Friday, April 28, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes


After I had finished spending forty days contemplating, meditating and studying more deeply Christ's time of temptations in the wilderness, the Spirit led me to spend the month of April immersing myself every day in the Beatitudes. This wasn't just a morning Bible study where I read a passage and then go about my day. What I discovered was that I focused on one of the Beatitudes, read it, prayed it, and then focused that day around living that passage out. One cannot read and live out the Sermon on the Mount without being transformed and transfigured. Gandhi studied the Beatitudes every day for forty years, which is more than a majority of those who profess to be Christians do (including myself). Of them, he said, "Christ's Sermon on the Mount fills me with bliss . . . Its sweet verses have the power to quench my agony of soul." He lived his life according to what he found in Matthew 5-7.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa described the Beatitudes this way:

Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good,
from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.
Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us
if it is compared with its opposite. Now the opposite of
beatitude is misery. Misery means being afflicted unwillingly
with painful sufferings.

The Beatitudes may be a "possession of all things held to be good" but they are daunting. This was not a message to build a mega-church on. Instead, the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a weeding process by Christ as he presents what appears to be a topsy-turvy, upside-down perspective on how the kingdom of heaven should work, not in some far off other land, but in the nitty gritty, down-to-earthy daily life that each of us leads. But he doesn't start off easy or palatable. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," Christ states, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

If I were to go out on the street and survey a great number of people and ask them what it means to be "blessed," it would be a pretty safe bet that none of them would say that is being "poor in spirit." They would, instead, equate blessings with financial gain, good health, a life with no problems or major bumps in the road. 

When I meditate on the Mount, I find myself challenged by my preconceptions and misconceptions of how not only the world should work but how God should work in it. Oswald Chambers wrote that the Beatitudes have the "dynamite of the Holy Spirit" that "explodes when the circumstances of our life cause them to do so." Yes, the Beatitudes are not only meant to comfort, but to challenge us, startle us, shake us up, and wake us up to the ways of the kingdom of God. Proving that His ways are definitely and clearly not our ways. "This is not the way the world works," we like to point out to God and Christ tells us, "No it isn't. That's exactly the point." 

More often when one tries to live the Beatitudes out in their daily life, one will find, even among other followers of Christ, that they will say, "I don't think Jesus meant those literally." We want to wiggle our way out of them. We don't want to love our enemies. We don't want Christ to go past our outward actions to our inner motivations, to our hearts and what is really there beneath the skin. We prefer our holy masks.

I am one of those who would prefer that the Sermon on the Mount not exist. It's like the Ten Commandments on steroids. It is amped up and will not allow a person to stay as they are and to live as they have. To spend a month on the Mount is challenging, but a whole year? A whole year of meditating on and memorizing the Beatitudes - to say this is intimidating is an understatement. By nature, I'm a person who likes to be left alone, but the Beatitudes will not, ever, leave a person alone or as they are. They are to form and shape us into being more Christ-like. Nothing about Christ was easy or comfortable or safe. They push one into the unexpected. I hate the unexpected. I'm like the character in William Stegner's The Spectator Bird when he says, "Enter the unexpected - and I dislike the unexpected, as the man said, unless I had a chance to prepare for it." 

We are called to do more than process the Beatitudes, we are called to practice the Beatitudes. the Beatitudes are a revolution to all who undertake them. Christ is calling each of us to be "blessed" by:
- Being poor in spirit
- Mourn
- Meek
- Hunger & thirst for righteousness
- Merciful
- Pure of heart
- Peacemakers

Do you see an easy one on that list? 

I don't. 

And that's the point. 

The Beatitudes can be threatening to those who don't like or want change. The Beatitudes upsets the status quo. This is not the conventional wisdom of this world that we like to cling to but the counter intuitive wisdom of God on how the kingdom works and of God's very nature. When we approach the Beatitudes, we are approaching who God really is. That's intimidating.

It's also means that this is not a private, personal faith but one that is meant to be lived out in community. It means that I cannot turn a blind eye to what others are going through. An example, this morning when I went grocery shopping, I brought my filled cart to the registers to check-out and pay. I asked the woman at the register, "How are you doing today?" Her response was, "You don't really want to know, do you?" There may be many who would say, "Yup. You're right. I'm busy and have a lot of things I need to do . . ." and there may be days where I feel that way, but in that moment, God had me there to be grace to someone, so I answered, "Actually, I do. I really do want to know." She then unfold the circumstances of her morning and what she was going through. I listened. I saw her not simply as a clerk at a grocery store but as a human being created in the image of God who was hurting and needed to be heard. Following Christ, living out the Beatitudes,  means I cannot view someone else as disconnected from myself or not my responsibility. It means she is my neighbor. For a shy introvert, this means leaving myself and being present to someone else and their needs. 

Christ has not called us to what is easy, simple, or safe. He's calling us out to what is holy, sacrificial, and transformative. Transformations require reformations. It's a process. It's a daily dying to self. It's overwhelming. I would love to ignore the call of the Spirit and say, "No thanks, I would prefer to go about my life as I have in the past, as I choose," but I can't.  So, beginning in May, I will spend the rest of the year solely focused on the Beatitudes and discovering even more in-depth what it means to follow Christ through this central part of his ministry. 

"Sermon on the Mount" by Gerald Shepherd

I  will be studying the Beatitudes in many different translations: King James, NIV, The Message, and the New Oxford Annotated Bible.


I will also seek out theology books that cover the kingdom ethics that are encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount. I will be climbing this mountain of God every day. This is the "Mount Everest of the gospels" as Brian Zahnd coined them. The Beatitudes are a revolution ("a revolution of the heart" as Dorothy Day describes it).

The Beatitudes are not a checklist for me to work through to earn God's favor. They are a way of being and becoming. To follow the Beatitudes is choosing, not the politics of the day, but the principles of the eternity. It's laying aside selfish love and striving for agape love. It is choosing the path of trust and surrender.

For anyone who wants to prayerfully consider joining me in forming this daily habit for the remainder of this year, let me know and we can work together, sharing insights and books that we are discovering. If you're interested, you can either comment below, message me on Twitter or Facebook, or e-mail me at adopt4life@hotmail.com  If you blog, you can share about your experience.

How might the world be changed if each of us undertook to live the Beatitudes out?  I can't wait to see.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dashboard Reads


Never go anywhere without a book is my motto and I always try to live by it. So much so, that if you open the glove compartment of my car, you will find books simply for the reason that I never know when I will be somewhere and need something to read. Many a time, when my family goes into a store to pick something up, I wait in the parking lot and, because there are books in the glove compartment, I can just open it up, choose one and read contentedly until they get back. There can be any mix of books in there, too. Usually there's poetry, fiction, nonfiction and a compact Bible. 

So what's in the glove compartment at the moment?


First it's The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography by one of my spiritual heroes, Dorothy Day. This is a copy I just found at the last book sale our local library had. I was thrilled to find it. One of the passages that I've read that had an impact on me immediately was this one:

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.
We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread,
and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a
crust, where there is companionship.

I just find that passage so beautiful and so Christ-like.


