The Wrath of Jonah: A reflection on anger, forgiveness, and letting go

There are many Bible stories that many who have never read the Bible know.

Or think they know.

Jonah and the whale is one of them. Many seem to be familiar with the hapless Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he lives for three days. Some might even know that he was running away from an assignment given to him by God.

What many might not appreciate, even those who know the story, is that Jonah is not really the hero of the story, in the sense that he is meant to be an exemplar of behaviour, a model to be emulated. Rather, he is an angry, judgmental, small-minded man who bitterly opposes God’s compassion and God’s mercy on those who don’t follow the rules. He’s kind of a proto-­fundamentalist.

And what’s more, the story is told about him in the Bible in a way that intends for listeners or readers of the story to laugh at Jonah. It’s a funny story. It’s a comedy. Which is another surprise to those who think of the Bible as being dreadfully boring or humourless. The story of Jonah is a bit of a caricature of religious and ethnic intolerance, a parody of small-­mindedness which lampoons those who would not be gracious or forgiving.

The word of God comes to Jonah, the way that it comes to all of the Jewish prophets. Prophets receive word from God usually to proclaim that God’s justice cannot be ignored, and that judgment will fall on those who oppress the poor, cheat their workers, or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. A major theme for the Jewish prophets is the tendency of the Hebrews to worship other gods and goddesses, and how mad God, the God of the Hebrew people, gets when this happens.

So Jonah receives word from the God of Israel to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it. The wickedness of its people has come to the attention of God and God wants Jonah to go tell them about it. (Jonah 1:1-­2) Nineveh was the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire, at the time of this story, the largest city in the ancient world. In other words, the seat of an imperial power amassing wealth through the domination of other lands. And one that is not Jewish. The Assyrians were pagan, after all.

So God is sending Jonah there to preach against Nineveh. What does he do?

He gets on the next ship out of there and goes—in the opposite direction.

He heads for Tarshish, a fabled name for a place probably on the Iberian peninsula, pretty much the outer edge of the known world. Jonah wants to get as far away as possible. If we were telling this story today, we might say something like, “Jonah got on the next plane to Timbuktu.”

God stirs up a violent storm that tosses and pounds the ship that Jonah is on. Everyone aboard starts praying to their own god while Jonah, incredibly, is asleep below deck.

The sailors wake him up and say, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your God to save us!” (1:6)

The sailors also cast lots to find out who is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, which they discover is Jonah.

“Who are you? Where are you from? Do you know who’s responsible for the trouble we’re in?”

Jonah replies that he is a Hebrew and that he has angered his God by running away from him.

“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they ask.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” is the answer Jonah gives. (1:11-­12)

That is when a huge fish (not a whale but a “huge fish”) swallows Jonah and carries Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights and spits him up onto dry land.

There, God again commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim there the message God gave Jonah. Reluctantly, Jonah goes.

Now much of the Hebrew Bible devoted to the prophets is full of threats, all of the things that God will do to the wicked. The prophets give long lists of what has made God angry: oppression of the poor, unfaithfulness, chasing after ostentatious wealth. They give long lists of punishments and tribulations: famines and droughts (economic losses) and military invasions.

Jonah, on the other hand, walks into the city of Nineveh and says, “You have forty days.” (3:4)

That’s it.

That’s all he says.

No “Woe to you,” no explanation of the wickedness that God has seen, no long lists of things to repent from.

Jonah is doing his best to make sure they don’t repent and that God punishes them.

“You have forty days.”

And then, to Jonah’s great dismay, that’s all it takes for the Ninevites to be sorry and repent.

He’s not even working that hard at prophesying, and they all are sorry for what they’ve done and immediately begin to fast and ask forgiveness. Including the king who proclaims a fast and urges everybody to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows,” the king says, “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8-­9)

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)

Well. Jonah is angry! He is so angry! 

He storms out of the city. “I knew you were going to this! I knew it!” he rails at God.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)

God acts like a soothing parent. “Oh, honey you don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do! I’d rather be dead than glad that you didn’t destroy them!”

“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks repeatedly.

“I’m going to sit right here and watch the city and wait and see what happens to them.” (4:5)

And that’s pretty much how the story ends. (Although we also get this comic situation where God shelters Jonah out there in the desert with a tree that grows up where he is sulking, after which God takes it away and Jonah blows up again).

But that is pretty much how the story ends. Jonah sulking and a soothing parental God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Is it right for you to be angry?

Sometimes it is right to be angry. Anger at an injustice is a sign of an active moral conscience. Getting mad when something unfair happens is a good sign. It can be the energy that gets us to move toward making justice, toward righting the wrong. Anger can be the motivation for action.

But Jonah is mad because the people of Nineveh have been spared. The compassion—the mercy—of the God he reveres is greater than Jonah’s petty need for revenge and retribution. Jonah is angry because he didn’t get what he wanted— God smiting the people he doesn’t like.

The citizens of Nineveh, remember, are not even Jews. The story plays on the distinction that the Hebrews made between themselves and other nations, that they had been chosen out of all the nations of the world in a special covenant with God. That God’s covenant could be universal, and could include all peoples, was anathema to those who claimed the superiority of their ethnic and national group over all others.

I myself have known people like Jonah, given to jingoistic sloganeering about their nation being the best nation on Earth, given to confirming their prejudices by quoting a scripture chapter and verse, and who refuse to acknowledge goodness in people different from them or deemed enemies to themselves.

I see in the character of Jonah something I see all the time. When you’re really mad at somebody who has wronged you in some way. They’ve really done something unskillful and hurtful and you just can’t wait until you see them because you are going to let them have it. You are going to tell them what they did and how it made you feel and what you’re going to do about it and what they should do about it and the kind of person you think they are.

You rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind, making all kinds of brilliant points about this other person’s shortcomings and failures.

And then.

When you see them, before you can even get a word out, they apologize.

Without your explaining it, they acknowledge what they’ve done. They say they realize what they did and see how unskillful and hurtful it was toward you, and they are sorry. And they ask you to accept their apology.

You don’t want them to be sorry!

You want to have the fight you’ve been rehearsing in your head!

You don’t want to accept their apology, you want to enumerate the ways in which they are wrong, and now you’re even angrier because they’ve taken that away from you.

They’ve done it themselves and apologized for it.

Sometimes we don’t want reconciliation or resolution. We want to be proven right. We want to triumph in victory over another. We ourselves can be vengeful or spiteful and in so doing, perpetuate a conflict, continue a difference we have with another.

Maybe you have known people like Jonah, who refuse to give up their resentments, refuse to let go of a justified anger or a grudge, who seethe with bitterness at the perceived or actual wrongdoing of others.

