Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecostal Fire, Power, Prayer

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue, May 26,2020
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Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem, asked

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
And then run? . . .

   Maybe it just sags
   like a heavy load.
   Or does it explode?

That poem was written in 1922.

A century later, the question remains; what  happens to a dream deferred?

To me, it has always seemed that a dream deferred smolders, like hot coals, easily blown back to raging fire.

The title of the Malcolm X poem, Burn Baby Burn, written after the 1965 Watts Rebellion, became a catch phrase for racial riots of the following decade:

Sick an' tired
Tired of being

sick an' tired.
Lost in the wilderness

of white America . . .
burn, baby, burn
in time

will learn.

Who is the “he” that will learn?

When? How? How long?

Harold Floyd died last week on a Monday evening, May 23, while police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. His repeated “I can’t breathe” echoed the last words of Eric Garner, who became unresponsive when held in a chokehold by New York police, then died not long after on July 17, 2014.

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue
Creative Commons Attribution License
That year there were at least 100 unarmed black men, women and children killed by police officers across the country. Mapping Police Violence offers their names, photos, short bios. Tamir Rice was the youngest, a 12 year old playing with a bb gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park. Ernest Satterwhite was the oldest. After a traffic violation, a police officer followed him nine miles to his driveway in North Augusta, South Carolina, then shot him repeatedly through the driver’s side door. The father of four was 68.


Yesterday, looking toward Pentecost Sunday, a friend and I walked our church grounds in prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit to move, act, lead, teach, heal. We prayed for comfort, wisdom, unity, grace. For leaders who love and lead with courage. For healing of racial and partisan divisions. For those like us and those profoundly unlike us: God’s grace, mercy, blessing. We prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The fire of Pentecost Sunday is a fire of hope, not despair. Of love, not hate. The first fruit of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 2, is a miraculous bridging of ancient divides. Theologian Willie Jennings digs deep into the astonishment of suddenly shared language:

The Spirit creates joining. The followers of Jesus are now being connected in a way that joins them to people in the most intimate space—of voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place. It is language that runs through all these matters. . . .

The gesture of speaking another language is born not of the desire of the disciples but of God, and it signifies all that is essential to learning a language. It bears repeating: this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped would manifest the power of the Holy Spirit.

. . .  Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak fluently too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs. Like an artist drawing on all her talent to express a new way to live, God gestures the deepest joining possible, one flesh with God, and desire made one with the Holy One. (from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (2017), 28-310)

Jesus’ last prayer for his disciples was for unity, that "deepest joining possible": that you will be one, as my father and I am one. Now his Spirit demonstrates a unity far beyond any his followers might have imagined:

Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.

This unity Jesus prayed for, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is not optional for followers of Christ. It’s the first, most visible witness. It’s the insistent challenge that permeates the life of the early church.

Gentiles? Yes.
Women? Yes.
Slaves? Prostitutes? Roman guards?
Yes. Yes. Yes.

This isn’t a unity of duty, but of love. Supernatural love, that flows out of our own experience of love beyond understanding. As we experience that love we begin to see others through the same lens. The joy or grief of our brother or sister begins to become our own.

That love is at the heart of who we are as Christians, the very foundation of the church of Christ. As Paul insists in Galatians 3: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The joy and challenge of this is that our place of belonging is no longer racial, national, political. As the Holy Spirit moves in and through us, we find walls of separation collapsing.

Yet, division continues.

Rich Vollodas, pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Queens, writes:

The deep trouble the church (in many respects, the white church) finds itself in related to race stems from a bad theology that sees racial justice and reconciliation as optional to the gospel. . . . As long as the gospel is reduced to a personal decision, resulting in private discipleship and a self-centered preoccupation, we will tragically miss the core of the gospel, which is a declaration of Jesus’ Lordship resulting in a new family, called from different places in life.

This fundamental theological perspective has often been “outsourced” to people of color. But we are at a point where a theology of the “new family of Jesus,” or in Dr. King’s words, “The Beloved Community,” can’t be seen as a specialization of theology for people interested in that kind of “secondary” content. The gospel’s application to race must be seen as part of the core content for every Christian.

If reconciliation, unity, "beloved community" are part of the core content for every Christian, how do we get there?

