On Sunday July 3, 2016, President Brenneman spoke at Chautauqua-by-the Sea Temple in Ocean Park, Maine. He also led an interactive class on Tuesday, July 5, entitled, “Lincoln’s Understanding of God’s Will, Scripture and Human Responsibility.”
“With Malice toward None and Charity toward All”: Drawing Wide Our Circles
Psalm 36:510; Rom. 8:3839; Mark 12:2834; Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address
Let me begin today by thanking our dear friends Drs. Amy and Brad Smith for introducing Terri and me (and our son Quinn) to Chautauquabythe Sea at Ocean Park many years ago. We discovered then what a truly wonderful corner of God’s universe this place is, including its legendary cinnamon rolls. Thanks also to Jerry Gosselin and the Association for inviting me to speak with you this morning. Thank you all for your warm hospitality.
Today, on the eve of celebrating the 240 the birthday of our nation, and Canada Day, two days ago, I’d like to offer reflections about circledrawing, God’s infinite love, Abraham Lincoln, and our response as citizens of our respective countries and citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth.
First, let’s consider the art of drawing circles.
Have you ever sat by a pond just as a few rain drops started to fall? There before our eyes we watch nature draw near perfect circles, rings rippling out from the center of the drop. (Example)
From Apelles to Rembrandt to Picasso, it’s been argued that no human is capable of drawing a perfect circle, freehand. Rembrandt painted a selfportrait with him holding his brush standing between two circles in humble recognition of his limits as an artist. There are some examples on YouTube of people drawing near perfect circles, but they always use their shoulder or elbow or wrist bone or a finger joint as the center of a compass to do so. (Example)
Nature needs no practice, no pen and ink, and no compass to create beautiful circles: Saturn’s rings, the crosssection of a tree, the pupil of the human eye, the arc of a rainbow, the sundisk rising each morning, setting each night.
There’s something magical about the circle. As we know, a circle is a line with no beginning and no end, no corners, a perfect symmetrical geometric pattern. The ancients came to understand the circle as a symbol of totality, oneness, original perfection, eternity, timelessness, wholeness a symbol of God!
It’s this expansive image of the circle, the symbol for God, for God’s everpresence and God’s unlimited infinite love, that I hope will be our focus this morning.
The Psalmist 36:510 speaks to this comprehensive, allinclusive, ever present nature of God and God’s love. Note the Psalmist does not say, “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends only to the door of the temple; only to my house; only to our denomination; only as far as our particular national borders; only to the human species; only this far and no more.
No! The Psalmist audaciously, even scandalously, proclaims, “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. . . you save humans and animals alike. . .all people take refuge in the shadow of your wings. . .” And this is the socalled Old! Testament, folks.
We remember elsewhere in the Psalms (139) where this amazing claim is radically extended there is absolutely no place on earth or in heaven (or in hell) where you and I can go and God’s presence is not there already. The prophet Isaiah agrees (6:3): “the whole earth is filled with God’s presence.”
And finally, in the Newer Testament, the Apostle Paul does a midrash on his understanding of this Older Testament tradition and reiterates in Rom. 8:3839: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In other words, God is everpresent and God’s love is allencompassing.
Empedocles, the ancient Greek philosopher, and later St. Augustine, then Pascal and the Jewish mystics (Kabbalists) all borrowing from Empdocles, imagine God and God’s love as “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
But here then is the rub. We humans, being human are unable to master God’s finger painting circles in nature. We are unable to draw a circle so vast and inclusive, whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere. And so, since the beginning of time, we have drawn pale images of the gigantic sundisk on our cave walls, feeble mooncircles in our temples, mandalas in the sand all efforts to symbolize God’s presence with us.
The irony of drawing such sacred circles to express divine presence, perfection, and love by definition means that those very circles are also depictions of limits, boundaries, borders, partitions marking the inside from the outside. And inevitably what was meant to be a symbol of God’s infinite allencompassing love become containers of love for those of us inside the circles whose circumference is designed by us.
