Saturday, July 27, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Lord's Prayer

Luke 11:1-13

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

Each Sunday we thank God that Jesus, in addition to his supreme role as savior of the world, was also a teacher. He taught us how to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer is recited each day by billions of Christians around the world. For many, the Our Father precedes the Hail Mary on the Rosary as an expression of personal devotion and contrition.

The Lord’s Prayer is probably the first memorization exercise for Christian children. 

When I was a pre-schooler, my parents thought the theology of the Lord’s Prayer was too dense for a four-year-old. They taught my brother Larry and me to say a simpler verse:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Very quickly Mommy and Daddy realized the notion of dying in one’s sleep might be terrifying for a child. They didn’t realize that the five-year-old girl next door, one of the first in the neighborhood to be exposed to television advertising, had already taught us a more comforting version:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
Alka-Seltzer’s what to take.

Even so, my parents quickly replaced the Now I Lay Me with the Our Father. Each night Larry and I – and our younger siblings as they came along – recited the prayer in the Presbyterian/Methodist traditions of our parents.

Our Father which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses 
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not unto temptation
But deliver us from evil.

And being good Protestants, we’d finish the prayer with words that do not appear in Matthew or Luke:

For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen.

Just how a sentence Jesus never said got into the prayer is a mystery to me, although I suspect my friend Harland Getts – the Southern Baptist Air Force Chaplain I worked for when I was fighting the Cold War – got it right. 

“Probably some dumb monk got carried away when he was copying the text,” Harland said, the closest he came to acknowledging the Bible might not be completely inerrant. I recall thinking that it would have been a nice break if the dumb monk had also left out a commandment or two.

I suppose I have been reciting the Lord’s Prayer in one form or another nearly every day for the past six decades. My parents actually made Larry and me kneel by our bedside every night to pray it aloud, although that practice dissipated when the two of us couldn’t be near each other without tickling, jabbing, giggling, squealing, and wrestling. After that, we were told to pray silently and keep our hands to ourselves.

Gradually the words of the Lord’s Prayer were mysteriously modified. When the New York State Baptist Convention began supplying pastors for our little church, we began saying “debts” rather than “trespasses”.

I don’t recall being taught what the words of the Lord’s Prayer mean and for the most part Larry and I had to work that out, along with other secrets of life, on our own. There was an exegetical joke that circulated in the third grade:

Kid One: Did you know God has a name?
Kid Two: No. What?
Kid One: You know: Our Father in Heaven, HAROLD, be thy name…

It was one of those kid jokes I never got, like the one that went around kid-dom when Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe: “Didja know when Joe DiMaggio hits a home run now he STAYS home?”  

None of the kids knew why this was funny, and by the time I figured it out, Joe and Marilyn had been separated for years.

But life and truth are confusing when one is a kid, and they don’t get a lot clearer when one grows old.

As I was thinking about what I would say about the Lord’s prayer this week, I tried to look at it analytically.

There are some scholars who say the prayer is an amalgamation of the teachings of Jesus throughout his ministry. Many of these scholars doubt Jesus ever called his disciples together to teach the prayer in one fell swoop. 

I’m not sure that matters much. Even the Jesus Seminar, famous for casting doubt on the recorded words of Jesus, has concluded that the phrases of the prayer are authentic summaries of Jesus’ teachings. 

The Jesus Seminar concluded that the words of the prayer most likely to be authentic are the first: “Our Father.” Jesus would have said “Abba,” which was an affectionate term for a male parent akin to “Daddy.”

My dear friend the late Dr. Ray Jennings, who I have missed these many years, thought it was hilarious when the politically correct church he joined edited the opening phrase of the prayer to make it gender inclusive: “Our Mother/Father.”

“Isn’t that rich?” asked Ray, who held a doctorate in theology. “The only words in the prayer the Jesus Seminar thinks Jesus really said, and this church changed them!”

Jesus, of course, was gender inclusive throughout his ministry. But when he prayed, he said “Daddy.”

What is remarkable about the Lord’s Prayer is that so many people have recited it over two millennia without allowing it to seep into their brains or to have the slightest impact on their conduct. 

How can one continually pray to abide in God’s will, to forgive others, and to be rescued from evil thoughts and deeds, and still be a hateful, vindictive, xenophobic, racist, homophobic, ageist, and sexist jerk? 

