July 19, 2020

“Trust During Adversity – John Lewis,” Bob Ryder

“No one said life is fair.”

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

“Good things come to those who wait.”

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you might find you get what you need.” The Rolling Stones

“Yes,” by William Stafford
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Isaiah 41:10 – “Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you.  I will help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right arm.”

John Lewis – “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Last summer we did a series of reflections on what it means to be a people of trust – as worthy a subject now as it was when we first considered it. It occurred to me even in those simpler times that trust is a challenging subject. Those were the “good ole days” when we still lived under some semblance of the rule of law; when being asked to do your part by something as benign as wearing a mask to reduce the spread of a deadly illness wasn’t considered an infringement of your constitutional rights. Revisiting trust in the midst of adversity seems fitting during these difficult times.

Of course, civil rights legend and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient John Lewis knew what it meant to cultivate trust in the midst of adversity. Researching for a reflection I offered about his life back in February, I read his memoir, “Across That Bridge – a Vision for Change and the Future of America.” This morning in the wake of his death, his legacy is even more fitting and comforting. The reading I shared a moment ago came from a tweet he shared in June 2018, and in honor of his passing, the current tweet #goodtrouble has been trending all weekend.

If you’ve not already read it, I commend Mr. Lewis’ book to you. In addition to the inspirational way he articulates his faith, it’s a moving portrait of his humanity and his disciplined way of cultivating trust in the most difficult of situations. John Lewis was the son of share croppers in Alabama and whose daily chores included tending the chickens to whom he would preach the gospel as he cleaned the coops and collected the eggs. Mr. Lewis noted the chickens often seemed attentive and responsive, more so than many of his colleagues in congress when he spoke. Denied the basic dignity of having a library card because of his skin color, John Lewis was the kid who woke up early and got dressed before his parents were awake so he could sneak onto the school bus as it came through his neighborhood and go to school. He ached for education from his youngest years. “Across that Bridge…” expresses the perspective of someone who understood the need for multi-generational persistence in moving a nation toward justice. His capacity for trust was not dependent on or diminished by momentary progress or isolated defeats. His trust in the moral power of his cause and strategy was unshakable.

Trust suggests living up to an expected standard of behavior in a relationship.  “I trust you to do this.  You can trust me to do that.”  Or sometimes it might imply non-action, “We can trust one another NOT to do this or do that.”  Difficult as it might be to live up to – trust isn’t complicated.  We understand and agree on some basic standards for how we treat each other – what we give and take and leave alone over the course of time.  Researching for this morning, I found a recent article published by AARP recalling the culture of shared responsibility and sacrifice Americans adopted during World War II, in which the national consciousness was synchronized to pull together, get by with less, reduce waste and make sacrifices and contribute as much as possible to the war effort to survive an existential threat to the free world. There was an assumption of collective responsibility and mutual trust that must have been significantly different from the air of hyper-partisan tribalism we know today.  As Walt Kelly once noted in his comic strip ‘Pogo,’ “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I have no illusions the nation was perfectly united in most things, but I calculate our parents and grandparents had a better response than we to that question, “What does it mean to be a people of trust?”

You’d be hard pressed to think of someone with a better sense of trust than John Lewis.  It feels right to keep him and his family in our hearts this morning and in the months and years ahead.  Our nation owes him a lot.  Perhaps his most iconic achievement was the occasion on March 7, 1965 when he helped lead a prominent Civil Rights procession crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a series of marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. According to Wikipedia

…an estimated 525 to 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and county posse waiting for them on the other side. County Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Commanding officer John Cloud told the demonstrators to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas, and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback.

