Not Forsaken: Charlottesville, Faith and the Promise of the Psalms

Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

As I watched the news and tried to digest the images from Virginia on Friday and then again on Saturday, the words of Psalm 22 echoed in my mind.

It’s the Psalm we read in the church on Good Friday, the Psalm we pray with Jesus in the midst of his abandonment, the Psalm we hold on to in the midst of despair, and the Psalm that holds on to us as we contemplate darkness and death.

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me,” it begins, the words Jesus will later quote from the Cross. It’s a prayer from someone desperate for the world to look different. It’s a prayer from someone who feels alone. It’s a prayer from someone who wonders if things will ever get any better.  Ultimately, even on Good Friday, it’s a prayer of lament, a prayer of a person who both begs for God to act and trusts that God will show up and make a difference.

When the darkness rages, it’s always the Psalms. When the earth cries out in pain and anger, it is the Psalms that help me find a way to offer that anger back to God. When the sighs are too deep for words it is the Psalms that help me find a voice. When our lives lead us to demand, “How long, O Lord”, it is the prayers of the Psalms that remind me that the question isn’t a betrayal of faith in God but a testimony to it.

It is the Psalms because the Psalms are the best resource I know to remind me that what happens to the world matters greatly to God.

There’s a strand of Christianity that tries to teach us that the point of the Christian life is to escape the world. Such a view was declared inconsistent with the Gospel by the early church, but heresies have a way of sticking around.

You can’t really reconcile the idea that God doesn’t care about the world with the Bible. Genesis 1 tells us that upon seeing the world God had made, God called it very good. The most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16, which says the the gift of Jesus comes to us because, in fact, “God so loved the world”. The promised new Creation of Revelation contains the hope of no more tears and no more pain, because God actually cares about what you and I experience and grieves our pain. When we mourn, God mourns. That’s part of what it means to love, after all.

This is one of those foundational beliefs that shapes how we live, how we work and how we pray. It’s impossible to pray Your Kingdom, Your Will Be Done and live out a faith that avoids the pain of the world. You can’t live in faithfulness to the God who loves people and ignore the injustices that damage and destroy people that God loves and Christ died for. To love God is to love the world that God loves.

The Psalms both teach and show us how to be in relationship with a God who is not silent. Again and again the Psalms teach us how to pray in the conviction that we do not make our way in the world alone. We are not agents of transformation working by ourselves to make the world look the way God intended. The underlying belief of the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, is that we are not striving against injustice on our own, but are fighting the good fight in partnership with the God who will not sit on the sidelines.

Consider the words of Psalm 31, which I received, appropriately enough, on Saturday.  “Praise be the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege.” Bible in one hand, screen in the other you might say.

We should stamp Psalm 33 on our doorposts, words we need to shout as loud as we can when we want to give up, promises we need to hold on to when evil never seems to stop and hate-fueled violence appears as the inevitable outcome of a world gone mad. “The Lord foils the plans of the nations, he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

The message of the Bible is that God will not be deterred. From Genesis to Revelation we read how God is working to unite the entire human family. The distinctions and differences that we hold on to are the things that no longer define people in God’s new creation. The walls are being torn down and God will not rest until everyone is together at the table.

So keep working for God’s justice. Don’t give up on the Beloved Community. This is the heart of God. And God will not be deterred.
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Deep Roots That Bear Fruit

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of young adults.

They were mostly recent college graduates who had committed to giving the next year of their lives as urban missionaries. They had gathered on a farm for their orientation, where most of them were both excited and terrified about the year ahead of them. Only a few of them had ever spent time in America’s cities and so they knew that while the upcoming year was going to bring beautiful experiences it would also bring problems and challenges with the potential to overwhelm them.

I was the opening act, so sometime in the morning, with one extra large coffee finished, I began the talk that I, if no one else, was convinced might have been the most important they would hear all day – on spirituality as a fuel for mission. I shared the lessons countless world changers before them had learned, that bearing long-lasting fruit in mission was impossible apart from the spiritual resources God has given them – including but not limited to prayer, Scripture, and maybe most importantly, one another.

I was reminded of that talk the other night.  Because to survive 2017 and its Attention Whiplash we are going to need some help.

Every hour of every day seems to bring with it another issue to become educated about, another protest to participate in or ignore, another call to speak or be silent, another petition to sign or let go by. Each minute brings another article or post about who has it figured out and the requirements of earning residence on the right side of history.

The early days of 2017 feel like a continuation of the chaotic air we breathed in 2016. And if January has anything to tell us about the rest of our year, the chaos isn’t going away any time soon.

To live an engaged and informed life in 2017 requires dodging plenty of pitfalls. Many of us are tempted to dive into every event of every day while others want to bury our heads and let someone figure it out.

It seems clear that to do the right thing – to live the kind of life that we want to live, one that both values our friends and family as well as those whose names we don’t know yet – we’re going to need some help. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and find the perspective to live the engaged and constructive life that feels both holy and necessary, we’re going to need wisdom and power that’s deeper than the latest post on Facebook and more enduring than the breaking news alert on our screen.

