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On Roger Williams, freedom of conscience and its (sometimes well-intentioned) enemies

I don’t like being told what to do, think or say. You got a problem with that?

I know that sounds excessively pugnacious and not very Christian, considering the ugly divisions and hatreds roiling Americans in recent years. But I stand by it.

Part of my reflexive resistance comes from basic orneriness and problems with authority. I didn’t want to lie down for afternoon naps on my little towel in kindergarten. I didn’t always play well with others. I climbed out of the classroom window in ninth grade. School suspensions weren’t punishments to me; they were mini-vacations. I wasn’t much of a joiner. I didn’t obey the rules.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

If it’s popular, I don’t like it. If it’s accepted, I question it. If it’s trendy, I reject it.

Not that I’m a courageous rebel, mind you. I’ve cravenly submitted to authority plenty of times over the years when faced with the threat of losing jobs, comforts and other advantages. I’ve also had some patient, long-suffering bosses, pastors and friends.

Gotta serve somebody

Even when you’re bullheaded, eventually you’ve “gotta serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan, the most stubbornly independent artist of our age, admitted in his classic song of the same name. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Submission, when it isn’t forced, is the ultimate proof of belief and commitment. “If you love me, you will obey me,” Jesus said in John 14:15, echoing the great commandment of God in Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

So believe God. Love God. Obey God. But question everybody else. That’s my policy.

“Believe God. Love God. Obey God. But question everybody else. That’s my policy.”

That’s why I’m Baptist. Three of the joys (and grave responsibilities) of being Baptist are freedom of conscience, the priesthood of the individual believer and “soul liberty.” Yes, we have an ultimate authority: the word of God and the divine author who inspired it. Parents, preachers, pastors and teachers may help us interpret it, but in the end each of us decides in the sanctuary of our own hearts what it means and what it calls us to do.

Roger Williams, father of us all

Let us now praise Roger Williams (1603-1683), founder of the first Baptist church in America and of the colony that became Rhode Island. The colony was a haven of freedom — both for believers of all kinds and nonbelievers — from the tyranny of the Puritans, who banished Williams, a rebel Puritan minister, from Massachusetts for advocating religious tolerance, church-state separation and liberty of conscience.

“Forcing of conscience is a soul-rape,” Willams declared. And: “Man hath no power to make laws to bind conscience.” And again: “God needeth not the help of a material sword of steel to assist the sword of the Spirit in the affairs of conscience.”

He stood for strict separation of church and state, but his revolutionary ideas about individual freedom eventually became a blessing to all — in America and beyond.

“We must look to Roger Williams, more than to (Thomas) Jefferson or (James) Madison, as the true builder of our American Bill of Rights,” wrote Charles Small Longacre in 1939, “because all the provisions of civil and religious liberty as set forth in the matchless Constitution of the United States were incorporated in principle in the charter of Rhode Island as conceived and framed by Roger Williams. … The great apostle of soul liberty was the instrument that gave inspiration and guidance to the shaping of the fundamental law of a nation which was destined to become the champion of the rights of all men.”

“Take that, rabid secularists and theocrats. A passionate preacher of the gospel put a pox on both your houses in the name of freedom.”

Take that, rabid secularists and theocrats. A passionate preacher of the gospel put a pox on both your houses in the name of freedom, and we might have no real democracy today without him.

Silencing others

But we’re unwittingly rejecting Williams nearly as often these days as the Puritans did when they ran him out of Massachusetts.

Freedom of conscience — and its close companion, freedom of speech — are under attack yet again, as they have been almost continuously since they were enshrined in the Constitution. The assailants are the usual suspects: the state, political and religious demagogues, cultural commissars, self-appointed censors.

“The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak,” observes Eric Berkowitz in Dangerous Ideas, a new history of censorship.

Often the censors are easily identifiable: Political authoritarians always seek to silence dissent and crush a free press, which they fear as threats to their power. Religious authoritarians seek to stamp out any resistance to their definitions of truth.

We’ve seen both types on full display in recent years.

Populist-nationalist bullies — from Donald Trump in America to Narendra Modi in India and Xi Jinping in China — establish xenophobic personality cults and attack anyone who resists their lies and distortions.

In the religious realm, we’ve witnessed the ongoing manipulation of evangelical believers by politicized preachers and authoritarian “leaders,” who rule by fear and try to muzzle or intimidate their critics. Case in point: The relentless attacks on Bible teacher Beth Moore and ethicist Russell Moore by the fundamentalist good-ol’-boy network that still controls the shrinking Southern Baptist Convention.

Conversations, not harangues

Sometimes, however, threats to freedom of conscience and speech come from people with good intentions. We’ve recently entered into much-needed “national conversations” and “reckonings” about racism, sexism, inequality and other national sins. These conversations are painful, but they’re long overdue and crucial to our humanity, faith and culture.

“Conversations need to be conversations — not one-way harangues by the ‘woke’ aimed at re-educating the clueless masses by any means necessary.”

But conversations need to be conversations — not one-way harangues by the “woke” aimed at re-educating the clueless masses by any means necessary. If people are afraid to speak because they might give offense or get “cancelled,” they will remain silent, either in fear or seething resentment.

The Left, perhaps even more than the Right, loves to shame, censor and intimidate opposing voices. Rigid groupthink rules academia’s “safe spaces” and wide swaths of popular culture. If you contradict it, you risk a torrent of condemnation and secular excommunication for thinking and speaking “wrongly.” It’s a short distance from “hate speech,” as defined by ever-changing criteria, to “hate crimes.”

How did Trump and other populist demagogues so easily claim large followings among free Americans? Manipulation and cynical appeals to fear and tribal instincts, yes. But millions of people also felt unheard, disregarded and disenfranchised by cultural elites. Frustrated and angry, they were ripe for the picking by a boorish loudmouth whom they might otherwise have ejected.

Independence Day approaches. In the best tradition of Roger Williams’ American dream of freedom, let’s allow each other to think and speak freely. It’s the only way to start climbing out of the divisive mess we’re in.

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.

 

Related articles:

Critical Race Theory, voter suppression and historical negation: The irony of it all | Opinion by Bill Leonard

‘Conscience … more or less’: Roger Williams, Mitt Romney and the rest of us | Opinion by Bill Leonard




Call your Momma

She died 20 years ago this month, on Mother’s Day.

