Justice For All

It brought tears to my eyes on Friday evening as I watched hundreds of people gathering for a spontaneous vigil outside the Supreme Court building in Washington to pay tribute to RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg. An icon around the world, Ginsburg was one of the most outspoken advocates for gender equality of our time, including voting rights and equal pay for women. Ginsberg, who served as a Justice of the Supreme Court for 27 years, was the first female Jewish Justice. The crowd spontaneously recited the Jewish prayer for the dead and also began singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a Justice for all, teaching us how to see the reflection of God in each person on this earth.   

During a 2004 speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Ginsburg said, “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof’ – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they ‘may thrive.’”

I remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a woman who was unafraid to speak her truth. At the same time, she was able to “reach across the aisle” and become friends with those who were her ideologically opposite, as witnessed by her close personal friendship with Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg was also very disciplined in her work and play, evidenced by the fact that she worked out with a personal trainer for an hour twice a week. Ginsberg also loved the opera.

Justice, justice you shall pursue. Treating and advocating for all people as the unique individuals God created them to be. It’s not only the calling of Supreme Court Justices, but it’s our call as well so that we may thrive as one human family. That’s how I will remember our beloved Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Is it coincidental that the gospel reading for yesterday was Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard? It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the lectionary passages for each week often speak directly to what is happening in our lives and how God hopes that we will make the connections. The laborers in the vineyard is one of my favorite biblical stories because it applies to so many situations where we feel disenfranchised and disregarded and say, “It’s not fair! Nor is it just!”

Jesus tells us that a landowner went out in the morning to hire day workers and agreed to give them a denarius. Several other times during the day, the owner returned to the town square, saw other workers hanging around, and hired them, saying, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” At the end of the day, the owner settled his accounts by paying each man a denarius, whereupon the workers who had been hired first complained, “It’s not fair! We worked more hours than they did.” And the owner simply responded, “Are you angry because I’m generous?”

The words “justice” and “fairness” are often used interchangeably, but common to both terms is the belief that we should be treated as we deserve. It’s not fair! I can’t even begin to count how many times I heard those three words when our children were growing up. They were rather close in age and would periodically challenge how Gary and I treated them.

Case in point: Christmas. As presents began to appear under the Christmas tree during Advent, the kids would inspect every present to see who it was for. The tipping point for dissension was how many gifts were under the tree for each person and how large they were. Choruses of “It’s not fair” would occasionally echo through the house until Christmas Day, when everything was settled and at least one child would throw a fit.

Gary and I continually wrestled with what fairness and justice mean when each child has different needs at different times. We did notice, however, that as our children matured, they didn’t seem quite as obsessed with fairness. Simply growing up and living life were teaching them that who gets what and how much is a complex process. We all learn sooner or later that life isn’t always fair. There is no one who always gets what they want or deserve. At the same time, we have a generous God who desires that we extend grace to others as we receive grace in the midst of our own failings.

Many things in our world right now aren’t fair. Nor are they just. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is discovering that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting racial-ethnic groups, the elderly, and the vulnerable much more than other groups. Poverty, unemployment, and a lack of access to health care are also contributing to this discrepancy. It’s not fair. Nor is it just.

Deep divisions and disparities in our current social context in the United States have been exposed, with our long history of racism and indifference toward the lives and suffering of historically marginalized people. This year has reminded us again that our call to integrate faith and action in order to become an anti-racist country and world is not over. We must continue to be a voice for those whose voices are not heard. And we must move beyond perfunctory acts of repentance to a deep engagement with our communities concerning inequalities around race and class. It’s not just.

The toll of the wildfires on the West Coast is unfathomable. Last Thursday was the first day with no “Spare the Air” warning in the Bay Area after a record 30 consecutive days of the alerts about polluted air. Even though firefighters have been making headway against several of the most significant wildfires, weather conditions could change at any time. It’s not fair. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/us/wildfires-live-updates.html

But there’s more. Cancer is not fair. Job loss is not fair. Crop loss is not fair. Recovering from floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and derechos are not fair. Mental health issues are not fair. Even in the church, we struggle. Clergy are having to reinvent ministry day by day during this challenging time and, at times, feel stressed, anxious, and demoralized. It’s not fair.

Perhaps the most important question is who deserves grace and who doesn’t. As the parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds us, you and I are called to embody the generosity and grace of the landowner, who refused to be distracted by pleas of “not fair” and justly paid all of the workers equally.

One of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s well-known quotes is, “America is known as a country that welcomes people to its shores. All kinds of people. The image of the Statue of Liberty with Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. She lifts her lamp and welcomes people to the golden shore, where they will not experience prejudice because of the color of their skin, the religious faith that they follow.”

