The Soul of Our Nation

If the word “soul” speaks of what is deepest and truest within us, what is our national soul at its core?

Photo by Kevin McCartney on Pexels.com

I’m one of those who see the political landscape as a fight for the soul of our nation. I’ve been praying for our democracy for more than two years now, and at last I’m seeing some hopeful signs that we might actually awake from this nightmare, survive Trump and Trump-ism, and begin to repair the damage done. But the battle isn’t over yet by any means.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase that has been circulating through the democratic (small d) populace: “We’re better than this.”  I like to think so.  Certainly our aspirations as Americans are an ideal that gives credence to those words.  But as I think back over our history I see that we have not (at least not always, nor often enough) been better than this. For instance, every wave of new immigrants has been met by vilification and discrimination (and often violence), until gradually they assimilated and a new wave came in. The worst that we have been — building prosperity through the enslavement and abuse of kidnapped peoples – remains a lingering legacy and an indelible stain on our character.  That legacy remains as the shadowed underbelly of our life today.

In light of all that, I believe that the right thing to be saying at this time of crisis in our nation’s history is not “we’re better than this,” but “We can do better. We can become better.” 

What marks us uniquely as Americans is the very fact of our aspirations. All the foreigners whom I’ve heard or read, in reflecting on our character from beyond our borders, have singled out as a core aspect of our culture that we always aspire to be better. And we have moved (perhaps not steadily, but slowly over the long haul) to achieve a better character. We still have a long way to go. 

It took a bloody, terrible war to move us beyond slavery, which still leaves a lingering scent of sin in our life. Prejudice still rises up to vilify and harass those who look, worship, or behave differently than “we” do. And somehow, a significant swathe of our electorate (not a majority, but enough; too many by far) have recently voted against our best heritage and aspirations. Too many have been willing to see our democratic institutions attacked, have abandoned their principles and remained willfully ignorant in pursuit of – what?! Money? Power? Revenge for perceived inequities? The election of Trump and the blind eye and fawning support many now turn toward his worst behavior and decisions have created a fresh, deep stain that reveals underlying flaws in our national character.

We can do better than this. But we need to recover the will and the courage to fight for it.  And we need a spiritual cleansing.

What is the soul of our nation? Is it what Trump embodies? Really?!  God can endow us with soul, but we will stain or shape it according to our free will and our decisions. Whatever our soul is or will become is up to us.

On this coming Memorial Day in America, I hope we’ll endeavor to become the best that we can be, honoring the sacrifices of our heroic dead by cherishing and preserving the freedoms and the possibilities for good that they have preserved for us.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Beautiful Words

Words are powerful things. They can shape us in ways we don’t begin to understand.

From childhood I’ve always loved words, for the sheer sound of them. I’d savor them on my tongue and in my mind, sometimes without even knowing their meaning. I was hungry to learn their meanings but sometimes I simply guessed at it from the way a word sounded to me. Needless to say, I was eager to learn new ones to add to my repertoire. One of my favorite words, for instance, was sycamore before I ever met a sycamore tree.

But there have been a very few words that have had an especially deep resonance for me.  The first one broke open inside me when I was in the third grade. I remember it vividly. I loved riding my bike and on this day I was riding home after school. It was summer, one of those special summer days when the sun is hot on your skin and at the same time the air is cool and soothing. As I turned into our driveway, I stopped midway, stood for a minute hearing the sounds of the family inside drifting out through the open windows, the faint clinking of dishes being set out for supper, muted voices talking. I felt the hot sun and cool breeze simultaneously on my skin. And suddenly a deep, piercing feeling swept through me as silent words rose inside expressing something I didn’t know I felt: these words, “I want to go home.”

The word “HOME” swept through me with an intense feeling of longing, a deep yearning for something I didn’t have but hungered for. I didn’t know where that sentence came from or what that word meant but I knew it wasn’t this home, this little brick ranch house where we lived and from which the homely sounds were coming.  For decades after that, as I grew up and the places where I lived changed, the words would rise up in me at unexpected times, and the one word that was the heart of that simple sentence, the one beautiful word, haunted me ever after: HOME. 