Roots and Fruit

The term Jesus used for living an engaged and committed life that flows from what you believe was bearing fruit. That sounds churchy, but bearing fruit really is just another way to talk about loving one another. Scripture, as well as our experience, confirm that we can’t do that on our own. We get too mad. We become defensive. We find our worth in the idolatry of being right.

In a message to his disciples recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that with his help, by staying close to him and doing the things to receive his gifts and power, we can bear much fruit. Put another way, with his help, even in 2017, we can love one another well. But without it, when we rush to do things in our wisdom and power, to stand on our own opinions and understanding, love goes by the wayside.

The only way we can effectively love one another well, in good times much less hectic times like these, is to root ourselves in something that will last. And so for me, it means that before I dive into the latest analysis I need to dive into the story of God, the story that tells me who I am and how I should live. It means that before I commit to another email list I need to commit to spending time in silence to let God work in and on me. It means that before I rage against the machine I need to spend time in confession to understand the ways I am complicit in the same machine.

Our charge hasn’t changed. It might feel more urgent today but the work and the call is the same – love one another. Love can be controversial. Love can be uncomfortable. Love can cause divisions. But it is the response and requirement of faith.

Love one another. Apart from me you can do nothing. But with me, you can bear fruit that lasts.

I’m taking Jesus at his word. So let’s root and ground ourselves in love. Let’s trust the Psalm and believe that rooting ourselves in a deep reading of Scripture is what we need to remain anchored and live with wisdom in the storms of our day. Let’s ground ourselves in the spiritual practices and ways of life that have nurtured so many.

Let’s take the help God wants to give us to love well. Because we know we need it.

 

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Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.

 

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Neighborhood Prayer: Seeking a Real God in the Land of Sin, Violence and Death

It doesn’t matter the week, we’re never far from it – the pain, the hurt and the loss.  That’s the beauty and struggle of the Internet – tragedy is closer to us than it ever has been. Packets of data squeeze the distance between us and injustice, bringing the pain into our living rooms.

This week it is Terence Crutcher, a student and a member of his church choir, the latest black man turned into a hashtag after being shot and killed by the police. If you’ve seen the video, you know it’s awful. So bad, in fact, that one commentator called it one of the worst we’ve seen.

It’s a sign of how desensitized we’ve gotten to death – particularly the ones that involve race, police and guns – that one could be described as worse than the others, as if any time someone created, loved and redeemed by God has their life snuffed out isn’t the worst.

A few weeks ago, where I live, it was Kenny Moats, a police officer doing his job when he was ambushed and killed. It was one of the few things in my part of the world with the power to move SEC football off the front page of our newspapers.

We have, of course, settled into a kind of liturgy around these tragedies. Shock and outrage are followed by posts and tweets about whose life matters, a cacophony of blame and anger that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere except in a rage at each other until the next one comes. Then we all begin again.

It’s all enough to overwhelm you, to make you seek escape in anything else, to lead you to avert your eyes and soul, to lock on anything else so you can avoid paying attention. At least, that’s what I want to do.

When I become overwhelmed, I want to retreat and pray about things that are easy. When I don’t know what to say about another murder, another life lost, another family and community fundamentally changed, I want to pray for myself and situations that won’t challenge me.  When I don’t know where to find the words to say both that this violence is far from God’s design and yet that things aren’t as easy to square as the social media screamers would make it, I’m tempted to concern myself with only what God would ask of me.

But faith, as my friend Dana is always teaching me, is about paying attention. We are formed by what we watch and we are shaped by who we listen to.

Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great theologians of the Church, wrote in the Fourth Century, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed, that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.”

In the Twenty First Century we would say that because in Christ God assumed every part and every dimension of human experience and life, there is no part of our lives, no community among us, no nation on the globe with which God is not concerned and that God is not working to heal.

The world, its people, and the issues we face, all of us and all of them, they all matter to God.

One of the implications of Incarnation – that in Jesus God came into our world – is that our spiritual lives and our every day lives aren’t separate. To borrow from Paul, the flesh is the arena of the spiritual, the spiritual is concerned with the flesh. In short, the distinction we want to make between church life and the lives we live and comment on and interpret is really a distortion of one of our most basic beliefs.

Because of this, we can’t pray as an escape from the world’s chaos and heartbreak. God won’t allow us to find refuge from the cares of the world in a sweet and safe spiritual life.

Instead, for our prayers to be called in any way Christian they have to include the struggles of the world. For our devotion to be consistent with the way of Jesus, it has to be open to the hurts of friends.

For our spiritual life to be big enough to welcome the God who has moved into our neighborhood in Jesus, it has to make room for the struggles of our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t understand.

To engage the world as a Christian I have to ask for God’s help and then do the hard work of watching the video.  It means I have to seek God’s grace and then listen to the lives of the people who are hurting.

It means I have to get prayed up so I can enter into being uncomfortable, because uncomfortableness isn’t an obstacle to faith but instead is most often the path to finding it.

It means coming to grips with the reality that we are a long way from the beloved community and that living into our calling as Jesus’ people means naming the gap between between what painfully is and what really ought to be.