Some people collect grievances.

There was a woman in a church I once served who was known to take people to task for not following rules or procedures, or for being sloppy or incorrect. She’d phone you and go on and on about everything you had done wrong, some of them quite petty, and if you hung up on her, she’d call right back and continue.

Just wait, I was told when I arrived in this church, you’ll see. When I asked about the covenant of right-­relation this congregation had, people scoffed. “You try holding her to that!”

Sure enough, in due time, this woman called me on the phone and lay into me everything that I had done wrong since I had arrived at this church, on and on with great vehemence.

I had been there three weeks.

She collected grievances. She derived some benefit to always feeling wronged. She needed to always be right.

I have known people who always have to win, whether it’s a game or an argument. They have to be right. A wall of righteousness and arrogance and ego blocks them from acknowledging they could be wrong, their knowledge could be partial, that there could be goodness and thoughtfulness in a person or people they designate their opponent.

I think we all know somebody who is like Jonah and I think that we all, in one way or another, are ourselves quite like him.

We don’t need to look very far to find smug and self-­righteous people. We’re right here.

We don’t need to look to other groups of people in other religions or with different politics from us to find people who are convinced that they are right. We’re right here.

Some of the most smug and self-­righteous people I’ve ever known I met in supposedly liberal circles. Tell such people that you eat meat, or can’t stand listening to NPR, or that you own a gun, or vote Republican—and just see what happens.

Jonah needed to be right. There are rules and if you don’t follow them, you are to be punished. That is the correct way of running an ordered and predictable world. There is a moral and good way to act and an immoral and evil way to act. The good are rewarded. Wrongdoers are punished. God is on the side of those who are right, moral and good. God is on our side and against them.

This either-­or, black-­and-­white way of ordering people and the world can’t handle compassion and forgiveness. The idea that wrong can go unpunished is unbearable and upsetting.

Anger can, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes, form a kind of knot within us, a formation that is difficult to undo. When that knot has formed within us, the person with whom we disagree or who has wronged us is all wrong, all the time.

We cannot see anything else about that person.

We hold on to that anger, as resentment, because we think that doing so is going to punish them for what they did wrong. It’s like swallowing a burning poison to hurt somebody else. We are only hurting ourselves.

Physically, even, when we carry anger and resentment around within us, our bodies are affected negatively—ulcers, headaches, muscle pain. If we choose to be free of suffering, it will be because we let go of the resentment we are holding on to.

We need to ask ourselves, Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be free?

And we can choose freedom. In living a compassionate life, practicing forgiveness, we do the hard spiritual work of giving up the demand to be vindicated.

What about those that have harmed us? What happens when they do not reach out to make amends, or insist they have done nothing wrong, or will not engage with you at all? What about needing to forgive somebody who has died or is otherwise indisposed?

It seems to me we then have the choice of either holding on to our sense of being aggrieved or let it go. We can constantly tell ourselves the story of how we were wronged and live out that identity of the righteous victim. Or, without excusing the other’s actions, without forgetting the harm they caused, we can let go of the hurt and the anger and the acrimony and vindictiveness.

Anger and resentment are corrosive to the soul, eating you up inside. Forgiveness can be an act of self-­care, even as one stands in opposition to the others’ actions, firmly standing against their behaviour.

One does the work of justice, of resolving conflict, of being in relation with difficult people, without becoming full of negative emotion. It’s a kind of non-­attached engagement; we are not detached, but we don’t get hooked and reeled in by the reactivity, the ill will of those with whom we are in conflict. We maintain a spacious, serene mind and equilibrium in our hearts. Even as we oppose them.

Being unforgiving is essentially a fantasy of making the past different and wanting to punish somebody for doing something they cannot change.

Forgiveness is a practice that liberates us from what cannot be undone; it frees us from an unchanging past.

Forgiveness, being fully in the present moment and oriented toward possibilities of the future, is what it takes for peace and understanding.

I can understand and appreciate how the story of Jonah is traditionally the Haftorah reading for the afternoon Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is an intense time of self-scrutiny and prayer, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, making amends, and reconciliation.

We can laugh at the caricature that Jonah represents, but let it be the laughter of recognition and not derision, that we see in this character something of our own character.

And let us recognize that we ourselves at times are like the citizens of Nineveh, unable to tell our right hand from our left, and that concern and grace and love is shown to us, even in our confusion and uncertainty, more than we sometimes know.

And let us find it within ourselves to live more graciously and with more compassion, for ourselves as well as others, forgiving and asking forgiveness, that we may live with ease and at peace.

Posted in Advice & Counsel, Theology, Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Forgiveness, Repentance, & White Supremacy

When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.

This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.

This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.

In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.

It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.

Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).

The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.

Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.

The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.

To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.

People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.

The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.

And repent.

The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.

And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.

I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.

And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.

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The Work (In Progress)

If the pundits are to be believed, organized religion in North America is a losing proposition and leadership in religious institutions a fool’s errand.

Much has been made recently of the latest information from the Pew Trust Religion and Public Life survey. Religious affiliation in this country is in rapid decline, particularly among younger people. The number of people who respond “None of the Above” to the question, “What religion are you?” is increasing exponentially.

These latest findings, which are in line with similar surveys and studies that have been coming out over the last several years, have unsurprisingly increased the hand wringing among those of us who are not only affiliated with a religion, but care deeply about its future.

There was a time when religious institutions could depend on a stable population of volunteers and donors. Houses of worship could sit pretty on the town green or on the main street and expect people to come to them. Attendance at a house of worship was an expectation (if not an obligation) that most fulfilled, particularly in the period after the Second World War. Clergy were respected in the culture at large as leaders and moral guides. Religious institutions were trusted, and the charitable work they did was lauded and commended.

There’s been a dramatic shift over the last generation. People now are generally suspicious of institutions, and much less likely to join one or sustain it financially. Clergy sexual misconduct, and its cover-up, along with financial malfeasance among religious leaders, has dashed forever the automatic trust people might once have had in clergy. Faith communities compete with all kinds of enticements and regular attendance at worship has fallen.

The seismic shifts that are taking place beneath our feet are breaking centuries-old encrustations and tectonic plates. The religious institutions that once seemed rock solid are crumbling and the very foundations of church are shaking. Centuries of church establishment and Christendom are crumbling and falling away in this generation. For those inside its collapsing edifice, these changes are painful and frightening, to be sure.

Yet it is also an exciting time to be the church.

Without the culture and the state propping up religious observance, who and what will be left? Stripped of power, privilege and persuading influence, what role can organized religion play in our social order? If our neighbour isn’t knocking on the church door to be let in, how will we be sent to serve our neighbour?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. What will faith communities look like in the decades ahead?