How could Thomas More and Henry VIII pray the Our Father daily while burning and beheading those who had sinned against their biased beliefs and their  megalomaniacal     goals? Young Josef Stalin was a seminarian heading for the priesthood in his native Georgia. What was he thinking when he prayed the Our Father? Where did the greatest mass murderer of the twentieth century go wrong?

I suppose it’s all a matter of compartmentalization. Many of us put our spiritual life in a compartment quite separate from our physical lives. Hugh Sidey, who covered the presidency for TIME magazine from 1957 to 1998, reported President Kennedy knelt by the bedside every night and prayed the Our Father – presumably, at times, just after he had shagged a White House secretary or intern in the same sheets. (May he rest in peace.) 

One of the most moving scenes in Godfather III is when Michael Corleone, a stalwart of the church who knew the words of the Our Father, confesses his sins to a Roman Catholic Cardinal:

“I betrayed my wife,” Michael begins hesitantly, weeping. “I betrayed myself. I killed men and I ordered men to be killed.”

Breaking down, Michael sobs, “It’s useless.” But the Cardinal urges him to go on.

“I killed …” Michael continues “…I ordered the death of my brother. I killed my father’s son.” Sobbing, he repeats: “I killed my father’s son.”

The Cardinal, who in the film represents the future Pope John Paul I, is temporarily stunned.

“Your sins are terrible,” the Cardinal says, “and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed.”

But the Cardinal understands how sinners keep their spiritual quest separate from their physical desires.

“I know you do not believe that,” the Cardinal says before making the sign of the cross and offering the weeping Michael an empty absolution. “You will not change.”

One suspects that Don Michael Corleone, who in Godfather I stood as godfather at his nephew’s baptism while several who had sinned against him were violently extinguished rather than forgiven, was not paying attention to the words of the prayer he knew so well.

One of the reasons we Baptists don’t pray rosaries is that we have an aversion to “vain and repetitious prayers” because Jesus said not to do it (Matthew 6:7). And one could make a case that Michael (and JFK and Henry VIII and Josef Stalin) said the prayer so repetitiously they forgot to listen to it.

But Baptists know – even if we won’t admit it – that we sometimes don’t listen to our prayers either. We prefer to pray extemporaneously, often inserting the needless qualifier “just” into our petitions, e.g., “Lord, we just pray that you would just look down upon us and just bless us and keep us and we just pray for the Episcopalians and Methodists and others who just don’t know they are unsaved …”

Whether Jesus taught us the Lord’s prayer in one sitting, or whether he scattered its golden nuggets throughout his parables and sermons, the lesson seems clear enough:

When you pray, don’t forget to whom you’re talking: the Creator of the Universe, whose name is too holy to utter in vain repetitions.

When you pray, remember your desire that the beloved community Jesus came to proclaim, God’s realm of unconditional love, will be a reality in all that you say and do, now and when you pass over to the other side.

When you pray, ask God to forgive your sins, and remember that God will find it easier to forgive you when you forgive all the slights, slurs, injuries, betrayals, and evil things people do to you.

When you pray, ask God to give you the strength and self control to resist temptation of any kind – sexual, financial, social, even gustatory.

When you pray, ask God to forgive you and overlook the sinful messes you make. 

And when you pray, plead with God to keep the devil far, far away from you.

The God who loves us enough to do all that is certainly entitled to all the praise we can muster. Whichever dumb monk added the final line of the Lord's prayer did the right thing: for God's is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. 

As Port Chester resident Ed Sullivan once said on national television, Let’s hear it for the Lord’s Prayer. 

And when you hear it, be sure you're listening.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Racism Virus

July 15, 2016. Three years ago I wrote this sermon at a time when it seemed racial divisions could not get much worse in the U.S. 

Now the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump has made matters much worse and millions of white Americans are no longer uncomfortable about revealing their racism. “In a country where the wealthiest and most influential citizens are still mostly white,” the New York Times reported this week, “Mr. Trump is voicing the bewilderment and anger of whites who do not feel at all powerful or privileged. But in so doing, Mr. Trump has also opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century.” 

Other politicians have jumped on the Trump band wagon. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani flaunted his own racism by declaring Black Lives Matter to be a racist movement. 

