Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant. 

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Hoarse with Prayer

Between spurts of writing my sermon today, I checked Facebook. It seems it is something that every preacher does. When God isn’t speaking clearly, preachers open their browsers to scan posts on Facebook. Today, I kept coming back to the same story of a little boy — just three years old — who was reported missing. I woke up to the helicopters overhead. I read the headlines all day long so that when I got home, my fiancé asked if I had been crying. I was so hoarse. I am hoarse with prayers for this little boy, for his family and for every sad face I saw today.

And so I pray:

O Eternal One, who searches us and knows us,
who knows when we lie down and when we rise up,
You are acquainted with all of our ways
but we cannot and do not understand your way.
Helicopters whirled through my neighborhood this morning
looking for one of your children.
Your searchlights overlooked him.
Your watchdogs couldn’t find him.
The helicopters and the news crews have left and there is nothing left but our sadness. There is nothing but our grief for one of your children has died. We don’t know why or how and we struggle not to fill in the blanks with our worst fears. O God, help us.
Help us not to eye every stranger as perpetrator. Don’t let us get away with such nonsense that refuses to admit that terrible things could happen in our community because you know better. Terrible things happen every day. Your children are abused, berated, starved, shot, raped and killed every single day. O God, help us to see every hurting child in this world.
Make us your watchdogs.
Open our eyes wide enough to be your searchlights.
Remind us again — no matter how little we understand your way — that it takes a village. It always takes a village. It takes pastors and teachers and police officers and counselors and next-door neighbors that are more like grandparents and people who just give a damn. It takes every last one of us to protect your children.
There is work to do. There is enough work for tomorrow.
But tonight, O Eternal One, let there be no doubt of our love for your children. Let our hope not waver as we squeeze the littlest lights in our lives. May our arms not tire from holding your precious children tight so that we might have enough heart and enough strength to reach our arms out even wider to embrace your children with wrinkles and wounds.
Know what is on our hearts, O God. Know what is on my heart so that you can wake me up tomorrow and remind me that there are so many children that need your protection — and it’s work that I must do. It’s work that I can’t help but do. Amen.

The Things They Carried

Just the other day, I heard a story on National Public Radio about the objects that are being collected and preserved after September 11, 2001.

Though I am a New Yorker, I wasn’t even in the country on that terrible day. I had planned to fly home that day. It was the day that I was supposed to return from my post-college summer dog sitting in London. But, it had dawned on me just a month before that I was in Europe and I should really travel more. So, I extended my stay two more weeks so that I could venture back to Italy where I had spent the previous spring studying aboard. Instead of trying to make my way back to the city I call home, I was gripped in front of the television watching the towers fall in the middle of the afternoon. I spent the next hour trying to find my stepmother who works in the city but the phone lines were all down. I would finally locate her later through my cousin who worked at a big time newspaper in the city. He found her. He told me she was OK. I wouldn’t know that until later that evening. Just before dinner, it was time to walk the dog. I remember walking through that park and noticing every woman in a hijab like I never had before. I remember trying to make eye contact with each of them. Searching their faces and begging with tear-filled eyes, trying to say to these women: Please don’t believe that every American blames you. I don’t. But, it’s not something you can say with your eyes alone.

Two weeks later, I was back in New York City stepping over flowers and candles and teddy bears piled together on the streets. These piles were in front of every fire house and every police station, a constant reminder that this city was in mourning. It’s been so many years and I had forgotten about these sidewalk memorials until I was reminded of them on the radio. In that same story, they talked about how the every day there are objects placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and every day the National Park Service comes along in white gloves to gather up these objects to be catalogued and archived. Each object is part of the memorial. Each object is part of that grief that still lingers in our present.

The story on the radio was about how one man — or maybe it was a team of people — are trying to catalog and archive the objects from when the towers fell.

kidnapping-474027_1280Today, there was another story on The Huffington Post about the objects left behind by the refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the story of these refugees in twelve images as told by the photographer Chris McGonigal. There are the remnants of so many trying to tend to their health. Scattered pill bottles and medicine sleeves seem to be in every picture. Three of these images focus on abandoned toys: a toy airplane, a teddy bear and a doll. Nothing is so chilling as seeing a child’s playthings abandoned. The first image is a discarded flipflop printed with with Germany into its sole which I can only imagine is pointing toward that place that the refugee longs to be.