Shirley Ann Bridges, nee Solter. My mother. She died three months short of her 70th birthday, which was a pretty good span, considering she smoked Salem cigarettes one after another during most of her waking hours. Salems were the first filtered menthols, you know. “Take a puff, it’s springtime,” was their marketing slogan in 1956. Seriously.

I guess Salems were better than filterless Lucky Strikes (“LSMFT: Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”), my father’s brand long into the filter era. Needless to say, my sister and I inhaled enough secondhand smoke as kids to choke several horses. But that’s the way it was in those days. Hey, we’re still here, like about 70 million other messed-up Baby Boomers.

The C word

Shirley Ann Bridges

The inevitable cancer finally caught up with Mom, however, in 2001. (Dad, too, three years later.) She had dodged a few scares and surgeries, but the big one arrived early in the year. We went out to lunch the afternoon before I flew to Asia on a 10-day trip. I noticed her stumble a bit as we returned to the car but assumed it was the lingering foot injury she had suffered a year or so earlier. My wife called me in Thailand a week later; she and the kids had gone to Mom’s apartment for a scheduled outing and found her acting strangely. She couldn’t seem to finish getting ready. She was incoherent. She couldn’t get across the room, much less down the stairs.

When I got back, I went straight to the hospital. Mom was cheerful, but she wasn’t all there. The big lung tumor her supposedly renowned oncologist had somehow missed had metastasized to her brain and taken up residence, never to leave in the few months she had left. In retrospect, I wish we had called hospice immediately, but we chose the hope-against-hope drill for a cancer of her type and advanced stage: chemotherapy, nursing facility, back to the hospital. The medical industrial complex is more than happy to accommodate hope-against-hope families, usually at the cost of more pain for the patient.

I camped out on her hospital room floor for the last three days of her life, pushing the morphine button when I heard her moan (she had ceased talking weeks before). Probably pushing it too often. Did I hasten her death? I’ll never know. On the last day, her eyes were open and set. The bright spring afternoon passed; the sun shone on her motionless face. As we sat by her bedside, Mom’s eyelids slowly closed. And she was gone.

“I camped out on her hospital room floor for the last three days of her life.”

Thank God she died before 9/11, which followed four months later. And the subsequent Age of Terror. And the Great Recession. And the pandemic. And the sheer horror of Trump — although she would have relished mocking him between puffs on her Salems. But she also missed seeing her grandkids grow up to be wonderful young adults. At least she got to enjoy their early years.

Smart, sophisticated, funny

Shirley Ann Bridges. She was beautiful, smart, sophisticated, funny, sarcastic. She was fun to be around. She had a Hollywood smile. She read all the books, saw all the movies, knew all the jokes and inside stories. Her throaty laugh was unmistakable (unless she was in the same room with her sister Mickey, who talked and laughed almost exactly the same way).

She gave me her love of reading, which led me to become a writer. She read everything — novels, biographies, politics, classics, gossipy tell-alls. Later in life, she checked out mysteries from the library by the grocery bagful. I teased her about that, insisting I would stick to more serious literature. She smirked and kept reading. Nowadays I read mysteries, usually by the bagful. I call them “crime fiction” — it sounds more serious.

She was a Navy kid. Not enlisted Navy, but Naval Academy Navy. Her stepfather was a ship captain who knew all the admirals. Her mother looked like Vivien Leigh. Classy. She was born in San Diego and lived all over, including Pearl Harbor before the Japanese bombed it. Grandpa was a strict taskmaster at home, but mostly he was away at sea, especially during the war. Mom was the dutiful daughter, the oldest of four who helped her mother hold the fort while he was gone.

The marriage

She probably could have married some star Annapolis midshipman. As smart as she was, she might even have pursued college and a career, still rare for women at the time.

But she fell for Dad, a would-be jazz musician and salesman. He was a charmer, a carouser, a devotee of all-night jam sessions, unfaithful from the get-go, moody, volatile. He had a mean streak, especially when he was drinking, which was often. They married in 1953 and divorced a miserable 15 or so years later, although he found ways to harass and irritate her for many years afterward. I’m sure they had some good times early on, but those times were mostly gone by the time I was old enough to notice.

“I’m sure they had some good times early on, but those times were mostly gone by the time I was old enough to notice.”

Thanks partly to him, Mom suffered from depression most of her adult life. When we were small, I remember her going to the hospital for shock treatments, which were pretty primitive in those days. The meds and therapies got much better over the years, but her depression never went away completely.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved Dad. But it took me 30 years and a lot of divine counseling to forgive him for the way he treated us, particularly Mom. He pretty much cured her of men. She never remarried or seriously dated (as far as I’m aware) after they divorced, despite her relative youth. She was bitter, I’m sure, but mostly she seemed relieved to be free of him. It gave her more time for reading.

Finest hour

But there was the matter of putting food on the table. Mom didn’t work outside the home; she didn’t even drive. The alimony checks were pathetic, and child support was even less — if and when Dad got around to paying it.

I know Mom was afraid during those anxious days. I heard her cry at night. But this period became her finest hour. We were old enough to be latchkey kids, so she dusted off her typing skills from pre-marriage gigs and found a job as a secretary-receptionist a few miles away. She took the bus or a taxi to get there, worked all day and came home to cook. On Saturdays, she wheeled her basket to the A&P store to buy groceries.

I didn’t tell her until years later, but she was my hero.

When my sister and I became teenagers, we went wild. She couldn’t control us, but she always loved us, always waited for us to come home. One of my earliest childhood memories is being sick with some minor ailment and Mom comforting me, saying, “I wish I could be sick for you.”

“I have yet to meet anyone who loved more unconditionally than Mom.”

That was my first human illustration of the unconditional love of Christ. I have yet to meet anyone who loved more unconditionally than Mom. No, not all moms are like that.

‘To my son, Erich …’

We never went to church as a family, and Mom didn’t seem much interested in religious faith. When I became a Christian in senior high school, she was happy for me but patiently dodged my many attempts to evangelize her. “Whatever makes you happy, son, you do it. I’m just fine,” she’d say. Mom had a private side you didn’t push against too hard.

