The Vote for All

One of the most precious rights that we have in the United States is the right to vote. Because this is a presidential election year, we are acutely aware of how important it is for each one of us to exercise our constitutional right. In Iowa, the restoration of felony rights has become an important issue. Our Iowa Constitution says that “anyone convicted of a felony permanently loses the right to vote or hold public office unless the Governor restores those rights.” Because a permanent fix for this issue will require an amendment to the Constitution and will take time, Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed Executive Order 7. I am grateful to Governor Reynolds because this order restores voting rights to thousands of Iowans who have been convicted of a felony and have completed their sentence.

At the same time as I ponder the privilege of living in a democracy where all registered voters have the responsibility to participate in elections, I also lament the ugliness of our national, state, and local campaigns. I have decided to mute all political TV commercials leading up to the election. That’s because my heart breaks at the nasty and corrosive advertisements that both parties use, including outright lying and slander, to denigrate the credibility and integrity of other candidates.

What continually restores my hope, however, is the knowledge that our democracy is founded on the worth and dignity of all people and that countless individuals have worked diligently over the last several hundred years to gain and ensure the right for all Americans to vote. It’s especially important to recognize that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the right of women in America to vote. As I regularly send letters and cards to those with pastoral needs, I am now using stamps that celebrate the right for women to vote that was passed in 1919 and ratified by all the states in 1920.

On April 9, 1865, the four-year Civil War in the United States ended. A month later, reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.”

On December 19, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. This amendment abolished all involuntary servitude, except in the case of punishment for a crime of which that person has been convicted. On June 13, 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which extended to former slaves all liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights. And in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed, ensuring that the right to vote “shall not be denied…on account of race.”

However, only men were given the right to vote, not women. It’s also important to note that, even though the face of the south changed after the Civil War and there was greater freedom for African-Americans to move, organize, and improve their conditions, the voting rights of African-American men continued to be threatened because of intimidation, poll taxes, and violence.

I can only imagine how crushed crusaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt when the 15th amendment did not specifically include women. They had begun a movement years before, in 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Women all over the country lobbied, picketed, and fought for their rights, especially the right to vote. At the same time, it was messy. Some men were dead set against women voting, and even some of the women were not on board. But those advocating for equality in voting would not be stopped.

On May 21, 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives finally approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate followed suit and the 19th Amendment then moved to the states for ratification. 3/4 of the states (48 at the time) had to ratify the 19th Amendment in order for it to become part of the Constitution. By a vote of 50-47, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. This was the largest expansion of democratic voting rights in our country’s history.

The amount of lobbying, picketing, negotiating, and marching went that on for 72 years between 1848 and 1920 was incredible, and I often wonder what my two grandmothers would have thought about the women’s suffrage movement. They were born in 1891 and 1892, with one living a quiet life as a mother and grandmother coming from the Church of the Brethren tradition where she wore a prayer cap and plain clothes. Would she have dared to vote when she came of age? I suspect not. My other grandmother grew up in what was known as the Old Mennonite Church, but she was always a maverick and would not conform to the strict rules of her denomination. Would she have dared to vote when she came of age? I think so.

But that wasn’t all. Even though women, as well as men, had the right to vote, African-American men and women were forced to overcome many obstacles to actually be able to vote. These obstacles included literacy tests as well as harassment and threats at the polls. As a result, many African-Americans did not even register to vote, fearful for their safety.

In 1964, numerous demonstrations were held, and the resulting violence brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. That violence included the murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi as well as attacks on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama by state troopers.

Finally, on August 5, 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that would make it illegal to demand literacy tests and would provide federal examiners with the authority to register qualified citizens to vote. The law had an immediate and positive impact. 250,000 new black voters were registered by the end of 1965.

On November 3, many of us will go to socially distanced polls, and many others will vote by mail. No one knows what the results will be in various elections around the country. But we do know this. The polls are open to all eligible voters. And regardless of the nasty and negative ads that will continue to flood the airwaves for the next five weeks, we have the opportunity and responsibility to elect women and men of integrity to lead us into a future of hope.

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!