God Works in Mysterious Ways

Mother Emanuel

Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston (photo credit: Democracy Now)

We’ve all heard the saying, “God Works in Mysterious Ways.”  A tired trope, right?  Not in the hands of President Obama, who gave it fresh and meaningful power in his moving eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.  And not in light of the events of the last seven days.

“God Works in Mysterious Ways” was just one of literally dozens of memorable phrases and comments that arose during this most remarkable of weeks. Our part of the world cracked open a door to examine some of its deepest wounds and also saw change for millions who have been denied life’s basic liberties and access to a safe and civil society.

While that change is far from complete, let’s take the time to observe (in this next installment of Observations from Home) just what took place over the last seven days since I wrote about the horrific murders at Mother Emanuel.

A Powerful Reflection on Grace – For almost forty minutes in Charleston, Barack Obama reflected on race and the meaning of grace. This was not the carefully constructed speeches on racial divides that he used as a candidate or during his first years as president. This was a deeply emotional and moving reflection that came from experience and spoke with power to those – of all races – who share or work to understand that experience.

In last week’s blog, I commented on the fact that the grace-filled forgiveness of the families of the Emanuel 9 to the alleged killer was the one ray of hope in a very sad situation, but I was quick to assume a pessimistic outlook as to its impact, given that major media reports at the time were not focused on what our rector, the Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, called “the weapons of Christ” in her sermon on the subject last Sunday.

When David faced Goliath, Saul tried to clothe him in his own armor: fine armor of bronze, fit for a king. But David realized that he could not even walk in it; it was the tool of a different sort of man. Even so, we must learn to walk in ways that are not the ways of violence. In our popular culture, the villains use guns and bombs — but so do the heroes. Dirty Harry, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, even Harry Potter– all these use violence to fight violence. But the master’s tools can never take down the master’s house. When Nadine Collier, niece of one of the people who were killed in Charleston, confronted the alleged killer and said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she was using the weapons of Christ — and her words did not come cheap. We, too, must learn to fight with the weapons of peace and of true justice, for we work in the name of the Lord of Hosts, who loves those people who are perishing.

It turns out that the words of the families – and the grace with which they were spoken – did have an impact. I’ll once again turn to the New York Times report to explain the context for how God moves in mysterious ways.

Mr. Obama joined with others paying tribute in stressing that the 21-year-old white man charged in the killings had failed to achieve his stated goal of inciting racial conflagration. Rather, he said, the killings had the opposite effect, generating an unprecedented show of racial unity and inspiring a nationwide revolt against Confederate symbols.

“It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches,” Mr. Obama said, “not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”

He paused for effect. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” Mr. Obama said. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.” The crowd erupted in applause as women waved their hands toward the ceiling.

I almost cried when I first listened to that part of the eulogy.  The Times report continued.

Mr. Obama commended South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, for her call this week to bring down the Confederate flag in Columbia, saying it would be “a meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”

It was one of the most powerful moments in a eulogy full of them – including the President breaking into song with Amazing Grace and having the organist come in to offer support and take the emotion even higher.  The note that God moves in mysterious ways was a powerful moment in an emotional conversation about race and grace that must – for the health of our nation and the health of our souls – continue.

Marriage Equality (Or how both my children can now marry the people they love no matter where they may live in America) – Justice Andrew Kennedy had the definitive statement for me in the long-expected but still amazing ruling on marriage equality that came from a divided Supreme Court on Friday.

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.

Rainbow flag

These men and women are my family. My co-workers. My friends. Plus millions I do not know. And it is past time that we recognized them not only as children of God – as we all are, in whatever way we understand that phrase – but complete human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as the rest of our country.

The vitriol in the dissents – especially that of Antonin Scalia – demonstrated that we still have a long way to go in this country to address our differences and welcome our fellow human beings with grace.  As one admittedly partisan commentator noted, Scalia’s “notion that the court is made up of patrician Ivy League elitists is tested mightily when he offers up legal opinions that sound like they have been culled from newspaper website comment threads.” When pronouncements from Supreme Court justices include sharp personal attacks and practically sputter in their denial of reality, the impact of 30+ years of false victim-hood by cable news, radio, and internet outlets is clear.

Speaking of Reality – The Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) decision on Thursday, by a larger 6-3 majority, provided some relief by demonstrating that we still have a government that – when necessary – can face reality.  Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court observer, noted that “Ideology came face to face with reality, and reality prevailed.”  Yet another concise take on the events of the week when God – if not the Supreme Court – moved in mysterious ways.