Televised images of the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. Amelia Boynton, who had helped organize the march as well as marching in it, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world.  Lynda Blackmon Lowery was 14 years old when she [was] brutally beaten by a police officer during the march, she had to get seven stitches over her right eye and 28 stitches on the back of her head. In all, 17 marchers [including Mr. Lewis who suffered a fractured skull] were hospitalized and 50 were treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday…”

The courage it took to participate in such a march, let alone to take a leading role, is more than impressive on its own merit.  What leaves me all the more in awe of John Lewis is the sublime theology on which he based his activism.  Mr. Lewis and his contemporaries in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference studied the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr, who adapted the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi for the American Civil Rights movement.  Listen to some of the passages from Mr. Lewis’ Book “Across That Bridge – a Vision for Change and the Future of America…”

At a young age, I mourned for the experience of a more loving world.  My soul insisted that there was a better way.  Many of us who joined the struggle of respect for human dignity, both black and white, protestant and Jew, had been locked in cognitive dissonance for years.  By the time we were seasoned freedom fighters, it was more real to us than our flesh and blood, more real than our own lives, and more valuable than our own longevity.  We believed that if we are all children of the same creator, then discrimination had to be an error, a misconception based on faulty logic.  The idea that some people were inherently better was a delusion of the human ego; a distortion of the truth.  We asserted our right to human dignity based on a solid faith in our divine heritage that linked us to every other human being and all the rest of creation – known and unknown – even to the heart and mind of God and the highest celestial realms in the Universe.

This unity was an intrinsic, inseparable aspect of our being.  We had nothing to prove, our worth had already been established before we were born.  Our protests were an affirmation of this faith, of our belief that we could never be separated from this truth.  It did not matter that hundreds of years of unjust law and demeaning customs were tied to this wrong-headed thinking, or that the history of an entire nation had been shaped by this error in judgement.  We believed that if we were the chosen of an omniscient creator and we took a stand based on faith, that the forces of the universe would come to our aid.  No jail cell, no threat, no act of violence could alter our power to overcome an adversary if we did not waver.

In the Civil Rights Movement, we utilized the power of faith to move our society forward.  We used faith as a shield against the false notion that anyone has power to inflict pain, limitation, despair, or any condition upon us.  We in the movement decided to actualize our belief that the hatred we experienced was not based on any truth, but was actually an illusion in the minds of those who hated us.  The struggle for civil rights was more than a series of legal battles, it was a spiritual confrontation that tested the power of two ideas; one based on unity, and the other based on division.  Our faith rejected the notion that some people were inherently better than others because of skin color, hair, height, build, education, class, or religion, or any external attribute, and it embraced the equality and divinity of all humanity.  In the moment that we relaxed into full recognition of our connection to the creator, we remembered the words, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.”  When we cast off the false notions designed to limit us and twist our creative powers to serve the work of shame and fear, we began to step into the majesty of our faith.

When thinking about trust as an aspect of faith, I used to assume it was a matter of believing the sacred would provide for one’s security and prosperity.  If one believed devoutly enough, God would protect and provide.  I don’t see it that way anymore.  Everything we know about the indifference of the universe, the random nature of life, and the vulnerability of the human heart to greed and corruption tells us that we’re not immune to suffering.  I don’t trust that I will necessarily enjoy a contented and comfortable experience for the remainder of life, nor do I think God owes me that.  I’m no more entitled to convenience or abundance than refuges at the border or girls being trafficked as sex slaves, or peaceful protestors confronting police brutality and systemic racism.  “Rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”

What still makes sense to me about trust as I consider trust in light of John Lewis’ legacy is to strive for being trustworthy myself.  It’s the possibility of rising up to become one of the great cloud of witnesses striving for a world better than the one I inherited with so much senseless injustice and suffering.  If the experience of trust has some place in the whirlwind of history, for me it feels more correct to strive for being trustworthy than supposing I am entitled to security and comfort.  If anything we might dare to hope the unnamable will give us strength in adversity to be a people worthy of others’ trust. I’m reminded of the verse selected for me at my confirmation, Isaiah 41:10 – “Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you.  I will help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right arm.”  I used to assume the divine strength suggested in that passage was promised for my benefit.  That doesn’t make sense to me anymore.  If there’s strength provided in adversity, now I think of it as strength provided so that I can be trustworthy on on others’ behalf.

Our nation is the poorer today for saying good-bye to one of our finest citizens, politicians and prophets.  Mr. Lewis’ life is a lasting testament to what’s possible striving to be a people of trust.  In sorrow for his death and gratitude for making us a bit more “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I thank you for your kind attention.  Amen.