Hold to the Good

Recently I was invited to address a monthly meeting of a group of adults at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago where I served as pastor for 26 years. The invitation included the suggestion that the topic might be “Hold to the Good”, a phrase from the Charge to the Congregation that I used every Sunday. Here is an edited version of my remarks.

A good beginning place this evening might be with the question “What is the Good I have been asking us to hold?

We Presbyterians are People of the Book and scripture is our guide so let’s have a look. The Good in the Bible looks a lot like the word justice in society. In fact, the word justice appears more than 130 times in scripture; mostly but not exclusively, in Hebrew Scripture.

Deuteronomy 10: 17-19: “The Lord your God….executes justice for the orphans and widows, who loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothes…you must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Isaiah 1: 16-17: “cease to do evil, learn to do good: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

In the Bible the “Good” is akin to justice which is akin to taking care of the oppressed, the marginalized, the weakest, most vulnerable.

Micah 6: 6-8: “With what shall I come before the Lord? Burnt offerings, calves, rams, rivers of oil?….He has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?”

Amos 5: 21-24: “I hate, I despise your festivals, your solemn assemblies….I will not accept your offerings of grain and fatted animals….Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen …But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

“Hold to the Good” means active involvement in the world: not merely avoiding evil, sinful, bad things, but active involvement in the world. And the “Good” is akin to justice and in the Bible justice means hospitality to the stranger, the alien, care for the poor and vulnerable, fairness, kindness, mercy, gentleness.

Nowhere is that more eloquently articulated than by Jesus when he said the final judgement will be based on….”I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” The puzzled disciples ask, “When did we do all that, Lord?” Jesus’ profound and crystal clear answer: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, members of my family, you did it to me.”

Well, if we are people of faith who believe we are called to active involvement in the world on behalf of the “least of these”, the most vulnerable members of the community, if we Presbyterian Christian Americans actually believe that the “Good” is what the Bible calls justice, there is a lot to be concerned about tonight, to put it mildly.

In a conversation with my oldest daughter recently she asked what I was up to and I told her I was thinking about what to say to you this evening. She asked what the topic was and I told her it was “Hold to the Good.” “Well, Dad,” she said: “We have to hold on particularly tightly these days.”

Indeed.

I’m concerned. I’m worried about what’s happening to the “Good.” The United States of America, my nation, since 1945 the acknowledged leader of the free world, not only because of enormous military prowess, but because of American values – liberty, freedom, opportunity, open-armed welcome to refugees – in Emma Lazarus’s powerful words – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” – my nation has ceded that leadership in a number of ways: by withdrawing from international treaties having to do with the spread of nuclear weapons, a sustainable environment and international trade: by pulling away from allied nations that share those precious values and whose men and women fought and died beside our own, defending freedom.

My nation has ceded moral leadership by violating its own precious founding values: separating immigrant children from their parents, confining them in crowded, filthy spaces sometimes called “cages.” Seven of those children have died in our custody, most from flu-like symptoms. Our response has been to announce that we will not be vaccinating those children.

I’m concerned that my nation is seen by the rest of the world to be denying clear science regarding climate change and global warming.

And perhaps most egregious of all, I’m concerned that my government is engaged in an aggressive campaign to discredit a free and vigorous press…”Fake News!”,,,”Enemy of the People!”, in the process assaulting the very notion of Truth and claiming for itself the right to define what is true, what is real.

The list is long and the question that remains is – how to Hold to the Good here and now.

Personally my practice is to read a Psalm every morning before I read or watch anything else, and then I read the newspapers and look for signs of hope.

I find it occasionally in David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times. Brooks was nominally Jewish, in his own words, slightly right of center, the place on the political spectrum where a nearly extinct species used to be–moderate Republicans–the kind I grew up with. Brooks refers to Christian theologians regularly: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century theologian whose thinking has been very important to me.

In his August 2, 2019 column Brooks named something that concerns me deeply, “the lowering of the bar in public discourse – normalizing the bizarre, cruel, attacking, dividing.” The task ahead for all of us, Brooks wrote, is nothing less than “rebuilding the moral infrastructure of our country.” We must remind each other every day of the values we share, a five-pointed star…

    Unity – we are one people
Pluralism – differences enrich us
Honesty – Democracy rests on respect for Truth
Sympathy – being with people with good hearts
Opportunity- we want all the children to have a fair chance

Another place I found hope recently was in a book by Jon Meacham, historian, essayist, author, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Meacham introduces his book which essentially describes how America has weathered political, moral crises in the past by remembering the time when our divisions were deepest, the Civil War. He took his title from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it, it must not break the bonds of affection…The mystic chords of memory…the better angels of our nature.”

Meacham laments where we are at the moment, when the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan can claim that he is at one with the President of the United States. Meacham, however, does not give in to despair – because “History shows that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness and strife. The good news is that we have been through such darkness before.” Meacham urges people of good will – that’s us – to be steadfast. “Presidents can lift us to higher ground. If a particular president fails to advance the national story – or worse, moves us backward – then those who witness, protest and resist must stand fast in hope, working toward a better day.”

