Saturday December 8, 2012

I just received word that one of my theologian school colleagues, Richard Watt, died last week. I remember going down to Washington, D.C. with him for the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States.

Both of us had met Eisenhower a few years before when we had gone into New York City from Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J., for a lecture at Columbia University on Morningside Heights in Manhattan, when Eisenhower was President of Columbia, and introduced the noted Philosopher Bertrand Russell from England.

In 1956 the prominent African-American preacher Howard Thurman, whom I studied with when he was a visiting professor at Cornell College in Iowa and was teaching at the University of Iowa, decided to leave his work in San Francisco as founder and pastor of the Church of All Nations in San Francisco in 1956 to become the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He had gone to San Francisco with a vision to build an intentionally racially integrated church from the ground up. He had a Pentecost vision of going back to that first church in Jerusalem where people from all places came together.

In the midst of this work, he got the invitation to Boston.

He said, "Should I stay with the work that I started or move on to the opposite side of the country?" So, he decided to move to Boston "because I wanted to put myself in a place where I can have the maximum contagion. I want to be wherever there is of God and godliness in me has the highest possibility of rubbing off, of being caught by someone else." Thurman decided he could do that better in Boston, "maximum contagion --isn't that the perfect metaphor for a Christian -- to save some gift of grace, fruit of the spirit, and want to be in a place where what I have will have the highest possibility of rubbing off, of being caught by someone else. If I have peace in a storm, have hope or a point of view on life's ups and downs, why not spread it around? We tend to think of contagion in a negative and destructive way. We think of diseases that take life. But we can infect people with some thing that will send life to them. We can have the maximum contagion that will rub off and benefit others, or we can have maximum benefit that enriches only ourselves.

Cornell West, in his book "Democracy Matters," said that Christians as well as people of other faiths, should be prophetic beings who shut down deliberate illness and challenge willful blindness. They should challenge the people around them. Which is worse -- racism, sexism, materialism, homophobia, narcissism, or xenophobia? I don't know and I don't care, you have to let your light shine so all can see more clearly and have good cause to be glad that you came among them. When you encounter bigotry, don't let it go unchallenged. Let your light shine. When someone is judged by his or her exterior, don't let it go unchallenged. Let your light shine. God bends over to ask us: Is there light in your lamp? If there is, wave it for maximum contagion so all can see God's good works and give glory to God.

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake wrote a prayer that was quoted in a book edited by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 1973.

"Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we sailed too close to shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; when having fallen in love with love with life, we have eased to dream of eternity; and our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim. Stir us, Lord to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love. Amen."

The Rev. David J. Bort is pastor emeritus of the United Methodist Church of Sandgate and a member of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council.