We just can’t imagine the future. It’s hard to imagine a future when everything is up for grabs. Telling people that our pipe organs and meetinghouses and hymn books, our meeting for worship and our meeting for worship on Sunday mornings, may not be in the church’s future is met with the blankest of blank stares. What’s left? To say nothing of the change in basic assumptions—people are not coming to you, you need to go to them.

A year ago, I preached a sermon at the First Parish in Lexington, where it has been my honour to serve as their minister these last five years, which I think might become my lasting legacy. They continue to speak about “the phone booth sermon.” I began by asking the congregation, “How many of you remember telephone booths?” Most everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you, at some time in your life, have used a public phone?” Again, just about everybody raised their hand. And then I asked, “How many of you have used a public phone in the past seven days?” There was laughter, and not a single hand in the air.

And yet, it’s not as if people don’t need to speak on the phone when they’re out in public. People still want to be able to reach others when they’re away from home. And we continue to do so. It’s just that how we do it has completely changed.

Nobody could have imagined, forty years ago, that we would all be walking around with little phones on our person, phones not tethered to the wall. We couldn’t have imagined this change. We had no way of knowing this is what “talking on the phone in public” would look like in the future.

When it comes to church, we only know how to ask for what we have always known.

We think maybe if we update our Web site, or use guitar in worship, or create a Facebook page, we will be well positioned for life in the twenty-first century. We cannot even imagine the entirely new, reinvented church of the future. So we keep asking for what we already know, only maybe with a few modifications when what we need is a complete, creative, innovative breakthrough.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Those whose hope is in institutions and habits, as they are, whose hope is in the ability of church people to change, those are the ones who are really panicking. Because our most enduring slogan is, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”

But the good news is, there are powers greater than any human made institution, including the church. There’s a spiritual power moving in the world greater than our habits, including our religious habits.

I believe there are powers of regeneration and renewal alive in our world that are constantly calling us to be, and to become, and to be-in-relation. There is a power greater than ourselves that simultaneously invites, sustains, and constitutes mutual dependence and community, constantly drawing together disparate elements and people, eternally expressing itself as love. These forces within and among us are known by many names, including God or the Goddess.

God is doing a new thing. When something interesting or creative or new is afoot and church people are shocked or dismayed, I pay close attention. Because I think that if it upsets church people, it is probably of God. If it is overturning those intractable idols of “what we have always believed” or “the way things have always been,” I am certain God is in the midst of it. When a vibrant spiritual thing is happening on the margins, in the peripheral vision of the established religious institutions, I think, “Now that’s some Holy Spirit power right there.”

God is doing a new thing. That creative and creating power at the heart of the universe is doing a new thing. And a new thing sometimes means letting the old thing crumble away and fall apart.

The pathway to renewal and revival goes straight through defeat and decline. The pathway to resurrection goes straight through the shadowy valley of death. The church needs to die to the church in order for what comes next to come to life.

The trappings that our faith comes in are falling away. There may not be meetinghouses and churches and pipe organs and stained glass and hymnals a generation from now. We might not meet for worship on Sunday morning. But what is essential and at the core of our liberal way of being religious is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing–

that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment–

better ways of being a society together–

that forgiveness is better than anger–

that love and compassion and generosity and solidarity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better.

And yes, life-saving and transformative.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. What we offer as religious liberals is in fact sorely needed in our world today.

Now more than ever, our nation needs our witness. Now more than ever, our communities need our witness. Now more than ever, our planet needs our witness.

How we reach our nation and communities, and what our life together as communities of faith will look like, we are still figuring out.

What kind of a common life we will be inviting people in to, we are still figuring out.

What it all will look like, we’re still discerning.

The pipe organs and meetinghouses, the way we do worship and religious education and social action, our Web sites and Facebook pages, our newsletters and rummage sales and potlucks—these all may or may not any longer serve our purposes. They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us in this historic moment is the faith that what is lasting will endure. And the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us.

To gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission.

To gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as a liberal religious movement in this time, this twenty first century.

Because it’s not change that we resist–it’s loss. We resist loss. And we are losing so much.

The good news is, the path of loss leads to new life.

The expressions of our faith have evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

The restoration of God’s people that the prophet Isaiah envisions is radiant and triumphant. I believe our way way forward is through humility and modesty and accepting our marginalized position in the culture, accepting that what we are, and what we do, is countercultural.

We are going to get used to being on the margins of the social order, to inhabiting the “abandoned places of empire,” to living among the ruins of Christendom and established religion. And, with God’s help, liberated to do a new thing.

We whose work it is to bring us into our future as a vibrant, lively, faithful people need to have the imagination to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the courage to try something new–to experiment, the imagination to invent something new around which our core is built and expressed.

What is required is attentiveness to the Spirit, to pay attention to the promptings and invitations of the Spirit, to discern the new thing God is doing, to get comfortable with failure as we experiment.

We don’t have to have it all figured out. This clinging to certainty only causes suffering. We don’t have to be in control. We can do our part for reimagining how to be church, the shape of how we are to be faithful together, but the work will always be a work in progress.

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.” (Ken Untener)

This does not allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel and say, “Okay Higher Power, you drive this thing!” We do what we are able to do. We play the part we know is ours to play. We answer the call to serve. And do our best. And let go of the outcome.

In the Talmud, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21)

The work continues. It is a work in progress.

Because just like people talk on the telephone in public without public pay phones, without telephone booths, we will continue our shared ministry whatever shape that it takes.

Because just as people still need to talk on the phone in public, people still need what we have to offer.

As long as people search for significance in their lives, we will be there.

As long as people long for meaning in life, we will be there.

As long as people, grieving the death of loved ones, want to celebrate life and bury their dead, we will be there.

We will be there as long as people ask Why?

As long as people want to make a difference in the life of others, as long as the need to serve others arises in human hearts, as long as people ask How? when it comes to living a life of compassion, generosity and gratitude, we will be there.

We will be there.

We whose task it is to love the hell out of the world–

whose task it is to bind up the broken–

to provide salve to the wounded, to heal the hurt–

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, yes, raise the dead–

we whose task it is to minister will not shrink from the work.

Aligning ourselves with the divine will, paying attention to the direction of Spirit, with God’s help, we will be there.

This post is the sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Aaron Stockwell by the First Parish Church in Groton, Massachusetts on 6 June 2015. The readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and “A Step Along the Way” by Bishop Ken Untener.

Posted in Church, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)

So it seems I’m not alone among our colleagues. This year, there are fewer available ministers than there are Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking interim ministers. The reasons cited for this situation include a bumper crop of retirees and a fair number of ministers who are leaving the parish.

And I am one of them.

