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Faith and Values: The right thing to do can often be found at the intersection of alert and vigilant

Paul Graves has been writing the Faith and Values column for The Spokesman-Review for 25 years. He is photographed inside Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene on March 22.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

“Vigil” is a frequently used word these days. On Nov. 13, a vigil was held at the University of Idaho to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the horrific killings of four UI students in their Moscow apartment. Friends and family gathered in Moscow (and other Idaho colleges) to continue the grieving for lost friends and healing of aching hearts.

Vigils are being held regionally and all over the world to protest the horrific war in Israel. Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian advocates are demanding their people’s plights be heard. The general moral quicksand of war is being transformed every day through the power of vigils.

How can I talk about vigils in some helpful way? Maybe a 1970s-era greeting card offers a bit of comic perspective: “Be Alert. The world needs more lerts.”

The call to be alert is a call we need to listen for every day. We are called to be “vigilant.” How about “pay attention”? Stay awake, keep watch, open your eyes and your ears. However we say it, life calls us to not fall asleep on matters of great importance.

It is well past time that we dilute the power of distortion and disinformation with a stronger power. It’s the power to be a “lert,” a person who pays attention, who listens, who keeps watch, who opens ears and ears to be aware of what is happening. To know what can happen when we stop paying attention.

“Vigilance” is a spiritual virtue in every major world religion: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Bahai, Christianity and many others.

It lives in the ministry of Jesus, for sure. He calls his followers to have eyes that see and ears that hear (Mark 8:18). He calls his followers to “keep watch” (Matthew 26:41). Stay awake, folks, and act on your alertness.

In December 2019, Congressman John Lewis said this about the impeachment of Donald Trump: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something.”

The trick may be to actually see something that isn’t right, just, or fair. We fool ourselves too easily into seeing past those things. So being vigilant means to look in the just and fair direction, to clarify what is consistent with our personal and social values.

I’ve been reminded of vigilance’s importance by Steven Harper, a retired seminary professor who writes insightfully about vigilance in his blog “Oboedire.” Like Harper, I’m very concerned about the dangers to democracy in our country. Many choose to see these dangers. Many choose to not see these dangers. Yes, there’s more to being “a lert” than wide-open eyes and ears. Open minds and hearts are also needed.

Today’s danger? I see political leaders and ordinary citizens believe their versions of Christian nationalism should be the “law of the land.”

I see those same people wanting to restrict voting rights, reproductive rights and social rights. Authoritarian speech has incited violent actions. How can we stay vigilant and actively engaged? Vigilance must begin inside our spirits. Courageous self-examination of our motives, but also of our deeper strengths, is called for.

Being vigilant requires much of us, such as humility to admit when we might be wrong about certain things, and being willing to act in line with this wisdom attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

Vigilance transforms persons and society through acts of compassion and nonviolence. It’s an attitude and action of light and hope. Light subverts the darkness; hope subverts cruelty and hopelessness. So become a “lert.” Consider what it means to be vigilant.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at elderadvocates@nctv.com.

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