Second, Listening To Your Life: Daily Meditations by Frederick Buechner. 

Buechner is a gifted writer whose way with words dazzles and amazes me. Whether he's writing fiction or theology, he has a profound and extraordinary ability to fill me with awe at not only what he has to say but how he says it. He has a deft skill to see into the heart of the everyday and find something miraculous and wise. Just read this passage where the title of this book came from:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom
and pain of it no less than in the excitement.and gladness: touch, taste, smell your
way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments
are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Frederick Buechner, like any great author, makes me stop, look, and pay attention. 


Third is Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams. True, this was in the console between the two front seats of my car, but that's a minor triviality. Like many, I first became aware of his poetry through "The Red Wheelbarrow." Like many of my favorite poets, Williams is a master of minutiae. He notices the small things that often go unnoticed. It reminds me of one of my favorite films from last year, Paterson by Jim Jarmusch and starring Adam Driver. The film is woven with William Carlos Williams. The main character is a bus driver and secret poet who loves the work of Williams and recites "This Is Just To Say" to his girlfriend. 

One of the poems I love from this collection is entitled "Pastoral":

The little sparrows
hop ingenuously
about the pavement
quarreling
with sharp voices
over those things 
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.

Meanwhile,
the old man goes about
gathering dog-lime
walks in the gutter
without looking up
and his tread 
is more majestic than
that of the Episcopal minister
approaching the pulpit
of a Sunday.
These things
astonish me beyond words.

I love those things that "astonish me beyond words." They are holy.


Last is my compact edition of the King James Bible. I also have one that's an NIV edition, but I prefer this King James one published by Thomas Nelson. Unlike my other compact Bible, this edition is beautiful with its soft burgundy and brown cover. Despite its smaller size, I don't have trouble reading the lettering (yes, it's an age thing). When I am waiting in the school car line to drop my younger son off in the morning, I open it and read to him one of the Psalms. It becomes part of our prayer for the day. Then, in the afternoon, when I'm waiting to pick him up from school, I often read a passage before I start praying for others. If we're driving somewhere as a family and we get into a theological discussion, either my wife or my older son, can open it up to find a passage.  When my older son asked me what my favorite verse from the Bible was, I told him, "Micah 6:8." 
"Which one's that?" he asked. 
"Look it up," I told him and he did. 

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

That led to a discussion on what it meant to "act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God." Isn't that enough of a reason to keep books in my car?


So that's what books are in my car, how about yours? 

If you don't keep books in your car, what books do you carry with you in case you need something to read?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Beatitudes Project: Words From The Hill & Beatitudes

 

Throughout the month of April I have been reflecting and meditating on the Beatitudes. Each day, I have read one of them, prayed that Beatitude and then worked on how I could live out that passage from the Sermon on the Mount that day. It has not been an easy task, as the Beatitudes are like the Ten Commandments on steroids, but it has been deeply convicting and rewarding. As I was delving deeper into the Beatitudes, I was discovering that this wasn't a checklist for earning God's favor but a blue-print for living out God's kingdom on earth. The Beatitudes was a way of being, a way of becoming and that they impacted both the internal and external of one's life. The Beatitudes effects both the horizontal (humanity's relationship with God) but also the vertical (humanity's relationship with each other). The Beatitudes aren't some fanciful wish list but a kingdom design rooted deeply in the human condition and letting us know that God is there with us. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "The basis of for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but who God is."

In the midst of my spiritual excavation of the Beatitudes, Stu Garrard released both an album (Beatitudes) and a book (Words From The Hill) and has plans to release a documentary. When I received Words From The Hill in the mail, I immediately began to connect with where Garrard was coming from. From the opening, he writes of being in a place of uncertainty and worries, as his wife was in the hospital for an unexpected surgery. He is honest in his wrestling with God and self-doubt. In this place of confusion and fear he Garrard began to study the Beatitudes. In the introduction to the book he writes, "Jesus delivered what is considered to be his most complete sermon on this subject. We are not in control. Life does not always work out the way we expect it to. And, he tells us, when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, at rock bottom, God is there. God is on our side." This is the starting point for his rediscovering what Christ taught in the Beatitudes. "If you want to see who God is," he says, "look at the Beatitudes."

And he does. Very closely. Not only the words, but how he is or isn't living them in his own life. and he writes the stories of others (Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, and Shane Claiborne are two of the more high profile people), though it's often the unknown people whose stories he tells that have the biggest impact (such as Gaile, who spent 24 years on death row before having her sentenced changed and being released on parole).  Garrard does not come at this as merely being a sacred text that we are meant to study and simply get knowledge from. He comes to realize this is a way that followers of Christ are meant to live their lives. While on tour in Brazil, he discovers the reality of extreme poverty. "God," he writes, "hears the cries of the oppressed, those enslaved by lack of power and choices; and I felt a pull toward the unexpected - a new way of being." The Beatitudes reveal that God is always on the side of the marginalized, oppressed, poor, weary, beaten down and those on the fringes of society. "God is on the side of everybody for whom there's no reason why God should be on their side," he discovers.

Like the Beatitudes, Garrard's book makes one think, rethink, question, struggle with, become uncomfortable over as it pushes us out of our easy answers and excuses, and candidly ask ourselves, "Am I having an impact on the community around me?"  And we are commanded to. Scriptures always make the connection that righteousness to justice. One cannot choose one over the other. "The divine gifts and grace of the Beatitudes," he writes, "will always have a social dimension and a requirement to see things put right." The Beatitudes address violence, poverty, racism, hunger, hatred, injustice and loss. It addresses the human condition. And it's rooted deeply in community.

The Beatitudes force us to ask ourselves; What do we ache for?

Do we ache for what God aches for in this world?

Does our aching translate to action?

Advocacy?

Dr. John Perkins, one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, said, "The work of Justice is fundamentally redemptive. We are redeemed by God and then are invited to join the redemptive work of God."

Stu Garrard writes with clarity, compassion, honesty and with a poetic truth that reveals the reality that God is on our side and always with us. In one of the most moving and beautiful chapters, "Mourn," he retells a story that David Kessler shared with him. It's about a village where, if someone dies, all the households change something in their yard or on the exterior of their house that very night. Why? So that the next morning, when the mourners come out of their own house, where their world has literally changed with this death, they will see that the world has also changed for everyone who lives around them. Symbolically, they are showing their neighbors this and holding that pain and loss in a visible way. Can you imagine how transformational that must be for everyone? Can you picture how different our world would be if we all enacted that tradition?

The Beatitudes are the grand "What if?" of imagining and working towards the kingdom of God (on earth as it is in heaven) as an earthly reality. Words From The Hill gives us concrete examples of broken people who are actually transforming their own pain through the grace of God and then transforming the communities around them through mercy and love and compassion. They are taking the words of the Sermon on the Mount literally and at face value. They are caring for the needs of the vulnerable that God has repeatedly called us to take care of. The Beatitudes comfort us and challenge us just as all of Christ's teaching and life did. And Stu Garrard gets it.