There was a time when celebrity clergy were publishing memoirs about “leaving church” and we both rolled our eyes at that. Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend, and for dissing the institution we are pouring our lives out for.

And yet here I am reflecting publicly on my reasons for leaving my current parish ministry as I move on into something else. Not leaving ministry, and certainly not “leaving church,” just going back to school to get what I need to do ministry in a different setting.

Part of it, for me, is being spooked by all of the doomsday predictions and catastrophic forecasts about declining religious affiliation and its ramification for local faith communities. I experience, like many ordained ministers, equal parts excitement and terror at the reality that congregational life as we know it is going to be very different in the decades ahead.

We’re not going to be able to count on a regular paycheque from a local church–indeed, many of us currently do not. Seminarians are now being prepared for a “bi-vocational” career in ministry, which in a way is what I am doing. I may or may not take up part time parish ministry in the future. I do love it very much.

I love congregational life, and I love the work I get to do in the parish. Reinventing the local church to thrive in organized religion’s reduced circumstances is the kind of creative opportunity I might be invigorated by.

What can I tell you? I’m tired.

I became an aspirant and candidate for ministry in my twenties. Remember what that was like—ready to conquer the evils of the world, transform our religious movement while proclaiming its gospel to churches we were growing to twice their size by our astounding feats of preaching and public witness!

When I was in my twenties and thirties, this was fine. I had the energy and ego strength to do all this and go out dancing afterwards. In my late forties, it takes greater effort.

In entering the second half of life, I’m more sensible about my abilities and interests, more realistic about my limitations. I’m more clear on which values and needs and desires I want to shape my life around, the settings in which I feel most at home.

I find that I’m becoming more and more introverted the older I get. This hasn’t meant withdrawing, only that it costs my spirit more, especially without adequate time replenished by solitude.

Obviously, I still engage in all the public aspects of ministry—the social hours and potlucks, the Memorial Day ceremonies and clergy meetings—it takes more out of me. As do the usual visits and calls, staff meetings and board meetings, and all the other assemblies in which I find myself.

There is never enough time. It seems like just as I am catching my breath it is time to start running again. The moment I feel rested is followed by the moment of heading back to work. Not much time for relationships, for family, for exercise, for cooking myself nutritious meals. Everything is on the go. I thank God for my ministerial colleagues, with whom I spend more time than any other kind of friend.

Am I burned out? I don’t think so. I have long maintained good boundaries, taken Sabbath time consistently, and on some days chose self-care over an unfinished to-do list.

It’s not enough for me.

What I need is a slower pace, a more spacious schedule (as I told my congregation, pronouncing it the American way), a better balance between work, rest, and play, a ministry in which I am not the constant moving target. The twelve hour days are not sustainable to my spirit, especially as they come back to back.

My congregation has been superb at encouraging me to rest and study, to take the time off allotted to me. Lay leaders have reminded me to say No when I might have said Yes, to let a congregant’s unmet responsibility drop rather than catch it.

No, the fatigue I experience is harder to pin down, its remedy more than time off.

We hold the presence of the church on our person, the mantle of spirit around our shoulders. When we show up in the operating recovery room at the hospital, it is the church that shows up. When we drive over to the bereaved family’s home after the death of loved one, it is the church that is showing up for them. That is a huge responsibility that we would always remember when we don our stoles before leading worship. L’église c’est moi, as Louis XIV might have said.

That stole, that weighty mantle, is often very, very heavy to carry day in and day out.

What is exhausting, and perhaps something lay people aren’t aware of, is the psychic energy that goes in to being the screen for their projections and desires. A good minister is constantly discerning: Is this really about me? Or is this member of my congregation actually interacting with their parent or spouse or boss? What is really happening here?

Graciously being that screen for their fantasies and expectations and aggression without getting hooked and reeled in to the drama they want to act out with you takes a lot of soul power.

To say nothing about when it actually is about us, and having to remain open and non-defensive.

Skillful ministers do this well, but even the most self-differentiated clergy person, once exhausted by the effort, will have “one of those days.” And then one finds oneself apologizing and making amends for actions (or inaction) that most people take for granted and let slip by. It is the cost of the pastoral relationship, of right-relation, and our calling is to model it.

That can feel deceitful when on the inside we are heaping curses on the person we are asking to forgive us. It’s really more artful than artifice, but that divide feels more and more dishonest to me. Skillful self-differentiation is an art, but I don’t believe true authenticity is ever available to us as parish ministers. (Nor should it be. We both know emotionally unintelligent colleagues who wish to share everything with their congregation. And how that turns out).

The lesser burden is to listen with forbearance to a tiresome and uninformed parishioner drone on and on about some religious topic, or some church matter, some thing that you and I studied in depth at graduate school, in seminary. Our expertise takes second place to making this person feel heard.

It is our burden to carry all of the truths that are unable to be enunciated publicly, all of what is confessed to us in the minister’s study, often without any hope of absolution.

But we also hold the organization’s truths, truths that, for the sake of the congregation, are never told by us—even when it would vindicate or excuse or explain some action taken.

You and I know that the church is an employer as well as a faith community, but that is not so obvious to our people. As chief of staff, it is up to us to hire, evaluate, manage and sometime dismiss church employees. The process, by necessity private and confidential, is lost on most parishioners. To such folks, church staff are members of the family, treated like a fellow member, and are to be treated the way parishioners are.

Although lay leaders certainly provide detailed feedback for evaluations, even the evaluation process is lost on the average parishioner. So when the time comes to dismiss an employee—for not performing their duties, for not following an improvement plan, for being unwilling to learn needed skills, or, as you certainly know, for some other egregious misconduct—all the congregation sees is a beloved “friend” being “forced” to leave the church.

And we have to sit there, with our lay leaders, silently, while aggrieved members of our congregations make a big noise. Knowing we will never break confidentiality, knowing we can never share the true story of why that staff person was dismissed. We have to grin and bear it, no doubt making our Puritan ancestors proud.

We have to die to ourselves, so that the congregation might live.

It is the art of skillful self-differentiation, a burden I gladly took on at ordination, that now costs me more than I have left to spend. I’m spent.

I love congregational life, and I love my congregation. Good ministers are always “in” the congregation, but never really “of” it. It is the tragic irony of our role. We love religious community so much we dedicate our lives to its health and prosperity, only to find we no longer can belong fully to a church the way we did before becoming ministers.

I miss that.

I miss being at worship regularly and not being at work. I miss singing in the choir and teaching in the religious education program for children. I miss having my soul tended to by a gathering of imperfect, loving, genuine people—among whom I am most authentically myself, my undivided, wholehearted self.

This nostalgia is a kind of homesickness for church life at its best.

What can I say? I want to go home.

