A Word for a Time of Deep Distress

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another .”
John 13:34–35, NIV

Dear Brothers and Sisters of Jesus Christ,

Since the tragic murder of George Floyd, we have all–all of us–been distressed, not only by the facts around his death; but by the ensuing political divisions that continue to plague our nation; peaceful protests that have, in many places, erupted into violent riots making way for looters; and for others who have physically attacked others.

The chief Christian ethic in Jesus’ teaching is love. Love that follows the example we have in Jesus: where God the Son took His power and position and laid it down for those who are bound, enslaved and unable to act for themselves (us!). Love that is sacrificial. There is no “opt out” of this; you cannot harbor hate in your heart for another and use it as an excuse to bring harm to others because we differ from them in race, gender, political persuasion, sexual orientation, nationality or even religion. You and I are called to love everyone in this way.

There is no question that many people of color have experienced and continue to experience racism–not only institutional racism, but also individual racism–targeted discrimination. I have been struck by the interviews I have heard in the last few weeks with U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), who said since entering office, he has been pulled over by police seven times inside of one year. That and every like form of discrimination and prejudice is wrong. What happened to George Floyd was horrific; it was wrong. Peaceful protests we should all support; protests that turn into looting and violent acts are wrong. The Bible I read has not one commandment, but ten. As a follower of Jesus, I am told not to murder, I am told not to steal, but the greatest commandment is to love.

In the last few days, I have had emails, texts and calls from members and non-members asking me how I might address these current times. Before I respond to that request, I need to share that a few days ago, our four Bishops issued a statement that I thought struck the right tone for all of us to consider. You can read this statement in a link below.

Some have asked me to decry what is now widely seen as a photo op of the President standing in front of St. John’s Church holding up a Bible. I confess to you that I concur with much of the criticism leveled against that moment–the forceful physical clearing of peaceful protesters, including some Episcopal clergy, to take a few snapshots in front of “The Presidents’ Church.” For the record, I know a bit about the protocol of presidents visiting churches, and that protocol was not followed by President Trump.

Some years ago, before our current President was elected, I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Houston Chronicle on the President’s lack of knowledge, understanding or practice of basic Biblical ethics and morality. In sum, I suggested that there was a rather sizable disconnect between Mr. Trump’s supposed allegiance to the Bible, which he called his “favorite” book, and his public and, frankly, private, life. There is a link to this article below. 

Honestly, I still wish the President would spend more time reading Scripture, attending Church and praying personally–not just being prayed for by other clergy in what are, again, many times orchestrated moments for the camera. And I while I don’t know if our President has changed his practice of not asking God for forgiveness (something he has said publicly), I hope he does now. I have to do that every day and I think it is essential in living out the Christian life.

Yet, here’s the thing: I do not always agree with our President; sometimes I do, but I do always pray for him , as I hope you do. You may or may not support the President, but more than anything, beyond your devotion or disdain, he needs our prayers.

Some have asked that I speak critically of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Bishop Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, for their anger with the President at the photo op moment and their failure to call out violent protesters.

I know Bishop Curry and I know Bishop Budde. I have heard them preach. I know they love Jesus. There are many things about which we probably disagree, but we have had moments together that I will never forget.

In December of 2018, your rector was called upon to co-officiate and preach at the state funeral for our 41 st President. There were several significant moments around that event that I remember: flying on Air Force One with Laura both to D.C. and back to Houston; the rehearsal for the service; and preaching before all living Presidents, the Justices of The Supreme Court, the current President’s Cabinet, most of the members of both houses of Congress, and several major leaders of the world–past and present. I could have gotten very caught up in all of that, but two moments that stand out to me as much as any other.

The first . It is the tradition of the clergy to greet the sitting President before a state funeral for a former President. President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were delayed and so, as we were standing together, our Presiding Bishop came over to me, smiled, and said, “I want to pray for you, brother.” I bowed my head, he made the sign of the Cross on my forehead and prayed that I would know God’s presence in the moments to come, and with his “Amen,” he looked at me and said, “Now go preach the Gospel, my brother.” Nothing about what to preach or whether I should lean to the left or the right–just “go preach the Gospel.”

