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. 

How Grief Works

Since the news early Wednesday morning, a collective cry has arisen from my fellow Americans. Many have said that it feels like someone they have loved has died. In these first few days after the news hit, they feel numb. They are in shock. They can’t believe that this has happened. It feels just like when their dad died.

When that news hit that Donald Trump would be our next president, they couldn’t believe it. They had been in shock. They were numb and they wondered what the world would look like without him.

It has been a few years since that happened though. The grief they remember has changed. It has become something else. It’s not as overwhelming as it once was. They still miss their dad. Of course, they still miss him but those years without him have made grief different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Whether or not we are able to connect it to that loss before, it is grief that is on everyone’s lips. It was the first thing that arrived in my email on Wednesday. With only a few hours of fitful rest after that acceptance speech at 2 a.m., there was an email telling me to grieve quickly.

Others have joined that chorus echoing that refrain from the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” They do not speak of joy, of course, but of the work that must be done. Still, there is urgency to grieve quickly.

This is not how grief works. It does not come in a flash only to disappear. It does more than linger when it feels like the world has been ripped apart. This is how it feels when your father dies. This is how it feels right now to a whole lot of Americans. I’m told that it has felt that way to others before this election and that this has been ignored by people like you and me. Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times yesterday,

“Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.

The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear.”

That last line arrests me. For it is not just their inner pain and fear that has gone ignored, it is our own.

This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.

This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.

Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.

I do not intend to wag my finger at you or your pain. In fact, that’s the last thing that I would want to do because I know that it will not work. Grief is what I know best. To borrow a line from Hope Edelman, it is “the most determining, most profound, the most influential event of my life.” My mother died when I was just a little girl and it has forever shaped how I see the world. And so, I know that you cannot shame another into feeling what they do not feel nor can you cannot compel anyone into grief. That’s not how it works. Grief, instead, is paying attention to that inner pain and fear. It’s a practice of noticing what hurts and how it hurts.

It is not so simple as charting through five stages until it is over and done. Grief will seize each of us at different times. Some are feeling it now. It is already real for them while others will need more time. Some will not feel the weight of this news until January when the inauguration when this president-elect will take the oath of office. Some might not even feel it then. Let’s not worry too much about what that might mean but instead let’s try to practice paying attention. Don’t grieve quickly. That’s really bad advice that comes from a culture that believes that the only way to survive is to get over your pain and your fear.

Grief is not something to overcome or achieve, but something to go through. It’s not wise to try to hurdle over it. It’s best to take the risk and allow yourself to mourn. Mourn it all. Mourn every hope and dream that feels dashed. Mourn the idea of America that feels like its dissolved and disappeared. Mourn the safety of your neighbor and yourself. Mourn every bit of it. Pay attention to it. Notice what you are feeling and when you feel it because that will be what teaches you. That will be what leads you to be the change that your kids and your friends need. That will be what allows you to take all of this pain and fear and make it into something beautiful that this country needs. But for now, dear ones, allow the grief to linger. Joy will come soon enough.

 

 

The Only Hope for America

Most everything I know about democracy I’ve learned in church. It is in my particular tradition of being church that I’ve had the chance to practice all of the values and ideals that democracy claims.

Mine is the tradition that birthed democracy. They were not perfect people but they came seeking freedom. They came looking for something different than what they had known and so they imagined this new way of governance that would Abraham Lincoln would later declare to be for the people and by the people. Mine is the United Church of Christ, a denomination made up of four different traditions that dared to come together in the certain belief that they could be better together. Imagine that in our current political landscape because I surely cannot. Still, I cannot help but view every bit of coverage of the political process through my experience in church. Take yesterday’s headline in the Washington Post: GOP reaches ‘new level of panic’ over Trump’s candidacy.

It was only two weeks ago that the Republican National Convention wrapped up in Cleveland, Ohio with Donald Trump became the official nominee for the party. Granted, this particular presidential candidate has said some really egregious things since he received that nomination but I can’t help but view this from the perspective of what would happen in church.

Because it does happen in church. It happens in all kinds of churches, not just those in my tradition. So, I’m curious how this panic would play out in a local congregation where a pastor has just been called. (Let’s also keep in mind that pastors and presidents are not at all the same thing. Nor should they be. Good heavens.) I’m trying to imagine what would happen if that pastor was to make the same kind of remarks that Donald Trump has made, if that pastor was to disregard the tradition and teachings of the church and how the people in that church might respond.

Would it only create a stink if the members of that church didn’t agree with what the pastor was doing and saying? Would they question his integrity? Would they wonder if they had made a mistake? What would happen if the powers that be within the denomination would override their decision to call that person to be their pastor and teacher? Would it create a panic within the members of that church? Or would it only raise the temperature of those in the judicatory?

That’s what I wonder most about this particular headline. Is this a question of who knows best? Because this is a question I carry into my ministry every single day. There is a fair amount of distrust among the congregations I have served. They are ever suspicious of the role of the judicatory. In the United Church of Christ, the association, the conference, general synod and the national setting but in your tradition it might include presbyteries, synods and districts. They don’t see the other expressions of the church (that’s what we call these things in the United Church of Christ) as partners in their ministry. And they should be partners. That’s the whole idea. They don’t trust the other expressions and are far more comfortable seeing themselves in that one little congregation all on their own. That may very well be all fine and good until there is a problem with their pastor, which seems to be the issue that the GOP is having with Donald Trump.

They see Trump as a problem. They see the harm that he may cause and they want to try to help. But, how do you do that? In our understanding of governance for the people and by the people, both inside and outside of the church, how do you decide that the people are wrong? After all, the people voted for him. All of those delegates in Cleveland got behind him. All that I can see is broken trust. The GOP doesn’t even need to act. It has already doubted the people. Trust is already broken. So, then, what can be done to rebuild that trust?

I don’t think this is just a question for the GOP, but it’s a question for all of us who dare to believe that we share some common ground. How do we hold that ground together even when we disagree? What happens when someone – maybe even someone well-intentioned  – takes those values and skews them? How do we go back to the core of who we are?

How do we move forward together?

We must move forward together. We must.

I confess to you that I am not a Republican but I love a whole lot of them. They are in the churches I serve. I am their pastor and I always will be. I don’t support Trump but there are those in my church that I do. We don’t agree. And that’s OK. Church has taught me the value of building consensus. It’s taught me the wisdom of taking time to learn and grow together and Jesus reminds me every week in the gospels we share in worship that we really are better together. It is not a question of who know best. I don’t think it can be. It has to be about the kind of trust that we can build with each other so that we can move forward. Together, we must move forward. It is our only hope.