She did, however, buy me a brown, imitation-leather New American Standard Bible in 1974, my first year as a follower of Christ. It’s worn and tattered now; duct tape holds the spine together. But it’s still my prized possession, still the Bible I read daily. Inside the front cover, written in fading ink in Mom’s perfect cursive, are these words: “To my son, Erich, ‘in whom I am well pleased.’” Try living up to that.

I worried she’d probably never come around to spiritual things. But when she moved to live near my young family many years later, she formed a deep friendship with my pastor’s mother, a wonderful believer who loved her and led her to sincere faith in Christ. We enjoyed several years of worshiping together before she died. She had a favorite TV preacher, too, and ordered his materials for her Bible/prayer times.

Wisdom in hindsight

Do we ever truly know our own parents as people? I mean, really know them as human beings? Or are they always “Mom” and “Dad”? I don’t know.

“Do we ever truly know our own parents as people? I mean, really know them as human beings?”

I do know that I loved Shirley Ann Bridges with all my heart as a mother and as a person, despite the many times I failed her. And I miss her every day. I started to write about her at the 10-year mark of her passing, but I couldn’t get past quoting two of my favorite Southern writers:

“Don’t forget to call your momma; I wish I could call mine,” counseled the late, great Lewis Grizzard, a fellow Georgian, when his mother was long gone. I never understood the ache behind those words until I couldn’t call Mom anymore.

Rick Bragg, Alabama scribe, wrote: “You wake up in your momma’s house and you smell the best bacon you’ve ever had. But more than anything you hear her footsteps. You hear her moving around. And you know that everything’s all right … as long as you can hear that sound.”

When you hear that sound no more, you are an orphan. It’s you and God, who is more than enough. But I’d love to hear Mom’s footsteps, and her voice, one more time.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.

 

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Rethinking Mother’s Day | Opinion by Brett Younger




Buckle up: Global turbulence ahead

As much as we might wish otherwise, living in the post-COVID world promises to be a pretty rough ride over the next 20 years.

So buckle up. Not just because of the global impact of the pandemic itself, but because of the increasing effects of social fragmentation, climate change, mass migration and the inability of governments and institutions to meet the demands of the people they serve.

That’s the forecast of the latest “Global Trends” report, released April 8 by the National Intelligence Council, an arm of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The report looks at potential scenarios between now and 2040, and they all involve major international change — ranging from the manageable to the catastrophic.

‘Most significant disruption since World War II’

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic marks the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political and security implications that will ripple for years to come,” the report states. “The effects of climate change and environmental degradation are likely to exacerbate food and water insecurity for poor countries, increase migration, precipitate new health challenges, and contribute to biodiversity losses.

“These challenges will intersect and cascade, including in ways that are difficult to anticipate.”

There’s more: “Novel technologies will appear and diffuse faster and faster, disrupting jobs, industries, communities, the nature of power and what it means to be human. Continued pressure for global migration — as of 2020 more than 270 million persons were living in a country to which they have migrated, 100 million more than in 2000 — will strain both origin and destination countries to manage the flow and effects. These challenges will intersect and cascade, including in ways that are difficult to anticipate.”

Every nation will face these challenges — rich and poor, powerful and weak, democratic and authoritarian. Perhaps that will compel us to work together more and compete a bit less. New communication technologies now connect us instantly, creating new efficiencies and improving living standards as our economies become increasingly integrated.

Paradoxically, however, “that very connectivity has divided and fragmented people and countries,” says the report. It also will “create and exacerbate tensions at all levels, from societies divided over core values and goals to regimes that employ digital repression to control populations. As these connections deepen and spread, they are likely to grow increasingly fragmented along national, cultural or political preferences. In addition, people are likely to gravitate to information silos of people who share similar views, reinforcing beliefs and understanding of the truth.”

Sound familiar?

Tribalism goes global

The digital tribalism that has divided Americans into hostile political and cultural camps in recent years is affecting much of the rest of the world in similar ways. In theory, citizens of free countries can access virtually all of human knowledge online. In reality, we are gravitating toward the bits and pieces we want to believe.

“The digital tribalism that has divided Americans into hostile political and cultural camps in recent years is affecting much of the rest of the world in similar ways.”

At the same time, governments, institutions and international organizations are struggling to meet the new realities — and in many cases failing. As old systems erode and crumble, public frustration and conflict will increase within and between nations.

They will either adapt or risk collapse. Developed countries with coastlines, for example, likely will have to build massive seawalls and plan for relocating whole populations as climate change brings rising sea levels. Poorer countries with fewer resources will struggle to respond to climate-caused storms, droughts and floods.

In a glimpse of what may accelerate in the years ahead, hundreds of global aid organizations published an open letter April 20 supporting the U.N. Call for Action to Avert Famine in 2021, warning that millions already are suffering from Yemen to Venezuela: “People are not starving — they are being starved. … by conflict and violence; by inequality; by the impacts of climate change; by the loss of land, jobs or prospects; by a fight against COVID-19 that has left them even further behind.”

Meanwhile, countries with declining or aging populations, including the United States, will seek many more immigrant workers to compete with the economies of younger nations. If they don’t, “decades of progress in education, health and poverty reduction will be difficult to build on or even sustain,” the forecast warns.

Five scenarios

One of five international political scenarios could play out between now and 2040, according to the report:

Democracies might experience a new resurgence, with the United States and other free societies leading the way in global development and cooperation. Conversely, China could emerge as the global leader with its authoritarian model but would be unlikely to solve major international issues. Or, these two superpowers could dominate separate spheres. In still another model, multiple competing power blocs could develop around the world. Last, global environmental catastrophe could result in multiple national revolutions, with new alliances emerging to pick up the pieces.

Three ways to make a difference

How can we possibly influence the course of events on such a global scale as individual Christians? Allow me to offer a few suggestions:

Pray, locally and globally, with your Bible in one hand and your newspaper or smartphone in the other. Pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. From Scripture, we know God wills that all nations hear the gospel of salvation, that the poor be clothed and fed, that the victims of injustice and hatred be defended, that the immigrant and the refugee (whether they flee from war, poverty or natural disaster) be rescued.

“If you reside in one of the many silos of American isolationism — mental, political or spiritual — get out of it.”

