Sunday, July 15, 2018

Defiant, Persistant, Prophetic Hope

These past few months, as the work I've been doing careens from apparent forward motion to sudden standstill, then springs back to life only to stall again, I've been puzzling over the dynamics of hope.

Is hope a spiritual gift?

A naive illusion?

In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King insisted on his right to dream, even in the face of legitimate discontent:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. 
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Was King naive to hold to that stone of hope?

Evidence might suggest so.

Am I naive to think that change is possible, despite daily evidence that it's not?

In Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann explains the role of hope in fueling opposition to the prevailing narrative. 

He describes a destructive economy insistent on unsustainable dependence on fossil fuel, fueled by military profit and its attendant violence, trapped in an exceptionalist vision that places a highly entitled “we” in eternal opposition to an always encroaching “them.”

Brueggemann catalogs “the despair-generating” epidemic of anxiety that confronts us:
  • anxiety acted out as unrestrained greed (there’s not enough, so grab what you can)
  • anxiety acted out as privatism (we need to look out for the private self; there’s no room for concern for the common good)
  • anxiety as willing violence (demonstrated in loyalty to guns, eagerness for military combat, readiness to torture, willingness to execute)
  • anxiety as nostalgia for the good old days: “the safe, protected, homogeneous community of the like-minded . . .  fencing out frightening otherness.” (117)
  • anxiety in the presence of a pervasive sense of “end time”, an apocalyptic vision in which “it’s every man for himself” and “you are on your own.” (118)
In the face of that anxiety, according to Brueggemann, “The prophetic task is to articulate hope, the prospect of fresh historical possibility assured by God’s good governance of the future.” (119)

His book was published in 2014. Today, in 2018, the call to hope is even more difficult and yet more urgently necessary.

During my years of youth ministry, I sat, more times than I can count, in the presence of a young person grieving options squandered, trapped by bad decisions, fearful of the future.

And I've said, more times than I can count, “This is not the end of the story.”  

I’ve seen that in my own life: great loss that led to new options and new avenues. Heavy sorrow that led to greater joy. 

And we've seen the same through the pages of history: empires collapse, principalities flounder. New ways of living emerge. 

If we are loved, as I believe we are, if there is a good God holding us and this world in his hands, our own worst mistakes are not the end of the story.  

The broken systems of this world, the pervasive powers, the prejudice, dysfunction, violence, inequity, may burden us and do grave harm, but they don’t have the final word.

Jürgen Moltmann came of age during World War II and was drafted into the German army in 1944. He surrendered at the close of the war and spent the next three years as a prisoner of war. Tormented by “memories and gnawing thoughts,” he struggled with guilt, then found new faith and hope in reading the New Testament and Psalms given him by fellow prisoners. His Theology of Hope, published in 1964, explored the connection between faith and hope and described the ways hope places us in opposition to the powers that surround us, enabling us to act in allegiance to God's greater vision.

That unquenchable hope fueled William Wilberforce’s lifelong quest against the slave trade, gave Martin Luther King the strength to confront the injustices around him, drove Dorothy Day's work as suffragist, pacifist, and advocate for the poor and homeless, enboldened Óscar Romero to speak out against a violent, repressive regime. The list could go on and on.

Some days I struggle to continue in hope.

Stories of children separated from parents stir deep sadness, memories of my own family separations, dark anger at those who inflict such lasting, unnecessary pain.

Each report of a shooting in school or public place, each legislative skirmish where voices of reason lose to lobbyists funded by unrighteous profit, sucks air from my lungs, burdens my forward motion.

I see daily, in my own work and in the national news, how easily one powerful, selfish man can shatter the heart-felt effort of thousands of decent men and women.

Our systems amplify the voices of the most self-indulgent while muffling the cries of the many. 

Nelson Mandela. seven years into an undefined prison sentence, wrote his wife Winnie: "Remember that hope is a powerful weapon, even when all else is lost." 

For him, hope was an act of defiance but also prophetic statement: apartheid would not, COULD not, have the final word. 

He was right, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

That same defiant, persistent, prophetic hope has enlivened the work and witness of countless men and women across continents and centuries.

That same hope pulls me from bed most mornings, pushes me forward in unexpected ways, cries out, in me and so many I know and love, against the sweltering summers of racism, injustice, environmental degradation.

Our hope is not in our own small offerings, but in the knowledge that the story isn’t over. 

The dark forces of this world must not, will not have the final say.

