Praying for Charleston

“Oh, God… no.”

This was my first inklings of prayer this morning as I heard the news about the shooting in Charleston, S.C. Friends have been posting on Facebook that they are praying. I did too. And yet, my mind keeps returning to an idea I came across recently in Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing:

When we pray “through Christ” we are praying through the Body of Christ, which then includes Jesus, the Eucharist, and the body of believers (ourselves) here on earth. We are praying through all of these. Thus, not only God in heaven is being petitioned and asked to act. We are also charging ourselves, as part of the Body of Christ, with some responsibility for answering the prayer. To pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in prayer.¹

It is good to pray, and yet it is not our only responsibility.

Holy Discomforter, teach us to pray.

 

¹Page 83

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The Pulse in the Wound

It is for all the literalists of the imagination
that miracle is possible, possible and essential.
Are some intricate minds nourished on concept
as epiphytes flourish high in the canopy?
Can they subsist on the light,
on the half of metaphor that’s not grounded
in dust, grit, heavy carnal clay?
Do signs contain and utter for them
all the reality that they need,
resurrection for them an internal power,
and not a matter of flesh?
For the others, of whom I am one,
miracles, ultimate need, bread of life,
are miracles just because those so tuned
to the hum drum laws – gravity, mortality –
can’t open to symbol’s power unless convinced of its ground,
its roots in bone and blood.
We must feel the pulse in the wound to believe
that with God all things are possible,
taste bread at Emmaus
that warm hands broke and blessed.

We must feel the pulse in the wound, Denise Levertov writes. We must feel the pulse in the wound to believe that with God all things are possible. Belief in the resurrection is not about manufacturing faith. It’s about living into the story of new life in the wake of death. Sometimes we need proof – firsthand experience. We are like Thomas, unable to join in the hallelujahs without first seeing evidence that death does not have the final word.  We need that something we can point to and say, “See here, this is God-with-us, alive, able to be and move among us.”

It is Easter night. The disciples have locked themselves in the house, fearing who might come to the door. Since Mary’s news of the empty tomb, they thought it best to lay low for a while. Their teacher and friend was murdered because he was perceived to be a threat to law and order. It’s the same thing that happened to John, the baptizer, not so long ago. An empty tomb is just the excuse the authorities need. The disciples wonder who will be next. None of this was how it was supposed to go. Jesus was supposed to usher in the new kingdom. But, nothing has changed. Poverty, injustice, corruption are still as alive today as they were yesterday. They were supposed to have died with Jesus. What now? Have all the efforts, all the sacrifices, been for naught?

In the midst of the disciples’ confusion and pain and fear and anger Jesus appears. He brings a message of peace. He shows them his hands and his side. They see it really is their beloved rabbi. And when they do, the text tells us, they rejoice. When they next see Thomas, they rejoice: “Peace be with you, Thomas! Our rabbi lives! We have seen it with our own eyes!”  To which Thomas replies, “Are you sure you haven’t seen a ghost? There’s no way.  I saw his body. I was there when Joseph laid him in the tomb. “

It is one thing to witness a miracle. It is another thing to be told about it. As much as Thomas trusted his friends, there are some things that have to be experienced to be believed.  And Jesus does not disappoint. When he shows up again, a week later, Jesus addresses Thomas specifically, supplying him what he needs for faith. I imagine Jesus speaking with gentleness and compassion, “Thomas, Come to me. Touch my wounds. Feel – there is yet life in my veins. It is true, Thomas, that all things are possible with God. There is hope after disappointment. Life does emerge from death.”

This is the message also for us. There is hope after disappointment. Life does emerge from death. All is not lost. There are times we need this message. There are times when our hope seems to have died. When the principle does nothing about the bullying. When one more doctor cannot find anything wrong. When she once again doesn’t respond, but shrinks, under his words. When another week passes without an interview. When one more black man is killed by one more white police officer, it is hard to believe that all things are possible. These are times we need some evidence of resurrection. We need Jesus to show up for us.

