Pub Theology: MLK Edition

This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jan Pub Theology.jpg

It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation.  We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring?  What do we most need to hear?  I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.

If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)

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“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.

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“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.

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“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

 

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Owning my Racism

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It was a chilly winter evening in December back in 2005 when my college boyfriend and I headed out together to attend a friend’s ugly Christmas Sweater party off campus.  I was a senior at the University of Southern California, right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. I love my college experience–as a super-involved, type-A achiever, I had managed to amass a ton of friends and connections.  I never walked across campus without running into at least half a dozen people I knew well.

But off campus was a different story.  Most of the off-campus housing for students was north of the university, but my friends throwing the party lived west of campus.  They lived amongst the Angelenos, folks who, in the low-income neighborhood surrounding USC, were largely minorities, many of whom had never been to college themselves.  I can’t tell you how many stories I heard from friends whose bikes were stolen, cars broken into, apartments robbed, presumably by the locals.  And then there was the fact that our university regularly reminded us to always be “alert” when we were walking at night–to avoid wearing earbuds or being distracted in case someone might be tempted to rob us.  It was never said, but I can admit that it was always implied who those “someones” were.

It was into this context that my Navy ROTC boyfriend and I stepped out into the darkness.  We had barely left campus and were about to cross Vermont Ave when my boyfriend suddenly grabbed my arm. “We have to cross the street,” he whispered urgently.  And so we ran across the street, jaywalking across multiple lines of traffic to get to the other side.

Why?

There was a young black man walking towards us in the dark.

I often find myself returning to that moment.  Because the truth is that I was incredibly embarrassed that we ran across the street that night, but not for the reasons you may think.  I was embarrassed because of how relieved I felt when we we found ourselves on the other side.  And I was ashamed to admit that I felt that way.  Ashamed to feel, in my own body, the evidence that all of my intellectual and conscious efforts to combat racism and to overcome bias were in direct conflict with my own body. Ashamed to admit that I had allowed skin tone to color my assumptions about the character of stranger as he shared the sidewalk with me.

It wasn’t the first time that I was faced with my own racism, and it probably won’t be the last. Because the truth is that racism isn’t just about the words we use (or don’t).  It isn’t even always a conscious decision.  The truth that I was confronted with on that street is that racism is within me, even as I fight my hardest to combat it.

Years later, I am still confronting the truth of my implicit biases that favor my european american brothers and sisters over my african ones.  Because despite my best efforts, despite nearly a decade in which I have regularly confronted my bias and owned my own racism and wrestled with it, I know that I still have a ton of work to do. Because it is in me.  It is down there so deep that I cannot always predict how it will show itself.  Because it is always finding new ways to reveal itself.

These days, when I think about that moment in the dark, I find myself wondering about that young man.  About what it felt like to see two young, blonde white kids running across traffic to avoid sharing the sidewalk with him. In what ways did we wound him by our actions, or confirm his experience of “less than” in the company of white folk?  Or were we just one more example piled up on top of a mountain of discrimination?

As a Christian, my faith affirms that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And I want so badly to live in a world that honors this truth.  But it will not happen until I look inward, wrestle with my own demons and get to know them firsthand.  It will not happen until I stand before my God and own my own complicity, my own sinfulness, my own part in the structures of racism that underpin our culture.  It will not happen until I start listening to those to whom I must repent. It will not happen until I seek forgiveness from those who have borne the weight of my bias, my black and brown brothers and sisters who have walked this lonesome valley before me, and who pray to the same God I worship for justice, peace, and righteousness.

This is the work of a lifetime. Its been over 10 years since that moment at USC, and the work is far from done. But I take heart in the words of my colleague the Rev. Diane Kenaston, who writes,

Racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other -isms are the powers and principalities of our age. We are part of patriarchal, white supremacist structures whether we choose to or not. As my favorite academic dean is fond of saying, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

 


Even our best efforts at “doing good” are going to in some way fail because we are trapped in this body of death, in this creation that groans and aches for redemption. Yes, Jesus has already won and the kingdom of God has begun — but the full working out of Christ’s reign and the ultimate reconciliation of the world to himself are still ongoing.