The second word that came to be special to me began to sound inside me when I was a bit older. It was “INTEGRITY.”  It didn’t hit me with explosive force as my first beautiful word had done, but it kept coming up to me and did exert a kind of pull. I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I knew I wanted it and that I didn’t have it. Not then. This word didn’t fill me with the deep yearning that was expressed in “home,” but it did call to me, and as I pondered it, trying to understand what it meant, it took on the shape of a desire. It became a value I wanted to live out in my life, and it set me on a course to understand better what it means to live with integrity.

I don’t need to say much here about the third beautiful word that has shaped and profoundly impacted my life, except that it overwhelms and completes all other beautiful words. It’s the name “JESUS.”

Words are powerful things. They can shape us in ways we don’t begin to understand. They can call us onto new paths or down dark alleys. They can lock us in prisons or open wide our doors. The French theologian-philosopher Blaise Pascal, said “Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them, and bitter words make them bitter, and wrathful words make them wrathful.” All that is true. But beautiful words give life. They give goodness and hope, they awaken holy desires, shed light on the path, give comfort and, sometimes, sheer joy.

What are your beautiful words? Savor them. Let them pull you forward.  I have since come to understand better what my beautiful words have meant in my life, though I don’t claim to have fully comprehended them yet. There is always more to learn, for which I thank God.

Playing Hide and Seek

woman s face behind the leaf close up photo
Photo by Luis Aquino on Pexels.com

When I was a child one of our favorite games to play was “Hide and Seek.”  I remember the rush of looking for a hiding place, the thrill of having people trying to find me while I hunkered down somewhere, wanting to be so cleverly hidden that I would “win” the game when they failed to find me. But I also wanted to be found in the end. The game would become bad if the seekers gave up, stopped calling and left me there, forgotten and lonely in my hiddenness.

I think it’s not uncommon for many of us to play this “game” unconsciously in adulthood. We get caught up in the tension between, on the one hand, wanting to be found, to be known, to be discovered and drawn out of our isolation, and on the other hand fearing to be too well known, exposed and vulnerable. So we draw boundaries around ourselves and remain hidden behind them. We want people to know us and our unique human story, but we don’t want them to know too much. We’d rather hide the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and can’t accept, the parts of our story that make us feel ashamed or vulnerable.

I know that this is one of my inner conflicts. I’ve played hide and seek my whole life. I’ve lived behind a wall, wanting someone to want to know me, yet feeling fiercely protective of my privacy. The thing I hate most is when people come crashing through my personal boundaries demanding to know more than I want to give. That alone can kill a relationship for me. Yet I have sometimes wanted someone to “crash the gates.” It’s a tug of war I’ve never been able to resolve. At least not fully, not yet.

Being a preacher, and now a writer, has brought this inner tug of war to the table because whatever I write (whether a blog, fiction, sermons, or even a prayer), I inevitably expose myself at some level. In my sermons I always felt like the words I ended up speaking were preaching to me as much as to the congregation. In my blog posts things that have rolled around inside me get clarified in a way I can’t miss.  Even in the stories I write some of my own experiences and feelings color what ends up on the page.

That’s why writing has sometimes been a challenge. It isn’t that I can’t find the words. Words just pour out of me. But they also reveal so much. The only words worth writing are those that express something true, truly believed, and truly felt. Anything less is inauthentic and produces a sense of disquiet in me; I can’t let them stand uncorrected. But once spoken or published, my truth is out there for others to react to, and that’s all a bit scary. Nevertheless, here I am, gradually giving myself away through my words.

So how does one overcome such ingrained, passionate attachment to self-protection? I believe it’s when we finally are able (i.e., free enough) to reach out beyond our fears to claim a full, honest life over a crippled one. I’m still working on it.

Our Life Stories

I’m in awe of the depth and significance of every person’s life story, though I can know only the tiniest fragment of any of them. It fills me with a sense of an immensely prodigal Creator, speaking constantly through the stories of our lives, and no one fully able to hear the tales.

