Make America Great Again?

Please note…just because I’m using Make America Great Again as the title of this blog, it in no way means I support the candidacy of Donald Trump. This is a spiritual reflection on why I think that slogan works and a deeper meaning behind such a statement. This is simply one perspective on a much more complex issue.

It is said that there is a beginning to everything. Certainly there is a beginning to our lives, a beginning to a relationship and marriage, even a beginning to an end. Something that I have reflected upon greatly these past years is the beginning of that end for the United States, happening on a fateful day back in 2001, September 11th. Any of us alive can remember where we were and what we were doing. I can still remember the silence that night as I walked on the grounds of the seminary, very few cars and no planes flying overhead. There was something distinctly haunting about the whole experience.

If we study the development of human beings, there is nothing that takes a toll more than trauma, to the body and the psyche. We have certainly seen that as part of the cost of war, the ongoing violence in our cities, and terror that is thrown upon us with no warning. Think about the amount of disbelief we had when those planes struck. I can still visualize them slamming into the World Trade Center and the ash heap next to the Pentagon. It was said even then, terror struck at the heart of this country. Of course we now know the other plane was also enroute to similar locations but cut short by courage. Just think about it, the heart of who we are, the epicenter of both the military and finances both struck, and yet we describe that as our heart. Is it really the heart of who we are as people, as country, or better yet, should it be? They’re questions for all of us to reflect upon.

But something happened that day. When trauma hits an individual, as I said, it does something to the psyche and the body. It wants to shut down and the mind wants to keep reliving it, over and over again, an ongoing nightmare. In the span of literally minutes, any illusion we tried to cast upon the world about who we are had been shattered. We were the country that couldn’t be hit, invincible. We were the youngest on the playground, still filled with such innocence. Yet, in those very moments, it all came crashing down and the illusion we portrayed showed its dark side. For a period of time we sat in disbelief but then it became time to react, and we did. We would do anything to try to recreate the illusion of something that was never real in the first place but a persona we felt we needed to portray and one that protected us from any outside harm.

Since then, it has seemed like a patchwork, trying every which way to recreate the illusion rather than collectively allowing ourselves to stop and fall into the question of identity that it opened up for us. We’ve managed to continue to fight wars now for longer than we could have imagined. We’ve also allowed ourselves to be duped into believing we needed to somehow shore up the banks a few years back, for fear of a total collapse. If we can learn anything from our history and certainly of the great empires that have existed over the centuries, is that they all eventually fall. An illusion of greatness and strength, built on realities that will not last, such as war and greed will undoubtably fall, and as usual, just as our faith has tried to teach us, those on the bottom are the ones who are most impacted, the normal everyday folk who work to make ends meet from week to week, scraping pennies together, sending their kids off to war, and for what? To try to defend an illusion that for all intensive purposes, crumbled before our very eyes on that beautiful day in September. Everything we thought we were was no more and all we can do is seek out a new way, a new greatness, one with greater depth, a truer identity and a heart that had gotten lost by divisiveness, darkness, despair, war, and greed, among other things.

In walks Donald Trump and this campaign to make America great again. How can anyone argue against that? But the question we never seem to follow up with is, but what made us great to begin with? Was it winning as he suggests or better yet, strength that we can somehow destroy every enemy out there, a restoration of authority to the rest of the world that we’re back. But is it once again, merely an illusion of what once was. Growing up I think about what made America great. Now growing up in small town Pennsylvania seemed rather vanilla. But I learned of this sense of the melting pot that first established this country. Give me your tired and your poor, yearning to be free. Somehow there was a sense of unity despite and in relation to our diversity. That’s what made us great and different from the rest, our greatest strength.

Times have changed and sure there are still people I meet that want their kids to have it better than them; that too has been part of our greatness. However, I’ve also met a lot more younger people, the next generation, that has a respect for the other and a willingness to seek out the common good for all people, but in particular, the poor. The greatness and strength of a country is often grounded in how it treats the poor. But in the process of trying to rebuild the illusion of what was, we’ve had to play the victim game and with the victim game comes the blame game. We fight and we divide, but all of it comes down to that very question of what makes us great in the first place, and for that matter, what will once again make us great.

There is a struggle for the soul of this country, if we can move beyond the superficialities and our politics that has often taken the place of our moral compass. The illusion wants and lives off of us fighting and reaching for something that could never be attainable and will never fulfill and decide how we go forward. If making us great again is built on more war and the endless pursuit of defeating enemies, greed and the stockpiling of money, then we will once again find ourselves casting an image of a country that just isn’t anymore, and for that matter, never was. If we look at it in terms of development, the United States has reached a critical time. Not in the sense that politicians like to portray it, as an impending apocalypse, but rather as a time to grow up and become no longer the kid on the playground, often bullying others around, but rather a responsible adult who finds strength through its people and the very heart and soul that can give us the true strength, direction, and life we desire. That’s how America can be great.

