On Frothing, Retribution, and Our Better Nature

MaryOliverThePoetCompares

I like to start each morning and end each day with a spot of wisdom or poetry. I cannot consume massive tomes to ruminate or meditate on all day or night long, so pieces like the poem above are perfect. They impart deep meaning or ask thoughtful questions that leave me appropriately pondering the stuff that matters–even when my answers fall short.

I posted the above poem on Instagram with the following caption: “When will we choose our better nature? Why are we so quick to do craziness, toss havoc, froth, and withhold?”

In the current cultural climate, these are apt questions. Yet, I cannot seem to find satisfactory answers. I am not innocent of these crimes against my better nature. I, too, froth. I, too, do craziness. I, too, have withheld and tossed havoc. I try to be gentle, but I also attempt, at least, not to mince words. What I say may not always be popular, but I genuinely work to use my words–written or spoken–to foster and spread love, kindness, hope, and faith.

Sometimes that means making unpopular appeals or saying the “wrong” thing. If it appears I am tossing havoc or trying to provoke, it may be true, but it comes from a desire to teach. If it seems I seek to “stir it up,” I do not do so in vain. I do it to teach, provoke thought, and appeal to our better nature.

So when I look around at our world and the chaos that has occurred among various populations in these recent months, I wonder. I wonder if the masses are capable of finding their better nature, or if they are so blinded by pain, fear, and hate that they cannot see clear to it.

When one of my children hits his brother, I don’t tell him to hit back.  Jesus of Nazareth specifically admonishes retributive behavior, instructing, rather, that when we are struck on one cheek, we should “turn the other.” If it isn’t appropriate for the disciples and isn’t something we teach our children to do, why then, do we think retribution is appropriate conflict resolution for twenty-first century adults?

It’s strange to see among a certain contingent of American Christians who espouse the virtues of God’s salvation, forgiveness, and grace–who claim to follow Christ with questions of WWJD, who shout about religious freedom even if it denies basic rights to others–a deep-seeded strain of angry rhetoric that overrides common decency and the Biblical commands of love and hospitality. It’s a constant refrain that President Obama is somehow unamerican or that all of Islam is in somehow extremist, terroristic, or incompatible with American values. Yet, if I’m being honest, I can’t think of anything less compatible with the idea of the American “melting-pot” than excluding people solely on the basis of their religious beliefs or ethnicity. We excoriate the horrors committed by those who excluded and then committed genocide against the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and others in WWII, but refuse to acknowledge the genocides and exclusions committed in our own country against Native Americans, Africans, and even Japanese-Americans during the same time in history. Somehow that’s different. Our intentions were good. We had to protect the homeland. It was about national security.

But there’s a reason we don’t talk about these attitudes, behaviors, and injustices: it’s a national embarrassment. It’s a dark stain on our shared history. It’s a shameful memory of time we hope is long past. Textbooks are attempting to white-wash over these stains by leaving them out or painting them with rosier language. But the truth cannot be painted over. In 70 years, when we look back on the national sentiment in 2015, will we be proud or ashamed? If you are called one day before God to account for this time in your life, will your words, attitudes, and behaviors bring God joy or sorrow? 

I said during the gay marriage debate that if my greatest sin is that I loved and accepted too many, I feel comfortable standing before God with that track record. When I read the gospels, the biggest lesson I take away is the unparalleled love and compassion of Christ. Yes, he admonished sin, but he did not withhold mercy based on the worthiness of the person suffering. He helped the poor people of his own ethnic background as freely as he did the foreigner. He told his disciples to put down their swords when the authorities came to arrest and crucify him saying that his kingdom is not of this world.

We are so quick to point out the parts of the scriptures that agree with our worldview, even using it to exclude the other. We are slow to accept the literal words and overarching message of Christ: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

If we’re going to brag about God’s grace, expounding on how freely it has been given to us even though we are “worthless sinners,” then we ought to at least extend that same grace to our fellow human beings whether we see them as “worthy” or not.

Would that we all would pay less attention to the worthiness of others, and more attention to climbing down to the level of “the least of these,” returning grace for grace. Not because it is popular, but because it is just.