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said this, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”

Thank you, RBG, for being a Supreme Court Justice for all, and thank you for advocating for justice and fairness for those who come to our shores.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;

we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

“I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.”
(Paul McCartney)

I just can’t wrap my head around it. Singing is at the heart of human existence. My mother and father sang to me when I was a baby. I sang in church choirs since I was a young child and decided to make church music my career. While studying music in West Berlin during college, our Spandauer Kantorei sang Bach’s B minor mass in the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vezelay, France. (Can you find me? Hint: I’m on the left side of the picture.)

 

 

I served as the organist and choir director of a large United Methodist Church in Connecticut for four years when I was in graduate school and seminary. In every church I served, I sang in special events. I have sung prayers before and after my sermons for 38 years. And now we can’t sing at all when we are physically close to other people? Inconceivable!

Singing plays a major role in the Bible. The first reference to singing is in Exodus 15:1-2 when the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea after the Israelites crossed over on dry ground into the wilderness of Sinai. “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: I will sing to the Lord, for an overflowing victory! Horse and rider he threw into the sea! The Lord is my strength and my power; he has become my salvation. This is my God, whom I will praise, the God of my ancestors, whom I will acclaim.”

It’s breaking my heart. I’ve adjusted to a lot of changes because of COVID-19, but the one thing I’ve yearned for the most is singing. Since mid-March, almost none of our congregations have held in-house worship, which means that singing hymns and the church choir or praise team sharing an anthem on Sunday morning are virtually non-existent. But even in churches are worshipping in their sanctuaries, choirs are not advisable at this time.

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.’” (Kurt Vonnegut, in an essay, Knowing What’s Nice, several years before he died)

My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn; That hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm; While to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth; How can I keep from singing?

                                                            (The Faith We Sing #2212 “My Life Flows On”)

 

 

It all came to light on March 10, 2020 when 52 of the 61 people present were infected with COVID-19 at a practice of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington. This was before Governor Jay Inslee issued a “stay home, stay healthy” executive order. We were just beginning to become aware of social distancing in the US, and choir members did take minimal precautions, such not hugging or shaking hands.

Who knew at the time that singing in a choir would become a super-spreader event? One of the singers that night in Mount Vernon had COVID-19. This person had cold-like symptoms starting on March 7 but was not aware of being infected until a later test confirmed the diagnosis. The chairs were placed 6-10 inches apart, and the group practiced for two and a half hours, including several breaks. Consequently, three of the 52 infected people were hospitalized and two died. The median age of those infected was 69 years old.

According to Phillip C. Song, director of the Division of Laryngology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, “Singers are at high risk for transmission for COVID-19, because of the amount of aerosols they have the potential to generate. That poses an extremely difficult problem in regard to group rehearsals, and since there are real-world examples of people transmitting the disease in choir practices, it’s really hard to think of a way that groups could safely perform and sing together currently.” Our reality is that group singing is a highly risky behavior right now. It is unfathomable to me that the beautiful act of singing, especially in church, could result in a deadly infection.

“Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits.” Martin Luther

Through all the tumult and the strife; I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm; While to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth; How can I keep from singing?

 

My brother and I singing together.

 

Why do we sing, anyway? For community, for comfort, and to praise God. Choral singing improves lives and strengthens communities the world over. Last year, Chorus America reported that 54 million Americans – that is, more than 15% of the entire country’s population – participated in some kind of organized group singing. And the study revealed that nearly three-quarters of those polled felt less lonely. Eighty percent said it made them “more optimistic, mindful and resilient.”

“I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” J.S. Bach

I just can’t keep from singing, however! So, I’ve decided to sing through the entire United Methodist Hymnal as a daily spiritual practice and a sign of hope and joy. As a musician, I’ve played and sung most of the hymns in our hymnal, which was published in 1989. As of today, I have sung 150 of the 734 hymns, about ten a day. Here’s what I have discovered.

  • I am chagrined that there are more than a few hymns I have never sung before. Many of those hymns have tunes that are difficult to sing or change keys.
  • I deeply grieve not being able to sing hymns every week in church.
  • Even if you aren’t a singer, simply reading the lyrics of hymns that span hundreds of years is inspiring.
  • My father sang hymns until he could no longer read the words. Then he hummed the tunes, alternating tenor and bass.

The last of John Wesley’s Directions for Singing found in the front of the United Methodist Hymnal is this: “Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.”

What though my joys and comforts die? I know my Savior liveth.

What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm; While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth; How can I keep from singing?

After the hymnal, I’m starting on The Faith We Sing. Why? Because, despite COVID-19, I can’t keep from singing!

What if we simply blessed people?

It was the last week of August, and I was reflecting upon the fact that it was exactly four years ago that Gary and I drove out to Iowa along with a moving van and all of our stuff. I had been elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria, Illinois on July 14, 2016, and had six weeks to wrap up my ministry in Michigan and prepare for a new life in Iowa. And, oh, what a life it has been!

