Holding fast to that which is good
We need leaders now who will help us find a spiritual rebirth -- or we at least need a way to get to sleep amid troubled times.
There’s so much to worry about, including drought and wildfires. Where is hope? (Image by Christelle PRIEUR from Pixabay.)
What got me, finally, was the forecast of a summer of drought and wildfires across the American West and Midwest — the image in my mind of land I know so well, and have loved, being parched and blackened by a punishing nature, or, more precisely, by a natural world upended by human carelessness. Climate change will wreak havoc in the heartland, I kept thinking, while most of the region’s political leaders fight efforts to combat it.
It was the middle of the night, which is never a good time for rational thought, and the news I had read hours earlier about the National Weather Service forecast of “prolonged, persistent drought,” which creates conditions ideal for windswept wildfires — drought, that is, which already is gripping almost two-thirds of the country — kept eating at me. I couldn’t get comfortable in my bed.1
A lot of people are struggling against despair these days, given what’s going on around us. Why did that particular thought, about the drought, turn out to be what finally upended me, amid everything else fairly terrible that’s going on?
I don’t know, or I didn’t know on that dark night, anyway, which further annoyed me, because, I was thinking, things are of course worse in Ukraine, where innocent civilians are being assassinated and cities destroyed — and how can this war end, short of a nuclear confrontation, anyway? — and that will make the current economic troubles look like nothing, but not before the combined perils of inflation and recession turn our country over to the hands of a political party that has fallen into the grip of radical right-wingers who care not a whit about the lies that are undermining our democracy and — did I forget the pandemic? No, I did not: I started to worry about its resurgence, which is only going to cause further political turmoil, not to mention more death — and what is wrong with this pillow, anyway?
Ordinarily, I sleep well. Even when life’s inevitable challenges make daytime hours hard, a pillow in the dark usually quickly presents me the gift of a long break from consciousness — often provoking jealousy in my wife, who has waged a lifelong squabble with sleep. But there I was the other night, unable to find any peace, unyielding to the insomnia antidotes I’ve learned but rarely have to use — rhythmic breathing, counting back by sevens from 100, that sort of thing. I wished for a mantra, but all I could think of was something like a beginning drum lesson: paradiddle, paradiddle, flam-flam-flam.
And then, from somewhere, a phrase came to mind, something that I realized was surfacing from years ago: Hold fast to that which is good. Yes, that’s right. Hold your course, a sailor might say, and use the good wind. I turned the phrase over and over in my mind — hold fast to that which is good — taking some comfort from it. And then another phrase emerged, which seemed to rightly follow the first one: Render to no one evil for evil. Where did that come from? But it's so right, too. And then, following that one, another came straightaway: Strengthen the faint-hearted.
At daylight — which is to say, after some hours of sleep — I could recite almost all of it, and I recalled, too, what it was: a benediction from the church of my youth, which we all had recited together at the end of each Sunday morning service in the 1960s. I set out to find its origin, and to get the rest of the words in place.
It is what’s called a catena, a connected series of phrases derived from Christian teachings. The person who created I couldn’t find, but we know that this catena emerged in 1928 as Episcopal leaders were updating their 1892 Book of Common Prayer. It didn’t make the final cut for inclusion in the Anglican tradition, but it somehow caught the eye of Presbyterians — not as high church, you know — who published it in 1946, in their Book of Common Worship.2 That’s apparently how it was discovered by the minister of the Presbyterian church of my childhood — who was, as some of you readers know, my dad.
During my four decades and more in journalism, I have written only occasionally of my religious heritage, because religion tends to separate us from one another, and alienation from readers is never a columnist’s intent. But of course my faith heritage affects everything I do and think. And today, on the weekend when devout Christians and Jews celebrate Easter and Passover, and when the world is troubled at a level seemingly beyond the coping capacity of civic leaders, it’s a good time to take a moment to consider some spiritual guidance.
Religions nowadays, sadly, are usually more exclusionary and divisive than binding and healing. I’m sick of self-righteous politicians invoking the Bible as they display acts of hatred; I’m disgusted, in particular, that evangelical Christianity has become a clearly partisan force, and that so many churches eagerly weaponize their believers’ faith to deny God’s love and citizenship’s benefits from people based on how they are born. Like a lot of people, I’ve stepped away from regular worship — though for reasons theological, as well, which is a column for another day.
But spirituality has guided world history, and the quest for perfection and peace through understanding of something greater than ourselves offers humans pathways to better lives. People are drawn to faith by their individual needs and desires, and by their hope for comfort, and they are often sustained by the support of fellow believers.
It is the comfort in religion’s promise that I took from the old benediction — which, finally, on that morning after it laid out my pathway to sleep, I found that I could recite by heart:
Go forth into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast to that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor all people…
I don’t know why the minister of my church decided to include this at the end of services for a while, but the fact that it brought me peace decades later speaks to the lasting impact of the pastoral care he offered a few hundred fortunate congregants, including me. Thanks, Pop.