One start would be reading, widely and with humility, from Christians, and non-Christians, of color. Some starting points:
But maybe a better start, this Pentecost Sunday, would be to ask for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, renew our minds, and draw us deeper into the unity we’re called to.

Then comes the work of listening, lamenting, repenting, inviting change:
Who have we labeled?
When have we seen others as “less than”?
What would it mean to truly grieve with those who grieve?
What practical steps can we take to love our neighbors – ALL neighbors - as ourselves?

Today, I’m back to the Porter’s Gate, reminded that our witness is always dependent on the extent we love each other. Not the “other” of our own church, or race, or partisan tribe, but the other of Acts 2: strangers, travelers, people of different races, different languages, those whose understanding of faith is different from our own, those who have no faith at all.

The power of the Holy Spirit is available to us if we ask, and wait, and open our hearts.
Power to live in unity, to serve in humility, to love with the love of Christ.

Power to be light in a very dark, divided world.

I pray it will be so.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Memorial Day Blessing

This Memorial Day weekend, I find myself wondering once again how the German church fell so completely in line with Hitler’s agenda. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, almost 2/3 the population was Protestant. 1/3 was Catholic.

Despite rumblings from some church leaders and organized resistance from others, most German Christians looked the other way when Jews and Romani (“Gypsies”) were rounded up. German Christians cheered Hitler in mass parades, applauded his celebration of German nationalism. German Christians filled the ranks of military forces and staffed the concentration camps.

What process of accommodation, compromise, justification and denial led men and women schooled in scripture to set aside what they knew of love, compassion, mercy and wisdom?

How did they fall into such blindness that they could support a megalomaniac’s assault on fellow citizens and neighbor nations?

Historians, looking for explanations of Hitler and his followers, have wondered if he was mentally disordered or “merely” evil. Much has been written about his narcissism, the incessant resentment and desire for revenge, his insatiable desire for power, his chronic anxiety, his distrust of even his closest advisors. 

Reading in Romans 1 this week, I found myself pausing at the description of those given over to a depraved mind:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools … [J}ust as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. 

To me, much of that sounds reminiscent of Adolph Hitler.

To me, it also sounds reminiscent of our current president, Donald Trump.

He delights in slander, boasts with abandon, fires employees who attempt to share information that contradicts his own constantly-changing point of view. I see no evidence in his behavior or biography of fidelity, love, mercy.

I can hear the howls from friends and family who believe he’s the answer to our nation’s need.

Just as many German Christians believed Adolph Hitler was the answer to their nation’s needs.

Much has been written by Christians in praise of Donald Trump. I read what friends and family recommend with sadness: much of what I'm given is rooted in fear, contradiction, or the strong belief that the ends justifies the means. 

I offer in response my own recommendations:

Or these:

Propaganda was a large part of the blinding of the German church, but propaganda only works when we like what we hear and choose to shut out the truth. We are all prone to confirmation bias. 

I have my own guidelines for avoiding error:

  1. Be wary of propaganda. Consult multiple sources. Weigh different voices. Watch for contradictions.
  2. Listen to the tone of the argument. Hate, anger, rage are good indicators that a person or idea are off track.
  3. Refuse to label dismissively. Ideas are complicated. All people are made in the image of God. Anything that demonizes, diminishes or oversimplifies is likely a path toward danger.
  4. Don’t repeat things I haven’t researched myself. Don’t repeat things that divide unless I’ve spent time in prayer first.
  5. When uncertain, ask for wisdom in scripture, in prayer and in consultation with thoughtful followers of Christ whose integrity I trust.  

Rereading that passage from Romans, I find myself wondering if there’s a surer, more immediate protection. Paul wrote “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”

Evangelical conservative David French has opposed Trump strongly since before the 2016 election and may be the most thoughtful, consistent voice of concern I know. His latest essay, just days ago, describes a debate with Eric Metaxis, to me one of the most baffling of Trump’s evangelical supporters. French offers Metaxis’s points, his own response and concludes:
The question for pro-life Christians is simple, really. At the core of our public identity, are we abortion opponents, or are we ambassadors for the Gospel of life? And if the answer is the latter—as it should be—is it really true that Donald Trump “shames the church” because he’s showing us how to fight?
I say he shames the church, but in a very different way. He obscures the Gospel of life. In his cruelty he defies the Gospel of life. A Christian embrace of Trump does not tell each and every American that they are a person of “incomparable worth.” Instead, it presents a relentless message from the people of God that virtuous ends justify vicious means. At the end of the day, however, even if they win, their unjust man can and will undermine their just cause. 
I believe French is right. And his essay, though long, is worth reading.