Words From The Hill reveals that, while we don't always get answers, we always have God's presence. It shows us how that reality, that truth, can not only change and transform our lives but, when we allow it to by reaching out, it can change and transform the lives of those around us.  This is the good news of the Gospel, this is the reality and purpose of the Beatitudes for those who are willing to risk embracing the life Christ has called us to live out in all the world.


As I began to read Stu Garrard's book, I also started listening to his latest album, Beatitudes, which is connected to his project. The first thing this reminded me of in terms of its scope and depth was another such project, The Jesus Record, by the late Rich Mullins. Mullins meditated on the life of Christ and from that reflection came ten songs about Jesus. Garrard focuses solely on the teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount or, as the album is entitled, the Beatitudes. Like The Jesus Record, Beatitudes is quite an accomplishment. This album is not a cheap gimmick but a decade-long project of the heart.

"What does it mean to listen? I mean to really listen, with no distractions or divisions . . . listening to listen, not to respond?"

How many other albums start with those questions?  Reiterating what Stu Garrard wrote about in Words From The Hill when he repeated what was asked of him by Rabbi Joseph, "What does it mean to listen?"

The Beatitudes were first heard by those disciples and followers on the hill listening to the Rabbi, Jesus, teaching in a way they had never heard before. This was an upside-down perspective on how the world was supposed to work. Garrard clearly listened to Christ's words in the Beatitudes and, with guest artists, transcribed them into 18 tracks on an amazing album. Working with everyone from Hillsong United to Propaganda to Amy Grant, Garrard didn't just ask them to offer their vocals to the songs but each artist contributed by helping to write the very songs they performed on. Amy Grant's "Morning Light" ties to the story of Gaile and her imprisonment on death row and later parole. 

This is an album with a clear vision. The more one listens, the more one will be drawn in by the depth of these songs that so artistically portray each of the Beatitudes in a way that is fresh and moving and makes one go back to the words of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The songs embody the Beatitudes in a way that is unexpected, such as Audrey Assad's "I Will Be Your Home," one of the most achingly beautiful tracks on the album. Inspired by the Syrian Refugee Crisis and her being the daughter of a Syrian refugee herself, Assad's words will bring one to tears, along with the playing of Hassan Al Zoubi (on tabla drum and Oud), who is a first generation Syrian refugee. 

I also love how Garrard contrasts being a peacemaker to being a troublemaker, with another stand out track entitled "Make A Little Trouble" and features Propaganda. This song has Propaganda confrontational rapping, "I ain't got a song for your youth group to ride to. This ain't God and country. I don't worship no flags. This is fist high, Adonai."  He honestly challenges us to become acquainted with the pain of our neighbors, which will "cost you a little bit" and to "get outside your bubble and cause a little trouble." This is Christ reminding us that following him is not comfortable or safe, that it is meant to be challenging and lived out in a costly manner within a broken and hurting world. "When the world needs a miracle? Can you be the miracle?"

This is not the bland and overplayed Christian/worship music that controls the radio airwaves. It's unfortunate that albums like Beatitudes and the songs contained on it don't get radio play because we desperately need to hear its challenges, its beauty, its poetry. This is the prophets and the psalmists wrapped in one record.

"And the mercy you give away, well it comes back to stay" Garrard sings on "Oh Blessed" followed by Anthony Skinner reminding us, "If you ache for what's right, you will be satisfied."

These are songs that truly echo and embody the meaning of the teachings of Christ with the Beatitudes.  Like Rich Mullins' The Jesus Record, Stu Garrard's Beatitudes is an album to be listened to track by track, letting each song speak to and challenge the listener. This is an incredibly powerful accomplishment. 


Stu Garrard's official website:


Monday, April 24, 2017

Guest Blog: A Reflection On Roots

Today I’m pleased to be a guest here at Elliott’s blog. He suggested we both write on the same theme and feature them as guest posts for one another on the same day. As a prompt, he offered the first sentence of this short passage from Simone Weil:


“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”


“The most important … need of the human soul.”

That gives me pause. Is being rooted really the thing my soul needs most?

To be honest, sometimes I feel too rooted. Stuck, even.

I’m writing this on Easter weekend – and for our family, holiday weekends are not always as blissful as they may sound. The days are long and unstructured. Jonathan begs constantly to be doing something different from what he is doing. He asks over and over and over for things he’s not able to do (at least not at the particular time he’s asking), and screams with rage when we suggest things he might do. He screams with rage for other reasons, too. Or seemingly no reason.

So it sounds kind of appealing to be unrooted, untethered. Winnie-the-Pooh sang, “How sweet to be a cloud, floating in the blue…” Well, I wouldn’t mind being a little cloud sometimes. I wouldn’t mind being free from the constant demands.

But that’s more a passing feeling than an expression of who I really am.

The more I think about Weil’s quote, the more I realize I’m a person whose soul needs roots. I’m a homebody. I like sameness and security and constancy.

It’s not just my personality type, though: it’s something deeper, a need for those “particular treasures of the past” and “particular expectations of the future” that Weil speaks of.

Back in the summer of 2014, when Mom became seriously ill , while we were visiting her and Dad in PEI, I experienced what it was like to have deep, strong roots. Maybe it struck me all the more because during the previous year I’d felt uprooted when a close, long-term relationship ended. It was devastating. I had thought our roots were deep, our bond unbreakable, but the reality was different. I didn’t see how a long, solid history could have no weight in comparison to a single crisis. But maybe crisis doesn’t so much change a relationship as reveal it.

The crisis with my mom was a radically different experience. During the early days of her illness, hospitalization, and cancer diagnosis, we were in my family home, the farmhouse where I’d grown up and where Richard and I and the kids had spent several weeks a year for many years. In the midst of our worry and fear over Mom, we were firmly rooted in a place of familiarity and history. Richard took over with the kids; he was my support, and together we supported Mom and Dad. We communicated daily with my brothers and other relatives to share updates and make plans. Everyone rearranged schedules, made sacrifices, showed up.

In the evenings, after those of us who had been with Mom at the hospital returned to the farm, we would sit in the kitchen, a place that symbolized warmth and hospitality to us and many other people. We would talk things over with Dad and assure him that we would all be there for him and Mom – and we were.

The phone rang constantly: friends from church, extended family members, people I’d known since I was little, all offering sympathy and practical help. We were stunned and unmoored by the suddenness of Mom’s illness and the diagnosis, but we also felt the strength that comes from community. Weil’s reference to “particular treasures of the past” seems so fitting because that’s what I felt we were discovering at that time. Roots that had taken hold before I was even born were proving strong and deep.

Mom died in late September of 2014, only 18 hours after I’d returned home from visiting her and Dad. Richard and I and the kids packed up and drove back to PEI for the funeral, but then had to return home the very next morning.

That was probably the most wrenching uprooting of all: knowing that my mom was gone for good, and also going from the companionship and support of that lifelong community, back to “everyday life.” The previous two months had been hard, but we had drawn on the strength and depth of those sturdy roots. Now it felt like I was being ripped out of the ground. It took a long time to get over that feeling – even now I’m not sure I am “over” it.

