Grace from Gary

grace ɡrās/noun
  1. 1.
    simple elegance or refinement of movement.

Burned: The Power of Awe

posted Oct 1, 2017, 6:11 PM by Penny Skildum

Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me with a live coal taken with tongs from the altar. Touching my mouth with the coal, the angel said,
“Look. This coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)

One experience of awe.

How can we describe a moment of awe that is beyond description?

Around 2,750 years ago a priest of the God of Israel had a powerful experience of awe in the Jerusalem Temple.

That experience is described in the sixth chapter of the book in the Hebrew and Christian sacred writings that is named after him, Isaiah.

It is a story of Isaiah in the presence of the sacred or divine. It was both humbling and affirming, where the foundation of the Temple shook and was filled with smoke. An experience where Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then a fictional, sacred creature called a seraph flew to him holding a live coal from God’s altar and touched his lips saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah’s response, when the God of Israel asks, ““Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah’s affirming response, “Here am I; send me!”

This is probably not Isaiah’s literal experience of awe and wonder, it is a creative and imaginative effort to put into words what is at its core indescribable. It does not mean that Isaiah made up a non-existent experience of the holy or sacred, it is an expression that is deeply human; moments of wonder when we feel the presence of something vast that transcends the understanding of ourselves and the world.

I think the story of Isaiah gets it right, we all have experiences of fiery awe that burned themselves onto our lips yet we cannot put into words; they transform our souls and transcend our concrete reality into something beyond ourselves.

 

What are the results of experiencing awe.

But what is even more wonderful is how awe impact our lives.

In May of 2015 a study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that tried to measure the impact of awe on an individual. The study used a series of experiments to examine different aspects of awe. Some of the experiments measured how predisposed someone was to experiencing awe; others were designed to elicit awe, a neutral state, or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. In the final experiment, the researchers induced awe by placing participants in a forest of towering eucalyptus trees.

After the initial experiments, the participants engaged in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call "prosocial" behaviors or tendencies. Prosocial behavior is described as "positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship." In every experiment, awe was strongly associated with prosocial behaviors. In a press release the lead of the study, Paul Piff talks about the impact of awe on those who participated in the study and on individuals in general.

“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.

Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

Indeed, it seems awe promotes one of the most important prosocial characteristics advocated by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, loving-kindness.

 

How do you experience awe?

Piff and colleagues summed up their findings on the importance of awe in their report saying:

Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live. Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here—awe.

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Future research should build on these initial findings to further uncover the ways in which awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.

Matthew Fox, a present day religious leader and thinker describes awe as an “awareness of wonder everywhere.” Wonder is open to all of us and has been experience by all of us somehow and at many times. It is our ability to be aware of wonder that opens us to awe. Awe is an everyday reality and it is wonderful just to take a few seconds or minutes to pause, allow myself to experience it and immerse myself in a sense of loving-kindness.

Northern Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison's song, Sense of Wonder, seems to sum up the essence of awe. The link below will take you to a video of the song with images put together by an individual envisioning “myself walking along a forest path and remembering various events in my life, both big and small.”  Wonderful, I hope you have time to listen to it.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5vkZPOdKOI

When the Bathroom Is Crucial

posted Sep 5, 2017, 7:44 PM by Melissa Navratil

by Pastor Gary Walpole

“Courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.” Matthew 14:27

The hotel door opened and the two young teens made a b-line toward the bathroom. A family of four had just finished a long, hot day at Disneyland which included drinking a lot of water. Once in the bathroom they quickly started to argue about who would use the bathroom first.

“You got this?” the mother said. “Yes,” dad replied. She walked out of the hotel room and headed toward the public bathrooms.

Upon the close of the hotel room door dad said, “You two figure it out. Here’s the rule, no hitting or kicking.” He went over to the tv remote control and turned on ESPN. A few minutes later mom returned, “Your turn, how are they doing?”

“It seems they’re still debating who will go first,” he said as he got up and walked out the door. Mom went over to the laptop on the table and started reading their hometown newsletter.
A few minutes later dad came back through the door. “How goes the bathroom battle?” “Still no peace treaty in sight,” mom smiled.

Finally, the two young teens came out of the bathroom each slamming down on a different bed with a loud huff.

“You two relieved?” dad asked.

“NO!” came two simultaneous shouts.