Posted in Church, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Lifeline: A Reflection on Vocation

In the early 1990s, the popular avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson climbed the Himalayas. She was accompanied by about a dozen other climbers, eight sherpas (Tibetan guides), and a number of yaks. They were on a journey to view a lake high in the mountains where, it was said, the next Dalai Lama’s name is written in a secret language on the surface of the water.

At 22 000 feet, Anderson began to suffer from altitude sickness and quickly worsened, with a temperature of 104 degrees, hallucinations and severe headache. The party decided to take her back down. Anderson was zipped into a body bag, put on the back of a donkey, and led down by another American mountain climber who was in the group.

She was not expected to survive.

I heard Laurie Anderson tell this harrowing story in a performance in Montreal years ago. The young man who accompanied her down the mountain was a shy, quiet person. He had barely said a word the entire time. The whole way down, the taciturn man led the donkey along the steep pathways, while this ostensibly dying woman weaved in and out of consciousness.

Anderson asked him to talk, to keep talking as they made their way. Which he did. He told her to look at the stars, to look at the rocks.

“By giving me some little thing to hold on to and concentrate on,” she said later, “he saved my life.”  It wasn’t merely the things he got her to pay attention to that saved her life, but his voice. Focusing on his calm voice, reassuring by its presence. His voice was like a rope, Anderson says, which she clung to, a rope that guided her. It was, as she says in one of her songs, a “tightrope made of sound/This long line made of my own blood…/This long thin line./ … This tightrope.”

I imagine what it might be like, in a chaotic world of searing, blinding pain and swirling hallucinations. The steady, sturdy guide, something sure to hold on to, a constant, calm voice holding me as much as I hold on to it. A voice, like a rope pulling me out of the depths.

The word “vocation” has its root in the word for voice. Many people who enter the ministry, who enter a profession, often speak in terms of vocation. It is as if there is a voice, calling you forward, calling to you, summoning you, and to which you must respond. Sometimes it even might be a rope made of sound, a long thin line, a lifeline.

Discernment of vocation can be a matter of hearing the voice, listening for it. Focusing on it.

During a minister’s formation, discernment is an essential pursuit. There is a decision to be made about whether or not to pursue ordained ministry, or what kind of ministry to pursue, but discernment is greater than decision-making.

It’s more of a threshing, as when a farmer separates grain from plant. A potential minister sifts through her gifts and desires, strengths and weaknesses, her history and spirituality. And in that threshing, something emerges. The seed, the grain, separated from the chaff, surfaces. An interest in religious traditions, a love for spiritual practice, a devotion to one’s faith community, a passion for social justice. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others. That seed which becomes apparent are kernels of a future life in ministry, that will germinate over time, grow roots and reach toward the light.

James Hillman, the great depth psychologist, speaks of the “acorn” in his book The Souls Code. The future oak tree, its potential, is present in the acorn. In the same way, within each of us is the potential of what and who we are becoming. We have within us the seed of what we are meant to be. We come into this world with the inner information we need to become most fully ourselves. The task of discernment, for all of us, is to uncover our inborn acorn. Our mission in life is to answer its imperatives, to say yes to its full flourishing.

Children do, it turns out, come into the world with their own personalities, their own characteristics.

What is innate and unique in you?

How would you characterize your traits? your gifts? your strengths?

A life in ministry, a life launched by responding to the voice, unfolds over time and as seasoned ministers will attest, you find yourself (or lose yourself) in a flurry of details, tasks that pull at you in differing, simultaneous directions, unmet needs of those you serve that gnaw at you, all folded into the achievements, and hard work, and happy occasions. That original voice loses its volume. That saving voice is increasingly lost to the chaos and clamour that is everyday life.

Whatever idea that got planted in one’s mind, in one’s soul, that original voice that beckoned and invited and summoned, need not fade into the background noise of daily life. Return to it often. Whatever is most true, most genuine, most compelling for you, return to that. Remember that.

There are times in our lives, aren’t there, when we experience a kind of dislocation in the middle of our perfectly good enough life. It’s as if the inner self or the soul is estranged from the self the world sees. The inner self, the soul, is alienated, apart from, the self that the world knows, different from what is presented to the world. You look around and go, What am I doing here? Is this my life? 

These experiences of drift, of nothingness, of emptiness are what mystics name the dark night of the soul. The conventional lives we have been given, or the lives we have made for ourselves, suddenly seem inadequate or inauthentic. The script given to act out no longer make any sense, and our lives ring hollow with our deepest sense of ourselves, grate against the skin of our living. This isn’t me, an inner voice can be heard to say. This life is not my own. And then if this isn’t me, what is me? Who am I?

In such times, we have drifted away from that inward guide, the voice. Listen for it. Discern where the thread is, find it, and allow it to suggest a new pattern. At whatever age we are or stage in life, in whatever profession we work, finding that call and being true to it is a life’s work.

Do you remember the voice that first whispered in your ear: I’m good at this. Here is work to which I could see myself dedicating my life. This speaks to me.

This speaks to me.

Remember. Make every effort to remember when the going gets tough, when the days are long, and the burdens heavy. Hold on to it. Hold on to the long thin line, the rope made of sound, made of the voice to which you said, Yes.

Keep saying yes.

For all of us spiritual beings having a human experience, we need to be centred, I believe, centred in the best of who we are. In our inward guide, the acorn of our possibilities. Our innate gifts and capacities, and what living them out might imply. A power deeper and wider than ourselves. An original sense of who we are meant to be, grounded in the native soil of our own soul.

Because we all have a vocation, a calling.

Laurie Anderson survived her trip to the Himalayas. She wrote a couple of pieces about it, about her brush with death, and dedicated one to the young man who talked the whole way down, saving her life.

Listen for the voice that calls you to your best self.

It might just save your life.

This post was a homily given at the ordination of the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier at the Unitarian Church of Montreal on 14 May 2015. It was also shared with the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the UUA weekly chapel service on 19 May 2015, during the week of the first year ministers seminar. 

Posted in Church, Faith Formation | Tagged ,

More Love Somewhere: The unedited hymn

I have long been uneasy with a recent practice among Unitarian Universalists of singing changed words to a particular song in Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Granted, we are always changing words to make them more palatable and therefore singable in our congregations. We free original hymns of their sexism and God-talk, for example, in an effort for our worship to be more inclusive.

The changed lyrics I am thinking of are to the old African American song, “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I have heard it sung by UUs as “There is more love right here.”

And as much explaining as I have done from the pulpit about understanding and respecting the history and context of the song, I field questions from congregation members who protest the song’s words when we sing it as is.

There is much to be troubled by this, and not merely annoyed that, yet again, Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing.