Stand fast in hope. Hold to the Good.

Meacham is an historian and advises us to look to our history as a nation for reasons to hope. “The controlling vision of America” Meacham says “is a belief in the proposition, as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are equal: thus a love for fair play, a generosity of spirit, of reaping the rewards of hard work, and faith in the future.”

“In our finest hours, the soul of the country manifests itself in the inclination to open our arms rather than clench our fists.”

One more Jon Meacham example from our history. President Ronald Reagan often referred to the United States of America as a “Shining City on a Hill”, quoting Puritan John Winthrop in a sermon on the deck of the ship Arabella in 1630, at anchor outside the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In his farewell address President Reagan did it again: invoked the image of America as a “Shining City on a Hill” and went on to acknowledge that he had never defined what that image meant to him. He said: “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed and teaming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace: a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors in them and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

So – here’s the question: what can you and I do today to Hold to the Good?

Five suggestions, borrowed from Jon Meacham.

1. Enter the arena: don’t just passively complain about how terrible things are: get involved, speak up, send money, volunteer and, above all, vote.

2. Resist tribalism. Contempt for the “other” is a very serious issue. I don’t remember anything like it in my lifetime. Oh, Aunt Peg and Aunt Inez thought the end of the world had come when a cousin became engaged to a Roman Catholic but it was nothing like this – and they attended the wedding in a Catholic Church.

Recent polls show that a lot, maybe most, Americans do not want a member of the other political party in the family. It’s the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on: a member of the opposite party would be a serious family problem.

So – resist tribalism: try listening to the “other” instead.

3. Respect facts and deploy reason. Something is seriously wrong when the government claims for itself the ability, the right, to define reality, instead suggesting that there are “alternative facts”, “alternative reality.”

Something essential to a free society slips out of place when “Truth” is manipulated by the government.

“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:37) the Fourth Gospel promises, punctuating the fundamental relationship between truth and freedom. Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and every authoritarian dictator in history understood that power and control can be tightened if truth can be manipulated.

4. Find a critical balance. Realize that rarely, if ever, does a single camp have a monopoly on virtue or wisdom. This is hard for those of us who believe passionately in our positions and for whom there is nothing to compromise or question in our devotion to equality and justice. But balance is essential.

I have always loved something William Sloan Coffin said about single-minded, closed-minded devotion to one set of ideas. “‘My country right or wrong’ makes no more sense than ‘My grandmother drunk or sober.’ It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

5. Never forget history. There is so much about our history that is good and noble. Even our flaws and failures, slavery for instance, have come under unrelenting pressure from those precious founding ideals.

Finally, my core values, what I mean by the “Good”, what I will Hold to tightly as long as I live.

1. Human Worth, Human Value, Human Dignity, based, first, on the radical, revolutionary idea on the very first page of the Bible: human beings are created by God and each bears God’s image. “Imagio Dei.”

Human beings are precious, sacred, each and every one. Based, second, on the most radical, revolutionary political idea anyone ever came up with, enshrined in our two founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We really believe that it is self evident that all people are equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

That is first and basic…Human worth and human dignity.

2. Human Unity. We are one humankind, including our magnificent diversity. But at our essence we are one humanity, and so I am/we are unalterably opposed to anything that demeans, degrades, divides on the basis of anything – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, political party. Beneath and above all is our God-created, God-given Unity.

3. Inclusivity. Because of numbers 1 and 2, Imagio Dei and Human Unity, we never, ever, exclude anyone.

4. Justice in the social, political arena is my/our pole star. The great Christian theologian Paul Tillich said that justice is nothing less than the love of God in action.

5. The church as the living reminder and advocate and model for numbers 1, 2, 3, 4:
Human Worth and Dignity
Human Unity
Human Diversity
Justice

Please indulge some personal reflections on Church.

I have spent virtually every Sunday morning of my life, up to January 29, 2012, in church. When their infant son had pneumonia, the pastor of the Broad Avenue Presbyterian Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania, called on my parents in their third floor walk-up and prayed for them and for me. They joined that church, took me for the Sacrament of Baptism. Going to church was, quite simply, what we did on Sunday morning, no questions asked. I took the typical college sabbatical from church but after a few months I became aware that something was missing. I found the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, PA and walked the six blocks to worship on many Sundays.

After graduation, now married, we moved to Chicago, Hyde Park in 1959 where I was an entering student at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary. I heard about the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, a few blocks away and saw a sight I had never seen before and it stunned me:  black and white Presbyterians worshipping together, singing hymns together, receiving Communion together. It was a whole new vision of what the church could be and is. There were co-pastors, one African American and one white: Ulysses Blakely and Charles Leber. They wore Geneva tabs with their black robes which I had never seen before. The architecture was English gothic, the music was elegant and I fell in love and signed on as Youth Director.