Without looking up from the laptop mom asked, “So how long do you think you were in the bathroom?” “Too long!” came one reply. “Forever!” came the other. Dad looked at his watch. “Twenty-five minutes,” dad said into angry filled air.

“Don’t you two need to go,” one of the teens said. “Already did,” mom and dad said together. “No way,” the two teens shouted together. “Yes way,” mom and dad said together as they burst out laughing. “There’s a bathroom right down the hall,” dad said, “fifty some people could have used the bathroom in the time it took you two to use ours.”

The next day, upon returning from Disneyland the family was hit by the air conditioning as they walked through the glass, electric doors of the hotel entrance. “Race you to the bathroom,” one teen said to the other, taking off for the public restroom. The other faked running and then turned to the parents, “Don’t worry, I got this. There are plenty of toilets in that restroom.”

Sometimes conversations are more crucial than others.

Crucial conversations are discussions “between two or more people when 1) stakes are high, 2) options vary and 3) emotions run strong.1” We all engage in such conversations. Here are a couple things to be mindful of before and during such conversations.

1) Crucial conversations are not about what we think but about how we feel. Often, we start a conversation with what we think, not realizing how we feel or how the person we are talking with feels. Effective conversations begin with the heart, not the head. A crucial conversation is successful only when there is openness to compassion between all those participating. We cannot have a crucial conversation with someone we do not care for or respect.

2) A crucial conversation depends on developing and drawing on a shared pool of meaning. A crucial conversation means truly understanding what values, principals and life experiences shared and which are not. A crucial conversation cannot happen until there is a common sense of safety, for all involved, to draw upon. This happens as we remind each other of what we have in common, of what makes this an important conversation to have. The purpose of a crucial conversation is not to change someone’s mind, it is to develop a shared pool of meaning that allows feeling to bubble to the surface. “A shared pool of meaning is the birth of synergy.2

3) Seek first to understand and then be understood. A crucial conversation often has long pauses with feedback to make sure everyone is understanding each other. In crucial conversations, some of our deepest fears come to the fore, often unknown and unstated. With compassion and safety room is made to realize our own fears and work through them. In crucial conversation’s it is important to allow our deepest fears to become conscious so we can understand how they affect our relationship’s. Being mindfully of our own feelings is the beginning of allowing others to acknowledge their feelings.

Like many conversations, crucial conversations are often ongoing, with needs for long pauses and breaks. Some are lifelong conversations, at least the most important are.

Once we understand the depth of our own feelings, and provide an emotionally safe place for conversation; become caring, willing, vulnerable and open to honestly understand the depth of our own fragility as well as others we can have any type of conversation. Like Jesus we can honestly say, “Courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
 
1This comes from the bestselling book crucial conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, 2012 by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
2ibid, pg. 25

Grace from Gary

posted Aug 17, 2017, 8:40 PM by Gary Walpole

Dear Participants and Friends of the Peace Community of Faith,

Many of us are struggling with the experience of the blatant racism demonstrated in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend and the number of statements that have come from President Trump that do not vehemently condemn such expressions of racism and white nationalism.

Not far from the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA there is a slave block where thousands of black men, women, and children were sold into slavery. We should not forget that racism runs deep in the cultural DNA of the United States. With each generation, racism becomes less influential but it has not gone away. It is still a significant cultural dynamic for a small minority of white citizens of the United States. It remains a subtle current that pulls at each of us.

A few words of hope.

If you are disturbed with many of the stories you have heard this week showing support or trying to downplay the wrongness of the white nationalist movement in the United States – you’re in good company!

If you have shared how disturbed you are about what white nationalists instigated in Charlottesville with someone you care about – you are not carrying the burden alone!

If you have shared how disturbed you are about what white nationalists instigated in Charlottesville through social media or in conversations – you are part of the solution!

If you have thought of asking what policies your work, social organization, local school or city have regarding racism – you are impacting your local community. If these community institutions have no policies rejecting racism and you advocate for such a policy – you are making a difference close to home.

Don’t forget you are not alone.

Remember there are hundreds of vigils for peace and healing throughout the United States which you can be part of in person or in spirit.

