My grandpa Denham grew up in the tenements of Glasgow back when the residents leaned out the window and shouted, “Comin’ oot!” and threw the contents of the chamber pot into the street. Grandpa got sick of being dumped on and brought his brood to Minneapolis and he never looked back. He wasn’t nostalgic about his origins. He was happy to be here.
I thought of him when I took the train to Washington last week, a city he wanted to see and never did. I go to Washington to remind myself what a beautiful city it is despite the contempt brought upon it by so many elected officials, many of whom are emptying their chamber pots in the form of campaign advertising. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are stunning but you look at the dome of the Capitol and remember the mob that stormed it in the name of a miserable lie that is being repeated this election year and how do you explain this? The mob went to the same schools we did, learned about Jefferson and Lincoln, and yet they are fascinated by fascism and long for a dictator.
I went to a show in the Wharf district Friday night, which was interesting — a poet, a soprano singing Puccini, four-hand piano, some stand-up — but not really enlightening so I went to church Sunday morning, which I need to do if I want to know whether I’m a believer still or if it’s just nostalgia.
The opening hymn was one I love, especially the lines “Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s unchanging love.” The idea of a sonnet sung by flaming tongues is appealing to me; most sonnets barely smolder and give off little heat. And then came the opening prayer in which we acknowledge that to God all hearts are open and from Him no secrets are hid, which, if candidates for public office sincerely believed were true, democracy would work much better.
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God is a forgiving God, as we know from our prayer of contrition, but if you raise millions and millions of dollars to broadcast lies and thereby gain power and do damage to society and its institutions, this is a sin of another magnitude than just telling your mom you didn’t eat the ice cream in the freezer. When you invest so heavily in a lie, you make it almost impossible for yourself to feel real contrition and thereby gain forgiveness. You leave yourself no way out.
A moment later, in our reading from Jeremiah, we see: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors,” which has been a political issue lately, whether schools should be allowed to teach history or whether it should be sanitized. Jeremiah seems to favor honesty.
After we heard from him, we heard from David in his Psalm 84: “My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord … Happy are they who dwell in your house,” which happened to be true Sunday morning for me at any rate. I was surrounded by men and women absorbed in prayer, calling up the people in our lives, their needs, their troubles. And our leaders: we prayed for wisdom.
There was a sermon Sunday but I didn’t hear it because I was sitting in a part of the church that is acoustically dead and during the homily I thought about November and about the rabbi who stood at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and prayed for hours a day, week after week, year after year, and finally a guy asked him, “What are you praying for?” He said, “Peace. Justice. Honest leaders who serve the people.” The guy asked, “So how’s it going so far?” The rabbi said, “It’s like talking to a stone wall.”
We sang the closing hymn to the Lord who shelters us under His wing and were dismissed to go serve God and the organist played a powerful Bach fugue and I walked out the door, skipping the coffee hour. After hearing Jeremiah, David, Paul, Luke, I’m not in the mood for small talk over coffee, especially not about politics, which is what’s on everyone’s mind. I’ve made dreadful mistakes, wasted time, indulged in self-pity and prideful ignorance, but I am a believer and it was worth my while to confirm that. I believe we’re all susceptible to lying awake at night imagining horrible things but eventually the truth dawns and we rise up and find our way to where we need to be, following the light.