After Philando Castile: The Christian’s Calling

This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.

 

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)

 

Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.

This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:

When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?

We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.

37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.

Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.

In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.

Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:

I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.

If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.

But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”

Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.

With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.

“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”

Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.

If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.

He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.

Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.

When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.

From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.

“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.

It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!

Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.

 

Humility

 

He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.

As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.

That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.

 

Gentleness

 

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.

Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”

Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.

This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.

Yeah, gentleness.

I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.

I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”

Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.

Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
 

Patience

 

Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.

The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.

Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.

And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”

Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.

Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
 

Eager to Keep Peace

 

Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.

But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.

“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.

Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”

In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
 

God Speaks in Falcon Heights

 

I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.

A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.

She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.

One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.

Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.

So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.

And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.

And we need to live it out now more than ever before.

After Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Dallas Police… How to Pray in Church Sunday?

Image source: Dallas Police (I think)
Image source: Dallas Police (I think)

 

It’s getting way past old: Senseless murder. Institutionalized bias and racism. Sheer evil in action. Too-easy-to-access AR-15s used to kill in times of peace.

There’s more to say than any single blog post could. I simply want to suggest here a resource for worship service planning for this Sunday. After looking through a host of lament prayers, both ancient and modern, I’ve come to Psalm 74.

It doesn’t take much imagination to update its striking imagery of “men wielding axes” and ones who “smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets” to the context of this last week in the United States. Verse 9 offers the poignant observation, “None of us knows how long this will be.

Here’s Psalm 74 in its entirety, which our congregation will use as our Call to Worship on Sunday, mindful of and mourning for this week’s tragic loss of life.

O God, why have you rejected us forever?
    Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
    the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—
    Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
    all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
    they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
    to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
    with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
    they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
    They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.

We are given no signs from God;
    no prophets are left,
    and none of us knows how long this will be.
10 How long will the enemy mock you, God?
    Will the foe revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
    Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!

12 But God is my King from long ago;
    he brings salvation on the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;
    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;
    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;
    you established the sun and moon.
17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
    you made both summer and winter.

18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord,
    how foolish people have reviled your name.
19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts;
    do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant,
    because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.
21 Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
    may the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;
    remember how fools mock you all day long.
23 Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
    the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.

 
 
 
 
 


 
 

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The Mourning Woman Who Taught the Priest How to *Really* Pray, or, The Power of (Even Silent) Prayer After Terrorist Attacks

There was once a couple who was not able to have children together. The woman felt alone and mourned regularly. Her husband loved her deeply.

It was her habit to go into a local sanctuary that had open prayer times during the day. Another woman in town, if you can believe it, would tease and provoke her over her not being able to bear children. So she wept bitterly and would go long periods of time without eating.

One day her husband said to her, “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?”

She could not respond, except to go back to that sanctuary and pray.

* * * * * * *

One day the priest was there, close to where she was praying.

The woman was utterly distressed and prayed to God, weeping openly as she prayed.

She made a promise of sorts: “O Almighty God, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give me a child… I will devote him entirely to you.”

As she prayed the priest started watching her mouth. He noticed that she prayed silently. Her lips were moving, but he couldn’t hear any sound come out of her mouth. He thought maybe she was drunk.

* * * * * * *

So the priest, a man named Eli, said to her, “Hannah, How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

She responded:

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.

Eli responded, as with a change of heart, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

* * * * * * *

Prayer, as it turns out, is not a silent, impotent act.

Even those prayers we can’t fully voice—where our lips are barely moving—reach God.

The prayer of one of God’s beloved is powerful and effective, as Jesus’ brother James tells us.

So keep praying. Keep your lips moving, even if no sound is coming out.

Keep praying though you are in despair. Keep praying when you feel helpless and hopeless and powerless. Keep praying when evil seems to have the upper hand.

Keep praying in times of drought, in times of death and destruction, in times of violence and terror, and in times of fear and confusion and sadness.

Through our prayers and the prayers of others, we are healed. Our words uttered to God plant us in the soil of his love, and we are saved. The prayers of God’s children are powerful and effective.