Among Republicans, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sounded a rare note of reason: “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

A recent New Yorker cartoon put it this way: a white man is sitting on an examination table in his doctor's office as a physician shows him an X-ray: “This is the racist bone you said you didn’t have in your body.”

That’s the point: we all have racist bones in our bodies. 

The questions I attempted to address in this sermon are these: which is worse? Brandishing our racist bones as bludgeons against persons we consider “others”? Or continuing to hide our racism while we pray the divisions in our society will go away?

Warning: earlier I censored some of the coarser language and racial epithets that I quoted. Now they have been restored in all their ugliness. 

O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. Psalm 15.

Back in the day, most hate mongers tended to obscure their identity. What goes around comes around, folks said, and wicked words could backfire. Best to spraypaint swastikas and racial slurs in secret, lest the good guys come after you.

Not so today. Venomous words that used to be hissed in moral sewers are now tweeted from the cyber mountaintops. Most of these 140-letter messages are signed.

There has been a flood of such messages lately. On Friday the President of the United States shared his thoughts about what an African American might feel when an unarmed black teen-ager is singled out, pursued and gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watchman. When the gunman is acquitted of the crime, Mr. Obama said, the hurt runs deep.

Most African American males, the president said, have been victims of racial profiling. Including him. 

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Mr. Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

Mr. Obama’s remarks were dismissed as “emotional and rambling” by pundits who regard themselves as conservative rather than racist.

But tweeters on the fringes of sanity were more blunt.

Eric D. Vandenberg put it this way: “President Obama said Friday that ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me.’ Most of us wish it would have been you, Mr. President.”

What distinguished Vandenberg from other moronic tweeters is that he refrained from using the ‘N’ word or other racial insults. According to, which collects the tweets normal people would be ashamed of, many threatened the President’s life or flaunted their racial venom.  Charlie 191 wrote, “Nigger Obama is trying to start a race war so no one will be watching him take our freedom away. Fuck nigger obama an his muslam brothers!!!”

Of course we can dismiss these miscreant tweeters as idiots, but the ease with which they dangle their odium in public is a little frightening.

Mr. Obama carries the dual mantel of president of all the people and the first African American president. His ethnic background is complex because he was raised by a white mother and white grandparents. But he spoke Friday as a black man, and nothing he said about white racial profiling came as a surprise to persons of color. 

Some wish he had pointed out that the acquitted gunman, George Zimmerman, was half Latino, because it is important to acknowledge that all humans, not just white people, stereotype and profile those who don’t look exactly like them. 

But that doesn’t make the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death more understandable. A day before Mr. Obama’s remarks, shared the tweets of angry white folks who don’t like Latinos much either. Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at that most American of institutions, the All Star Game, while Twitter flakes fluttered:

“Why the fuck is a spic singing God Bless America?” asked Chance Jones, using the racial epithet for Latinos. Tyler Pounds wrote, “Welcome to America where God Bless America is sung by a Mexican.” Anthony was born Marco Antonio Muñiz to Puerto Rican parents in New York, a fact that eluded Joshua Vardaman. “To be selected to sing God Bless America for the MLB All Star game,” Joshua wondered, “shouldn’t you at least be FROM America?”

The ironic thing is that all these racist twitterers who think their country is going to hell are entitled to express their views by virtue of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even stupidity is constitutionally protected – a reality we can celebrate every time we sway to the rhythms of “God Bless America.” And while it can be unnerving that racists express themselves publicly with such impunity, the First Amendment also protects right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh who define their hate speak as mere conservatism. If Rush can celebrate the Zimmerman acquittal as a victory over liberalism, no wonder his less literate minions feel free to use the ‘N’ and ‘S’ words to articulate their views.

But let’s be careful here. As noxious as the hate speakers may be, they clearly fall in the category of those Jesus told us to love.

And recent events also remind us there are at least two types of racists: those who flaunt their hatred and those who deny it.

The fact is, racism persists in our culture like an infection and many who have the most virulent strain don’t even know they are sick. 

Today in a million offices and schools, white folks will make stupidly racist remarks based on stupidly racist assumptions about persons of color. They will react to persons of color differently and treat persons of color differently – and, when challenged about it, they will be stunned and hurt because – as they will tell you – “I don't have a racist bone in my body.”