God’s love – greater than ours, more powerful than ours – will reconcile, renew, restore in ways beyond our understanding.

Our hope in that love, our faith in that reality, gives us courage, conviction, and the ability to live and love in ways that defy the dominant narrative of our day.

I can't give you that hope. 

Some days, I can barely hold it for myself. 

But I can pray:
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18-21)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

[This is a rethinking of an earlier post, What I'd Give You: Resolute Hope, January 2016.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Resurrection: the Great Reversal

For me, a strong signpost of the resurrection is the record of the first encounters at the empty tomb. According to all four gospels, the women were the first to see evidence that Jesus was risen; three of the gospels record that women were the first to speak with Jesus; all say they were the first to spread the good news of the resurrection.
Women at the Tomb, Jesus Mafa

You can pass this over as just a small detail in a fast-paced story.

Or you can count is as one more hallucinatory scene in a mythical retelling that has little to do with actual fact.

Or you can wonder, as so many have: why would anyone trying to gain credibility for a strange new faith trust the story to the mouths of women?

As N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar, has noted in sermons, lectures, and books, the role of women in the resurrection story is itself part of the great reversal of Easter morning:

"And who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala. . . she is someone who has been cured of terrible multiple demon-possession. But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life. 
Mary Announces the Resurrection,
Mary Charles McGough, Minnesota, 1993
It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be accidental for John and the other writers. And I dare to say it cannot be accidental in the purposes of God."Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multiple spin-offs, that whereas before Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled – to put it mildly – with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous. "
In the great resurrection reversal, we are all set free from the second-place status ascribed to us by tradition, culture, or patriarchal law.

Jesus said “the truth will set you free,” and across the centuries resurrection people have experienced that reality in the face of prejudice and unjust laws and every voice that continues to insist freedom is for those born in the right place, with the right skin, the right body.

What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

How do we demonstrate – in our daily actions – our confidence that death is no longer the final word?

What does it look like to live so aligned with Jesus, so like him in word, deed, motive, that people who see us see evidence of resurrection?

The sermon on the mount is a good place to start. Looking back, it becomes clear that Matthew 6 is the proclamation of the Great Reversal: a new kingdom coming, a new way to live. Jesus says: Look, you do it this way. Turn it upside down.

Blessed are the rich and powerful? No – blessed are the poor and humble.

You love those who love you? Love those who don’t as well.

You worry? Learn to trust.

You want your own way? Want my way instead.

This reversal shows up in small ways through the gospels: tax collector Zacchaeus, stunned by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, decides to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he’s cheated.

Woman at the Well, Hyatt Moore, US
The Samaritan woman at the well starts her story afraid to draw water at the normal times, reluctant to talk with Jesus, a secretive woman burdened by shame. She ends her story sharing the news of Jesus with everyone in town; according to Orthodox tradition, she was renamed Photini, "Equal to the Apostles,” and went on to witness in Africa and Rome before being martyred for her faith.

Were there others whose lives demonstrated a reversal of intent, a radical, visible change? Certainly people were healed. Lives were redirected. The teaching and example of Jesus attracted plenty of attention.

But in the gospels, although Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, it wasn’t really visible in the lives of his followers. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were still wondering how to maneuver their way to power. Peter, self-focused from the start, was busy with his own off-beat agendas. Mary and Martha bickered about the proper role for a spiritual woman. All seemed convinced their own ideas, their own plans for the future, would somehow work better than whatever Jesus had in mind.

What Jesus had in mind, in his cross and resurrection, took their ideas, plans, hopes, vision of how the world should work, and shredded them. Completely.

Want power? Turn the other cheek. Again.

Want a future? Let your best hopes die.

Want to be an insider? Part of the gang? One of the club? 

Align yourself with the marginalized, forgotten, despised. Set your reputation with theirs. Claim their abandonment as your own.

The resurrection isn’t some sweet idea of spring and tulips and happy thoughts rising as the days begin to lengthen.

It’s God’s deep song of joy, rising up from the very darkest place of pain and grief: the story isn’t over. The hardest word is not the last. The thing you feared most is the best gift yet. The deepest loss is the avenue to deepest joy.

Beyond that, with the knowledge of that, everything changes.

The disciples, once fearful, found themselves courageous beyond imagining: singing in the face of imprisonment, merry in the face of floggings, buoyant when confronted with crosses, lions, vats of oil, stones, beheading, new instruments of torture. Their persecutors exhausted themselves trying to find more frightening forms of execution. And still the disciples, and those who came after, women, teens, thousands on thousands, went to their death rather than deny the truth they’d come to believe: Jesus was God himself, raised from the dead, bringing freedom for anyone who would follow.