They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships

Joy vs. Facts, Sleeping in a Storm

 
One place I like to go, from time to time, to rouse my spirits and draw me closer to the heart of God is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

I’ve been chewing on one line in particular the last part of this week: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

Berry’s words are good for us to hear right now, because “all the facts” include the reality of living in a country with a deeply ingrained racism habit that we just can’t seem to kick. The Deacons and I were praying Wednesday night in the back of our sanctuary, right about the same time another group of believers was praying in a Charleston, South Carolina church…. People of color in this country continue to suffer at the hands of racist persons and racist systems that perpetuate their mistreatment.

But, Berry says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

If Wendell Berry were narrating Jesus’ state of mind in Mark 4:35-41, he would have said, “Jesus relaxed and took a nap, though he had considered all the facts.”

The disciples are thinking, “Oooh, nice—we’re going to go out in a boat with Jesus into this serene lake:”
 

Sea of Galilee

 

Whereas Jesus probably knows that this was in the offing:

 

Jesus Calms the Storm, Gustave Doré
Jesus Calms the Storm, Gustave Doré

 

Here’s Rembrandt’s rendition of it:

 

The Storm on the Sea of Galiee

 

And yet Jesus “lies down and sleeps in peace,” as the Psalm says.

 

A Furious Squall…

 

Mark 4:35 says, “That day when evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’” From what I can tell, evening can be a good time to catch fish, but to traverse a lake…? When you’re out camping and sunset comes, you try to set up camp, not embark on a new leg of your expedition.

But God’s ways are not our ways, and Jesus’ ways are not the disciples’ ways, so off they go. Verse 36 says, “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.”

“Just as he was”—it’s like when you’ve made a spontaneous decision to pick up a friend and go out for coffee, and you are in a hurry and you say, “Just come like that, just come how you are. Atomic Cafe doesn’t care if you wear your pajama pants and fleece-lined Crocs. Get in the car.”

Jesus and the disciples just went.

Next verse, verse 37: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.”

I love this genius storytelling of Mark. If you’re reading or listening to this story, you don’t know yet where Jesus is. “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” And then, you expect, verse 38 will say, “And Jesus, with power and authority, stood up and made the waves stand still.”

But, no, verse 38 says, “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” He needed his introvert time. He found a pillow, or a big sandbag, and put his head on it.

The disciples take this as apathy, some kind of a cruel joke.

If the boat is nearly swamped, and Jesus is still sleeping, he must not be wet yet. It’s possible the stern was raised. The boat could have looked something like this:

 

Raised Stern

 

Which probably makes the disciples all the more upset. You wonder… if Jesus knew this storm was coming, is that why he was at the stern, elevated above the rest of the boat? And if so, the reader of this text wonders, why didn’t he quell the storm before it started? Or give the disciples a heads-up? Mark doesn’t tell us.

But his students ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we down?”

The specific wording Mark uses in the text suggests that the boat was filled “to the extent of its capacity” (HT).

And doesn’t this imagery of a flooding boat go against the axiom that “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” Maybe it’s more like, “Sometimes we get more than we can handle, and God’s not necessarily the one who gave it to us, but he’ll be right by our side anyway.”

 

…And an Omnipotent God

 

If Mark’s given us the full humanity of Jesus—he was sleeping on a cushion—now we see his full divinity. Verse 39 says, “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”

“Who is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The text says it goes from a “great” windstorm to a “great” calm.

Jesus talks directly to the wind and the waves. Can you think of another person in biblical history who talked to the waves and the sea, and told them to do something?

Jesus, they are starting to see, is more than just an amazing teacher. Listen to how God questioned Job:

Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

I don’t know if the disciples, in that moment of fear, would have had Job in mind, but the kind of thing Jesus is doing in this passage is the kind of thing that only the LORD God Almighty does.

Here he is. God himself, in the boat with the disciples.

Psalm 107 says, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
 

But They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…

 

I wonder if Jesus had this Psalm in mind as he went out into the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Maybe he thought, “Alright—it’s Psalm 107 time. Let me show these young ‘uns what I can do.”

