Posts Tagged ‘peace’
Today was our free day in Jerusalem. Apart from morning prayer and evening prayer, we had no obligations for the day, and we were free to explore on our own. While some in our group were eager to take in new sights, I felt overwhelmed by the rich experiences so far. I needed solitude, silence and space more than anything.
The one thing I did want to see was the Garden Tomb, so I walked a short distance from the hotel with a group first thing in the morning. The Garden Tomb was the discovery (invention?) of Major General Charles George Gordon, a British general in the late 19th century. Whether from historical doubts or simply dislike of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he identified an area on the east side of Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate, as the “true” site of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. The rock face does look a lot like a skull, even though it is currently covered up by a bus depot. There is a tomb there, and quite a large one, along with a large cistern and Roman-era wine press.
Scholars have since expressed major doubts about this site as a possible true location for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, but the site still attracts major groups of pilgrims from across the world, especially Protestants. Yet still I wanted to come. Yet still they want to come. I suspect that their reason is the same as mine—whether or not the Garden Tomb has any historical or archeological connection to Jesus, it still looks just like I always imagined Jesus’ tomb would look. The site may not fit history, but it fits the picture in my head.
The caretakers of the site have transformed it into a luscious garden, with multiple gathering spaces for tour groups. They offered our small, disorganized band the opportunity to celebrate communion together—they provide the elements, we perform our own liturgy. Unlike the noisy, jostling competition at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb was quiet and invited solitude, rest and contemplation. Although it was no less man-made than the Holy Sepulchre, it was like an Olmstead park, designed to look natural and create a sense of peace and communion with the natural world. I loved it. I don’t know what it actually looked like when Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener outside the tomb, but this is what I wanted it to look like.
There is reason to be cautious, of course, when holy sites conform too readily to our expectations. In some ways, the Garden Tomb felt like a Walt Disney production, designed to make all those who entered feel like it was the “happiest place on earth.” Its conformity to all my fantasies made me doubt it even more, and question what those fantasies said about me and my theology. Yet it offered me a great deal of solace to contemplate the resurrection story taking place in this beautiful, tranquil location. As I have been saying throughout this trip, it’s not about what may or may not have happened here 2,000 years ago (or more). It’s about connecting the ancient story to the presence of the living Christ in our midst. The beauty and serenity of the Garden Tomb gave a visual aspect to my faithful imagination of the resurrection story.
From there, one other member of the group departed for the other side of the city. He wanted to walk the Via Dolorosa, and I wanted to revisit the Church of St. Ann, which is at the start of the Via. When we were there on our first day in Jerusalem, we sang as a group. People urged those of us in the group with strong singing voices to take our turns at a solo, but I was not ready. In the moment, I felt like my voice wasn’t ready, and that it would feel too much like a performance and not enough like prayer. Still, I was haunted from the time we left by the desire to sing Mallotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” in that space. It felt like an offering I needed to leave in that place, so I returned with only one companion.
When we arrived, another tour group was gathering to sing. Their faces were Asian, but they sang in perfect English, “Amazing Grace” and a contemporary praise song about “my chains are broken.” They might have been from anywhere in the world. When they left, there was a break. I offered my companion the chance to sing, since he is also a musician, but he declined. I knew I might not have another chance, so I closed my eyes, moved to the front, and began to sing “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Since I was a little girl, I have sung songs to God as my most intimate form of prayer. Even now, I will go to the church I serve when no one else is there, just to sing into the silence of the sanctuary. It felt like such an amazing gift to be (almost) alone in such a busy place, with tour groups filing in and out. My voice was far from perfect, because I was battling a cold at the time, but the space was so resonant it sounded full anyway. As the song worked through to its high notes and climax, I kept my eyes closed, but I could hear the scuffle of feet as people entered the sanctuary. Even in those few seconds, I could feel the tension—should I stop and make room? I didn’t want to perform for people, could I just quit? I decided that this was my offering, my prayer, and I should finish what I had begun.