We humans may not be all that good at drawing circles by hand, but we’ve become very good at drawing circles of the heart. We’re also pretty good at drawing social circles by class, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, political parties, national and denominational identities to name a few.
We seem to have drawn so many circles within circles and circles overlapping other circles that keeping up with our reallife Venndiagrams can be downright confusing. Exactly what little sliver of overlapping circles can now be called common ground? Still worse, we artificially gerrymander our circles so that fewer and fewer overlap at all. What a mess.
How is this possible, for Christian people of all believers, to draw ever smaller circles of belief and belonging when our biblical writers have given us such a wonderfully, allinclusive vision of God and God’s love. How have we allowed ourselves to become so divided as Christian believers, as fellow citizens of our earthly and heavenly kingdoms?
The ancient rabbis, in reading Psalm 36, and also Ps 139, tell a story (midrash) that captures the paradox of our apparent need to draw ever smaller circles in contrast to the actual circle of God’s infinite limitless loving presence.
Once there was a woman* named Honi, who wasn’t particularly good at anything really. She tried cooking. Oy vey. Burnt everything. She tried weaving beautiful clothes and got caught in the loom. She tried to start a laundrybusiness. It went bankrupt. She tried her hand at figure drawing and painting, but could not draw a thing. Except. She could draw circles. She lamented and belittled herself that that was all she was good at: “drawing circles.” Folks made fun of her lack of talent; “Crazy Honi the Drawer of Circles,” they teased. [*For this midrashic account, see, Kushner, Honey From the Rock, 1990:49; Honi was a man in the original; in true midrashic fashion, I also embellish the story a bit.]
Well the craziest things began to happen. Every time she drew a circle in the sand and stood in it, all distractions ceased. She could stand there for hours. And every time, or so the Rabbis said, “the Holy One, blessed be Hashem (the Name), would come out of hiding and enter Honi’s small circumscribed world to meet her there.”
I love this midrash of Psalm 36/139 (Rom. 8). No matter Honi’s giftedness or not, no matter our need for drawing circles for whatever reason or not, even when we draw our circles too small or for all the wrong reasons, we are left with the deeper truth that says, If God’s presence is everywhere and God’s love is all around and in between “then there must be door knobs and entryways into our circle(s) for the Holy One, Blessed be Hashem, to enter.” With God, all circles are permeable.
So what can we learn from Honi, the Crazy Drawer of Circles, and from our chosen Scripture texts? Let me suggest two lessons, one for us personally and one for us as citizens of this nation, whose birth we will celebrate tomorrow.
First, to each one of us, personally. No one would suggest that drawing appropriate circles, setting good personal and psychological boundaries, is not a healthy thing to do for good personal selfcare and individual protection.
However, sometimes we draw too small of circles that stifle our imaginations or squash our flexibility to dream big thoughts about ourselves and others. Sometimes we draw not just one circle of protection around us, but two, three, four and more circles that ripple out from us because of past bad experiences, or bitterness, or pain or sickness or, above, all FEAR.
In all cases of drawing such circles around us personally, for reasons healthy or not, the story of Honi, the lessons of the Psalms (Romans) tell us that the circle of God’s presence and love is a circle without a center, whose circumference is nowhere its high and deep and far and wide, so that inside and outside our many and varied circles, we can be assured that God is with us and God’s steadfast (gracious) love embraces every single, unique, individual each one of us. Period.
Now, let me move from the personal individual focus and draw our attention to an alarming trend in our national mood. We seem to be pulling back from the generous welcoming “better angels of our nature” (Lincoln’s first inaugural address). We seem to be allowing fear to diminish one of the greatest experiments of democracy of all time: one nation under a God whose love is boundless, borderless, and a blessing to all.
I have no doubt that healthy nations and denominations need to draw circles of identity, distinction, doctrine, belief, and belonging borders and boundaries, if you will.