Gary and I traveled to Iowa for a few days in late July 2016 to meet the cabinet, and as soon as I stepped foot in the Conference Center, I knew that I would be at home. The hospitality Gary and I received and the grace that I was shown again and again relieved much of the anxiety of this incredible new adventure upon which I was embarking. Moving into the episcopal residence marked the beginning of the journey.

The fall of 2016 was a whirlwind, and as I visited each of the districts for a time to get acquainted, I began to get a feel for this state which is known for being “Iowa Nice.” During that first year, we formed a new mission statement:

  • Inspire, equip, and connect communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ

and a new vision statement:

  • God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people.

The kindness with which I was received throughout the state was sincere and touching. Even when we began several years of conversations around human sexuality and were not of one mind, I sensed the Spirit of God continually moving in our midst, urging us to stay at the table, listen carefully and prayerfully to one another, and continue to love each another in the process.

Never could we have imagined, however, that the year 2020 would bring one challenge after another, including COVID-19; a postponed General Conference; an anti-racist movement that continues to gain momentum; severe economic hardship in many families and communities; the necessity of reinventing how we do worship; and the derecho of August 10.

The lectionary epistle from August 30 lingers in my mind. Not only does it summarize the apostle Paul’s wisdom for his readers, but it expresses my sense of what God has been calling us to in the Iowa Conference over the past four years. Paul writes in Romans 12:9-15 (CEB), Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.” 

Is there any greater declaration of the heart of Christianity as well as the character of United Methodists in Iowa? Yes, we have had differences around our biblical understanding of human sexuality, which has caused deep anguish and pain. As we wait for the postponed General Conference in 2021 and anticipate voting on The Protocol, we also recognize that one or more new denominations may emerge from our differences. At the same time, I truly believe that our deep desire to be on fire with the Holy Spirit, hold on to what is good, devote ourselves to prayer, and live in peace with one another honors God and is a sign of hope.

Romans 12 became real to me when I spent several days in Cedar Rapids after the derecho (a wide-spread, long-lived windstorm with rain) that swept through Iowa on August 10. As the storm system moved east across the state, atmospheric instability heightened the strength of the storm, producing the highest measured wind of 126 miles per hour for 30-45 minutes. The result? Widespread damage across central and eastern Iowa, including the loss of 23,000 publicly owned trees in Cedar Rapids alone. 43% of the state’s crops, including 24 million acres of farmland, mostly corn and soybeans, were adversely affected. Virtually every property had some damage, and a team of over 2,000 people from different states and Canada worked tirelessly for several weeks to restore power after a complete breakdown of the communications grid.

A group of volunteers gathered in Cedar Rapids on August 27 with our Iowa UM Disaster Response Coordinator, Rev. Catie Newman, and other leaders to plan the day and pray for all those affected by the derecho. A chainsaw gang led by Pastor Andrew Happ was clear about their job to cut down felled trees so that they could be taken away. Andrew said to the group that the most important thing you can do as a person of faith is to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Another crew worked to affix tarps to roofs that had been damaged so that water would not leak into homes waiting for roof repairs. Pastor Jason Collier was quick to point out that even though people often tried to pay his crew for their help, they always refused. Jason would say, “God’s love is free. You cannot pay us. Our job is to simply bless people.”

Meanwhile, I visited with area United Methodist clergy to hear their stories and offer encouragement and support. Their days have been filled with checking up on their parishioners as well as tending to the damage that many churches experienced to their own buildings. Most of all, they bless people. In the midst of the bone-weariness of disaster relief, their spirits are on fire as they offer pastoral support and care for all.

No one can pay us United as Methodists to help others. It’s our calling. We simply bless people by using chainsaws to help clear downed trees and tarps to cover roofs that have been damaged. And we bless people through Matthew 25, a UM-related non-profit organization in Cedar Rapids whose vision is “creating a thriving, connected community where people are valued and talents are multiplied; where neighborhood families have access to safe, affordable housing and healthy food; and where youth are empowered through reading and the creative arts.

Matthew 25 has offered generators to those without power, especially those who need them for dialysis and other medical conditions. Volunteers and staff go door to door in hard-hit neighborhoods and bless others by offering shelter, distributing meals, checking on people to see if they are okay, and representing the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for all people.

Our clergy are responding. Our laity are responding. Our children and youth are responding. Those with building skills are responding. And our churches, not all of which are able to worship in their buildings yet because of damage, are witnessing to God’s grace and reaching out to their neighbors with care and concern.

And, no, you cannot pay us. We simply contribute to the needs of God’s people. That’s what I have learned in my first four years in Iowa. What might happen if we simply blessed people?