People who have everything they need don’t understand why they would sing about love and hope and joy being somewhere else.

People privileged enough to not want for many of life’s blessings can be incapable of hearing the yearning of those who go without.

Lament is a misunderstood and unappreciated form of prayer. We can be grateful for what we have, we can ask for what we need, we can admit when we’ve made mistakes. To cry out “Why? How long must I endure this?” does none of these things, yet is as authentic a prayer as any.

Longing for what is not yet, yearning for what is absent ultimately affirms hope. Not optimism, hope. Happiness and love and joy and peace are attainable, even as they are not yet attained.

Expressions of aching desire do not merely allow us to wallow. It is not an admission of defeat. Calling out for what is missing is ultimately an affirmation of resolve and expectation: “I’m going to keep on till I find it.”

“There Is More Love Somewhere” is among that repertoire of African American songs from the time of slavery. Spirituals give voice to the experience of slavery, the African American experience of survival and resilience. These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.

Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?

Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.

There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.

Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings. We have hymns of thanksgiving. Can’t we sing them, instead of this awkward revision?

It’s been my experience that Unitarian Universalists shy away from sharing experiences of loss and suffering, and are uncomfortable with needing or wanting or asking for help. I think many UUs don’t like to publicly admit that we are anything but autonomous, self-determining masters of our own destinies.

In the public privacy that is worship, can we admit that we are sometimes in need? Can we pour out our desire for what is lacking in our lives?

We look upon the misery of the world but don’t always see. We look at the misery of the world and see what we are going to do about it. This laudable desire to improve the world, to make our social order more fair and equitable, to build an environmentally sustainable and just economy is to be celebrated.

And the practice of compassion must go with it, or we become clanging know-it-alls and a sounding cymbal of self-righteousness. Compassion, as the word’s Latin roots suggest, is the ability to suffer with. To enter into the suffering of another is to acknowledge and accept their subjectivity. To attempt to understand what it feels like, to feel their pain.

Can singing a song do all this for white Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps. But not if we erase the words we find uncomfortable. Not if, in so doing, we erase the history and experience—the story—of a people.

Unitarianism and Universalism each began as religious movements grounded in an optimistic religious philosophy. The world, and humankind within it, were imperfect but perfectible. A loving God conquered all.

This theologia gloriae has been the dominant mode in Christianity. (Which is supremely ironic given that Christianity has at its centre a suffering God, a God who suffers-with the world and all its creatures). Uncertainty and ambiguity are pushed to the side. The via negativa, the way of negation, gives up certainty and the positive affirmations of who and what the divine is, in favour of humility and honest questioning.

A theology of glory is triumphalist. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:

“Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting adherents unflinching belief and loyalty. Such a tendency is triumphalistic in the sense that it triumphs—at least in its own self-estimate—over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, as over every other point of view.”

Theologia gloriae is the theological underpinning of American Christian triumphalism, the bright light of rightness that allows for no shade or shadow, no ambiguity or doubt. Stumbling around in the dark, crying out for light, is not the American Christian way. Our God triumphs and the anguish of the world will be conquered.

The Unitarian Universalist gloss on this theology of glory which we inherited, is that we ourselves are the source and power of the world’s redemption. We ourselves are capable of putting an end to suffering. Racial and economic injustice, sexism and homophobia, climate change and other evils will be vanquished by our advancing guard of yellow-shirted UUs, marching as to war.

Can we take time to acknowledge that we are not there yet? That we are powered by our love for the world and our compassion for those who suffer? Can we take time to lament? To grieve that there is not enough goodness and trust and solidarity in the world? To grieve that there is not enough love in the world?

That there is more love somewhere? And that we will keep on until we find it?

When I sing “There Is More Love Somewhere,” I enter into that inward space of not-yet, of acknowledging that the way things are is often unjust, unkind. But justice and kindness will be ours. Peace and joy will be ours.

Knowing that what I am singing is the hope and yearning of people whose traumatic and brutal circumstance I can only imagine, when I sing this song, I lament for the way things are. I lament the current social order.

I lament my present circumstances that are incomplete. I long for more love, more joy, more peace and I lift that longing up in an act of worship, an act of prayer.

Will you please join me in singing hymn #95, “There Is More Love Somewhere”?

Posted in Theology, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

American Intifada: Ferguson and the coming insurrection

At the beginning of the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri, a friend wrote on his Facebook page, “What is going on in Ferguson?”

To which I replied, “An American intifada.”

To be sure, it is not a perfect analogy, but the sight of popular civilian protests facing off against an army firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds, training their automatic weapons on civilians as they patrolled the streets in helmets and camouflage, seemed apropos.

The comparison has been made by others, including Palestinian human rights activists who tweeted hard-won advice to the citizens of Ferguson about engaging with the police-army, dealing with tear gas, and other practical matters.

Not a perfect parallel, but consider this:

Saint Louis County police chief Timothy Fitch, along with other US law enforcement officials, has gone to Israel for training and advice. Fitch joined a delegation of American law enforcement on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2011.

The pro-Israel lobby in the United States has been making good use of the fear of terrorism in this country, bringing police chiefs from American cities to Israel to learn from the experts.

In 2008, the ADL sponsored policing delegations from Miami, Philadelphia, Lexington, KY, Mobile, AL, Salt Lake City, UT among ten others.

The Jewish United Fund, along with the Israeli government, hosted a delegation of law enforcement officials from Chicago in 2010, who were given a seminar in policing techniques, including a field trip to occupied East Jerusalem and its checkpoints. Every major division of Chicago law enforcement (Bureau of Investigative Services, Emergency Management, Organized Crime, SWAT) has been to Israel on such trips.

In October 2012, the American Jewish Committee brought police officers from New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, and Houston to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. They visited Megiddo Prison, near Haifa, notorious for its appalling conditions and for torturing inmates—many of them “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Ali Abunimah, in his powerful book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, reports:

 The Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs…says it has brought more than one hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained eleven thousand more law enforcement officers from across the United States since 2002.

Israel—with its “field tested” weapons and techniques used to subdue the Palestinians—is being held up as the model for US law enforcement. US police officers and law enforcement officials are being supplied with techniques and strategies of how a military occupation deals with a hostile population, how an official ethnocracy deals with officially disenfranchised minorities.

Think about that for a minute.

Whatever you personally believe about Israel or the Palestinians—just think about the fact that in the United States of America, police departments across the country are learning how to deal with its citizenry (who they are supposedly charged to protect) from a country that is illegally occupying another people’s land—and all that this implies in terms of military force.

Much electronic ink has been spilled over the last week about the increasing militarization of police departments around the US. Local police forces are acquiring weapons and equipment downloaded from federal US armed forces—armored personnel carriers, automatic rifles, flash bang grenades, and more.