Think. Open your mind to the world. If you reside in one of the many silos of American isolationism — mental, political or spiritual — get out of it. God needs well-informed servants who know what is happening around the world, how to separate fact from fiction and how to resist being manipulated by lies and conspiracy theories. I’ve lost count of the number of Christian friends who have told me they don’t read or listen to the news because it’s too biased or “upsetting.” That is nothing more than spiritual and intellectual laziness when a universe of useful information is only a click away. God will judge us for willful ignorance.

Act. Maybe you can’t solve the global migration crisis, for example, but you can welcome some immigrants to your community. You can lead your church to sponsor a refugee family. You can vote out that local politician who whips up anti-immigrant hatred. You can tell your congressional representatives and your president to restore orderly, humane immigration policies and end the shameful era of keeping refugees and asylum seekers out.

This is still God’s world. You can help God redeem it, or you can sit on the sidelines. 

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.

 




Finding our way out of the rubble

Lent isn’t over just yet, and we could do with a bit more reflection and repentance as a church and a nation. But spring is arriving.

I can see it dawning over the horizon, pinkish yellow as it seeps into the retreating winter sky. It’s been dark so long, in so many ways, I almost forgot what the sun looks like. The plague year hangs on, but its fatal grip is loosening.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

We all want to run out of our COVID bunkers, caution be damned, and dance in the streets. But we’re still afraid, and for good reason. So we step outside cautiously, carefully, masked-up, blinking in the sun like survivors crawling out of the rubble after the siege of Stalingrad.

I feel almost giddy. I might do something foolish, like fall in love. I used to do that every spring, ages ago, when the world was young — or I was, at least — and every girl at school looked beautiful. Maybe those days are over, but I’m eager to go to concerts and public performances again, to watch basketball games in person, to visit libraries, to mingle with friends, to listen to children laugh and play.

I want to attend a worship service at the church I’m virtually visiting, not just watch it online. I want to meet the members of my Sunday school class face to face, not on Zoom. That day has almost arrived, I hope.

We’re not out of this awful nightmare yet, and we have lost so many friends, family members and fellow citizens. We need to mourn them, remember them and rebuild in their honor. We need to do it step by step, with common sense. We need to get vaccinated — all of us. We need to keep wearing masks and distancing until trustworthy public health officials tell us the coast is clear. But the time is coming when we can resume something resembling normal life.

Can you feel the pent-up energy ready to burst forth? Economists say a new surge of growth has begun. Jobs jumped by nearly 400,000 in February as businesses reopen. People want to work, create, build and just be together. Kids not yet back in school actually want to go there; talk about a miracle.

“Can you feel the pent-up energy ready to burst forth?”

Despite the awful spasms of hatred, racism and violence (most recently directed at Asian-Americans) still tearing us apart, people want to unite, if you believe the polls. Maybe our dark season of walking an existential tightrope as a nation and society is over, at least for now. That may be wishful thinking. I hope not.

Donald Trump, the odious divider in chief, is out of power, and he’s unlikely to return as a national force beyond the fever swamps of Republican politics. Joe Biden is keeping a much lower profile than Trump so far (how could he not?) and seems to have a reservoir of goodwill among the public at large as he pushes for much-needed national relief and reconstruction. If Democrats don’t blow that opening, as they often do, they might build a bigger governing majority in the next election. That, in turn, might persuade Republicans who want to remain in office to drop the politics of fear and division.

Sorry to veer off into politics, but it’s inescapable. Politics has torn us apart as a nation more than at any time since the 1960s. We saw a mob of violent insurrectionists overrun Congress less than three months ago, attempting to overturn a national election and do bodily harm to the then-vice president, senators and representatives. Even with our current 30-second attention spans, we can’t turn the page on that event without holding the perpetrators and their enablers accountable.

“Are civic duty and care for neighbor so outmoded that they cannot be embraced once again?”

Most important now, however, is that we begin to help each other and work together, not hate and fear each other. Are civic duty and care for neighbor so outmoded that they cannot be embraced once again? Has John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural challenge in 1961, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” become a quaint cliche?

Sixteen years after Kennedy’s call to serve, Georgia poet James Dickey composed “The Strength of Fields” for the inauguration of Jimmy Carter. It included these lines: “Tell me, train-sound, with all your long-lost grief, what I can give. Dear Lord of all the fields, what am I going to do? … Lord, let me shake with purpose. Wild hope can always spring from tended strength. Everything is in that. That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord, of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start: with the simplest things. … My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”

We were emerging from Vietnam and Watergate when Dickey wrote those words. Many wondered at the time if we would ever recover a sense of shared national identity, much less one that would make us “shake with purpose.” But we did, for a time, until cynicism and division set in again.

Can we do it again?

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.




Maybe your church needs a minister of loneliness

I deliver Meals on Wheels on Fridays.

My routes vary, but the people I serve tend to be older, low-income, often disabled, living alone. That fits the profile of a typical Meals on Wheels client: The program seeks to assist seniors who are homebound, food-insecure and isolated.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

The clients I visit appreciate the food — and the visit, however brief it may be. I try to smile, even though it’s usually behind a mask these days, and ask, “How’s it going?” or “You doing OK?” before moving on to the next stop. I might get a grumpy response occasionally, but most folks smile back and ask how I am. Sometimes we talk about the weather or our aches and pains.

One in five Americans was age 60 or older in 2020, and 12,000 more reach that milestone every day. One in four American seniors lives alone. One in four feels lonely, according to surveys. Nearly 10 million seniors faced hunger and isolation even before COVID-19 hit. Who knows how many there are now?

Older people going hungry in America bothers me. Older people suffering loneliness bothers me even more.

Every so often I read a news story about someone found dead in their home, decomposing in a chair or a bed because no one bothered to check on them until the smell became overpowering. Can’t we do better than this as a society?

But it isn’t just legions of aging boomers, and their even older parents, who feel alone. Blue-collar workers (especially men) left out of the modern economy often spiral into depression. Many die “deaths of despair,” drinking or drugging their lives away after multiple layoffs.

“Suicide is now the No. 2 cause of death on U.S. college campuses.”

College students suffer anxiety as they deal with being away from home for the first time, isolation and fears about their future. Some take their own lives before they’ve even really begun to live. Suicide is now the No. 2 cause of death on U.S. college campuses. Teens and 20-somethings, expert at interacting with technology, struggle to form face-to-face human relationships.

