He didn’t curse. He was known for his patience. But on this occasion when we were in the “workshop” and he was trying to fix something, his frustration came out with a “Damn it!” As soon as the phrase escaped his lips, he raised his eyes to meet the gaze of his young son. “I’m sorry, Mark,” he said. And I never heard him use that phrase again. I think I can say that my father was at his best at home – or at least, he was on his best behavior. I think it is also safe to say that, for the most part, his behavior was consistent whether he was in a social, business, church or domestic environment; but I would wager that, knowing his wife lurked lovingly close by, hovering protectively over her children, his best behavior was at home.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama posed “Four Big Questions” which he believed we have to face as a nation. One of them was this: “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
“Church,” writes United Methodist Clergywoman Ruth Marston, “was the place where I was my best self, outgoing instead of shy, generous and patient.” The environment that called forth her “best self” in her youth was instrumental in her discerning her call into ordained ministry.
Church doesn’t always result in our “best”. Four walls, pews, a cross and a steeple are no guarantee that love, forgiveness, patience, gentleness will win the day. In fact, it seems as if the lobbyist-filled halls of Congress have nothing on the hypocrite-filled pews of Church when it comes to bringing out the worst in us.
The “State of the Union” message that was delivered on Tuesday night is a menu of what is, according to some, the “best” about America:
- The “strongest and most durable economy in the world”.
- “The spirit of discovery is in our DNA.”
- “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period.”
- “The future we want, all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach.”
But the question that the president asked betrays the truth that our best is not what is currently on display. And it doesn’t matter which volume of Church History we have in hand; we don’t have to dig deep to find our worst. It starts with the disciples of Jesus bickering over who was greatest and continues on through the Christian testament with “quarrels and divisions” happening in church meetings.
Where are you “at your best”? What is the environment or context that elicits the very best from you? Politics are like spirituality in that both require discipline and honest self-reflection in order for us to step toward the better solutions, the more faithful policies, the more peaceful lives.
And then, there is always that dilemma where we find ourselves struggling with whether it is time to settle for the “alright” and let go of the vision or hope for the “best”.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for naysayers and cynics to criticize any hope for the best. Even so, the State of the Union address concluded with a nod to dreamers, a word of thanks to the unnamed who sacrifice at work or in our military, a “shout-out” to the voices who keep the vision of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. alive and strong. It’s interesting that St. Paul intermingles words of frustration with expressions of gratitude. I give thanks always to my God for you because of the grace God has given you,” he writes to the Christians in Corinth – just before he scolds them for their divisive ways. They were the best and the worst; and he didn’t mince his words – either of praise or criticism.
That’s us, isn’t it? As a nation, or as a people of faith; whether in the work place or sitting at our home’s hearth, whether kneeling at the altar or serving the homeless – we are, to paraphrase Dickens, “the best of people, the worst of people”. And it is all happening right here, right now. Let’s not despair; but let’s not get too cocky. And let’s remember that the folks we encounter every day – most of them are doing the best they can. Let’s do the same.