The power of the Christ’s victory showed up not just in the courage of the new followers, but also in outrageous generosity. 

Resurrection people, from the start, have shared things with each other, and with those in need. Not just now and then. Not just when the harvest is exceptional, or the person in need a particular friend.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” Acts 3. 
The early resurrection people acted as if they understood, and could trust completely, what Jesus had said: we don’t need to worry about our own stuff. We can let go of the anxiety, the fear of scarcity, the competitive worry that if I feed you today, my family will go hungry tomorrow.

Justin Martyr, in one of the earliest histories of the church, wrote:

“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it.”

Clement, describing the change visible in any person who took on the name of “Christian,” noted:

 “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”

Clement, like the others who chose to live the resurrection, put a high value on love: your pain is my pain. Your poverty is my poverty. Your illness is my illness.

As Justin Martyr observed:

“We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” 

We live in a time when the word "Christian" has become almost synonymous with judgment, exclusion, hypocrisy, privilege. 

If the truth of the resurrection is held in doubt, it’s not our apologetics that need attention, but our lives together as visible community of love, citizens of the promised new creation.  

As N. T. Wright explains: 

When you see the dawn breaking, you think back to the darkness in a new way. “Sin” is not simply the breaking of a law. It is the missing of an opportunity. Having heard the echoes of a voice, we are called to come and meet the speaker. We are invited to be transformed by the voice itself, the word of the gospel- the word which declares that evil has been judged, that the world has been put to rights, that heaven and earth are joined forever, and that new creation has begun. We are called to become people who can speak and live and paint and sing that word so that those who have heard it’s echoes can come and lend a hand in the larger project. That is the opportunity that stands before us, as a gift and a possibility. Christian holiness is not (as people often imagine) a matter of denying something good. It is about growing up and grasping something even better.
Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But the new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.
This draws from and adds to some earlier posts, including Resurrection WomenMay 12, 2012, The Great Reversal: A Resurrection PeopleApril 15, 2012 and Newness Beyond Our Achieving, April 7, 2013

Saturday, March 31, 2018

In Darkness: Lord, Have Mercy

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? 
Jesus Mafa - Cameroon, 1970s

Poetic refrains echo in my mind, words of warning, of coming destruction:
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)
This post was first written five years ago.

Rereading it now, rethinking it now, I realize in many ways the darkness has deepened. The blood-dimmed tide has worsened. 

To go on with the quote from Yeats above: 
The best lack all conviction
While the worst 

Are filled with passionate intensity. 
Most days I live in hope but Good Friday and the Saturday following seem the time 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. 

The slaughter of children - in schools, churches, sidewalks, backyards - all in the name of personal freedom, corporate profit and obscene campaign spending. 
Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!    (Howl, 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 in working my way through the beatitudes I found myself puzzling over these words: 
"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 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)
This post was first written as part of a series on blessedness.
Beatitudes: seeking blessing in a fractured land
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God
Blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall see God
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
Understanding, living into the promise of blessing, in the ways Jesus described, is the work of a lifetime.

And there's no guarantee we learn as we go.

Those religious leaders who argued - passionately - for Jesus' crucifixion, those power-addled, privilege-protecting overseers of misguided faith are with us still, reminding us, still, how easy it is to slide into betrayal.

How easy it is to surrender those calls to blessedness for some pieces of silver, or the familiar safety of the status quo.

Some days, the only prayer I can formulate is the one that carries us through Lent, that leads us to this day of gathering darkness: Lord have mercy.

Today, tired, heart-weary, I rest in that and wait:

Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Love and Anger

I've been thinking lately about managing anger.

No doubt about it: I'm angry.

When I hear that our president referred to countries I love with language that I would not allow from even the wildest street kid in my care. 

When I see men I once respected twist themselves in knots defending the utterly indefensible.

When I wade through the mounting tide of #MeToo, with each story triggering memories of more, my own and those of girls and women dear to me crumbling, withdrawing, used and misused, diminished, dimmed, shut down.

I promise you, I'm angry.

I set this blog down months ago, but sometimes I'm tempted to take it up again.

Today, I went looking back to see what I'd said about Martin Luther King, Jr.

And anger.

And here it is. A post I wrote in May, 2017.

I've updated it slightly. But the ideas hold true.