I can hardly imagine the shock God felt, squeezing infinite love and creativity into the vulnerability of a human infancy. I am equally at a loss trying to imagine what happened in God when Jesus died. If you take seriously the Trinitarian understanding of the reality of God, it’s a little hard to imagine. Jesus felt forsaken; he said as much. But maybe he was not being forsaken; maybe he was being accompanied even into death. Maybe God was dying, too, and that’s why Jesus felt no answering love in his spirit as he called out at the end.
Shelly Rambo argues in Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining that the Holy Spirit in some way persisted, carrying a weak and weary drop of life out of the death of Jesus, bearing it in some way until the resurrection. She describes some kind of role – bearing witness – for Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple. I would take her description one step further. As Jesus breathed his last exhale, those who were present in some way drew in that dying breath: held that air in their own lungs, where it became part of them, and so carried this breath until sharing it into the air of resurrection.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to stay in the middle. Well, no, I don’t want to. I want out of the middle, just like everyone else facing into an unknown, or an unwanted known. We want to race from the crucifixion to the resurrection.
It’s not that we don’t understand the space between the two. We understand all too well. Holy Saturday is where we spend altogether too much of our lives.
“Take this cup from me,” we say. I need to know, and control, and be in charge of my fate. I don’t want to wonder why; I don’t want to ask for mercy; I refuse the breathless, praiseless hell of Sheol. I will praise you, God, even when I have no reason to praise: I will call out that You are in control, that You will not give me more than I can handle, that You’ve got this. I will make an idol of my idea of You, of what I need You to be. Anything to avoid the dead middle of I don’t know and I can’t fix it and I just have to wait.
So, no, I don’t want to stay in the middle. But here I am. And I have learned to live, here. I have learned to see the beauty around me, to feel the love coming to me, to find work worth doing, even in the midst of I don’t know and this is not what I thought it was going to be and I don’t know how to keep going.
When I can go no further, I have friends and loved ones who take up the baton and breath for me, praise for me, pray for me. When I encounter someone else who can go no further, I take the baton and breathe for them, pray for them, even curse for them, in order to bear witness to their unbearable reality.
When Jesus died, and the breath of God was left only to a disembodied Spirit brooding over us, we did what God needed us to do. We took the breath into our bodies, we carried it on, and somehow handed it back to God, hale once more.
I have so many questions … so few answers … but when logic fails me, I take this turn: into what my spirit knows, and my mystic heart holds true. When the nightmare has come upon you, I can breathe through it with you, bear witness to your pain, and eventually reconnect you with your own breath. God did it for us; we did it for God; we have done it for each other through the ages. We can do it still. And every day I live through this middle way, by the grace of God and the breath of my friends, I learn more deeply how to hold space and breath and time: for them, for God, for you.
One of the most poignant and useless and common questions I hear people ask when they face into their Worst Day Ever is “Why?” Why did I get this cancer, why am I dying, or – worst of all – why my child? I so rarely have an answer. There so rarely is one. Theologians tidy up the struggle under the heading theodicy, attempting to organize theories about why bad things happen to good people. (As if it’s okay for bad things to happen to bad people; karma’s a bitch, you know.)
My experience working with people – and student chaplains – facing into the Worst Day Ever has only deepened my agnosticism. The more I learn from each individual hell about the universality of pain and suffering, the less I need a creed, and the more I accept the simplest of ideas: We’re here to love, and limits on who and how are bullshit. We’re here to care and carry each other through our Worst Days Ever. Because, at baseline, the only promise we can keep is not to abandon or forsake one another.
Which is funny. This is one of God’s most famous promises. And the one God most notoriously seems to fail to keep. The story we tell of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is that Jesus dies feeling abandoned. (You tell me the effective difference between feeling abandoned and being abandoned.)
It’s a riddle. What does it mean for God living as Jesus to die feeling abandoned … by God?
Rilke said, “Live the questions.” Okay. Humans suffer, sometimes from random causes, sometimes from our own doing, often in ways we can’t understand. And yet, in our better selves we move toward the suffering of others. We seem to be wired for suffering with (com-passion). Our brains have special neurons that mirror the experiences of others, enabling us to feel what we would feel if we were in their shoes. These neurons fire in ways that enable us to feel some fraction of what others are feeling, and awkwardly attempt to accompany them in their pain. Because the thing worse than pain is hurting alone.
If there were no suffering, would we still move toward each other? Or would we each live satisfied in our own little bubble of contentment? Did the Creator – or evolution – entail that suffering would be the seed of love?