We do need Jesus to show up, but that’s not all. Not in relation to Walter Scott and the all too many like him. If we only wait on Jesus, it implies we are passive to resurrection in this case. But that cannot be. Here are the facts:

1. Everybody’s got biases. Most of us have an unconscious preference for white folk. According to Harvard University’s Project Implicit, 70% of white folk and 50% of black folk in the US prefer whiteness. This they measured by testing how quickly one associates bad or good qualities with white skin or brown skin. Everybody’s got biases.

2. Race is a factor. In all of it, including law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Racial bias is part of the water we drink and the air we breathe. It is one of the unhelpful inheritances from growing up in this country. It takes a whole lot of work to shed this inheritance. It takes a whole lot of coming to terms with the reality of privilege. It take a whole lot of intentional seeking out dis-confirmation of our racial biases. It takes a whole lot of spiritual work to let go of  prejudices based on race. Even then, those pesky habits we grew up with return, and remind us, we are still on the journey.

3. We have power. As a rule, we white folk don’t need to prove ourselves worthy to have our voice be heard. Our voices are privileged. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like this is the case. Prejudice and racial bias are systemic. What is our voice in comparison to the culture of a nation?

For a long time this is what kept me silent. I didn’t know where to begin or what to say. I wondered what good my lone voice is among the clamor. I wanted to say, “No. This is wrong. People shouldn’t die because of assumptions others make based on skin color.” But I didn’t think that would be enough. I wanted to say something helpful, but didn’t know what that could be. I didn’t think my voice counted because I am white. It’s not my story to tell.

Except it is. I am one with biases that mirror those which uphold our system of law enforcement. A system in which people are often not held responsible for killing a fellow human being. It is precisely my voice which needs to be heard. It is precisely the voices of white Americans which needs to be heard. And not because we are some kind of savior or we are better than. But because the current systems of power benefit and cater to us in ways they do not benefit or cater to our sisters and brothers of color. Our voice is still privileged.

This is the pulse: Our willingness to free ourselves from denial, to educate ourselves, and finally to speak. This is how we will know resurrection is possible. It is a pulse which becomes stronger as more of us join in the efforts. This is cause for hope.

Hear the good news: death, and the forces of death do not have the last word. Jesus does show up. There is a pulse in the wound. Hear the good news: those times when we need to see more to believe, we remain disciples. There will be times when we struggle to find hope. This is part of our journey. Thomas, though he struggled, was always still a beloved disciple. Jesus didn’t show up to kick Thomas out, saying he failed the faith test. No. Jesus welcomes Thomas with grace, helping him to move forward.  Hear the good news: though we may have to wait, Jesus will not disappoint. Thomas heard of the resurrection, and he wanted to believe. It was a week before he got the proof he needed. We may have to wait a week, but Jesus does not disappoint. It may be a loooooong week. But Jesus is faithful to show up.

Jesus shows up, and invites us, “come and see and believe.” We feel the pulse – the beginnings of justice. We feel the pulse – finally, a request for an interview. We feel the pulse – she finds the courage to leave. We feel the pulse – he acknowledges his control and seeks help. We feel the pulse – a diagnosis. We feel the pulse – a teacher who offers safe space and genuine encouragement. We feel the pulse, and we rejoice.

We rejoice and we continue in the journey. We continue the story, discovering as we go all the places new life springs forth in the wake of death. There will be times when we rejoice heartily, as the disciples who first saw Jesus. Times when faith comes easier. There will be times, too, when we, like Thomas, need to feel the pulse in the wound to believe that things will work out. We feel the pulse and we know all is not lost. We feel the pulse and we know resurrection is possible. We feel the pulse and we know there is hope. Hallelujah and amen.

 

This is a sermon based on John 20.19-31.

Resources to educate yourself on bias:
Further information about biases and what we can do about them.
Vox Article
Teaching Tolerance
You can take the implicit bias test here.

