I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), 1867
On Christmas Eve, as we came through the door from the cold parking lot into the Narthex, we were instantly enveloped in warm, welcoming hugs. The first two faces we saw were of long-time members with whom we worshiped regularly for many years. They threw their arms around us and declared their happiness that we were there, as did many other folks we encountered as we navigated our course to the east side of the sanctuary and the pew that we, along with my parents, had claimed as our own for so many years. To sit anywhere else on this night would be unthinkable.
When the pastor walked up the center aisle and then turned to face the congregation, I felt a slight jolt. It was jarring. He looked so odd, standing there holding his arms out as he recited the invocation that signaled the beginning of the evening’s worship service. Momentarily, he seemed like an interloper to me as I silently asked myself, “Who is this guy?” But I soon remembered that I had been absent from that place for more than a decade. In that length of time, much changes. And nothing changes. I wondered whether, while I was away, that place had changed for the better.
Among the issues on my mind that evening was President-Elect Barack Obama’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his upcoming inauguration. I was disturbed and disappointed by that choice, and wondered what President-Elect Obama could possibly have been thinking when, after being elected because he promised to bring change — inclusivity — to America, he invited a man who actively worked for the passage of Proposition 8 here in California. Proposition 8 constitutes a discriminatory giant step backward in the fight for civil rights. Having spent the last 15 years of my professional life actively engaged in the fight for civil rights, I was feeling “sold out” by the man whose candidacy I supported and for whom I cast my cherished vote.
As though his opinions about sexual orientation aren’t bad enough, Warren runs a program at his Orange County congregation designed to “cure” what he deems inappropriate sexual orientations. He calls it “Celebrate Recovery” and has offensively modeled it after legitimate and highly respected twelve-step programs. I have had more than one heated argument with well-meaning Christians, including pastors, who insist that divine intervention in response to prayer can change an individual’s sexual orientation. Such programs are not only mean-spirited and ineffective; they are dangerous because when they inevitably fail, they harm participants — sometimes irreparably — by convincing them that they are failures, unworthy of unconditional love and acceptance just as they are.
Warren was, to my surprise, also on the mind of the pastor that evening. By the time he stepped into the pulpit to deliver his sermon, it was after midnight — Christmas Day had arrived. He began with a discussion of the phrase “peace on earth, good will to men,” a concept about which we hear so much in carols and verse. The pastor posited that “peace” means living harmoniously with others. To illustrate the point, he asked some of the musicians to assist him. First, a horn played a solo melody line, but was later joined by another and they made some lovely music in harmony with each other.
Along with several other local pastors, a few days earlier he had been interviewed by the Lodi News-Sentinel about his reaction to Obama’s selection of Warren:
I am thankful that a Christian was asked to pray regardless of their personal viewpoints. In this era of deep diversity, I hope that I do not have to agree on every single topic for me to be able to pray with another Christian. I think America would be well served if the prominent pastors of the left, like Jesse Jackson and Katharine Jefferts Schori, would get together with prominent pastors of the political right such as the Rick Warren and Pat Robertson, for a weekend retreat spent in prayer, Bible study, service and worship.
I poked my husband, who was listening intently with a smile on his face. “Did he just say the ‘D’ word?” I whispered.
And then he said it again. He emphasized that Christians should embrace and celebrate their diversity. There were no claps of thunder or lightning strikes, and the ceiling of the sanctuary did not cave in despite the fact that a Lutheran pastor uttered the word “diversity” from a pulpit in livable, lovable Lodi on Christmas Day. And I was there to witness it.
The overarching theme and key teaching point of the sermon was, in fact, the desirability of Christians with divergent world views coming together and demonstrating respect, admiration, and tolerance for each individual’s respective opinions and beliefs. The pastor reminded the congregants assembled on that cold, foggy Christmas night that Christians do not have to agree on every issue and, in fact, the world is a more interesting and enriching place when we are able to safely express our differing perspectives in an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance. That’s what true “peace on earth, good will to men” is all about. After all, Romans 12:4-6 says:
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly.