Then there’s the general fragmentation of our culture. People move from one place to another for work. They marry later or not at all. Nearly half of American marriages end in divorce or separation. Cohabitation is now socially acceptable but remains significantly less stable than marriage.

Remember “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles song about a lonely woman and an equally isolated priest? Eleanor “waits by the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?” Father McKenzie, meanwhile, writes the “words of a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.” Eleanor dies and is “buried along with her name. Nobody came. Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No one was saved. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

The Beatles wrote those bleak words more than 50 years ago. The developed world has become much more lonely since then. I suppose it’s the logical result of radical individualism, one of our chief idols.

“Personal independence is great, but it comes at a price.”

Personal independence is great, but it comes at a price. There’s something to be said for small towns, nosy neighbors and pushy relatives, once you no longer have them around. Japan and England now have government-appointed “ministers of loneliness” to address the social devastation of millions of people living in isolation.

It’s much the same in America, according to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. “Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests the real number may well be higher.”

Mother Teresa said it better: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved and uncared for. We can cure physical illness with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love.”

Maybe your church needs a minister of loneliness. There were an estimated 34.75 million single-person households in the United States in 2019. That’s about 28% of all American households. Christians talk a good game about creating community. But unless they’re located near large populations of singles, such as colleges or military bases, churches are notorious for letting singles fall through the cracks of ministry.

“Christians talk a good game about creating community.”

Not all singles are lonely, and not all lonely people are single (I know folks who are desperately lonely in long-term marriages). But the two often go together. I remember when I arrived 40 years ago in the strange new city where I have lived ever since. I was excited about my fledgling career, but I was single, far from home and desperate for friendship. I found it with a caring pastor and his wife, who treated me like a son.

Later, I visited a church singles group, where I met my wonderful wife-to-be. After we got married and had kids, I quickly forgot what it was like to be lonely. As the years went by, I even got irritated with church singles complaining about being “left out.” When my wife died four years ago, however, I soon became reacquainted with loneliness and isolation. It gave me renewed empathy for others who face life alone.

Too bad it took painful personal experience to remind me of the needs of hurting people, especially other widowers. But I’m trying to pay attention now.

Who are the Eleanor Rigbys in your life? 

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.

 

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The two Georges, the world and American leadership

Amid the recent tumult of events, the 100th birthday of George P. Shultz Dec. 13 passed relatively unnoticed. As did his death Feb. 6.

But attention must be paid.

Shultz was one of the ultimate “inside the Beltway” guys, those unelected government types people love to hate these days. So was another George who preceded Shultz as secretary of state: George C. Marshall. They, and a few others like them, didn’t do much except forge the modern world, win a world war, rebuild continents, defeat Soviet communism, prevent global chaos and nuclear destruction — little stuff like that.

George Marshall legacy

George Marshall

Marshall designed the European Recovery Plan, known as the Marshall Plan in honor of its architect. It helped feed, clothe and rebuild Europe while reconstructing its ravaged economies after World War II. No other single man — not Franklin Roosevelt, not Dwight Eisenhower, not Winston Churchill — did more to lead the Allies to victory in that conflict after a woefully unprepared beginning. Churchill himself said Marshall, as American military chief of staff and later general of the Army, was “the true organizer of victory.”

A supremely gifted technocrat, Marshall turned the United States from a mostly demobilized, isolationist bystander in the 1930s into a fearsome war machine that helped crush the Nazis and the Japanese. After the war, he served as secretary of state while the Marshall Plan unfolded, as secretary of defense after the Korean War broke out. He helped develop NATO, which defended Western European democracy. In 1953, Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize — the only professional soldier so honored. He died in 1959.

George Schultz legacy

Shultz wasn’t quite as distinguished as Marshall, but in his quiet way, he came close.

A Princeton man (he had the school’s tiger mascot tattooed on one of his buttocks), Shultz served as a Marine Corps captain and artillery officer in World War II. After the war, he earned a Ph.D in economics at MIT, held various academic posts and rose through Republican ranks, eventually becoming Richard Nixon’s labor secretary, treasury secretary and director of management and budget.

George Shultz

Boring, right? Except Shultz wasn’t done when Nixon fell. He managed to keep his reputation intact as the administration imploded during the Watergate scandal. There’s a reason for that: Shultz was a good soldier, up to a point. But he didn’t budge when asked to cross certain ethical lines.

According to journalist Lou Cannon, Shultz twice refused as treasury secretary to allow Nixon to use the IRS to audit political enemies or to stop an audit of Nixon’s own tax returns. “It was an improper use of the IRS, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shultz later said. At the time, Nixon furiously told an aide: “What does that candy ass think we sent him over there for?”

Later, as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state for more than six years, Shultz served effectively while avoiding becoming entangled in the sordid Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly brought down that administration. He also refused to roll over when Reagan ordered lie-detector tests for government officials as a way to plug leaks.

“The minute in this government that I am not trusted is the day that I leave,” Shultz stated publicly. Reagan backed down.

“Trust is the coin of the realm,” Shultz often said. In an essay for Time Magazine as he approached his 100th birthday, he wrote: “‘In God we trust.’ Yes, and when we are at our best, we also trust in each other. Trust is fundamental, reciprocal and, ideally, pervasive. If it is present, anything is possible. If it is absent, nothing is possible. The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, changing the world for the better.”

“The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back.”

And Shultz did some big, hard things. As secretary of state, he negotiated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union, the only pact that actually reduced the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers. He guided Reagan, despite opposition from administration hawks, to forge a working relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That, in turn, laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War — and of the Soviet empire itself.

I once saw Shultz in person. We both sat through the endless inauguration of some forgotten Central American president back in the 1980s — him motionless on the podium, me squirming in the audience while covering stories in the country. Secretaries of state do that a lot, and Shultz, with his Sphinx-like expression, was perfectly suited for it. Cool, calm, collected.

“If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz,” wrote Henry Kissinger, one of his far more famous predecessors.

Where are the quiet giants today?

Why do I expend so many words on the two Georges, Marshall and Shultz? Because quiet giants like them no longer exist, either on the American scene or the world stage. America has stumbled through much of the post-Cold War era, unwisely led by presidents who shied away from global challenges (Clinton, Obama) or rashly overreached (George W. Bush).

And that was before Donald Trump steered the ship of state off the end of the earth.

