Most of us would like to be known as “good listeners.” But, we are not. We don’t hear criticism, or another point of view, or a different answer to the difficult questions of our time. We want agreement – not the hard work of disagreeing, and finding our way to consensus. Airing real differences is hard.
Institutions have their own traditions of how to resolve problems, how to come together, how to persuade, how to agree. Businesses have their way. So do schools. And governments. And churches.
Hard in churches because faith is at the heart of their life. And that is a tender thing. A deep, highly personal reality.
I rejoice in the tradition of my own heritage of church life. It is based on the scriptural word of Jesus, that “where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.” What a strange and wonderful offer that is, on Jesus’ part. He is saying, “When you gather (have a meeting) IN MY NAME, I am THERE, in the MIDST OF THEM.”
He is talking about how He leads His people, His church – whether groups large or small. He invites them to call upon Him to come, and be with them, and lead their thinking and planning until a strange unanimity is given them, by His Holy Spirit, and they find themselves all together – in one mind and heart, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.”
They are united, something they could never have done alone, and they understand it as miracle, as Divine leading. And so they are glad at how God has helped them listen to each other, and be commended by other’s thoughts and concerns, and have gradually come together – without winners or losers – but brothers and sisters who have been led by their Lord.
It is the peculiar way of their young and daring ancestors of Scrooby and a host of other faith gatherings of the English countryside, which resulted in a famous departure in a vessel called the “Mayflower,” and the community they first settled at (New) Plimoth on the edge of the American Wilderness on a coast we call Massachusetts.
Their covenant agreements to love and serve as a community together became models for the founding documents of the descendants 100 years later. This was the Mayflower Compact which laid the groundwork for a later generation’s Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. Documents of common consent, under God, to walk in His ways, and care for each other and be, as their Puritan followers to Boston in 1630, a “city set upon a hill with the eyes of the world upon us” – America’s vision of a servant nation that could be an example to the world.
The years made it clear that they were mortal men and women, often in need of repentance, “awakening,” and revival – down to this very day. But, they had a vision, and scripture says “without a vision the people perish.”
The America they struggled to establish was a dark and fragile thing, embracing great wrongs as well as visionary rights.
The battles for balance have already been fought over and over, and are even now being fought in the streets and in the heart of the cities we all love that straddle the upper reaches of that “Old Man River” that both divides America, and calls her together – TO BE ONE.
The work to be done is the work of spirit, and heart, and most of all repenting and renewing faith. It is the work of church, and believing people, perhaps more than any other. The people who have hope, by faith, and who may least want to rise to the task.
It will take prayer. And comradeship. And kindness. And leadership. And, on the way, FORGIVENESS.
Can we do it? Being the ones who step forward – not even knowing the consequences? I believe we can be those very ones. Because we know the ONE WHO CALLS, and shows us the Way.
This day, sitting in our small living room, roused from rest, I determined to excuse myself to do something useful. I went to fetch my pens from my jacket pocket. Coming back, along our tiny hall, I lurched – smack into a picture on the wall.
Molly quickly rose to rescue me, forgive me, then clean up my mess of shattered glass and picture frame. “It’s all right,” she said. “It’s a poem of mine. A friend did the calligraphy, and I framed it then.” And I, old man, had made a mess of it. “Stand back,” she said, “I’ll clean it up.” No chiding words. Her art piece on the floor. I, mortified. But she, all grace, put the lovely piece in my hands.
Out of my repentance, I copy it here for you to see this loving work of my dear wife, put to artistic form by her friend:
LET this frail soul sing!
ALL life an offering
THAT is attuned to thee.
IS there, by grace, eternity
WITHIN this frame? GIVE
ME a song to live,
PRAISE shall be my breath.
HIS life my words, death.
HOLY tempo, beating strong
NAME divine, my joy, my song!
So, out of crashing glass and broken frame, I pick up pieces and try to give you back the wondrous words of the one I love, as the Psalm touched her, long ago, and brings back, on this spattered day for us. These healing words that the Psalmist gave my own beloved singer of songs, with which to mend the broken things of this day, today.
So may we all find hurt healed in these days of so many wounds around us.
Love to you all,
As the early summer has gone on – through Memorial Day, and Independence Day – and looking outside from the inside, at skies blue, and scudding clouds, and the dawning awareness that I am at home in Minneapolis for a reason, and NOT in my canoe on the lake I love, but in the encroaching city with its angry heart, and its volatile spirit, that I am called to hear God’s invitation to take a step toward the downtown mayhem. and the despairing shop-keepers, and the young and loud marchers and find the friends of the long years who will talk with me and tell me who I need to be, and what I need to do, and figure out what I need to give – of myself, and what I know, and where I’ve been, and with whom I need to stand.
I have black friends. Long-time. We’ve worked together. We are in touch. One of them lunched with me. “Arthur,” he said, “at my northside church we’re having some meetings. We’re calling them ‘Rap on Culture.” We’d like you to come, to join the conversation, to see what we might do, together.”
So we went, this week, Molly and I together, to the church, circling the neighborhood several times to find a way into their parking lot. No cars. I phoned my friend. He was there, and came out to greet us.
We looked around a little at the church, heard some of the plans from our friend, found the Pastor’s Study, and just talked for an hour.
Our friend explained that the pastor was an advisor to the Police Union, and to the Police Chief, and that he is much in demand as a representative of the black community as the issues and ideas go back and forth about the future of the city. We talked. We prayed together. And then it was over.
We will find a way for a small cluster of their folks, and the same of our folks to meet together to take that tenuous first step toward friendship in Christ, praying that the Holy Spirit will draw us together and slowly create the “tie that binds,” leading to doors of opportunity through which we can walk together.
“Slowly by slowly,” as the Africans say. Feeling our way. Recognizing good will, and good faith, and possibilities offered by our King Forever, Who alone has the answer for any of our lives, and any of our communities, and surely – any of our cities.
And, all of us who care, can pray for each other, and for the emergence of right and faithful steps that may more and more look like God-sent answers for His “City of Lakes,” high on the great River that rolls down through middle America and could become that “Old Man River” bent on calling us all together, from East and West, North and South.
Pray for the River to become that in these critical days of possibility.
It is – suddenly – the “good old summertime.” The temperature is right. The pools are open. Green leaves are at their full. The lawns are lovely.
There’ll be a graduation gathering for one of our grandchildren. Another, with her husband is having two weeks at Tamarack Lodge, our summer house on Ossipee Lake. The Freedom Hills of Maine are directly across the lake. The mountains range with: The Ossipees, The Sandwich Range, The Eastern Slopes, The Presidentials. Our vigorous young climbed Lafayette, and Liberty, and Haystack, and Flume, and Garfield, and Bond, and West Bond. They slept two nights in the mountains. They called to tell us about it.
One child is off to a quiet, one-person retreat. Another grandchild is visiting friends, catching up.
I remember those summer trails, and the very same mountains. I’ve paddled daily the little river the young navigated before meeting the loon, up close, at the river’s mouth.
My heart would love to be there. But, SOMETHING ELSE IS EMERGING. Molly said this Sunday afternoon, “How about we walk together out the back door of Covenant Village, and cross the parking area and sit outside at the new tables at Byerlys, and drink coffee?”
It was a challenge. “Let me leave my walker behind, and hold your hand if I need to, and make it my exercise run.” We did. Just Molly, and me. With coffee and tea. With our masks, watching the passers-by. Young and old. Cripples and athletes. Black and white. Round and thin. A delightful parade of summer humanity.
Later, we did some homework, ate our supper, watched the birds outside our window, wrote letters, talked with two daughters on the phone.
Tomorrow I see Laury, my wonderful helper, for website and typing, and high-tech tasks.
The next day we’re invited by a friend of many years, to attend at a northside church, a RAP ON CULTURE, with a handful of people who want to meet, as friends, to bring our experiences together to explore the possibilities of “restorative justice,” ways of uniting, and working together, trying as Christians to be peacemakers in this summer of 2020.