Tim O’Brien wrote a series of short stories entitled The Things They Carried. They are not stories so much about objects but about ideas and possibilities. The very things that we carry in our hearts and minds: hope, freedom, peace. The things that the refugees are surely carrying with them on the way. As O’Brien puts it: “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

I have been writing a lot recently about the power of grief. (It’s a project I hope to share sometime soon, but not yet.) Grief has its own terrible power. It has the power to cripple you and dismember you as much as any weapon that O’Brien and his fellow soldiers carried. And yet, I want to believe that each and every one of those refugees making their way through Hungary right now aren’t crippled by that kind of power. Instead, that same grief for their war-torn home is giving them courage to take another step, to face another day, to imagine another ending.

This is my prayer.

A word about the picture: I use a free crowdsourced image database for all of my blog images. This image is not part of the photo essay I mention from NPR and is merely further proof that abandoned toys only leave us with questions. May there be answers.

Our Theology Must Change: A Reading List

Since horrible things have transpired — yet again — I’ve seen a series of reading lists appear. I am an avid reader and it is usually my gut reaction to understand world events. When the twin towers fell in New York City, I started reading up on Islam. I wanted to understand what didn’t make any sense. I admit that I never finished the first book I picked up all those many years ago. It was a book written about the religion and practice of Islam rather than it being an active expression from one of the faithful. I got frustrated because the author couldn’t understand that this thing he was writing about was part a belief system. It was part of worldview. It was something that many people — not just in the Arab world — put into practice every day.

Because I am such an avid reader — even if I read incredibly slow and don’t always finish the books I begin — I am ever curious about the book lists that are gathered in the midst of tragedy. There was a reading list after Ferguson. There was another I found when horrible things happened in Baltimore. (This isn’t the Baltimore reading list I remember but so be it.) And yesterday, after the horrible things that happened in Charleston, there was this reading list.

The last of these lists was gathered from Twitter. People tweeted titles and it was all gathered together in one official list which is all good and well except that the religion section is terrible. I’m relived that Dr. James H. Cone made the list but there are so many more that should be on this list. Our theology must change because James Cone was right. I was uncomfortable in seminary when I heard him lecture. I squirmed and struggled with my own whiteness. I felt blamed and responsible because I am. Our theology must change so that we become accountable for the sins of racism.

I was blessed to attend Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where the very first thing that we did as new students was confront our racism. It was the first part of orientation. It was how we began our work as pastors and faith leaders. We began with ant-racism training before we encountered the most amazing scholars in lectures and conversation. Among those books that I read in seminary, I’d like to highlight a few that we should all re-read.

Though he wrote many other wonderful books, including his newest book which is hanging out on my to-read list, this is the book that really hit home for me. This is the book that opened my eyes and changed my worldview. James Cone’s God of the Oppressed is the book that I think everyone should read to begin to talk about what black theology means — and how our theology must change. It is a theology that emerged from the liberation theology movement that began with Gustavo Gutierrez.

 

 

 
It was only a few days after the terrible news in Charleston that a friend from seminary commented on Facebook about how uncomfortable it is to be Sarah, rather than Hagar. It’s a reference to this particular work from the amazing Delores S. Williams. Her response to James Cone was that his black theology didn’t make room for black women. To include black women in this liberation theology, she wrote Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk which delves into the story of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. I loved this book.  It was perhaps my most favorite book of all of my seminary reading. It is one that I think everyone should read especially as people of faith trying to understand this really difficult story in Genesis.

 

 

 

Seminary involved a lot of heavy lifting for me as I tried to understand and make sense of my own atonement theology. It turns out I still don’t quite have a satisfying answer but there is one book that I flip through every year — usually in the midst of Lent – as I try to understand what it means to claim the death of Christ. JoAnne Marie Terrell’s Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience is a must read for how our theology must change to consider the brutality and violence of the cross.

 

 

There was a lot of reading in seminary and this list feels woefully incomplete. Among the books that I read too few pages of while in seminary is Katie G. Cannon’s Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. It’s one that I hope to return to very soon — as soon as I can find my copy!

 

What would you add to this reading list? What should we read to challenge the evolution of our theology at such a time as this?

Hang on to Each Other

I can’t quite stop myself from watching this video of the Vice President exposing his grief so tenderly and so honestly. I’ve watched it again and again and again. He’s talking to people who know grief. You can hear it in their laughter when the Vice President talks about those people who say they know how he feels. You can hear it in their attentive silence. They are bonded together in this common experience of grief.

It’s an old speech — from way back in 2012 — but it’s making the rounds again after the news that Beau died. The Vice President’s son has died. After his deployment to Iraq, Beau came home to fight a battle that he couldn’t win. Brain cancer won. So that the Vice President finds himself fighting with his grief again. As a young man, newly elected to office, he got a phone call to say that his wife and daughter had been tragically killed in car accident while they were out Christmas shopping. His boys survived. His wife and daughter did not.