If my legacy to my children is one of not just tolerance, but of genuine hospitality and acceptance, then that’s a legacy I can live with. If my faith and ministry is controversial for the wideness of its love and the scope of its mercy, it is one I am grateful to offer in service of God and my fellow human beings. If I can impart even a small percentage of the love of Christ, helping to bring this world a little closer to the kingdom of God, then I will feel I have served some purpose.

Whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Agnostic, American, European, African, Asian, Male, Female, Transgender, Intersex, Conservative, Liberal, Moderate, White, Black, Green, or Purple: I invite you. I love you. Join me, won’t you?

 

 

On Grief, The Whys, And Being Helpers.

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Last Sunday, November 15, 2015, I preached the following sermon at my church. It was my fourth sermon and one that I am immensely grateful to have preached. I am sharing it here in the hopes that even one person who wasn’t able to be present in the sanctuary that day may find some hope in these words. We live in difficult times, but they we must remember that we need not be without the possibility of joy, of hope, and of love. (For reference, the two lessons read from the lectionary that day were 1 Sam 1:4-20 and Mark 13:1-8):

 

My first semester of seminary, I had a professor who reminded us frequently that God meets us where we are. I have always genuinely believed that. God meets us in the depths of our despair and the heights of our joy. God is present with us here, as we gather together in this place of worship, and as we labor alone in our work. Writer Anne Lamott put this a funny way when she said, “ ‘Help’ is a prayer that is always answered. It does not matter how you pray—with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago, I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’”

And because God meets us where we are, we know that God is with us even amidst the worst that happens in the world around us—in our communities and across the globe. It was devastating to listen to the news reports about the destruction and violence in Paris, a city I visited while we were stationed in Germany, my favorite of all the cities I have ever visited. I prayed for the people of France and for all those affected by the violence, but my words felt insufficient.

Then I read about the horrors occurring in Lebanon and Iraq and the worries Japan faces over the earthquake and tsunami warning and I was nearly overcome. SO much destruction. So much grief. So many lost and many more left feeling without hope.

I thought about the Gospel message for this week, about Jesus sitting with his disciples who were so concerned with the coming devastation of the temple that they couldn’t see beyond it. They seemed only to consider the immediacy of the things that were to come in that day and age, unwilling to hear the rest of Christ’s message that these things were but the beginning and they were ONLY birth pangs, not the sum total and end result. God’s grace in and through the world and our continuing participation in that work brings about restoration after such horrors as the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and the violent attacks around the world Friday. I’ll admit that this passage from Mark 13 is uncomfortable for me to speak on because I do not care to dwell on destruction, death, or apocalyptic messages. I have had lupus for nearly 19 years and have worked really hard to keep my focus on the joy of life and move past my suffering. I prefer to speak of God’s love and restorative grace, and focus on modeling Christ’s greatest commands. Yet Jesus did address these things. They are included in our scriptures, so we must deal with them.

God calls us to live our abiding faith in all our moments—those that are joyous and those that cause us grief. I see that abiding faith in the way this congregation gathers each Sunday. We are literally small in number but have such a profound belief and commitment to the love of Christ that we show up week after week in service to God and humanity. And it isn’t just here at Faith UCC. People of abiding faith are able to find ways of moving through darkness to light, from alienation to community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, and from fear to assurance. With our abiding faith, we find our way to salvation through God’s grace. We demonstrate that faith through ritual and prayer, but we don’t only bring our prayers of petition to God, we bring our prayers of gratitude and joy for what God is doing in this world around and through us. And when we praise God in our joys and in our sorrows, we are practicing what Bruce Birch calls “the giving back of grace.”

Whenever we are authentic and genuine in our prayers to God, whenever we are faithful and trusting, God hears and, in some way, responds to our prayer. And so now, as we think back to our passage from 1 Samuel, we see that Hannah innately knows this. She enters the temple, and in her confidence strides right past Eli the priest to bring her prayers directly to God. In those days, this was a bold act—do circumvent the priest and speak directly to God, especially for a woman, but it is her abiding faith that almost requires that she do that. The prayer Hannah utters is raw in its emotion and desperate in its cry to Heaven to answer the deepest longing of her soul. Not just to satisfy some cultural expectation that a woman should bear children, but also because Hannah confidently believes that her trust in the Lord will bear fruit. Even Eli, who first assumes she’s drunk and making a spectacle of herself, eventually sees that she is genuinely pouring out her soul before God—at that moment, he seems confident that this woman’s prayer will be heard.

