Two Countries

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Okay, so I borrowed that first line. But it was. And it is. Some things are universal. History repeats itself. Over and over.

In the last six weeks our country has lived through Charlottesville, Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Hurricanes are natural disasters beyond our control. The events that unfolded in Charlottesville were not.

In natural disasters, our country pulls together. Neighbor helping neighbor – good Samaritans bringing boats to rescue the stranded from flooded homes, restaurateurs cooking thousands of meals for the suddenly homeless, neighbors offering dry homes and power for friends in other areas, churches rallying to help those within and outside their church walls.

But in equally disastrous situations not brought about by nature, a different story of a seemingly different country is told. Not a Tale of Two Cities, but a Tale of Two Countries. A country divided against itself. A country where for the first time since Germany during World War II people marched with the Nazi flag, vociferously shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

There are no white hoods covering faces in shame as in days of old in the US during equally racist gatherings. Oh no, these marchers are proud of their rallying cry, willing for all the world to see who they are and what they stand for. They are young. They are naive. And they have no clue of history.

“I may be a Nazi,” said one young man after being called out on social media, “but I would never hurt anyone.” WHAT? A Nazi who doesn’t hurt anyone? Who was this guy’s history teacher, and yes, they were all guys. White guys to be precise.

I find it singularly interesting and disheartening that the majority of WWII veterans were dead before this disturbing behavior manifested itself in a new generation. As if the generation older than their grandparents had to be unable to witness such an atrocity before even they could partake in it.

“It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness.”

Yes it was. And yes it is. There is a challenge for those of us witnessing and living in this one country divided in two – one where people care not about the color of their sister’s skin or their brother’s religion – and another that is painfully divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines.

The challenge of not allowing ourselves to be engulfed, consumed by the darkness that is all around us. The challenge of not letting the very hate we so abhor enter our own hearts for those we see chanting slogans and carrying torches. The challenge of being a bearer of light no matter what.

a candleIn reference to Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson once said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Yes, it is. And the candles of hope, of love, of light are all around us even in the most difficult of times, especially in the most difficult of times.

In all catastrophes, both natural and man-made, we can look for the helpers. They are there without fail – those who risk their lives to run into burning buildings, to pull a person from their car that has been engulfed in high flood waters, to airlift a woman and child to safety in hurricane force winds, to hold hands and peacefully march in prayer during the shouting of heinous racial slurs and the brandishing of weapons.

We become what we focus most on. With God’s help, let us focus on the best in us, the light that is in us and all around us. Let us find our own candle to light. Today. Right now.

Where is yours?

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Just One More Step

Standing high on a hill on the banks of the Ohio River, looking across at the state of Kentucky, history was coursing through my veins filling me with a sense of time past and time present. As both crowded my heart and mind, I was swept up in the historicity of the ground on which I was standing and the purposeful sense that the work is and the work must continue. 

I was at the Rev. John Rankin House, home of an influential Underground Railroad Conductor in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War; he is my ancestor four generations back. I stood at the window where he left a lantern burning when it was safe for escaping slaves to cross the river on one of its narrowest sections. He and his sons waited on the other side ready to risk their lives, as slave catchers chased their prey into and around the woods. Hiding, ducking bullets, dodging snarling dogs, they safely guided over 2,000 slaves to freedom not losing one to death or capture. 

Rankin also wrote and organized. His Letters on American Slavery, written in 1836 to his brother Thomas who owned slaves, not only changed his brother’s mind and life forever, but those of many in and outside his community. With a bounty on his head and an attempt to burn down his family home with his wife and 13 children inside, Rankin continued unabated, literally helping to change the course of history. When Henry Ward Beecher was asked at the end of the Civil War, “Who abolished slavery?” he answered, “Rev. John Rankin and his sons did it.” (Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, Ann Hagedorn, p. 275)

The steps leading up the steep hill to The Rankin House are widely known as the 100 Steps to Freedom. “Just one more step,” I can hear the escaping slaves saying between ragged breaths. “Just one more step. I’m almost there.”

Rankin houseJust one more step.

