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Present and Future

An unlikely source of spiritual inspiration, we might assume, would be alumni magazines.  My immediate family of four has access to quite a few of them, since the four of us hold multiple degrees from various institutions of higher education.  The range is from smaller, college-related institutions to larger public research institutions.  Of course, there is a great deal of commonality to these magazines.  And there also are significant particularities because no institution is just like another.

I was reading a recent edition of a magazine and landed on the column written by the president.  I am sure it was the title that caught my attention: “An Invincible Spirit.”  I like Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, although I have never met her.  By training she is an historian.  So I was not too surprised to find the article made use of some history.  But the content was a surprise.

The article gave considerable attention to Harvard’s decision to reinstate ROTC.  Harvard had discontinued ROTC in those tumultuous Vietnam years.  I remember those years and the protests that accompanied them.  On so many campuses ROTC was a lightening rod for anti-war protests.  What I did not know is ROTC had begun on the country’s oldest college in 1916 as the US prepared for the possibility of entering WW I.  So nearly a century later, ROTC was to be reinstated.

I am not that interested in Harvard’s action.  I have no knowledge to have an opinion.  As a Quaker, I am a pacifist.  However, I do respect the men and women who serve in the military.  Even a pacifist has to agree we live in a world with too many problems and with too much violence.  How this is addressed and peace brought to our lives is a complex, crucial issue.

President Faust talked about walking around campus, visiting various buildings with the names of Harvard alums who had given their lives in defense of this country.  She singles out one name, Charles Russell Lowell, 1854 class valedictorian, who served and died in the bloody Civil War.  She cites his words, offered a decade before his service and sacrifice for the country.  Those were the words that I found inspiring.

Faust says that Lowell encourages his classmates “both to consider what should be and to imagine what can be.”  He continued with this amazing thought: “This uneasiness with the present married with an eagerness to shape the future” is the key attitude.  Realizing that I am lifting these ideas out of the discussion about ROTC, they do seem to me to offer a good way of seeing the role of the spiritual in our individual lives and in the peace-making life of communities and, perhaps, countries.

The first thing to note---and this is very obvious---is we only live in the present.  I can only have today.  Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet.  But it is also true that humans have the capacity to know time in many dimensions.  Even though I am living today, I can remember yesterday, I can know what I did and, even, what I regret not doing.  In the same way I can anticipate tomorrow.  Having this capacity with time is a blessing of being human.

Because we don’t live in a perfect world, all of us can understand life in the same way Lowell talked about it in his first sentence.  We are able to consider what should be.  And more importantly, we are able to imagine what can be.  Notice the two different verbs used in that articulation.  We are able to “consider.”  This means in the present I am able to consider---to think about and ponder---what should be.  We should be good; we should be loving.

And we are able to “imagine” what can be.  This is a future state.  I imagine tomorrow; yesterday is gone.  But without imagination tomorrow will be like today---or perhaps, worse!  This is where the second thought of Lowell impacts me.  I like that Lowell talks about the uneasiness with the present.  That does not mean the present is awful; clearly, there are some good things going on.  But the big picture does make me uneasy.

I am concerned with climate change.  I am concerned about terrorists---people who make meaning in life so radically different than people I know.  Terrorists thrive on violence; there is no future there.  So I am uneasy with the present.  But I am also eager to shape the future.  That is crucial to me.  I have grandkids who likely will live to see 2100!  We have to shape a future that is going to great possibilities.

The good news is this is exactly what I think God desires, too.  God desires to shape the future so there is peace and love, instead of violence and hate.  God desires people of all religious traditions---and no traditions---to learn to love and to create communities of mutual care.  If we don’t do that, we have chaos and communal destruction.  It’s a spiritual work we have to do: create a future befitting a kingdom.

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