But then he ends in a curious way: with a video of a song, The Blessing.

Reading his essay this morning, then puzzled at his inclusion of the song, I found myself watching it, puzzled, then thankful, then teary. As the song grew, as the voices gathered, his point became clear. 

Our answer to anger, fear, war, hate, is not our own anger, fear, war, hate.

It's not even our words of debate, disagreement, disapproval.

Our sure protection is the Gospel of life, the good news of Christ: joy, peace, love, praise, blessing. 

Given to us, given through us to each other. 

If you take nothing else from this week’s post, watch this song, and remember: in war, disease, political turmoil, God’s love will always have the final word.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sing with Me

Bird song starts early in my yard these days.

By six the bluebirds nesting in a front-yard bird house are singing in the bird garden just below my bedroom window.

Soon the house sparrows start, joined by goldfinch, then house wrens.

Wendell Berry’s short poem from A Timbered Choir says:

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet

Is quiet essential?

When our kids were small I sang to them far more hours than I can count. Sometimes I sang lullabies to quiet children dozing on my shoulder, but sometimes I sang loud, cheerful songs to soothe loud, crying children. Sometimes I taught long, complicated songs to bored, grumbling children on endless car rides. I also specialized in amusing songs with antic motions to engage whole groups of kids, restless while waiting for the next camp activity.

The words were rarely the most important part. Sometimes melody mattered most, sometimes rhythm, sometimes exuberant noise.

Sometimes it was just the sound of my voice, no matter how quiet, or slow, or sleepy. “Sing,” one child would insist, late at night, any time I stopped singing, hoping she was finally drifting off. “Sing.”

C. S. Lewis wrote “God … shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I believe that’s true. I’ve been wondering what he means to say to us, during this strange, painful, pandemic season.

But I also believe he sings to us: in our pain, in our anger. In our doubt and grief and loneliness.

There’s a Nooma video, Rhythm, by Rob Bell that hints at what I mean. It describes God as a song, a song that gives form and shape to the world, that invites us to live in tune.

It’s an interesting way to approach the idea of relationship with God, but I’d take the metaphor farther. God is composer, conductor, composition. Songwriter, singer, song.
I’ve been struck during this pandemic season at the songs bubbling up all around me.

On Twitter, I stumbled on a song written by JJ Heller just a day or two before. I still can’t listen without tears; it captures the uncertainty of this time and offers a comforting reminder: God already knows how I feel, what I fear, how this whole story ends.

Someone shared a link to a song with my husband, Whitney. For days he played it, sang it, whistled it: I shall now want. 

An unexpected Hallelujah chorus, created for an unusual Easter service, turns social distancing into a creative adventure.

And then there are so many different renditions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah: families playing outside for neighbors, choirs learning new ways to sing together from a distance.

What I realize, listening to music in so many unexpected forms: there is beauty in the minor keys, beauty in the musical passages that seem discordant, then resolve. Beauty in the crashing cymbols, the lilting flute. The meaning is larger than any one passage. The beauty is larger than any individual instrument.

More than that: if this life I’m living is my part of a grand composition, I don’t need to know anything more than my own part. I remember times on the cello when my job was just to count measures, quietly, watching the conductor for the moment when I picked up my bow and played the long-awaited next note. Like those kids in the Hallelujah chorus, holding their cards, waiting for the moment to hold them high, I wait, watch, give thanks for the others, in other places, playing their parts so faithfully.

Some Hebrew scholars have suggested that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a midrash (a textual interpretation) – of Psalms 146- 150. The summary would be this:
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Those five psalms are sometimes called the Hallelujah psalms. Each begins and ends with the Hebrew word Hallelujah: Hallel (praise) and the abbreviated name of God – Jah- the first part of the word Yahweh. 