Listen to part of Psalm 107 in the King James Version:

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted
because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Did part of that ring a bell? You might recognize this guy:

 

FishermanMemorialGloucester

 

Here’s a close-up of the Fisherman Memorial overlooking the Harbor:

 

They That Go Down

 

“They that go down to the sea in ships,” the inscription reads, 1623-1923.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

 

…These See the Works of the LORD

 

What about those who go unrescued?

And the Psalm goes on to describe the wind and the waves. Those at sea “reel to and fro… and are at their wits’ end.” Surely this describes the lives of those lost at sea from 1623 to 1923, and before and since.

Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.

That very much sums up the experience of the disciples in Mark 4. They’re living out that Psalm with Jesus

But herein lies a theological difficulty. I don’t know how many fishermen cried “unto the LORD in their trouble” in stormy seas, but the memorial in Gloucester stands there to honor those who were not brought out of their distress… or at least, not brought out of a storm. There are some storms–literal and metaphorical–that God just does not make calm. Unlike the ones the Psalm 107 goes on to describe, these men and women that the man at the wheel stands for were not rescued.

“Teacher, don’t you care if [they] drown? …Why didn’t you save them?”

It’s one of the perplexing questions that confronts us—why a God who can and does intervene so often… just lets some things go… lets some evils move ahead. Allows men and women to get lost at sea.

That existential question has come up again this week in Charleston:

 

Why
Source: David Goldman (AP)

 

You can’t kill love

The 9 members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church barely had time to “cry to the LORD in their trouble.” And though Jesus was in attendance at that Bible study and prayer time—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”—he didn’t stop the hateful actions of a deeply racist young man.

Surely those 9 didn’t have to die. I don’t know how many more of these things it will take for our nation and lawmakers to finally move ahead in a serious conversation about gun control. I don’t know how many more unarmed black people will have to die before our country wakes up to the pervasive racism in our midst.

They didn’t have to die. But, you know what? In the lexicon of the Kingdom of God, dead isn’t really dead.

Because you can kill a person, but you can’t kill love.
You can try to cut somebody down, but “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” From even horrible death can come new and powerful expressions of life.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the Pastor of Mother Emanuel, one of those who died. There’s a short YouTube video you can easily find: a couple years ago he welcomed a group of folks who were on tour in historic Charleston. Here’s what he said:

The African American Church… really has seen it as its responsibility and its ministry and its calling to be fully integrated and caring about the lives of its constituents and the general community. We… don’t see ourselves as just a place we come to worship, but as a beacon, and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.

But I like to say this is not unique to us. It’s really what America is about. Could we not argue that America is about freedom? Whether we live it out or not… but America’s about freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be… and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you maybe have to die… to do that.

We saw this week how the family members of the victims responded. They called on Dylann Roof to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus. As Rev. Pinckney suggested, they called him to a life of “freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends [him] to be.” They said things like, “Though every fiber of my being is hurting, I forgive you.” And the nation watched, amazed at the witness of the families in that church.

And so God, working through the amazing mercy of the families, calms the storm, after all. The winds of hatred and the breaking waves of destruction die down as Christ works in the hearts of his disciples in Charleston who choose faith over fear.

When God’s children find themselves in choppy waters, our Lord, Jesus, is right there with us in the boat.

And because they know Jesus is in the boat with them, the families of Mother Emanuel have chosen to be joyful, “though [they] have considered all the facts,” though their loved ones have been lost at sea, as it were.

Not a sudden storm, not even a tragic shipwreck can keep Christ’s disciples from making it to the other side. There they see the works of the LORD, and their witness lives on.

 


 

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today at church.

Charleston, S.C.: What Can We Say?

Why
Source: David Goldman (AP)

 

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the U.S. on Wednesday night—which was also an act of racism—I suspect many of us have found ourselves at a loss for words. Scripture’s language of lament can come to our aid in the aftermath of violence and tragedy. Of course, the Psalmists who turned their pain and puzzlement into prayers did not see lament as a panacea for all the world’s evils. Even if God were to vanquish all of David’s enemies on the spot, he knew he still had the sin of his own heart to contend with.

Psalms and prayers of lament do, however, help the one praying make the important move of deliberately entering God’s presence in a state of deep pain, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, and exasperation. If you are tired of praying, “How long?” and “Why?” and “Please come to our aid quickly, O Lord!”, I wonder whether the Psalm writers might simply advise us to redouble our efforts and pray those same prayers once more.

Psalm 74 says, in part:

How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.

Psalms of lament—with a couple noteworthy exceptions—end with an affirmation that God is still King, and his ability to bring salvation cannot be compromised. I’ve often imagined that when the authors of such Psalms came to the reaffirmation section of their laments, they wrote with trembling hand, watering eyes, and a fast-beating heart that clung desperately—hope against hope—to the truth of God’s sovereignty.

Now is the time to pray such laments—especially on behalf of others and the injustice and pain they undergo. Though all life is valuable and the taking of another life is tragic in any setting, the victims at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were brothers and sisters in Christ, bonding together in prayer in their final moments of life on earth.

Their prayer and study of the Word of God is now transformed into something more than they could have imagined, as they meet the One who is called the Word, face to face, in all his glory.

But there’s more to respond to—the shooter appears to have been a white supremacist who targeted his victims specifically because they were African Americans. It’s stupefying how people of color in our country continue to be targeted. Our prayers and support are needed.

I know it can feel like “it’s getting old” to make lamentations, and we can get tired of praying the same prayers (over and over) for justice and healing around issues of racism and hatred in all its forms. But battle after battle, injustice after injustice, threat after threat, that’s what the Psalmists did. They kept turning their pain to prayer—kept bringing complaints about injustice into the presence of God.

Let’s not lose heart in praying that God’s kingdom would come, in all its fullness.

 


 

The above is adapted from what I wrote to our congregation this morning: a call at a time when words fall short to engage the lament language of Scripture.

“O God, is this any way to run a world?”

Psalms of Lament

Whether it’s another school shooting, a cancer diagnosis, an unjust imprisonment, violence perpetrated against the peaceful, or an unkind word that brings tears to the eyes of the one who received it… there’s a lot to lament in this world–too much.

A year-and-a-half ago I read a fantastic book called Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems (see more here). I continue to come back to her modern-day lament psalms from time to time. Of course, it’s hard to top the lament psalms in the biblical book of Psalms, so really Weems and David go together. I appreciate the freshness with which Weems approaches the important practice of lament.

Weems tragically lost her son just after his 21st birthday. It is out of that sense of loss and grieving that she writes many of her lament psalms. She says:

This book is not for everyone. It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep. It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities. This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.

So if you are weeping right now, or weeping with someone who is weeping… or if you feel like maybe you should be weeping but can’t, or don’t know how… here is Weems’s Lament Psalm Thirty-two (posted with publisher’s permission), which can help to give shape and voice to a heartfelt prayer of lament:

O God, explain to me
the cruelty of your world!
Make sense of those
who make no sense!
Tell me why the innocent die,
and evil people live
to kill again!
Tell me why the faithful
are shunned,
and the self-righteous
point their fingers!
Tell me why the wounded
are wounded,
and sorrow falls
on the shoulder of sorrow!
Tell me why the abused
are abused,
and the victims
victimized!
Tell me why the rains
come to the drowning,
and aftershocks
follow earthquakes.
O God, is this any way
to run a world?
O Merciful One, let us rest
between tragedies!

Speak to us
for we are your people.
Speak to us of hope
for the hopeless
and love for the unloved
and homes for the homeless
and dignity for the dying
and respect for the disdained.

Speak to us, O God,
of the Resurrected One!
Speak to us of hope,
for in spite of
the tidal wave of tears,
we remember your story
of new life!

Tell the world again,
O God of creation!
Tell us that winter will fade,
and spring will wash us new,
and the world will green again,
and we will be new creations
in the garden of our God.
Free us from these tentacles
of sorrow,
and we will fall on our faces
and worship you,
O God of goodness,
O God of a new green world!