And it is, isn’t it? Hannah leaves the holy place and goes forward not to letting her depression overtake her. The scriptures say that when she returns to her husband, “her countenance,” which had been so consumed with distress over the matter of children, “is sad no longer.” In time, she conceives of Samuel, raises and weans him, and then takes him to be in the service of God. She doesn’t know that when she fulfills her vow and gives up her most auspicious blessing that grace will return to her, but it does. This once barren woman has five more children and her firstborn goes on to usher the people out of the violent age of the judges and into the age of kings—one of which, we believe, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ, himself.

In Hannah’s story, we witness that long-running thread that weaves its way through Scripture: that idea that God seeks out the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s curious, isn’t it, that Hannah’s faith was audacious enough to believe that the God of all creation might have any interest in the hopes and prayers of a lowly, barren woman. How moving that in all her brokenness, she takes her abiding faith, that loving, confident faith and walks it right up to God and says, “Here God, here is the deepest longing of my heart. And if you grant me this blessing through your grace, I will return it to you.” And God answers that prayer, trusting in Hannah, too, that this outsider, this “little one” will be true to her word. It is not from political power or some form of earthly strength that the monarchy is ushered in. Instead, it is born of humility and the audacity of hope, faith, and connection with God. How wonderful it is to know that humility is not just part of an oft-quoted verse in Micah and something to be bragged about, but an actual means through which we might bear witness to the beautiful things God brings into our world. And how magnificent that we witness the fullness of God’s love even and especially through the broken, the poor, and the most desperate souls among us.

And so, when we think of “the least of these,” suffering in the aftermath of Friday’s devastation, let us remember Hannah and all those God will work through for good. Too often in this world, and especially in the Christian subculture, the focus turns toward apocalyptic messages. It seems like every time there is a disaster, natural or man-made, self-appointed prophets will prophesy the coming of “last days” and the end of the world. I’m reminded of a particularly prescient line from one of my favorite shows, Angel, where after a painful experience a character new to the world called Illyria says, “We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?” And the usually somewhat morose Wesley replies, “There’s love. There’s hope – for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy. That your life will lead you to some joy. That after everything, you can still be surprised.”

We can get so consumed by the destruction, death, and disease, that we forget that even in the midst of those horrors is God and the certainty of God’s blessing. I look around now at my social media newsfeed and listen to the conversations around me, and I’m surprised by the blessings that abide even still. I see it in the Parisians who flooded the streets just hours after the horrific attacks crying out in their grief, their determination, and in their defiance, lighting candles and raising a sign that said “NOT AFRAID.”

Why do bad things happen? I’d like to have an answer for you. I’d like to tell you that some philosophical or theological explanation has somehow satisfactorily answered the question of suffering and pain for me. But the truth is that I haven’t found one. I just don’t know. But maybe the whys aren’t as important as what we DO in the aftermath. And I don’t mean going out and exacting some retributive justice—we are not called to do that. We are called to love and pray for our neighbors and for our enemies. What I mean is that when we see people suffering and in pain, perhaps more important than the WHYS are the WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOUs. And WHERE DO WE GO FROM HEREs. When we meet people in their lowest moments, the whys don’t matter. But we make a difference in how we approach others and how we help them in their times of sorrow and grief. Not with answers, but with care. Not with platitudes, but with love. By meeting basic needs or by sitting with them in silence.

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Now my kids watch Daniel Tiger, a cartoon spin-off of the beloved classic from my early youth. My favorite quote from Fred Rogers is this, When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” And that is what we are called to do now.

When we are tempted to let the horrors of this world overwhelm us and deny us the joy of each and every day, we need to rebel. We grieve, but even in our grief, we know that our eyes cannot be trained on the devastation and the ones who destroy, but rather on the one who brings us such blessings. There will not be a time in this age where things will be without the possibility of falling apart, but we are called to continue moving forward, striving each day to do our faithful work, to pray our faithful prayers, and to love with the faithful certainty that God is with us, God is among us, God is within us all. So let us move forward into this uncertain week in the world, let us continue to boldly proclaim the love of Christ, let us praise God even in our grief, returning grace for grace. Let us be the helpers. Amen.