When I opened my eyes, there were three Greek orthodox priests in full beards and vestments standing a few feet away, looking stern and surrounded by a large group of pilgrims. I quietly slipped to my seat, and they proceeded forward to sing and pray an entire short service together. I listened with delight to the echo of their strong chants from the rafters, the murmured prayers of the faithful circling the walls, still a bit nervous from having been overheard in my own song. When they finished, I bowed my head as they began to leave, trying to be inconspicuous. Suddenly, one of the stern-looking priests tapped my shoulder, “Bravo! Bravo!” he practically shouted, grinning widely and surrounded by gestures of approval from all the pilgrims. One of the last, an older gentleman, asked me if I was Czech. I told him I was American, and found out they were Bulgarian.
My companion left to continue down the Via Dolorosa. Even though my mission was accomplished, I felt such a sense of peace and joy that I did not want to leave. One by one, more groups came and went from the chapel, and I sat and listened to their songs. A group from Malaysia sang “How Great Thou Art” and the doxology. A group from Texas and Mexico offered “Sing Alleluia to the Lord,” and “Alleluia, Alleluia” in English and Spanish. Two members of the group began a duet in Spanish with many verses. Everyone else left, but they continued singing. The tour guide returned to urge them on once, twice, three times—but they concluded their song without leaving. A German group sang one tune I recognized, and one I did not. An English group sang “Amazing Grace,” with all the verses.
When I knew the songs and they sung in English, I joined my voice to theirs. Otherwise, I just sat and listened. My soul reached a deep level of bliss in that place. From all over the world, people came and made their offerings in many languages. I meditated on all the prayers and songs those walls had heard, reflected and absorbed over the centuries. The sanctuary itself is simple and plain, with grayish white stones stacked high. Its true beauty is only made known when people come inside and begin to praise God. The acoustics take over, and even mediocre voices are transformed into glorious praises.
After nearly two hours there, the priest and I were the only ones left. He told me that the groups were finished for the day, but invited me to stay for as long as I desired. Alone, I returned to the front of the sanctuary and began to sing again—a reprise of “The Lord’s Prayer,” “It is Well with My Soul,” “I Love You, Lord,” and more. My songs were my prayer, from a place of deep joy and ecstasy in praising God in that place. Soli Deo Gloria.
I found space, solitude and silence, but I also found music and movement and beauty. Thanks be to God.
By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.
Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.
After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.
Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.
The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.
That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.
Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.
I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?
Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.
B and I made our own Advent wreath this year, to sit on the kitchen table. The kitchen table is regularly the dumping ground for junk mail, school artwork, receipts, stray gloves and not-yet-put-away purchases. Its proximity to the back door makes it everyone’s first stop and first view upon entering the house. Since the wreath has taken central place, though, it has seemed easier and more important to keep the table clear of unnecessary junk. It’s amazingly refreshing to my spirit to enter the house and see the Advent wreath, rather than a pile of mess that needs to be put away.
Last week, we lit the first candle and I talked with B about hope. Tonight, we lit the second candle and talked about peace. Even as we talked about the meaning of peace—ending war, getting along with friends, making sure everyone has enough—we could see our hope candle struggling to stay lit. Smoke was pouring from it, but the flame was barely an ember on the wick. Watching the light struggle to survive, I contemplated how hard it often is for hope itself to stay strong against the darkness.
I reached for my camera to capture a picture. Before I could get the lens cap off, the candle suddenly exploded into a full flame of light, bigger and brighter than the peace candle next to it. Wax was pouring down the side of the candle, spilling over the holder. The flame had been dampened by all the old wax around the wick, unable to catch enough air to fully shine. Letting go of the junk released the light of hope again.
It was just like my kitchen table. Removing the junk to focus on the Advent wreath set me free to focus on the hope and peace of the season.