But coming home I found that of course my roots weren’t just back there: people here were also supporting me, praying for me and our family, and offering help and sympathy. My roots weren’t – aren’t – confined to one geographical location or group of people.
It’s hard but good to realize that, because I can’t go back to that safe, familiar place in order to feel rooted and secure.

I mean, I literally cannot go back there. The farm is being sold. My dad has moved. My mom is gone. I will never live in that place again, maybe never even visit it.

And my relationship is over, too. Even if it were revived it would need to look totally different. An entirely new plant would have to grow in place of the uprooted one.

I cannot sink my roots into people and places – not in any permanent way, at least. Not in a way that’s conditional on those people and places being there always. They might not.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t preserve those “particular treasures” Weil refers to. I can hold them in memory. I can look back on them as evidences of God’s presence and grace in my life, as echoes of His voice saying, “I will watch over you wherever you go.”

And that’s really what I think rootedness means: trusting in God’s promise to be with me wherever I go. That truth isn’t dependent on where I am or who is there with me. Ultimately, “My soul finds rest [and roots] in God alone.”

It also means trying to convey that truth to those God puts in my life, and for now that’s primarily my family.

At the heart of Jonathan’s repetitions is, I know, a desire for security, for rootedness (what do you know: he likes sameness and constancy just like I do!). And I can provide that.

I don’t always do it graciously, though. I get frustrated and impatient. God “does not grow tired or weary” – but I definitely do. I wonder how I can be an example of God’s perfect faithfulness when I am so imperfect.

Well, I can be there. I can show up and help make Jonathan’s world as consistent and dependable as possible in an unsettled world. There’s no way to get him “used to” the idea of change or loss or grief; his mind can’t comprehend those mysteries, and to be honest sometimes mine can’t, either. But today I can be there for my kids and show them that love is faithful (if imperfect) presence. Roots.
Maybe I will always feel a mix of the desire for rootedness and the wish to be as free as a little cloud. For now, I know my place: “rooted and established in love” – the love of the always-faithful One.


To read more of Jeannie Prinsen's posts, go to her wonderful blog Little House on the Circle at:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Language & Loving Beyond Barriers


Standing outside the seventeenth-century Salzburg Cathedral in Austria (where Mozart was baptized as an infant), a woman came up to me and grabbed the labels of my coat. She spoke frantically in German. Her eyes were filled with fear and despair. This was pure desperation and she was pouring herself out to me, a complete stranger. After a few minutes, that felt even longer, she finally stopped speaking and waited for a response from me. I was heartbroken to tell her, "I'm sorry. I don't speak German." I hated not being able to understand her. Her face became crestfallen. I had not understood her and, therefore, could not help her. She dashed off, leaving me feeling crushed and broken, unable to bridge the gap between us. To this day, I have never known what she said or what she asked of me. I cannot count how many times this brief incident has haunted me over the years.

How powerless I felt to see another human being in despair and my being completely and totally unable to help her simply because of a language barrier. Words. Words kept us from communicating fully with each other. I understood that she was desperate by the way her eyes and body language communicated, but was unable to know why she was or what I could do to alleviate any of her suffering.

There is nothing more disconcerting to be in a place and have others talking around you in a foreign language that you alone don't understand. I discovered this when I toured through Germany and Austria, as well as when we adopted our son from Ukraine. It was even harder in Ukraine where the letters don't resemble ours but are a Cyrillic script so I couldn't even begin to attempt to make out what signs said. When our son first arrived here, we learned of how difficult it is to parent a child who doesn't understand anything you are telling him. It makes him scared and angry and alone.


It immediately brings to mind Genesis 11, where, we're told that the whole world had one language and a common speech. Most of us are familiar with this tale of man longing to build a tower to the heavens so that they might make a name for themselves. It's the oft repeated sin of man's pride and wanting to be like God. They also were fearful that they would be scattered throughout the earth. Fear and pride. Walter Brueggemann writes:

The fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The people do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. They try to surround themselves with walls made of strong bricks and a tower for protection against the world around them. This unity attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion. A human unity without God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.

How many of us today, still fear this scattering? Fear the other?

Certainly we are seeing it played out in many countries as they hold elections and the results bear witness to a deep-rooted fear of diversity. 

Returning to Genesis 11, we see the Lord viewing all of this building and he says, "If as one people speaking the language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." The next verse informs us that because of they could not longer understand each other, the people, in their confusion, spread to all the parts of the earth.

Much like a fable, it's early man's attempt to explain why people are spread out across the earth and why they each speak a different language. 

Btu what we see now is how this difference can often cause us to still retreat into fear and avoidance of those who are different from ourselves in language, customs, religion, culture. We want homogeneous environments and whenever there's diversity, we can feel anxiety and discomfort. It reveals to us that the world is bigger and that we are not in control. Like those at the tower of Babel, we find ourselves fleeing from the fear of the other. As followers of Christ, however, we are called to embrace everyone as our neighbor and love them. Part of embracing and loving them is to celebrate the diversity that God has created in all of us. We are each unique and have our own individual stories.

We cannot embrace, we cannot love what we do not come into contact with. If we avoid anyone who is different from ourselves then we only hurt ourselves. We are missing out, as Christ welcomed all to the table and shared the table with all. There is no connection without communion. Part of my own breaking out of my comfort zone was going from writing about refugees to signing up with a local organization that works with them in terms of helping them move in, driving them places (like citizenship classes) or in learning in English. Certainly I was confronted by the fact that I too often write about what I don't practice in my own life. 

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged." There are many who would be offended by that statement. What I take from the poet's words are that I can never love what I judge and Christ has called me to love others, not  judge them.

What I am continuing to learn is that we cannot love abstractions. I could not truly say I loved an orphan until I called one my "son." I cannot claim to love the refugee or the foreigner if I don't actually know any, if I avoid them, if I don't actually know their names and are not in any way a part of their lives. Jesus was always involved in the lives of those he loved: from the Samaritan woman at the well to Zaccheus the tax collector to his very disciples. Christ shared meals with strangers and strangers became friends. We must open our doors and our hearts. We cannot hide behind the buffering walls of our homes and churches. Instead, we are called to move beyond the barriers of our comfort zones into a world we are called to love unconditionally. 



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott


I would imagine that Anne Lamott is the kind of Christian that Christ would love hanging around with. She's funny, honest and real.  Whenever I hear that she has a new book coming out, I wait for it with the same expectations one has upon getting to share a meal and a conversation with a dear friend that one doesn't get to see all the time. Her latest book, Hallelujah Anyway, reminds the reader of why we love her so much. She hooks us with her confiding and hilariously honest tone. "There are times in our lives," Lamott begins, "scary, unsettling times - when we know that we need help or answers but we're not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is."

This collection of essays is a meditation on mercy (It's more in line with her book Help, Thanks, Wow than Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith). "Mercy," she writes, "is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable." And it's much easier to write about extending mercy than in actually giving it, as she is clear to point out in her usual wit and honesty. As with all of her books, there is references to pop culture, theology and literature.

