Monday, June 29, 2020

How Long?!

How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;

4 Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.

5 But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.

6 I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
--Psalm 13

 What I love most about the Psalms is that they cover the entire range of the human experience.  Every single emotion that we feel can be found in the Psalms, from the loudest shouts of thanks and praise to the deepest groans and wailings.  Normally, if we were gathered in the church together, we would sing the Psalm, led by a cantor, which is an ancient custom that goes all the way back to even before the time of Jesus.  But whether we sing them or say them, the Psalms are beautiful reminders that all of our feelings and experiences are precious in the sight of God, and Psalm 13 really captures that because it is a Psalm that speaks to where we are.

“How long, O Lord?!” the Psalm begins.  They say that this Psalm was constructed by David when he was running from King Saul, who was trying to kill him.  But this Psalm could just as easily have been written by any of us, am I right?  How long, O Lord?!  How long before we can gather with our church folks in prayer, and song, and Sacrament?  How long until the scourge of COVID-19 is repelled from this land?  How long must we see those sick and dying before people stop thinking only of themselves and start wearing their masks?  How long can we hear the cries of the poor and neglected, the most vulnerable in our society, whom we have been so quick to forget?  How long will young black men have to walk down the streets in fear that they will at best be accosted by law enforcement and at worst killed be for being ‘suspicious’?  How long before our country finally recognizes the sins of its past—which are still systemic in our present—and commits to changing its narrative?  How long, O Lord?!

Psalm 13 is a Psalm of lament, of deep wailing and crying out in grief.  There are many Psalms of lament; perhaps the one best known to some of us is Psalm 22, the one that Jesus himself quotes on the cross when he says, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ These Psalms deepen our faith and our humanity.  They get us to look at ourselves and the world around us and force us behold those things that we don’t really want to behold.  They help us deal with reality by preventing us from ignoring our various existential crises.  These Psalms deal with what Howard Thurman called the “contradictions of life,” because they begin with an acknowledgement of pain and finish with a reminder of God’s goodness and love.  They are examples of faithful prayers that meander, and they inspire our faithful lives to evolve. 

Howard Thurman, author of Jesus and the Disinherited, understood the power of the Psalms.

There is a pattern to Psalm 13, as well as any other Psalm of lament, a formula that they all follow:  the begin with an address, then a complaint, then a petition or prayer, followed by a confession of trust in God, and finally a promise of praise.  This Psalm begins with a strong address—How long, O Lord?!—a cry of desperation.  The complaint that’s raised here is the grief the David feels and the fear of his enemies triumphing over him.  Then comes the prayer for God to look upon David, to answer him and give light to his eyes.  Verse 5 offers the confession of trust in God’s mercy, and the last verse is a promise that David will continue to sing to God and praise God’s name.  This is the pattern of all Psalms of lament, but because of how short Psalm 13 is we can see that pattern quite clearly:  address, complaint, prayer, confession of trust, and promise of praise. 

At first glance this seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?  David offers his pain to God, and then very quickly he moves to a place of praise.  But we don’t know how long it took him to construct this Psalm, do we?  He very well could have written the opening verses that speak of crying out to God and accusing God of forgetting him when he was hiding out from Saul in a Judean cave somewhere, only to not finish it until he was certain his life would be spared.  Reading passages in the Bible often gives us the sense that it happened all at once, but that is rarely the case.  David may have been in that place of deep despair and frustration for a really long time.

Nevertheless, the Psalm comes back to an acknowledgment of God’s goodness and mercy.  In verse 5, after making his complaint and offering his prayer, David says, ‘But I put my trust in your mercy,” as if to say, “Yes, this pain I feel is real.  And yes, right now, God, you seem so far away from me that I am having trouble finding you.  But I still know that you’re real, and I will still sing your praise.”  

Yes, David laments and gives his despair and desperation space to exist.  He gives voice to his worries and complaints and acknowledges his fears and anxieties, while at the same time he keeps moving through all of it, landing at last in a place where he can offer God praise.  This Psalm is a journey, and David—or whoever wrote it—understood that the only way to get out of a place of pain and get to a place of praise is to go through all of that stuff. 

