Justice, and Only Justice, You Shall Pursue

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Where is justice today?

I’m embarrassed that I had never heard of The Green Book before I watched the movie by the same name a few weeks ago. The Negro-Motorist Green Book, by Victor H. Green in Harlem, began publication in 1936 to provide an annual travel guide for African Americans in regard to food, lodging, gas, and other services in a segregated America. Some of the annual guides, which were published for thirty years, included these words, “Carry your Green Book with you – you may need it” … to avoid finding oneself in compromising, oppressive, or even dangerous situations.

The movie, Green Book, which is in theaters now, is based on the true story of Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. Knowing that he needs a driver as well as protection as he travels through the Jim Crow south, Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) recruits Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American tough guy/bouncer from the Bronx. The two men have very different backgrounds, yet they form a deep respect and even friendship as Shirley is continually confronted with racism and danger.

The Green Book told Lip which hotels would and wouldn’t accept blacks, with both men often staying in separate places. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which eliminated legal segregation in public education, segregation in many other arenas continued throughout the United States.

The indignities Shirley had to endure as a black man, even though he was a highly educated person and concert pianist, were painful to watch. From being directed away from classical piano, which Shirley loved, to jazz music because of his race; to their car being stopped more than once because a white man and a black man were in the same vehicle; to not being allowed to eat with and use the same restrooms as his white audiences at banquets where he was performing, reinforced the injustice and reality of racism, even today.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God,

we give praise to you for your great glory made manifest in all of creation.

Give us an open heart to embrace all who experience discrimination.

Help us to grow in love beyond prejudice and injustice.

Grant us the grace to respect the uniqueness of each person,

so that in our diversity we may experience unity.

This prayer we make in your holy name. Amen.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” Where is justice today? Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is a federal holiday. It’s a time for us to ponder the state of our country, our world, and our own hearts and the fact that we are not done with racism yet. We are not done with inequality yet. We are not done with injustice yet.

Over this past week I was drawn to King’s book Strength to Love. This is a collection of sermons that King began while spending two weeks in a jail cell for holding a prayer vigil outside the Albany, Georgia City Hall in 1962.

  • “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
  • “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.”
  • “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
  • “We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”

When 800,000 federal workers are in their 31st day of a government shut-down and are suffering mightily simply because our lawmakers are not able to come to the table and reason together, where is the justice?

Below: Chef for Feds Relief Kitchen: Feeding federal workers and families in Washington D.C. ©Washington Press. Photo by: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

God of the widow, the orphan and the stranger,

You have shown us the path of justice.

Help us to follow your way by doing justice as our worship of you.

As Christians together, may we worship you not only with our hearts and minds, but also by our deeds.

May the Holy Spirit help and guide us to work for justice wherever we are,

so that many people may be strengthened through our works.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue. Where is justice today? We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). This is an annual opportunity for Christians the world over to pray for and actively seek the unity that we already share in Christ and also recognize the power of the ecumenical movement. When we are a part of this annual celebration, Christians seek the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus, the Son of God, “that they all may be one.”

The worship materials for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2019 were prepared by Christians from Indonesia. Indonesia has a population of 265 million people, 86% of whom are Muslims and 10% of whom are Christians from different traditions, including the autonomous Methodist denomination, Gereja Methodist Indonesia. The prayers in this blog come from the worship materials, which you can access here.

The Christians in Indonesia chose Deuteronomy 16:20 as the theme verse for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because corruption is experienced in many ways in the country: in politics, business, and even the environment. The organizers write, “Too often those who are supposed to promote justice and protect the weak do the opposite. As a consequence, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; and so a country rich in resources has the scandal of many people living in poverty.”

Then they get to the heart of the matter, the reason why Christian unity is so fragile. “Every year Christians across the world gather in prayer for growth in unity. We do this in a world where corruption, greed and injustice bring about inequality and division. Ours is a united prayer in a fractured world: this is powerful. However, as individual Christians and communities, we are often complicit with injustice, and yet we are called together to form a united witness for justice and to be a means of Christ’s healing grace for the brokenness of the world.”

Where is a united witness for justice be today? How can you and I, along with disciples of Jesus in every corner of the world, live out the words of Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” What will you do to be a means of grace and justice today?

And where will justice be from February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis? How will you be a means of grace and unity, as The United Methodist Church gathers for General Conference?

May God embrace you with love and make kindness flow out from you. May God ignite courage within you and transform you into agents of justice and peace.

May God grant you humility and give you perseverance to nurture unity.