Here Be Dragons

stamp.php“Here Be Dragons”, the cartographer warns. Back in the day, dragons stood at the edge of the maps to signify the unknown. This addition was the map maker’s way of saying, we don’t know what’s out there. It was a warning: proceed at your own peril.

Except that much of this is false. There were mystical sea creatures drawn on maps, but of all the old maps we have access to, none of them say, “Here Be Dragons.” There is a globe, which makes this warning in Latin. Except it may not even be a warning. It could be the explorer found some creature formidable and strange enough to earn the moniker “dragon.” Other maps of the time noted where different creatures could be found. One map points out where elephants, scorpions and ‘dog-headed beings’ come from. On others one could find walruses, lions, and hippos. Dragons are not as prevalent as our imagination would tell us.

This is what I am discovering in my practice of going outside my comfort zone. Mostly, I’m finding elephants and hippos. Creatures that aren’t terribly interested in eating people or burning them alive. I have found one dragon. One thing that is still squarely outside my comfort zone. But I’ve met it, introduced myself, spent some time in its company. So next time I visit, I can say, “Oh, hello Alice. Good to see you again.” Though I may never be fully at ease in her company, I can get to know her, perhaps even befriend her.

“Never place a period…”

Writing every day this Lent got me thinking about stories – what they are and how they shape us. Most days the writing was a fun challenge; some days the creation involved wrestling. The hardest for me to write was Day 32:

There was no hope, really. Five years on, she still stuck her finger down her throat and he still “forgot” his anger management classes. They existed together, broken, neither knowing how to heal.

Questions of ethics invited me to wrestle. Here I began a story telling the reader there is no hope, and continued to offer a glimpse into the lives of two stuck and suffering people. It was a story of abuses. I didn’t really believe there was no hope. Was I prepared to put a story out there I did not believe? Was I prepared to put a story out there that was simply about pain and suffering? Are there stories not to tell? If so, what are the criteria? How far does my responsibility to the reader go as a writer?

One thing I have learned working in the mental health field is this: the stories we tell ourselves shape who we are. Because stories shape who we are and who we will become, I believe we have an ethical obligation to be intentional about which stories we tell and how we tell them.

I read a book recently which I responded to with fierce anger. The main characters begin stuck in despair, remain stuck, have opportunities to get unstuck, and return to being stuck. No movement. No growth. No insight into navigating this journey of life. I was angry because I expect from stories something that will enrich or aid my own journey. Something I can digest and that will provide nourishment. It is difficult to journey when fed on despair. Maybe that’s why it can be difficult to listen to someone who is depressed. The satisfying nourishment of hope can be hard to hear or find. I find it easier and more satisfying to counsel someone who is invested in the project of healing and is open to receiving hope. There seems to be something in me, and perhaps all of us, that cannot abide a hopeless story, that knows hope is an essential protein – something we cannot manufacture ourselves, but need to receive through our stories.

There are hard stories in our world, stories of betrayal, of violation, of rampant injustice. Stories of impossible pain and endless suffering. This is a hard world we live in; strife and sorrow our hosts. These stories need to be told in order to affect change. Honesty is the traction for growth. It is the traction for positive change, but not the only thing necessary for it. The book I read was honest in that some people live lives stuck and never get unstuck. Knowing that fact isn’t tremendously helpful. The story ended with a period: no movement. end of story. done. There wasn’t left the possibility of another chapter, of change, of hope. Growth requires being open to the possibility of something different. It requires the humility of the comma¹. It requires acknowledging the story is not truly over, that the author has not written all. I felt able to post my Day 32 story only because I included the suggestion that change might be possible, that they are not at the end of their story. It’s not the case that healing is impossible for them, simply that they do not yet know how to travel there.

I don’t know if there are any stories not to tell. Maybe there are. So far I’ve come to this: the stories worth putting my time and energy and self into are stories with hope. And hope is this: being honest about what is, and trusting that is not all there is.

 

¹The period/ comma language I borrowed from what Gracie Allen once wrote: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”