Most of us are not called to literally risk our lives to work for the freedom of others, but I believe we are called to do something. Today there are more slaves in the world than at any other time in history. The US State Department and social scientists estimate that there are as many as 47 million slaves in the world today. By contrast, there were a little under 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860. 

Human trafficking and slavery is a $150 billion/year industry, with the motivation again being the evil desire to profit from human flesh. Forced labor and child labor, sex trafficking and child sex trafficking, involuntary domestic servitude, and recruitment of child soldiers are all aspects of modern day slavery. What steps can we take? To begin, just buying our products from Fair Trade Certified organizations can and does make a difference. (See endslaverynow.org for a list of Slave Free companies.)

And there’s more, much more we can do in various arenas. Many people in our own backyard although physically free, are enslaved to addiction with the opioid epidemic out of control in our country. Americans consume 80% of the world’s pain killers – a type of enslavement to a substance that costs countless lives each year. (Business Insider, 5/14/2012)

In addition, many around the world are enslaved, trapped, in multi-generational poverty with no hope of escape. Yet you and I hold the key. Programs that cut at the heart of the systemic issues surrounding poverty can and do enable some to literally escape its grip. Nelson Mandela has written, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” Yes it is.

Yet I find in my own work in secondary education in Cameroon, West Africa, it isn’t always easy, with many obstacles to overcome. Rev. John Rankin faced them; my colleagues and I face them; you will face them. Whenever there is a force for good, for love, for care in the world there is often an equal force pushing back against it that can feel overwhelming at times. Some would call it the force of evil, others a force of fear of change, but a force it is nonetheless. 

In those times, I find myself mystically one with those I am called to work with and for. “Just one more step. Just one more step,” I say to myself, knowing that God is with me, knowing that God already has and still does overcome evil, that love will win in the end.

One more step to freedom. Just one more step. Up the steep hill to Rev. Rankin’s house. In our own backyard. Halfway around the world.

Are you called to join the parade?

-The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Rankin Geitz

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Tweet, Tweet, Tweet . . .

tweetThe whole world is aflutter with tweets these days. Some attacking, some informing. Some bullying, some encouraging. Some transparent, others obfuscating. Some trolling, some genuine. Many purposefully attracting attention. 

Those written to garner headlines unfortunately never fail to do so, from the original tweet to the ever-present multitude of pithy and often biting responses. Regardless of which side of the current political divide we find ourselves on, many find this behavior troublesome at best, defaming of our country at worst. 

Yet we continue to read and respond, easily manipulated by those pulling the strings. The more we cry “foul” the more we continue to engage, becoming addicted to the outrageous, the unthinkable, the whims of politicians, celebrities, anyone in the public eye. 

Is there an antidote? A way out of the rabbit hole? Of course! There always is. We just need to find it, pursue it, and cultivate it. 

Last week I could not listen to one more piece of Breaking News. So I escaped to my own backyard and took a print book instead of my ever-present iPad with Kindle app. 

As I read the book in my hands and turned the pages, savoring the feel of them, I gradually began to notice the sounds of nature all around me. All God’s creatures heralded their presence with splashing, croaking, gobbling, grunting, chattering, and you guessed it – tweeting. Two birds began having a “conversation”. One to my right, high in an overhead branch, trilled excitedly. Then one on my left near the ground in the bulrushes, responded in kind. Soon they were excitedly communicating with one another in melodious song. 

Then the excitement passed and their pace slowed down. Soothing tweets filled the air lulling me into sleep filled with an awareness of my oneness with nature, filled with a sense of connection to something much larger than myself. Just before nodding off, I felt that peace that passes all understanding that is pure gift from God. Feelings of “all’s right with the world” enveloped me, hugged me in warm embrace. 

The depth of that oneness with creation, and all God’s creatures, will stay with me a long time. When I’m tempted to become embroiled in the circus created by a 24-hour news media, I remember the stark contrast between real tweets and media tweets, bringing to mind a meal blessing I am currently teaching our 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter:

Thank you for the world so sweet.

Thank you for the food we eat.

Thank you for the birds that sing. 