But even in the age of Obama, racism flourishes in the land and each day the majority finds a new way to make the minority feel marginalized. My daughter, who is racially mixed (as are my five other children), reacted this way a few years ago when President Obama tried to reconcile a cop who arrested a black university professor on his own porch because the cop assumed he was an intruder. Obama invited the cop and the professor to the White House for a beer. My daughter wrote in her Facebook update: “Elita wishes she could have a beer with the president every time she gets racially profiled.”

It goes without saying – or should – that racism is not the sole bailiwick of whites. It’s endemic in the human condition. My wife, who was born in Havana, looked sufficiently different from the locals when she worked in Americus, Ga., in the early 1980s that she was pointedly asked, “What are you?” 

Martha has often commented on the surprise expressed by us American Baptist white folks when members of the Hispanic American Baptist Caucus complained about the domination of the Black American Baptist Caucus in denominational life – as did the Asian Caucus and Native American Caucus. “How can people who live under discrimination and injustice despise one another?” white folks would ask, genuinely shocked.

Occasionally Martha suggests that Cubans – residents of an island that projects a carefully calculated image of edenic racial harmony – are as racist as anyone. “Black members of my family make a distinction between themselves and ‘negros americanos,’ who obviously don’t benefit from the same redemptive mestizaje of the islands,” she says.

But I doubt Cubans have cornered the market on racism. The people I grew up with in Central New York State were too good at it to cede the honor to anyone else. There were only a handful of African Americans in Madison County, some of whom may have been descended from slaves who settled in Peterboro, an outpost of the Underground Railroad operated by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Looking back, I am appalled by memories of how the white majority – including me – treated them. Black children were taunted with the ‘N’ word on the playground, or slapped by white teachers and – in one memorable incident – subjected to an incredibly obtuse but well meaning teacher who used the ‘N’ word in a rhyme to select the next person to read from a text book: “eeney, meeney, miney mo ...” 

I can't begin to imagine how uncomfortable we made children of color back then. And most of us oppressors would have insisted that we didn't have a racist bone in our bodies.

I haven't seen Tony Campolo for years, but judging from his press pictures, he's the least changed of my Eastern Baptist College professors from the sixties.

Tony was known for making startling claims with ex cathedra authority, which was challenging in the day when you couldn't vet his claims through Google, and he tried out some of his more famous lines on us: “Last night when you were sleeping, 30,000 kids died of malnutrition and you don't give a shit about it. Worse, you're more upset that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids starved to death.”

Once Tony said something, it was hard to forget it. Among the Tonyisms I remember:

“If you grew up in the United States, you are a racist.”

I first heard Tony say that in Soc 200 in 1968, and the notion surprised me. But as the years pass, I find fewer reasons to doubt it. I’m a racist, you’re a racist, all God's children who grew up in the race-obsessed cauldron of American culture are racist.

Now, that's not necessarily a peculiar aberration. Racism is a sin, and we all know we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. To deny our racism is to deny we are sinners.

The next time you hear someone say, “I'm color-blind,” or, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” smile ironically and walk away. 

Certainly people in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who openly tweet their hatred are to be feared – loved, as Jesus willed it – but feared nonetheless. 

Particularly scary are those white folks who complain they have lost their freedom and status because a black man has twice been elected president, and because the president declares a commitment to universal healthcare, economic justice, immigration reform, and gun control. 

Those nervous white folks have difficulty seeing that they haven’t lost any freedoms because freedom is being offered to more people. In fact, the more races, ages, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations that are empowered in the U.S. system, the more freedom everyone has.

Be that as it may, the most dangerous people in America are not those who tweet their hatred openly. 

Even more problematical are those who don’t believe they are racists. 

That problem group may include you, me, Obama, Zimmerman, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, or anyone else who is supposed to have a dispensation from the sin of racism. 

But racism is like any other sin: all have done it, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.

Racism is also a deadly virus in the body politic. Jesus sought to make it clear wherever he went that the realm of God requires opening our hearts and minds and loving God as much as every human we encounter on the shadowy pathways of life.

Loving our neighbors and loving our enemies is the only cure available for the virus of racism.

Repeating the gospel of Campolo: “You can’t grow up in the United States without being a racist.

And the first step toward the cure is to admit we are sick.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Deum et Patrium

In the 237th year of the independence of the United States, which we celebrate this week, our hearts and minds turn to holy writ.

At least, it sounds like holy writ.