If those words comforted me in their familiarity long years from my youth, they also suggest that others might find an embrace of the spiritual concepts underlying them to be useful. Although they arose from specifically Christian sources, the verses match teachings of all the world’s religions. If they seem somewhat naïve — how can Putin’s evil not be met by imposing evil pain upon his followers? — they nevertheless set a standard that might guide our behavior, to someday yield a more innocent and loving world. Religion always calls us to be better than we are now, to strive to make possible a world that seems impossible.
For it’s increasingly clear that the political sphere alone cannot save us. We need leaders who can call us to a higher plane, drawing us to work toward a world in which what seems wide-eyed and idealistic today is the expectation of our future. We ought not to be in search of leaders of a particular religious faith, but we desperately need to put people in positions of civic responsibility whose faith in humanity and commitment to its future replaces opportunism with an agenda of justice and hope, which religious teachings can inspire.
That hope, though, requires a spiritual rebirth — and since spirituality is such a personal matter, it can only arise from within each of us. So here’s my plan: I’m going to repeat in my mind, morning and night, the phrases of the Benediction of 1928 — to make the verses my mantra, in fact, so that my sights might be raised, and my own course set. And I will do what I can to support those people in political and civic life who seem to share those goals.
I think it will help me sleep at night. Maybe it will work for you, too — better, anyway, than counting backwards by seven from 100. And maybe, for today, that’s a good enough start. Happy Easter. Chag Pesach samech.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Smith, Ark. (Fort Smith Times Record, swtimes.com)
Sarasota, Fla. (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, heraldtribune.com)
Reno, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
Glasboro, N.J. (Bergen Record, northjersey.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Community leaders simulate poverty and homelessness
Most of us can’t quite imagine the utter hopelessness of those whose lives are ground down by persistent poverty. A group of community leaders in southwest Arkansas decided to try to get some insight through a simulation, according to reporting by Catherine Nolte in the Fort Smith Times Record. One quarter of the families in Arkansas, the story notes, fall under the category of “ALICE,” or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, meaning they make more than the federal poverty level, but still are unable to meet their basic needs.
How is this gov different from every other gov?
If you don’t live in Florida and think it’s time to better understand Ron DeSantis — who clearly sees a path for himself to the White House — you ought to read the analysis by Sarasota Herald-Tribune political editor Zac Anderson, who memorably describes DeSantis as “chief of the woke police.”
Amid threats and intimidation, election official on leave
The top election official in Washoe County is on an unexplained paid leave, according to reporting by Mark Robison in the Reno Gazette Journal, as the 2022 primary approaches. A national survey of 596 local election officials released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 77 percent felt that threats have increased in recent years and that one in six experienced threats because of their job, the story noted.
High rate of driving while distracted, study finds
The top cause of highway deaths in New Jersey is accidents involving distracted drivers, reports Liam Quinn in The Bergen Record — and a new study puts a number to that. According to Rowan University research, up to one-fourth of all drivers in the Garden State are driving while distracted. Notes the article: Unsurprisingly, the most common distraction was cellphone usage, while others included eating and drinking, adjusting the radio and grooming.
The lesson of my first seder
Since I grew up in parts of the country with only tiny Jewish communities, I never attended a Passover seder until I was in my 20s. I’m grateful that when a girlfriend took me to her parents’ home in New York’s Westchester County for my first seder, it was an event filled with laughter and song, not to mention great food. (I especially love the charoset, the traditional apple-walnut relish, or paste.)
And here is my favorite concept of the seder: dayenu. For readers who are neither Jewish nor lucky enough to have generous friends who are, here’s my elementary-level understanding: The word “dayenu” means, approximately, “it would have been enough,” and it suggests that any one of the many gifts we have received in this life — freedom, comfort, a relationship with God — would have been enough, but that we are in fact blessed with an array of gifts. What a wonderful concept: to be grateful for what we have, rather than to always be peering over the fence at what else we might want.
So this edition of The Upstate American has departed from our usual commentary on civic life, politics and culture by focusing a bit more on the spiritual — which seemed appropriate, in the confluence of Easter and Passover on our weekend of publication. I’ll leave the last words to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat who speaks clearly about his deeply studied faith:
I'm trying, in an incredibly imperfect manner, to bring faith conversations into every stump speech that I have, and let folks know that our civic space is a safe space for the expression of authenticity. And more than that, that the civic gospel of this country, which is a radical civic gospel — we say, “liberty and justice for all” — that even the roots of these values go into the faith traditions of humanity. There would be no America if it was not for theologians of generations past struggling with these issues, whether it's the defiance of a Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation, whether it would be the writings of Hillel. You know, we are who we are. This, that we founded this … we broke with the course of human events to put forth into the oldest constitutional democracy, and we founded a nation on moral values that we inscribed in the Constitution.
Thank you for reading, and for standing with me on *this shared place, our America.