The election gives us all pause to reflect upon what we want, yet, distracted by smoke and mirrors and clashes of personality that in the end helps no one, certainly not this country nor the world. It’s time for us to grieve what was lost and that’s ok. That’s what adults do. We weep for what was, knowing in faith, that it’s the only way for a new direction to be revealed. I have never lost hope in the country, despite what has unfolded the past years, because I believe with all my heart that this is where we are. And you know what, I’ve been there and so have many others. What I thought made me great as a child no longer seems to fit and no longer works. Scripture tells us through Paul, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” He goes onto say that giving up chilling things challenges me to think about what I value. As a country, it’s time for us to ask the tough questions and not be so glib and quick to react, but rather to reflect on what we really want and desire as a nation. That can only happen when we allow it all to fall away, all that will pass, and seek what lies at the heart of who we are and what we are. Our history has not always been great because we sought greatness through an illusion all too often. At this moment in history, we the people, in order to form a more perfect union, must seek the greater good, the greater strength, that can only come from deep within our very being. Yeah, it is time to make America great again, but it’s time to root it in reality and a strength that comes from our ability to love, not an illusion nor war nor money, but the people that make it up from wherever they have come, seeking a better life, a great life, that only this country can offer.

A Seismic Gift of Love

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

We all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. It’s a day when life changed, forever. I dare say, it was a day when a seismic shift took place in this country that rattled us in our very soul and something we still grapple with to this day, coming to some sense of understanding of who we really are. It was a day when our innocence was lost. It was a day when the illusion we held about ourselves and others thought of us were shattered. It was a day in which we recognized our vulnerability and were no longer invincible. It was day when we saw first had our own mortality as people and a nation. It was a tremendous seismic shift in our lives when the ideal separates from the brokenness of our humanity. As much as we want to and will always try to go back to what it was like before that day, we never can. It simply becomes an invitation to enter into our brokenness and pray for redemption and that the true God will lead us to the fullness of life we desire.

As people, it’s the same shift that takes place in our own lives. As children, when we too lose our innocence and become vulnerable to the pain of the world and our own families we begin to separate. Just think about how life was for us when we were children. Everything and everyone seems so big, filled with adventure, endless opportunity, a gigantic world. And then we are hurt, some to the extreme, and our world begins to shrink and become smaller. As I preached on Sunday, we begin to view the world through the lens of our emptiness, that empty crib that sat here on Sunday. We view life through the lens of our hurt and loneliness and see the world that way, only longing for the fullness of days past. But on this day God invites humanity into that seismic shift in our own lives, from death to life. We try to live our lives over and over where our Bethlehem becomes separated from our Jerusalem, our full crib separated from our empty crib. God wants to bring about a seismic shift in our lives from gazing at the emptiness of our crib to viewing life from the crib, in all it’s fullness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, but they know the darkness as well, but not separate from the light. This reading we hear from Isaiah today, in all its beauty, was often read at the coronation of a new king. It was a message of hope to a people who have often felt lost in their darkness, their own emptiness and sin, a people who somehow forget to view life through the lens of the faithful God who brought them out of exile and through the deserts of the exodus. Of course, like we are when a new president or leaders are elected, we have traditions like this reading that we convince ourselves that somehow all will be different and life will be better, but Isaiah looks beyond the earthly king and speaks of a child to be born, one who brings wonder, peace, faithfulness, in the flesh, the birth of the Christ child, the only who who shows and leads the way from the emptiness of the cross to the fullness of the crib.

Mary and Joseph become the icons of that journey in their own sense of having to leave their home and journey to the unknown of Egypt with the newborn king. They too are called right away to abandon all that they know and the life they knew because of the terror of King Herod. Herod, threatened by the news of the Christ and certainly not viewing the world from the crib, seeks and kills all the newborns, a feast we call Holy Innocents, celebrated during this season of Christmas. Herod held onto the illusion of power and his kingly role, trapped in the worldly desires, trying to fill his own emptiness and longing, all to be seen through that lens of illusion as a threat, rather than the invitation for change and a seismic shift in his own world. His illusion becomes the threat to the promise that Mary and Joseph bear. Just think about it, in a world that we live today and the issues we face, it is often the children that are threatened the most, their innocence and vulnerability, stripped from them, because of our own hurt and our own illusions.

On this Christmas, God now invites us into the seismic shift. Where and how are we viewing life? Do we continue to view it only through the empty crib, our own emptiness and longing, our own illusions of life? Can we pray for the grace to not only know our emptiness, and we all know it and we all know suffering and will always be a part of who we are in our brokenness, but also to see it from the crib? That doesn’t make us naive or wearing our rose-colored glasses. Rather, it brings about wisdom because our Jerusalem, our empty crib, is no longer separated from our Bethlehem, the fullness of the crib. As people and as a nation and world, we must pray and find silence to welcome the seismic shift and not run back to what was; when such a seismic shift happens our natural inclination is to blame because we only see what we see and feel what we feel and know what we know. Christmas welcomes seismic shifts so we can see through the lens of the unseen, to feel through the unfelt, and to know through the unknown, to reignite a spirit of wonder and innocence in a world that hurts and suffers. We are a people and a world that knows all too well the realities of the empty crib. Today God invites us into the crib to view the world and our own hurts through the lens of the largess of the Christ’s love for us and the world. Merry Christmas!