The War On Drugs has met its equally nefarious lover, The War On Terror, and this, dear reader, is their offspring. Ferguson, MO makes visible in stark terms what has been happening in the United States for at least a generation. African American communities and individuals—youth and young men in particular—are under siege in a new way.

The massive effort, in a supposedly “post racial” society, to reinvent the terms of slavery and Jim Crow through the machinations of law enforcement has become well known through the writing of Michelle Alexander, and the movements against mass incarceration and minimum drug sentencing that her book, The New Jim Crow, helped inspire.

The conditions of this re-deployment of state power against people of color is dangerous, violent, and acts with increasing impunity. As it always has.

And the machinations of the reinvented conditions of slavery and Jim Crow are increasingly militarized. The Bull Connor of old is now driving an armored vehicle, equipped with automatic rifles.

Are citizens of the United States being targeted as enemy combatants by a military force? Are we a population to be subdued through curfews, checkpoints, arrest, torture, searches, seizures and other forms of state violence?

If our situation is analogous to military occupation, are the events in Ferguson an insurrection?

What would it take for us to have a widespread civilian uprising against this occupation?

In what ways can we refuse to cooperate, on a mass scale, with the occupation? How do we—collectively, individually—withdraw our power from it?

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

I’m finding that I am affected by the death of Pete Seeger early this morning. In a way that seems surprising.

I listened to his music mostly when I was in high school, at a time when I was reading voraciously about the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and learning about the civil rights movement in the United States.

I was myself involved in the student peace and disarmament movement, and immersing myself in theories and histories of social justice movements. It seems that what I was learning about peace, civil rights and labour movements, was the black-and-white outlines that Pete Seeger’s music filled in.

There was something about his recordings, both the songs and the context he gave the songs by speaking about them, that seemed to give what I was learning its third dimension. Also, by following some of the musicians he was influenced by, and the musicians and musicologists who he influenced, that I became better grounded in the life and spirit of activism.

Hearing Pete Seeger in concert at Place des Arts was an experience in the power of raising one’s voice together with others. He told stories, sang, and most of all encouraged us to sing along.

One believed, in the presence of this musician and his audience, in the power of people united. With hundreds others, in the context of moving together for peace and social justice, it was a felt sense of solidarity and community.

I met him backstage, where he signed my programme and punctured a hole in my nostalgia, deflating any sense I had had that the “good old days” of activism were over. It seemed to me, in the Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher eighties, that my cohorts and I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he somehow imparted to me and my other teenaged friends that we were right in the midst of changing the world, in our own time, in our own battles, in our own way. These were the good old days.

Still, I sometimes bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to have any music—the LGBT and AIDS activist movements, the peace and global justice movements. Dance anthems and hip-hop came close—but were not songs to be sung together.

The only place I ever experienced anything comparable was at church.

As a youth, I began attending my local Unitarian congregation’s weekly worship. Like many who find Unitarian Universalism, when I first arrived it felt like a homecoming. So many others who think the way I do about faith and religion and the world! What made my experience more awesome was I made friends with, and was befriended by, people who were much older than I was.

There was no other place where I raised my voice in song. And no other place where I sang with others, non-professional singers all. The power of this practice—to run sound through your own body that runs through the bodies of those around you—is community-forming, an embodied way of being in solidarity–and claiming the space surrounding you.

Many others, no doubt, are giving Pete Seeger the better-articulated tribute that he so rightly deserves.  For me, his was the voice that activated something in my soul, something that longed to connect with others in solidarity and community in the struggles for freedom. That called me deeper into a life of activism. And that helped me find my voice.

May his memory be eternal.

Posted in Social Justice, Spiritual Practice | Tagged | 29 Comments

Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

When We Sleepers Rise

There’s a story told about Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Jesus is traveling throughout the towns of Galilee, the northern reaches of Palestine. A leader of the local synagogue in the place through which Jesus is passing seeks him out. His name is Jairus, and when he gets close to Jesus, he throws himself at the teacher’s feet. “My daughter is about to die,” he pleads in anguish. “Please, come and lay your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

Jesus had a reputation as a healer and was being sought out by many for the healing of their afflictions. Jesus goes with Jairus, is led by this local leader through the crowds to where the young woman is. On the way there, messengers from Jairus’ household arrive and tell him, “Your daughter has died. We don’t need to bother the teacher any longer.” Jesus overhears them and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting.” He then takes only a select few of his students with him to the synagogue leader’s home.

When they arrive, there’s a commotion of grief surrounding the house. People are crying and wailing. “What is all this tumult and weeping for?” Jesus asks them. “The child is not dead. She’s just sleeping.” They all laugh at Jesus. Jesus gets them all to leave. He brings his students and the girl’s parents with him to the room where the child lays. She’s twelve years old. Taking her by the hand, Jesus says simply, “Little girl, rise up.” I imagine he speaks softly, squeezing her hand as he rouses her. And then she gets up. The way any of us would get out of bed first thing in the morning. And then she starts walking around. Her parents and the friends Jesus brought into the room are in shock. Jesus instructs them not to tell anybody, which seems a little odd considering the crowd that’s there mourning the death of Jairus’ daughter. What are her parents going to say, that she was merely asleep? But he says not to tell anybody and please, give this child something to eat.

There are many stories in the Christian scriptures about Jesus healing people and even reviving them from death. The gospels, the books in the New Testament that narrate the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, are not, of course, eyewitness accounts. These texts are not biography, nor are they journalistic reportage of events. These texts are theological proclamations written by the earliest members of the Jesus movement more than a generation after his death. The basic, remembered facts about what Jesus said and did are narrated as theological reflections on the meaning of his words and actions.

He was remembered as a healer, as a person who was able to restore health and wholeness to the bodies of the injured and infirm. Jesus is represented as God’s healing agent, a divine salve, for the suffering of the mind, body and body politic.

The followers of Jesus who wrote and redacted these stories were expecting a new world order to arrive imminently. Indeed, they believed that it was already arriving, breaking into the current world order in small sometimes unseen ways like small cracks in the solid façade of the world’s systems of domination and oppression, like small mustard seeds or bits of yeast, that would grow and expand and eventually bring the current world order down.

The incoming order is marked by the principle of shalom, the biblical ideal of peace and wholeness. Shalom is a word that resonates with meaning; it does not merely signify the absence of war. It also means wholeness, balance, health, harmony, integrity and completeness as well as peace. Shalom is right-relation, wellbeing that is personal and interpersonal, economic and social, international and planetary.

The wholeness and health and integrity of individual bodies is a microcosm for the balance and harmony and peace of the body politic, the social order. Shalom for the nation means shalom for persons, and vice versa.