I remember a line I heard in a movie I saw long ago. A woman was speaking with a new friend, who asked her why she stayed married to her husband, and she replied, “I am there to be a witness to his life.”  The exact details of the scene are lost to me now, but those words linger in my mind. To be a witness to the life of another person strikes me as a humble, immensely significant thing. 

Who can give witness to our life?  If we’re lucky enough to have a long-lived marriage that continues in respect, intimacy, and affection, then we may have someone who can “be a witness” to our life.  Who else but a spouse has the opportunity to know us so well, over a long period of time, from stories told of the past and experiences shared in the present? Who else is likely to know most of our secrets, yearnings, fears, sins, the goodness, the traumas, the sorrows and the joys that have made up so much of who we are. Who knows our story?

More and more I’ve been reflecting on the lives of my family, especially my mother, and of course my own life as well. When I think over the many experiences of my life I’m overwhelmed by an awareness of how much is encompassed in any single human life. Much more than we can ever fully share or another can ever fully know. (We don’t actually fully know ourselves, if truth be told.) Even a single lifetime is filled with more experiences, thoughts and emotions than we can count or hold onto, the full significance of it all impossible to grasp much less to convey to another. I wish we could, but it’s beyond our capacity. The only One truly witnessing our largely unknown lives is the Creator who made us, engages with us, and watches over us.  

I sometimes imagine that God has dreamed us into being and sees all our stories playing out, a huge human drama on a vast stage. I imagine the whole multiplicity of human stories is like the hundreds of thousands of leaves on a tree, budding out and then falling away, never able to tell the rich depths of their individual short lives. Most of us, in our ignorance, fail to notice the particular beauty of a single leaf receiving light and water and air, the touch of insects and the songs of birds; surviving the oppression of heat, the rustling of wind and the chill of cold; the flaming out in autumn and finally falling, falling, falling to the ground.  In the same way, most of us fail to recognize the singularity of a human life — of every human life.

I’ve been listening these past few years to the stories my aged mother tells about her life, the incidents that seared themselves in her memory (never mind the countless ones that are long forgotten), the feelings that colored them, the joys and sorrows that her heart and mind have harbored. As I listen I begin to sense the ways that the Holy One has moved through her, through those memories. I’ve heard her begin to recognize things she hadn’t realized before, and I’ve understood things about her in the telling that I’d never imagined.

These have been only the tip of a deep iceberg that is her history, her life story.  It would be a humble, unremarkable life story to most people. She never made it onto the evening television news nor had a single newspaper account written about her. She never won a prize for anything. She survived a difficult childhood, grew up into adulthood, got married, had children. She worked her adult life raising and teaching her children, cherishing her husband, working in a factory to help pay the bills. Eventually she retired, and now has grown frail and old. But that sad catalog of a life is only the outward shell.

This is how it is for most of us: our stories are like those unremarkable, even ugly, rocks called geodes: if you break one open it’s full of glittering shards of great beauty. That’s the life of my mother. I believe it’s your life too. Remarkable beauty lies hidden in plain sight in every single human life. We will never see the whole of it, but we may, if we are lucky or especially blessed, find an opening and catch a glimpse. 

The War Inside Us

humanframe

The story I’m developing is about a woman who is at war within herself, wanting one thing passionately, but resisting it at the same time. There’s a battle going on inside her, though at first (and for a long time) she doesn’t fully understand it.  It’s a battle a lot of us have waged, often unwittingly until something intrudes to expose it to us.  She desperately wants to be loved, part of an intimate couple and a family; but she carries inside her a fear equal to her desire: fear of losing herself in the relationship.

Whatever the particular shape of the tensions tugging at us, it often comes down to this: the heart is torn between desire and fear.  Why do we so often run up to the goal only to turn away from it in the end? Why do so many of us self-sabotage, denying ourselves the very thing we most desire? At root, the enemy is some form of fear that has taken hold of us. It becomes a question of whether we can overcome our fear enough to reach beyond it.

