Flutters of Hope

It’s before 5 am. It’s before the time the cats will start to meow incessantly at me to put food in their bowl. It’s well before the time I have any intention of getting up for the day. Perhaps it’s my pregnant body or perhaps it’s the heaviness on my mind that keeps me awake. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. Waking in darkness seems to be my new norm.

charlottesville clergyI can’t get comfortable. I toss and turn, but no position I find gives me ease. Thoughts toss and turn in my mind, but none give me comfort. I can’t forget images and stories from clergy colleagues of their experiences in Charlottesville this weekend, just 250 miles from where I now sit. I can’t un-see images of people who look like they could be my brothers or classmates bearing images and shouting words that stand for oppression and genocide. I can’t forget the fact that many of those same people are people who are likely sitting in church pews just like mine on Sunday morning. Nor should I forget any of those things.

I’ve reached the point in my pregnancy where I think I’m starting to feel movement from the baby. Often, it’s just as I’m lying down to go to bed, when I’m still enough to notice it. And there it is – a slight flutter, maybe a tiny pulling sensation. But then it goes away, and I slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that there is something living and growing within me.

Watching the events unfold in Charlottesville was like experiencing one of these moments. In that moment, I could see more fully that there is something living and growing in our society. Sure, I’ve cognitively been aware of it before now, in the same way I’ve been cognitively aware that I have been carrying life inside of me these past few months. But in that moment, I really knew – the kind of knowing that isn’t a disconnected sense of being intellectually aware, but the kind of knowing that comes like a gut-punch, where your head and heart connect at last and you wonder if you were ever really awake before.

Our society is pregnant with fear and hatred – and fear and hatred grow into racism. They grow into white supremacy. They grow into violence. They can even grow into genocide. History has shown this to us time and again, and yet it seems that we, as a collective whole, continually slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that fear and hate are living and growing.

My instinct is to want to lash out at those who claim white supremacy. My desire is to condemn and use choice words to say what I really think. And actions of hatred and violence do deserve condemnation. At the same time, my instinct is to try to distance myself, to say, “Hey, I’m one of the good guys. See how against all of this I am?” My instinct is to deny all culpability in contributing to a society where white supremacy has been given voice and validation.

It’s now a number of hours later. I was able to fall back asleep for a little while, and for the past little bit, I’ve been going about my day as a pastor, doing pastoral things – making phone calls, checking on those of my flock in the hospital, contemplating next Sunday’s sermon, and planning for a celebration of life for a church member who passed away. Even through these and other aspects of pastoral responsibility, I find myself pondering some things in my heart: perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to model confession for the people who look to me as a spiritual leader. Perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to lead the way in modeling what it looks like to repent of the fear and hate that exist within my own heart.

Darick and I had a conversation the other night about what we would do if the KKK/neo-Nazis/other white supremacist groups came to Charleston. For both of us, we knew we would make sure we were present, offering a witness to the love of Christ in the midst of it. We would not stay at home and hide. It wasn’t even really a question of where we would be. One might think that my pregnancy would make me more hesitant to put myself out there and potentially make myself a target – but I find the opposite to be true. As I was talking to a friend this afternoon, I told her that I feel like being pregnant is calling me to task. I have realized that in bringing new life into the world, I will be responsible for showing him or her what it means to work for the sake of the kingdom. I have realized, if Darick and I do not speak and act, showing our child the way, how will he or she ever know how to live it? (As an aside, I would not act in a foolish way while pregnant or with a small child in tow, placing my child in a situation where physical harm may be a known potential outcome. I would, however, find appropriate ways to be a public witness where my child could see, learn, and participate.)

mustard treeMy thoughts are incomplete. My theology is incomplete. My work is incomplete. I remain restless in thinking about that which is living and growing inside of me, and that which is living and growing in our society. And I find myself anxious and fearful. But I am also reminded of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. It is the tiniest of seeds, but when it is planted, it grows – it grows into the largest of shrubs and even the birds find rest within its branches. Yes, fear and hate grow. But so does love, and love is the stuff of God’s kingdom. I find hope when I see the way clergy and other people of faith gave (and continue to give) witness to the seeds of God’s kingdom in Charlottesville. I find hope when I see many people here in my own town planting seeds of love and justice. Fear and hate grow, but so does love. May love live and grow inside of us and among us. May it grow and grow and grow until all people may rest within love’s branches.