In one healing story, Jesus is called upon to expel an unclean spirit that possesses a man and causes the man great suffering and self-destruction. Jesus says to the spirit, “What is your name?” And the answer comes: “Our name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion, of course, is the name for the basic unit in the Roman military. It comes from the Latin word legio, which means military conscript, because the Roman Legion were drafted from among the Empire’s citizens.

So when Jesus expels the Legion from the body of a man, who then enter a herd of pigs and drown in the sea, we are getting a theological-political statement about the power of God to expel the unclean, foreign bodies from the nation, the restoration of national wholeness and integrity and peace.  As the nation is possessed, contaminated by a foreign, unclean power, this possession is expressed in the body. So, when the formerly possessed man appears dressed and in his right mind, he is a sign of liberation and shalom.

(Lest we think such imaginative views are a product only of the ancient world, think for a moment about our own metaphors of illness. Think of our images of disease as an invasion of the body, of the immune system being a defense against that invasion—all military metaphors. Think of the names of what we might suffer from—German measles or Asian flu. Anxieties about invasion are named for national and political enemies).

Restoring the wholeness of body and mind, then, are signifiers of the in-breaking divine social order, the arrival of God’s shalom. Health is a sign of what Jesus and his movement called the kingdom of God.  It is a realm in which suffering and illness have been vanquished, in which brokenness and disease are no more. It is a realm in which God’s shalom overcomes powers of destruction and death. Perfect bodies that never experience pain, never get diseased or disabled…perfect bodies that never die.

Our bodies will no longer fail, they proclaimed, because there is a life-giving, vivifying power greater than our bodies’ failures. Greater even than death. Death itself is merely an illusion in the face of this living power—she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping.

Resurrection, for the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, was ultimately about history.

It was about a time, in history, when the rule of God would manifest in the world—the real world of nations and rulers and armies. It was about a time, in the future, when worldly kingdoms were defeated and the kingdom of God was ushered in—a real territory on the actual earth. Not an otherworldly kingdom in the heavens—the real world of bodies and passions and appetites. Not an afterlife in the clouds—a restored creation, a renewed earth, an earthly paradise full of redeemed people with unfailing, perfect bodies. This was an expected utopia, a verdant place of peace and prosperity and plenty. It was coming, and the early Jesus movement believed it was coming very soon.

The gospel stories of Jesus healing and reviving people were told as indications that the Kingdom of God was arriving. And so, the stories tell us, in his presence, nobody went hungry. In his presence, bodies were restored to wholeness. In his presence, the dead are rejuvenated. Healing, being restored to wholeness, being made sound—these are signs that prefigure the arrival of that day when all have transformed bodies, when all are whole, healthy.

The word “salvation” comes from the Latin and it means to be made whole, or sound. “Salvation” is simply a Latin word for shalom. A savior in the ancient Greco-Roman world was a natural philosopher, the ancient world’s equivalent of a physician. The Roman ruler or emperor was sometimes called a savior because he brought health and soundness to the body politic.

In the Jesus movement, salvation, for individuals, was an embodied state of everlasting, abundant life in a renewed body on this renewed earth–not being bodiless in a spiritual heaven.

The Jesus movement proclaimed that God’s saving work in the world is healing, wholeness, salvation. People’s brokenness, our wounds, are bound up in the healing salve of God’s love, our broken selves are made whole. The broken down and ruined places in our world are salvaged by God’s grace and are transformed, rebuilt. These are all motifs in the Jesus story and hearken back to stories and motifs of the other Jewish prophets found in Jewish scripture.

Some Jews (namely, the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus) believed that in the time to come, life would be restored to those righteous people who had died, and others did not. The biblical notion of the afterlife was an underworld called Sheol to which the souls of the dead retired. The New Testament, which was written in Greek, uses the Greek name Hades for the abode of the dead.

Around the time of Jesus, there came to be known another place to which dead souls went called Gehenna. The Hebrew is literally, Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, and is believed to be somewhere outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It was a place where offal—animal remains—and other refuse was slowly burned.

Gehenna was conceived as an afterlife of torment, a place of unquenchable fire. In the New Testament, it is distinguished from Hades and Sheol as a place of punishment for the wicked. The name is also found in the Qur’an and later Jewish writings with the same meaning; the King James Version of the Bible translated Sheol, Hades and Gehenna into the single Anglo-Saxon word, Hell. This effectively erased the distinction between the silent abode of the dead and the afterlife of burning punishment for wickedness.

The resurrection of the dead came to be seen by some Jews, including Jesus’ followers, as an occurrence at the beginning of the messianic era at the end of this present age. When God was going to usher in his paradise on earth, those righteous people who had fallen asleep and were resting in their ghostly abode were to be awakened from their deathly slumber. The wicked would meet their fate in Gehenna, and both their bodies and souls would be consumed in the flames there.

Followers of Jesus were among those Jews who believed the messianic era would begin with the dead being restored to life. The righteous would rise up with their new and improved bodies and live in the realm of peace and plenty, wholeness, health and holiness. They believed Jesus, the paradigmatic figure of this incoming kingdom and time, was the first to rise up. But he was not thought of as unique in this feat.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes Jesus as the firstfruits of the harvest, the first crop of a general harvest. Everybody will be resurrected; Jesus was merely the first to be given his new body. The resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter was not the singular resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, but a sign that the messianic age had begun.

The most articulate vision of this early Christian hope is found in the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth, the fifteenth chapter. The expectation had been that Jesus would be coming back to usher in the new world order sooner rather than later. And as time wore on and he didn’t return and his followers began to die, the question about the resurrection arose. It was this question that Paul is answering in his letter. Those dead people had merely fallen asleep and would be awakened when Jesus came back in glory to rule a redeemed world. And those that are still alive will experience themselves as transformed on that day. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery,” Paul writes.

“We will not all die [literally “fall asleep”] but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NRSV)

“Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won’t die or decay. The bodies we now have are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal.” (1 Corinthians 15: 53-54 CEV)

The bodies that we will have in that time will be nothing like the bodies we have now, Paul explains. “We do have a parallel experience in gardening,” Paul says in a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Patterson called The Message.

“You plant a dead seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)

At the resurrection, the living will be transformed. Their perishable bodies will transform into their unfailing bodies. Everybody who had lived a good life who had died or fallen asleep would be raised. The hope of this occurrence is the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

The meaning of Easter, in those years following Jesus death and appearances among his followers, was that the many who had fallen asleep were beginning to be roused; the entire citizenry of the age to come were beginning to wake up; everybody who would inhabit the future in their perfect bodies were beginning to receive them. It was a soaring hope and affirmation that the new life in the new world order was beginning.

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