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.

I Still Believe

I don’t watch much television, but a week ago Sunday, I stumbled on A Holly Dolly Christmas Special, a Christmas entertainment show featuring country music icon Dolly Parton. It was at the end of the show, and Dolly was singing her new song, I Still Believe, for the first time. Tears rolled down my face as her music tugged at my heartstrings.

Even though we’re walkin’ through the valley of death

Scared and wonderin’ what happens next

Uncertainty, division, anger and the rest

I still believe

Questions of what and why and when

What is it, why it happened and when will it end

These are strange and crazy times that we’re living in

But I still believe

As a state, as a country, and as a world, we have been walking together through the shadow of death for the past nine months as COVID-19 ravages our earth. No one is left untouched. Schools are struggling with how to best keep students safe, millions of people have lost jobs, and we desperately miss seeing our friends and family as we isolate at home.

I believe to my very core we’ll walk again

in the sunshine by the seashore

That we’ll dance and we’ll sing and be happy again

Don’t know how or when but we will again

You’ll see I still believe (I believe)

Our world has not experienced a health emergency like this since the 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu), which infected an estimated 500 million people in four successive waves. Words like “hoax,” “illusion,” “deception,” “fraud,” and “ruse” have been used by some to debunk the reality of COVD-19. The refusal of some to take the pandemic seriously has also undermined an effective response to the coronavirus. The sight of maskless people putting others at risk by flippantly defying orders and potentially exposing others to COVID is terrifying. And yet… I Still Believe.

I believe there’s a day and it’s coming soon

Where we’ll unmask this face of doom

Walk hand in hand in perfect harmony

And I believe there are good deeds to be sowed

Nurtured with love to make them grow

I believe that faith can heal our bodies, minds and souls

Yes, that’s what I believe.

In the midst of so much grief, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, we have also witnessed acts of heroism on the part of our health care professionals and other essential workers who serve us. While most of our churches are not holding worship in-house at this time, disciples of Jesus Christ are finding countless ways to reach out in love to their neighbors, the elderly, the sick, and those who live alone. In our neighborhood, five families have taken turns providing a Sunday soup supper for the group as a sign of neighborliness, grace, and solidarity.

On NBC’s Sunday Today (November 15), Parton said, “I think we’ve just become so divided because people just seem to love to hate. You know? This is the Christmas season coming up, but we need to carry that Christmas spirit of peace on Earth and loving one another. We need to carry that into the new year. And Lord knows, I hope next year is better than this one.” I still believe.

We’ve become hysterical, completely come undone

Oh, but I believe in miracles and that we’ll soon see one

And the world will be a better place when all is said and done

You gotta believe (I believe)

Our world will never be the same because of COVID-19. May the grace we demonstrate toward one another, the unselfishness we exemplify when we social distance and wear a mask, and the restraint we show when refraining from family gatherings because we do not want to cause an outbreak, all witness to our oneness in Christ. What affects one affects all. When we do our part to stop the virus from spreading, we are contributing to the healing of others and our world.

One of the lectionary lessons from yesterday is this passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-34 (CEB), “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Don’t suppress the Spirit. Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. Avoid every kind of evil. Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-224 CEB)

How can you and I release the Holy Spirit to move where it wills? How can we still hope in the midst of so much despair? How can we make a difference in our small corner of the world by loving our neighbor, wearing a mask, and reaching out to those in our community who are in desperate physical and spiritual need? How can we not believe? I believe.

I believe in a higher power and in the midst of our darkest hour

There’s a light so bright it can melt away hate and greed

That’s what I believe, I still believe, I believe

I believe to my very core we’ll walk again in the sunshine by the seashore

I still believe that we’ll dance and we’ll sing and be happy again.

In November, when Moderna made the announcement that its vaccine was 94.5% effective against the coronavirus, news spread that Parton had pledged $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to help fund COVID-19 research. On November 17, Dolly tweeted, “When I donated the money to the Covid fund, I just wanted it to do good, and evidently, it is! Let’s just hope we can find a cure real soon.”

You know our hearts you know our needs

You see our fear; you hear our pleas

We come to you on bended knees

Through it all I still believe.

Even though we’re walkin’ through the valley of death I will fear no evil.

This past weekend, several million doses of the coronavirus vaccine began their journey from Michigan and Wisconsin across the country to various locations. The first doses, which were developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, will be given to high-risk health care workers on Monday. As we all wait for the vaccine, we let our health care professionals, essential workers, and the most vulnerable among us go first. As we wait, we pray for the unemployed, the sick, the recovering, and the grieving. And, as we wait, we become ambassadors of Christ who safely reach out to others with love and hope. Why?

Because we still believe. Will you still believe?