– Cindy+

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Stumbling towards the Kingdom

I need to start with a confession: I have really been struggling with my faith in humanity lately. I have been struggling to trust authorities. I have been struggling not to lash out and blindly rage against the machine. I have been struggling against making categorical judgments for or against different groups of people. I have been struggling with an increasing sense of unrest about what exists in my own heart and about what is going on around our communities and nation.

I wholly appreciate those of you who are willing to share in conversation with me, and ESPECIALLY those who do not necessarily agree with my interpretations of what is going on in our country. Those of you in the church who have engaged in conversations with me around race and injustice have kept me grounded and constantly remind me of my absolute need for relationships with people who may hold a rather different world view than me. I’m really glad that we can be friends and worship together and that you trust me to be one of your pastors.

What I write below is a reflection of my own personal struggle to find Christ in the middle of the violence, the anger, and the fear that is gripping our country. The struggle will continue long after the writing of this.

As I look around our country and the world today, and I see continued systemic injustice around race, a prevalent victim-blaming rape culture, exploitation of hard-working people at the hands of corporate greed, violence occurring in the name of God, warfare, and all the other pains and violences that exist, my unrest grows and I can’t suppress it. I shouldn’t suppress it. But my unrest turns to anger, and my anger turns to despair, and all too quickly, I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the brokenness of things. And I know that in all of this, I, in no way, can truly comprehend what it is like for the majority of people who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

As I think about all of these things and I struggle not to let despair make itself at home, I am trying to grasp at what Christmas really means.

In preparing for Christmas, I’ve started trying to teach a song by Chris Rice called “Welcome to our World” to the kids in Children’s Church. A couple of the verses keep sticking in my mind: “Tears are falling, hearts are breaking. How we need to hear from God. You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting…. Bring your peace into our violence…. Breathe our air and walk our sod.”

Oh, how we need to hear from God today. How we need to hear from God in our country. How we need to hear from God in our legislatures, in our law enforcement agencies, in our wealthy suburbs, in our neighborhood streets, in our public housing, in our military, in our schools, in our hearts. How we need to have Christ’s peace invade our violence, our hatred, our blame, and our fear! How we need Christ to breathe our air and walk with us, especially when a another child of God cries out, “I cant’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”

Right now, we are in the season of Advent; a season of waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. So often it is filled with waiting to celebrate with food and time off from school or work, and presents, lots of presents! But as I stumble through Advent this year, I am waiting for something different: for the kingdom of God, which is justice and peace.

Sometimes it seems like the kingdom is an impossible dream, a myth, a fantasy world. We are so far away. When I read the prophets of the Old Testament and I see proclamations of Israel’s and Judah’s repeated offenses, I often think, “how can they be so foolish to repeat the same sins over and over again?” But when I look again, I see that we are no different today. When God condemns Israel and Judah, much of the time it is over the oppression of the marginalized. Today, as things go, we are quite accomplished at systemically oppressing the vulnerable, even if we, as individuals believe that we don’t harbor any prejudiced views towards another person or people group. In my personal Scripture reading these last several weeks, I have been spending my time reading Amos, who speaks for God, condemning the abuses of the powerful. Hear these words from chapter 2:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals– they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way….'” Amos 2:6-7a

In our state, in our country, and in our world, we see the abuses of the vulnerable that occur at the hands of the powerful. It happens in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. It happens on campuses like UVA. It happens in the coal fields of West Virginia. It happens in the slums of Mexico City. It happens around the world and in our own backyard.

As we approach Christmas, we need a word of hope, that things will not always be as they are now. We need a word that communicates the power to transform and be transformed. We need the Word, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to reach down into our reeking trash heap of violence and fear and turn it into something fertile and life-giving. And the Lord knows that we need Jesus because I surely have no idea how to do that.

This is what Christmas is about. It is about celebrating that God, in Christ, brings his peace into our violence, and breathes our air and walks our sod. It is about a brown-skinned baby born to unmarried parents on a dirty floor in practically the middle of nowhere, as far as the ancient world was concerned. It’s about a God who decided to walk in the world just as it is, as messed up and as broken as it is with people who, probably more often than not, could really not care any less about God or God’s kingdom. Christmas is about recognizing that we have God with us, and that God will never ever leave us or leave us alone. It is about God taking on the hurts and the oppression of the vulnerable.

