Friday, January 19, 2018

The Call of Duty

           There will be no sermon this week, since I will be traveling to New York City.  However, I offer this personal essay instead.

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            Peter Morgan, creator and screenwriter for the Netflix series, The Crown, was interviewed recently on Fresh Air by Dave Davies.  The interview was a fascinating look inside a program which has captured a sizeable following in its first two seasons.

            Actress Claire Foy plays the young Queen Elizabeth. Her life takes a sudden turn when she, as Princess Elizabeth, learns of her father’s death and her ascension to the throne.  The series, thus far, has plotted the early years of her reign – basically, 1952 through 1964.

            The series is, of course, “informed speculation” of what transpires in the royal family, since no member of that family would speak to outsiders of the dynamics within the palace.  Morgan, the creator, has a team of researchers which seeks all the bits of information they can find, from historical records, royal archives, and people who were close to the events themselves.

            Many of the episodes focus on the dilemmas which the young queen faces as her reign moves through personal and public trials.  Royal decorum and precedent restrict what the sovereign can do and say in specific circumstances.  So, we see, in the program, the internal and external turmoil which weighs heavy on the Queen (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fourth).

            Davies, Morgan’s interviewer, posed a question which assumed that Elizabeth would have preferred a quiet, country life, outside of public life.  The question acknowledged that Elizabeth’s life would have been much more simple and uncomplicated if she had not been Queen.

            Morgan responded by saying that his opinion is that life would have been more simple for Elizabeth, who he describes as shy and modest and not desiring the limelight.  He added to that sentence: “But that says nothing about her sense of duty… In a sense, you never hear people talk about duty.”

            Duty.  It is a potent word – and an important one in the life of Elizabeth II.  I recall the Bishop under whom I served as Canon to the Ordinary for 14 years mentioning duty repeatedly during a series of presentations he offered around the Diocese of Mississippi in 2001 and 2002.  Duncan Gray III spoke of his father’s generation as being strongly motivated by a sense of duty.  Thus, we had their responses and historic actions during World War II, along with their Herculean efforts to build a strong, prosperous, just, and safe institutions. Hence, the Greatest Generation.

            My father taught me those same lessons.  Late in his life, I thanked him for inculcating in me a strong sense of personal ethics.  He was typical of his generation in response: modesty. Much later, after reflecting on the Morgan interview, I realized what he had actually bequeathed to me was a strong sense of duty.

            I will readily admit:  I have frequently fallen short of doing my duty.  That is clearly obvious to me “looking back in the rearview mirror.”  But the call of duty – genetically and culturally implanted within me – explains both my discomfort and comfort over the years.

            I am able to see how my previous vocation – as a lobbyist – was so unsatisfying to me (except for my earliest position, which involved what I called a white hat organization).  Later, my sense of discomfort would rise as my job required me to articulate positions which were not resonant with my spirit. I did not like a large, faceless entity telling me what to be or do, regardless of conflicting personal values or principles.

            It becomes clear to me – again, in hindsight – that it was a sense of duty, as much as anything, which drew me toward seminary and the ordained ministry. As I articulated to the Commission on Ministry in January 1984, I wanted to relate to people on a different level – one that was less ambitious and manipulative and more fully genuine, human, and humane.

            Let me be clear:  I am not equating myself with the Queen of England.  But I can sympathize with the difficulties that she has faced in confronting some dilemmas. Her sense of duty has caused her to do some things and take come actions which were enormously painful (at least according to The Crown).  A point that Peter Morgan made in his interview was this: The public has assumed that she took certain steps out of preference instead of out of duty, when the actual process may have reflected precisely the opposite.

            That dilemma confronts many of us. It is hard to follow the call of duty in those circumstances, when people’s emotions or vocations are at-stake and the personal price is high.  The easy thing, the most expeditious thing, is frequently contrary to what should be done, based on duty.

            I can look back at my vocation – both before and after ordination – and see when those conflicting values have clashed.  There have been times when I have responded to the call of duty and done things that might have been very painful or difficult for me (and perhaps painful and difficult for others), but they were ultimately the right things.  As the series The Queen has insinuated, there is occasionally a personal price for doing the right thing.

            At the same moment, I can reflect and see other, different decisions.  There have been times when I have pulled punches or not said what I knew to be the full truth out of concern of how those words would be received or interpreted, or the price I would pay for my honesty.  In those moments, I have betrayed my inheritance and my personal integrity.  Likewise, when I have failed to be completely frank in certain situations, I have denied the person to whom I was speaking the chance to hear the truth and to make changes which might be helpful.

            In those moments of less-than-honesty, I probably convinced myself that I was doing the right thing.  However, such evasive decisions were a chimera of duty, and not the real deal.

            The call of duty is a high calling, and requires one to be unflinching in its service.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

From Modest Roots

PROPERS:          2 EPIPHANY, YEAR B        
TEXT:                 1 SAMUEL 3:1-10 (11-20); JOHN 1:43-51

ONE SENTENCE:        The ability of God to speak and move through people and circumstances is not limited by the absence of power, position or potency.        