There have been books written about those five psalms; the promise of healing and restoration, the call to praise, the description of all nature joining in song.

From 146: I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

From 148:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
 wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

From 150:Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

I’ve written before about the Porter’s Gate, an annual gathering of songwriters, theologians and worship leaders meeting to think and pray and create music together that invites and welcomes people not yet part of the life of the church.

The two CDs produced so far, Work Songs (2018) and Neighbor Songs (2019) have become a sound track for me in this strange time: songs of grace, hope, love for neighbor, reminder that we are not alone.

One song, “And the earth shall know,” invites us all into that great song of restoration promised in the final psalms:

And the earth
Shall know God's name
And the earth
Will sing God's praise
All of the earth shall sing the praises
Of our God

I don’t have answers.

I often don’t even have words.

Yet as I sing, as I join the song around me, I find it easier to trust, to hope, to let me heart and mind rest in what I know is true.

And in joining the song I find myself aligned with the power and prayer behind the song.

Sing it with me!

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day Prayer

I confess, Mother’s Day has never been my favorite holiday, much as I love being a mother and now grandmother.

As a kid, I hated Mother’s Day. That’s a strong word – but true. Mother’s Day was the day to remember that mine had vanished before my second birthday. A day to note, up close and personal, that not every family looks and feels like a typical Hallmark card. I wrote about this in a 2013 post: Like a Motherless Child. I noted then that for many, for a wide mix of reasons, Mother's Day can be a day of pain.  

This Mother’s Day the pain will be shared more widely as nursing home doors are shut, as social distancing keeps us far apart.

In that 2013 post I wrote about the spring I was sixteen. My grandmother complained of chest pain and went off to the doctor, from there to the hospital, leaving my older brother to report the news: she’s having a heart attack. It sounds bad.

After sharing the news, my brothers disappeared into their shared room, leaving me alone.

I’m not sure I had ever felt so alone. The years before had been years of upheaval and change. This felt like the last straw. The bridge too far. The end of any possible safety or solace.

My grandmother was my only parent or guardian, but also the person I talked with most. The single hint of stability in a fragile, fractured time.

I remember kneeling beside her bed to pray, but mostly crying, inconsolable. 

Resettled Farm Child, Dorothea Lange,
New Mexico, 1935
Why? Why me? 

What would happen next?

I don't remember how long I cried.

What I do remember is when my eyes were burning from tears and my head was aching from crying, I had the strange sense of a warm hand on my head, a strangely familiar voice speaking, not audibly, but somehow very clearly: All will be well. I will be with you. Now get up, wash your face and go to bed.

No one had ever told me to wash my face after crying, but that seemed right. 

I got up, washed my face and went to bed.

And slept. And woke the next morning, on time, to go to school, to finish the final week of classes, papers, projects. To take my final exams still not knowing if Grandma would recover. To navigate a lone trip to the laundromat, to help pack clothes for my brothers and me to head off to planned summer jobs at different Christian camps.

Sifting back through memories of that difficult time, I find no conversations with caring adults. No one who sat with me and said "your grandmother’s had a heart attack and this is what that will mean.” 

It was clear our lives would change, but how? When? Where would we be?

I don’t remember interpreting “all will be well” in any specific way.

And yet, that promise, and the promise "I will be with you," carried me forward. 

It wasn’t a guarantee that my grandmother would survive. She did. 

Ad it wasn't a guarantee that nothing would change. 

Everything changed, in ways I wouldn't have chosen. 

I came back from camp at the end of the summer to learn we’d lost the place we were living and I’d be starting my senior year living with a family I didn’t know, attending a new school I didn’t choose, while my grandmother convalesced with family friends many miles away and my younger brother went off to boarding school. 

Our family was never again together in one place for more than a few days at a time. 

What I knew then, know now, have held to all these intervening years: there is more to the story than the current challenges. Loved ones may die. Safety may vanish. All we think we need can be swept away in a moment’s storm, or flood, or fire.

Change is inevitable.

But God is still with us.

And all will be well, in ways we can’t explain or understand.

