30 June 2015

being with and doing for

An article written a couple of years ago speaks well to our situation today.  In “Bearing Witness to the Pain of Violence,” Yonat Shimron speaks about the murder rate in Durham, North Carolina, which is more than twice the state average.  (The large majority being young African-American men killed by firearms.)  Members of the faith community tried various approaches in response.  They worked on policies to resist gun violence.  They enlisted the help of police and other officials.  Unfortunately, the state legislature outlawed efforts by cities who wanted to regulate guns.  As important as public policy is, it became clear that something else needed to be done.

In 1997, a vigil was held after yet another citizen was slain.  The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham began employing vigils as a way of standing with those touched by violence.  Around the country, groups use vigils in their own communities.  One example is the Benedictines for Peace in Erie, Pennsylvania.  Whenever someone in the city of Erie is killed by an act of violence, they organize a vigil at the site of the death.

Too often, we like to turn this type of work over to the professionals—social workers, psychiatrists, police officers, and others—and then wash our hands of the matter.  The folks in Durham think that’s a mistake.  It’s noted, “Those professionals are trained to ‘work for’ the individual or family.  They can’t offer the kind of relationship that comes when people of faith provide what psychologist Carl Rogers called ‘unconditional positive regard.’  These kinds of relationships perpetuate inequality and keep people strangers to one another.  The coalition’s experience is that when people are treated as equals, they form deep and abiding bonds of trust.”

Of course, this applies to all kinds of situations, not just cases of murder.  In the Bible, the friends of Job provide a classic example of what to do—and what not to do!  After Job loses his children, his possessions, and his health, his best friends get together and see if they can help.

Chapter 2, verses 11 to 13 tell the story.  “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  They met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Job’s suffering has been so intense that at first they don’t even recognize him.  Some of us can relate to that, perhaps during a visit to the hospital.  The person we’re there to see might have been so ravaged by illness that we think we’re in the wrong room.  “Who is this?” we wonder.

Job’s friends understand that the best thing they can do is to do nothing at all.  Just being there is what’s required.  They keep vigil with him.  Sadly, we know what happens after that.  When Job speaks and shouts out his anguish, his buddies decide to engage him in theological debate.  At that point, things go south in a hurry!

The point is that when we’re faced with questions which are sometimes literally matters of life and death, can we see the difference between “being with” and “doing for”?  Both are important, but there’s no doubt that “being with” is usually so much more uncomfortable.  We want to do the good deed, and then get the heck out of there.

In our own case, with St. Lydia’s Place, we want to make real-world contributions.  As vital as it is to teach and reflect, if it stops right there, it’s hard to see how that helps anyone else.  Taking Lydia as a model for ministry surely involves the hospitality we see in Acts 16.  Her conversion demonstrates both a mystical listening to God and a prophetic standing with the apostles in the midst of opposition. 

We know that humility is required.  We confess our ignorance and shortcomings.  We want and need help from others.  Those who read this might be moved to reach out.  Can we hear from you?  Maybe we can help each other.  What are ways in which we can “keep vigil” in our communities?

25 June 2015

let's go boom!

This song is now a few years old, but with tomorrow being the International Day against Torture, and thinking about the war that enshrined torture as government policy, it still seems appropriate.  The US invasion of Iraq lit a fuse that is still burning 12 years later.  Let's join with System of a Down and say "Boom!"  The peace of God will still prevail!

02 June 2015

beauty in darkness

I see in the scriptural book of Job, with all of its darkness and flailing around, a dark treasure in the depths of its obsidian beauty.  Of course, not everyone feels that attraction.  The book is often the recipient of disgust at the horrific unfairness of the suffering of the just.  I’m sure it’s easier for me to appreciate the brutal poetry because I haven’t felt the sense of utter abandonment by my God and by everything that I love and hold dear.

Or has that desensitized me to it all?

Job has been subjected to rigorous study and sympathy since ancient times.  Almost everything under the sun has been twisted from the character and the book that bears his name.  In recent times, the difference between the prose sections at the beginning and end of the book—and the poetry that comprises the majority of the book—has been especially highlighted.  The prose and poetry have been pitted against each other as almost mutually exclusive.  I can see some truth in that.