Remember the most liked tweet that has ever been shared was a Nelson Mandela quote tweeted after the Charlottesville violence by former President Barack Obama: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

There is a story in the Gospel of Matthew of a disciple of Jesus who steps out of the safety of a boat into a wind torn waves (Matthew 14:22-33). This seems like an appropriate metaphor for us today. We are living in a time of wind torn waves. In the story, the disciple discovers, that alone we sink into waves. It is when we reach out to support each other that the power of God’s love transforms the world.

Although sometimes we think we do, no one ever stands alone.

Grace from Gary

Evolving Faith: Religion and Science in the Information Age

posted Jul 31, 2017, 8:02 PM by Sue Fried

by Pastor Gary Walpole

"When I have a terrible need of—dare I say, ‘religion’? - then I go outside at night and paint the stars.” 
          --Vincent Van Gogh
“It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
          --R.E.M “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”

What Christianity has done to form Western Civilization, science is doing today to form a new global culture and civilization.

Over 2,000 years ago, during a time of many religions around the Mediterranean basin, a reform movement within the Jewish religion was started by a Galilean from the village of Nazareth named Jesus. Within 500 years this Jewish reform movement had become the dominant religion in Northern Africa and all of Europe, Christianity. Within another 1,000 years Christianity had become the dominant religion of the dominant culture in the world, Western Civilization.


If we define religion as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods”1 there are now four large world religions: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism; all of them with significant cultural influence where they are in the majority, but none have obtained the same cultural and social dominance as Christianity.

What Christianity has done to form Western Civilization, and other world religions have done to form civilizations they have influenced, science is doing today to form a new global culture and civilization. With the addition of the Information Age2 pace of this movement toward a global culture and civilization is significantly increasing. What used to take centuries is now taking less than a decade, what used to take decades is now taking years, what used to take months is now taking hours, what used to happen in days is now taking minutes, what used to happen in hours is now taking seconds.

With the coming of the Information Age the pace of change has become astronomical. My five-year-old nephew knows more about the workings of the human body, the physical dynamics of the world, as well as the age and size of the universe than my grandparents could have ever known. He will grow up in an era which will see the end of religion as we know it and he’ll be fine. While he will be infused with all that is scientific at a pace that will only increase in the Information Age he will still experience wonder and awe that call him to go outside of himself and “paint the stars.” This will remain true for all human-beings.

The key concept to understanding this new perspective of religion within the context of a new global culture and civilization is the scientific theory of evolution. Can we begin to explore an evolving God? An evolving Christ? Can sociocultural evolution3 help us understand the Bible, and all religious sacred writing, more effectively as sacred story relevant today?

We live in an awe-filled, wonderful time to be a people of faith. “In (an evolutionary) Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, italicized phrase added for your reflection.)
 
1 http://learnersdictionary.com/definition/religion
2 The Information Age is a period beginning about 1975 and characterized by the gathering and almost instantaneous transmission of vast amounts of information and by the rise of information-based industries. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/information-age)
3Sociocultural evolution is the process of change and development in human societies that results from cumulative change in their stores of cultural information. (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/sociocultural+evolution)

Against Indifference

posted Apr 29, 2017, 3:07 PM by Gary Walpole

The Judicial Council, the supreme court of the United Methodist Church, ruled Friday, April 28. 2017 that the first openly elected lesbian Bishop, Karen Oliveto, is in violation of church law barring the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” But rather than removing her from her office of Bishop or invalidating her ordination credentials they referred the case back the Western Jurisdiction who unanimously consecrated her to be a Bishop. This is an administrative geological area of the United States made up of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Her consecration was immediately challenged by the South-Central Jurisdiction made up of the states of Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

This is just the latest in an intensifying conflict about the inclusion of LGBTQ with the United Methodist Church.

During this Easter Season, I have been reflecting on a quote by writer, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines indifferent as “marked with impartiality: unbiased.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines indifferent as “the quality of not caring or being uninterested in something or someone.”

The United Methodist Judicial Council followed the letter of the United Methodist law and in doing so is trying to remain unbiased, indifferent. Resurrection screams as loudly as possible, “the time for indifference has past.” It is time for the United Methodist Church to proclaim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Resurrection are for all of God’s children!

Once again, the United Methodist Church has found a way put up a road block of injustice against people within the LGBTQ (LGBTQ stands for - lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer) community.

In a United States that is quickly realizing a person’s sexual orientation is a gift, the United Methodist Church has found a way to deny “God’s work of justice, reconciliation, and healing” to transform the world. A world that is infused people of faith from the LGBTQ community; gifted LGBTQ people participating in our United Methodist Churches and even serving as ordained leaders and a bishop within the United Methodist Church.

If you wish to read more about the Judicial Council’s ruling and articles from the Denver Post and Washington Post, or New York times you can click the links below;

http://www.umc.org/decisions/71953

http://www.denverpost.com/2017/04/28/gay-bishop-karen-oliveto-methodist-church/

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/us/methodist-high-court-rejects-first-gay-bishops-consecration.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/methodist-court-ruling-a-blow-for-openly-lesbian-bishop/2017/04/28/d76509e4-2c74-11e7-9081-f5405f56d3e4_story.html?utm_term=.67a8e3573a61

Faith on Earth: Looking for the Galilean

posted Mar 31, 2017, 8:36 AM by Sue Fried

“It is the right time to turn toward the sovereign authority of God.” Mark 1:15a
          -Translated by Gary Walpole

First Affirmation: Jesus is a Galilean Jewish person of faith.

While we move into the 22nd Century, exploring the life of the historical Jesus has begun to play an important role in understanding what it means to “place our faith in God through Jesus Christ.” As many of the traditional titles for Jesus lose their power they are being replaced by insights about his life. As we journey toward Easter at Peace Community of Faith I have offered a new way of understanding Jesus the Christ.

One of the most important and respected Christian thinkers of the 21st century in the United States is Richard R. Niebuhr. He considers the structure of human faith, the association between interpersonal faith and faith in God, and faith in everyday living in his book Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith. For Richard Niebuhr faith is a combination of trust, confidence, commitment and loyalty in a common cause. How does this apply to Jesus?

Our first step in looking for the Galilean is acknowledging Jesus is a person of faith, not an abstract person but one living in the ancient Roman province of Galilee as a Jew who is confident, committed and loyal to God’s sovereign authority.

The core phrase that expresses who Jesus is and everything that Jesus says and does is the “Kingdom of God,” which I have translated as the “sovereign authority of God.” His life is an effort to live this out in all his being.

I place my faith in God through Jesus Christ because I see Jesus as the One who shows me how to live by faith and the One who shows me what the faithfulness of God may look like.

Using the tools of Modern Biblical Interpretation, we can explore the life of Jesus in canonical Gospels as a Galilean Jew who walked the trails of Galilee living out his faith in the sovereign authority of God, how his faith affected others and eventually it got him arrested, tried and executed as an opponent of the Imperial Roman Rule in Israel.

But before all of this he asks himself, “who is speaking and acting on behalf of God?” His answer draws him to a person clothed in camel’s hair, eating locust and honey, by the Jordan River leading a baptism movement. A man named John.

Choosing Happiness/Defying Gravity: Longing for Enough in a Culture of More

posted Nov 5, 2016, 7:53 AM by Sue Fried

by Pastor Gary Walpole
 
Paradise Job Description
“I’ve got two tickets to paradise. Won’t you pack your bags, we’ll leave tonight.”
                                                     --Eddie Money
“God planted a garden in Eden.”
                                                     --Genesis 2:8

When you think of paradise what comes to mind? Palm trees? White, sandy beaches? Cool breezes? Gentle waves? Picture perfect!

Let me ask you something: Is there work in your picture of paradise? Wait! Before you dismiss this question out of hand, hold it for a little bit and consider this.

The Garden of Eden, remember that story – Adam and Eve and all that stuff. Well, a close look at the story tells us the “original paradise” is more about work than paradise. I’m not talking about the “punishment” part of the story with the snake, apple, and sweat of the brow stuff. I’m talking about work as being an important part of the story.

You know, the whole story, the story that reads like a job description.

Imagine the Divine logic. It goes something like this: God gets creative with life--trees, bushes, grasses, flowers, rivers; then living, moving companions called animals. Then THE companion. Here comes the charge--to be caretakers of the garden, you know watering, planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting. You know, like a farmer’s life--24/7, something  with purpose and meaning.

Here’s the job description of paradise. Wanted: creatures created from dirt willing to get dirty. Requirements: a sense of beauty, wonder, and creativity; a willingness to till, tend, and care; a combining of work, leisure, joy and pain. Outcome: it leads to all kinds of fruitfulness--most of it out of your control. The ability to work with others and a sense of humor are required. An appreciation of wondrous sunrises and sunsets is helpful. Benefits: everything under and over the rainbow.