Lamott writes about how extending mercy costs: both in her own, personal life as well as on a much grander scale (Hiroshima, Tibetan nuns who were tortured by and later prayed for their Chinese guards or the relatives of those whose family members were gunned down in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston). She also covers the mercy needed in something as normal as growing older, in the chapter entitled "Life Cycles." She makes overly familiar biblical stories like "The Good Samaritan" the raising of Lazarus, Paul's thorn in the flesh, or the story of Ruth fresh and utterly relatable.

"Mercy means compassion," she says, "empathy, a heart for someone's troubles. It's not something you do - it is something in you, accessed, revealed, or cultivated through use, like a muscle. We find it in the most unlikely places, never where we first look." She certainly discovers this when she helps an elderly woman grieving over the suicide of her son, when Lamott discovers how "great trauma can also be so ordinary." "Where in the aftermath of suicide," she asks, "does one even begin to believe in mercy again?" It's devastating and she writes with such compassion and tenderness that resonates deeply in those reading her words. "God doesn't give us answers. God gives us grace and mercy. God gives us Her own self."

Anne Lamott can write. She knows how to draw the reader in, make the reader care, make them think, laugh, and begin to ask themselves, "How am I extending mercy towards others? Towards myself?" And isn't that something we all need more of in this day and age? Don't we all need a little bit more mercy?

In the midst of these "scary, unsettling times," Hallelujah Anyway makes me grateful that there's an Anne Lamott in this world to make it a little less so.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Gloriously Broken


Being the parent of a child who has suffered trauma (picture a soldier back from a war) is one of the most difficult and exhausting works of fierce grace I have ever experienced. Anyone who has experienced severe trauma cannot integrate those painful memories into their personal narrative or story, instead these memories are not remembered so much as relived. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, well-known trauma expert and medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute, has said that "the nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn't allow a story to be created. What is extraordinary about trauma, is that these images or sounds or physical sensations don't change over time." This means that the past is very much present. It also means that they are unable to talk about this trauma and what triggered it because they don't have a coherent narrative to draw from.

This makes it very hard to watch a child suffer and be unable to do anything to help them make sense of past neglect or abuse because those traumatic memories never get integrated but are lodged in the body physically. 

As I am observing Holy Week this week, it has been difficult to focus on what will be the suffering of Christ. When I am watching my own child struggle with his wounded and brokenness, it's hard to hold that aching and to meditate on the Garden of Gethsemane with Christ's falling to the ground with his agonizing prayer of "If this cup may pass from my lips . . ." or to his feelings of abandonment on the cross as he cried out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" It's a prayer that my own young son has probably prayed, as I know he has angrily asked God, "Why did You make me this way?" It's a heartbreaking prayer of a child hating himself for his past and his wounds and struggling to find worthiness and acceptance (from God, from others and from himself).

So I hurt. I hurt with a Papa's heart who only wants to relieve the burdens and sufferings of his sons from them and take them onto and into myself - but I cannot. I can only watch and extend my own mercy, grace and love as they wrestle with identity.

Yet, this Holy Week has felt less holy and more hollow. I have listened to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion as I traditionally do every Holy Week but the beauty of this amazing work has fallen on deaf ears and a hardened heart. I have been reading The Haggadah to better understand Passover and the full meaning of Christ's last supper with his disciples, but it's hard to contemplate the exodus and redemption of the Israelites in Egypt when I see my own child in bondage and suffering to his past. 

This morning, in between stores, I just sat in my car for a moment and begged God to give me something, anything. "Please don't be silent to me right now." I took the compact Bible I keep in my car's glove compartment out and prayed, "Lord, please speak to me. Give me something to hold onto right now."

I sat there.

Was God ignoring my cry? 

Did He not care about me or my child? 

Then, that internal voice that whispers to me, said, "Jeremiah 31."

Quickly, I turned to the book of my favorite prophet and began to read. 

"Thus saith the Lord, The people which were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness (my emphasis), even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest. The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee" (31:2-3). 

Judah and Jerusalem have suffered destruction. To Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, God is reminding him of Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."  In the midst of the wilderness, God's children found and experienced His grace. He is telling Jeremiah that those who were not killed by the sword of the Babylonians, would also find 'grace in the wilderness." In the midst of trials, there is grace. "I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee." His love is drawing his children to the wilderness that He might be alone with them.  

As I continued reading Jeremiah 31, I came to this verse (25), "For I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul." It is the very language that Christ will use when he says that he will give rest to the weary, that the hungry and thirsty will be filled, and that his yolk is light. 

For those, like myself, who are weary and sorrowful for whatever you are struggling with or whatever trial you're going through, know that God has not forgotten you just as He did not forget his children when they were in Babylonian exile.

Reflecting on these verses of Jeremiah, I began to return to the focus of this week for me: Christ's suffering and death on Good Friday. We too often want to rush through Friday and Saturday to get to the resurrection of Sunday, but that is unhealthy. We cannot have resurrection and transformation without first passing through death. Our culture prefers not to meditate on any type of suffering or death, but what we fail to grasp is that life and death are not two separate entities but are interconnected. We cannot have new life until we have put to death the old one first. Die to self.


Yet, even after his resurrection, Christ still had his wounds. Why? Why did his resurrected body still have them? 

I think it was to show us that even the trauma he suffered did not leave him. It was to show us that all that we suffer can be transformed and used to heal others who are hurting and suffering. "By his wounds you are healed" takes on a whole other meaning when one reflects on his wounds after the resurrection. "I, too, have been wounded," he offers us as he shows his hands and feet and side. "Your pain is not your own, but mine as well. I know your suffering even when you feel that no one else does." And who has not felt utterly alone in the midst of their suffering? As one who has struggled with depression over the years, at its depths, is when I have felt most alone and that no one understands the deepness of my woundedness. As the Psalmist reminds us that even in the depths of our own hells, our own sufferings, Christ is there with us. 

No matter how damaged we think we are, no matter how deep our wounds, how unseen our hurts and sufferings feel, Christ shows us his own to remind us this is not true. "My child," he says, "do you think I don't know how lonely you've felt? How many tears you've wept?" 


In his monumental book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, "Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?"

By his very Incarnation, Christ entered into our suffering. He had a real physical, flesh and blood body. He grew hungry and exhausted and weary and frustrated and knew all the ups and downs of our daily lives. He understood the hardships and the mundane part of our daily lives. And, with the cross, he took our suffering into his own body so that even after his resurrection those scars and wounds were still there to tell us: From crucifixion came transformation. From the broken seed, the flower grew." 

"I have been to the wilderness of loneliness to the joyousness of the wedding feast. I have had fellowship around the dinner table and lamented at the grave of a friend. I have suffered every torturous agony of the cross and have left the tomb with my wounds as glorious signs that brokenness leads to wholeness. I understand and know how truly hard and heartbreaking life can be. But I also know that I loved you enough to go through all of it to remind you that you are worthy, you are beloved even in your brokenness and failings and loneliness and doubts. You are the child of my heart. Look deeply into my heart to see that you are there." 


In this wounded and wounding world, Christ comes to us and says, as he did his disciples, "Peace be unto you." 

Shalom

Wholeness. Completeness. 

