Monday, January 17, 2011

The Dilemma of My 19th Year

I was struggling during my 19th year, torn at the conclusion of the 1960s between duty to God and duty to my Country during the peak of the Vietnam War. My Dad, who was never particularly eloquent or religious, sensed my pain and scrawled one of a half dozen letters he penned to me in those two years of struggle after I left home.Capture

Rare for him while I was growing up, this time he didn’t give me his opinions nor did he try to rescue me by telling me what to think, what to do or how to feel which is how I typically interpreted his opinions.

After a few words expressing his love for me, he just enclosed something he’d been given as a soldier in World War II. I carried it in my wallet until it fell apart in my 40s. My Dad was ultra-conservative but that gesture, as much as any in my life, put me in touch with my progressive-leaning yet moderate-pragmatic politics.

The unattributed words he enclosed were part of a prayer written as a tag line to a sermon by a theologian, a contemporary of my paternal grandparents and by then in the last years of his life.

The author of that short prayer is on my mind today because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who is one of my heroes is honored by today’s holiday. King felt he was far more influenced by the author of those words given to me by my Dad than he was by Gandhi.

Where I grew up in the mile-high Upper Snake River nook of Idaho, evangelism was inescapable during the years before and after I reached what they called “accountability.” The two dominant religions were Lutheran and Mormon.

A glimpse into these two expressions of Christianity is captured in a recent book entitled Claiming Christ published a few year ago from a series of friendly debates between two professors, one Lutheran and the other Mormon.

Evangelism may explain part of why I eventually eschewed the organizations of religion but not my faith. It definitely was at essence of that 1967 dilemma.

Although the words of the prayer received from my Dad are often misattributed to another hero, President John F. Kennedy, I learned the author was Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr; and ever since then I’ve been drawn to his writings, as was Dr. King, who was assassinated a few months after I received my father’s letter in the late fall of 1967.

I’ve been both humbled and emboldened by the words and deeds of these two great men of faith. In addition to re-reading Dr. King’s speeches today, I’ll read again one of Niebuhr’s essays, referenced in Friday’s blog of a column by David Brooks and which, as I’ve grown older, is just as significant in my life as that prayer from my Dad:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope…

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love…

Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

In light of my recent lament about ethics and the events of 2010, I can also highly recommend Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society – A Study of Ethics in Politics.

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