“Leave the world a little bit better than you found it,” is an aphorism that has inspired millions throughout the generations. I do not know if, in general, the world is a better place than it was ten or twenty or fifty years ago. Some things, I am convinced, are better than they were in the days of my childhood, youth and younger adult years.
On the first day of May in decades past, we could expect the evening news to show footage captured earlier in Moscow as the Soviet Union’s communist party leaders paraded some of their missiles, a stark reminder that the USSR and USA held one another in the nuclear gun sights, and the fingers were squeezing the hair-triggers of Armageddon. While wars and violence are waged widely in today’s world, we have taken a step back from the precipice of MAD-ness represented by policies of “mutually assured destruction,” a euphemism used to describe all-out nuclear war, where any survivors would likely envy the hundreds of millions whose futures were annihilated instantaneously.
In a smaller sphere of influence, quite removed it would appear from the macro-scale of global geopolitical seismic shifts, our local May Day here on campus this year left me quite convinced that some other things are better than they were 500 or even fifty years ago. Among the developments I have witnessed first-hand in my lifetime, is a slow but unmistakable (and I hope irreversible) drawing closer to other Christians by a majority of the world’s Lutherans. Mutual declarations of “full communion” status with multiple other churches over the past fifteen years have been signs of hope and give confidence that we are serious about striving for Jesus’ vision that we might all be one. Another kind of ecumenical rapprochement has involved formal declarations of repentance and forgiveness on the part of churches, which in previous times were marked by one-sided or mutual condemnations and even persecutions. This latter type of reconciliation became palpable here in our chapel on May Day 2011.
An intense weekend on Seminary Ridge included Friday and Saturday overnight encampments of both Union and Confederate re-enactors, who waged a replicated first day of the 1863 battle of Gettysburg complete with cannonades, the sounds of which simply must be experienced to be understood. Some might wonder how an institution dedicated to the Prince of Peace can allow such mockup militaristic reenactments to occur. Our purpose in so allowing is twofold: (1) To help us all better come to terms with the history that happened here on Seminary Ridge, in greater Gettysburg and the entire Civil War; and (2) To bear public witness to the hope that the Civil War’s ultimate result—the abolition of slavery and preservation of a “United” States of America—now is followed by an ongoing societal transformation, which results ingreater justice for and a higher degree of harmony among God’s beloved people in this nation and all over the world.
While the crowds that came to watch the battle reenactment were estimated to number in the thousands, only a few dozen gathered in the Church of the Abiding Presence on May Day afternoon for a service of “Repentance, Reconciliation and Renewal.” This ecumenical service, planned by a number of our Seminary community folks and leaders of the so-called “Anabaptist” Christian traditions—namely, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren—mirrored similar worship moments held in international gatherings over the past two years. Seminary participants in last summer’s General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, Dean Steinke, Prof. Erling and Pr. Spangler—each offered moving testimonies of what they experienced in Stuttgart, Germany as the global Lutheran communion offered an official apology for persecutions and condemnations perpetrated against Anabaptists in the 16th and ensuing centuries.
Just as intemperate Lutheran rhetoric lent credence to outrageous Nazi horrors, so Reformation-time Lutheran declarations, including in the Book of Concord, offered cover for those who made martyrs out of Anabaptists, whose only crime was their unwavering commitment to the Prince of Peace. In addition to Lutheran voices at the May Day service, representatives of the other churches spoke movingly in a spirit of true reconciliation. For me, the service culminated with the anointing of hands as a symbol of healing, togetherness and reconciliation. All who went forward received a tender touch as soothing oil was gently applied to hands that soon thereafter were extended to others as the Peace was shared all around.
As this poignant weekend full of so many sights, smells and symbols was ending Sunday evening, I reflected back on the two prior nights, when at sundown the haunting refrains of “Taps” echoed across campus. As with most things of iconic significance, there are several stories of how this famous brief melody became the official “lights out” signal during the Civil War, and was soon adopted as standard fare at military funerals. Likewise, there are various versions of lyrics for Taps, but the one afforded official status includes the lines that follow, which seem a fitting conclusion for one May Day weekend that by this participant, and I suspect many others, will not soon be forgotten:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is near.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is near.