This morning's article is an unusual combination. I'm going to introduce you to a song, then talk at some length about its very profound meaning for me. Call it an extended meditation on God, life, the universe and everything, if you will.
A couple of weeks ago I happened upon an album released in 1999 by country and bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs, titled "Soldier of the Cross".
I'm not a big fan of either music genre, and I don't normally bother with "commercial" Christian music, but somehow I felt led to click through to a couple of the tracks and listen for a few moments.
One of them was titled "Seven Hillsides", composed by Texas native Walt Wilkins. It describes the dilemma of a preacher who's to deliver memorial services at the graves of seven soldiers, killed in action overseas. How is he to comfort their families, particularly their mothers? How is he to make sense of their deaths in the context of the Christian message? Since that's something I've had to do for myself, first from the perspective of my own faith, and then for others as a pastor and chaplain, you'll understand that this song struck me very powerfully indeed.
Walt Wilkins has recorded this song himself, on his 2001 album "Rivertown".
However, Mr. Wilkins has said he loves Ricky Skaggs' version of the song, and who am I to argue with the songwriter? Before I go on, let's listen to it.
As a pastor, I can assure you that's a very good description of the moral and spiritual dilemma we face every time we have to do something like this. How can we make sense of tragedy and loss in the context of our faith? To me, it's blasphemous to suggest that everything that happens is God's will. I refuse to believe that God points at someone and says, "I'm going to kill you now, to see how your family copes with your death, and test their faith!" That's not the God I've come to know over the years. Rather, I recall that God never once promised us a life of wine and roses, or milk and honey, or whatever. Instead, he promised us grace to cope with life, whatever it throws at us. In my experience, he keeps that promise - if we're prepared to accept his grace on his terms.
Regular readers will know the background to my faith, and how it's been formed and tested over the years. I make no claim to be some sort of Christian hero - I'm anything but. I've made more than my fair share of mistakes, and committed far more than my fair share of sins. I fear God's justice when I face his judgment for my life - almost as much as I hope in his mercy, which is the only thing that will save any of us. Nevertheless, as best I can, I try to live what I've come to believe through my experiences.
For those of you who aren't familiar with my background, here are a few blog articles I've written over the years, in chronological order.
For context on South Africa and events there during those years, see my articles "Remembering Inyati" and "Was apartheid South Africa really that bad?"
My faith grew out of those experiences, and remains formed by them to this day. I try to express it in the pages of this blog, particularly when writing about modern tragedies such as terrorism and war. However, a lot of people who haven't seen such destruction at first hand seem to approach such issues with a much simpler, black-and-white perspective that doesn't allow much in the way of "gray areas", where ethics, morality, attitudes and actions are less clear-cut and more complicated. Far too many people seem to see the world - they prefer to see the world - in terms of "us" and "them": and we're all right, and they're all wrong, because that's the way it is.
That attitude is the cause of so much death and destruction that it's almost impossible to tabulate. I've seen it in more than one war zone in sub-Saharan Africa, and I'm seeing it now in these dis-United States. I wrote about it at some length after the Paris terror attacks of 2015, in an article titled "Paris and the pain of being human". I meant every word I wrote there; but my words clearly didn't satisfy many readers, as the more than 60 comments the article attracted will make clear if you read them (I hope you do).
Here are the salient paragraphs from that article.
Those aren't the worst aspects of violent conflict. To me, the worst is what it does to the human psyche. You become dehumanized. Your enemies are no longer people - they're objects, things, targets. You aren't shooting at John, whose mother is ill, and who's missing his girlfriend terribly, and who wants to marry her as soon as he can get home to do so. You're shooting at that enemy over there, the one who'll surely 'do unto you' unless you 'do unto him' first. He's not a human being. He's a 'gook'. He's 'the enemy'. He's a thing rather than a person. It's easier to shoot a thing than it is a person.
. . .
And in the end, the bodies lying in the ruins, and the blood dripping onto our streets, and the weeping of those who've lost loved ones . . . they'll all be the same. History is full of them. When it comes to the crunch, there are no labels that can disguise human anguish. People will suffer in every land, in every community, in every faith . . . and they'll turn to what they believe in to make sense of their suffering . . . and most of them will raise up the next generation to hate those whom they identify as the cause of their suffering . . . and the cycle will go on, for ever and ever, until the world ends.
We cannot 'kill them all and let God sort them out' (and let it never be forgotten that those obscene, inhuman instructions were reportedly issued, not by a Muslim fundamentalist, but by an Abbot and Papal Legate of the Catholic Church). There are too many of 'them' to kill them all, just as 'they' can never kill all of 'us'. We cannot kill our way out of terrorism. We cannot kill our way out of the dilemma of being human, with all the tragedy that entails.
May God have mercy on us all.
That article, looking at the pain of loss suffered by so many in those terror attacks, strikes very close to the heart of what I felt when I listened to "Seven Hillsides". Right now, I'm seeing the same hardness of heart felt by Americans towards each other. Those on the left demand their version of utopia, and regard all who stand in their way as "reactionaries" or "conservatives" or "rednecks" or "deplorables" or whatever the "label du jour" might be. Those on the right regard their opponents as "progressives" or "socialists" or "terrorists" or "thugs" and the like. However, neither side refers to their opponents as "human beings". They objectify them as something to be rejected, perhaps feared, certainly destroyed in respect of their positions, if not their actual lives. They won't accept them as fellow Americans who happen to hold different opinions.
The Christian faith that's supposed to animate this country, according to so many of the Founding Fathers, is conspicuous by its absence on both sides. The right may complain about openly anti-Christian sentiments on the left, but their own attitudes display as much disregard of the Golden Rule as do their opponents'. Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, pot.
And so, pastors such as myself are again dumped straight into the old dilemma. How can we make sense of suffering, pain and loss in the context of our faith, when both sides fail to recognize their opponents - political, electoral or otherwise - as fellow human beings for whom Christ died? In war, it's common for allegedly "holy leaders" to claim that "God is on our side" or "God is with us". It's always struck me as incongruous that both sides make that same claim. It must be awfully schizophrenic for God to find himself divided like that, two halves of himself working against the middle! Clearly, that sort of religious propaganda won't fly. Mothers on either side mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . so how can we put that loss in the context of what it means to be Christian, and human, and real? How can we preach God's truth, rather than our partisan, one-sided, limited perspectives?
I have no answers that will satisfy everybody. All I can do is point out that we are called to judge ourselves by God's standards, not to judge him by our standards. Sadly, most of us fall into the latter error; and if pastors try to point that out, we're derided and rejected for not taking sides. We can't win.
And that's the pain of being human. We are called to be more than human; not just natural, but supernatural - yet we insist on remaining in the mud and the mire, and refusing to "lift up [our] eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh [our] help". We won't find God's answers by looking down at the human condition, but by looking up, to see what he intends human beings to become.
How should we behave towards each other?
The prophet Micah put it in a nutshell.
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
That, right there, is a pastor's calling; to remind and help people to lift up their eyes, and their lives, and "walk humbly with our God". That's not an optional instruction, to be observed only if others do the same to us. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you") and the eleventh commandment ("Love one another as I have loved you") are spiritually synonymous. However, as pastors, we need not be surprised if reminding people of that reality leads to rejection by some. After all . . . look at what they did to Christ, who embodied that teaching.
And, thus, today . . . we face our own "Seven Hillsides".
* Sigh *