Doors are opening, of possibility. Of talking together. Of renewing friendships. Of taking steps. Maybe making a difference. It won’t be like the ‘60s and ‘70s. But, may be right, for this age and stage. For what we learned – as church, through three tumultuous decades, working with Rotary for Sabathani Center; with Arne Carlson for Alpha House; and Judge Lindsay Arthur for Wayside House, and later the Colonial Residence for Girls, and the My-Your Nursery, and more.
And in the decades after church, fighting the famine, with World Vision, in East Africa, and later laboring for reconciliation in Rwanda following the genocide there, a spreading out to Eastern Congo, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan, South Africa, LeSotho, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania. Work our Pilgrim Center is expanding now.
Ossipee would have been the lake, the hills, the river, friends, rest, and peace. But maybe staying home was for a reason, to do new work crossing over, helping barriers fall, help my true history be recovered, and new partnerships be created.
My sense was that the turmoil, the wind and fire of our city on Pentecost weekend, was in fact a Pentecost sign from heaven, that now is the time to act, to speak, to write, to take hands, to do a new thing, that can be LOVE’S WORK, to be undertaken on our knees, with humble hearts, and Jesus lighting the Way.
It could be, couldn’t it? To help this be a summer, of hope.
One of the books I’ve read this spring was called Jefferson: The Art of Power. It was a deep study of both Jefferson’s inner life and public life. He did write the Declaration of Independence. It originally contained a paragraph relating to slavery and its evils. He repeatedly made efforts to take steps toward ending slavery in America. That was part of his Enlightenment commitment.
And yet, he was a Virginian. He inherited several thousand slaves. He tried to treat them differently than many of the slave holders. But his efforts were always stricken from the documents where he raised the question. And, we know today, that after the death of his wife, an intimate relation did develop between himself and Sally Hemingway, a young slave girl in his household.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author of Jefferson’s story worked deeply and delicately with these conflicting facts of Jefferson’s life, and his own human justifications of his behavior.
Public Radio this Independence Day week aired a fascinating interview, called “The Hidden Brain,” with a woman who had written a book on these very issues in the life of Thomas Jefferson. She is a Harvard history professor. She too, looked deeply and persuasively at the inconsistencies in the mind and heart of this founding father of our American democracy.
It has been said that the American Civil War was the last Battle of the American Revolution. It was a heroic, yet flawed, attempt to “do justly,” in relation to slavery as the unfinished work of the American revolution.
Yet, the heritage of slavery still haunts America’s soul, and this summer of 2020 sees us exploding as a society over injustices done to our black brothers by power structures which are in place to serve and defend, and keep safe all people in our whole society.
The charge to all of us is to learn to do right – and to understand the surprising and unexpected ways right can be done. Clearly, “right” is very unlikely to be done by an angry heart, or by the violent smashing of buildings and businesses which, for the moment, seem to represent “the enemy.”
There is a way, given us long ago, that can change the whole dynamic of hate, and revenge, and destruction, and death. And that is FORGIVENESS. Forgiveness that brings with it, understanding. And compassion. And truth.
I plead not only that we have faith, and the transforming possibility of forgiveness. But also that we restore the study of learning of history, as part of the way to give us balance, and humility, and a way back to get at what is really true about those who went before us. Learning the good and the bad. Looking at the world around our ancestors, and so better seeing the balanced truth of their lives and decisions. And, giving us compassion for them as they dealt with their times.
Many schools and colleges have disparaged and dismissed the study of America’s history – making us vulnerable to ideologies build upon half-truths.
Jesus followers need to be in the vanguard of those who seek truth, seeking to be humane and just in their views of the world around them, and the world that preceded them.
What a good time is this stay-at-home summer for the rethinking of our whole life and world by the very best that we know. Dare we to take the lead, as we our able?
Bless you, good friends.
Molly and I occasionally have Table Talk at our evening dinners in our tiny apartment. The pandemic solution at our senior residence is to have wonderful high school students – our dining room wait staff – come with a big paper bag containing our dinners, as ordered, from the dining room. A loud knock alerts us that the food has come. Molly transforms it into a colorful, healthy meal.
