From Fr. David Peck
A Pastoral Letter to the Congregation
A Pastoral Letter to the Congregation of Saint James, Lancaster on the Feast of the Transfiguration and the 74th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan
August 6th, 2019
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32
I am writing as a pastor who is incongruously on vacation in a week of sorrows and sufferings in our land and deepening uncertainty in our times. Even at a distance, through our prayers and conversations, I hear so many articulate pain that is visceral for them, as it is for me, as we see yet again the aftermath of horrible violence of mass murder and shootings. While this violence is local and driven by myriad causes none will fully fathom, its frequency and ubiquity make it self-evidently a national crisis of both guns and violence. As such we as Christians should seek to summon in common prayer both a local and a national political will that addresses this crisis. Alongside the grace of prayer, with our God-given powers of reason we ought to seek to address this matter, as in any other crisis or epidemic, with facts, with compassion, with focus, with debate, with compromise and with resolve.
Our inability thus far to address this crisis (or other ones we face nationally and globally) is exacerbated by an underlying moral crisis of truth and the norms needed for discerning it and enshrining it in a democratic legislative process. We are as a culture newly awash in information and multiplying sources of news. We are atomized socially, geographically and politically. This moral crisis of separation leaves us with the fear that we have lost the ability effectively to translate feelings into actions that are based on sound consideration of the facts, careful deliberation of options, legislative precedence and proportion, robust party politics and compromise. Arising from this crisis there are feelings of powerlessness, resentment, rage, paranoia, cynicism, disengagement and despair. It can feel like the wells of truth have been poisoned.
Into this socio-political landscape, powers and principalities, both foreign and domestic, are planting seeds of violence by reactive, thoughtless or cynical words that are not intended to either find or strengthen the common good. This is part of a plague of identity politics that tempts all democracies to substitute their principles with personalities and grievances. So it is we find ourselves in deep moral pain also. This pain is healthy. It is the body politic feeling itself unhealthy and suffering the consequences of behaviors that need to change for vitality to return.
Amidst the physical, social and moral pain I feel, I struggle to find and know and preach peace. Not only vague peace, but the unity and security that I long for—for my life, my family, my church, my country and the world. It is precisely in this longing that I am drawn to the simplicity of Jesus, to the crisis of his times, to how the overwhelming spiritual, moral and social crisis of his times was met and addressed and healed. In chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel of John, out of which comes the stunning claim that “the truth will set you free,” is a great crisis. Jesus models the power of truth and directs people to a deeper and more inclusive discipleship of it through him. Not just through him, but through the simple power of truth given to him by his Father. The great leader of non-violent political change of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, coined the term satyagraha to describe this truth-force. For Gandhi it was the improbable power of the truth to set an unarmed people free even in the face of the most powerful military power the world had seen through the British Empire which was then occupying India in racist colonial bondage. It was this notion of satyagraha that The Rev. Howard Thurman learned from Gandhi and that he brought back to teach his colleagues and fellow leaders of the civil rights movement (among them, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in the 1950s.
As we wonder what next steps we can take to be set free by the truth or to go deeper in our discipleship with Jesus, I am inspired by that bridge-building work of Howard Thurman. Once when someone was talking to Rev. Thurman about what the world needed, he interrupted, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.” This is perhaps a model of discipleship that can help us feel the pain we need to feel and be set free to respond in ways that suit us as individuals with different viewpoints, experiences and understanding which need to be listened to more carefully and compassionately, respected more and denounced less.
I am aware also that alongside the pain we rightly feel, we also live in a wonderful age which virtually every generation before us would have longed to see for its relative levels of education, health, wealth, safety, justice, international law and interfaith understanding. I say this not to reinforce complacency or quietism, but to encourage us as we do the hard work in our own age of addressing climate change, mass migration, gun violence, racism, addiction, and prison reform, to name just a few examples of critical issues of our time. I pray that we will find ways to redouble our efforts to contend for the truth as Christians and citizens (speaking truth in love) and seek those sound policies of government that will flow from it.
There will always be distortions and divisions threaded through important debates and our imperfect knowledge that require patience, humility and a contemplative spirit to grow in us all. But we can all learn and grow through these as the “birth pangs of creation.” The issues we face are multi-generational. They will require of us all some new ways of being in relationship, new ways of being Christians, and new ways of being citizens. I believe that with God’s grace and our common practices of gratitude and repentance, we can discover the common prayers and the common will to make the necessary progress we yearn for in Christ. I believe this because as I meditate and pray, as I visit people who are sick and dying, as I read history, and observe the conduct of human affairs, I see a constantly redeemed and redeemable humanity set free by the truth of God’s renewing mercy.
I am blessed to be the pastor of a truly remarkable church, in a truly remarkable city, filled with truly remarkable people of all ages and abilities and views. As a congregation this week our discipleship took many forms: worship, prayer, hospitality, and meditation; the Bridge Dinner to welcome, be fed by, and learn from those who are refugees in our community; a Godly Play Camp for children in partnership with Advoz, a mediation, peace-building and restorative justice agency downtown. This is a very local view, indeed it is a shamelessly parochial view, but it gives me great hope. A hope that is rooted in faith and love. And for that reason I find it easy to believe in the Teacher who, through the tumultuous events recorded throughout John’s gospel, says to the people who are seeking God, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”