I don’t know. I do see there is something so all-fired important about this brief spark of life that something calls us out of eternity to experience it … that even God took a turn at actual life. And actual death.
Maybe suffering with is the only way to know we have lived, and loved.
Again, I don’t know. I am agnostic on pretty much all the questions.
What I sense is that I never feel more alive than when I open myself in all my inadequacy to being present with another who is suffering, and let Love be between us.
So, on this day when we blow out the candles, and shroud our hearts in remembrance of the day a great Love died, I will look for the suffering ones, and let my own suffering draw me near to them. I am told that’s where God is, anyway. It’s the least I can do. And maybe the most.
If ever there was a week to hold the newsfeed in one hand and the Bible in the other, with your mind in your heart and your heart in God, this was it. Let’s see what the word of God has to say to us today.
We’ll start with Micah, because I love Micah, the prophet himself and the words, especially Micah 6:8, which feels like a little 8 word gospel.
Micah was a small town guy, if not a farmer then from small farmer stock. I picture him kind of like my dad, short and stocky but brown and strong, with scarred up hands and sun-squinted eyes.
Micah was a mad farmer … not the first and not the last. He was mad people were getting pushed off their land and squeezed out of their markets by dishonest business people. He was mad about greedy priests and crooked preachers. And Micah was furious about a royal regime that connived to further oppress poor people.
I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right.
It’s also good to know that Micah loved his people … and his God. Even though he could get exasperated with them, too. Which is how he sounds here in chapter 6, quoting people who feel put out and ripped off by the never-ending demands of their high priests getting between them and God:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Naw, Micah says.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
We can just see him, standing there in a field with his farmer friends. “Let’s keep it simple,” he says. “That’s hard enough.”
So … here is Micah’s call. Not original, but simple enough that even I can remember it. What does God ask of us? That we do justice … love kindness … walk humbly with God.
And when you think about it, this gospel-in-a-nutshell is not too far off what another prophet said about 800 years later. When the Pharisees were making Jesus crazy with questions, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself.”
There you have it.
Love the Lord your God … i.e., walk humbly with God.
Love your neighbor … i.e., do justice.
Which leaves loving kindness … as loving ourselves?
We all do that, right? Be kind to ourselves? No? Okay. Well … tell you what. We’ll come back to that.
Because we’ve kind of jumped to the end of Jesus’ ministry, and our actual text for today is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes … a set of blessings. Now, like my chef friend Deb, I want to tell you about the food before you eat it, so you can notice the finer points.
- The Beatitudes are declarations … they declare an objective reality, not a subjective feeling. It’s not that we feel this way: it’s that things are this way.
- The Beatitudes are performative. The saying of it, the naming of it actually establishes that it is so. When Jesus says, “Blessed are …” he is making it so.
- The Beatitudes are invitational: we can’t hear it without wanting to live toward what God has declared but which has not come in its fullness yet.
- Finally, the Beatitudes are community language. These blessings cannot be fulfilled outside of the community.
And, like the connection between Micah 6:8 and the love commands, there’s a connection here between the calling of Micah’s mini-gospel and these blessings. Let’s look.
The call is, do justice … Because “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. And “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
The call is, love kindness … Because “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
The call is, walk humbly with God … “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
So … here’s my question … what is between the calling … and the blessing?
Well, I think we are. If the calling is behind us, and the blessing is before us, we are right here, in the between.
So, is there something we need to do, in response to the call, to get the blessing?
Yes … and no.
Remember, these blessings are declarations, in fact annunciations of what is, simply because God is, not because of anything we’ve done. Because God is … here and now … love is, here and now, and always.
That is the reality we live in, all the time, whether we feel it or not. The beatitudes are not feelings. They are the reality of God’s love, filling us and finding us always.
So. It’s not that there is something we need to do to get the blessing … it’s now that we know it is ours, what is our response?
Because, as Eugene Peterson, author of the Message Bible translation says, that is your prayer. He’s riffing on Karl Barth, saying “when you pray you don’t ask God for things. You pray to listen, and then when you’ve listened, you can hear God speak, and take you into paths you never thought about. So, God speaks to us, and our answers are our prayers.”
I’m reminded of what Abraham Joshua Heschel said, after walking with Dr. King at Selma: “I felt my legs were praying.”
Are our legs praying? So that God’s love and grace, that goes before, comes after, and flows through every moment, can wash up against hate and division and exclusion?
God’s love surrounds the orphan, the alien, the widow … God’s comfort surrounds the man who’s lost his wife … or his mother … the women and children and men walking in the millions for justice, who felt their legs were praying … the student caught in an airport waiting room … the family taken off a plane after two years of vetting …
the Jesus whose family fled to Egypt as political refugees knows your pain …
the God who lost his son knows your pain …
and the Spirit of this God is with you in your pain, praying with you and for you in groans too deep for words.
That is God’s word to us. Our response is our prayer.
What is our response?
We do justice for the poor and outcast. We love kindness, for the grieving and the aghast. We strive to walk humbly with God, with word and witness and work.
And we can do more, can’t we. Just this morning, many of us are remembering those fateful words of Leviticus 19: 33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Maybe, like me, you had friends who went to airports and said God’s no to oppressing the alien, who risked persecution to say yes to sanctuary and welcome and comfort for all.
Yes, this God is calling us … to make of our life together a sea of love washing up on the shores of a dry and thirsty land, a flow of God’s beatitudes.
What shall we say together?
Blessed are the undocumented … for you shall find a home with God.
Blessed are the unsheltered homeless adults, children and teens … for God shall be your mother eagle, your sheltering hen.
Blessed are the trans folk … for God shall give you an everlasting name that shall not be cut off, beloved Child of God.
Blessed are the queer ones, for God finds you altogether beautiful in your creative joy.
Blessed are the Muslims, for God will reward your faithfulness with courage and mercy and abundance.
Blessed are the Jews, for God never forgets God’s first love.
Blessed are the Black lives and the Latinx lives and the lives vibrant with color and culture, for God has made your sacrifices a living grace for all.
Blessed are the refugees, for God will give you sanctuary … and so will those who love, honor and obey God.
Blessed are the allies, for God is working out your salvation with you through your fear and trembling.
Blessed … blessed are you, for your desire for God, your holy discontent, your wordless longing is your prayer. Walk humbly in it, with God, all the days of your life.
“We call the police the thin blue line. Let it not be a line that divides us.” – Eric L. Adams, NY police officer and nytimes.com guest columnist
Eric Adams describes his experience as an African American citizen and father as well as a police officer in blue uniform in this guest column; what can only be a painful intersection every day has become searing this week.
It reminds me of a conversation I had thirteen years ago with a fellow seminarian who was a former police officer. She was as intrigued with my background as a Baptist turned pacifist Mennonite as I was with her story, cop turned minister. Our conversation went from curious to passionate when we engaged the question of guns and violence. She spoke about her training to meet what she faced, and only escalate as needed to contain a situation. “What would you do,” she asked, “if you responded to a domestic disturbance, and walked into a house and found a man waving a knife at his wife?”
“Well,” I said, without having completely thought it through, “I wouldn’t want to walk into the house alone. I’d want 25 of my neighbors with me. I’d want us to put overwhelming numbers of people who care about both of them in the room. We’d need to be physically willing to put ourselves in the middle of the fight, and help each of them move away and cool down.” Her eyebrows went up. Mine did, too, as I contemplated being close to the knife, or whatever other weapons might be in the house.
“But there’s not 25 people. There’s one of me. Maybe two if my partner is there. Maybe four if we call for backup,” she shot back.
And therein lies the problem.
We as a society have created chasms of inequality and estrangement that benefit some of us at great cost to others. And those of us with privilege don’t care to know those oppressed, because we don’t want a claim laid on us: to listen, to care, to help, to be at risk in the way experienced by the one we paint Other.
And we draw a thin blue line between us, to keep us apart, to protect our Things, our Property, while the Lives on the line and the Lives on the other side of the line matter less and less.
For things to change, we will have to do three things.
- Lessen the pressure on either side of the line. Shift economic resources from the advantaged side to the disadvantaged side. Significantly.
- Add civilians from both sides of the line TO the line. Blur it with shades of other colors than blue.
- Reach across and through the line.
Sound impossible? Not really. What needs to be impossible is living through another week like last week.
We make bold to call ourselves to your notice
before we have a chance to ask for mercy.
And yet, you meet us with grace
before a word is on our lips.
And so we come to your mercy …
We come, together, to bear together,
what none of us can bear alone.
Some of us are still weeping, Lord.
Some of us are still deep in night
and far from joy.
Be in our sackcloth and our sighing.
for you have promised that
even if I make my bed in Sheol,
you are there.
We pray not to be complicit in our silence, Christ,
so give tongue to our anguish.
We pray not to be culpable in our apathy, Sophia,
so enliven our feet and our votes and our wallets.
Break our hearts of stone, that your light
might enter in, melting us and our weaponry
into ploughshares of peace.
Like trees that stand in a wood,
we have no need or word to invoke your presence.
You are through all and in all, slayer and slain alike.
We grow toward the light of your love
and in the dark of your nourishment.
When we fall like leaves to the ground,
the wind of your Spirit bears us up
and dances us to rest.
Lift us now, Holy One,
that we might bear together
what none of us can bear alone.
O Holy God
In this season
when we are contemplating those
who would lead us
their gifts and their limits
draw our eyes and our visions
our minds and our thoughts
our hearts and our love
Like Hannah, let us cry out to you
for our heart’s desire
Like Esther, let us respond to your call
with risky action.
Like Job, let us fall silent
at your majesty.
Like Moses, let our faces shine
with reflections of your glory.
Sing to us Lord, over the siren call of empire.
Remind us we belong to the earth
far more than it belongs to us.
You hold dominion over all the worlds
and all the ages.
What kind of God are you
that you are mindful
You reveal yourself to us in Christ,
vulnerable baby, dusty preacher scribbling in sand,
praying from the waves,
making breakfast for betrayers on the beach.
You loved us, and you love us still,
beyond our imagining.
And so you come to us,
wild and troubling Spirit
who inspires prisoners to sing
and then breaks their chains.
You come among us,
dancing fiery Spirit
through the locked doors
of our upper rooms
setting the fearful to singing
setting our stories free.
You move among us now
setting us to music
like notes of the most beautiful song
and then you give us to each other
a love song to the world.
Meditation for UNC Chapel
World Communion Sunday
October 4, 2015
When I was a kid sitting in church, my favorite thing was to find a puzzle in the Bible. Which usually meant trying to figure out the length of a cubit. Our Psalm today has a puzzle in it … it’s the first praise hymn in the Psalms, and it’s full of wonder at the good gifts God has given us.
But there’s this funny business in the second verse:
Out of the mouths of babes and infants,
You have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
That’s odd. What does it mean? What comes out of the mouths of babes? What is a bulwark? And who are the foes?
Well, the first question we can get. What comes out of the mouths of babes? Cries! Babies sleep … except when they are hungry or wet or tired … and then they cry. We’ll come back to that.
What’s a bulwark? It’s a wall or a barrier, a defense.
Who or what is God’s foe? Old Testament scholars say God’s enemy is chaos, another way to describe the void that was the wild emptiness of the universe before God created light … and land … and love.
So … how can a baby’s cry become a defense against chaos?
Daniel Stern, an expert on infant psychology, says that chaos is how a baby experiences the world. A baby is its feelings: its hunger is a hurricane of feeling washing through everything, its tiredness is a torrent tearing the baby apart. A mother hearing the cries of her baby feels an instant response. Her brain begins producing oxytocin, sometimes called the compassion hormone. Her breasts produce milk, she reaches for the baby and gazes into the baby’s eyes. They bond in love, all over again, her nervous system regulating the baby’s system, with soft sounds, gaze, heartbeat, breath.
When a mother or father picks the baby up and feeds her, soothes her, this care is everything to the baby, turning her world right-side up and making everything okay. Kind of like the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters, soothing chaos into the order of creation. Just as there is deep joy and contentment in the parent caring for the infant, I have to think God felt deep joy, too, in God’s work of creation. Why else create, except to have something to love?
It is the cry, whether of a single baby or of a world in chaos, that gives God purpose and movement and a reason to care. It is our cry that triggers God’s creative, compassionate response, giving us – as Jesus says – the kingdom.
And this brings us to our reading in Mark. Jesus has been feeding people, like a caring parent. The disciples have been arguing over which of them is the greatest. The Pharisees have been fighting over which law is the most important. And then some parents come walking up to Jesus, bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them. And the disciples wig out, getting all stern with the mothers. See, in that time, children weren’t the point. They didn’t have Baby Baby stores and $200 strollers. A child was a non-person, until they were old enough to work or be married off. So, the disciples were completely in line with the times … but not with Jesus.
Let the little children come to me.
Do not stop them.
It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God
as a little child, will never enter it.
And he took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Jesus is following the law of the heart, the same heart as was in creation, brooding over the face of the waters, responding to the cry of chaos by creating compassion and comfort and care. The same heart that heard the cry of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, and said “Let my people go.” The same heart that spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Is 49:15-16)
Jesus speaks from the heart of God when he says “Let the little children come. Do not stop them. Don’t stop the refugee children. Don’t stop the immigrant children. Don’t stop the children who don’t have enough to eat. Don’t stop the children who can’t bring themselves to eat. Don’t stop the abused children, the homeless children … do not stop them. Because all the children can do is receive. Everything they have is a gift.
The kin-dom of God, our belonging to God, this we need to learn to receive as they do … as gift. Unearned. Not about who’s first, or right, or wrong. Abundance, freely given. Gift.
This is the law at the heart of God’s world. God’s nature is an eternal readiness to give. Our nature is to cry out of our chaos. When we do, God responds. As Hagar said, God is the one who sees, the one who hears. God is a God of response. If we don’t cry out, God can’t be who God is. It is in our nature to need God’s love, and to cry out for God. It is in God’s nature to respond. This circle of love is the nature of the world created for and held in God’s compassionate embrace. Like a mother whose body aches to feed and hold her child, God aches to draw us near. And freely give. Thanks be to God.
Whether we are facing personal conflict in our relationships, or leaning into the harder conversations of our society – like those around racial injustice and sexual identity – many of us struggle to listen to what needs hearing and speaking what needs saying.
Listening is a core competency for me as a pastor and chaplain, but I am finding listening also can be a revolutionary and democratic act: revolutionary in the sense that it can lead to transformation, and democratic in the sense that it is a responsibility that attends the right we claim to free speech. As Jacob Needleman sagely put it:
Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?
I agree with Needleman’s thinking, and I also know I find all kinds of ways to not listen and not let the other’s thought into my mind, particularly when I disagree — or think I am going to disagree — with the speaker. (Of course, some “conversations” need to be shut down. But when they don’t, continuing to engage can feel stressful or even scary.)
I’ve found help in a couple of places. One help comes from the SAVI (System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction) approach to communications analysis, which suggests a way of engaging conflicted communication. In the SAVI approach, a controversial statement is met by the listener finding and naming three positives in what they’ve heard, and then opening up with a broad question.
This reminded me of the technique I learned at DSI Comedy for working with an improv partner’s offering: three key ways of doing “yes, and …” builds. To build on or heighten your statement (“We like ice cream!”) I can add a detail, emotion, or consequence of your statement.
Detail: “Yes, we like ice cream, especially chocolate!”
Emotion: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, we love it more than anything!”
Consequence: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, and if we don’t get it, we’re not happy.”
As you can imagine, these are also ways to connect in a situation of conflicted communication, when you might be hard put to identity three positives about a controversial statement or one you personally disagree with. This is common for me in my chaplaincy work, where I often hear a theologically tinged statement that I can’t agree with (but which it would not be helpful to critique in that moment). It is also common for me in political conversations. Here are a couple of examples.
Many times when someone is in a crisis situation, their reliance on their faith background may lead them to say things like, “I know this is part of God’s plan.” This can be heartbreaking when said in the wake of a life-threatening diagnosis, injury or even death. But I can’t just disagree; that would be like taking away a patient’s oxygen. So, how can I engage? Right. Three builds and an open question or invitational question … which might look like this:
“I hear you relying on God in this painful time.” (detail) “I am glad your faith is helping you.” (emotion) “This is such a tough situation; I might be having a hard time accepting it’s God’s plan.” (consequence) “Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” (open-ended question)
I feel more connected to the person I am listening to – in the way Needleman describes – when I take this approach; I certainly have not shut them down or shut them out. Our conversation has a chance to continue; we may even get somewhere that may provide more comfort to the person.
This approach can work in situations of greater conflict in values, attitudes or behaviors, even situations where someone says or does something offensive or unjust. For instance, if you are in conversation where someone says something racist or sexist, one approach is to just call them on it. Sometimes the relationship (or lack of a relationship) may mean you need more nuance. Or maybe it’s just hard for you to speak up in these situations, and this structure can help you.
For instance, you may have heard comments like these recently: “I’m so tired of all this ‘black lives matter’ stuff, and crap about the Confederate flag. I mean, really, can we stop overreacting?”
If you wanted to use this technique, your reply might look like this …
“I can hear you’re tired of hearing about racial injustice.” (detail) “I can only imagine how tired people of color are, of bearing the brunt of our racist society.” (emotion) “I see people, African Americans and trans people of color in particular, pay with their lives … and I feel the need to respond, though I don’t always know how.” (consequence) “I wonder who you listen to about these issues?” (open ended question)
The point is to find places where you can identify a detail, feeling or consequence in their statement, or in your own stance.
Which, of course, means you first need to listen. I did not know when I took my first class how fundamental listening is to good improv. In fact, it is the heart of the game. When the leader calls out, “Players, are you ready?” … the unspoken part of the question is, “… to listen?”
And in listening, to hear each other into our truer, better, more joy-full selves.
Yes! And … ?