Psalms of Lament (for “Scalding Tears”)

Psalms of Lament

Psalms of Lament is a heartbreakingly beautiful collection of poetry. Weems alarmingly yet assuringly gets right down to business in her Preface:

This book is not for everyone. It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep. It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities. This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.

Her Psalms are for those whose experiences are “painful, too painful for any of us to try fitting our souls into ten correct steps of grieving.” They come from experience: Weems unexpectedly lost her son (“the stars fell from my sky”) just after his 21st birthday.

Drawing on the great biblical lament tradition, Weems writes lament psalms of her own. David’s familiar structure of

“How can you leave me like this, God?”–>”Yet I will trust you”

is on display throughout the collection. As personal as Weems’s psalms are, like David’s and Jeremiah’s laments, they are universal and could be prayed by anyone who is lamenting.

If you read with an open heart, Weems’s laments can evoke tears at nearly every line. And it’s a profound Godward lament in which she engages: “Anger and alleluias careen around within me, sometimes colliding.” There’s no bitterness here, but neither is there a naïve attempt to placate reality (as if we could!) with boring pseudo-truths like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “God took her away because he needed her for his heavenly choir.” Here is Lament Psalm Twelve, one of the starker and more personal psalms, in its entirety:

O God, what am I going to do?
He’s gone–and I’m left
with an empty pit in my life.
I can’t think.
I can’t work.
I can’t eat.
I can’t talk.
I can’t see anyone.
I can’t leave my house.
Nothing makes any sense.
Nothing seems worth doing.

How could you have allowed this to happen?
I thought you protected your own!
You are the power:
Why didn’t you use it?
You are the glory,
but there was no glory in his death.
You are justice and mercy,
yet there was no justice, no mercy for him.
In his death there is no justice for me.

O God, what am I going to do?
I’m begging you to help me.
At least you could be merciful.
O God, I don’t remember a time
when you were not my God.
Turn back to me;
you promised.
Be merciful to me;
you promised.
Heal me;
you promised.
My heart is broken.
My mind is broken.
My body is broken.
Nothing works anymore.
Unless you help me
nothing will ever work again.

O Holy One, I am confident
that you will save me.
You are the one
who heals the brokenhearted
and binds their wounds.
You are the power
and the glory;
you are the justice
and mercy.
You are my God forever.

The six “I can’t” statements (“I can’t think. I can’t work. I can’t eat. I can’t talk. I can’t see anyone. I can’t leave my house.) evoke the monotony and hopelessness that the grieving one feels. Yet three times: you promised… you promised… you promised. Given the way the poem begins, the last stanza seems almost out of place. But it’s a move David made (forced himself to make) in his Psalms.

I only wonder if those who grieve will be ready to pray along to the end of each psalm with Weems, as her laments so often end with an affirmation of God’s promises. For those whose grief is acute, fresh, and numbing, such prayers may at the moment be impossible.

Yet Weems gives us language for when we need it most, for when words of any kind are impossible. A person in the throes of grief not yet be able to say, “Alleluias spin in my heart!” But she or he may want to be able to make such affirmations, if not now, then eventually. Weems offers wording for the griever to attempt that journey. In so doing she provides a pattern for lament that is true to the biblical tradition, true to life.

Psalms of Lament 2Psalms of Lament is a gift to the Church and to those who grieve. Pastors, campus ministers, youth ministers, and worship leaders would all do well to have copies on hand. While Weems seems to have composed her laments with the individual in view, I’m intrigued by the possibility of reading and praying these psalms in corporate worship settings. A funeral or a Sunday after a tragedy would be particularly appropriate times. Yet if we consider, as Weems notes, the possibility of weeping with those who weep, those who pray would do well not to wait until a tragedy to employ these psalms.

Weems’s prayers floored me. I had turned to her before. As I read her again I never made it very far without choking back tears. (In my better moments, I gave up on trying to choke them back.) The tears Weems evokes, though, are not just tears of sadness, but tears of hope in the God who “will put the stars back in the sky.”

Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for the review copy. I am confident I’ll want to pick up additional copies of Psalms of Lament for others. You can preview a good deal of the book at Google Books here.