Universal health care for Americans is something that has been on the nation’s agenda since the Roosevelt administration.  That’s Theodore Roosevelt! Every other so-called first-world and industrialized nation in the world has figured out how to do this without blowing up the government, the economy, or health care.  Some third world countries have done a pretty good job of it as well. For us…not so much.  When I hear that Americans don’t like the Affordable Care Act and don’t want universal coverage, I think of the following: President Obama campaigned in 2008 on providing universal health insurance and won big. Then – with the help of a lot of people who paid for it politically – the Affordable Care Act was passed based on a model that had originally been devised by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Naturally, the new law was derided by conservatives. President Obama ran again in 2012 on a platform of maintaining the ACA against a candidate who promised to repeal the act. Again, he won big. And millions of Americans who didn’t have health coverage before now have it, while those of us who have had health care still benefit from provisions in the law such as being able to keep our children on our policies through their mid-20s and not being punished for pre-existing conditions. Reality is that the program has worked pretty much as advertised.

In discussing how the Supreme Court’s majority came to see the case for the “cynically manufactured and meritless argument” which tried to turn the court into “a partisan tool,” Greenhouse wrote:

The chief justice’s masterful opinion showed that line of argument for the simplistic and agenda-driven construct that it was. Parsing the 1,000-plus-page statute in a succinct 21-page opinion, he deftly wove in quotations from recent Supreme Court opinions.

These were all opinions – written by Justice Scalia – which rightly noted that short ambiguous phrases could be easily understood in the context of the law’s purpose and framework.  Of course, Gail Collins had a perhaps more direct take:

The court decided — in what opponents decried as a wild leap of judgment — that it was not going to strip millions of people of their health coverage and upend one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern history because of a four-word drafting error.

Reality won.  God really does move in mysterious ways.

“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us” – While I am stretching my 7-day time frame a bit, these recent words from Pope Francis’ encyclical on Care for our Common Home fits into the pattern of change. For far too long, we have heard from the religious right that humans are the masters of the universe, and that changes in our climate are either non-existent or not related to human activity.  But Pope Francis, writing to all the peoples of the world, speaks from a very different perspective.

This sister (our common home) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League connected the dots between the pope’s encyclical and the events at Mother Emanuel.

Like the Emanuel AME community, Francis emphasizes the central role love must play in our world, in this case, to stop catastrophic environmental degradation. From his extensive declaration, “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

And yet another long and contentious conversation is changed by grace.

Amazing Grace – At some other point I’ll write more about how these themes played out in my work over the past week – where colleagues in Charleston visited Emanuel A.M.E. Church, saw the tangible expressions of concern, support, hope, and prayer that people left in front of the church, and helped the members of Mother Emanuel begin planning for their preservation. Where the National Trust and other preservation groups highlighted landmarks of the LGBT civil rights movement, places that each in their own way helped lead to this week’s ruling.  Where colleagues and I met in New York to advance our work to build sustainable and livable cities as part of our common home.  But all of that is for another post or two.  I want to give President Obama the last word, as he wrapped up his powerful reflection on grace.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace. 

(Begins to sing) — Amazing grace — how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

Clementa Pinckney found that grace.  

Cynthia Hurd found that grace.  

Susie Jackson found that grace.  

Ethel Lance found that grace.  

DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.

Tywanza Sanders found that grace.  

Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.  

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.  

Myra Thompson found that grace.

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure.  May grace now lead them home.  May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.


More to come…


Observations from Home (The Mother Emanuel Edition)

Mother Emanuel Church

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston (photo credit: emanuelamechurch.org)

The horrific murders during the Wednesday evening Bible study of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have rarely left my mind over the past few days. I have talked about it with colleagues who live in the city, prayed for the victims and their families during a conference on the legacy of African-American Rosenwald Schools, read dozens of articles and commentaries, and had long conversations over the family dinner table – all to try to make sense out of the senseless.

To take another step in that process, I’m adding to my “Observations from Home” series with this collection of unrelated observations and thoughts which all revolve around the many issues raised by this racist rampage.

Bible Study – Those of us who grew up in the 20th century South in the evangelical tradition understand the nature of a weekday gathering to study scripture. The regulars are the spiritual seekers and mentors who take their faith very seriously. When I heard that the shootings had taken place at the weekday Bible study, I didn’t have to wait for the news reports to tell me that these people would be nurturing, loving leaders who lived out their faith in their daily lives.  And the reports soon confirmed that these were nine remarkable people – beginning with the 41-year-old pastor and State Senator but also including a poet, a librarian, a girls’ track coach, the church sexton, and more.