 

Grace and peace.

Look Beyond Another’s “Cover”

One of many emotional scenes on The Walking Dead this season.

Recently, I read an article at CNN.com about “The Walking Dead,” in which Forbes was quotes as saying “‘The Walking Dead’ has officially made the zombie genre emotional.” This comment, while seemingly innocuous, got me thinking. For a long time, I have enjoyed shows, books, and movies that are judged (unfairly) as weird, wrong, or somehow lesser because they are a part of a genre that mainstream folks do not understand. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Walking Dead,” people always find it strange that I find such value and meaning in shows with such absurd premises and silly titles. The Walking Dead is, on the surface, a “zombie genre” show, sure. But it has always been emotional because, at its core, it is a show about people in community trying to survive unimaginable circumstances. Thus, it is and will always be inherently emotional because it is written with so much truth, heart, and soul. Sunday’s episode didn’t make it “official,” it has always been so.

I am not sure who first coined the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but it’s been around for so long that you’d think people would follow that advice. Yet, for all our quoting of this cliché, which is only cliché because it is good and true advice, we seldom follow it. From art (TV shows, movies, books) to people and communities, humankind is constantly making judgments based solely on looks. Maybe it’s just human nature. Maybe it is just an innocent response since “looks” are the first thing evident to us in the physical world. This tendency is so prevalent and, in the case of how it affects our interpersonal and community relationships, it is heartbreaking and even dangerous.

I don’t know what happened the day Michael Brown was killed, but I do know that his appearance had at least something to do with his death. Had he been an unarmed white woman, for example, Officer Wilson would have probably found another way to handle the situation that didn’t involve firing 12 rounds at an unarmed teenager. Police officers have to size up situations quickly and make literal life-or-death decisions, so it makes sense that Wilson would have to take all factors into consideration. Still, I cannot help but think that Michael Brown would be alive today if his skin color were lighter, his clothes a different style, or if the confrontation had taken place in a different town with fewer racial tensions.

Race isn’t the only arena where judging a book by its cover becomes problematic. Special needs people also face this conundrum. My son’s appearance as “normal” and his happy demeanor lead people to assume he is a typical child. They’ll say, “But he looks so normal,” or “I would never have known he had autism if you hadn’t told me.” This is not usually a bad thing except when Weston’s autism causes some sort of public meltdown. Then people assume Weston is just acting out, judging and condemning our parenting and his behavior rather than showing empathy and understanding. If he had a visible, physical disability, perceptions would be different, but our lives would be no easier. I can remember using my disabled parking permit when I was a teenager and being stopped by a mall cop telling me, “You cannot use that unless the handicapped person is in the vehicle.” I was disgusted with his assumption and hurt that I had to explain myself. It isn’t just the visibly disabled who need some help in this world.

All of these issues (and a great many others) are a problem in the tangible, physical world as interpersonal relationships can be complicated or prevented outright based on “covers.” Yet this isn’t a problem in the virtual world. People often lament the effect technology is having on our interpersonal relationships, remarking on how social media is destroying the very fabric of society by somehow breaking down our interactions and making them less personal. In some cases, that may be true, but I would argue that interaction via social media eliminates much of our tendency to “judge a book by its cover” thereby basing our relationships on something more than physical appearance. True, there are many “evils” in the internet world and when we hide behind our online presence or use virtual anonymity to hurt others, there are devastating results. I have, however, developed many great friendships based on common interests that are every bit as real to me as the friends I have stumbled upon as I go about my daily life. I have built lifelong friendships with people who for many reasons–including appearance-based judgements–I would never have met. Relationships not built on physical proximity are not automatically less real or more superficial. On the contrary. They can be much more genuine because they force us to look beyond the “cover” to the heart, mind, and soul of the person with whom we are engaging.

All of this to say: STOP THE INSANITY! But seriously. Whether we’re talking about people, relationships, books, TV shows–whatever–can we please stop diminishing or dismissing our respective “books” based solely on their “covers?” Can human beings finally acknowledge that the world–including the people in it–is more than its surface?