And as part of that ongoing reconciliation, I confess my own sin. I’m led to repentance. And that’s what we need. We need a whole nation of white Christians willing to look honestly at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Yes, that’s me.”

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy, indeed.

 

Out of the Mouths of Babes…

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Late last week I was waiting at the bus stop for my daughter.  The bus stopped on the corner and the neighborhood kids streamed down the steps of the bus and into the afternoon light.  One of the students, a young girl who goes to my church, started talking about something that had happened in her family earlier that week–her mother and her grandfather had gotten into a heated argument about the election.  She recounted how her mother had discovered that grandpa was going to vote for Trump, and how she lit into him.  “I can’t believe my grandpa is that stupid,” she said.  “How could he vote for that man?”

Now, I have my own personal politics, but I was stunned.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this young girl speaking this way about her own grandfather, a person she adores, whom I see her snuggle up to in church every week, because she knows that he cares deeply for her.  “Come on, now,” I said to her.  “Your grandpa isn’t stupid. He just disagrees with your mother.  We can’t go around calling everyone who disagrees with us names.  We need to find ways to talk to one another.”

The words had barely escaped my lips when another young girl, whom I don’t know as well, started yelling at the top of her lungs, “I hate Hillary! I hate Hillary!” Why?  “Because she’s a liar!  She lies and lies and lies!”

I have been thinking about this moment at the bus stop ever since.  These girls were on my mind as I voted on Tuesday, and as I watched the results come in.  As people expressed fear, doubt, joy, and every other emotion on social media, as newspapers have covered the post-election climate, I find myself returning to this moment.  Pondering these young ladies in my heart.

I find myself wondering what exactly our children are learning from this election.  That people with whom we disagree are losers?  Bigots? That people we don’t like are liars? Criminals? Sexual predators?  I’m not trying to diminish the harsh realities of this election, but I can’t help but think that our children are paying far more attention to us than we might realize.  These two young girls at the bus stop have internalized the polarization of this climate in a way that surprised me.  They sounded just like a lot of adults I happen to know and love.  People who are struggling to speak compassionately to those with whom they disagree right now.

I recently spent some time in the company of other pastors, resting and reflecting on our call to ministry. One of the pastors told a story about a dark time in his ministry, when he was going through a divorce.  He shared that he preached some very angry sermons in those days, and not a lot of grace.  And he shared how there was this one church lady named Lois who always dressed in her Sunday best, with her hat cocked just right.  And how she always told it to you straight.  One day, after one of those angry sermons, she walked right up to this pastor, looked him dead in the eye, and asked him, “Who went and licked the red off your candy?”

I can’t help but think that this country has had its fill of angry sermons this year.  For so much of our public discourse has been rooted in anger, in fear, in distrust of those with whom we disagree.  We have lost sight of grace, lost sight of the fundamental humanity of our neighbors, and in the process we have created a culture in which there can only be winners and losers.  We have made it near impossible for those whose party lost the election to see the light. And that is a tragedy.

I’m not trying to say everything is going to be okay.  The truth is that any government is a profoundly human institution.  Some of them will be better than others, some will be kinder and more compassionate than others, but all of them fall short of the Kingdom of God. And there is no President, Senator or Congressperson who can live up to the standards set by our Lord and Savior Christ.

But here is some truth that I do think bears remembering: the overwhelming majority of people in this country want to make America a better place for all of us.  As a Democrat, that means I must acknowledge that my Republican neighbors are doing what they think is best for all of us, even when I disagree with them (and I often do). I would hope that they believe the same of me.

And as a Christian, I must remember that my identity in Christ is not tied to my political affiliation. My identity in Christ is rooted in something deeper, some far more important than which party is listed on my registration.  And when my party fails to live up to its own ideals (because it will), I must be willing to confront those failures in love, too.  I must be willing to work to make that system become more just, peaceful, and loving. Because nothing will get better until we demand it.