This is what 12-step programs understand and why they repeat the mantra “the only way out is through.”  Personally, I cannot think of any modern institution that understands the spiritual journey like 12-step programs, at least not in the western world.  Anyone who has been through such a group can speak to the importance of acknowledging one’s pain and grief, how it matters that those experiences are given voice, and how wading through the muck is the only possible means by which a person can get to a place of praise.  A great many of us are so stuck in our current culture of shame, where we are always taught that the answer to “How are you?” is “Good,” or “OK,” but never the real truth because who wants to hear that?!  Sometimes we just need the permission to cry out, to be frustrated, to ask God, “Where are you?!” Psalms like this one give that permission and remind us that all of our feelings and experiences are held in God’s hand, even when God feels so very far away.

Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, understood the power of giving voice to our pain.

Right now is a time of lament, and we need some Psalms to sing and cry out in these times.  We need to be able to offer our pain and sorrow to God, for it is only in doing so that our fears can be transformed into hope.  I wonder what might our lament Psalms sound like right now.  Perhaps something like this...

Address:  When will you come to help us, O Lord?!  Complaint:  We are lost, lonely, and in pain, held captive by the dual pandemics of virus and racial injustice!  Prayer:  Give us courage and hope that this is not all there is, that light and love are on the other side.  Confession of trust:  Though you seem far away, yet even still, we love you and put our trust in your healing grace and mercy.  Promise of praise:  We will sing your praises in the midst of our sorrows. 

I just put together a Psalm of lament for these times, and I encourage you to do the same.  Take some time to pour out your grief over everything these last 4 months have brought us, and give voice to your experience.  Cry out to God with your pain, knowing that the only way out of it is through it, and see where it takes you. Maybe you would even like to share them with each other, just to let someone else know they’re not alone in their pain and frustration. 

Psalms like Psalm 13, and the one I've come up with, and the ones you may construct in the coming days, are not just about giving voice to the groans and wails of our hearts—though that is very significant, especially in our time—but they also renew our sense of hope because they always come back to trust in God and the determination to keep praising and loving this God who not only gives us these emotions with the understanding that we will feel them and use them, but who has also felt them, who has also lamented from the cross, cried for a dead friend, and asked for strength to get through a time of trial.  Therein lies the hope, in a God who has gone through all of this and who goes through all of this right alongside us.  

May you take heart this week, knowing that you have permission to lament and grieve, and that your crises do not go unheard by our loving, liberating, and life-giving God!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Liberation from Security

“[Jesus said,] 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father, 
and a daughter against her mother, 
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'”
--Matthew 10: 34-39

Don’t ever say that God does not have a sense of humor; after all, on Father's Day we heard this Gospel where Jesus says to his 12 apostles that he has come to pit fathers against children and that anyone who loves their father or mother more than him is not worthy of Jesus.  I wish I could say that I intentionally picked this reading just to mess with all of you, but that’s just the hand of God at work in our lectionary.  It sure made me laugh, though. 

We might hear Jesus say these words and immediately think that he’s somehow anti-family.  That’s not what’s going on here, but for anyone out there who likes to talk about so-called ‘Christian family values,’ this passage does undermine that sentiment.  The truth is that Jesus isn’t really a champion of ‘family values.’  Instead, he has what we might call ‘kingdom values,’ and very rarely are those two ever the same thing.

Last week we heard Jesus call and send forth his 12 apostles, and in this passage, which picks up after that, we hear him warning them what it really means to follow him as a disciple and to be sent forth by him as an apostle.  In short, it means being willing to lose everything that they think is important.  At the top of this list is family. 

But consider what that would have meant in Jesus’ time.  Even more so than now, family meant security in first century Palestine.  One’s survival and prosperity were deeply tied to one’s family; that is, after all, the whole point of marriage at this time: to insure the name and legacy survives and that the two families become prosperous.  All of this was tied to the need for security, to feel comfortable, at ease, content, and not at all fearful.  The goal in life, then, was to find one’s security and to hold onto it by any means necessary. 