In my story, she (the protagonist) deeply wants someone to love her but she also wants independence and is fearful of losing it.  On the other hand, he, her lover, longs for intimacy with her but is afraid of the vulnerability required. This is just one of the tensions they are coping with as they try to fill their hungers and reach out to each other through their fears.

What do you want most passionately in this life?  What is keeping you from achieving it? I’ve had to ask myself this many times. It isn’t easy to suss out the answers. We tend to build up strong protections against self-knowledge when fear’s involved. But unless and until we can face our fears and move past them, we’ll continue to be crippled by them, at war within ourselves, trapped in a painful conflict. The resolution isn’t inevitable. But it also isn’t impossible.

The lives of the couple I’m thinking about, who inspire my story, tell a sad and painful tale. He never was able to overcome his crippling fear and the relationship couldn’t last (though they tried for a long time). She was able to move on, and because I prefer to live in hope I like to imagine that she found peace from her own inner struggles in the end. But it’s a cautionary tale.

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ro 7:14–15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

The First Duty of Love

listening heartHere in America we are going through a cultural crisis and severe partisan division. Our divisions are characterized by an extreme unwillingness to listen to anyone who doesn’t share our point of view.  We are doing more talking than listening, and our talk is going on in silos, so that all we hear is other people shouting at us from across a great distance. Continue reading “The First Duty of Love”

Slip Slidin’ Away

woman lying on black road
Photo by 7.hust on Pexels.com

As I sat down to write this, not sure what needed to be said, these are the words that came to my mind.  “Slip slidin’ away.” You may remember them from the once-famous Paul Simon song (of Simon and Garfunkel fame).  I didn’t realize, until the song came to mind and clarified it for me, what I’ve been struggling with lately.  It’s the sense that I’m losing hold of the things I’ve been reaching for.

Simon sings of a man’s fear that in his passion for attachment to a woman he loves he will lose his sense of his own life. He sings of life not working out the way one wants, hopes, or dreams that it will. He sings of a man who longs to explain himself to his son but who walks away leaving it all unsaid instead. Then at the end he sings this:

“God only knows, God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man. 
We’re working our jobs, collect our pay, 
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, 
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.” 

(Slip Slidin’ Away lyrics ©Songwriters: Paul Simon Universal Music Publishing Group)

Opportunities lost, hopes unrealized, a fear of losing (abandoning?) our chance to do what was needed to reach our desires. Losing time, freedom, a sense of one’s self, a chance to deepen a relationship, or the chance to grow the meaningful life that we didn’t realize we wanted.  So much of our lives we think we have an endless amount of time to work it all out, and then the nearer we get to “our destination” we discover that we’ve been moving in the wrong direction. Like a car on a snowy hill trying to get to the top, we find ourselves sliding away instead, and we can’t stop the slide.

I’ve not lived the life I hoped for. I have lived my life as well as I could, given who I was and what I was given. I’ve lived a greatly blessed life, given a goodly share of talents and opportunities, and I’m grateful for it all.  But… now I feel that I may not have enough time left, enough health, enough chances, to accomplish the desires I buried for so long while pursuing the path that I took.  So I find myself tempted to give up, to let go of the hopes and forgo the efforts required to achieve them, to just let myself slip and slide away.  Procrastination is one of the symptoms of that.  Self-indulgent, unproductive leisure is another. Giving in to aches and pains of the body or just to sloth of the spirit is another.

I’ll never know what prompted Paul Simon to write the lyrics to his song, but they’ve given me a fresh incentive to try again. With or without hope of success in getting exactly where I wanted to go, it’s worth the effort.  Sometimes on a snowy hill I’ve been able to stop my car from sliding and by praying, shifting into 2nd gear, challenging the engine, and refusing to give up, eventually the tires took hold and I’ve actually gotten to the top.

Only God knows how my life will end up, whether I’ll ever get my book written or indeed anything published, but one thing is certain: unless I am determined to keep on going I’ll never get there. So I fight against the slide-away and I live in hope.  I wish the same for you. Peace to you in this season of renewal and endless possibilities.