A Sweet, Sweet Story About the Hope That Matters

It was a fascinating time to be in West Berlin, Germany. In the summer of 1974, I began a year-long adventure living in West Berlin as a student at the Berliner Kirchcnmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School). Living within walking distance of the Wall, I often sat on a hill, looking over the Wall into the East German countryside, watching the guards with their machine guns, and wondering how in the world this beautiful city and country became divided in the first place.

Several months ago, I came upon an amazing story that took place in Berlin, Germany, seventy years ago, a story that is inspiring, tender, and sweet. Some of you were alive in 1948 and remember how turbulent the 1940’s were. Three years earlier, after Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the Allies divided Germany into four military occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in July. There was France in the southwest, Britain in the northwest, the United States in the south, and the Soviet Union in the northeast. The capital city, Berlin, located in Soviet territory, was also divided into four parts: the French, British, and American sectors (West Berlin), and the Soviet sector (East Berlin). In 1974, I lived in the American sector.

Peace and stability had not returned to the country after World War 2, however. Much of Germany had not been rebuilt, and life was very difficult, especially for those living in Berlin, which became a divided city within a divided country. On June 23, 1948, the western powers introduced a new form of currency into the western zones, which prompted the Soviet Union to cut off access to West Berlin through a blockade. In an effort to literally starve Berliners into submission, the Soviets did not allow any food or goods into West Berlin by road or train, and the men, women, and children of this divided city began to suffer horribly. When winter came,  there was no food, warm clothing, or medicines, and the Berliners were desperate and starving.

Truman Library

Determined to keep the West Berliners alive, the United States, England, and France decided to do something unthinkable. They airdropped food into West Berlin! The Soviet blockade lasted from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, with the airlift continuing for several more months after that. During the year of the blockade, a total of 277,804 flights landed in Berlin, carrying 2.3 million tons of food. Each West Berliner received an average of 2,300 calories a day. By April 1949, an allied plane was landing in Berlin every single minute, and each pilot flew an average of three flights a day.

The code name for the airdrop was Operation Vittles. But there was one pilot who felt called to do more. On July 19, 1948, Lt. Gail “Hal” Halvorsen from the US became a stowaway on a friend’s plane. When they landed in Berlin, Halvorsen saw some boys and girls at the fence, watching the planes land, and he decided to approach them. Their clothes were in tatters, and very few were wearing shoes. Some of the children knew English, so they asked him questions about the planes and the food they were bringing.

Having flown in South America, Africa, and Europe, Halvorsen was accustomed to children asking him for candy, but he noticed that these starving children did not ask for anything. So Halvorsen took two sticks of Doublemint gum out of his pocket and gave them to the children. He tore them into pieces and passed them through the fence, with other kids asking to sniff the wrappers. Only four children received gum, but “the expressions on their faces were incredulous, full of awe – as if they were entering a wonderland.”[i]

britannica.com

Halvorsen promised the children that he would return with more candy and asked them to watch for the plane that wiggled its wings. He faced several challenges, however. First, distributing candy was against regulations. Second, Halvorsen had to find a source for the candy. And, third, he had to figure out to “throw” the “candy bombs” out of planes that were traveling 110 miles an hour. Halvorsen devised mini-parachutes out of handkerchiefs, with candy attached inside with twine. At the right time, he signaled his engineer when to push the packages out the emergency flare chute.

The news traveled fast! The next day Halvorsen was summoned to appear before his commanding officer, who realized the value of Halvorsen’s idea and encouraged him to continue with this new operation called Operation Little Vittles. News of the Candy Bomber spread like wildfire, as hundreds and even thousands of children and eventually their parents gathered every day at Templehof Airport, waiting for the wiggly wings of planes that would rain down candy from the sky.

Almost overnight, Halvorsen became the face of the Berlin Airlift and a symbol of American goodwill. He called this moment his “moment of truth,” “the continental divide of his life.” Halvorsen’s life, the life of the children of Berlin, and the world were all transformed. [ii]

All told, Operation Little Vittles rained down 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes. Each of the few dozen Candy Bomber planes was allowed to drop 600-700 pounds of candy onto the streets of Berlin.

When Halvorsen was asked to tour America during the Berlin airlift, tens of thousands of candy bars and supplies were donated by people all across the country. Though it took nearly a year, the Soviets eventually called off the blockade because it just wasn’t working anymore. The airlift was a success, people were fed, and the spirits of Berliners were lifted in large part because of the efforts of Uncle Wiggly Wings. The Candy Bomber gave Berliners hope in the midst of the darkness. Most children never received any candy, but it didn’t matter. HOPE is what mattered.