The Old Testament lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday is from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.” Isaiah 61:1-3

Jesus quotes this very passage when he is asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if he is, in fact, the Messiah. Jesus proclaimed his mission. He proclaimed why he came to walk with us. He lived as one of us, and then, at the hands of the law, he was unfairly tried, beaten, and hung on a cross, where he ultimately died because he couldn’t breathe. This is the meaning of Christmas. As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ, may Christ be born in our hearts, and may his reason for breathing become our reason for breathing. Until we make our whole life about making Jesus’ mission our own, we will continue to hear the voices of the marginalized cry out, “I can’t breathe!”

Who doesn’t want a free comic book?

Mark your calendars, put a reminder in your phone, write it on your hand: Saturday is free comic book day! Go to your local game store to capitalize on this annual day of joy! If you live in the Charleston, WV area, go to The Rifleman on the west side. It looks like they might have some “Thor” and “Green Lantern” special comics because of the movies.

While I have never really gotten in to superhero comics, there are some graphic novels that I enjoy like Locke and Key and The Walking Dead. But hey, I’m not going to turn down a free comic, and who knows, maybe I will enjoy a superhero comic more than I thought!

Giving generously

With all of the storm and tornado damage throughout the south of the US, I wanted to make you aware of a very good way of offering your support to the communities most hurt by the damage.

For those who don’t know, UMCOR is the United Methodist Committee on Relief and they work around the world in a non-profit humanitarian aid capacity. One of the best things about UMCOR is that because their overhead and administrative costs are covered by the apportionments paid by local United Methodist congregations, 100% of donations made in times of crises go directly to relief efforts. Very few other organizations can say this. UMCOR partners with local organizations and survivors to rebuild their livelihoods, health and homes.  In times of acute crisis they mobilize emergency supplies, fresh water, and temporary shelter to stricken areas, and then stay as long as it takes to implement long-term recovery.

To help support the relief effort of UMCOR throughout the south, you can make a donation online here.

There are also several other emergency situations in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Japan which you can support.

The Only Death Worth Celebrating

Last night I woke up somewhere between 1-2 am, and as usual, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I tend to grab my phone to check the time and then hop on Facebook for a few minutes. Of course, it only took me a matter of seconds once I opened up my Facebook application to see the news spattered across my newsfeed that Osama bin Laden had been killed. My first gut response was, “Good!” but then as I read various people’s reactions to the news, I started to more seriously consider this piece of news and its implications. There is no doubt that this is a significant moment in American history. This is a man who has reveled in the atrocities of the world and has cast a dark cloud of terror over the past decade. The world is probably better off without him. And yet, is this moment a call for celebration, or is it a moment in which we come to recognize and grieve over the absolute brokenness of our world? Is this a moment for Christians to rejoice, or a moment for Christians to pray and work towards the day when God’s peace will reign, when the lion will lay down with the lamb, when death will be no more?

I’ll be honest and say that a question that I perpetually struggle with and will likely struggle with until the day I die is the place and use of violence in our world, especially for Christians. My senior thesis in college sought to answer this question, and it drove my Masters thesis at St. Andrews. I’ve spent hours upon hours writing on this topic and many more hours reading about it and thinking on it and wrestling with it, and will continue to do so. With that said, I believe that the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers us some wisdom during this significant moment of American history. Please bear with me, this may be a longer post that usual, but I think it is a topic that needs careful consideration and faithful reflection.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who lived and worked during the reign of the Third Reich of Nazi Germany. He has been celebrated by many as a martyr for the faith, being one who spoke out and acted against the inhumane acts committed by the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer, from the beginning, had strongly rooted beliefs in non-violent resistance. He stood firmly in line with the long tradition of Christian pacifism. Nonetheless, as the atrocities of the Third Reich continued, he found himself drawn in to the underground political resistance and took part in two assassination attempts on Hitler’s life. How did Bonhoeffer make this move from pacifism to actively trying to take a life? Did his ethics change? Were his actions justified? Is violence ever ok in the eyes of God? These are all questions that help frame our response as Christians to the death of Osama bin Laden.