This is a concept that is not bound to distant years in Palestine; this is still very true in our time.  Every single day we make decisions based on the question:  how can I maintain security for me and mine?  This extends out beyond our nuclear families to our religious communities, our social circles, and especially to our broader, national identities.  Furthermore, very often when the primary motivation of an individual or a particular group of people is their continued security, other people suffer.  We need only look at Jesus’ homeland today to see how the need for security has resulted in human rights violations, or better still, we can look to the history of our own country, where laws were passed just after the Civil War that prohibited the rights of freed black people because white folks were afraid that they would rise up and seek revenge for the sin of slavery.  The need for security always seems to result in hardship.

This is what Jesus has come to upend. The point of his message is to separate us from all of those things with which we have overly identified to the point that we can only find our sense of comfort and security in them—our sports teams, our jobs and their benefits, our churches, our political parties, our family names and reputations, our national pride, our privilege and cultural ignorances, and every other idol in our lives that we keep holding onto, thinking that our identity lies in them.  Jesus ain’t got time for that!  This is what Paul when he says, “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God is Christ Jesus (Romans 6: 11).”  It means letting all the rest die so that Christ is our only identifier, and when Christ is our only identifier, then we can give up this false pursuit of security because we know, to borrow Jesus’ own words, that to lose our life for his sake is to find it.  There is no need for security when we are alive in Christ.

The fallacy of security is also tied the gospel of scarcity.  When we believe that there isn’t enough for everyone, we get scared, we hoard, we refuse to share, and we ignore the needs of others.  Since the days of Jesus those in power have lied to society’s poor, pitting them against each other and telling them that only the laws and legislations set forth by the rich and powerful will keep them safe.  Jesus calls out those lies for what they are and shows us how they are grounded in fear, but perfect love, his love, as we know, casts out that fear.   

Maybe we need to hear this Gospel now more than ever because we have been held in the grip of fear, and in these last days we have seen just how right Jesus was. In the before time, the long, long ago of February, we clung to all of those other identifiers that we thought protected us from seeing the world for what it really is.  We ignored the regular, day-to-day injustices of our lives because we had all that other identifiers in our lives to distract us and give us a false sense of security.

But COVID didn’t care about any of that and tore right through it.  Lately, we have come to realize just how empty all of those identifiers really are:  sports teams—what sports?!—our jobs and their benefits—how many of us have been laid off and how many “essential” workers still don’t have a living wage or health care??—our churches—some may be, foolishly, coming back together, but we’ve had to relearn that our buildings are meaningless if the real Church, the people, are sick and can’t come together. The wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world has been brought to its knees, in large part because of the false gospel of scarcity that said we couldn’t take care of everyone who is sick.  The veil has been lifted on that false gospel. And by the grace of God, since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we have been shown that the institutions in which we have placed our sense of security in this country are deeply troubled and in need of reform. 

People are starting to see the illusion of security that all of those things gave us in the before time, and for the Church this time right now is a new prophetic call for a moral revival, as the scales from our eyes are at last falling away, and all those identifiers and the security and scarcity they embody are being seen for what they are.

Jesus was trying to get his apostles to understand that to be a part of this Jesus Movement, to identify with him and to pattern their lives after him, meant total surrender of everything else.  There’s no such thing as a part-time disciple or quarter-time apostle!  Our world is filled with distractions, filled with promises of power, prestige, and possessions that all lie to us and tell us that we can find our needs met and find our security in them.  Jesus called these things Satan: anything that lies to us and pulls us away from our true identity .  If we want to maintain this false sense of security, then by all means we can keep relying on those other identifiers, or we turn to Jesus.