I shared the Porter's Gate song, Nothing to Fear, in my March 29 blog post. The message that resonated then was the title, Nothing to Fear, challenging words at the start of a pandemic. Yet the greater message sings to us all across the days of social distance: however isolated or alone we feel, Christ is with us, always. 

This Mother’s Day that’s my prayer for those I love, those I know, all those who struggle with loss and grief, anxiety, anger, fear.  

All those feeling isolated and alone. 

That God will meet you in that place and speak to your heart in a way that you can hear.

"What can separate you from my perfect love? 
Do not fear. 
For I am with you. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Deeper Friendship

Mary Encounters Jesus in the Garden,
Jesus Mafa, Cameroon, 1973
During this strange time of social distancing, isolation and free-floating anxiety, I’ve been reading again the passages just after Christ’s resurrection.

He had told his followers he would die, and had said “greater love has no one than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Those friends, anxious and grieving, encountered him in deeper friendship when he met them in their grief and gently turned that grief to joy.

Mary was the first: Mary in the garden, ready to care for his battered body, stunned to meet her risen friend.

Then there’s that encounter on the beach, recorded in John: Jesus tending a fire, cooking fish, asking Peter: “Do you love me?”

That story is so familiar we might miss the incredible strangeness: a man who dies, was buried, now asking a friend: “Do you love me?” Not once. Three times. Inviting Peter into a deeper, demanding, life-altering friendship.

I can look back across my own life and see times of invitation: the night when I was sixteen and I thought my grandmother, my sole parent and guardian, was going to die of a sudden heart attack. An excruciating bout of viral pleurisy four hot August days in an un-air-conditioned Philly apartment. The morning in a pediatric ICU when the doctors’ voices went quiet and they asked me to sign off on a new, untested procedure for my limp, tiny child. The first week leading a mission trip in Kensington, where I somehow encountered poison ivy and slept maybe four hours in six anxious night.

In each of those moments, and many more, I heard the invitation: will you trust me? Do you love me? Will you let me be your friend?We really don’t have words for the kind of friendship Christ invites us to: a friendship of total honesty, painful humility, full obedience. 

A friendship where we're given glimpses of the world as it’s creator sees it: a place of beauty, of brokenness, of limitless grace. 

A friendship that shows us that this life, these times and treasures we hold so dear, are just a chapter in an unfolding story: lovely, loved, but never the final word.   

Harold Copping, Britain, 1910
I’ve been feeling that invitation in these recent weeks. There are days so gray I find it hard to breath and find my solace in that ever-deepening friendship. There are days when I struggle with the beauty of a cool, lasting spring, set against the stories of sickness, loss and death.

This season has reminded me that part of friendship with Christ is honest friendship with his people. It’s hard for me to invite prayer from others on days when I’m angry, sad, stuck in a yellow fog. When I do reach out, that friendship deepens.

It’s also not my normal practice to call people I don’t know well to say “you’re on my mind. How are you doing?” When I do, the friendship deepens further.

In all of this, I’ve been praying that more and more, this world will know the friendship of Christ. That his kindness will strengthen our medical workers, pushed beyond endurance. That his mercy will greet those dying alone and bring them safe into eternal beauty. That his gentle voice of correction and reproof will be heard by those who manipulate truth for gain, or pride, or hope of power.  That his question, “do you love me?” will draw us closer to him and to each other as he shows us how to feed his hungry sheep.

This week my friend Ruth shared a poem written just a day before. I’ve asked her if I can share it here, a gift of friendship, from her, to me, to you, from the friend beyond all others:

I hear your love song singing over me
In the cool damp grass
In the sparrows building their nests
In the heady fragrance of the lilies
In the gentle croon of the hen ready to lay her egg.

You have laid a blanket of peace over my shoulders,
A softness that caresses me,
A warm comfort like the crackling of a log fire.
I can smell your sweetness like mown grass
Like leaf mold on the forest floor.

You have loved me with a strong love,
A possessive love,
A jealous love,
A fervent love.
Yet I feel it in the gentleness of a light breeze,
A cat’s soft purr,
A wispy mist over a still lake,
A child’s contented sigh,
Dust in a beam of sunlight.

I want to drape this blanket over this hurting world,
To gently caress it with soft tears
Of remorse, of mercy and of love.
                               Ruth Morgan