Finally, I take heart that the Gospel is always calling us forward, out of the various camps that divide us, and into the light of Christ.  And today I especially find encouragement in the words of Rev. Steve Holmes, who reminds us that our discipleship requires a different kind of witness to a world that sorely needs hope:

“Do not be afraid to live among people who love the sword, who speak with iron hearts. You have been sent to make gentle this wounded world, to live in peace among those who are afraid, to bear healing to those who are captive to the spirit of pride and violence. Do not despair because of the oppressors, those who judge and despise, who will not listen, who do not know how to join with neighbors. Rejoice, for you have been given to them, to shine light into the darkness of their world. The Holy Spirit sustains you, so that you may dwell as healers among fearful men.

Bear your outrage lightly; do not cling to it. Let it lead you toward compassion, not anger. Pray that you may not be defeated by vengefulness, eaten by the appetite for power, destroyed by the spirit of destructiveness. Anger is not your weapon; it is your enemy.

The spirit of violence seeps into the world. But you radiate Good News, you breathe gentleness into the air that all others breath, you establish trust on the earth. Be broken hearted. And through the cracks let light shine…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

After Election Day…

I had the honor of writing this letter, which was signed by nearly 45 area clergy.  It represents our hope and prayer for our country in the days following the election on November 8th.

On November 9th, we awake to the results of an election that has bitterly divided our nation.  It is tempting to proclaim winners and losers and to treat this election cycle like a sporting match where one party has emerged victorious at the expense of the other.

But to do so would be a grave mistake. In the aftermath of such an election season we will all need to work diligently to repair the damage done. Those who founded this country believed that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. The candidates who celebrate victory on election night must rise in the morning prepared to govern for the good of all people, including those who voted against them.  To forget this is to forget the history of this great nation, to forget the ideals and the hope of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

We are leaders of faith communities that, for centuries, have had many disagreements.  And yet, we believe that what is more important than those things that divide us are those things that bring us together.  In that spirit, our prayer for our community and for our nation is that we might set aside the rancor and bitterness of the campaign season in order to remember that we are Americans together. Together, we pray for the wisdom to remember the challenge of Isaiah: that our life together depends upon our ability to turn the swords and spears of hostility and division into the plowshares and pruning hooks of peace and unity.

May God be with us all, and the wisdom of the Divine guide those who lead the people, this day and every day. Amen.

 

Rev. Bruce Ballantine Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Wendy Bellis Morrisville United Methodist Church

Rev. Kyle Benoit Greater Grace Community Church

Rev. Josh Blakesley Warminster United Church of Christ

Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy Congregation Kol Emet

Rev. Catherine Bowers St. Andrews United Methodist Church

Rev. Luky Cotto Casa del Pueblo Latino Ministry of Lehman Memorial UMC

Rev. Dr. Nancy Dilliplane Trinity Buckingham Episcopal Church

Rev. Chris Edwards Northampton Presbyterian Church

Rev. Susan Fall Forest Grove Presbyterian Church

Rev. Laura Ferguson Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Joshua D. Gill Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Bailey Heckman Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Debbie Heffernan Morrisville Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Hoglund Woodside Presbyterian Church

Mary Dyer Hubbard Pastoral Counselor

Rev. Lynn Hade Church of the Advent

Rev. Keith Ingram Bucks County Seventh Day Adventist Church

Rev. Stacey Jones-Anderson First United Methodist Church Bristol 

Rev. Catherine D. Kerr Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Rev. Nathan Krause Redeemer Lutheran Church

Rev. Bill Lentz Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Nancy Ludwig Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church

Rev. Joe Martin Fallsington United Methodist Church

Rev. Sam Massengill Newtown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Dr. Kari McClellan First Presbyterian of Levittown

Rev. Mary McCullough Trinity Episcopal Church Ambler

Rev. Dorry Newcomer Newtown United Methodist Church

Rev. Jake Presley Bux-Mont Baptist Church

Rev. Eric Reimer St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church

Rev. Keith Roberts Doylestown Presbyterian Church

Rev. Michael Ruk, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New Hope

Rev. Janet L. Saddel St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Warrington

Rev. Michael Saunders Crossway Community Church

Chaplain Susan Sciarratta Counselor, Insight Christian Counseling

Rev. Barbara Seekford Chalfont United Methodist Church

Rev. Stuart H. Spencer Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church

Rev. Doug Stratton Hatboro Baptist Church

Rev. Mark Studer Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church

Rev. Jim Sutton New Britain Baptist Church

Rev. Bill Teague Langhorne Presbyterian Church

Rev. Lorelei K. Toombs Willow Grove United Methodist Church

Rev. Sarah Weisiger Ivyland Presbyterian Church

Rev. John Willingham Doylestown Presbyterian Church

 

Remembering Orlando

Vigil Pamphlet

The following remarks were delivered at the Ivyland Borough Vigil held on Tuesday, June 14th for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre:

On Sunday morning, we woke up to yet another reminder that we still live in a culture of violence.