Even more, it is just like my soul. Hope gets stifled by all sorts of junk—old hurts, built-up anxieties, piled-on worries, and overwhelming circumstances that make us feel like we just can’t get any air. Yet the tiniest flame of hope, even the one that looks like it’s too small to survive, can be enough to throw off all that mess and explode into light.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
On September 11, 2001, I had been serving my first church for exactly five months. I was the second associate pastor at a big, downtown church in the heart of Boston’s Copley Square. The church was a tourist attraction with a giant tower, the sanctuary open all day every day for passersby. That morning, I had been at an 8:00 a.m. meeting at the homeless shelter downtown. I left the shelter with a couple of colleagues, and we overheard the guys gathered out front talking about planes going into buildings. They were miming the crash and making the sound of explosions, but we dismissed it as the talk of the mentally ill. As we walked the five blocks along Boston Common and back to Copley Square, we began to notice to the cell phone conversations of well-dressed business people we passed, and heard the story repeated—planes crashing into buildings. People were pouring out of buildings and subway tunnels. No one was going back in.
When I got to church, the receptionist told me it was true. She had the radio on, and it told of the World Trade Center, two planes, and terrorism. I went upstairs to my office and colleagues, and found them huddled around the only TV in the building, adjusting the antennas to try and get a picture. Through the snowy black and white screen, we saw two giant rectangles with smoke pouring out. That was the only image I saw of the tragedy until late that night. I had only been there about five minutes when the receptionist called—people were downstairs, coming into the sanctuary, and someone should tend to them. I stopped by my office to grab a box of tissues, and headed downstairs.
And that’s where I stayed, for the rest of the day. For me, the details of what had happened came not from the television, but from the strangers who entered seeking solace. Brokers in Boston had been on the phone with traders in New York when the screaming started, the line went dead. Co-workers had traveled to New York for a meeting at the World Trade Center that morning, no one knew where they were. Colleagues had traveled from the World Trade Center for a meeting in Boston, and knew that they would have died if they had been in their home office that morning. Sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters worked on the 18th floor, the 38th floor, the 102nd floor, the Pentagon. The planes came from Boston, and loved ones had left this morning on a flight from Logan. Fighter jets had been scrambled to shoot down potential threats, and we heard them fly overhead. The Red Cross needed blood. Could we post a sign, direct people down the street to the emergency blood drive? Of course, we said, and people responded to their grief by opening up their veins.
All day long, people kept pouring in. Our church was located right between the two tallest buildings in the city, and our high tower suddenly seeming conspicuous and vulnerable. Everything around us had closed, even the other churches and the public library across the street. We wondered if we were unsafe, foolish even, to stay open, those two buildings looming over us, our tower defiantly pointed toward the sky. But it felt like an act of faith, to be present in the midst of such fear and doubt. We kept our doors open, and the people kept coming to seek shelter for their bodies and comfort for their souls. I couldn’t offer much, but together we sat, prayed, shook, wept, held hands, shared our fears, wondered if our world had changed forever.
Upstairs, my colleagues made their own preparations—one calling all our members to check on them and their families, the other preparing a service of prayer and mourning for that evening.
It was at that service, in that place of fear and uncertainty and terror, that I first understood the power of that Psalm. People entered with tears and fears, wondering if it was wise to be together in such a public and unsecure place, in the shadow of such tall towers, in spite of our need to gather and pray. And yet our shoulders relaxed, our eyes turned heavenward, and our fears began to abate when we were reminded of these words:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth…
Everything was in crisis. It was not just a national crisis, but a personal crisis for most of the people in the sanctuary that day—they had lost co-workers, friends, family members. Everything had changed—their job, family, security, schedule, everything. The Psalm reminded us of what had not changed—God’s love and power was still in charge of this world. God’s hand was still guiding us, a refuge and strength that no earthly actions could dissuade. God’s is an unchanging love and an undying pursuit of peace.
