“As lousy as things are now, tomorrow they will be somebody’s good old days.” Gerald Barzan
The past few weeks being laid up dealing with Adolf the Kidney stone and his remove this week have been unusual for me. I have been in pain and even now am dealing with the aftereffects of the procedure to remove Adolf I find that it has given me a pause during Lent that I seldom get. The pause to look at life, mortality and what is and is not important. Now a Kidney stone is not normally a life threatening condition and was not in my case, but the condition has slowed me down from my normal hyperactive manner of doing things, even slowed down the pace of my writing. It has not been fun but I have gained some spiritual grace that I think that I needed. Tonight I am not feeling as well as I was this morning and hopefully this too will pass so I can get back to getting well.
It is difficult at times to be hopeful when all around there is bad news. We seem to be living the ancient Chinese curse that says “May you live in interesting times.” The times are certainly interesting with lots going on of historic significance that may years from now be remembered as one of those tumultuous times where the world changed before our eyes. History of course is replete with such times, the rise and fall of ancient empires, the age of exploration, the Reformation, the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic era, the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World War with the Great Depression sandwich, the 1960’s, the post Cold War era and the post-911 era just for a start. I could go back further in history for other epochal periods, but I think that the reason that today’s crisis seem so much more dire is that we are both the beneficiaries and the victims of the instantaneous communication revolution in which common people have real time access to events that are impacting their lives. This causes many a great deal of anxiety both real and imagined, anxiety which usually finds expression in a desire for the good old days as well as seeks solace and security from those who feverishly exploit that anxiety. It does not matter if the security comes from religion, political ideology and matters neither if it comes from the left or the right so long as the call resonates with them they will follow it. They will faithfully follow even as the purveyors of the message drive up their worry and anxiety that they no longer can actually enjoy life or be thankful because they are so consumed with how “lousy” things are or “evil” their opponents are.
It is in times like these that one has to take a deep breath, look around at all that they have to be thankful for and just really examine of the nostalgia that they feel for “better times” is that or an escape from an unpleasant present and fear of the future if the other side wins. The fact is that we have seen such times before and somehow made it through. I hear from friends and relatives who lived through the Great Depression and World War II that those were good times in spite of everything happening, much of which is present today but somehow things are worse now. Even I fall into the trap about somehow thinking that the times that I grew up in were somehow better than the present, this may be true for music but overall things were not that good for a lot of people but somehow we made it through them. Lent is a time to step back from the brink, take stock and renew our life with God and our neighbor.
When I returned from Iraq back in February 2008 I soon discovered that the bombardment of bad news and über-partisan political battles took its toll on me. I was neither as resilient as I thought that I was nor as consumed by the need to continue to ratchet up rhetoric on one side or the other as the more extreme elements on the right or left were doing. PTSD or not I realized that the purveyors of the 24/7 bad news cycle were driving people with legitimate ideological differences to extremes that I had never seen, but which I recognized from history have a lot of precedent and can lead to making things even worse. One only has to look at Weimar Germany to realize how things can go so very wrong when extremes on both sides of the ideological spectrums squeeze out those in the middle or chance at mutually beneficial solutions and that was in the days before type of information overload that is the bedrock of the political and ideological landscape of today.
I am not attacking those who get caught up in this but I do question the politicians, pundits, “news-networks” and talk show hosts who continue to ratchet up rhetoric to the point that many feel that the only alternative is some kind of “revolution.” Again those that call for “radical change” or revolt against those who are in favor of that kind of change are both calling for revolution when revolutionary talk reaches a point where one side or the other does not see a way to resolve things in a civil manner then the those alternatives slip away and the only recourse is violence. It is not the fault of one side or the other as those that stoke this talk are found on both sides of the American as well as other nations political and ideological spectrum testify to daily. In the United States we also have a long history of apocalyptic thought which presents the lousy state of current events in any generation as something that will certainly bring the end of life as we know it or the return of the Lord, the Great Tribulation or whatever you chalk it up to. There are those on both the religious and secular side of the spectrum who have apocalyptic visions related to their world view. For some reason we Americans do the apocalyptic quite well whether we believe in God or not.
I am not a radical, my temperament is such that I may have strong beliefs but realize that there are many other opinions out there than mine and that even if I do not agree with one side or the other on every issue it does not mean that I cannot find common ground. I think this is part of the reason for the diversity of friends that I have from across the religious, political and ideological spectrum, we can agree to disagree and in the process still value one another and our opinions and remain friends who care about one another.
The thing that has been most on my mind this Lent has been the idea of being reconciled both to God and to one another. Lent is a season of self examination, repentance and forgiveness. The call to “be reconciled to one another” is a never ending command and applies across the variety and spectrum of life. Lent reminds us that that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” but that we are also all made in the image of the God who created us, redeems us and sanctifies us who calls us to himself and reminds us that mercy triumphs over judgment and “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” I am afraid that in times like these even the best intentioned of people can find themselves pulled into the orbit of those that in less stressful or trying times that they would never be involved with. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility… As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”
I know for some this message is lost and not because they are rejecting the message of the Gospel but because that have become so deeply involved in whatever cause they or their champions espouse that they have lost the ability at least temporarily to see the good that may rest in their opponents and their ideas. As Bonhoeffer also wrote “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as ourselves.” Now of course Bonhoeffer knew the evil that was the Nazis and eventually gave his life by supporting the German resistance to Hitler. Loving our enemies does not absolve us from public responsibility but in ensuring that we do not ensnare ourselves in ideology that restricts our ability to love them as Christ has commanded.
I think in the past few years that I have gained a new perspective on life that has changed the way that I look at the world. I know that things are not good right now and that there are a lot of things to be legitimately concerned about, but I know too that somehow our country as well as much of humanity have weathered worse and like Barzan said that for some these will be the good old days someday and that helps me to live in the present knowing that the future is not yet written and known only to God who in his grace condescends to love us and desires that we better love him and one another and not be conformed to any ideology that would prevent that. I do pray that we will both see better days as well as be reconciled to God and to one another that is my Lenten prayer.