A manifestation of divine grace. A new creation.

From woundedness comes wholeness. As Julian of Norwich said, "Our wounds are our glory."

"Behold my hands and my feet," Christ told his disciples, "that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bone, as ye see me." 


Christ offers his disciples the intimacy of touching him, touching his wounds because intimacy and closeness bringing healing and wholeness. It's only after he allows them, especially Thomas, to touch him that their fears and doubts are transformed into joy. "Pain transformed," Richard Rohr writes, "is no longer pain transmitted." It's also after Christ allows them to touch him that he turns to Peter to heal the hidden scars of his betrayal of Jesus. Three times he tenderly asks, "Do you love me?" to counteract the three denials. It is love that causes Peter, the rock, to break and from his tears and brokenness comes the Peter who will help start the early Church: not through his stubbornness and his pride or his own strength, but through this realization that from his wounds he can now come to others from a place of compassion, empathy and grace because Christ offered those to him.

So what are your wounds? 

What are the hurt places that you think no one will understand? 

Where are those traumatic places in your memory that you try your hardest to repress, compartmentalize and forget? 

Christ is there. 

He is with you in the midst of your darkest hell. He is telling you, "Peace be unto you." My peace. My shalom. My wholeness. 

The wounds in his resurrected body show us that love is stronger than death. They reveal that Hope, not suffering, has the final word. This is the reality of Holy Week, of Easter, of being a follower of Christ. 

Peace be unto you.

Shalom Aleichem

May you be well. 

May you be gloriously broken. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Must-Read Review: The Myth Of Equality


I was born in the heart of the South (Birmingham, Alabama), only twenty-three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hospital just blocks from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four African-American girls were killed in a bombing. Race has permeated my memory. Yet for years, I have puzzled over how anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ can view anyone as inferior or as an other when we are all made in the image of God and are told that for God so loved the world. Too often the Church has been silent on issues of racism and has neglected standing up against injustice towards African-Americans, Native Americans and other minority groups. But why? What is the reason for our neglect towards these issues? Is it because, as James Baldwin has so acutely written, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain"? Are we afraid to face our own sense of entitlement, racism and complicity?

I believe that if we want change in the world, we must first want change in ourselves.With racism being so prevalent in our culture, I have spent a great deal of time trying to learn more about this issue so that I can not only think more deeply and wisely on such matters, but that I can look within myself to deal honestly with my own sense of white privilege and the racism that still has roots inside of me. I have read powerful works like James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, Michael Eric Dyson's Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness and Jim Wallis' America's Original Sin.

Along with all of those important works, I would add Ken Wytsma's The Myth of Equality: Uncovering The Roots Of Injustice And Privilege. Wytsma, the lead pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon and the founder of the Justice Conference, writes a powerful and brutally honest examination of two themes: privilege and responsibility. Using history, theology and current affairs, he traces the roots racism and the Church's inability to confront it and white privilege not only in the culture but within its walls. '

"Racism," he writes, "is the diminishment of worth in men and women in and through bias, systems and power structures that disadvantage them in tangible ways based on skin color. Reverse racism is a phrase thrown around when white people are singled out or described in terms of their whiteness. It is often, however, a gross misapplication of the idea of racism."

This "reverse racism" is something I have heard many times over the years by whites in complaining about there being black colleges and universities, black beauty pageants, BET, and affirmative action. Wytsma confronts this head on, "Losing preferential treatment or letting go of privilege . . . is not the same as experiencing oppression when institutionalized systems and structures harm someone on the basis of the color of their skin."

One of the areas most egregious is the prison system in the United States. As he notes, we have only 4.4% of the world's population and yet we have 22.2% of the world's incarcerated men and women and the majority of them are minorities. (This is a subject addressed in Alexander's The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay's amazing documentary 13th).

Yet if one were to ask a majority of white Americans, especially within the Church, about white privilege, most will get defensive and unwilling to even confront the reality of the issue. "Our desire for comfort," says Wytsma, "leads us to defensiveness when we are confronted with the questions of race. But when did our comfort become the standard?" Don't agree with him? Then bring up "Black Lives Matter" and see how many people counter that with, "All lives matter."

"The truth is," he continues, "is, we all love justice, until there's a cost."

Ken Wytsma does a brilliant job of tracing the recent reality of racism, of colonialism (with its injustices of enslavement, rape robbery, extermination), of the subjugation and confinement to reservations of Native Americans and how so much of these atrocities were done in the name of Christ and the Church. He confronts how many have often used the Bible to justify their racism and the institution of slavery and the fallacy of their arguments. Certainly one must ask, as the author does, "How have Christianity and racism been able to coexist so often and in so many places?"

Certainly, at least within evangelical churches, there has been a "false dichotomy" that "sees the gospel as being distinct from societal concerns." What they have often done is disconnect from the concept of social justice. Too many evangelicals view social justice as a political concept when, in fact, it is a biblical one. Justice is a kingdom principle that runs throughout both Old and New Testaments to address social injustices and inequalities. Too many have focused on what they view is the gospel message of missions and salvation but have neglected the day-to-day command to work for both redemption and restoration, of taking care of those who are oppressed, taken advantage of, discriminated against, persecuted and neglected. When Christ reminds us that we will always have the poor with us, he is also reminding us, "Take care of them." When we work for justice we are building the very kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Ken Wytsma does an excellent job of connecting justice and righteousness.  He quotes Gustavo Gutierrez, "To preach the universal love of the Father is to inevitably go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism."

Wytsma challenges the reader in a compassionate and compelling way that offers real solutions toward racial reconciliation and social integration. This is a brilliant, important book for the Church to not only read but use for open discussions on the subject of race, white privilege, and how they can promote truly equal social justice.

The Myth of Equality was published by InterVarsity Press and will be released in June 2017.


Ken Wytsma's official website:
http://kenwytsma.com

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Parking-lot Poet


Part of my daily prayer at the beginning of each day is a simple one. I ask God, "Let me have eyes to see and ears to hear others. To be present to them. To see You in them." What I love about this prayer is how God chooses to answer it. After making a call on one of my local big box stores, I was headed out to my car when a an African-American man approached me with, "Excuse me, sir. Can I please have a moment of your time?" In the past, this question translates into, "Can I ask you for some cash?" Christ tells us, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." This is not an easy verse to dismiss or to say, "Well, Jesus didn't mean that literally." Still, whenever a stranger asks me for money, I always ask them what they want it for. If they tell me they are hungry, I will take them to get something to eat. If they say it's for gas, I offer to go with them to a nearby gas station.

So when this young man asked me for a moment, I stopped and said, "Sure. What is it?" He introduced himself and I shook his hand. "I've been writing poems since I was thirteen," he informed me, "I'm thirty-six now." He held a binder in his hand and what appeared to be photocopied papers. "If you don't mind," he began, "I'd like to read you one of my poems and if it blesses you, you can respond as God leads you." I knew this was a ploy, but I admired the fact that, unlike every other stranger who's come up and asked me for money, he had at least written a poem first.

"Okay," I replied, "I'm always open to hearing poetry."