Ulysses Blakey came to visit us in our tiny apartment at 58th and Kimbark when baby Diane was born. One of my indelible, and favorite, memories is the vivid picture of Blakely’s large dark hands gently holding our tiny, very white baby daughter as he prayed for her and us.

June 1963 that church in Altoona that baptized me, nurtured me, put up with my adolescent foolishness, ordained me and there followed three wonderful Presbyterian Churches in Dyer, Indiana, Lafayette, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio in which patient, gracious, forgiving Presbyterians taught me how to be a minister, taught me how precious and unique a church family, church community is.

One day in Columbus, after 11 years, I received a letter from Clyde O. Bowles, Chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago inquiring if I might be interested in applying for position of pastor. I knew that Fourth Church was one of the great Presbyterian churches in the nation but all I knew about it came from rumors that circulated at Divinity School: that it was a big church on Michigan Avenue where the ushers wore morning coats, where people paid for pew rentals, and where visitors had to wait in line outside until the paying customers were seated. I was pretty sure that church was not for me. I learned there was much more about that church than the rumors; much, much more. And the more I learned the more interested I became and the more I began to feel deeply called. The search process was long and painful –  like riding a roller coaster. On our first actual visit we stayed at the Drake Hotel, walked down Michigan Avenue on a bitterly cold January night, walked through the main entrance of the church and Morgan Simmons was practicing the great organ. In fact he was playing my favorite hymn, “Praise Ye the Lord, The Almighty” – Lobe den Herron – “Hast thou not seen how, thy desires e’er have been, granted in what He ordaineth?” And we thought, “Dear Lord, could this actually be happening?”

The phone call came on a Sunday afternoon. It was David Skinner, Clerk of Session of the Fourth Presbyterian Church. He said that the committee had just opened a bottle of champagne in the Randolph Room and he wanted to know if we would come to Chicago and if I would accept the call of the congregation to be its pastor. When I caught my breath I said that it would be the honor of my life to respond affirmatively to what I had come to believe was the call of God through the voice of the church – this church – the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago.

And so we said goodbye to dear friends and that good congregation in Ohio and moved to Chicago and for the next 26 and a half years I was in church – this church. – every Sunday. And when I retired in January, 2012, it was a shock to my system, to say the least. Among many other adjustments, the rhythm of work as a pastor, the never-ending process of preparing sermons, being with people at critical moments in life, I missed church on Sunday morning.

I missed this church and now, seven years into retirement I find that I need the church more than ever and look forward to Sunday once again.

I need to be part of a community that is a welcome and desperately needed alternative to what is happening to American society, a community that values and practices mutual respect, a community that values and practices kindness and gentleness in stark contrast to the daily meanness, name calling, bullying.

I need a community that values and practices open-armed hospitality in contrast to the open racism, a community that values and practices humility in contrast to brash boasting, a community, which by its very presence here on this busy, urban corner, is a symbol of quiet resistance and a beacon of hope and promise. I need to be in my pew as a worshipper, to join my voice with the congregation, to affirm my faith, my love, my hope.

So – that is my concluding word.

Hold to the Good.

Hold onto this unique and precious church.

Hold on for dear life!

John M. Buchanan

Comments

  1. Jerry Shetler says:

    With you all the way John!

  2. Diane Buchanan says:

    I’m holding on for dear life and praying for a kinder world for Harper and Kieran.

  3. Francie Coe says:

    John, thank you for all of your blogs, but especially for this one!

  4. Whew. As Paul Galloway used to say “the SOB can preach.” In Paul’s world, SOB was a term of endearment, respect really. Thank you dear John. I too list churchgoer in my bio. Wherever and wherever the saints go marching I need to be in that number. You taught me that.

  5. tomcarloak@aol.com says:

    John,, I’m a Presbyterian pastor here in Cazenovia, NY. And I would love to know what the charge was which contained the phrase “hold to the good.”  Thanks so much. Yours in Christ, Tom OakFirst Presbyterian ChurchCazenovia, NY

  6. Susan T. Redfield says:

    Amen and thank you. I too miss that church family desperately. I too try to hold to the good each day (although I struggle with the critical balance part in terms of politics). And I too try to affirm my faith daily through word and deed. For dear life. Love to you and Sue.

  7. Thelma Biery says:

    Amen, every word rings true and it’s so good to “hear” your voice again. Miss you in our church.

  8. Milton Winter says:

    Sometimes we need to be reminded how much our faith means to us. You have made a clear and persuasive case for what we believe and why. Would you kindly write out your charge that included this phrase, for the benefit of those of us who could not be present to hear it? And, if you would send me your email or postal address, I’d like to catch you up on recent happenings in my world. Best regards to you and Sue.

  9. Thank you so much for a magnificent piece of writing and a sparklilng lesson.

  10. Just simply anointed and wonderful. Thank you for sharing a messag veryone needs to hear repeatedly.

  11. Mark W. Wendorf says:

    Once again, John, excellent! Thanks.

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