As I write this, the Emanuel AME Church website has not been updated to reflect the carnage that took place in this sacred place last Wednesday at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist.  So it is especially heart-rendering to read the description of Wednesday evening Bible study found there:

Is something missing from your life? Are you doing all you can to have a closer relationship with God? If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!

I Forgive You – There will be many responses – and non-responses – to this race-based terrorist attack from those who profess a Christian faith.  Many of those responses will be very sincere and meaningful, but others will simply attempt to frame the discussion in a way that upholds their worldview. One of the worst stains among many in the South’s racial history is the church’s role in supporting first slavery and then racial inequality.

I could go on a rant here about how the so-called Christian right (which is neither) espouses beliefs that are the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus. But I couldn’t do a better job of demonstrating Jesus’ true response than the family members of the victims did at the bail hearing. Time and again, they simply said, “I forgive you” to the angry young man who found it was appropriate to kill nine innocent people because he – in his own misguided way and spurred by the hatred so often found in our public discourse – felt his world was threatened.

The New York Times covered this remarkable outpouring by reporting:

One by one, they looked to the screen in a corner of the courtroom on Friday, into the expressionless face of the young man charged with making them motherless, snuffing out the life of a promising son, taking away a loving wife for good, bringing a grandmother’s life to a horrific end. And they answered him with forgiveness.

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

But the Times, like almost all of the national media, missed the chance to compare this moving and deep faith-based response with the typical stand of today’s politicians and professional pastors who claim the religious mantle as their own, but quickly call for violence as a response to violence – be it domestic or international. To me, this witness by the family members of the victims was the one ray of hope to come from this inexplicable sadness.

Terrorism – I cannot follow all the arguments about how we do – or don’t – describe this act.  But there is no doubt that it fits within a 400+ year history of terrorism against African-Americans in the United States. We are quick to respond to perceived terrorist threats from abroad, but as a country we have turned a blind eye to the terrorism at home. 4,000 lynchings from 1877 to 1950; the KKK’s 1870 burning of nearly every black church in Tuskegee, Alabama; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that left four little girls dead; the recent wave of killings against unarmed African Americans…all are part and parcel of a racial history in the United States that has seen one group of American citizens live in fear and search – usually in vain – for a safe place. And what should be the safest place of all – a House of God – is often the first target. This most recent example was a hate crime. It was racially motivated. And while it may have been perpetrated by a lone individual acting out his own misguided sense of how his country should respond to change, it was part of a centuries-long terrorist campaign.

Guns, Race, Flags…Oh, the South – William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, includes the famous passage where Quentin Compson’s puzzled Canadian roommate at Harvard says to him:

“Tell about the South. What it’s like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”

This is one of those times when you wonder if those who look at the baggage of the South and suggest that perhaps we would be better off without the region may be right. I know I look at the worst impulses of South today and fear for our country and our souls.

Let’s start with the region’s obsession with guns. We’ll have commentators who will say that easy access to guns doesn’t have a thing to do with our violent history. Or worse, we’ll have a board member of the NRA from Texas blame the church’s pastor for voting against a measure in the South Carolina legislature which would have made it legal to carry concealed guns into churches. Why didn’t I think of that? The world will be much safer and better off if we have armed guards at Bible study!

Then there is race, and the extra toxic mixture of racial inequality and the Confederate flag. One of the most willfully misleading strains of thought I heard came from commentators who said that the killer was focusing on Christians, and not African-Americans. Let’s just get out the blinders. This is a region – as noted in The Bitter Southernerwhere people…

“…will argue, in all sincerity, that the Confederacy entered the Civil War only to defend the concept of states’ rights and that secession had nothing to do with the desire to keep slavery alive. We still become a national laughing stock because some small town somewhere has not figured out how to hold a high school prom that includes kids of all races. “

I have heard “heritage not hate” about the Confederate flag for years, often from people who are related to me in one way or the other. These are people who are reading airbrushed Southern history, or have had teachers (sometimes their parents) who simply do not know what they are talking about.

God I want to believe that there are a growing number of people in the South who “do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions” yet view “our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window.” My hope begins with those family members of the victims who said, “I forgive you.” But of course, we need many more people – and especially white Southerners – to take up that mantle.

Is There Hope? Jon Stewart says no.

“Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”

The Economist has doubts as well.

“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity. The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualised and then blend into the background noise. That normalisation makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.”

I don’t know how or when we may work through this as a people, but sooner or later we have to own this past. That, it seems to me, is the first step. As an individual I have to find my personal  response, even in the face of hopelessness; my own way to play a role in helping throw our dishonorable traditions out the window.