The United States, once known for our moral leadership and stand for freedom and human rights in the world — despite our own glaring failures — became a near-pariah under Trump. He bullied and abandoned key allies and curried favor with dictators. He empowered dangerous populist demagogues in many countries. He imposed destructive trade tariffs on friend and foe alike. He pulled the United States out of important treaties and international organizations and questioned the existence of climate change and COVID-19.

“Prior to 2016, it would have been hard to imagine an American president rejecting American internationalism as thoroughly as Trump did.”

“Prior to 2016, it would have been hard to imagine an American president rejecting American internationalism as thoroughly as Trump did,” writes Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “U.S. foreign policy has never been about altruism. But between World War II and the Trump presidency, every U.S. leader believed Washington could best advance its interests — whether securing prosperity or constraining authoritarians — by sustaining a liberal international order from which like-minded nations could benefit. The United States … would be a historically abnormal superpower, whose statecraft reflected its democratic values and a more inclusive notion of national good.”

Left- and right-wing critics of so-called U.S. imperialism may disagree, but American internationalism worked pretty well for 70 years at preventing another world war, spreading global economic prosperity and protecting and encouraging democracy.

Is the American era over? Many thought so even before Trump’s disastrous “America First” retreat. The age of superpowers is played out, they said. We need to clean up our own increasingly fractious house, they said. Let the world take care of itself; we’re not the global cop. Trump took that isolationist recipe and added a huge helping of populist nationalism, zero-sum economic self-interest, affection for strongmen and utter indifference to human need and human freedom.

Biden’s challenge

Can President Joe Biden turn the tide? Our closest allies no longer trust us, and Biden faces huge challenges at home that will demand much, perhaps most of his attention.

“Biden’s inclination — judging from his speeches, his track record in the Senate and as vice president, and his personnel choices — is to revive American internationalism and adapt it for an era of great-power rivalry,” Brands observes. “He will seek to repair alliances, reengage international institutions, and pursue broad cooperation on transnational issues while also sharpening the United States’ posture toward an increasingly belligerent China. Achieving all this won’t be easy.”

Talk about understatement. But Biden seems determined to try.

President Joe Biden addresses the Munich Security Conference.

“America’s back,” he said Feb. 19 in a video address to the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of top global security officials. He promised that the United States is “fully committed” to NATO and warned that democracy is “under assault” around the world and must be protected.

Biden already has directed that the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization and other international groups. He has said America will once again welcome refugees and immigrants in search of political asylum. With a recommitment to internationalism, he could make a major impact on a whole range of issues: the global struggle against COVID-19; the battle against toxic nationalism; support for human rights and religious freedom; efforts to decrease global poverty; fighting climate change; and challenging China, Russia and other bad actors who have filled the vacuum left by Trump.

These issues call for moral leadership. They should concern us as Christians, if we care about the world beyond our borders. But reengaging them is also in our hard, cold national interest. If we ignore them, they will find us sooner or later.

“You may not be interested in war,” Leon Trotsky famously said. “But war is interested in you.”

Somewhere, the two Georges are watching.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.




Ten years after, could the Arab Spring bloom again?

If you think you’ve got it bad in this season of darkness, disease and division, take a moment to consider the agony of the people of the Middle East.

A decade ago, the new year of 2011 brought soaring hopes of freedom, progress and better lives for the region’s overwhelmingly youthful populations. The previous December, a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi — fed up with the humiliation of paying bribes to corrupt local officials for the privilege of making a pittance to feed his family — had doused himself with paint thinner and burned himself alive in a dusty town square in Tunisia.

A man walks past a statue of Mohammed Bouazizi’s chariot in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on Dec. 11, 2020. Hundreds of desperate Tunisians have set themselves on fire over the past 10 years in an act of protest, following the example of 26-year-old fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi. His self-immolation in 2010 led to the downfall of Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years and unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings and a decade of crackdowns and civil wars across the region. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)

His despairing act opened a floodgate of frustration and anger among millions of his fellow Arabs. They took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and other countries. They demanded freedom from tyrannical governments, freedom from pervasive corruption, freedom to live their lives without fear and oppression from the state or the mosque. Governments and dictators fell — in Tunisia, then in vastly larger Egypt, then Libya and Yemen. Regime change also seemed imminent in Syria, long ruled by the brutal Assads.

It wasn’t just restless youths, college students and unemployed poor people; shopkeepers, middle-class workers and pensioners joined in the demands for change. The more than 400 million people of the Middle East and North Africa seemed willing at last to risk everything for something better.

Assessing what changed

And what did they get for their pains?

Bullets and barrel bombs in Syria. Dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to fight a seemingly endless war of attrition, slaughtering and terrorizing civilians to defeat dwindling insurgent groups (some democratic, some Jihadi) in their midst. Five million refugees have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe.

In Egypt, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of longtime president Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011 to win free elections. They proceeded to govern so ineptly that much of the public supported the bloody military coup that followed in 2013. Today, General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rules with a harder fist than Mubarak ever did. Thousands of democracy protesters and activists have died — or languish in prison.

Civil war in Libya ended the life and long tyranny of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but chaotic power sharing now reigns in the failed state. Yemen’s hopeful revolution ended when regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran began using the poorest nation in the Middle East as a proxy for their struggle. Today, Yemenis starve as Saudi bombs continue to rain upon them; they’re suffering what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Lebanon, overrun with Syrian refugees and strangled by decades of corrupt rule, is another nearly failed state; the most powerful force there is Iran-backed Hezbollah. Jordan’s shaky monarchy hangs on for dear life.

“Regionally, autocrats seem firmly in control once again. Only Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, still has a functioning democracy.”

Regionally, autocrats seem firmly in control once again. Only Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, still has a functioning democracy — and its survival is anything but assured. The rise of ISIS spread terror across multiple countries in recent years has brought untold suffering to millions before its eventual military defeat. It remains a threat, however, along with Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

The United States has retreated from influence in the region in the wake of George W. Bush’s failed Iraq adventure, Barack Obama’s dithering reluctance to act and Donald Trump’s refusal to confront tyrants anywhere. Russia and Iran are now the most powerful players in the area. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, claims to be a reformer but jails anyone actually seeking new liberties at home. Abroad, he eagerly blunders into any regional conflict that gives him an excuse to confront Iran (see: Yemen).

