Photo by Aaron Ang on Unsplash

Make America ‘good’ again

By the Rev. John Zehring

I had the opportunity to share lunch with a man who was renowned. A major city newspaper featured a front-page story about him. A Renaissance man, he had a play running in New York City and a musical playing in Europe. He had CDs of his music, a book by Harvard University Press, two doctorate degrees, walls of awards and shelves of recognition.

During lunch at a Chinese restaurant, I was curious and asked him: “What do you want your legacy to be? In light of all your achievements, for what do you want to be known? How do you want to be remembered?” I will never forget his answer. It changed me. He said, “I just want to be a good person.” At first that sounded underwhelming. As I thought about it, I realized how profound it was. What if everyone just wanted to be a good person? That goal could shape our lives and our world.
Goodness is one of the Apostle Paul’s fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is translated as generosity in the Bible’s New Revised Standard Version, which makes sense because good people are generous people who give of themselves to the world. Paul’s point is that, when we desire God’s spirit to dwell within us, it changes what we want. It changes our goals. When God’s spirit is invited in and treated as an honored guest, it changes us to want to be a good person.
A particular scenario and related quotation are sometimes attributed to French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. It is said that he was curious about what made America tick and made it a great nation. Legend has it that he considered America’s harbors and fields, its vast world commerce, public school system, institutions of higher education and even its democratic Congress. Often credited to him is this conclusion: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Maybe the logo on our red ball caps should read “Make America Good Again.”
A warmly personal psalm that speaks about a follower’s relationship with the shepherd, Psalm 23 concludes with the verse “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” Consider for a moment the meaning of follow me. Perhaps a deeper meaning is found in the words. What follows you? The waves that follow a boat are known as a wake. People speak of being “left in the wake.” The wake of a boat can extend for miles behind and fans out to the sides. Look down from the airplane view and you can hardly see the boat traversing, but you can spot the long and wide wake following.
What if this phrase could also mean that we leave goodness and mercy behind us in our wake? When the Lord is your shepherd, being a good person and giving grace to others flows out of you and trails behind in your wake wherever you encounter people. Now the emphasis is not so much on what you get from the Shepherd. Now the emphasis is on how you radiate as a candlepower of one when God’s inner light dwells in. That changes your life goal and inspires you to “just want to be a good person.”
 May God grant that we desire to be good people and a good nation.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Beyond Stewardship: A Church Guide to Generous Giving Campaigns.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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