I was delighted to find that the pastor now leading my former congregation expressed precisely the philosophy by which I strive to lead my life and manage my relationships with others. It was gratifying to hear him discuss and encourage, from a true Christian perspective, tolerance and acceptance of all persons, and embrace and celebrate diversity of thought. Although I do not envision myself re-joining that or any congregation — at least not in the near future — I am certain that we will be worshiping there from time to time.
Tolerance, celebration of diversity, and inclusivity are reciprocal concepts. Just as the pastor preached on Christmas Day, if I expect Christians with different opinions and values to accept and embrace me unconditionally, I must do the same for them. But my elation about the mindset of the new pastor neither assuaged my misgivings about Warren’s participation in the inauguration nor allowed me to forgive the President-Elect for inviting an unrepentant homophobe to participate. After all, in every speech, Obama has championed his vision of America as a diverse land of inclusivity.
Most importantly, the inauguration of a United States President is a governmental ceremony of and for the people of this great nation. All of the people. There is no place in official functions or the day-to-day conduct of our country’s government for discrimination or bigotry.
Melissa Etheridge, writing eloquently for The Huffington Post, described her own sense of being “slapped in the face” by the man so many members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community worked to get elected, especially in light of the heartbreaking passage of Proposition 8. She arranged to meet Warren and judge for herself whether he was yet another “hate spouting, money grabbing, bad hair televangelist like all the others. He probably has his own gay little secret bathroom stall somewhere, you know. One more hater working up his congregation to hate the gays, comparing us to pedophiles and those who commit incest, blah blah blah. Same ‘ole thing. Would I be boycotting the inauguration? Would we be marching again?”
Instead, when she spoke on the phone with Warren and, later, came face to face with him, she found him to have an “open heart” which allowed the two of them to agree to “build bridges to the future.”
Brothers and sisters, the choice is ours now. We have the world’s attention. We have the capability to create change, awesome change in this world, but before we change minds we must change hearts. Sure, there are plenty of hateful people who will always hold on to their bigotry like a child to a blanket. But there are also good people out there, Christian and otherwise that are beginning to listen. They don’t hate us, they fear change. Maybe in our anger, as we consider marches and boycotts, perhaps we can consider stretching out our hands. Maybe instead of marching on his church, we can show up en mass and volunteer for one of the many organizations affiliated with his church that work for HIV/AIDS causes all around the world.
Maybe if they get to know us, they won’t fear us.
I know, call me a dreamer, but I feel a new era is upon us.
A new era is indeed upon us. Last evening, I watched the inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The images were astounding. Breathtaking. Remarkable. And again brought to mind that Christmas worship service, the “D” word, and my responsibility — as a Christian, American, and professional woman committed to social justice — to live in accordance with and model for my sons the ideals I espouse.
That means that just as I ask others to accept my viewpoints and beliefs, I must accept theirs. Rick Warren is a man whose beliefs do not align with mine. But, like me, he is an American who loves his country and God.
The true diversity that President-Elect Obama has been talking about for the past two years, that Melissa Etheridge urges us to embrace, and the pastor preached about on Christmas challenges me to look past the issues about which Warren and I disagree. I find his views repugnant and repulsive. But as Melissa Etheridge met with and embraced him, I am called upon to pray with him as he prays for our new President and nation before Obama takes the oath of office with his hand upon the Bible that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. My faith requires me to bestow upon him the same grace that flows over me every minute of every day. It is up to me, along with all of my fellow Americans, to decide day by day, moment by moment, whether hate will be strong and mock the song of peace that our new leader challenges us to sing or we will rise up in unity and support of his administration and vision for our country to see that wrong fails and right prevails.
Melissa Etheridge may be a dreamer. But I am willing to stand beside her in pursuit of the dream. And, like her, I am willing to welcome Rick Warren to stand with us. I am convinced that she is right and President-Elect Obama’s selection of Warren was calculated to make a definitive statement: By standing together, rather than allowing ourselves to continue to be splintered, divided and divisive, we will all be better people and this nation will be stronger. After all, it was Abraham Lincoln who said:
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing him of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause is really a good one.
I wish you “peace on earth and good will toward humankind.”