Ten years later, I am filled with dread at the flag-draped, red-white-and-blue commemorations planned for this weekend. When I stop to remember my experiences that day, I weep at the intimacy of loss and destruction. When I hear politicians, pundits and fellow preachers invoke “9/11” as a call to patriotism and heroism and war, I am angry and repulsed that someone would try to spin the heartache of that day for political or pecuniary purposes. When I think about the thousands upon thousands of additional lives lost and displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel sick to my stomach that we have inflicted the same grief on so many other families, in our nation and other nations. When I contemplate all that has changed in our nation since that day, I am overwhelmed with the economic crises, rollback of civil rights and liberties, scapegoating of the poor and immigrants, relentless natural disasters, political vitriol, dysfunctional government, corporate greed and all the hurting souls resulting from it.
On this anniversary, the only commemoration I want is a reading of that same Psalm 46, surrounded by silence. I need to be reminded of God’s unchanging love and undying pursuit of peace. Tell me again that everything in the whole world can change—nations and safety and security, kingdoms and powers and cities crumble around us—but the love of God does not change. Keep open the doors of my heart, in defiant faith and love. Anchor me against the quakes and floods, moving mountains and foaming waters. Insist that I should fear not, for God is here and God will help. Convince me that the weapons of war will not triumph, that peace will prevail. Speak to me of rivers, of gladness, of dawn. Give me refuge from the clamor of despair. On this day above all other days, urge me to be still and know that God is still God, always.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear…
This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.
Opening Thoughts on Advent
We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.
Advent I: Praying for Peace
People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.
But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.
“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”
It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.
Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:
“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”
There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.
And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”
God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.
Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.
Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.
Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.
Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.
Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?
The drive to preschool has become definition time. If B has heard new words he does not understand, he often asks about them during the quiet drive. I enjoy his inquiring mind, and the challenge of explaining something in terms he will understand.
Last week, though, it got complicated.
Mommy, what does “kill” mean?
As I paused to figure this one out, he went on to explain that some of the older boys (he is 3, but his class has children up to kindergarten age) pretend to be superheroes and bad guys, and they “kill” him. B said, “When Z kills me, I just say ‘puweee,’ and when N dies me, I say ‘pchoooo.’ That’s what you do when they kill you.”
I chuckled to myself at his nonsense comeback, and felt grateful that he did not yet understand what game they were playing. His question had afforded me the opportunity to give some explanation and interpretation, rather than letting him get all his information from his schoolmates. B has not had any serious exposure to death, so it was difficult to be honest and truthful in answering his question with no context at all. Even more, his simple quest for a definition raised a whole host of theological and moral issues for me.
When I explain death, do I just explain what it means, or do I offer theological perspective and insight? To be honest, I’m not even sure what theological perspective I would offer. I am confident in my faith that this world and all that is in it is not the end, that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of resurrection and new life, able to overcome even death. I do not claim to know what that means—whether heaven and hell exist, what the afterlife looks or feels like, whether our individual souls continue to exist in some form. I tend to believe that we are reunited with God and with the souls of those we have lost, but in my mind that bears absolutely no resemblance to a family reunion filled with hugs and catching up on lost time. This is barely comprehensible to me, and I can’t imagine explaining it to a three-year-old.
Add to that the questions arising from violent play. We have carefully sheltered B from violent images and realities so far in his life, but that cannot and should not last forever. The world is a violent place, and being a peaceful presence in the world requires confronting and understanding that violence. As he matures, he will come to know that reality, and we will not try to hide it from him. His question indicates, however, that he is not yet capable of comprehending anything beyond the feeling of fear that violent images might provoke.
I also understand that war play is a normal and developmentally appropriate part of children’s lives (great article on that subject here), and I do not have any need to forbid those kinds of games from his life. There is little bad and a lot of good that can come from games of cops and robbers, or superheros and villains, or my childhood favorite, Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers. I wasn’t disturbed or angered to hear that friends at school are playing these games. Still, I think it’s important to let him know that violence is dangerous and wrong, and there are better ways of solving problems.
All of those questions raced through my mind, but meanwhile I needed an answer, quickly. How I wish I could just offer a simple definition this time!
In the end, I decided to abandon theology, keep a matter-of-fact tone, and throw in a small dose of moralism. I told him something like this:
Dying means that someone is gone forever, that they are not alive anymore and we can’t see them or talk to them. Like the dinosaurs—they are all dead. When you kill someone, you make them die. Sometimes you can play pretend about killing and dying. That’s okay if you’re playing superheroes or cowboys and there are bad guys. That’s just a game. But in real life, killing is very bad, because it makes someone gone forever, and their family would be sad about that.
I’m not sure I exactly believe everything I told him, and there are things that I believe that I didn’t tell him. That answer just seemed logical and faithful. He seemed satisfied without being frightened. All the other questions and possibilities can remain unanswered for now.
This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.
These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.
What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:
- “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
- “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
- “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
- “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
- “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)
But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”
Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.
In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.
We who know this act and do things accordingly.
I am supposed to be spending this precious time away from the house crafting my sermon for tomorrow, but instead I am posting to this blog. I haven’t had time or mental space to write in several weeks, and I miss it. There are several entries waiting to be written, but again they will have to wait.
Before Christmas, I set my preaching plan for Epiphany, with a theme on the Rivers of God, starting with the Jordan at baptism, the River of Life in Ezekiel and Revelation, crossing the river to eternity, and the living water of Jesus. In conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I planned this Sunday to use the text from Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream,” and Revelation 22, where the River of Life flows “for the healing of the nations.” My title is “Peace Like a River,” and I had planned to talk about peace and justice, shalom, using images and words from Dr. King, especially his famous anti-war speech, “Beyond Vietnam.”
Today I feel overwhelmed by the prospect. Not because I have too little to say, but too much. And far too little time.
This last week, of course, the news has been dominated by the crisis of the Haitian earthquake, and I have spent hours online reading stories and looking at pictures and videos of the carnage. I have many Haitian friends from my time in Massachusetts, and I wonder how they and their families are doing, who has been lost and who has been injured and who has survived. I have many friends and colleagues from other churches with deep ties and relationships in Haiti, and I feel connected (especially via Facebook) to their anguish and concern and helplessness, to the names and individual stories that are two degrees from me. Missionaries, denominational representatives, clergy colleagues (Haitian and American) whose stories have torn my heart wide open. I want to tell their stories, to deepen compassion in my Sunday sermon. The racism and prejudice among some conservatives (Robertson, Limbaugh and even members of my own family) is appalling, and demands attention in my preaching. I even have an illustration: an image I saw on CNN, of a hotel in Port-Au-Prince that still had running water. They had hooked a hose to the tap on the roof, and let the hose run down all the way to the ground with the water flowing. People were coming from everywhere to fill buckets and bottles and jugs with this water. Justice rolling down like water…
That’s not all that is rolling around in my head. Also this week, a dear, dear friend was a victim of violent crime, and a family member was deployed to Afghanistan suddenly and unexpectedly. I have done three funerals in 10 days. Two were for loved ones who died unexpectedly and threw their families into tumult, folks who were older but not elderly or dying. The third was for a homeless man who frequented our church’s soup kitchen, who died on the streets on Christmas Day.
But all has not been joyless. Last Saturday, the church held a planning retreat that excited and empowered a new group of church leaders who have already stepped up and begun amazing new initiatives that give me great hope about our congregation’s future. Our youth group is planning to join another church for a mission trip this summer, and already eight people have signed up to participate. Last Sunday, I attended the ordination of a faithful, talented young clergywoman I am honored to call my friend. My friend and her service were inspiring, and the preacher delivered a sermon that was intricate and erudite and drew me in for a rich and insightful and inspiring and intellectual journey.
I want to preach like that tomorrow–intricate and erudite and rich and insightful and inspiring and intellectual. The challenges and heartaches of the last week make me want to retreat into the place of sense-seeking and meaning-making as I write. I want to weave the scraps and shreds of stories–MLK, Haiti, funerals, homelessness, youth, new leaders, ordination, crime, war–into a beautiful tapestry of God’s love and shalom persisting through the day and through the night. Somehow, I feel like I owe it to myself and to all those named (and unnamed) to tell their stories in the light and context of God’s love, justice and righteousness.
I want to draw people into the whelming ache of my soul.
I want the words to pour out evocatively enough to become justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream, to let my words become the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word that can break forth new light and hope in the darkest of nights.
I want us to see ourselves jumping off and jumping in to that great River of Life, adding our power to the power of God’s current, flowing on in a great river of healing–for all the nations, for war, for earthquake, for poverty, for racism, for injustice, for violence, for crime, for despair, for prejudice, for ignorance, for greed, for isolation, for homelessness, for grief, for all that is broken and sinful and hurting in this world–let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream.
This! This is what I want from my sermon tomorrow! But I am filled with doubt, with fear, with anxiety. It’s too raw for presentation. Will they get it? If they haven’t been on my wild ride of these last few weeks, will this speak to them at all, or is it too personal? I don’t have time to explain or justify in this sermon. I can’t talk about the roots of the Haitian disaster in the legacy of slavery and indebtedness. I can’t pull the threads carefully through the loom to connect the Haitian revolution to the American civil rights movement. I can’t defend MLK as a prophet and preacher to a prejudiced or pretentious parishioner. I can’t explore the etymology of the Hebrew shalom, tzedek and hesed in contrast with the paltry and impoverished American understandings of “peace”, “justice,” and “loving kindness.” I can’t give a shout out to “supporting the troops” in the midst of a sermon proclaiming God’s mandate for peace. I can’t discuss excuses or blame or justifications for the homeless man’s alcoholism or immigration status, any more than I can discuss my friend’s amazing strength in facing her attacker, any more than I can resolve my conflicted desire to love and support my military family and yet stop the tragedy that is war. What can I say that will do justice to the depth of my thoughts and feelings, let alone do justice to the heartache of their lives this past week, let alone the astonishing depravity and disaster of the world, let alone the power of God to overcome and heal it all? And above it all the fear: will they even hear? And what if they do? And then, what if they listen?
I want to be able to polish this up and smooth it over–to take away the rawness and frailty that is so objectionable, or at least to answer objections. I want it to be tight and cohesive and put-together. I want to insert my arguments against potential detractors, to mount my defenses so that I preach armed and ready for attack, or at least from behind the walls of the fort, with cannons aimed. I want to take “me” out of it–to call down some higher authority than my broken-open and healed soul, to rely on some theological white knight to sweep me up and out of the fray.
But that’s not the way that it’s going to happen. It never is. For God’s justice to come rolling down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream, we have to open our souls to the wildness of the river. We have to rant like John of Patmos, author of Revelation, about fantastical angels and horsemen and rivers at the end of it all. We have to wrench open our agony like Amos, declaring to the world that this should not be. We have to sweat through our shirts and whip the crowd into a frenzy like Martin Luther King did. We have to sing through the night of darkness and death like the people of Port-Au-Prince did, taking to the streets for a joyous march singing songs of praise to God. We have to raise our hands in the air and dance in ecstasy, because the Spirit has captured us body and soul and transported us into another realm.
Because when God’s justice comes it is not soothing like the swish of the Ohio. It is not tame or controlled or calm or tranquil. When God’s justice comes it rolls down like great waterfalls crashing around us, stripping us down, breaking apart all that binds us and setting us free. Free for righteousness, for righteousness, our chance to do right. We are freed by God’s justice so we can lend our effort, our goodness, our righteousness, however frail and broken and halting and puny, to lend our good effort to God’s great river of life, to serve and to heal and to love and to bring peace to all those who weep, to become a part of the mighty stream that God sending throughout the earth. Even when all we have to contribute to the River of Life is our own stream of tears.
When God’s justice comes, we get swept away. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream. And the river will rise, deep and free, and we ourselves, we shall see, on the day when God will wipe away all of the tears from the people’s eyes, and peace will flow like a river and the river will rise. (Tom Conry)