If we are really serious about Jesus and being a part of the Movement that he started, then that means letting our sense of security die with those other identifiers, so that he may be our only identifier.  It means making our lives images of his own, seeking justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God; proclaiming that—despite what we see—this is the year of the Lord’s favor, as we don’t just preach good news for the poor but we mobilize ourselves to bring that good news and be repairers of the breaches.  His words about renouncing family mean simply that we must elevate Jesus’ life and message above everything else in our lives.  

Yes, it’s risky and often costly, just as Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Oscar Romero, all of whom stood up to oppressive systems that provided people with a false sense of security, all of whom were killed by those systems. We may be asked to take a risk ourselves, but in the end it is always worth it because, while we may lose our false life, we will gain our real one.  This is what it means to live into our ‘kingdom values,’ to really be alive in Christ Jesus.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Where Is Jesus [and Our Privilege] Sending Us?

'Jesus sent [the Twelve] out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment."'
--Matthew 10: 5-8

One of my spiritual heroes is Will Campbell.  He was a Baptist preacher, but he never had a congregation.  He was a white man who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, he was the only white person present when Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.  He wasn’t the kind of person who was front and center for photo ops, but he was always there at protests for integration in Arkansas or at sit ins in Mississippi, always just showing up and working behind the scenes.  In the summer of 1964 Will heard black activist Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee speak. Stokely told the white folks in the crowd that, while their efforts at sit-ins and marches were appreciated, what they really needed to do to affect change was to refocus their efforts on educating their fellow white people, the very folks in positions of power and influence. Will took that literally and started having conversations with members of the Ku Klux Klan, figuring, as he said, that they needed to hear the message of freedom and equality, maybe more than anyone else.  Will died in in 2013, but he wrote extensively on his days as, what he called a bootleg preacher, so I encourage you to check out his books—Soul Among Lions, Brother to a Dragonfly, and Forty Acres and a Goat, to name a few. 

Will Campbell, bootleg preacher.

The Gospel reading this week makes me think of Will Campbell.  After he calls the 12 apostles—and let’s remember that an apostle is someone who is sent out, which is different from a disciple, which is someone who follows—Jesus gives the 12 some specific instructions, the first of which is this:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

Their mission is to be sent out among their own people, to the folks just like them, and to preach this message of Jesus, a message of radical hospitality, of salvation for everyone, and of the truth that God had made all things, and all people, clean. The ones that need to hear it most are the very people who, at that time, were denying it.  The towns where these folks are most prominent are the ones to whom Jesus sends the 12 on their mission. 

What Jesus is doing here in this initial sending forth of the apostles gets echoed in the words from Stokely Carmichael that Will Campbell heard, which led him to do the work he did among the Klan.  Stokely was doing for Will what Jesus was doing for the 12 apostles, sending them to their own people; those are the very ones who need the message the most because those are the people who have created and maintained the social systems and structures that have denied the inherent goodness and basic human dignity of other groups of people, based on their racial, social, or religious standing. 

The hardliners in Jesus’ day—the Saducees and some of the Pharisees and scribes—were determined to keep their laws in place, thinking that the laws were fair.  Well, they were…for them.  But what about the Gentiles?  What about women and foreigners? What about the folks on the outside, the folks whose lives didn’t appear to matter much to those in the positions of privilege and power?  Jesus’ message offered good news for those kinds of folks, but the ones who really needed to hear that message were the hardliners, the ones who could actually stop the cycle of oppression because they were the ones holding on to those oppressive systems. 

This is why Will Campbell worked among the Klan.  They were the hardliners—the folks who were determined to keep legal segregation now, tomorrow, and forever. Will never stopped being a part of the sit-ins and marches with his black brothers and sisters, but he also understood that as a white person, he needed to be in relationship with other white people who could affect change on a systemic level, and he needed to call the oppression out and get white folks like him to understand the role they had played. 