The second. As we were lining up and preparing to go into the Church for that service that was about to be seen around the world, I turned around and behind me was Bishop Budde, her eyes closed, her hand positioned over my shoulders and her lips moving as she prayed for me. In that moment, there was no dividing line of religious or political persuasion. There was an expression of care and support for your rector.

This I know. I don’t have to agree with Bishop Curry or Bishop Budde on everything (though I suspect there is much about which we do agree), but I know their prayers that day were answered because I could not have done what I was called upon to do without them. And so, I pray for them regularly and I hope you do as well. They need our prayers.

So, my brothers and sisters, here’s the deal. I am not, as is and has been my practice, going to use St. Martin’s pulpit to address cultural wars, or to call out political or religious leaders because I may or may not agree with them. I am going to use the pulpit to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that was, is and evermore will be founded on the ethic that we are called to the two great commandments: to love God and to love others. And “ others” means “ all others .”

Read the above Scripture again . What does Jesus say is the one characteristic that will let others know we are His disciples? Is it which political party we support? Is it our denomination? Is it whether we have sinned a lot or sinned a little? Is it that we buy into every decision of our political leaders or that we remain critical of every such decision? Is it that we will always agree? Nope, none of those things, but “by this others will know you are my disciples, if you love one another .”

At the risk of ignoring the counsel of my wife, dear Laura; my friend, Suse McBay; and my mentor, the late Barbara Bush, all of whom have told me, “ Russ, you do go a bit long sometimes...” I would like you to consider two things that might very well be strong antibiotics to the cultural illnesses and sins that currently plague us.

First, visit our wonderful Memorial Park. During the Pandemic, I have gone almost every day. I know it may be a bit silly, but I confess that I hope heaven is a bit like Memorial Park. It is beautiful and improving every day. You will see people of every color, age, shape and size. You will see people wearing masks and others not. You will see people in head to toe hijabs covering every inch of skin. You will see quite a few others who leave little to the imagination. You will hear English, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, German and various dialects from all over the world. You will see the pierced and tattooed, the firm and fit, and the round and saggy. You will see people practicing yoga, circling up for Bible study, meditating and praying. You will see picnickers, nappers, sprinters, bikers and strollers. You will see African American and white members of the Houston Police Department working together and keeping a watchful eye over everyone.  And well, we are all there to enjoy God’s good creation. Visit that place, and pray that our world can look more and more like Memorial park.

Second, pray. I invite you to descend into your time of private prayer and ask two questions: “ What have I done or failed to do to love others ?” If your heart has not been shaped by God’s sacrificial love and you have thought unloving thoughts, pitched out unloving slurs or words or carried out unloving deeds, then confess and repent. Then ask, “ What can I do to more fully love others?” Don’t just cry out to God to wipe away your past misdeeds, but for His Spirit to fill you that you may be more loving –especially in times like these. Then don’t just pray it: do it.

I am asking these questions in my prayer time. Will you join me?

Several weeks after the death of President Bush, I was called for a visit with his Chief of Staff Jean Becker, who has become a good friend to the Levensons over the last 12 years. She gave me something that President and Mrs. Bush left behind for your rector: their personal Book of Common Prayer.

I use it often these days. It is quite an honor to have–not because it belonged to a political leader of a particular party or because it belonged to two people who always got it right (though I confess, I think they mostly did!) or because it belonged to a President. It is an honor to have it because it belonged to two people–people just like you and me–sinners in need of the redemptive love of Jesus Christ to heal our own wounds, but beyond our own, the wounds of the world. It belonged to two people who knew and believed in that redemptive love. It belonged to two people who prayed a lot. I can tell you that for a fact.

Toward that end, I borrow that book right now to share with you a prayer. You might want to print this out, cut it out and paste it somewhere you will see it day after day. It is a prayer worth committing, especially for these times.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bond of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen .”
Book of Common Prayer, p. 815

Now, my friends, I look forward to our worship together this Sunday in whatever form it takes, and, for the record, my intent is to preach the Gospel. Will you pray that I do so faithfully?

The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.

Episcopal Diocese of Texas Bishops’ Statement

Levenson: Where is Trump’s Allegiance to the Bible? By Russ Levenson
Houston Chronicle , January 15, 2016