This young man, in an army-green jacket, nodded before he began to read me a poem as we stood there in front of my car, I watched as he read the words he'd written. He never looked up at me but kept his own eyes on the printed page. While it wasn't a very good poem, the line, "Don't get caught up in the cares of this world" jumped out at me because, prior to this encounter, I had been very much caught up in the cares of this world.

After the young man had finished, he looked up, unsure of what to expect. I can only imagine the reactions he gets, if any, from those who even stopped for a second. I would guess that very few actually listen to anything he has to say, poem or not.

"Thank you," I told him and we began to have a short conversation about poetry, writing and faith. He said his favorite poet was Langston Hughes and I surprised him by quoting:

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.

Back when I was in middle school, I had a teacher who, if you got in trouble in her class, would punish you by making you memorize a poem and then recite it in front of the class. I learned many a poem that year, including all of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (On the shores of Gitche Gumee, Of the shining Big-Sea-Water . . .) "God always uses the poets and the prophets," I told him and I pulled out my wallet to give him the last few dollars I had in it.

He thanked me, handed me the poem after autographing it, shook my hand again before moving on to a woman who was about to load groceries into her minivan.

I don't know much about the story of this parking-lot poet. Is he homeless? I don't know what he would do with the money I gave him, but I didn't need to ask. I admired him for writing and sharing his poems. If I hadn't have needed to move on to my next store, I would have offered to buy him lunch so we could talk some more. I admire people who create. 

Poetry is a condensing of moments into sparse language and imagery. Poetry is the pulse and surge of life. Poetry draws us in and makes us bring something of ourselves to them words. "The burden of the poet," Walter Brueggemann writes, "is not explanation, because explanations never satisfy or convince. Rather the burden of the poet is to disclose, to reveal, to show what has not been seen or said until that instant."

So often it's the poets who grasp what theologians cannot. That's why the Psalmists and prophets use imagery and metaphor to represent God and the kingdom. And my own spiritual life has been greatly influenced by poets like Rumi, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. Poets make me pay attention to the world and either to see it anew or just to see it. As Robert Frost asked, "How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?" 

Poets have helped shaped my faith and even sustained it when I didn't feel I had any faith left.

"I'm not very good at praying," Denise Levertov wrote, "but what I experience when I'm writing is close to prayer." There are times when reading hers or others poems have been the only prayers that came from my lips. 

When the confessional poet Anne Sexton was in a mental hospital after another suicide attempt, a priest came to visit her. As soon as he came in the room, she blurted out, "Look, I'm not sure I believe in God . . ."

"Your typewriter is your altar," he replied.

She was taken aback by his response, but said, "I can't go to church. I can't pray."

"Your poems are your prayers," he told her. It was after this conversation that she wrote her collection entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God.

And they were. Poems as prayers. Prayers for the broken, the hurting, the depressed, and the lonely who have found as much comfort in them as many do the Twenty-third Psalm.  Sexton began writing her poems after a nervous breakdown and the encouragement of her doctor, who told her, "Your poems might mean something to someone else someday." That gave her a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with her life. Her poems are full of biblical imagery and she returns again and again to the "ragged Christ" to whom she felt "close." 

"When I was Christ," she would say, "I felt like Christ. My arms hurt, I desperately wanted to pull them off the cross. When I was taken off the cross and buried, I sought solutions; I hoped they were Christian solutions. I think I had a kind of feeling Christ was speaking to me and telling me to write that story. I thought to myself, this would be the most awful death. The cross, the crucifixion, which I deeply believe in . . . his death that he had to seek for love's sake, because his love was the greatest thing about him."

Poets do that for us: take us deeper into the light and darkness, to see the beauty and the brokenness. They reveal the truth in a way that no other writing can. Poetry causes me to wrestle with reality as well as being a healing balm just like Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things" with its final line of: For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Poets help me to see, as Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." I read that and I look about me to notice that grandeur-charged world that I had mistaken for mundane. Poets make me open my eyes and see that all the world's a miracle that I mistake for ordinary. Only by being present and being aware can I, like William Blake, see trees filled with angels or, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning did, that "every common bush afire with God." That is why the world so desperately needs them. We need to stop and see because too often we go about this extraordinary world with eyes that do not see, hears that do not hear, and hearts that do not beat with wonder and awe.

When I could not go to the sacred, it changed shape and came to me in the form of poems. When I could not pray, I could read the words of poets and find room for the unimaginable. Like Anne Sexton, I often struggle with a God who can seem close at moments and yet farther away at others, as if hiding from me. It's a doubt-riddled faith but faith none-the-less.

So I stood there, holding my autographed poem and thanked God that, today, He chose to speak to me through this parking-lot poet not to be caught up in the cares of this world. There, in that brief moment, there was a connection and conversation between two strangers. I knew I would keep his poem in my Bible as a reminder of this moment and to pray for him. Knowing his name and a little piece of his story means that he is not invisible, If I see him again, I can address him by his name and, I hope, learn more of his story and see if we will be a part of each other's. Who knows what God has in store? If it was only for this one brief moment, I am grateful.

As I got in my car, I thought of the poem "Gathering in Light" by Denise Levertov:

An awe so quiet I don't know when it began.
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.
Was there some moment dividing song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night fold its arm over our hearts to cherish them?
When is daybreak?

In that moment, I felt awe. I felt gratitude. I felt the love of a God who created all things through words, a poet-God, a lover of language in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart no less. 


Friday, April 7, 2017

Air Strikes, Beatitudes & Bob Dylan


After I had finished my forty days in the wilderness, I felt compelled to spend the month of April meditating on, praying and finding ways to live out in my daily life the Beatitudes. How can I be poor in spirit, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker as I go about my routine, interacting with others, being a husband and a Papa, being a neighbor and friend and coworker. How do the Beatitudes effect how I interact with strangers? How can I live out these teachings of Christ without my even saying a word? How do the Beatitudes effect how I treat a cashier at a grocery store? Or a slow driver in front of me? Or someone I disagree with politically?

It's challenging. The Beatitudes cut to the heart. It gets to a person's motivations and asks, quite pointedly, "Why are you doing what you're doing?" 

When I began to undertake spending a month focusing solely on the passages of scripture known as the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, I did not know the direction our country would take, in regards to Syria. For years my  heart has been broken by the war and atrocities committed against the Syrian people by it's own leader. I have been even more discouraged by the indifference the world has taken to the Syrian people's suffering. It is paralyzing to watch this tragedy unfold and to see people in my own country have such distrust and hatred towards Syrian refugees. I kept hearing the word "terrorists" used in regards to them despite the fact that refugees are fleeing terrorists and terror. No one willingly risks their lives and the lives of their families to get into small rubber rafts to brave oceans to flee to a foreign land if what they were fleeing wasn't far worse a fate. 

And then our President approved air strikes against Syria after its leader, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people. While I want this war criminal stopped, I am always hesitant to endorse war. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Christ proclaimed and yet we seem deaf to his words thousands of years later.

Nowhere does Christ say, "Blessed are the" violent, the strong, the oppressive, the domineering. Yet how does one respond to such horrific human rights violations and still choose mercy, love, grace, and peace. How can I be peaceful in a country that worships the idols of nationalism and militarism? In a country whose consumerism spills over into its militarism so that war is big business and there is money to be made with weapons?  War tends to unify people, frightening as that truth is. Just look at how bloodthirsty we were for revenge after the attacks on 9/11.

I must admit, as I watched those towers collapse, after the horrors that preceded it, I don't know that I was praying, as Saint Francis did, "Make me an instrument of your peace."


On his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan recorded the song "Masters of War." Dylan is both a poet and a prophet. His songs have had a huge impact on my own theology. "Masters of War" was written in response to the Cold War and would gain even more impact with the Vietnam War. It is a harsh, cold and unforgiving song. Unlike so many of his other recordings, this one does not bear out hope. And it was, after hearing this song, that I came to, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

For those who might be unfamiliar with "Masters of War" it begins:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks

As I'm listening to Dylan sing these lyrics, it reminded me, not of the Sermon on the Mount, but Christ's Sermon on the Plain (in Luke 6) in which Jesus not only proclaims the "Blessed are" that we are familiar with in the Beatitudes, but the "Woe to you." Dylan's song sounds like a "Woe to you." 

Jesus warned:

But woe unto you that are rich! for you have received your consolation
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger.
Woe unto you that laugh now!  for ye shall mourn and weep.
Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you! for
so did their fathers to the false prophets.

Both Dylan and Christ are warning them, "I just want you to know / I can see through your masks."

It is a strange tension and paradox to carry within myself the lyrics to that song while reading the Beatitudes before silently meditating on them, especially in the context of this air strike on Syria and what it means in terms of our relations to not only that country, but Russia. Where will this end? 

I pray that we do not find ourselves entering into yet another war. 

Dylan sings:

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe

Whenever we respond in violence, we are choosing the way of Cain over the way of Christ. "Those who live by the sword," Jesus warned and yet we seem to shrug it off as if to say, "But Jesus you just don't understand the way the world works." He does, but, more importantly, he understands the way the kingdom of God works. The Beatitudes are not a checklist of personal requirements for holiness, but a way of living in order that on earth as it is in heaven can come about. Christ is never referring to some far off kingdom, but the kingdom of God is meant to be lived out here on earth and the only way we can even begin to start is by following "Thy kingdom come" with "Thy will be done." Thy will is the Beatitudes. 

The Beatitudes are a vision of the age and the age to come. It is Christ saying, "The world is not supposed to be this way. No, I will show you how it is meant to be lived out. And it's not the way your leaders and priests have taught you. It is not about propping up a political and economic system that favors the wealthy, makes money off of killing, uses might to promote self-interest and empire." 

I understand all that, Lord, but how do I live that? Practically speaking, how do I, in my day to day life, live out your words?  How do I not join in the chanting of our cause is just and, instead, pursue the justice of the kingdom. A justice that favors the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the marginalized, the suffering, the brokenhearted, the mournful, the exhausted, the forgotten, the sojourner, the refugee. It's all well and good to proclaim that I believe all of this, but it means absolutely nothing if I am not living it out. 

But how?

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

The Hebrew word for mercy is rachum. It means full of compassion, full of mercy.  Mercy is used again and again to describe God's dealings with humanity. Mercy is the foundation for God's covenant with man. God's mercy is unfailing and endless. 

How do I show that mercy, that compassion to others? 

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

Prior to that statement, Christ is telling us to love our enemies. "Love thy enemies" was the most quoted verse in the early Church and it grew exponentially. Why? Because the Church's true power was in that very theology. It is only when the Church sought out power, especially politically, that it lost it's true strength. Whenever the Church strays from the Beatitudes, from the way of Christ, we find that it goes in the way of Caesar, of Pharaoh. This can be seen in many of our religious leaders today.

Power comes not from violence, but from a love that transforms, as violence cannot, an enemy into a brother. Only love can do that.

Yet that does not address my question. That is not what I am pondering and struggling with right now, in this moment in time, in my own life. No, if there is to be peace in this world may it begin with me.

How do I honestly and truly live out being merciful to others, especially my enemies? This is not a natural reaction, but a spiritual one. This can only come about through the divine presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

I, by nature, tend to respond to such violent aggression and acts of war as Dylan did in his song:

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Yet I know that last line is untrue. Thankfully and mercifully untrue. I know from my own life, that he extends mercy and forgiveness even when I do not deserve it. Infinite mercy. Infinite love. Infinite compassion. Infinite forgiveness. Those are the realities of who Christ is. It is also meant to be the reality that shapes my own and how I am to live and relate to the world around me.

If I do not know inner peace, then I cannot work for peace in the world around me. To know that inner peace, I must be living and abiding in the Prince of Peace. Thomas Merton wisely wrote, "We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."

When I am at peace with God, I am at peace with myself and then I can be at peace with my brother and sister around me.

This morning, as I'm reflecting on this passage from Matthew 5, I took my car in to the shop to be serviced. They had a TV on with the news and coverage of the air strike and political reaction. As I'm watching clips of the missiles being shot from the battleships, I kept repeating, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." And I was praying, "Help me to be merciful, that I might receive mercy." Over and over again. When my car was finished and after I'd paid, I went out to get in my car when an older African-American woman called out to me, "Can you give me some money to buy something to eat?" 

The shop was right next to a fast food place, so I said, "Come on, let's go get you something to eat." 

I walked with her over to the fast food joint and she talked about herself, about her son who is in the military and her father who had died and her estranged mother, and she began to pour out her life story to me over a simple breakfast of eggs, sausage, a biscuit and a cup of coffee. I paid for her meal and listened to her story. It was a rambling, often incoherent one. I don't know if she was on drugs or was mentally off, but it did not matter in that moment. What mattered was, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." This meal was mercy to her. From the way she wolfed down her food it was obvious that she was hungry. But what surprised her wasn't that I bought her breakfast but that I sat at the table and listened to her. "There is folks that will give me money," she said, "but I can't remember the last time that they bought me food and then sat with me and listened to me." Tears welled up in her eyes. "Why would you do that?"

There are many people who might ask me the same question. And they have over the years. Yet it is in such small acts of mercy, of love, of compassion that I most often find Christ. All of the people he "blessed" in the Beatitudes are the ones we neglect. They aren't the wealthy and powerful and beautiful. They are the broken, the hurting, the neglected, the forgotten, the lonely, the poor. 

No, I still don't know how to answer how to be merciful in the situation with Syria. It is heartbreakingly complicated. But what I can be is merciful and kind and caring in my daily life with those I come across who need it most. Peace begins with such small acts. Peace begins when we stop seeing a woman like the one I bought breakfast as a problem, but as a person who has a story that maybe needs to be heard because no one is listening.

So I will continue to read and meditate and study and pray the Beatitudes. I will wrestle and struggle with Christ's words and how to best live that out in my home, my community and in the world. It is not easy or comfortable or simple, but it is holy and righteous and necessary. It is only when the followers of Christ live as Christ that we will ever begin to see traces of that kingdom come.