Perhaps, like me, you woke up early expecting another day of worship when you first heard the news of the carnage in Orlando. As a person of faith I asked myself—what does it mean to worship God on a day like this? As mothers and fathers, sisters and friends and loved ones mourn the dead and the wounded? As EMTs and hospital staff and police and fire men and women gather the bodies and tend to the wounded?

Perhaps you woke up expecting to spend the day outside, or at the beach, or at brunch with friends, and your carefree day was interrupted by the news that yet again, another troubled soul had inflicted rage and violence and terror on a vulnerable community in the very place where they felt safe and known and welcomed.

Perhaps you went to sleep feeling safe, feeling welcome, and woke up to the awful reminder that for some, being brown or being queer can put you on the barrel end of an angry man’s trigger. That they can come and find you in the places you feel safest. While you are dancing and singing and rejoicing, hate can burst through the walls. And so we do not feel safe. And all the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and pastors and well-meaning people cannot still our frantic hearts, cannot put to rest our sense that there is too much that is wrong in a world where an angry person can buy a guy and mow down young men and women in a dance club.

If you are Christian like me, perhaps it is tempting to look to Scripture at times like this for answers. To ask, “What would Jesus Do?” And when I look at the witness of Scripture, when I turn to my God seeking answers, what I see is righteous anger. What I see is a God who will not be silent in the face of violence, in the face of hatred, particularly when it is directed at those whom our society has too often ignored and silenced.

The God I know in Christ wasn’t satisfied with a system that oppresses the poor and the vulnerable. To those who would crush the vulnerable, he had this to say:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude and revile you, and reject you on account of the Son of Man.

Such is the Kingdom of God. It is not like this world, but rather it is a place where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated—are embraced. Are welcomed. Are loved. Because they are God’s children. WE are God’s children. But here’s the kicker—the Kingdom of God isn’t up in the clouds. It is within us. It is AT HAND. Which means that we have a responsibility to one another. A responsibility to love and care for and protect and uphold one another. Because we are all God’s creation.

So as we gather tonight, let us not stop with prayers, but let us commit to stand with the poor, with the hungry, with the weeping, with the hated. Let us embrace our gay and Latino neighbors who are reeling from this trauma. Let us embrace our Muslim American neighbors who are afraid that this one act of violence will brand them too. Let us speak the names of the dead because they are our brothers and sisters. They are our mothers and fathers. They are our neighbors and our fellow citizens. There is no us and them. There is only We. And we are bound together, as neighbors, as citizens, as Americans. E Plurbis Unum—out of many, one.

So let us pray. But let us also remember that it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Prayer did not stop Orlando. It did not stop Sandy Hook. It did not stop Aurora. It did not stop San Bernardino. Clearly, more is called for from us.

And so we must weep, but we must also act. We who remain cannot let our outrage end with a vigil flame—we must turn and go back into our community and work for peace. Whether we do it because Christ calls us, or our faith compels us, or because we are simply good, decent, moral American people, we cannot let this tragedy be one more statistic. It is up to US to speak truth to power, and to say—enough. Enough violence. Enough bloodshed. Let us try another way. Let us create a world in which all are safe, in which we find sanctuary in our common brotherhood. Let us aspire to better.

The Lord Indeed is God

1 Kings 18:20-39

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

 

The city was in ruins.

Nearly deserted by the people, its houses sat empty and its streets laid bare, littered with the debris of a war that had raged through the country until it had destroyed nearly everything of value.

It seemed, quite literally, a city of the dead.

And as history tells it, it was on a Monday morning that spring, amongst the ruins of war, that nearly 10,000 slaves marched their way onto the old Washington Race Course, a horse racing venue turned prison camp, where hundreds of union soldiers had died.