More to come…


Observations from Home (The June Weekend Edition)

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Omaha Beach, Normandy

I was at Nationals Park on Saturday, enjoying a sunny, summer day; appreciating the Nat’s celebration of the anniversary of D-Day; and joining in the banter of friends – new and long-time – that can only come when you have 3+ hours to sit and chat between pitches. One of those friends opined that a bad day at the ballpark (the Nats lost) is still better than almost any other day.  So count that as the first observation in a series of unrelated thoughts in this “June Weekend” edition of Observations From Home. As noted before, you can take them or leave them.

Remembering D-Day – Saturday was June 6th, and a series of WWII veterans – many who saw action at Normandy in June of 1944 – were honored at the ballpark and helped throw out the first pitch.  I’ve written about these heroes before – including one who lives next door – but it is becoming very clear that we have only a few more years before this generation passes on to its reward.  Every chance we get to celebrate the sacrifice they made, we should take it.  It was an honor to stand and cheer for these veterans yesterday.


Capital Crescent Trail

The Capital Crescent Trail

Take the bike ride – This afternoon, I was weighing a nap versus a bike ride.  I took the bike ride – about 90 minutes along the Capital Crescent Trail (our unpaved, non-superhighway side from Silver Spring to Bethesda). It was beautiful, with a gentle breeze and – surprisingly – not too many users on the trail.  I love our bike trails – the Capital Crescent and Sligo Creek trails being the two I ride most often.  I know what is usually the right choice between a nap and a bike ride.  Take the bike ride.

Thank God it is only June – I’ll circle back to the Nationals. After a couple of weeks of lackluster play against the Reds, Blue Jays, and Cubs, we all have to stop and remember that it is only June.  (Perhaps some of the Nats should join the “Yoga in the Outfield” promotion that is taking place right about now following yet another Nats loss to the Cubs.)  I hope that F.P. (one of the Nats’ television announcers) is right about the team only playing well when the weather warms up.  This late-May, early-June coolness certainly cooled off the bats. As part of the banter among our section at the park yesterday, my friend Dolores – who is part of my season ticket group and who I’ll join for 2 or 3 games each year – was talking about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. She made the comment that she has “had it” with Strasburg and all his injuries and issues, and noted that “One is headstrong and the other’s a head case.”  The headstrong one was fine by her (and me). I’m not ready to write Strasburg off, but it is tough…as Tom Boswell recently noted:

When I watch Strasburg pitch on his funk days, a dark cloud passes across my mind. I feel the same mean desire to say, “Million-dollar arm, ten-cent head” that swept over me when I watched the early years of other young underachievers: Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven and Randy Johnson. In moments of lucidity, I would realize that their “makeup” — in different ways — was blocking peak performance. Plenty of their early managers and teammates saw them as “head cases,” too. All got ripped for years. None were cut slack. (Now they’re all in the Hall of Fame.)

Okay, time to come back to the ballpark and do it again.  It is a long season.

Did the American Civil War Ever End? – One of the best sustained remembrances of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has been the “Disunion” series in the New York Times.  I hadn’t focused on the fact that the editor – Ted Widmer – was the assistant to the President of Brown University, or I might have looked him up when we were there for Andrew’s graduation a couple of weeks ago.

In any event, Widmer wrote a piece last week for the series that asked the question, “Did the American Civil War Ever End?”  It is well worth a read.  Here’s a sample, where Widmer speaks about the impact of a huge number of veterans and the unintended consequences of the huge number of guns:

Many veterans retained their sidearms, including Confederate officers, and weapons were easily available, thanks to an arms industry that had done great service to the Union cause. They could hardly be expected to voluntarily go out of business. With new products (like Winchester’s Model 1866 rifle), sophisticated distribution networks and a public eager to buy, the industry entered a highly profitable phase. Winchester’s repeating rifles needed hardly any time for reloading, and sold briskly in Europe, where American arms tipped the balance in local conflicts.

The Winchester was easily transported to the West, where new military campaigns were undertaken against Native Americans, and few could be blamed for wondering if the Civil War had in fact ended. Many of the same actors were present, and it could be argued that this was simply another phase of the crisis of Union, reconciling East and West, rather than North and South.

This tragic epilogue does not fit cleanly into the familiar narrative of the Civil War as a war of liberation. Peoples who had lived on ancestral lands for thousands of years were no match for a grimly experienced army, eager to occupy new lands, in part to reward the soldiers who had done the fighting.

Natives called the repeating rifles “spirit guns,” and had no answer for them. They fought courageously, but in the end had no choice but to accept relocation, often to reservations hundreds of miles away. Adolf Hitler would cite these removals as a precedent for the Nazi concentration camps.

Take the time to read this piece. It will make you think.

More to come…