Perfection and Humility: Thoughts on the Middle East Conflict

Some drawings from my sons this morning. Perfect in their imperfection.

Some drawings from my sons this morning. Perfect in their imperfection.

 

If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.

RICHARD ROHR

It seems all the world is a mess with warring ideas, tribes, philosophies, theologies, and nations. There are those that cast aspersions on others with whom they differ, and others who cast much more literal weapons. I try to watch and read about world events from a variety of sources so that I get a well-rounded view because bias comes from all sides. Living in Germany for two years forced me into this habit, and it is one I have returned to since. As I prepared delicious vegan sandwiches for my husband and me this evening, an interview on CNN stopped me in my tracks. The three stories most heavily covered by that news channel lately are the Israel/Palestinian conflict, the Ebola outbreak, and the plane crash in Ukraine. This interview happened to be about Israel/Palestine. What gave me pause was a discussion of how different generations differ in their perspective on and approach to this conflict. The “older” generations seem to fall in line with a very Israel-centered view. The anchors interviewed three or four undergraduate students (my memory fails me on the precise number) to get the millennial perspective. The students reflected neither a pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian view, in the main. Instead, they discussed a third perspective I have been reflecting on lately. A way of a lasting peace for the people of both Israel and Palestine that may not occur in a win-lose scenario. The students seemed to believe that, on their own, neither group of people are inherently evil or even wrong. For what it is worth, I do not believe that anyone is born evil, but that it is human, worldly influence that sways a soul to gravitate toward evil ideas or actions. The point that the students made was very similar to writings from Brian McLaren on this subject. The U.S. designated Hammas as a terrorist organization, and absent evidence to the contrary, I am inclined to agree, but it is very hard to see what is happening in Gaza and feel like this is the best or only way to handle it.

I do not want to wade into a political or theological argument over who has more “right” to that land or who is acting more or less justly in this recent war. I certainly think the people on both sides deserve to live in peace and that Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming threats, but my heart breaks for these sweet, innocent children and their families who have no safe haven to which they can flee. I do not know if one news network or another is covering things fairly or without bias (though I do resonate with this article–it cannot be easy to be objective while writing about dead children). I will not say that sympathy for the Palestinian people makes you less Christian or less American, but I will say it makes you human. It is an impossible situation and I don’t think any of us who have lived our lives in the West truly understand the conflict and all its roots. As my first seminary professor famously proclaimed, “You can only see from where you stand.”

The above quote from Richard Rohr made me think of this conflict. So many of us freely admit that we are imperfect, but somehow, when it comes to deeply held convictions, we are unwilling to open our minds to the possibility that we may have in the past, or that we might now, be off track–if even slightly. The “Nobody’s perfect,” cliché is only honest in the instances where we believe, accept, and humble ourselves to the certain fact of our imperfection. And if we believe that no one is perfect, we must make room for at least the possibility that our preferred translations and interpretations of our sacred books and those we follow (who are not God) may, in fact, not be the only perspective or the final word on any given subject. I am not advocating some post-modern relativist notion. I firmly believe there is an ultimate truth out there, I just don’t know that I am brazen enough to profess that at 32 (or whatever age you are) I (or you) have found it. The truth lies with the Creator of the heavens “above” and the universe we inhabit. We are not that Supreme Being. I choose to do my best to follow Jesus Christ, but I am not Jesus and therefore, I do not have all the answers. I am at times too presumptuous and feel I have more answers than another. At my best moments, I am humble enough to realize that I don’t and accept that is okay.

For me, I suppose it all comes down to Jesus’ own words in passages like Mark 12:29-31 (NRSV), in which he replied to a scribe’s query regarding which commandment is “first of all:”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

More and more frequently these days, my heart and mind goes back to these commandments, and I look for the perspective of love. I do not have to take sides or proclaim that one is right and one is wrong. If I follow these commands and strive to follow Jesus, knowing I will fail more than I will succeed, I feel like I cannot go too wrong. I just wish more of the world could look to these commands first, rather than continuing down the path of destruction, discord, and death. With so many current generations digging in and mired in sight only from where they currently stand, maybe our hope lies with future generations. Jesus did say, after all, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.