It changed his entire life. It changed his career. It changed his parenting. Those that know grief know this moment. It’s when everything changes and you realize life will never be the same. Someone you love has died and nothing will ever be the same. It doesn’t mean that nothing good will ever happen again. As many times as I’ve preached about grief, it feels like this truth is never quite heard. The world creeps in with its own assumptions and conclusions. The power of the gospel gets squashed by it. There is part of me that will never get over the fact that my mother died when I was seven years old. Because that loss has changed me. Nothing will ever be quite the same because my mother died. But, I will not get over it. I can’t get over it. I can’t go back to being that seven year old little girl. I can’t change what has happened because each and everything that has happened since then has changed who and what I am.

holding-hands-752878_1280My grief is always there. It is a part of who I am. It’s something that I can’t remove or take off. It’s a truth I preached a few months ago only to be prayed over in the prayers. I tried not to wince when a woman in the congregation bowed her head and prayed that I might get over this grief. Maybe it’s just too hard to speak to the depth and length of grief while still saying, as the Vice President says in this speech, “it can and will get better.” I know both of these truths. My grief is always there but it does get better. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did 20 years ago. It is better — but it is still there. It will not disappear.

This is what I love about the church. It’s something that Elaine Pagels observes so well in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She stumbles out of Central Park after an early morning run away from her grief into the Church of Heavenly Rest. She crossed the threshold to receive the mystery: Here is a family who knows how to face death. It’s a truth I know. It’s one that I have lived. It’s why I am so easily frustrated when someone voices a prayer of the world. The world tells you to get over it. The church offers a different message. Like the Vice President, the church tells us to hang on to each other. It can and it will get better but hang on to each other.

Don’t worry so much about it getting better. Don’t insist upon happiness. That’s the world’s job. Let the gospel have its power. That’s the mystery. That’s all it is. It’s the power of hanging on. We don’t always do it well. Sometimes we totally screw it up. But, sometimes, we really get it. When we let the power of the gospel really stand. Then, then, we can really say to each other: Here is a family who knows how to face death. Here is a group of people that knows how to hang on and never give up. It’s this that makes everything better.

They Were Innocent

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

I can’t get these words out of my head. Surrounded by cardboard boxes that seem to never quite get unpacked, I keep thinking about these words spoken by the father of an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob with sticks and stones. I can’t bring myself to read anything more. I have so many questions. I want to understand how this could happen. But, I can’t read another word.

The death of this innocent woman has brought the Afghan people into the streets. Something has switched.

But, as I unpack so many boxes, I’ve only read the one article in The Washington Post that struggles to name the crime worthy of such a punishment. I’ve only read this one article quoting her father, saying:

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

Perhaps this is just something that parents say because it is just too hard to believe that your child could be anything other than innocent. Or maybe that’s too simple. For surely, there is nothing simple about murder. There is nothing simple about deciding to take another’s life. There is something sacred about this life — whether or not we choose to affirm it. We can deny the existence of any kind of deity but our humanity won’t allow us to deny the gift of life.

virgin-mary-stylized1So that this father’s words could fall on anyone’s lips. But, when I first read these words, I thought instantly of Mary the Mother of Jesus. She must have said something similar when her boy died on that cross.  She must have wondered about how people could be so cruel. She must have been disgusted by the violence. The streets may have been lined with crosses. It may have been something she saw everyday. But, when her boy was murdered in that way, something must have switched.

Something must have changed how she saw the powers of Empire. Something must have changed her tolerance of their occupation. Because, like Farkhunda, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was innocent. His only crime was that he questioned the powers of this world. He dared to critique those that refused to be questioned. Like Farkhunda, he wanted to know if there was another way to treat each other — especially the poorest among us. For this, they were both killed. 

And I can’t get these words out of my head. Because they are my words. They are words I have spoken again and again. Because people are so cruel to each other. Because there is so much violence in this world and I’m still waiting for something to shift. Call it resurrection. Call it justice. Call it human decency. I don’t care what you call it but we have said this too many times. We haven’t lamented time and time again that we don’t understand why this terrible thing has happened. We don’t understand why this 27 year-old woman died. She was so innocent. 

I don’t understand why this had to happen. 

I don’t understand why it had to happen in this way. Plenty of people have told me that Christ died for my sins. Church members in Bible Study have insisted to me that Jesus had to die in this particular way. And he knew it was coming. 

I don’t understand why. 

I never have. I don’t think I ever will.

This is my first Lent not leading a congregation. Instead of struggling with these question is Bible Study, I’m unpacking boxes. I am so confused by this I thought this past week was Holy Week. It’s not. Holy Week actually begins tomorrow on Palm Sunday. So, this week when there is still too much violence in this world, I’m trying to remember how Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan encouraged me consider what Jesus was passionate about

Because I want to be that innocent.

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