Come, Be Near Us

I had just awakened last Thursday and was reciting my daily scriptures and prayers. They include my morning prayer, Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, and my personal mission statement. All of a sudden, a song came into my heart from out of nowhere. “Come, Be Near Us” is from a 1977 collection of sacred songs by Bert and Nance Carlson[i]. It had been forty years since I both accompanied and sang this song.

The Rev. J. Bert Carlson pastored a number of congregations for over fifty years in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Indiana and died in 2017. He was also a musician and composer. Pastor Carlson’s wife Nancé wrote the words to Bert’s music and was very involved in music and drama ministries. She died in 2016.

Each of the seven solos in the collection is unique and soulful. I sat down at our piano on Thursday and began to learn Come, Be Near Us once more. You can listen to the song here:

On this Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, as we remember our call to create the beloved community:

Lord, come be near us today,

Lord, keep your hand on our shoulders,

Lord, come, come down, be near.

Lord, come, come down, be near.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Lord, let us come on knees,

Lord, as we come alone,

Lord, let our spirits unite as one,

Lord, grant us thy grace.

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Lord, lead us from this day ever on,

Lord, let us know your will.

Lord, let us share your love,

Lord, let us be your instruments, Lord, be near us.

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Lord, come be near us today,

Lord, keep your hand on our shoulders.

Lord come, come down, be near.

Lord, come, come down, be near.

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Lord, let us come on knees, Lord, give us strength.

Lord, let our pride never divide.

Lord, when love is tested and tried,

Lord let us turn to you for aid,

“Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Lord, let us be your children.

Lord, let us sing you praise,

Lord, let us thank you all our years.

Lord, be near us.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

Lord, come be near us today,

Lord, keep your hand on our shoulders,

Lord, come, come down, be near.

Lord, come, come down, be near us.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

As we pray for a peaceful transition of power when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Wednesday, may we all pray these words of Martin Luther King Jr., which are found on the South Wall of the MLK Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. (Christmas sermon, Atlanta, Georgia, 1967)

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

May God give us the courage to create a beloved community in every corner of our world. Lord, come be near us today.

 

[i] Sacred Songs of Bert and Nance Carlson, Sacred Music Press, Dayton, Ohio, 1977.

What Can We Yet Become?

How sobering that it all came down on Epiphany Day, January 6. Last Wednesday we celebrated the story of the Wise Men, who came from the East to worship the Christ Child because they saw a star in the sky. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, who ordered that all children ages two and younger be killed, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus went back a different way and settled in Nazareth.

The New Year has certainly kicked off in a different way because on January 6, we observed not only the Slaughter of the Innocents, but we witnessed the occupation of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., our iconic symbol of democracy. This was the first large-scale assault on the capital since 1814. No one ever dreamed that this could happen. As a child I remember reciting every day, with my hand over my heart, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Hymn-writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette penned these words after the 2020 elections:

God of love, we’ve known division and we’ve seen its awful cost.
We have struggled as a nation, and there’s much that we have lost.
We have been a house divided – and, divided, we can’t stand.
May our nation be united; give us peace throughout this land.

Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Tune suggestion: Beech Spring

At a time when daily COVID-19 deaths would reach an all-time high of over 4,100 the day after the attacks, the Capitol building was besieged around 1 p.m. by a chaotic mob smashing windows and ransacking offices. Legislators were quickly escorted out of their chambers to places of safety. The U.S. Capitol Police were overwhelmed, and federal law enforcement was absent. Rioters and looters had free reign, with lawmakers forced to shelter in place for hours. Six people have been killed, including two of the Capitol Police. Many others were injured, and over 100 people had been arrested as of Sunday, including a man absconding with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. It was painful to see some rioters waving the “Christian” and “Confederate” flags.

What have we become? It was truly shocking, but we should have known. These were not mere protestors. This was, in effect, an insurrection urged on by President Trump and others who were livid that legislators were about to certify the election of President-elect Biden. As senators and representatives were carrying out the constitutional process of certifying the winner of the presidential election, a violent and menacing crowd disrupted this most basic functioning of our democracy. Zip ties were carried to bind congressional leaders, and a gallows was constructed outside the capitol. Insurrectionists chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” The acts of these people demonstrated a profound disrespect for and attempted subversion of a cherished American institution. In addition, they put lawmakers, staffers, and many others in danger.

Turn us, Lord, from what divides us – fear that drives us far apart,
greed that leads to great injustice, racist ways that break your heart.

May we seek what brings together – hearts that bear each other’s pain,
care and mercy toward our neighbors, love that welcomes strangers in.

After previously promoting the January 6 protests and tweeting on December 19, “Be there, will be wild!” President Trump addressed the rioters on Wednesday afternoon in a brief minute-long video. “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election. And everyone knows it, especially the other side. We love you. You’re very special. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil but go home and go home in peace.”