Even when we don’t want to.

So, today I’m daring to pray, both to listen and to speak the words – words that go beyond the easy labels and words that risk more than I’m comfortable with. I’m praying for the grieving – the friends and families whose lives will never be normal, long after the rest of us have moved on to the next thing. I’m praying for God to move us and to help us find a way beyond the arguments and the predetermined talking points, to find a way to live again as if a loss of life was more than an occasion for winning an argument. I’m praying for God to give me words and wisdom to find some way to be an instrument of peace in a world and a nation seemingly constantly at war.

Mostly, I’m praying for courage and for faith – to listen, to speak, to believe and to live as someone who knows that God so loves this world, the one we’re trying to live in, and all the people in it. And because that’s true, everything can be different.

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Beyond Rage: Learning to Pray When The World Makes You Furious 

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. 

It’s a cliché of course, one of those tired phrases that appear again and again when the times merit it.  But clichés keep showing up becuase they feel true. And as we approach the end of a summer that has been hot in too many ways, it feels especially true right now. 

It doesn’t require much searching to discover we’ve had plenty to be angry about. It’s been a summer of loss – some of it fueled by prejudice, some of it enabled by our unwillingness to risk our comfort by living our convictions, but all of it heartbreaking. 

It’s been a summer of anger – seen in the way we yell past each other, in the way we demand that everyone has it easier than we do, but most clearly epitomized in the depressing political moment we are living through that falls so short of our ideals.  

It’s been a summer of rage – in cities and in the country, from the young and the old, revealing the disaster that visits you when we continue to treat one another as though none of us have been created, loved and redeemed by a generous God. 

And for many of us, regardless of what side of the debate of the moment we find ourselves stuck in, it’s been a summer of throwing up our hands and wanting to give up. The fear is too much, the hate too entrenched, the anxiety-fueled sin surpassing our capacity to slow it down. 

All of it makes us feel powerless, and even worse, hopeless – like anything we might do would be as effective as harmlessly chucking a pebble into a full-throated hurricane only growing more powerful. 

Returning to Prayer School

The first place I normally turn in my devotional life is to the letters of Paul – he’s practical, he’s blunt and he is always willing to pick a fight.  In some ways he is perfect for this moment. But when I know I need help – and especially when I need help figuring out how or what to pray – I turn to the Psalms.  

In the midst of a hot and hateful summer, that’s where I’ve settled in – allowing the writers and teachers in the Psalms to have their way again. All this anger, violence, yelling and destruction has made it hard to pray. Racial and class divides that are terrorizing people I care about have made it hard to know what to ask God to do. The spirit and divisions in my own denomination have left me feeling frustrated and depressed. Overwhelmed by our inability to listen to one another, frustrated by my own complicity in it all, angry at the way things are and unsure about how to live into my own call to be an ambassador of light in a country gripped by the darkness, I’ve needed the wisdom found in these old prayers. 

And so the Psalms have been teaching me that faithful prayer doesn’t hide these emotions but instead trusts God with all of them. The prayers of the faithful are shockingly transparent – their pain from feeling abandoned, their frustrations with their leaders (both political and religious) and the anger that is festering within them as they keep waiting for God to show up. Nothing is hidden from the Almighty. 

They can pray these honest prayers because they believe no emotion has the power to separate them from God’s love and compassion. Their prayers flow from their trust in God to handle it all – God can deal with their rage, can take on their anger, and is strong enough to handle any accusation that comes from their need for things to be made right. 

Their honesty with God isn’t an obstacle to faithfulness but instead a pathway to it.  Indeed, the Psalmists know that when kept to ourselves the emotions have the power to destroy us, but liberation comes when we release them to God. 

The Psalmists don’t share their lives simply to complain to God,  but because they believe God can and will act. The Psalms live in a world in which God is acting as the decisive force in the world that God created and for the people God loves. 

The Psalms are prayed with the conviction that God cares about the world, participates in it and is not neutral about what happens. They put their hope in the truth that God is working and will continue to work for the faithful, that God is on the side of the poor and those who are struggling, and that when God gets involves everything can change.

As Walter Brueggemann writes in Praying the Psalms, “The God of the Bible is never neutral, objective, indifferent or simply balancing things. The world is not on its own.”

In some instances these prayers are simply demands for God to start acting like it.

These prayers are teaching me to refuse the temptation to pray safe, resigned prayers that ignore the trouble we’ve seen.  No, instead I am learning again to pray honest prayers that flow from the knowledge that we pray to a God who hasn’t abandoned us. 

Prayers shape by the wisdom of these teachers are prayers of bold trust in a God who is with us, a God who takes sides, and a God who is working to close the gap between the way things are and the way they should be. 

So, how should we pray in a world that doesn’t appear to be cooling off any time soon? How do we speak to a God whose world sometimes appears to be being pulled apart at the edges? What do we share with God when the grief has rendered us speechless?

Say what we mean, mean what we say, and trust that God cares and is going to do something about it. 

“Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread you protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.”  Psalm 5:2, 11

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