But I also know that, if the Psalmist and St. Paul are right about how inclusive, allembracing, and everpresent, the steadfast love of God is for all of creation, human and nonhuman, for the whole universe of heavens and earths, then is it not imperative that we too should try as best we can to draw circles of love and inclusion that approximate the circle of God’s love, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere?
In point of fact, this can never ultimately happen. We are human, not God. But isn’t it at least worth a try?
We know from our own history as a nation, there was, indeed, a time in our national past where we came extremely close to dividing ourselves in two two separate, exclusive circles, two nations, North and South, family against family, enslaved against enslavers. Into this cauldron of hate, division, fear, arose one of our country’s greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, whose vision of one nation under God would not be abridged.
So much could be said here about the Solomonic wisdom of Lincoln, unwilling to divide the young nation into two halves no matter what, even if it meant engaging a bloody war to prevent it. Time does not allow us to exegete the difficult terrain of those tumultuous years.
I do appreciate the fact that Lincoln loved geometry. He nearly memorized by heart the first six books of Euclid’s Elements. In reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, I discovered that Lincoln spent days trying to solve the age old mathematical problem first proposed by Euclid of ‘squaring the circle.’ He finally gave up, not yet knowing, of course, that the discovery of Pi as a transcendental number was still two decades away and so was the proof that it was impossible to even square the circle. I like to think, Lincoln would appreciate my application of his vision of our national union as being circlelike. I like to think, Lincoln would appreciate the idea that God’s love is like that of a supercalifragilisticexpialidociously grand and generous circle of belonging; a national circle that cannot be squared.
In his second inaugural address, one month before the end of the civil war, and one month and ten days before his assassination, Lincoln boldly invited a divided nation to reconsider the vision of becoming singularly, one nation, under God, and indivisible with liberty and justice for all. He knew it would require extraordinary acts of forgiveness, care, and reconciliation to do so.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Second Inaugural Address
Lincoln’s vision of a just and lasting peace was that of a generous everwidening circle of God’s steadfast love. For Lincoln, our national confession E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, ONE” people under a loving God meant we would, more often than not, need to be a reconciling generous people, where even enemies could be won over. Sounding very Christ like, Lincoln once asked his team of rivals, “Do I not destroy my enemies best, by making them my friends?”
For Lincoln, all the possible concentric circles barring others from entering our union, all the walls we’d like to build between us and others notlikeus, all our drawings of ever teensier circles of difference and exclusion, were an aberration, a betrayal of the American soul.
Any sociologist or anthropologist can tell us, that drawing concentric circles around any group of people, can make it difficult to get into such a group from the outside in. In Jesus’ day, his believing community had 613 laws (concentric circles forming a “hedge” of belief and practice) around them. Jesus argued that all of those 613 circles could be reduced to two: 1) God is One, so Love God and 2) Love Others. Period.
Even the seven articles and 27 amendments of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, as profoundly significant as they are to our national identity, are themselves more restrictive even than the two article confessional creed of Jesus.
So as we celebrate the birth of our nation tomorrow and in the days to come, let us pray and work, work and pray, so that most of the circles we draw are generously welcome. Let us pray and work until our circles mostly include as varied and wonderfully diverse creatures as our Creator has created. Let us draw more and more circles that testify to God’s steadfast love whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere because God’s love knows no bounds, God’s presence has no limits.
The circular architecture of the Ocean Park Temple in which we meet today, beautifully approximates the wondrously wide circle of a loving God drawing you here from all over the U.S. and Canada and places in between year after year for some 136 years and counting. Keep the faith.
In conclusion, I leave you with a poetic stanza by Edwin Markham, often called the poet of democracy, from his poem “Outwitted” Though applied to drawing national boundaries, Markham’s poem can also affirm the extent of God’s steadfast love for we, Drawers of Circles, all:
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
She drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took her in!
They drew a circle that shut us out
Heretics, rebels, things to flout.
But love and we had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took them in!