            Deep in the heart of Mississippi, in the midst of red clay hills and piney woods, there is a county that largely escapes notice.  It is rural, poor, sparsely populated and well off-the-beaten track.

            A work colleague many years ago told me the purpose of such an area was “to hold the earth together.”

            Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is the school known as Last Chance U – East Mississippi Community College – where athletes with academic, behavior, or other problems go for one last chance at a major college opportunity.

That small school, also known as Scooba Tech, is where Sports Illustrated’s designated Toughest Coach that Ever Lived, Bull Sullivan, coached his own brand of football in the 1950s and 1960s.

That small, rural county, Kemper County, is made up of little communities – such as Electric Mills, Porterville, Wahalak, and Dekalb.  One would be forgiven for wondering if anything good could ever come from there.

Which makes it even more surprising…

Early in the 20th century – August 3, 1901, to be exact – a child was born in rural Kemper County to a young couple.  He grew up and got his schooling in the poor country schools in Kemper County before enrolling at Mississippi A&M – now Mississippi State University – where he was a cheerleader.

After graduating, he attended law school at the University of Virginia.  There, this young redneck from Kemper County, was selected for Phi Beta Kappa.  It would not be the last honor he would receive.

He served in the Mississippi Legislature for four years before being elected circuit judge – a mid-level state court position.  This child of poverty was becoming known for his unflinching integrity.

In 1947, John Cornelius Stennis won election over five opponents – including two sitting congressmen – to the United States Senate.  He succeeded Theodore G. Bilbo, the race-baiting firebrand who had been refused a seat in the Senate earlier in the year.
For the next 41 years, John Stennis served in the United States Senate.  This new senator made a name early. He challenged Joe McCarthy during the height of the Red Scare.  He wrote the first ethics manual for the members of the Senate.

For sure, he was a creature of his culture and his society.  He would not fare well in today’s political environment with today’s issues. As we all learn from time-to-time, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”  That would be true of some of his positions.

But this man with roots close to the soil made an indelible impression on Washington and the nation.  He was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee for 12 years.  He was the senior-most member of the Senate for eight years.

He kept the promise that he made at the outset of his career – “to plow the furrow straight to the end of the row.”

His memory is much revered in his native Mississippi – not because of power or influence, but because of his integrity.   From humble roots.

And his humility and accessibility.  I once visited him at his office in Dekalb late in his tenure.  His office was a tiny red brick building just off the square in the small town.  Above the transom of his door were painted the simple words, John C. Stennis, Lawyer.  To walk into that office was to walk into history – with ample testimony from pictures, proclamations, and letters.

So much for the idea that rural settings cannot produce transformative leaders.

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Philip, the apostle, was from the seaside community of Bethsaida.  It was likely a thriving fishing village – especially compared to the tiny hamlet of Nazareth, up in the hill country of Galilee.  Perhaps there was even an air of superiority when residents of the seaside towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida spoke of “the hill country.”

Yet Philip was impressed with what he had found: “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  This, he told Nathanael.

Nathanael was not so easy sold, and remained skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he replied. He had a set opinion of folks who came from those areas.

Nathanael’s skepticism was not long-lived.  When Jesus saw him, he said, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” A brief conversation ensued, leading Nathanael to utter a profession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

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And, out of the mouths of babes… Look at the first lesson.

Samuel was a young boy, having been given over to the Lord’s service by his mother.  He was living with the elderly Eli, in the tent which served as the home to the Ark of the Covenant (If you have watched Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know what I am talking about).

In the midst of one night, while the young Samuel was sleeping, a voice called to him four times.  The first three times, Samuel ran to Eli’s side, assuming the older man had called him.  Anticipating a fourth time, Eli suspected the voice was God’s, and encouraged Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, because your servant listens.”

And listen Samuel did – and he later conveyed the divine oracle to Eli.  The news was not good, but Eli recognized it for what it was: genuine.

The simple child was a prophet from God.  Samuel would fill that role well during the remainder of his life. He would anoint the first two kings of Israel.

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            We have all heard the saying, “Big gifts come in tiny packages.”  Likewise, the movement of God can come from unexpected places.

            Ogden Nash once penned the words, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” An insignificant tribe of Middle Eastern Semites were selected as God’s chosen people.

We could add to that saying the oddity of choosing Abraham and Sarah, the reclusive prince Moses, the shepherd boy David, and most of all, the Nazarene carpenter Jesus – from Nazareth.

            God’s profound movements have seldom come from palaces, families of wealth and means, or from positions of power.  In fact, it has largely been places of power and affluence that have been sources of conflict, controversy, and brokenness in Salvation History.

            The more simple places… and simple people… have been the agents of God’s grace.

            The hand of God has not been shortened in the past.  And if past is prologue, it will not be shortened in the future.  God will move where he will through anyone he chooses.