For two weeks, they worked to bury the soldiers, 257 graves for men who died of exposure and malnourishment. And as they dug, children sang hymns—John Brown’s Body, the Star Spangled Banner, America—while their pastors preached and the people strewed the ground with flowers.

Long before Memorial Day, these men and women laid flowers on graves to honor the dead. To remember their fight. To give thanks for their sacrifice, a civil war fought in part so that they might be free.May28NYTimes_MemorialDay_Fin.jpeg

It is easy to forget the lessons of a holiday whose cost is distant to modern eyes. Easy to forget that a holiday like Memorial Day has to be because so many young lives are not. Happens because so many wars continue to be fought, not just on our soil, but in distant lands we may never see and can too easily forget

And as I reflect on this weekend, when many will lay flowers on graves, join in parades, or disappear to the beaches, I am struck by the recognition that it is only by remembering days such as Memorial Day, that we can begin to imagine a world that is otherwise.

And I am reminded of this fact today by no other than the remarkable prophet Elijah.

In the Scripture for today, you see, the nation of Israel is at a crossroads. As long as there have been kings, these powerful men have been synonymous with the voice of God. David, Solomon—they have, more often than not, led the people closer to God, and the people have followed gratefully.

But the Israel of Elijah’s time is a shadow of its former self. Infighting and politics have fractured the kingdom. They are a people divided–a north and a south, two kings who bicker and fight and then make up again, until the next time.  The people of Jerusalem now follow King Ahab, whose moral relativism has led them farther and farther from God. Scripture tells us that his wife Jezebel, a Sidonian (and therefore an outsider to the people of God) has not only encouraged the worship of foreign gods; she has murdered the priests of the Lord when they have spoken against Ahab.  For this and more Scripture tells us that the people have suffered under a punishing drought, and their desperate cries have reached to the heavens.

And it is into this vulnerable moment that Elijah comes. Out of the desert, seemingly out of nowhere, he arrives on the scene to call the people back to God. Back to faithfulness. Back to their story.

1 Kings is such a rich story, and there is so much that could be said about what happens in these moments, but for now, I think what is important for us to hear is this: that Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel remember the people to themselves.elijah.gif

To a people who have forgotten who and whose they are, Elijah offers them the opportunity to remember the God of Israel. To remember the promise of the covenant. To remember, in other words, that there is another way than the path that they have tread up to this moment.

To illustrate what is at stake, Elijah arranges a contest between the Gods.  On one side stands Elijah.  Against him are hundreds of priests of Baal, whose job it will be to call the god down from his sleep.  And they take this job quite seriously.  As they cut them selves, as they cry out and limp around their altar, as they beg and plead and cry, I am reminded of how often I fall into the trap of depending on my own actions, my own perceived “faithfulness” to make a way in this world. How often do we tell myself that our success is dependent on how good I am? How often do I blame myself when I cannot force my life or my world to conform to my vision for it? How often do I blame leaders–in the church, in this country, in this world–when they fail to single-handedly implement their high-minded rhetoric?

And then I contrast this tendency towards self-sufficiency with Elijah, who, drawing the people closer to him, takes his time as he carefully repairs the altar of God. Twelve stones, for twelve tribes. Remember the covenant, he whispers. So calm, so assured, I almost hold my breath reading it now.

And when all is ready, the table set, the story–our story–remembered, the people close to God’s altar, Elijah prays. Not for victory. Not for power. But for God to be present, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the fire consumes. And the people remember. And they cannot forget again.


This memorial day, as politicians and elected officials cry out for peace even as they sanction the machine of war, we would do well to remember who deserves our trust. We would do well to remember that they are not God. That we are not God.

We would do well to remember that the God we worship is the God who called us not to war, but to service. Not to victory, but to faithfulness. Not to power, but to the Kingdom of God, where there is no war, no tears, and where death has no sting.

Let us not forget this, as we mourn those whose lives have been lost in service to the powers of this world, and let us pray to God for the Kingdom, even as we labor for peace in this peaceless world.28a78d3b4a5cd3f2c00b539184793858.jpg

 

The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

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The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”