TKTK (Wikimedia Commons)

The proof was in letters send to Halvorsen from the children of Berlin. “Dear Uncle Wiggly Wings, When yesterday I came from school, I had the happiness to get one of your sweet gifts… I could not come home quickly enough to look at your wonderful things. You cannot think how big the joy was. They all, my brother and parents, stood around me when I opened the strings and fetched out all the chocolate. The delight was very large.” [iii]

On September 3, 1948, this letter was received, “Dear Chocolate Uncle, The oldest of my seven sons had on this day his 16th birthday. But when he went out in the morning, we were all sad because we had nothing to give him on his special day. But how happily everything turned out! A parachute with chocolate landed on our roof! It was the first sweets for our children in a very long time.” [iv]

According to Halvorsen, now 97 years old, many people over the years have tracked down the Candy Bomber to say thank you and to share their stories of the Berlin air lift. Halvorsen’s response was, “The small things you do turn into great things.” And he is still dropping sweets from the sky!

This past July, Halvorsen led a candy drop in Spanish Fork, Utah, for the 70th anniversary of the Candy Bomber air drops. Speaking about his original idea of dropping candy, Halvorsen said, “Well, gosh, I get a chocolate ration. I can share it.” He continued, “If we get outside of ourselves in the road of life for somebody who is struggling more than you are, then you’re going to be rewarded in a way you’ll never know.” Money is now being raised for the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Center in Spanish Fork, where Halvorsen makes his home. Listen to Hal Halvorsen in a 2015 interview.

Where will you experience hope in 2019? How can you embody a hope that matters for those who see no hope for today or tomorrow? How can your congregation be difference makers and bearers of hope? What small things can you do for others that can turn into great things? It doesn’t take much. Just eyes open to the hopelessness around you, ears open to the cries of human need, and hearts open to reaching out with love to all who yearn to hear the good news of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

[i]The Candy Bombers; The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny, New York, Berkley Caliber, 2008, p. 299.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]Ibid, p. 358.

[iv]Ibid, p. 365.

Life Lessons for a New Year

It’s the beginning of a new year, a time when many of us stop to ponder our lives, where we have been and where we are headed. It is also an opportunity to make “New Year’s Resolutions,” promises that we make to ourselves about how we will live in the year 2019. I would encourage you to take some time this week to think about your life. Who are you, where have you been, and where are you headed? Of course, it is always helpful to ask these same questions in our local churches. Does your local church ever stop to reflect on the year(s) past and formulate a plan with goals and strategies for the year ahead?

As I think about 2019 and all that is to come, I remember back to last year. I was in a group where we were asked to imagine that we are near the end of our life, and we are sharing with a young person three life lessons we learned. These were the lessons I shared:

  1. Practice the grace of seeing Jesus in every person you meet.
  2. You are here for a reason. God has called you to make a difference in your small corner of the world.
  3. Take care of yourself first if you are to be of any use to those you are called to serve.

My partner shared these life lessons:

  1. Do good.
  2. Be yourself.
  3. Be present.

Among the dozens of other life lessons that we shared, I offer this sampling.

  • Stay rooted and grounded in God’s love.
  • Be curious.
  • Be humble.
  • Treat people as you want to be treated.
  • Be grateful.
  • Pay it forward.
  • Live with no regrets.
  • Life is more than work.
  • Discover Christ in others.
  • Stay connected.
  • Invest in others.
  • Be open to surprise.
  • Each person is important.
  • Head to the mountains.

  • Be patient.
  • Don’t underestimate the life of others.
  • Enjoy the moment.
  • Challenges are a gift of God.
  • Loving is better than being right.
  • Stay in the present.
  • Never stop learning.
  • Be passionate about life.
  • See others as God sees them.
  • Fight injustice and systems that cause pain and evil.
  • Walk slowly, go far, and see beauty everywhere.

  • Live with joy.
  • Hope in the face of material or spiritual poverty.
  • Persevere in face of rejection.
  • You will never be happy unless you learn how to forgive.
  • Live one day at a time.
  • Every day is a gift. Also, everyday is a gift.
  • Don’t let the sun go down without seeing good in every person.
  • Don’t be afraid when the body falls apart. Put your faith completely in God.
  • God is present and brings healing even in the worst of situations.
  • The church is a treasure in earthen vessels.
  • Laugh from the belly.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Listen to your village.
  • Be courageous.
  • Love people.
  • Stick with God.
  • Walk in community.

  • Do not shortchange yourself.
  • God is always with you.
  • Be fervent in prayer.
  • God.
  • Dream big for Christ.
  • Always give your best to the Lord.
  • Love people, for they want to know that you care.
  • God will catch you when you fall.

The scripture that summarizes these life lessons and that I will carry with me all through 2019 is Colossians 3:12-17.

Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17

What life lessons would you share with others? How will you live and be in 2019 as a disciple of Jesus Christ?