In his essay, “The Church and the People of the World,” Bonhoeffer focuses on the idea that God has commanded peace among his people and his Church. Bonhoeffer saw it as the primary responsibility of Christians to keep this command, and he saw two possible responses to it: 1) to strive always to live into peace or

2) the hypothetical question of the serpent: “Yeah, hath God said…?” This question is the mortal enemy of all real peace. “Has God not said? Has God not understood human nature well enough to know that wars must occur in this world, like laws of nature? Must God not have meant that we should talk about peace, to be sure, but also make ready tanks and poison gas for security?” And then perhaps the most serious question: “Did God say that you should not protect your own people? Did God say that you should leave your own prey to the enemy?

For Bonhoeffer, the only response was the first response, to strive towards that ultimate peace. Peace lies in the hands of God rather than in weapons and in violence. The way of peace is not one of security, but of one that leads to the cross. This is the peace that God demands. If evil does not meet the resistance that it expects, it will eventually run itself to a standstill. Violence that fails to evoke violence in return fails. (He explores this more in his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, which is a book every follower of Christ should read). But how does a man who holds to this belief come to the point of trying to take another man’s life?

One thing that Bonhoeffer did not do was to retreat from the reality of the world. For years he attempted to work through the means of non-violent resistance. For years he led a resistance movement within the German church, attempting to jam a spoke in the wheel of the Third Reich. But those efforts did not make much difference and the Nazi machine continued to commit worsening atrocities as Hitler pushed across Europe and sent more and more Jews, gypsies, and others to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer came to a point where he started to feel the need to move towards other forms of resistance. Nonetheless, he continued to remember that “those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Even though Bonhoeffer was making this move towards a more violent resistance, he still saw these actions as always subject to judgment from God. Bonhoeffer became a double agent in the Abwehr, an underground political movement that was seeking to overthrow Hitler and the Third Reich. Outwardly, he appeared to support Hitler, but in reality he was an information gatherer to further the efforts of overthrowing Hitler. Eventually, these efforts still proved not enough, and he took part in two unsuccessful assassination attempts on Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer was arrested shortly thereafter, not for these attempts, but for his participation in “Operation 7,” which was an initiative to smuggle a group of Jews out of Germany. While Bonhoeffer was in prison, his participation in the assassination attempts were uncovered, and it was for this that he was hanged.

I share all of these details to lead up to this point, which I think is crucial: Bonhoeffer did not see his actions of violence as a good under any circumstances. Instead, the were only a lesser evil than the evils being perpetuated by Hitler and his regime. Bonhoeffer knew that if he took up the sword that he would perish by the sword, and he did not try to deny this. Even through this difficult decision, Bonhoeffer knew that assassination was not something that God could approve of, but nonetheless, because he had such a strong sense of social responsibility, he felt that he had no choice but to sacrifice himself and immerse himself in the world and the ways of the world in this particular instance. But he says these words that are certainly also for us today, at this moment of history:

Before other people, the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience; but before God he hopes only for grace.

I recognize that the death of bin Laden is welcomed by many. I understand that some people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks might be feeling some sense of closure or justice. I myself feel a bit of relief at the news. I certainly remember my sheer horror, anger, and grief as I watched the events of 9/11 unfold, and I have not forgotten. I do not forget the great sacrifices our military men and women make each day to prevent things like that from happening again on our soil. I do not deny that the bin Laden’s death may have been a necessary evil, and a lesser evil than the evils he perpetuated, but it is still an evil just the same. If Bonhoeffer’s witness has any truth to offer us, it is this: violence and killing are never something that God desires. Our actions may be justified before our fellow human beings, they may be justified before our own consciences, but they will never be seen as a true good before God. I am thankful that we do have the hope of God’s grace, but every act of violence, every act of killing, even if we believe it is justified, requires us to go before God with truly repentant hearts.

As I look at news articles and videos from around our country responding to the death of bin Laden, and the celebratory fervor that is taking place, I understand something of the sentiment, but find the gleeful abandon very troubling. Yes, it was at the hands of this man that thousands of our citizens were killed. Yes, it was at the hands of this man that sons lost fathers, husbands lost wives, parents lost children. Yes, he has caused grief for some beyond which I am able to imagine. Yes, this man committed evil acts and rejoiced in atrocities. Yet I can’t help but find this truth continue to nag at me: for Christians, the only death worth celebrating is the one that takes away the sin of the world.

-Cindy