He also understood that it wasn’t just the Klan that was the problem; in fact, he knew that the Klan was a by-product, a symptom of a much larger system of oppression, and he was very often critical of institutions that supported and benefited from such a system.  He was known to say the following at more than one university at which he was invited to speak:

 “This institution right here has contributed, wittingly or not, to incomparably more bloodshed and misery, done more to maim and murder, than the whole lot of poor old country boys in sheets holding cross burnings in rented cow pastures.  Now then, the Klan may be more bigoted than the ‘children of light’(that is, the children of the Enlightenment, the educated class), but they’re not more racist because racism is in the structures, the system in which we are all bound up, and we’re all basically of a Klan mentality when it comes to our own structures and our own institutions.” 

Ouch!  Those are harsh words to hear, but it doesn't make them untrue. Few of us may know active Klan members, but we all are caught up in structures and institutions for which we are fiercely loyal, and which often uphold and maintain systems of oppression. Until we can accept that, and until those of us in the positions of power and privilege, those who can affect the necessary change, accept that and are willing to do something to break the cycle of oppression, we cannot know real freedom and equality.

The past three weeks have, I believe, been among the most important in our country in the last 50 years.  The death of George Floyd has galvanized us to address the systemic oppression that is very real in this country, leading a great many of us, including folks in our own church, to ask:  what can—or should—we do?  Some of us have protested.  Some have shared insightful articles on social media.  Some have had watch parties and conversations around the documentary 13th and films like Just Mercy.

The Netflix documentary 13th is currently free on YouTube.

One example that I would like to lift up to you today is our sister Angie Kratzer, a teacher and member of Good Shepherd.  Angie has given me permission to share with you some of the work she has done through her Facebook page, and she invites any and all of you to go to her page or send her a message and be a part of the conversations that she has been having.  These conversations take the form of simply telling our stories—for Angie that story includes being the white mother of a black child.  So far her conversations topics have included:  White Privilege, the Confederate Flag, Black Lives Matter, microaggression, and terms like bigotry and institutional racism. These are not easy topics to discuss, that’s for sure, but Angie is wading into those difficult waters, and she is doing so primarily by asking her black friends to speak to their experience and for her white friends to simply listening.  In doing so she is educating her white friends by lifting up the witness of her friends of color.  All of this is done in safe and open conversations. This is what the work looks like, and I’m quite proud of our sister for showing it to us, and I commend her Facebook page to you.

Where is Jesus sending us? If we are serious about doing the work of dismantling unjust and oppressive systems, and if we’re determined to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that proclaims the dignity of every human being, then those of us who are part of the majority population must go to the people like us, for it is up to those in the majority to change if those in the minority are to truly be treated with equality.  It was true in Jesus’ time, and in Will Campbell’s time, and in our time. 

This is how we address systems of oppression and how we affect change.  If those of us in the majority can recognize the role folks like us have played—whether directly or indirectly—in the systemic oppression of others, and if we can understand the ways we have benefited from those systems, and if we are willing to change, then this world can truly be transformed into something that more closely resembles the kingdom of God.  Dr. King said the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but as, Richard Rohr reminded us in one of his daily meditations last week, it depends on our participation.

I wonder what are the ways that you can affect that change.  Who are the folks that need to hear from you?  What are the kinds of conversations that you can start with people?  One of the ways our church is looking to do that is to encourage everyone to watch Just Mercy and then join us for a Zoom conversation about the film at a date and time that we will announce in the coming days; Just Mercy, by the way is free to rent during the month of June on Amazon Prime. Perhaps you could start up a Zoom book club.  Read White Fragility, The New Jim Crow, or America’s Original Sin, all of which speak to this important moment in our lives.

The film Just Mercy is free to rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime this month.

Jesus sent the apostles out to be laborers in a harvest that was plentiful.  Now is the harvest time, and the Church—the people, remember, not the building—the Church are the laborers.  So ask yourself today:  what can I, what can we, do?  What conversations can we start?  Who are the people, like us, that most need to hear this message from Jesus, a message that offers good news to those who are oppressed and calls for repentance on the part of those who have played a role in that oppression?  I encourage you to share those thoughts in the comments on this blog, or on your own page—as Angie has done—or even send your thoughts to me, and let’s have a conversation and work on something together.  Now is the time, my friends.  Where is Jesus sending us?