Thank you God for everything. 

Amen.

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Local Love

“There will be a price adjustment on that for you.”

“Why?” I asked, not completely understanding.

“Because it wasn’t exactly as I thought it should be,” the local proprietor replied. 

“Oh don’t worry,” I said, very pleased with how everything had turned out. 

“Absolutely not!” he stated emphatically. “It’s on us.”

The non-profit organization I co-founded, Good Shepherd SLF which is building a high school in Cameroon, West Africa, had rented space for a board meeting in town. There were some minor glitches in the beginning that were no big deal to me or to the board. Nonetheless, it was a very big deal to the owner. As a result, he gladly and without hesitation, gave us the space rent free.

t-t10_milford_music_festival_5820_mobiAfter our meeting, I happened to walk into another local business in search of some ingredients to make a special dinner for my husband that night. The establishment had everything I needed except one item. I guess the owner could see the tiredness in my eyes, the slump in my walk in high heels after a long meeting and he said, “Wait a minute. I might have just what you need in the back for the dishes we make here.”

Then he went into the kitchen, returning with more than I could use in a small plastic bag. No charge. 

That’s what doing business in a small town is like, not that people give everything away for free, nor should they! But they care. They go the extra mile to satisfy, to please, to say, “We’re part of the same community. You’re my neighbor and I want to help.”

And you can’t put a price on that. It truly is priceless, as MasterCard would say. 

I know. I grew up in a small town in Tennessee and my father was a local business owner. He, too, went the extra mile for everyone who walked in the door of his men’s clothing store – hand delivering the suit for that special occasion if time was short, staying open late for the person who needed it, supplying everything needed for the Boy Scouts at a discount, as well as for the local high school bands. 

He worked every Saturday and yes – he had a staff of salespeople, but he wanted, felt he should be there. He came home late and bone tired every Christmas Eve and when he finally arrived home there was a family celebration.

But when hard times hit with high interest rates in the 70s hurting small businesses across America, not all, but some of those people he had gone the extra mile to help  forgot about him, turned their back on him. And it hurt. Not just my father, but our entire family.

I pray I never do that to anyone and I pray you don’t either. Local merchants who give to us, deserve to receive from us as well.  Christmas shopping will be here before we know it and birthdays occur often. Let’s take care of the people who have taken care of us all year long.

Let’s remember. Each and every one of them deserves it.

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The Gift of Time

passengers“Your flight into Newark has been delayed four hours. Air Traffic Control issues. Too many planes and not enough space.”

What? Too many planes? Do the controllers not know how to count or is this a new version of too many passengers, not enough seats?

I’m not sure, but I am sure this is when the grumbling started. From the moaning, groaning, raised voices, and yes, cursing around me you would have thought this was the worst fate to befall each and every person now sitting in the waiting area.

“Are you sure?”

“Check with them again!”

“This is ridiculous!” came one cry after another.

When a situation is out of our control, like this one, why waste one ounce of energy getting in a stew about it? We cannot change the reality, but we can change our response to it. Over the years, I’ve developed a strategy for such situations.

#1. Pray. How often are we so rushed that we don’t take time to just sit in the presence of God? I’m not suggesting getting on our knees and making a scene, or even bowing our head. Just sitting and being, putting ourselves in God’s presence in a listening mode is all that’s needed. One of my Spiritual Directors often said, “Prayer is showing up, Elizabeth! Just show up! That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to say a thing. God will do the rest.”

#2. Work on those things you’ve been putting off that can be done via phone or online. For instance, I delayed ordering a new battery for my computer, in spite of the fact that the current one was getting hot and red lights were flashing. I know, not a good move. I realized I now had several hours to be put on hold, to end up talking to the wrong person, to figure out where the serial number was, etc. Now was the time. Do it! What a gift this delay was turning out to be!

#3. Make lists. If boredom begins to set in, make lists! Life will be much easier when we get home and are too busy to think clearly.

#4. Read. Finding a stimulating, thought-provoking book is almost up there with #1, “pray”. Buy one in a bookstore. Download one. We’ve been given a few precious hours of time. Let’s get caught up on our reading.