Now that’s a job description! God plants, we care-give. My grandma used to tell me, “Gary, make yourself useful.”

Some paradise! What that word picture seems to paint for us, among other things, is a common phrase I remember: it’s not all about me. Work, career, life--it’s all about an artful balance. Remembering that the value of work is not about the pay check.

We have other options of course. It IS all about me. Give me the money! Paradise is all about chocolate-covered cherries and bonbons rather than doing something meaningful with our lives in the world. We think that chocolate-covered cherries and bonbons paradise leads to happiness. The reality is, it doesn’t.

Autumn Leaves

posted Oct 3, 2016, 4:08 PM by Sue Fried

God formed me from the dust of the ground, and breathed into my nostrils the breath of life; and the I became a living being. (Adapted from Genesis 2:7)
 
Many people think tree leaves fall and die during the fall season because of weather changes, but studies have shown the real reason for leaves falling is drought. This is because the primary function of leaves is photosynthesis, and photosynthesis requires the use of water, carbon dioxide and light to create food in the leaves to generate organic compounds and oxygen. In order to induce a suction force, however, the leaves will need to constantly sweat, and in the fall shed them so as not to get dried. As daylight gets shorter during fall, however, the leaves will gradually suffer thirst because of the reducing absorption of water with the shrinking daylight. This means even when trees live in wet climate with abundant snowfall and rainfall or even when in the warmest of falls, the trees will still lose their leaves, triggered by the shortened length of daylight.
 
Many changes occur in the leaves before they finally fall from the branch. According to Joe Lamp’L of DIY Network who wrote an article on ‘Why do leaves fall in autumn?’ at ScrippsNews.com, changing colors of leaves during fall is part of an important and complicated process which ends in the leaves being shed at the end of each growing season. The trees, in protecting themselves, purge diseased, damaged or dead leaves, while they seal the point where the petiole connects to it. As the climate and light conditions of autumn evolve, tree hormones change as well, the most notable of which is auxin, a hormone in trees that promotes root formation and bud growth. The balance of auxin levels between leaves and branches is the key to determining if and when the leaves drop.
 
Much like the processes that end in the fall of tree leaves during the autumn season, a life of faith requires attention to our spirit in the way we live our lives. Like the leaves of autumn, we often fall under the dry spell experiencing a disconnection from God who is the Spirit of Life, forgetting that our very breathing is an act of spiritual connection with God (Genesis 2:7). Spiritual drought can happen when we are too caught up with the entanglements of this world and if we are not careful, we may, like the ‘photosynthesis,’ gradually fail to absorb the necessary energy from the light of the sun to produce food from water and carbon dioxide. When that happens, we will eventually lose our ‘leaves’ of a close relationship with God, who continuously gives life, triggered by the shortened length of ‘daylight’ because we neglect the source of all Life.
 
Many changes can occur in our lives if we spend too much time in the entanglements of this world which can lead us to finally fall from the ‘branch’ that connects us to God. The author of the Gospel of John has Jesus telling us of the importance of connection, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.” (John 15:5). Embrace the way you nourish your life, give life in our world and realize these are natural connections for you with God, the giver of life.

Call God, God

posted Sep 5, 2016, 5:02 AM by Melissa Navratil

Within the cosmos now,
and maybe a universe then,
and maybe a universe yet to be
comes Spirit gliding on the cosmic wind.
It touches all with a sense of intent,
with a sense of creative power,
it whispers, “let Life begin.”

In an eternal moment this creative Spirit
swept over and within the waters of Earth
with a whisper, “let Life begin.”
It swam through the oceans
it crawled into the dirt
it flew into the air.
Life, above all and through all and in all.

Life evolved and evolved and evolved.
Then through water
through dirt
through air
comes Spirit gliding on cosmic wind.
Life is breathed into the One called Humane.
Then Spirit called god whispers, “let Love begin.”

The 2 Questions Neither Convention Is Asking

posted Aug 1, 2016, 1:14 PM by Melissa Navratil

By Ken Chitwood 07-26-2016

From: https://sojo.net/articles/2-questions-neither-convention-asking

It is rare to hear a U.S. political party convention theme couched as a question. Conventions, for good reason, are typically oriented around statements — grand and bellicose, rallying and inspiring.