The prose is portrayed as telling the story of the legendary Job, the upright, the patient one who accepts whatever fate comes his way.  The poetry is the angry, impatient Job who is (literally) sick and tired of putting up with the sh*t that God, the universe, whatever powers-that-be have served up to him.  Some commentators of today dismiss the efforts of those in the past who reconciled the “two Jobs.”  The patient Job was alleged to have silenced the impatient Job.  It was just too hard to deal with his rage and blasphemy!

Mark Larrimore in The Book of “Job”: A Biography looks at this.  He notes that “some premodern readers saw the poetic portion as showing how a virtuous person grieves, and as showing the true heart of ‘patience’ to be closer to protest than moderns imagine.  Job’s most rebellious words were often explained away as driven by physical pain and grief, but premodern readers did not simply ignore them.  Closer experience of the agonies of sickness and loss may, indeed, have made them better listeners than moderns are, hearing the anguish and delirium of the flesh where we may just see a mind pushed to its limits.  To them Job’s protests are remarkable not for how far they go but for going no farther.”

The defiance of Job is a faithful defiance.  It isn’t easy to explain—or to hear.  We too quickly want to write it off as the ranting of one who is (unjustly) pissed off at God and at the world.  I struggle with that when I am confronted with the vitriol of those in pain.  Too often, I also come up with my own explanations.  I don’t listen, and I don’t listen in faith.

In the darkness, there are both screams and silence. 

[The quote is from Mark Larrimore, The Book of “Job”: A Biography (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2013), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 3, paragraph 4.  The image is a painting by William Blake.]

16 May 2015

piece of peace

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  This beatitude of Jesus, which pronounces blessing on those who make peace, can be easily confused with peacekeeping.  At the risk of sounding trite, if there is no peace, how can it be kept?  What is this thing, peacemaking, which results in being called children of God?  What does it look like?

We are counseled by the psalmist to “seek peace, and pursue it” (34:14).  What does seeking peace look like?

One time, I was at a meeting of local ministers, and the discussion turned to making and seeking peace.  I believe it started after someone said that seeking peace in the Middle East was hopeless.  Scriptural warrant for that comment was provided.  Added to that was a complaint about those who “seek peace at any cost.”  I asked, “What’s wrong with that?”  The response characterized those who seek peace at any cost as making peace with those who oppress others—those who are unjust.  I pointed out that where there is no justice, there can be no peace.  We’re fooling ourselves with an illusion of peace.

Of course, peacemaking is not limited to the political arena, with nations dealing with each other.  And those who oppress and are unjust to others need not be dictators; we encounter that in our daily lives.  (Too often we’re the ones who oppress others!)  No, peacemaking is first of all a personal matter.  It comes from within.  If we ourselves don’t have peace, we will be limited to making peace as a skeleton, so to speak.  It won’t have any flesh; it won’t have any real substance.

This is where peacemaking as a spiritual reality comes in.  An interesting thing about it is how it is interrelated to Jesus’ other beatitudes.  The meek and the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:  these and the others exemplify what peacemaking is all about.

We don’t magically become peacemakers.  It takes practice; it takes work.  It means facing the violence within ourselves.  It is necessary to recognize the junk within—that which delights in misfortune, that which is fearful, that which doesn’t care for the other.  That’s some messy business!

I ask myself, “How committed am I to peacemaking?  How committed am I to wading through that messiness within?  How willing am I to sift through the detritus and cacophony of violence in order to discover the purity and harmony that is always the gift of God?” 

There’s a piece of peace to peacefully piece.

23 April 2015

power to speak the truth

Last month, the campaign for the presidential election began in earnest.  We only have one year and seven months to go!  A meme that has emerged is that candidates have to “play to their base.”  I don’t mind saying that I really hate that phrase.  Playing to one’s base seems to mean presenting oneself in a less than honest way.  It seems to mean, perhaps even more so than after the conventions, pandering to the lowest common denominator in one’s political party.  It means finessing (or stretching) the truth.  And the pundits seem to be okay with, and even expect, that kind of behavior.

