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Friday, June 24, 2016

To Say Less

Isaiah 40:6, "A voice says, 'Cry out.'  And I said, 'What shall I cry?'" (NIV)

Today is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, just in case you needed a quick reminder... or have never heard of such a day... like me.  I'm not 100% sure how we should celebrate this, but a few thoughts from the lectionary passages gave me a clue.

I think we might talk too much about all the wrong things.  If I start beating a dead horse, here, let me know, because I remember posting about similar topics in recent days.  I think we talk too much about what we don't know and, in turn, silence the people whose voices need to be heard.  I think we often mean well when we do this.  We think we are bringing attention to the problems in the world.  We think we are being a part of the solution.  And then we realize that we actually have no idea what the solution is.  We hear the voice saying, "Cry out!"  We cry out.  And then we realize we don't know which words to cry.  This is exceptionally difficult for someone who loves words.

I suppose Zechariah experienced this more profoundly than anyone.  An angel appears to him and foretells the birth of his son, John, but since Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, Zechariah just can't grasp it.  Quite verbally, he cannot believe, so the angel basically says, "Wrong words.  Now you can't talk until someone says the right name."  It's sort of like a childhood game of jinx gone terribly bad.  So when Zechariah has the opportunity to fix this error, some months of silence later, he is quick to do so.  Interestingly, when his mouth is opened again, it's as if he can't stop speaking!  Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gives us these beautiful words of truth:

Luke 1:68-79, "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us - to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (NIV).

Well, that's powerful.  These are the kind of words I want.

Something else that was striking, today, were some of the words of David, from Psalm 85.  What stood out to me most is that the Psalm begins with David speaking, requesting things of God (and that's good and right and important), but then, about halfway through, it changes direction when David proclaims that he will listen:

"I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants - but let them not turn to folly.  Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.  Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.  The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest.  Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps" (Psalm 85:8-13).

The words that follow the listening seem to be the ones that matter most.

I wonder how often we allow God to prepare us before we speak.  I wonder how often we are willing to remain quiet for longer than it feels comfortable in order to be certain that when we do speak we will say the right words.  And by "we," of course I mean "me".

John comes to prepare the way for the Lord.  Preparation matters.  Sometimes we are also used in the lives of others to prepare the way.    Once we have done so, there is another hard truth.  John knew it:

"He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30, NIV).

To speak less, to be less, these are not the things that people generally pursue.  But OK.  What shall I say?


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Late Night Personal Reflections About Coffee

I've mentioned it before, but I was not a coffee drinker until last fall.  Sure, I had the occasional ghetto mocha (mostly hot chocolate)... and a gas station frappuccino here and there... and there was the seriously rare trip through the McDs drive-thru when the only other choice was falling asleep at the wheel and risking the lives of my children.  In the interest of full disclosure, there was also this one moment near the end of my studies for my BSM when my friend Mel brought an enormous mug of coffee to my back door, in the middle of the night, because I begged someone to do so... on social media... publicly!  My first thirty-six years were spent mostly coffee-free, though, and then I woke up one September morning in Portland and decided that was going to change.

Interestingly, this opened all kinds of doors, because people like to go out for coffee.  Even more interestingly, almost no one I go out with actually drinks coffee.  So we make coffee dates, and they drink their tea... or their healthy green stuff that I probably would have loved during the whole organic phase that I should really return to... or hot chocolate... or frozen confections that look more like ice cream.  And I sit there and drink coffee and wonder why we didn't get together until I was a coffee drinker, because apparently anything would have sufficed.

It's been a little over nine months now, and the truth is I want my cup of coffee every morning.  I wouldn't say I'm addicted, and I don't really want just any coffee.  If I find myself somewhere without good options, I just drink water... you know... like I used to.  But I have come to like the precise moment when I am about halfway through a cup and I look down, take a deep breath, and realize that there is life flowing through my veins.  Or caffeine.  It might be caffeine.  But we'll call it life for the purpose of this post.  Drinking coffee has changed my rhythms.

There are other things that have changed since September, too.

I've had quite a few moments in my life when I've stopped to re-evaluate where I am... what I'm doing... who I am... if I like myself... if it matters...  Heck, I've done some of that right here, on the pages of this blog, right out in the open for everyone to see.  It hasn't always been pretty, but it's real, so whatever. 
I may have shared, before, a quote from Donald Miller's book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, " The human body essentially recreates itself every six months. Nearly every cell of hair and skin and bone dies and another is directed to its former place. You are not who you were" (67) six months ago.  Or nine months ago.  Or last year.   

I'm sure not.  The last nine have been something of a challenge, but I guess that's normal.  There are things I wish I'd never done and things I'd change and others that I would leave exactly as they were, even if I could have the moment back.  That's the thing about life, though.  We don't get the moments back.  Ever. 

I wonder who I'll be six months from now.  For the first time in awhile, I think I really care... 


Friday, June 17, 2016

Invisible Names

"Best of all, God: you are with us" (Common Prayer).

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed, this week, about all of the tragedy in the world.  It's not that unusual for me to feel this way.  It's not a weakness.  My heart just hurts when people hurt.