We love the friendly young people who carry the bags to probably 200 apartments. They know us and address us by first names.
Our table is at a wide window looking from the second floor into our now lush courtyard, with its brilliant flowers, its green lawns, the lovely little pond, its flitting birds and waddling ducks.
That peaceful scene encourages occasional burst of serious talk. One recently was about prejudice: the prejudging of other people. Molly offered, without blinking, the prejudice she felt I carry. I confessed to several opinions that I want to temper and moderate. I want very much to be fair.
But my growing sense is that “systemic racism” is not true reality. That it leads to glib and sweeping condemnations that are often not balanced and fair. And that it feeds in, all too readily, to a spirit of angry rage that leads inevitably from violent feelings to violent, destructive acts that trample on people and property, dreams and hopes, causing ruin for many businesses built by African Americans and African immigrants.
The protests turned to riots have fed on the spirit of rage, with the self-looming anger and the identification of the “other” as enemy.
All of this directly dismissing Jesus’ good word, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” ie: deal with it, and get rid of it. Leave it behind. Learn not to hold grudges.
Looking back on my now long life (91! Yikes!), I realize that forgiveness is one of the hardest things for Christians to undertake: to offer, and to receive. It is even written there in our church liturgies, but we have trouble “getting it.” Because, in this fallen world EGO rises, with help from the insinuations of the Devil, to make us want, of all things, to be right. We resist the humbling exercise of saying, “Sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
I live with (for 70 years) an independent, quietly outspoken, deep-thinking wife, whose eyes can flare and her voice rise, BUT who never holds a grudge. She lets it go, as Jesus taught her. And, as she teaches me.
When God called us to Rwanda to speak love into the wounded lives of people who had killed a million of their neighbors, friends, family members, and even fellow Christians out of hatred born of the other tribe’s privilege and disparagements of them, Molly listened to God when He said, “I have brought you here to ask THEIR forgiveness for what you, and your people of the West did to divided them from each other.”
She didn’t even know that history, but, in church service after church service, and retreat after retreat, she went to her knees and begged forgiveness of the Rwandans.
They said they’d never seen anything like that. Time after time, they went to this little old American white lady, and laid hands on her and prayed for her forgiveness. And so she visibly taught all of our Pilgrim Center teams to go first of all “ASKING THEIR FORGIVENESS.” Taught us authenticity, and humility.
It is very different from the path of rage. Very different from venting anger. It moves into the sphere of the Spirit. Of the miraculous given by Jesus. It changed us. It changed Rwandans (and Burundians and Congolese, and South Sudanese, and Ugandans. Even Kenyans).
It is of an entirely different realm. It touches the heart. It changes lives. It tracks down all kinds of attitudes that we carry around.
My father grew up an only child of a single mom in Omaha. She cleaned houses and later kept rooming houses. For railroad men, pick and shovel workers, down by the stockyard. As a 17-year-ol boy – and long before – my father worked as a City building inspector, sang in the Presbyterian Church choir, went to the YMCA and became a champion weight-lifter. He went to Central High School.
Many times he bemoaned to his own four children that he was never required at Central High, to write a paper. In his very different career as a New England preacher, he struggled in the writing of sermons and books. “I want my children to go to schools where they teach you to write,” he said. And, though he was later on the School Board of Portsmouth, NH, he found ways to send each of his children to the finest prep school he could find, so we’d learn to write.
I was sent away to be a scholarship student for four years at such an “elite” school. Lonely for me. My brother came in my second year. We sang, played sports, led the school government. My sisters went to fine private girls’ schools.
I didn’t know what “elite” was at the time. I went under my hard-working father’s guidance. I learned much. I was an idealist in student leadership and was nearly crushed by it in my final year. I failed my college boards. I finally got into college on the good word of my headmaster.