#5. Phone that old friend we haven’t talked to in a long time. This is balm for the weary soul and fuel for our engines. Catch up, reminisce, and make a vow to be in touch soon. Flight delays are almost inevitable these days. So the next time you’re lucky enough to fly, reach out again.

So to sum up: Pray, work, make, read, phone and

#6. Pat yourself on the back. Out of all the choices you could have made, you’ve decided to give yourself the gift of time. Give thanks, which takes us back to #1. Prayer. The beginning and the ending. The Alpha and the Omega. All we really need, regardless of where the plane does or does not take us.

And oh, I almost forgot!

#7. Write your overdue newspaper column. Your editor will be glad you did!

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Every Step of the Way

every stepThis is the most sacred week of the year for Jews and Christians. It is the week of Passover for Jews and Holy Week for Christians – a week when Jews decide if they will walk with Moses and other leaders from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and when Christians decide if they will walk with Jesus on his way to the cross and resurrection.

Both faith traditions bring the past into the present this week with the retelling of ancient stories that have fundamentally shaped who they are as a people. In the liturgical retelling, there is also a reliving of the most painful and glorious moments of these two traditions of the Abrahamic faith.

Passover is celebrated this year April 10th-18th when Jews gather for a Seder meal to remember their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and walk to freedom. Holy Week is April 9th-15th when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth through a series of poignant services.

Some will choose to actually relive those moments, to be there with their ancestors, not just reciting the words and going through the motions, and some will not. We can attend a Seder or a full week of Holy Week services and not allow it to touch us spiritually or emotionally, not allow it to impact our present day life, but why do that? Why miss the richness of that which, whether acknowledged or not, is part of our DNA, our flesh and blood?

Because it’s not easy, that’s why. There is nothing easy about it. Have you ever gone through the darkest hour of your life and noticed who is there with you and who isn’t? It’s too painful for some people, I believe, to experience deep and searing pain with someone else. Yet, that is what Passover and Holy Week ask of Jews and of Christians.

Imagine the abject degradation and pain of being a slave. Most of us would rather not. Imagine the searing pain of death by crucifixion or of seeing your loved one die in that manner. Most of us would rather not.

I pray that this year, Jews and Christians will not be afraid to let ourselves feel the feelings felt by our ancestors in the most trying times of their lives. Why? Because it puts us in touch with the many people throughout our world who experience such pain on a daily basis, such as the 20 million people enslaved today through the $15 billion dollar a year business of human trafficking, modern-day slavery. Or the men, women and children who died a horrific death last week by sarin gas poisoning in Syria, and their loved ones who had no choice but to watch them die.

Depending on your tradition, walk with the ancient Israelites this week; walk with Jesus this week, every step of the way. Walk not as a spectator who safely stays at a distance, but as one who is willing to feel, to experience some of what our ancestors felt who literally saved us.

Will you join me?

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#GagaGodJustice

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

GagaSo began Lady Gaga’s dazzling half-time Super Bowl performance. And so ends the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America.

Not coincidentally, this phrase lies at the heart of the debate raging within our country today. One nation? Absolutely, but one nation with very divided views on almost everything from politics, to religion, to economics, to what it means to be a just nation.

Under God? Most Americans would agree on that. But it seems that many have forgotten that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. Some call our Divine Creator ‘G-d’, others ‘God’, and still others ‘Allah’, but it is the same Creator we all worship. We are all descendants of Abraham. We are all sisters and brothers born of the same blood, sweat, and tears for “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22 NRSV). A pain we all share. A pain that should unite us. But a pain we all too easily forget.

Indivisible? Our country was almost permanently divided once, and there are some who believe we’re experiencing the Second Civil War. I have seen people on both sides of the current political divide deride their neighbors who disagree with them politically. Friends deeply hurt friends and question their character based on who they voted for. Families uninvite relatives from holiday gatherings. Protesters on both sides of the aisle literally beat one another up, when the war of words fails to satisfy.