The last time I remember feeling precisely this way was last fall when I became acutely aware of the Syrian refugee crisis, followed by the death of a friend's mother, followed by a day in downtown Portland where I encountered scores of homeless people lying on benches in the middle of the sidewalk.  There are just some moments in which you wouldn't be human if you didn't hurt for humanity.

I haven't written here in days, but it's not because I haven't had anything to say.  It's just that there is a fine line between honoring the tragic stories of others and exploiting them for personal gain.  Honestly, I'm not even certain I can do this with any degree of integrity, today.

But as I was reading through the daily office, something struck me.  It wasn't something from the Scripture, exactly.  In fact, it was something that was intentionally left out!  My reading called for a look at Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30.  I'm not much of an expert on Numbers, but before I even turned to the passage, I knew what I would find in the verses in between.  I knew it would be a list of names.

Why do we do this?  Why do we diminish the importance of the people in order to rush ahead to the applications and implications of their narratives for our lives?  Why do we make it all about us?

I am so sorry.

In times of grief, making the pain of strangers into a political debate or flashy self-promo is never the right thing to do.  If you legitimately care about people who are mourning, it's not too hard to find them.  They are all around us.  Go mourn with them, wrap them in an embrace, be the hands and feet of Jesus to them so the words, "God is with you," don't fall so flat.  And if you don't care?  Please, close your mouth.  No one wants to hear about it.     


Monday, June 13, 2016

Who Are We

"Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us that we may be saved" (Psalm 80:3, NIV).

There is never anything sufficient to say in the midst of senseless tragedy.  And yet, like so many others, I am going to try.

The Orlando shooting took the lives of fifty people and has changed the lives of countless more, beginning with the injured, the families of the victims, and those who were present and traumatized by the shooting, itself, but it doesn't stop there.  It shouldn't stop there.  It cannot stop there.  Suffering should affect us all.  In our media saturated, sound bite culture, I have a great deal of concern that this tragedy will be forgotten by most, by next week.  Something else will catch the attention of the masses, and we will neglect to remember these names, these faces, these very real people.  I don't know how to fix that.  I wish I did.  

I am grateful that in the hours following this particular heartbreak, I have not observed a great deal of hate spewing from the mouths and fingertips of people I know.  Undoubtedly, the hate is there somewhere.  Clearly, hate was present in the one who chose to take the lives of innocent people with whom he had no connection.  But I'm thankful that it seems, at least for today, that most of the people who are speaking out are speaking in love.

The only things worth saying to people who are hurting, today, are, "I'm so sorry.  What can I do for you?  How can I serve you?" 

To the church, specifically, it is our responsibility to be the presence of Jesus to those who are suffering.  Mostly, that looks like sitting quietly and allowing hurting people to say and do whatever they need to, as they grieve.  It looks like tears and embraces and unfortunately it often looks like rows and rows of casseroles, because we don't tend to know how to show up without something in our hands.  But we have to show up.

Salvation isn't always what we think it is.  Every day we have the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God to other people, right where we are.  Sometimes we do OK, and other times we inflict Hell, instead.  It recently occurred to me that we are capable of bringing either kingdom.  We should choose very carefully how we interact with others, and by carefully I guess I really mean reckless abandon in love.

When we pray things like, Psalm 80:3, I hope we understand that we are everyone.  God desires redemption for all (see II Peter 3:9).  God wants us all.  God loves us all.  I recognize that this sounds simple, cliché'.  But it's true.  I think we'd better act like we believe it.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Han (In Community, Not Solo)

               "For the past two thousand years, we have inadequately treated the victims of sin by neglecting to formulate doctrines for them while they walked through the valley of the shadow of death" (Park, 2001, 2).  One would think that over the course of this much time an adjustment might have been made, but this is not the case.  Instead, the church has become so firmly rooted in a doctrine of soteriology that pardons sin without regard to the suffering of the sinned against that their pain has nearly ceased to exist in the view of the community.  This essay will address the concept of han: "the suffering of the innocent who are caught in the wicked situation of helplessness" (Park, 2001, 47), the responsibility of the church to come alongside victims, and the potential result of an evolving soteriology that recognizes both sides of sin.
            "Han is a physical, mental, and spiritual repercussion to a terrible injustice done to a person, eliciting a deep ache, a wrenching of all the organs, an intense internalized or externalized rage, a vengeful obsession, and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness" (Park, 2001, 48).  No one wants to experience han and yet the human life experience often comes littered with moments of aching and wrenching that cannot be avoided because of the sinful choices of others that, when thrust upon the innocent, change the course of those lives without much, if any, input from the helpless.  "In the life and faith of ancient Israel, the wounded and weak did not characteristically submit in silence to their suffering, as though their wound and weakness denied them voice.  On the contrary, such circumstance appears to have evoked a vigorous voice of protest which, in its utterance, is a voice of hope that believes that the present circumstance is not only untenable but can and must be changed" (Park, 2001, 34). "YHWH does not require sacrifice, Sabbath, or fasting but justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and all who are vulnerable to the rapacity of the powerful and prosperous.  On this view then sin consists in what is done to the neighbor; it refers to the affliction and humiliation of the most vulnerable in our midst" (Park, 2001, 112).  "Clearly, in the Gospels - and indeed in the entire Bible - we are told that God stands closer to the disenfranchised than to the powerful" (Park, 2001, 64).  And yet, as the church today, we have instead embraced a hierarchal model of power that often focuses narrowly on the forgiveness of sins, as defined by the powerful, at the expense of the marginalized.  In the process, the church has alienated the poor and powerless, heaping insult upon injury, han upon han, essentially allowing perpetrators to go on sinning so that grace may increase (see Romans 6:1), as if that is what grace is there for, all the while insisting that victims humbly forgive or go to hell. "Demanding repentance of sin from the abused, the hungry, and the humiliated is not good news, but absurd news" (Park, 2001, 1).
            There may be some confusion about the responsibility of the church.  It seems that we have mistakenly accepted that idea that, "ignorance is a value to be sought, for it also preserves innocence and avoids sin" (Park, 2001, 63).  Instead of coming alongside the suffering, the church has turned a blind eye, creating a form of cheap grace, allowing, "the violation of the neighbor (to be) atoned for by virtue of one's relation to the religious establishment that is quite willing to dispense this forgiveness without requiring the inconvenience of dealing directly with those one has wronged" (Park, 2001, 112).  This is a win-win situation for both the church and the perpetrator.  The church exercises power, supplying the necessary forgiveness and grace that the sinner requires for salvation, and the debt is often paid in financial resources, loyalty to the church, and adherence to whatever social structure is deemed appropriate.  "Sin comes to be highlighted as the violation of the religious order, as a failure to comply with one's responsibilities in the narrow religious sphere" (Park, 2001, 112).  This is convenient for everyone involved, except, of course, for the victim who continues to accumulate tally marks in the loss column.  There is much to be said of the importance of forgiveness in regard to salvation, but "the theological category of sin is not adequate to describe the full range of human alienations" (Park, 2001, 73).  This leaves those who have suffered at the hands of others asking, "What is salvation for me?"  "If confession is the cry of the sinner, then lament is the cry of the victim" (Park, 2001, 168).  Interestingly, all alienation is remedied "by the restoration of communication and relationship" (Park, 2001, 61).  The church has abdicated its responsibility to victims and thus restricted salvation to only some, as opposed to all.  "Salvation' or 'reconciliation' entails not only repentance and the receiving of forgiveness     (where appropriate) but more basically a process of healing that includes remembering their experience of being refused, grieving their loss, accepting their vulnerability, forgiving themselves for being so vulnerable, seeking restitution (where possible), and learning to reconnect and trust again" (Park, 2001, 74-75).  Redefining salvation in such a way may be somewhat inconvenient to the church, but it cannot be avoided if the church is to be responsible.  "Much modern liturgy does not name but avoids mention of victimizing life experiences" (Park, 2001, 169), but if the church will not become the entity that brings healing, where is the hope?  The voices of the weak and wounded must matter to us.  Walking alongside them is the way of Jesus.
            Exploring an evolving soteriology that recognizes both sides of sin is not an easy sell, but the right thing usually isn't.  It is, perhaps, problematic that society as a whole, followed by the church specifically, has fallen into a dysfunctional mode of addictional living that does not ordinarily recognize the value of the sinned against.  People are viewed as commodities, and broken commodities are not generally desirable.  "To know shame is to experience ourselves as deficient and ultimately rejectable" (Park, 2001, 77), and most people have known shame in some form or another.  "The category of brokenness emerges from the fact that human beings are by nature very vulnerable" (Park, 2001, 74).  With this in mind, the church would do well to remember that all people are broken people with something valuable to offer the community.  "The field of popular education has shown that if people perceive themselves to be powerless, they must be engaged at the level of their own experience if they are going to be animated toward change" (Park, 2001, 97).  The key to this is that when the church engages people, wherever they are, change is possible.  A common observation is that when we walk alongside the broken, becoming agents of healing and change; the result is a community of people who love more deeply and aspire to then become the healers that others need.  "Human persons need others.  We need to be wanted and loved, and we need to love and have our love accepted by others" (Park, 2001, 78).  For every victim who becomes a perpetrator, we must ask ourselves, "What if someone had walked alongside this person, in their pain, before this became a cyclical situation?" "Vicious cycles are broken, because of daring human intervention on the part of those who are perpetrators/victims of destructive behavior" (Park, 2001, 40).  What if we broke these cycles and created new, positive ones, simply by reaching out in love to bring value to the lives of both sinners and the sinned against?
            "We are looking for some meaning because we earnestly believe that the only thing worse than suffering is meaningless suffering" (Park, 2001, 124).  As people, all of us have experienced pain.  We are all broken.  As the church, we have the responsibility to come alongside victims, bringing the good news that salvation is for everyone and that it breaks the bonds of alienation, regardless of fault.  Loving like this opens the door to healing and restoration that brings value to all lives, solidifying what it means to be a part of one body, the body of Christ, the community of God's people, working together to bring and recognize redemption even in the midst of pain and suffering.

Work Cited
Park, Andrew Sung, ed. The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the Perspective of the Sinned-Against. State University of New York Press, 2001.