Of course, that schooling was high privilege for me. When I went to theological seminary in New York, I worked a year with young people in East Harlem. Bright, eager, black kids. Oh, I learned from them, and from the East Harlem Protestant Parish where I served. You can get knocked around in all that. And so it went, through life – My last 25 years of life (as a volunteer) after 32 years leading a midwest suburban church in Minneapolis, with a semi-city church in Boston – bringing black and white teenagers together, among other things, all beginning with five years in a country church in “The Berkshires” of Massachusetts, where little old widow ladies, with their Bibles open beside their favorite chairs, taught me how to pray and be a pastor. I couldn’t leave without a prayer. Even there, kids of all kinds from Harlem came for time with us “in the country” all summer.
You take what comes. You learn what’s thrust upon you. You learn to love the people. All of them. Even at the suburban church there were a couple of black young people in my confirmation classes. A young black hard-working woman comes from the northside to sit with a quiet, gracious woman, whose son, another “old confo kid” is now the President of a major company. She is humble and affectionate, in loving this young woman.
And for a couple of decades, there was Wanda. Friends on the north side, she told us in her testimony in church on Martin Luther King Sunday, asked her, “Why do you go all that way to be in that white suburban church, and sing in the choir?” “I told them,” she said, “I go there to learn not to hate white people.”
She’s gone to glory now, but told the truth along the way, and she lived and was loved. And I believe she forgave. Because she and we, recognized the face of God in each other. (“He made them in His own image.”)
It’s a loving thing, this dealing with our opinions of each other. A breaking down thing. And oh, always, a weeping thing – which are, in the soul, love’s tears. Jesus’ tears. From the cross. We can build on that. We surely can.
Love to you.
A young former student of mine wrote a sweet email to me this early summer. She recalled walks around the lake in Richfield. She described the day, the scruffy path, the fallen branches, the pools of lily pads, the little ducklings following their mother ahead of her. It was a rapture, a song of nature from the world she knew.
It was a word of comfort, though I don't think she knew that, It was a word I needed. For I long for paths of summer I see vividly in my mind. They are mountain trails, and they are paths to the beach, at the Ossipee I love. Two grandchildren will be going there soon for two weeks. Two daughters have gone, for just three nights there. One will return in late summer, for longer.
The trouble for me is those paths are part of my soul. The little winding river I could paddle in my canoe showed me flowers along the river banks, ever changing. It was a daily trek: just me, and my canoe, the water beneath me and the sky above, and the sun, and the shade, and long, long thoughts.
But this summer is different. I cannot walk far without a staff to lean on. I am old - beyond 90, and with two diseases affecting my body. But two fine doctors are treating me this summer. I live in a senior residence, so I am among the most vulnerable of our population. Across the street, in our infirmary, several people have died of the coronavirus. Our "keepers" work courageously to keep us all alive. But, our vulnerabilities keep us in a "high risk" category. My strong, hard-working wife does everything imaginable to keep me going. I am so grateful. I deserve none of it, but I receive it all gratefully.
To travel would mean dragging three machines which I use daily and taking many, and nameless, medicines. Neither car nor airplane would be an easy way to get to the places so dear to my heart.
So, I try to be a man of peace where I am. For, after all, God is here, is He not? Jesus walks beside me in Minnesota as He would in New Hampshire. What I need to do is to be of good cheer. I need to think about others all around me who need encouragement far more than I. I need to thank God, and the daughter and her husband who drove Molly and me to the Arboretum to drive the three-mile route through groves of maples, and Japanese lilacs, and birches, and pine, and meadow flowers at our feet. They walked slowly beside me for part of the way to the car. So I could do what I could do.
And others now, are beginning to come to me, to sit and talk about life, and living by faith, and keeping a smile.
And Laury, my dear assisting pal helps me write to the world - through this blog. And notes come back. And we encourage each other.
Of course, that's what is needed for pandemic time - people caring about each other. And, as for marching in the streets, now protests that turn to riots, and people getting killed, my call is to keep Jesus ever with us, in our hearts, in our conversations, in our hopes and dreams, so that He can moment by moment remind us that He is the Lord of love, and it is His power, and no other, that America, and the world, needs. We can do it. Even I can. Praise God.
Love you, friend,
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES