Sunday, March 31, 2013

Where is Newness Needed?

Who Will Roll the Stone Away?
Hannah Varghese, 2001, Malaysia
Now is the shining fabric
    of our day
Torn open, flung apart, 
     rent wide by love.
Never again the tight,
     enclosing sky,
The blue bowl
     or star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity
For Easter love has burst
     his tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us 
      from God's desire -
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, 
      not even sin.
Now glory waits         
so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.

Where is newness needed?

What are the things that trap us, trick us, hold us captive, like tightly wound grave clothes, or stones against a tomb?

What brokenness in us, in our faith, in our world, holds us in fear, whispers “this is all there is,” insists “the future you dream of is not possible”?

Where is newness needed?

The world Jesus was born to was brutal, angry, merciless.

Watching the new Bible series on the history channel, I flinch at the level of violence depicted. Yet Jesus lived in a violent time, under the rule of violent, arbitrary leaders addicted to power, willing to execute sons, brothers, wives, innocent children, to maintain control and suppress any hint of opposition.  

In a fearful, self-protective world, the church had become as fearful and self-protective. Divided, distrustful, angry: the leaders watched for any hint of opposition, aligned themselves with political power, did what was needed to maintain their own illusion of control.

Who could live in a world like that without being fearful, angry, suspicious? Every move was watched, every word was judged, every resource carefully guarded.

Jesus promised newness. In everything he said and did, he called to question the logic of his day. The poor will be rich. The weak will be strong. Those who risk their safety in acts of love will be the ones held safe in God’s eternal care.

His words made power angry. His acts defied the economics of the day. 

His promise of new hope, new freedom, a new spirit, a new way, led to the same punishment that awaited anyone who dared to challenge the order of the day: death. 

The Harrowing of Hell, icon, 1500s
A painful, public death. A sign to all watching that might is absolute, and newness, the kind Jesus promised, is a fool’s dream, nothing more.

So did the resurrection happen?

Did the same old story take an unexpected turn?

Did the newness Jesus promised, new life, new hope, new freedom, rise with him and walk free from the tomb?

Or did power, death, the established order, the accepted logic, the self-protective anger, win the day, and prove, yet again, that hope is food for fools?

Track the newness in the lives of Jesus’ followers.

New courage, new wisdom, new abilities, new compassion.

Track the newness in the spread of their story.

New communities. New worship.

New insistence on care for the poor, help for the sick, love of the enemy, a place at the table for women, outsiders, untouchables.

Track the newness, even now, in unexpected places.

New confidence among the untouchable Dalit Christians in India

New joy in small in-prison Bible studies, new hope in communities of care built on the edges of city dumps, in battered urbanneighborhoods.

Jesus promised new lives, new hope, new wisdom, a new spirit.

New unity with his father.

New unity with others who seek to follow him.

Where is that newness needed?

Where is it visible?

Do we believe it’s possible?

Or do the old kings, the old laws, the old powers, systems, priorities, still rule the day?

Controversial Irish thinker/writer/speaker Pete Robbins talks about what it means to affirm, or deny, the resurrection:
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. 
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.   
For the Least of These, Soichi Watanabe2004, Japan

Is he right?

Is the newness Christ offered something personal, particular, private, just for me?

Or does it start there, like a seed, and grow into something so visible no one can miss it?

Does the newness change my heart, and nothing more, or does it change the way I love, the way I serve, the way I align myself with those left behind by the powers of the day?

Are we ready to let the old selves, the old ways die, and rejoice in this newness beyond our own achieving?

Where is newness needed?

And are we ready to embrace it?

Christ is risen!
We give thanks for the gift of Easter
     that runs beyond our explanations,
                     Beyond our categories of reason,
     even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.
We know about the powers of death,
                                powers that persist among us,
                                powers that drive us from you, and
                                                                 from our neighbor, and
                                                                 from our best selves.
We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety,
                                                        and brutality and certitude.
                                powers before which we are helpless.
And then you….you at dawn, unquenched,
                           you in the darkness,
                           you on Saturday,
                           you who breaks the world to joy.
Yours is the kingdom….not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power….not the glory of death.
                Yours….You….and we give thanks
                                For the newness beyond our achieving.
  ( Not the Kingdom of Death, Walter Brueggeman)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Blessed to Walk in Love

My preferred way to celebrate Good Friday would be to spend the day in darkness. If I had my way, I’d draw the blinds and spend the day alone.

Good Friday, for me, of all days, is the day to acknowledge the depths of our desolation. What kind of world is this, that calls for the crucifixion of the kindest man that ever lived? Poetic refrains echo in my mind, words of warning, of coming destruction:
White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938, Paris
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
    (Second Coming, William Butler Yeats)
Two thousand years after Christ’s birth, death, resurrection  – with all we’ve learned, all we’ve seen, all we’ve been given - we still spend our energies in building better bombs, arguing for more guns, tricking the poor and hungry into buying seed that will lead to more suffering, spending time and money on food that can never satisfy. 
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,         
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only      
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,    
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 
And the dry stone no sound of water.
    (The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot)
Most days I live in hope, but Good Friday seems the day to stare most deeply into our depravity, to sound out the word “hopeless.”

Beyond hopeless. 
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
   (Eliot, Hollow Men)
For me, Good Friday commemorates the journey of Jesus Christ into the very heart of our darkness: his gathering to himself our betrayals, our outrageous inconsistencies, our dirty secrets, our petty, enduring hatreds, our self-righteous explanations for violence and greed.

The least I can do is travel with him, as much as I’m able, examining my own participation in the pain of the world, my own contributions of selfishness and stupidity, my own deliberate defiance, my complicity in the colossal horrors of our day.

There is much to grieve, much to lament, much to repent of. When I turn in that direction, I can feel the weight of it – the destruction of forests, lakes, rivers in the name of cheaper fossil fuel, ever more electronic tools and toys. The enslavement of a new generation of children, in the name of cheap chocolate and coffee, more tee shirts to stack in our already stuffed closets. 
Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!
Children screaming under the stairways!
Boys sobbing in armies!
Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!
Allen Ginsberg ) 
Christ is Nailed to the Cross,
Anna Kocher, 2006
I’ve always imagined Jesus, in agony beyond the physical agony of crucifixion, one of the most painful deaths the human imagination has devised. I’ve imagined the emotional pain of betrayal and loss, the deep spiritual pain of seeing, carrying, absorbing all our idolatries, hatreds, desperate violence.

But I’ve been working my way through the beatitudes, and this year, these words stand out: 
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
 I had somehow thought that blessing was somewhere off in the future. Hang in there, because later it will be worth it. Great is your reward in heaven.

But as I've been reading, praying, studying my way through the beatitudes, it's become more and more clear: the blessing described is also now, here, present, immediately available. “Makarious,” that joyful participation in eternity, that deep harmony of love given and received, is available now, as we walk deeper in obedience to God.

Is it possible that Jesus’ hours on the cross were not just hours of suffering, but also hours of joy?

Is it possible he himself was rejoicing even as he struggled for breath and gathered to himself the accumulated darkness of multiplied depravity?

I think of Peter and John, singing in prison, after a painful beating.

And of Stephen, face shining, as he staggered under the weight of his stoning.

In the Good Friday observance of Christ’s seven last words, I’ve often struggled with the only statement  recorded in two gospels: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I’ve seen that as evidence of Jesus’ mental anguish, but have also found it troubling: did God really turn away from his son? Does he turn his back on us? And if God is so holy he can’t look on sin, was Jesus in some way not God as he went to his death?

How to reconcile that loud shout from the cross with verses that say “darkness will be light to me,” or “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ”? Or “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

Puzzling over various explanations, I find myself drawn to the idea of “remez”: a rabbinic practice of using a few words of a passage to refer to the entire passage. For any well-trained Jew of his time, Jesus’ cry, “why have you forsaken me?” would have drawn to mind the psalms that deliberate quote introduced: Psalms 22 to 24, the shepherd song trilogy.

In calling those psalms to mind, Jesus would have been calling attention to the very specific prophecies of Psalm 22: the mocking crowd, the pierced hands and feet, the terrible thirst, the casting of lots for garments.

He would have been proclaiming, for all who were listening: “I am that shepherd you’ve been waiting for, the prophecied Messiah.”

And he would have been calling attention to God’s faithfulness in time of trouble.
Crucifixion, Georges Roualt, 1920s, Paris

 From Psalm 22: 
“He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
 From Psalm 23: 
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Even while taking on our own sense of distance from God, our own cries of abandonment, our own moments of doubt, Jesus affirmed, through reference to the psalms, his father's unending faithfulness and love, and drew us closer to himself, and his father.

For me, the cross symbolizes the compiled lies, hatred, violence of generations before and after, the futile attempts of the powerful to maintain control, the self-protective withdrawal of those afraid to challenge evil.

Even the word “tree” is symbolic mockery of all that is God-made, good, and beautiful, a misuse of the created tree, reshaped as instrument of death.

Yet the cross symbolizes blessing as well, and belonging, love deeper than I can comprehend, God’s willing acceptance of the worst man can offer, patient forgiveness, extended embrace. 
If we want to see what love looks like as it stares evil in the face, we need only look at the cross. It is the cross that shows us the nonviolent love of God, a God who loves enemies so much he dies for them ... for us. It is that cross that makes no sense to the wisdom of this world and that confounds the logic of smart bombs. That triumph of Christ's execution and resurrection was a victory over violence, hatred, sin, and everything ugly in the world. And it is the triumph of the glorious resurrection that fills us with the hope that death is dead -- if only we will let it die.(Shane Claiborne)
As I come to the close of my exploration in blessedness, I pray I will share more deeply in the love shown on the cross, that I will join Christ in such deep compassion that my own safety, comfort, agendas, interests, can be set aside for the good of those still distant.

Like Paul, who carried the forgiveness of Christ through beatings, arrests, and eventual beheading under Nero, and like countless other followers of Christ, forgiving, loving, open-handed in the face of persecution and betrayal, I pray to live out the words repeated in our services every Sunday:
"Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God."  (Ephesians 5 / Book of Common Prayer)

This is the seventh in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan    

Other Posts about Good Friday and the cross:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Making Peace: What God's Children Do

Too long have I lived
    among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
    but when I speak, they are for war. Psalm 120
This week was the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq, an occasion marked by bombs in Baghdad, reports of chemical warfare in Syria, continuing argument about drones, guns, foreign policy. 

Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”

From all I can tell as I read the gospels, the book of Acts, the epistles to early churches, peace-making isn’t an add-on, optional activity for a few fringe followers of Christ. It’s visible evidence of family membership. It’s what God’s children do.
St. Francis, Fritz Eichenberg,
 1952, New York

Seek peace, we’re told.

Pray for peace.

Live in peace. 

Go in peace. 

Offer peace.

Turn the other cheek.

Forgive seventy times seven.

Love your neighbor as yourselves. 

Love your enemies. 

Do good to those who curse you.

Peace-making is at the heart of the good news Jesus offers: reconciliation between God and man, between warring factions, between those traditionally included and empowered and those too long treated as invisible and unworthy: 
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3)
 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. . . Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace (Colossians 3). 
James, Jesus’ brother, insisting that faith reveal itself in a consistent, loving life, taught that followers of Christ would express his peace in their inner dialogue, their daily attitudes, their thoughtful, respectful words: 
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  (James 3) 
From Old Testament to new, a sure sign of idolatrous paganism was trust in chariots and swords, military schemes, unsanctioned alliances with brutal neighbors. God’s people were expected to trust in him, not the latest military toy. His wisdom demonstrates itself in peacemaking that brings righteousness (not "rightness," but something far beyond it) 

The trust in God that vanquished fear and allowed believers to live in peace was so striking to observers of the early church that many, weary of Roman brutality, were drawn to the Christian faith, setting aside their own hatreds and weapons. Athanasius of Alexandria, ( 296-373 AD), asked:  
"Who is he that has united in peace those who hated each other, if not the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, who in his love submitted to all things for our salvation? For even from of old it had been prophesied concerning the peace ushered in by him, the scriptures saying, 'They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn any more to wage war' (Isaiah 2:4).
"And such a thing is not unbelievable, inasmuch as even now the barbarians . . . while they still sacrifice to their idols, rage against one another and cannot bear to remain without a sword for a single hour, but when they hear the teaching of Christ they immediately turn to farming instead of war, and instead of arming their hands with swords stretch them out in prayer.” (On the Incarnation) 
Other early church historians echo this:  “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier,” wrote Tertullian.

Clement of Alexandria agreed: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”

According to St Basil the Great, “Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker.”

For Athanasius and other early writers, the courageous peacemaking of the disciples of Christ was visible evidence of God’s power and of the truth of the gospel.

Peacemaking points us back to the Hebrew word “shalom.” 

Shalom is more than an absence of war, cessation of conflict, appeasement of the enemy. Shalom as described in scripture includes good health, safety and security for all, lack of fear, absence of  violence or danger, harmony with nature, joy in doing what’s right, economic justice, ample harvests, wise and equitable leadership, restored relationship with God and others.

Peaceable Kingdom, Fritz Eichenberg, 1950
Seek that.

Long for that.

Pray for that. 


But make that? 


In reality, none of us are able, on our own, to make peace.

Not even a tiny fraction of peace.

Even in ourselves, our own hearts and minds. Our own homes and yards. Our own small circles of influence.

God is the one able to create shalom – to tear down walls of oppression, restore harmonies long destroyed.

And yet he invites us to work alongside him, sowing small seeds of peace, waiting for him to bring fruit.

Just yesterday, caught in the middle of adolescent mayhem, listening to generations of anger bubble up in ill-considered words and not-so-idle threats, I found myself praying to be a maker-of-peace.

There is no recipe. No magic wand.

The tools we’re given are love, mercy, patience, a listening ear – not just to words spoken and unspoken, but to cries of the heart, too long buried, and to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

And service. Sometimes service is an avenue to peace, a way of showing love, of gently dismantling walls.

And prayer - silent prayer, spoken prayer, active, participatory prayer. 

Yesterday’s scene took some troubling turns, skidded several times toward disaster, then resolved, miraculously, with cups of tea around the dining room table, thoughtful conversation about the mysteries of the human heart and personality, then lighthearted talk and happy, healthy laughter.

I had some small part in that small breath of shalom, but the blessing was seeing God at work. Watching him bring hints of health as I offered my obedience. 

I’m mindful, today, Palm Sunday, of the darkness and division inside us all. The same voices that cried “Hosannah!” to the Prince of Peace riding into Jerusalem cried “crucify him” days later, when he refused to pick up a sword and lead a rebellion against the Romans.

We pray for peace, then look for ways to smash our enemies. We say we trust God, then watch our defense budget swallow funds more wisely used in feeding the poor, or building better schools.

We hear the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, then close our ears to discussions of waterboarding and drones, and thoughtlessly repeat what we’ve been told about the groups, parties, nations we’ve come to believe must remain our enemies.

I aspire to be a peacemaker. I’ve had numerous ambitions over the years: a tenured position at a liberal arts college. Write the great American novel. Shatter the glass ceiling in the youth ministry profession. Run a mile without dying.

Thinking and praying about peacemaking this week, I’ve realized: this is what I aspire to most. In my home and extended family. In my half-acre habitat. In the families God has called me to serve, in the unjust systems and troubled regions that are part of my daily cycle of prayer.

I long to see shalom: real health for people, places, communities; just systems of production, distribution, education; genuine love where anger, distrust, exclusion hold sway.

I’m blessed by those who share my aspiration: young adults giving sacrificially of time and energy to be agents of peace in racially divided neighborhoods, an aging social worker going far beyond the call of duty to offer stability and hope to fractured families and children in distress.

I’m nourished by stories of people like Pierre Nkurunziza, of Burundi, or  Leymah Gbowee, of Liberia, who dared to forgive, to pray, to insist on setting aside hatred and anger and model a new way forward, a way of peace.

Where to start?

There's no "peace-maker" degree I can earn.

No job opening I can apply for. 

It's a daily calling - not just for me, but for all of us who claim to follow Christ.

Works of Mercy/Works of War, Rita Corbin, c1954, New York

This is the seventh in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"We Gorge on But and If and How"

Half Light and Silence,
C. Robin Janning, 2007
The tree of knowledge was the tree 
of reason.
That's why the taste of it
drove us from Eden. That fruit
was meant to be dried and milled 
to a fine powder
for use a pinch at a time, 
a condiment.
God had probably planned 
to tell us later
about this new pleasure.
We stuffed our mouths
full of it,
gorged on but and if and how 
and again
but, knowing no better.
It's toxic in large quantities; fumes
swirled in our heads and around us
to form a dense cloud that hardened 
to steel,
a wall between us and God, 
Who was Paradise.
Not that God is unreasonable – 
but reason
in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, 
a polished cell
reflecting our own faces. God lives
on the other side of that mirror,
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't
quite touch ground, manages still
to squeeze in – as filtered light,
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard

then lost, then heard again. 
   (Contraband, Denise Levertov, 1992)

We are smart people, reasonable, educated.

Masters of pro and con, of assembled evidence, of closing arguments.

Our reason has yielded unexpected treasures: Penicillin. Telephones. Atom bombs. Agent Orange. 

If we can think it, it must be right.

If we can make it, it must be worth making.

As Denise Levertov said, “we gorge on but and if and how,” confident we know enough to tame the darkness, master weather, turn back the tides of time that carry us toward eternity.

We believe what we see. And as telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, ultrasounds expand the bounds of the visible, we believe those things too. When it serves our purpose. When it fits our sovereign narrative.

Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Of all the beatitudes, this may be the most difficult for modern Western men and women, schooled on  materialism, objective realism, "the tyranny of reason."

See God? Really?

“Pure,” to us, is a relative term. Nothing is pure. Not food, not water, not gold, not air. We have tests to identify and measure contaminants, lists of acceptable levels. Whole industries are constructed around processes to approximate purity, but never quite get there.

“Purity,” if applied to humans, conjures up images of parochial school nuns, talks about chastity. Paintings of virgin saints.

“Pure in heart”?

“Heart” itself suggests something old-fashioned, something to do with not-to-be-trusted emotion, feeling, belief. The heart itself is a muscular organ, pumping blood. Nothing more. Soul? Will? Character? The Greek word “kardia” points to the inner self. But what is that self? Who sees it? Does it have any reality beyond genetic codes or external forces that determine who we’ll be, what we’ll believe?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” 

Puzzling over this beatitude, I came across thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and founding member of the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler, denounced genocide, and spoke out against the establishment church’s accommodation of the Nazi regime. In his Cost ofDiscipleship, he wrote:
“Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil--and by their own virtues too. The pure in heart have a child-like simplicity like Adam before the fall, innocent alike of good and evil: their hearts are not ruled by their conscience, but by the will of Jesus. . . The pure in heart . . . are not distracted by conflicting desires and intentions.” (112)
Our hearts – intentions, wills, however you want to translate that – are ruled by a muddy mix of motives and opinions. We insist on reason, claim we know best, but our vision is always skewed, our motives rarely “pure.”

As a teen encouraged to make a pro/con list regarding a major decision, I was troubled at how easily my reason could be managed. I could adjust the length of either list, find more reasons for, create reasons against. Sitting there staring at my half-hearted lists, I realized I could argue for anything, explain away anything.

What I wanted was something beyond my own brain. In prayer, I asked God to lead me and had my first glimpse of that light Levertov describes, that “strain of music heard, then lost, then heard again.”

Our divided hearts are on constant display. We want to be good people, live in comfort, go where we want the minute we want, eat whatever we think of any day of the year. Love our neighbors without spending time with them, or bothering to know their names. Breathe clean air without regulation, or thought of our own wasteful consumption. Know we’re right – on any issue – without thought, without work, without questions from those who dare to doubt us.

How often are we willing to say “I don’t know”? To admit “this question is beyond me”?

How often do we come, like children, and set our tangled messes at God’s feet, and ask his wisdom, help, and guidance?

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is of King Jehosophat of Judah. Threatened with attack from a vast, approaching army, he gathered his people to join him in prayer. As the enemy gathered, he affirmed God’s faithfulness in past times of crisis, explained the dire threat on its way, then concluded: “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20).

As he and his people waited, God spoke through someone standing in the assembly, just a face in the crowd:  
“This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you.” 
The next morning, Jehoshophat and his people went out singing praise, head worshipers leading the way. Standing far above the field of battle, they watched the approaching armies turn on each other, and waited in awe for an unearned victory.

I've shared that story many times, in situations where my ministry team felt inadequate, in times when others looked to me for wisdom and I had none to offer. I've come to believe purity of heart is single-minded determination to do things God's way, even when that ways seems strange, unlikely, even dangerous.

Love neighbors – even scary ones. Trust God's provision, even when the cupboard is bare and money seems in short supply. Expect needed abilities to emerge – in others, and in me. In those places of childlike trust, I've seen God tear down that wall of disbelief; I've seen the light of his goodness shining through. I've heard his music, a refrain of joy I've come to know and love.  

1Lent2 Diane Walker, 2012
We live in a troubled time, only dimly aware of the challenges confronting the church, the country, the globe. We eat food that doesn't nourish us. Spend vast amounts of money on weapons that can't keep us safe. Our clean water is disappearing. Our weather is changing, in ways we can't reverse.

We argue details, list our enemies, gather our reasons. We assume we know the answers, when in fact the questions are so complex, so interwoven, so beyond our skill and knowledge that those most informed are forced to admit: “We don’t know what to do.”

In this Lenten season, I find myself fasting, praying, turning to the only one who understands the scope of our difficulty, the depth of our folly. I ask for purity of heart, a desire for God’s way, not my own, not anyone’s own, as I listen, study, think.

And I invite others to join me, helpless before the vastness of our challenges: “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

This is the sixth in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Guns, God, Mercy

To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life.  (Miroslav Volf The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World) 
The Synchroblog topic this month is “Guns and God”:
Do guns and God go together?  Why or why not?
How are you wrestling with this issue in your own life?
How are you respecting the difference of opinion in the wider community and also honoring your own convictions about violence?
What do you think Jesus would do?  
 I’ve posted about guns in the past year from a variety of angles:

Blessed are the Peacemakers, about the strong peace witness of the early church, and the fact that the United States now spends more on military defense than the next fourteen nations combined. 

Guns and Good News, about the NRA, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), and the gun industry dollars that propel the relentless, dishonest "they're going to take our guns away" anti-gun-control lobby. 

Choosing Life, about a wider pro-life stance that addresses our culture of violence and dependence on guns for a sense of safety.

As I continue to wrestle with issues of guns, gun control, and a misguided trust in violence as a way to solve our problems, I've noted other angles to consider:

Research suggests that guns in homes are a health risk to those in the home, both in a significant rise in accidental death, and significant increase in successful suicide, with no evidence of household guns as deterrent to crime, or protection for those who own them: 

A recent Time article highlights the danger of assuming guns will make us safe, explaining that even well-trained, well-practiced officers freeze, shut down, act erratically, or misfire in the face of extreme, unexpected stress:
In the New York City police department . . . officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time, according to a Rand study. When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left 10 bullet holes in the suspect—a better-than-average hit ratio. In most cases, officers involved in shootings experience a kaleidoscope of sensory distortions including tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they have fired their weapons at all. 
Another issue lurking behind much second amendment discussion: What is the Biblical response to oppressive government? The argument for assault rifles and unregistered guns often rests on the rights of citizens to protect themselves from repressive authority. For those who claim to follow Christ, this leads back to the witness of the early church: “For the first three centuries of the Christian church, a hallmark of the Christ-follower was a willingness to face persecution, punishment, even death, rather than pick up sword or stone in self defense.” Jesus repeatedly rejected the idea of violent response to unjust governance, and expected his followers to do the same. As he told Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

On a pragmatic level: if the shoot-out between government and citizens came to pass, as survivalists and right-wing alarmists predict, how would assault weapons fare against drones, bombs and the other weaponry at the military’s disposal? Do we want to allow citizens the right to stockpile tanks and missiles? Drones? Fighter jets?

Follow any of these threads to a logical conclusion and reasonable gun control measures (more comprehensive background checks, consistent registration of guns, limits to certain weapons) look more and more attractive.

But this week, I’m looking at guns from another angle. I’ve been working my way through the beatitudes, and today I’m puzzling over the idea of mercy.

Mercy is another of those words that loses much in translation. The Greek word, "eleos," points back to the Hebrew word, 'checed,' or “hesed,” sometimes translated as mercy, sometimes as compassion, sometimes "loving kindness." It suggests leniency toward offenders. Lightening of a penalty. Restraining from harming an enemy. Help for those in distress. Clemency. Amnesty. Kindness. Forgiveness. Provision for those who don’t deserve it.  Pardon. Reprieve. Respite. Deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering, often in a situation of crisis: war, disease, enslavement, criminal offence.

In the Old Testament, the merciless resort to violence: 
“Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children.” (Isaiah 13)
“They are armed with bows and spears; they are cruel and without mercy. They sound like the roaring sea as they ride on their horses; they come like men in battle formation to attack you.”  (Jeremiah 6, and again in Jeremiah 50)
The merciful set aside their arms, offer forgiveness and restoration. The example of mercy, again and again, is God himself: 
“I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” (2 Samuel 24 / 1 Chronicles 21).
“In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’ Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help.” (Psalm 31)
“In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” (Isaiah 63)
I sometimes struggle with the violence of the Old Testament, a topic for another day. But Jesus, in the New Testament, makes very clear that violence will never bring peace and can never bring the righteousness God desires:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5) 
As the prophets insisted, the sacrifice God desires is justice, mercy, humility, love, all demonstrated, personified, enacted by Jesus on the cross. His response to violence was mercy, compassion, forgiveness "Father, forgive them." We are called to be like him, not to grab our guns and shout “over my dead body!”

I've had little opportunity to confront real violence in my own day-to day life. I've lived, worked, traveled through places some might consider dangerous, but I've never carried a gun, and never wanted one. I've wondered, from time to time, how I would respond if small circumstances escalated. I've occasionally imagined disaster. When my imaginings have led to anxiety, or images of retaliation, I've worked hard to set those imaginings aside, trusting myself to God’s mercy, praying for protection.

The violence I've experienced more often has been verbal. Online, in person, behind my back, I've been attacked, labeled, threatened, sometimes verbally abused. At times I've found myself fearful, or angry, or deeply devalued. I've considered angry responses, been tempted to label as I've been labeled.

It’s at that place, in the discussion about guns and other polarizing issues, that I find myself wondering about mercy. 
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." 
That Hebrew word, 'checed,' or “hesed,” carries the definitions mentioned earlier, but another, even harder meaning: the ability to identify so closely with the other person’s pain it becomes our own. 

And in it's use if offers a strange hint of extension and community: mercy binds us to the other. In giving mercy, I become part of the other. In receiving God’s mercy, I become an extension of that mercy to others.  

Scottish theologian William Barclay, in his commentary on this beatitude, wrote: 
"O the bliss of the man who gets right inside other people until he can see with their eyes, think with their thoughts, feel with their feelings, for he who does that will find others do the same for him and will know that that is what God in Jesus Christ has done."
I’m not sure I’d call this “bliss.” I find it deeply troubling to try to see through the eyes of people consumed with anger, motivated by fear, ready to retaliate. I try hard not to live in a place that feels that dark.

And I work hard to avoid voices of “unreason,” voices that try to incite fear, anger, disrespectful opposition, voices motivated by hidden financial interest or an insatiable desire for political power.

I recoil from a view of the world so absent of grace that our best bet is to put guns in every school, arm ourselves against neighbors and our own elected leaders, prepare for the inevitable worst descending toward us as we sleep.

How do I express mercy in that place of inner discord?

How do I listen, when I know I’m not heard myself?

And how do I listen, when I’m so deeply troubled by what I hear?

Henri Nouwen, a model of practical mercy, wrote: 
"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.
"Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you." (Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith) 
Is listening an act of mercy?

I’m not sure, but it might be a place to start.

To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century . . .
                              not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.
(from “To Live in the Mercy of God.” Denise Levertov)

This post is part of the March Synchroblog. Visit the other sites, and join the conversation!
  • Jeremy Myers – Why I Joined the NRA
  • Chris Jefferies – The Gun of Self-Defence?
  • Glenn Hager – Gun God
  • Gibby Espinoza – Gun Control?
  • Liz Dyer – Turn the Other Clip, This One is Empty
  • Marta Layton – Christian Ethics at the National Review and the Dish 
  • Kathy Escobar – What Do We Want to be Known For?
  • Doreen Mannion – Bang-Bang, Are We All Dead?
  • Yeshua Hineni – Guns and G-d
  • This is also the fifth in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

    Lenten Reflections from 2012:

         Looking toward Lent
         Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
         Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
         Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb
         Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō     
         Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan