Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Lenten Meditation on Galatians 5:15

Long ago I heard a summation—a post-mortem, actually—of the Nixon Administration. It came at the end of a lengthy documentary highlighting the rise and fall of the Nixon White House. The last clip on the screen was that famous shot of the disgraced president waving goodbye from the steps of his helicopter. A somber voice-over opined that, in the end, Nixon’s Administration “was characterized by grand vision and petty grievance.”

By “grand vision” the journalist meant that in terms of foreign policy Nixon and his aides could see what the rest of us then couldn’t. They had a global perspective on commerce and security which, though radical in those days, we now take pretty much for granted. The trip to China—a move unparalleled in American and perhaps world politics—helped open wide the doors to that whole side of the world.

But there was also “petty grievance,” by which the journalist suggested that Nixon and his aides viewed domestic policy through a lens of “enemies list” paranoia and “micro-worry.” They “saw” loyal political dissent and idealistic college protest as part of a great and dangerous conspiracy arrayed against them. A basic mistrust of the American people, the media and the democratic process prompted Nixon and his aides to engineer and then cover-up all the various break-ins and dirty tricks.

“Grand vision and petty grievance,” and in the long-run it is not hard to imagine that the pettiness is what we remember best and will. Why? Perhaps because the “grand vision” eventually became mainstream common sense—the way everyone looks at things—and it is hard to remember to give Mr. Nixon the credit he deserves. Conversely, the break-ins and dirty tricks defied all sense then and still do, even as they remain a unique paragraph in modern presidential history: the absolute cause of his abbreviated term in office.

As the voice-over ended the helicopter was disappearing over the trees, ferrying Mr. Nixon into political exile. The picture faded to gray and then to black.

I offer that not as partisan political commentary, but simply to suggest that churches and ministries can be ruined by the same ironic bipolarity suggested by the documentary. We Christians are indeed possessed of a grand vision, see what the unbelieving world can’t but will: all people at peace in the presence of God. Jesus calls us into God’s once and future work of peace-making—we have been entrusted with the “ministry and message of reconciliation,” Paul says, “God making his appeal to the world through us.” And it is our essential domestic unity—our living, growing fellowship of real forgiveness and spiritual friendship (the unity for which Jesus prayed)—which testifies to God’s peaceful plan for all his children. The peace of God begins with us who share the peace of Christ.

How tragic then when that grand vision for the world is betrayed or even destroyed by petty grievance at home. When Christ’s chosen do not choose to forgive one another, or bless one another, trust one another or speak the truth in love… when we compile, as it were, enemies lists or ransack the reputations of our brothers and sisters on account of jealousies and grudges and personal agendas… then we should not be surprised if our work is cut short and our pettiness all anyone can seem to remember as we fade to gray and then to black.

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