Half-Full or Half-Empty?

A Meditation on Thanksgiving in
a Time of National Conflict

glassThey say that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who see glasses half-full, and those who see glasses half-empty. My sense is that it would be more accurate to say that sometimes all of us see the glass half-full, while at other times we see it half-empty.  I don’t think of half-full/half-empty glasses as rigid, permanent, impermeable “either/or” categories.  No, whether I see a glass as being half-full or half-empty depends on lots of things, things that can change.  And so I’m reluctant to see either half-full glasses or half-empty glasses as “steady states.” And just as this is true of us as individuals, so it seems to me that it is equally true of us as societies at large and in seasons of life.  There are times when things generally feel half-full for us as a people or a nation, and there are other times when things feel half-empty for us as a people or a nation.

Right now things feel half-empty to me. It has been a long and jarring election season, and a conflicted and volatile couple of weeks since the votes were counted and a winner declared.   Regardless of how you voted, whether your candidate won or lost, the fact is that we are a painfully divided nation right now with very little confidence in the wisdom or goodness of those with whom we disagree.  We suspect the worse about each other, we resist listening to each other, and without some “patriotic grace” the task of governing is going to prove to be nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.

Patriotic Grace” is a phrase that political speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan coined.  This is how she explained its meaning in her 2008 book by the same name –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

As a step in this direction, I am consciously and conscientiously approaching Thanksgiving Day this year as a glass “half-full” oasis in an otherwise glass “half-empty” season in our national life.  I am building a list of things for which I am grateful right now at this particular moment in our history, and I am claiming them as the basis for my very real hope that no matter how half-empty the glass might appear to be right now, that it won’t be very long before its “half-fullness” becomes apparent to us all again as a people.

So, here’s my list so far –

I am grateful for the Promise of America, a promise most concisely stated for me in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance when it says that “liberty and justice” are for all.  Now I know that for some Americans – people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, the LBGTQ community to name just a few – this promise rings pretty hollow.  But I’ve always thought that aspirational values, those things that we say we want to be and do as a people, have a real power for concentrating our attention and directing our efforts.  Promises become projects.  And so, even as I affirm the aspiration that we be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all, I find that I must recommit myself in the present historical circumstance to doing the hard work of making the promise a fact for every single American.  I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us who pledge allegiance not to rest until every American has been extended the freedom and personally experiences the justice that it extols.

I am grateful that three days after the election this year we observed Veterans’ Day and had the opportunity to think about the men and women in our history, and who right now, are serving so selflessly and sacrificially to help keep us safe and secure as a nation. I recently saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” and I was viscerally reminded once again of what conscience and courage in uniform looks like, and I was grateful.  I am grateful for my father of blessed memory who served in the South Pacific during World War 2, for my Brother-in-Law who served in both Korea and Vietnam, and for my nephew who right now serves in the Global War on Terror.  I do not take the dangers and risks they faced, and are facing for us for granted.  I honor their service.

I am grateful for the Rule of Law and not the Rule of Men. A few years ago I devoured a series of books about the Founders – David McCullough’s John Adams, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton, and Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  These books sent me back to the original sources of our Constitutional Republic in The Federalist Papers.  And the more I read them the deeper my appreciation became for the peculiar genius and sober wisdom of the generation of Founders who had a vision for this Constitutional Republic of ours, and who then had the astonishing ability to actually draft the enabling documents that moved it from the realm of a noble ideal to a functioning governing structure and system.  It’s certainly not perfect.  It must not be viewed an object of worship.  But it’s far better than any of the alternatives that are out there.  As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And the greatest feature of our particular version of it, if you ask me, are its deliberate separation of powers and its careful system of checks and balances that prevent unilateral action by a tyrant be s/he in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government.  Our Constitution compels consultation, cooperation and compromise to get anything substantive done.  To be sure, this frustrates the winners of elections, even as it reassures the losers, and it’s something for which I am truly grateful today.  Although I am impatient with the deadlock that has afflicted Washington D.C. for the past decade, I am a nevertheless a real fan of divided government, in fact, I vote for it all the time.  I want the exchange of different ideas and the clash of passions.  I frankly think it makes us better as a nation.

I am grateful for the peaceful transfer of power that we are witnessing once again, and for the very real grace with which it is happening right now when the forces to hinder it are running so hot. I have long ached for the emergence of a new class of national Statesmen in our Republic “who more than self their country loved,” and I think that I have actually caught a glimpse of some from both sides of the aisle in these last few weeks, and that gives me some real hope for the days ahead.

I am grateful for the Bill of Rights, and especially for the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion/conscience and freedom of speech, and that provides for a free press, the right of free assembly, and the freedom to redress our grievances. The Amendments to our Constitution are how we “mend thine every flaw,” and the fact that we even have such a mechanism in our governing documents tells me everything I need to know about our capacity to change and grow as a society, to expand liberty and establish justice for all. Our Founders knew that we would need to be able to do this.  We still do.

I am also grateful for the individual human capacity to grow and change, and for the gracious chances that we give to one another to do so. I am certainly not naïve about human nature.  My working doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity tempers the optimism in the ability of human beings that I detect in so many of my colleagues and peers.  I am a strict Calvinist in these matters.  We cannot lower our guard with each other, or ourselves.  But, and this is not a contradiction of what I just said, I am also a firm believer in the Imago Dei, not just as the transcendent fact that establishes the worth of every single human being, but also as an affirmation of our innate capacity as human beings to make selfless choices and to reach for transcendent goals.  We stand in the mud, but we see the stars, and so long as we do, there’s always hope for nobility from the most improbable of sources.

Finally, I am grateful for the sovereignty of God that assures me that God’s will is going to finally be done on earth as it is in heaven, and for the providence of God that assures me that God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse – which is to say that God always finds a way to take our confused choices and jumbled circumstances and turns them into His good.  The famous moral to the Joseph and his Brothers story in Genesis – “You intended this for evil, but God turned it to good” (50:20) – is a safeguard against despair for people of Biblical faith.  The story is not over until it’s over.  It’s way too early to give up, or to give over to the inertia of discouragement when things happen that we didn’t expect, and that don’t make any sense to us from our own particular point of view.  Kennon Callahan, the Church Consultant, said that the most important question a church must answer is: “Do you believe that your best years are before you, or behind you?” And I believe that the same question must be asked of Republics.  I personally believe that the best years for this Republic of ours are still before us, not because of who’s President, or not, but because of the God under whom I believe this nation, and all nations exist.  My confidence is in Him, and in His way of conforming, first His people, and then His world, to His purposes.  And so while I am certainly concerned these days, and cautious about what will happen next, I am not announcing the end of the world or making Hitler comparisons. No, despite all of the legitimately anxious and angry voices declaring the glass to be not just half-empty, but bone dry, I have cause to see it half-full.  And this Thanksgiving, I invite you, no, I urge you, to undertake the same spiritual exercise for your own sake, and for the sake of our national future together.  DBS +




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