On a related note, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims still despise each other, which explains much of the underlying conflict in the Middle East beyond its perennial political dysfunction. Meanwhile, Muslim persecution of Christians seems to be worse almost everywhere, with the continued existence of some ancient Christian groups now under threat from ongoing extremist attacks.

Being there

I covered the Arab Spring and its early aftermath, first from a distance and later on the ground in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon. I walked the streets in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire, and visited his grave outside town. I walked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the revolution began there. I talked to Muslims and Christians in Cairo and Tunis, Beirut and Amman, along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Lebanon, in rundown apartments rented at high prices to Syrian refugees in Beirut and in the enormous Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan.

I witnessed the heroic work of Lebanese Christians delivering aid and the love of Christ — despite the objections of some of their own congregations — to Muslim refugees crossing the border from Syria. I saw the selfless ministry of Munif,* a local pastor in a Jordanian border town, who turned his church into an all-purpose aid center for exhausted, terrified Syrian refugees flooding across the line. He and his congregation helped them find food, jobs, places to live and schooling for their children. (I visited him again in 2018, and he’s still at it, bolstered by the help of numerous volunteers from around the world).

On Jan. 20, 2021, Syrian children try to keep warm during cold weather conditions at a camp for internally displaced people, near the village of Barisha. The refugee camps in the north of Idlib governorate are under threat of extreme winter weather with heavy rain and snowfall. (Photo by: Anas Alkharboutli/AP Images)

One Syrian father and mother had stumbled across the border with their five children after surviving a Syrian army ambush. They said their teenage son, Hassan,* had been shot in the head. As he lay bleeding in his mother’s arms, a soldier approached, gun pointed. Their 4-year-old son, Wafik,* who rarely spoke, stood and held up his arms. “I beg you, Uncle, don’t hurt us anymore. Have mercy on us,” he appealed. The soldier, apparently moved, took Hassan to a hospital. They later found friends at Munif’s church. When I met them, Hassan was walking haltingly. He needed ongoing physical therapy.

I wonder what happened to that family. Did they find a permanent home in Jordan? Will they ever go home to Syria?

I wonder, too, about Amani,* an intelligent and educated young woman I interviewed in 2012 in a fashionable neighborhood of Amman, Jordan. Over cappuccino with friends at a cafe, she talked hopefully about new opportunities the Arab Spring might bring her as a Muslim woman. She wanted a family, but she also wanted a real professional career and had worked hard for it.

“At the beginning it was a shock, and when it continued, it was like you’re watching a series on TV,” she said of the Arab revolutions exploding around her. “I hope this is a good step to get freedom and to have a good future, because there’s a lot of corruption in the governments everywhere in the Middle East. Nothing can change suddenly. I think it will take time. How long, I don’t know. It might take 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, but this is the first step to change the future.”

The fire next time

I think Amani was on to something. The conventional wisdom is that the Arab Spring failed utterly and won’t bloom again anytime soon. But not everyone agrees with that gloomy assessment.

“The conventional wisdom is that the Arab Spring failed utterly and won’t bloom again anytime soon. But not everyone agrees with that gloomy assessment.”

For one thing, recent protests and uprisings have shaken or toppled regimes in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and, perhaps most suprisingly, in Sudan, which saw the 2019 overthrow of brutal Islamist dictator Omar al-Bashir. The protesters who forced change there included Sudanese Christians.

The population of the Middle East and North Africa has grown by 70 million since the Arab Spring began and will add an estimated 120 million more by 2030. Poverty and joblessness have grown with it, as mismanaged economies fail to provide jobs for waves of young people in search of work. Modern political repression tends to work only as long as people have enough to eat.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any stability as long as dictators and military intelligence agencies continue to suffocate society,” warned Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics in an interview with The Washington Post. “The status quo is untenable, and the next explosion will be catastrophic.”

In this image from Tunis, Tunisia, from January 2011, a man holding photo of Mohamed Bouazizi (the young man who burned himself to death) as president. Several days after the fall of the Tunisian dictator, President Ben Ali, Tunisians were continuing to demonstrate against any former members of the RCD Party that would participate in the interim government.
(Photo::HALEY/Sipa via AP Images)

So don’t bet on the “Arab street” remaining quiet too long. The engines of oppression in the Middle East don’t run as efficiently as they do in China. They don’t offer the economic incentives to be quiet that China does, either.

“Despite the Arab uprising’s premature obituary and dark legacy, the revolutionary wave of 2011 was not a passing mirage,” writes political analyst Marc Lynch in Foreign Affairs. “In reality, what looked like an ending was only another turn of a relentless cycle. The regimes supposedly offering stability were, in fact, the primary causes of instability. It was their corruption, autocracy, failed governance, rejection of democracy, and abuse of human rights that drove people to revolt. … More eruptions of mass protests now seem inevitable.”

Signs of hope

That’s the political outlook. Under the surface, deeper currents flow.

I remember Shamal,* a 27-year-old Tunisian I met in Tunisia in 2012. He became a follower of Christ after seeing Christ in a vision, wearing white. Thousands of Muslim-background believers tell similar stories of their first encounter with Jesus. Shamal already had been threatened and jailed for his faith, but he hadn’t abandoned it. He had become a disciple-maker.

As we walked the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Shamal pointed to a memorial sculpture of freedom martyr Mohamed Bouazizi’s fruit cart. Adorning it were these words in Arabic graffiti: “For those who yearn to be free.”

“I didn’t know how it feels to be free, because I had never experienced it,” Shamal said of his earlier life.

Now he knows. No one can take that away.

* Names changed to protect identities

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.




10 prayers for 2021 (if we survive January)

My favorite meme of the new year: “I’d like to cancel my subscription to 2021. I’ve experienced the free seven-day trial, and I’m not interested.”

As post-holiday COVID-19 deaths surged the first week of January, a sitting president incited a violent attack by his followers on the Capitol, seat and symbol of our democratic republic. The insurrection killed five people, including a Capitol police officer, injured dozens and forced members of Congress to flee the House and Senate floors and hide, not knowing if they would escape with their lives.

Erich Bridges

Erich Bridges

Some of the invaders reportedly were looking for Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the electoral count process, so they could hang him for “betraying” their glorious leader.

This is America?