And liberty and justice? Ah, there lies the rub. There lies the difference. I believe that how people define justice, lies at the heart of what divides us. Is justice protecting the unborn? Protecting American citizens from outsiders who would do us harm? Is justice protecting American jobs for American workers so they have a chance? Is justice keeping jobs in America, rather than letting them slowly but methodically leave our country?

Or is justice protecting a woman’s right to choose, particularly in cases of rape or incest? Is justice welcoming the stranger, the refugee, as Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus were welcomed? Is justice providing a safe haven from the ravages of war for those in life-threatening circumstances? Is justice standing up against misogyny and racism, and standing for the disabled?

What exactly does it mean to be just? How we answer this question determines where we find ourselves in the great American divide of 2017. And perhaps that can help us live with that divide, help us understand that those with whom we disagree are not Godless, evil people who don’t care, are not true believers as are we.

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Let us pray that we can all live into a better understanding of what this seminal phrase means to us, and what it means to our neighbors. All of our neighbors.

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What’s In There?

Rogue One, the latest in the Star Wars series, was released just in time for holiday viewing. Like all Star Wars movies, this one did not disappoint – complete with holograms, space battles, laser fights, and this time Computer Generated Images that looked for all the world like actual people.

The next day, Michael and I dusted off our old DVD of Star Wars IV, the first Star Wars film released and the sequel to Rogue One. Confusing, right? I know.

One scene in the original movie captured my heart, one I had missed when it was released in 1977. Young Luke Skywalker has just found his mentor, the Jedi, who sends him out alone into an ominous-looking cave as part of his training.


cave
“What’s in there?” Luke asks fearfully. “Only what you bring with you,” the Jedi wisely replies.

Only what you bring with you.

Throughout our lives we bring ourselves and emotions, our feelings and fears, our hopes and dreams with us – wherever we go. What we bring greatly influences how we perceive events that surround us and the interactions we have with others.

What do we bring with us when we walk into our version of Luke’s cave? Do we bring feelings of hopelessness, anger, bitterness, betrayal? A sense of gratitude, love, forgiveness, joy? What we bring with us into any encounter, has more to do with how we view it than anything another person can say or do.

And this is good news! While we can never control the words or actions of others, we can control the emotions that we allow to dominate our thinking, our encounters, our relationships. We alone have the power to write our own history, and that power extends not only to how we respond to a given event, but how we feel about the various encounters we have throughout our lives.

We all have those ominous, dark places we prefer not to be. “What’s in there?” we ask fearfully.

“Only what you bring with you,” the Jedi wisely replies.


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Countdown to Christmas

This week, Christians around the world find themselves in the final countdown to Christmas. The last candle on the Advent wreath is lit and we’re nearing the end of our pop-up Advent calendars.

If we haven’t finished decorating, gift buying, and Christmas baking, we’re in the middle of it – panicked with last minute to-do lists. If we haven’t readied our home for guests, we’re in the midst of that as well. In short, this can be one of the most hectic weeks of Advent, when we need most of all to slow down and reflect on what it means to await the coming of the Christ child into our world and into our lives.

Last weekend I attended a Christmas concert at Washington National Cathedral. I had recently returned from my third trip to Cameroon, West Africa, this time for the Opening Ceremony of Good Shepherd Academy, a residential secondary school for 350 coed students. As a result, I couldn’t help but hear the voices of my Cameroonian sisters and brothers in the carols, moving me from the magnificent Cathedral setting to the grim reality of life in a developing nation.

And I couldn’t help but wonder, what does it mean that once again we await the birth of Jesus filled with the expectation and hope of a new tomorrow? What does it mean that once again we, like they, long for new beginnings and new life?

Psalm 80 tells us that people have been fed with the bread of tears and given bowls of tears to drink. How true that is, especially of our sisters and brothers who live in developing nations or nations at war – Cameroon, Syria and so many more. Sisters and brothers who long for a bed of their own, a safe place to spend the night, a safe walk to school, or even a school to attend. How easy it is for us to take the very things for granted that would mean new life, new beginnings to our neighbors.