Julia Ward Howe writ it thus:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
His truth is marching on. Glory! Glory hallelujah!
Glory! Glory Hallelujah! Glory! Glory Hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.

Samuel F. Smith, borrowing from another nation’s exaltation of monarchy, writ it thus in 1832:

Our fathers’ God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our king.

Irving Berlin – and Kate Smith – made holy writ a fervent prayer:  

God Bless America, Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

And let us not forget the writ of Francis Scott Key that we never get around to singing:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Our hearts swell with pride. Can there possibly be a more religious holiday than the Fourth of July?

Of course, there is another piece of writ we need to set aside if we are to pursue the holiness of national pride: the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Despite this legal impediment, it seems this year as we observe the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, holiness hangs in the air like the summer humidity. Who can blame church goers if our eyes stray from the brass cross of Jesus and linger with pride on Old Glory as it stands erect and dusty in our chancels? 

These patriotically idolatrous feelings are as American as cherry pie, and have been for years. There is a Methodist church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania that was built in 1865. On the front wall of the church, more than two stories high behind the pulpit, there is a magnificent painting of what was clearly regarded as a holy event: the Union victory at Gettysburg. Nearly twice life-size, men in blue carry the colors across a pastel panorama of death and destruction. 

Granted, Gettysburg is like all battles when you break it down into its bloody statistics. There were 3,155 union soldiers killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 missing or captured. On the Confederate side, 4,708 were killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 missing or captured.

What an unholy blood bath.

God knows what was in the minds of the Methodists who designed the furious fresco.  

And only God knows how many generations of Methodists meditated on this mural of destruction without detecting the irony as their pastor recited the Beatitudes or quoted Jesus’ commandments to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. 

The scriptures suggested for this Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary also remind us that our forebears have always assumed God’s exclusive blessing on their homes and country. Psalm 66 sings praises for God’s favor: 

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. (1-5)

Isaiah 66:12-14 proclaims God’s fealty for Jerusalem and expresses confidence that God will reward the city with power and prosperity.

For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.

Mark Twain expressed the ironies of praying against one’s enemies in his War Prayer.

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.

It is human nature to assume God blesses one’s own country while condemning our nation’s enemies. During the American Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis probably attended church more frequently than President Lincoln. Davis, who lived a quarter century after the war, never stopped believing God sanctioned the revel cause. He died bitterly and, perhaps, theologically perplexed that God had not prevailed.

One of history’s oddest ironies is that the most insightful theologian of the Civil War period was an uneducated backwoods lawyer with no religious training. Abraham Lincoln – who was not a traditional Christian – was not so sanguine in claiming God’s support. His secretary discovered a small piece of paper on the president’s desk on which he had written:

The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time ... I am almost ready to say this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet – By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest – Yet the contest began – And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day – Yet the contest proceeds.

This is a remarkable theological insight on the part of a commander-in-chief. President Lincoln developed the thought for his second inaugural address days before his assassination in 1865:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration which it has already attained ... Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, ... as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

As we celebrate another year of United States independence, it is entirely appropriate for our hearts to swell with pride in the land we love, and sing hymns in its honor.

But it is even more appropriate to remember the words of the political leader so many of his contemporaries called Father Abraham. 

Lincoln never insisted God was on the side of the United States, or even certain that the United States was always right in the course it chose. Recognizing that great evils – including slavery – were an integral portion of American heritage, Lincoln’s view was that the American experience was altogether imperfect, an experiment that was being tested in the caldron of civil war: testing whether “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.”

As we celebrate another year of independence, let our prayers seek God’s blessings and God’s forgiveness for all our national weaknesses: racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and all the collective sins of human community.

This year, let us be aware of strengths as well as weaknesses. And let us be mindful that some of the accomplishments we celebrate with great enthusiasm are actually insignias of human failure. 

Shelby Foote, the great historian of the Civil War, said this a few years before his death on a three-hour CSpan interview (September 2, 2001): 

“We think of ourselves as are a superior people with a superior form of government. If we were really that superior we would not have fought that war, we would have done what we have a genius for, which is avoiding confrontations, we can find some way to get along. That time it failed. It led to a loss of 1,095,00 men because we failed to reconcile our differences.”

May God (as President Lincoln preached) enable us to conduct our national affairs “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

God, in all that we do, give us to see the right.