I wanted to spend Jan. 6 celebrating the historic election of two new U.S. senators — including an African-American Baptist pastor — from my home state of Georgia, long notorious for racist voter suppression. Instead, I spent the day and much of the night monitoring the Capitol attack and its aftermath, shouting at the TV screen and “unfriending” (via social media or phone) anyone I know who still believes Trump’s lies that the election was “stolen” and must be overturned.

What is the point, I reasoned, of continuing to associate with people who are clearly delusional? I no longer could pretend their self-deception was merely a “difference of opinion.” It now threatens American democracy itself.

When I finally cooled down, I sent apologies to several of those people for my harsh words. I don’t know if our friendships can be restored or should be. But I need to work on my own heart.

That brings me back to the new year. Here are my prayers for the rest of 2021, if we get past January:

  1. Lord, please change our hard and angry hearts, starting with me.
  2. Help us to step back from the brink of civil war, Father. We already had one; we might not survive another.
  3. As we hold certain politicians, demagogues and terrorists accountable for assaulting our democracy, help us to distinguish between justice and vengeance. Some people need to be shunned, denounced or prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Others, millions of gullible followers, need to be challenged to return to the democratic (small d) fold before it’s too late.
  4. Forgive the American church for the ways we have winked at evil, supported cruelty, believed lies, rejected truth and mistreated the “other,” the weak, the poor, the immigrant and the refugee over the past four years.
  5. Help us to fight our fears, our hatred and our racism like our survival depends upon it, because it does.
  6. Help us to overcome COVID-19 at last, and in the meantime, to find new ways to minister to others amid the suffering and isolation.
  7. Help your church to return to our chief tasks: to love you, love one another and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ to all peoples. We, right and left, have wasted our energy and destroyed our witness fighting the culture wars. The culture is no longer listening, nor our own children.
  8. Remind the church that you call us to personal salvation and social justice, holiness and unconditional love, righteousness and mercy.
  9. Bring us back to your word. We’ve spent too much time listening to false prophets, celebrity preachers and talk show hosts.
  10. Teach us to be quiet, to listen, to seek you in silence. We have run our mouths enough.

Amen.

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.




The thing with feathers

I put up my 4-foot Christmas tree a few days ago. It took about 15 minutes from box to display.

I slid one skinny pole into the other, draped two or three boxes of ornaments over the stiff branches and plugged the thing in (tiny lights are already attached). I hung three stockings from the fireplace mantle and voila, my holiday decorating was done.

Erich BridgesIt’s a far cry from the lengthy, quasi-military operation Christmas decorating used to be when my wife was alive and the kids were at home. First, she directed the downloading of hundreds — well, maybe tens — of boxes of stuff from the attic, which was exhausting in itself. And dangerous: One wrong move on the rickety attic ladder could result in a fatal deluge of Christmas baubles and bulbs.

That was only the beginning. Then would begin the dusting of the boxes, the raising of the full-size tree (also fake, but full-size), the excruciating untangling of giant hairballs of lights, the careful selection and hanging of ornaments, the subsequent rearrangement of said ornaments, and so on — all under the exacting command of General Mom. Then we would all collapse on the couch and watch “A Christmas Story” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the umpteenth time, another family tradition. Those are some of my favorite memories.

Now it’s just me, until the kids come over for Christmas itself. I like to keep it low-key. Holidays, especially Christmas, can be hard if you strive to recreate old times when a beloved person from those times isn’t around anymore. I’d rather sit, drink coffee and watch the little lights twinkle on my 4-foot tree.

“Holidays, especially Christmas, can be hard if you strive to recreate old times when a beloved person from those times isn’t around anymore.”

I bought the 4-footer from Walmart just before my wife’s last Christmas, when she was too weak to direct the quasi-military operation anymore. The battalions of boxes haven’t come out of the attic since, and probably never will, unless I have grandkids one of these days. Maybe we’ll create some new traditions then.

God, what a nightmare year it’s been: COVID-19, leaving a national path of death and destruction, still spreading its dark arms like the Ghost of Christmas Future. The endless election from hell was decided a month ago, but the crazed loser keeps spewing lies and flailing around in the White House. Racism, riots, hatred and division. Millions out of work. Opening, closing, re-opening, closing again.

On the personal front, I’m still dating off and on. I’m looking for a good woman, because I don’t like being alone. Almost fell in love with one earlier this year. She didn’t, so I’m back to looking. Beginnings and endings. You learn that’s what life is about as you get older. More endings as time goes on, but that makes the beginnings sweeter.

There’s a bird that’s been perching atop a wrought-iron chair on my back patio for months now. Every afternoon, like clockwork, it launches from the chair and collides with the windowpanes of my French doors. It flutters back to the chair and launches again, bashing into the window. I try to shoo it away, but it always returns. I researched this phenomenon and learned that birds often fly into windows because they see a reflection of the sky and fly toward it.

To be honest, I think my bird is dumb as a rock. But I admire its persistence. That’s what you need to keep going. Persistence, and hope. The bird also reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s famous lines:

Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all …

If you stop hoping, regardless of how many times you crash into windows, it’s all over.

The first candle of Advent symbolizes hope, shining in the darkness of this world in expectation of the coming of the Lord. In earlier centuries, before the celebration of Christmas became the lumbering behemoth it is today, Advent on the church calendar stressed yearning for Second Coming as much as the first.

“The Latin word adventus was the translation of the Greek parousia — a word used for both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his Second Coming,” writes Ryan Reeves, associate professor of historical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “For the first two weeks of Advent, the church would reflect on the Second Coming. Disciples would chasten their hearts, confess sins, and spend time hoping for the quick coming of the Lord. The last two weeks of Advent would then transition to focus on the first parousia, Christ in the manger.”

“To hope, as the Hebrew Psalms make so clear, also means to wait, sometimes in desperation.”

We should recapture that twin focus in our day — hope for Christ’s birth to bring light into our darkness, and hope for Christ’s return, which will end darkness for all time.

But to hope, as the Hebrew Psalms make so clear, also means to wait, sometimes in desperation. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for thee, O God,” cries the psalmist. “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me. Hope in (wait for) God, for I shall again praise him for the help of his presence” (Psalm 42: 1,5 NASB).

That is the thing with feathers. It perches in the soul and sings without stopping, even in the blackest night. So I will sit beside my 4-foot Christmas tree, in the close and holy darkness, and wait.

Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.