Last week, the Republican Party’s convention centered on the theme, “Make America Great Again.” This week, the Democratic Party’s theme is, “United Together.” Each is meant to galvanize the party’s base and entice voters with their vision for the United States. But what if they circled around a question? What if our political process — particularly in this poignant moment — started with a set of queries?

Instead of “Make America Great Again,” what if we asked, “What kind of America do we want to make?” What if we asked, “Why are we together?” rather than saying we’re “United Together”?

Asking these basic questions may seem silly, but it’s a powerful step we can take in such a divisive political climate, and in the midst of such a momentous election cycle. Good questions can disturb or comfort, motivate and guide — they can foster understanding and stimulate critical awareness.

Jesus knew the value of questions. Throughout his ministry, he used close to 100 different questions to provoke his followers and challengers. He confronted the hard issues of his day with queries that moved the conversation forward.

We might learn something from his example.

In this case, these questions can invite American voters to deeply contemplate what it is that is great about the U.S. and in what sense we are actually, or actually not, united.

If we are to move forward, we have to ask: What is so great about America, and what are we making of our nation today?

It’s good to question what exactly it is about America’s past that is so great. In a video from The Daily Show, correspondents asked Republican National Convention-goers when America was great. Respondents answered with various eras — the early 20th century, the Revolutionary War era, the 1950s. Daily Show correspondents then replied with challenges about slavery, women’s rights, and the extirpation of indigenous peoples. The clip would be hilarious if it weren’t so plaintively accurate.

While wistfully yearning for a bygone era of America’s supposedly-significant past and making it our mission to get back there may seem harmless, it also displays remarkable ignorance and a woeful lack of historical consciousness.

Optimistic visions of America’s future that are founded on idealized constructions of America’s past overlook the presence of America’s great contradictions. The darker realities of U.S. history regarding race, religion, equality under the law, abuses of power, ethnic cleansing, and systems of oppression must be confronted with hard questions, not nostalgic gloss. This is especially true when so many of these conundrums continue to haunt us, whether we like to admit it or not.

If we are to move forward at all, we have to ask: What is it that so great about America, and what are we making of our nation today?

While looking back with rosy reminiscence can be dangerous, it is worthwhile to peer into our history. By doing so, we can rediscover our core values as a republic. Especially when we consider why we are together in the first place.

Asking why we are together as a country with so many divisions, instead of simply stating that we are “United Together,” involves a choice — one to not falsely claim our unity when divisions are palpably present in our streets, our homes, and our congressional chambers. If we are to remedy these conflicts, we have to consider what unites us in the first place. We have to ask the hard question — why do we remain united at all?

Americans are a mixed bag of plural persuasions and principles. We come from myriad spiritual, economic, social, ethnic, and political backgrounds. We cannot take our unity for granted. Asking the question, “Why are we together?” challenges us to consider and define our core values. What is the fire in the American belly that inspires us to be united together for a greater goal? Is it freedom? Equality? Democracy? Defense against tyranny and oppression? Capitalism? Strength? Independence? Righteousness? Manifest destiny? God? Family? Entertainment? What unites us? What divides us?

What kind of America are we making, and why are we united in this together?

Conflict rises quickly when we consider these values. Capitalism and strength have made America great in some ways, but have also generated untold inequalities. Freedom is fine, except that it also permits money-obsessed pursuits of entertainment and happiness that dull our senses, fatten our self-indulgence, and replace meaningful news with infotainment. American wealth is peerless, but Jesus taught that our faith should make wealth meaningless.

In asking these questions, we’ll discover that there is no simple answer to our present spiritual, economic, social, or political angst. But our conversations over these questions will lead us deeper into discovering and articulating the deep questions that lie at the heart of our current soul-searching.

Before we can look forward with a compelling vision for America’s future, we have to confront the deep and disturbing realities of America’s past and present. Neither a false romanticism for what was nor a naive belief in the progress of humankind will do.

If the U.S. is in crisis, then we must treat it as such — we must ask the hard questions of what it means to be Americans together, today.

While questions may not serve as effective campaign platforms, they can spark a conversation and reveal what our missions, values, and visions truly are. Americans from all backgrounds and political parties should take the time to ask: What kind of America are we making, and why are we united in this together?

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