Waxing nostalgic recently, I found myself reminiscing on the plight of the Sweathogs of “Welcome Back, Kotter” fame. James Buchanan High, a racially and ethnically diverse high school, provided the mid-70’s setting for this comedic routine. In the classroom, Mr. Gabe Kotter strove to mold the impressionable lives of those under his inspired, if not hilarious, tutelage.
Taking some pages out of Mr. Kaplan’s actual years of growing up, the scene for the television series was Brooklyn, New York. Kotter, himself once a Sweathog, returns as an alum to befriend and stimulate the potential of this unique collection of remedial students, or as some opined, unteachable loafers.
Among the eclectic band was the quirky class-clown known as Arnold Horshack, the hip and athletic Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington and the alleged leader of the gang, the rather cocky heartthrob, Vinnie Barbarino. Never personally described as the “sharpest pencil in the drawer,” I felt a particular kinship with the endearing Vincent.
More than a few quotables came from Barbarino’s lips, but none more memorable than his dumbfounded and innocently quizzical response of “What? Where?” followed by a rather exasperated expression of “I’m so confused!” At that delightful instance, Vinnie would cup his hands and place his face in them, resonating with any viewer his plight of incomprehension over the matters at hand.
To be sure, I will not claim notoriety for being the first to say any of those words as I wrestle over the troubling landscape of our country these days. In solidarity with Vinnie and the gang, however, I too am often confused!
What’s more, I sadly yet frequently come to points of befuddled exasperation as I survey all that’s going on and, in turn, beg the question, “What?” which is often accompanied by “Where?”
Grammatically improbably as it may be, I’m even inclined to add the question, “Wear?” After all, who among us hasn’t pondered the variable perplexity of “to wear a mask or not to wear a mask.” That is the question!
To that, who doesn’t try and stabilize the moving target of gathering in a public place, or keeping our metered and measured distance, or joining in a long-distance teleconference. That, too, is the question!
Caught in the relative quagmire of how to do worship these days, faith communities as ours are fluidly engaged in debate over choosing to stream worship, to do it in the parking lot or to have it in-person with social distancing and sans-singing. Along with each accompanying sanitized list, that also is the question!
Almost to add the insult to the injurious time we are enduring under this pandemic, I can hardly imagine a soul who wasn’t agonizingly outraged by the insidious murder of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Who didn’t demand answers to “What?” and “Where?” when the shocking news and video surfaced?
In the continuing aftermath of that indifference to a precious human life, who doesn’t lie awake at night tortured by the accompanying indiscriminate indifference on display among the vengeful which include random acts of violence, rioting, looting and toppled statues and monuments. The initially justified animus is being fueled almost incessantly by what comes across as nothing short of a merciless and mindless mob mentality.
Who isn’t confused regarding the urgent need for a greater measure of our peaceful and just coexistence in this country being somehow remedied by vigilante crowds destroying property and business alike? In my own quandary, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t creating a broadening void between any who might venture to a negotiating table of repentance, reconciliation and genuine love for the neighbor.
Sometimes I can even be found needing to place my face into cupped hands to weep solemnly and soberly over the bricks that many choose to throw. These are nothing like the bricks historically torn down from divisive walls that were erected a result of an errant past. I’m confused as they appear more like stones that seem to accumulate and await some nearby mortar to construct a more entrenched wall rather than bridge to greater justice and harmony.
More than empty speech, I am humbly striving to, along with our Creator, value and honor the dignity and worth of every human being. Yet, to speak of embracing a stance where each unique life matters, confused, I can be looked upon with disdain for allegedly taking sides and discounting a populous.
Still, amidst all these questions, there remain a number of matters I do not query. While divergent opinions rage over “who” matters, I am thoroughly convinced of “what,” in fact matters. Survey the scriptures if you will, and you’ll find that, at least by numerical frequency, what unquestionably matters to God are the immutable pillars of both love and justice.
The wise gentleman who pronounced that provocative insight encouraged all to uniformly dedicate themselves to those which matter to God.
He then, timely given these conflicted days of uncertainty, heralded another invitation which may be most urgent of our embrace. Finally, he uttered, “God has a plan for a better world! We are the plan, and God has no other plan!”
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org