Last night, part of the Episcopal psalm reading was 119:43.  It begins, “Do not take the word of truth utterly out of my mouth.”  The Revised English Bible renders it in a way that seems even starker:  “Do not rob me of my power to speak the truth.”

When we become used to stretching the truth—ignoring the truth—we can reach a point in which it seems comfortable, even natural.  At a deeper level, however, the lies that do the most damage are the ones we tell ourselves.  That can be expressed in many ways.

Are there life-denying habits we continue, even to the point of becoming addictions?  Is there a little voice inside that begs and pleads with us to listen?  Are there abilities that we falsely rule out?  Are there ways in which we refuse to leave our comfort zone?

Today’s epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (and the Episcopal) is 1 John 5:13-20.  Interestingly enough, verse 21 is only considered to be an alternative ending.  I believe that verse is one of the New Testament’s best warnings.  It challenges us to be aware of those little lies we tell ourselves.  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. 

Idols are the false, the counterfeit, the pretend.  They are what rob us of the power to speak the truth.

22 April 2015

a future…and a future

During this year, Banu and I have quite deliberately entered into a state of transition.  (That’s aside from the transition which is part of life itself.)  We are ordained ministers, who for the first time in our ministry are not pastoring a parish.  (Perhaps we can better appreciate John Wesley’s quote, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”)  To be sure, we now have a different take on the future.  There’s a sense of adventure—with a dash of unsureness!

In any event, all of us are presented with versions of the future—some cynical and hopeless, others confident and hope-filled.  There are two images found in the scriptures which have quite different visions of the future.

In Isaiah 39, King Hezekiah of Judah welcomes envoys from Babylon.  Wanting to show that he’s no minor leaguer, he gives them a grand tour; he shows the wealth that he commands.  The prophet Isaiah hears about the visit, and when he finds out that they’re from Babylon, he is alarmed.  He warns the king that these boys will not be content to leave Judah alone.  In the not too distant future, the Babylonians will be back, and it won’t be a friendly visit!  To underline his point, the prophet says, “Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away” (v. 7).

One would think the king might take that a bit seriously.  However, here’s how the chapter ends:  “Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’  For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days’” (v. 8).

I once used this story in a high school baccalaureate service.  The message was basically how not to approach the future.  Don’t imitate Hezekiah.  The king is okay with what Isaiah tells him.  As long as things don’t fall apart while I’m still breathing, that’s fine!  Let future generations clean up after me.

There is always the temptation to lose faith in the future, whether we think of it as our own contribution and responsibility, our trust in promises of God, or perhaps our collaboration with the unfolding evolution of the cosmos.

If Hezekiah’s version of the future is unfaithful, we can see a very different version in the book of Jeremiah.  The day that Isaiah feared has arrived.  The tiny land of Judah has been swept up in the expanding Babylonian Empire.  The prophet Jeremiah has warned his people that fighting the Babylonians is useless.  However, they can still mend their corrupt ways, but that’s not something many people want to hear.  With war, the destruction of the temple, and people being sent into exile, the future seems bleak indeed.

His highly unpopular message has seen Jeremiah forced to endure mocking, ill-treatment, arrest, and even torture.  More than once, he succumbs to despair.  Nonetheless, he manages to retain a thread of hope.

Nowhere is that better exemplified than when he sends a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  Though they might understandably become locked in bitterness, the prophet has a word from God to inspire confidence in the future.  In chapter 29, the people there are encouraged to embrace what could be called “the new normal.”  The word is to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  In a verse whose context is sometimes forgotten, we hear, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (v. 11).

So while Hezekiah’s vision of the future may euphemistically be called “blind,” Jeremiah’s vision is flooded with the burning fire that he says is “shut up within [his] bones” (20:9).

How is our vision of the future?  Are we heading toward a dead end?  Are we running on a treadmill?  Do we wonder what we will leave to generations to come?  Do we even think about it?

Do we greet the new day with joy?  (Please note that I’m not referring to joy as simply an emotional state, but as a spiritual and deeply aware state.) 

Do we long for the future, understanding that the future begins right now?