And yet in the midst of it all new beginnings do spring forth, you just have to look for them – whether through the foundation I chair, Good Shepherd SLF which just opened the  Cameroonian secondary school; or through Safe Haven in Pike County, PA; Rotary Club International, UNICEF, Covenant House, and more.

How do these miracles occur? Speaking for myself, the Cameroonian school was born for one reason only – over 2,000 years ago an angel’s words became reality.  “‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’”

God was, God is, and God ever more shall be with us. The miracle, the birth of the One we await is nothing less than the miracle of God who comes to earth as a tiny, vulnerable infant to show us how to be in relation to one another. To show us what it means to be sisters and brothers with those whom we may never see, but who are intimately part of us nonetheless. We  must care, we must act, we must reach out our hands in love, for that is the only way forward for our world, and it is the only way forward for us.

Where do you find yourself in this final countdown to Christmas? Are you where I often am, so caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless advertisements, the unrealistic expectations of the season that you can’t see your way past Christmas morning? If so, I invite you to take even a few minutes this week to do your own reflecting.

What is this season all about? What does it mean that once again we await the birth of Jesus, filled with the expectation and hope of a new tomorrow? How are you meant to follow the One whose birth we await, right now, in this time, in this place?

question-mark

 

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Listen With the Ear of the Heart

broken-flagThe presidential election of 2016 is over and our nation is at war with itself. Family members are not speaking to each other, long-time friends are at odds with one another, and cries of ‘unfriend me if you don’t like my political views’ reign on Facebook.

“And why?” I ask. “Why”?

I voted for Hillary Clinton. I have family and dear friends in the South who voted for Donald Trump – people I have known and loved for years and for whom I have the greatest respect. They are not racist, sexist, or homophobic as popular wisdom would have us believe. Neither are my Northeastern friends who voted for Trump.

I often wonder how many people who are so against those who voted for the opposing candidate, on both sides of the aisle, have been willing to sit down and spend thirty minutes or more listening to their perspective, really listening.

In the 6th century, St. Benedict of Nursia founded what later became the Benedictine Order which survives to this day. Known as the father of monasticism, he wrote the Rule of St. Benedict for all who would follow in his footsteps. One of his primary tenets was, “Listen with the ear of the heart.”

Regardless of which candidate we voted for, there is nothing more important right now than listening with the ear of the heart to those with whom we disagree. If the person we are in conversation with turns out to be an extremist, then we have an opportunity to ask them to listen to us so we can share our perspective. We owe it to ourselves and our country to do so. And if a person’s language subsequently turns abusive to a group of people or to us as individuals, we owe it to ourselves to end the conversation and if necessary, leave.

With the exception of such extreme circumstances, what hope is there for the world if we stop talking to those with whom we disagree? What hope is there if we label large groups of Americans based on the extreme actions of some? What hope is there if we surround ourselves with only like-minded people who think and act like we do? Not much.

It is that very self-imposed isolation that resulted in many people on both coasts living in a bubble, a safe world of like-minded cohorts divorced from the country we thought we knew. As painful as it is for many, God has given us a unique opportunity to live in the America that actually exists and to witness to our views in non-confrontational ways.

As a Christian woman who voted for Hillary Clinton, in this post-election season I am very much reminded of Christians in the early church. They had a message to share that those in power did not want to hear. So they developed ways of reaching out, tried and true methods that worked. And it’s very simple.

They learned to “meet people where they are.” Not where they wanted them to be. Not where they thought they should be, but where they actually are. To do so, requires that we must first and foremost “listen with the ear of the heart.” And that’s not easy! It’s a tall order!  Being genuinely open to listening to another’s point of view that is directly at odds with our own takes patience, understanding and yes, faith.

I have the utmost faith in our country to follow the light, the way of justice for all people. But to move the needle forward from where we are, each one of us needs to do our part to listen, listen, listen with the ear of the heart …. then to share in a non-confrontational manner whenever and wherever we have the chance to do so.

In the Christian church, we call that evangelism. In America today, I call it critical to our survival as a nation.

In God we trust. God will see us through. But there is a role for me in this new order, and there is a role for you whomever you voted for. Let’s get to work, shall we?

 

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