tone of Paul’s letters. He is constantly telling them not to worry. “Don’t be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed,” he writes, and he could be writing those words today.

For the early Christians, the primary worry was that Jesus had not returned, time was passing away, and so were the apostles. The imminent return that the first letter to the church at Thessalonica had proclaimed was now being updated by a second letter with a new message – don’t be alarmed, be patient.

It is a hard message to hear, and some in the early church were having none of it. They were ready to interpret the things going on around them as a sign that Jesus was returning in their lifetime. Paul may or may not be the author of the letter, scholars say, but it doesn’t matter; the message is clear – don’t fall for it, don’t be shaken in mind or spirit by those who might say the end is near. They might say it under the spell of some prophetic vision (by spirit), or by reason and logic (by word), or by letter (maybe even a fake letter purporting to be from Paul himself). Don’t fall for it.

Paul writes Jesus in. The people of Thessalonica are caught up in fear, and in their fearfulness they are prone to believing, falsely, that something other than God’s grace in Jesus Christ can hold their ultimate loyalty. Paul names the anxiety they are feeling, then he reminds them of the teaching they have received, then reminds them they are God’s beloved children, that God has loved and saved them, then exhorts them to confidence, and prays for their growth. It is a powerful response to fear and alarm, then and now. Paul calls to mind Christ. He writes Jesus in.

What does it mean to write Jesus in? It seems to me it means to be grounded in grace, not lacking in hope, and motivated in all things by love. When we walk out of the voting booth, whoever wins, that is the moment the real work begins – when we have the chance to practice grace, to act in love, to not lose hope, especially when we are among those with whom we might not agree.

On this All Saints Sunday, let us be reminded that our own congregation has been here since 1811. We were here for the War of 1812, when a young Republic was threatened. We were here in 1861, when the bloodshed that was the Civil War visited our town in a momentous battle that cost over 6,000 lives, our then-sanctuary used as a makeshift hospital. We were here when World War I came along, the war to end all wars, followed in short order by a Great Depression that wiped out whole families in our church financially and then another war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. We were here when our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, entering that war. How many of our own congregation lost children, grandchildren, fathers, in those wars? We were here when presidents were assassinated, when the Civil Rights of African Americans shone a spotlight on the South, and we were here when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed just three hours down the road and the whole nation felt as if it was sitting on a powder keg. We were here September 11, 2001, when terror visited our shores.

I do not recite this litany to in any way diminish the times in which we live now, or the importance of the issues we face, but rather to remind us that we have practice in what it means for followers of Jesus Christ to write him in when times are uncertain.

In every period of our history, there were faithful saints who, in the midst of great fear, worshiped God, had their babies baptized, practiced grace, bestowed mercy, communed at the table, and in ways large and small refused to give in to fear, refused to become cynical or hopeless, continued to proclaim that the way of Christ provided a way through fearful times. We remember them on a day like today not to engage in sentimentality, but to draw strength from their witness, to remember that we are not alone.

In 1983 I wrote an editorial for our high school newspaper condemning the United States continuing involvement in Lebanon. A Marine barracks in Beirut had just been bombed, 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel were killed. I wrote a scathing political editorial in which I blamed then-president Ronald Reagan. I was raised in a union family of yellow dog Democrats (they would vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican), and so I wasted no time claiming my heritage and laying into Reagan and the Republicans with the fervor and certitude a high school sophomore can muster, which turns out is quite a bit.

I was getting lots of props for it, and somewhere along the line my grandmother had clipped it out and given it to my pastor. When I walked by his office on Sunday, he asked if I could come in and talk for a minute. He said he had gotten my well-written editorial, and he was proud that I, as a young person, cared enough to express myself.

“If you will allow me, though, I’d like to caution you.” It was one of his favorite words – “caution” – that and “grace.”

“Remember,” he said, “that all the things you are writing about are complicated, and the more complicated something is, the better you will need to be at listening to the people who don’t agree with you. They will always have something to teach you, if you’re willing to learn.”

I remember not appreciating his words at the time, thinking this was cautious pastor-speak, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. Now I know he was trying to help me write Jesus in.

I remember being on fire about some hot political issue and going in for my Greek class with Dr. Waddle. It was second year Greek and I was the only student. I was going off, named a couple of students with whom I disagreed strongly, and I called one of them a Neanderthal. Dr. Waddle looked up over his reading glasses and said, “I think you meant to say ‘fellow human being created in the image of God, sinner saved by grace, just like you, right? Could have sworn that was what you meant to say.”

Writing Jesus in.

I’m so grateful for these two saints and so many more who, over the years, have helped me know what it looks like to write Jesus in. My prayer this day is our entire congregation will wake up on Wednesday, and every day, determined to not let fear and cynicism steal our good hope, but instead will write Jesus in, remembering the words of our text, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen.

Requiem for My Father

I knew you – really knew you –  late

Which I suppose conventional wisdom

Would say is better than never.

And in this case, conventional 

Wisdom is wise indeed. 

The sages mingle with the masses

And with one voice speak truth- conventional, cliché, clear:

“Better late than never.”

Let it be written in the clouds

Let it be recorded on the limestone

Around which we scatter you. 

(For Curtis Edward Joiner, Jr. 1946-2016)