What have we become? Have we forgotten who we are as Americans and as human beings? How could we not have seen this coming? Since January 6, more than a dozen White House staff and Cabinet members resigned because of the President’s actions in inciting the riot and refusing to accept his election loss.

May we all, in conversation, speak the truth and listen well.
May we hear, across this nation, stories others have to tell.
May we learn from other cultures and be blessed by their worldview;
May we serve with one another – loving others, loving you.

More important, who can we yet become? In the Christian year, the season of Epiphany reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world who commanded his disciples to preach the gospel of faith, hope, and love to all the nations. What epiphany is God teaching us right now in the midst of a presidential transition? What sudden revelation have we received as we ponder our responsibility to be good neighbors and responsible citizens? I believe God is calling you and me to speak out, as our membership vows affirm, “against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.” As Jesus is the light of the world, so we need to allow Christ’s light to shine through our words and actions.

Photo via https://www.goodfreephotos.com/

Together, we have the privilege and the responsibility to proclaim the sacred worth of all people. Lamenting the violence of this week, we remember Abraham Lincoln who, in his 1864 address on the battlefield of Gettysburg, said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

You have challenged us to goodness; you have shown a kinder way.
It’s your love that now inspires us as we seek a better day.
May we end our harsh division; may we stop the hate and fear.
Make us one, Lord, as a nation; may we be united here.

Alex Trebek, the beloved host of Jeopardy!, died on November 8. As the final episodes of Jeopardy! were released last week (taped in October), Trebek shared some final thoughts. He reminded his viewers to give thanks for all their blessings. Then he said, “I’d like you to open up your hands and open up your heart to those who are still suffering because of COVID-19, people who are suffering through no fault of their own. We’re trying to build a kinder, gentler society, and if we all pitch in a little bit we’re gonna get there.”

By God’s grace, who can we yet become? We’re gonna get there together.

 

I will Light Candles this Christmas

I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
~ Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman lived during the most amazing time in the history of our world. Born in 1899 in horse and buggy days and the grandson of a former slave, Thurman died in 1981, the year the IBM personal computer debuted. In 1953 Life magazine named Thurman one of the twelve greatest preachers of the century.

A Baptist pastor, Thurman led a delegation of African-Americans to India in 1935 to meet Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s influence led Thurman to understand Jesus as liberator, and he subsequently worked to bring together the gospel and non-violence resistance to combat white racism.

As one who always sought common ground, Thurman co-founded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples in 1944, the first integrated, interfaith, intercultural religious congregation in the United States. Seventy-six years later, this church is still bringing people together to worship, seek common understanding, and unite together in promoting love and reconciliation.

Thurman’s theology is best represented in his most well-known book, Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949. The book’s thesis is that Jesus taught the “the disinherited” a faith-based, unconditional love that would enable them not only to endure oppression but to resist and even transform their oppressors.

From 1953 to 1965, Howard Thurman was the dean of Marsh Chapel at our United Methodist Boston University of Theology. He was the first black dean at a mostly white American university. During that time, Thurman mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received his Ph.D. at Boston University in 1955. Thurman and King’s father were friends, and Thurman was often at the King home when the younger Martin was growing up.

King carried a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited while he was leading the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Thurman also influenced Jesse Jackson, who wrote a 1982 tribute to Thurman a year after his death. Jackson said that he was attracted to Thurman, who always insisted, “If you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.” Howard Thurman lit candles that burned all year long. Will you, too, light candles of peace and hope in these challenging days?

In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman referred to the influence of his grandmother. “She would talk about the times when a slave preacher was permitted to hold services for the slaves of her master’s and all the neighboring plantations… She would say, ‘He would then look around to all of us in the room, and then he would say, “You are not slaves, you are not niggers – you are God’s children.”’ And you know, when my grandmother said that, she would unconsciously straighten up, head high and chest out, and a faraway look would come on her face.

“Now that transmitted an idiom to me. And there was nothing that could happen in my environment that could ever touch this. It gave me my identity, so I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search of identity.” Thirty-nine years after his death, Howard Thurman’s legacy continues to burn brightly all year long, for each person is a child of God.

Thurman’s book The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations not only contains “I Will Light Candles This Christmas” but also perhaps his best-known poem, “The Work of Christmas.” I invite you to listen to a choral version of this poem by composer Dan Forrest.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

As we light candles this Christmas, we remember that in the midst of isolation, love has no boundaries. We give thanks that the light of the world has guided us in our journey through this past year and that we have been forever changed. And we celebrate the opportunity we have each day to embody the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ.

How will you make music in the heart of our world when the work of Christmas actually begins? When the gifts are unwrapped, and Christmas dinner is over, how will you keep the candles burning? Come, Lord Jesus, come. May you have a blessed Christmas.

P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 11.