Sunday, January 17, 2016

reality, grief and prophetic hope - part two

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for part two of a five part series using Walter
Brueggemann's  book, Reality  - Grief - Hope - Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, as our guide. This week I talk about embracing the blues - grief and lament - as a way to accept reality. It is how our hearts and lives get ready for humility - and then the unexpected blessings of hope.

When I came back from Montreal to serve God in this community with you, I knew something had to change – I just didn’t know what. I sensed that a long smoldering fuse was starting to ignite within me and possibly among us, too but I wasn’t sure how it would manifest itself. You see, back at our 250th anniversary, I came down with a case of the blues that I couldn’t wrap my head around. I understand now that this is what Walter Brueggemann calls the obligatory season of prophetic grieving - a necessary inward lament that, in God’s own time, can work as a catalyst to propel usoutward into the world with renewed tenderness – but for a while I was flummoxed – and blue.

The prophets of ancient Israel, however, understood that to everything there is a season:  a time for conscientious contemplation, a time for engagement with the world; a time to laugh and a time to cry – a season for the blues that shows us how to join our neighbors as allies in songs of hope, and a moment in history when we forsake once and for all our obsession with privilege and being… first. Exceptional. Chosen. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed the wisdom of the prophets to his generation like this:

It really boils down to this:  all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. So we are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured; this is its interrelated quality. And we aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

But it was only upon returning from sabbatical that I began to comprehend what this network of mutuality might mean for me and you at this moment in time. Only now, in retrospect, do I know why we invited mission partners to be with us at our festival of faith rather than just those who would repeat the same old stories about our same old past. Only now do I grasp why we had to sing contemporary songs of peace and commonality at our feast alongside the memory bank hymns of spiritual glory. Only after our shared sabbatical did I comprehend why it was imperative to ask our old friends at Second Congregational Church not simply to join us for the party, but to accept our sincere and heart-felt repentance in a public confession of our sin of racism.  It seems that part of God’s mysterious plan for our liberation required a season of the blues so that we’re prepared to let go and let God.

Clearly that celebration two years ago initiated a season of prophetic grief in me that took a few years to comprehend.  It takes time to hear God’s call into such a complex sorrow. The prophet Isaiah tells us the blues is what it feels like when we “wait upon the Lord” for we’re not in control. Jeremiah cuts deeper and says that only a minority ever willingly follows this sacred invitation to introspection – most of the rest of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming beyond the confines of fear or nostalgia. And all of the prophets affirm that only a remnant will ever grasp the radically apocalyptic hope the Holy Spirit seeks to bring to birth from out of our blues. 

And I know this to be true because on the morning after our sestercentennial party, when those of us who still read newspapers opened them up and saw NOTHING about our beloved 250th anniversary, we felt hurt, angry and frustrated.  I felt it – and so did many of you – because you told me multiple times: “Damn it, we’re FIRST Church and we deserve better than to be ignored." Back when First Church celebrated our 100th anniversary, not only were the town reporters present, but we literally stopped traffic in the center town as all the other church leaders paraded behind us in their religious regalia as we  marched into our Sanctuary to celebrate our special place in this small community. But today, only a handful of people even know we exist.

What’s more, religion itself has fallen on hard times in the Commonwealth: there are more citizens who mistrust and hate religion than attend worship. In our realm more people self-identify as spiritual but not religious than any of the other major faith traditions in America. This shift has created financial worries and problems to say nothing of a loss of status and perspective.  It has inverted our understanding of Christ’s mission of compassion and justice in our neighbors and driven good souls to worship the idol of fear rather than the Lord who created heaven and earth ex nihilo.  Sociology of Religion professor, Jaco Hamman, writes in his penetrating analysis, When Steeples Cry, that since 1971: “the United Methodist Church has lost more than 3.3 million members. The Presbyterian Church has lost more than 2.3 million members… The Episcopal Church has lost more than 1.1 million members… and the United Church of Christ has been reduced by more than half.”

Most of these denominations – and local congregations – he concludes are living in denial, neither owning our losses past or present, nor grieving them. “And in this our grief remains unnamed and unmourned: frozen in time and place and unable to respond to God’s spirit in this generation.”
Ancient Israel faced a similar addiction to denial when it, too experienced devastation and loss.  And one of the fundamental reasons why we keep consulting our ancient texts is because they describe how people like you and me tend to react to the challenges of real life. Not much has really changed, beloved, in 3,000 years. So the prophets keep talking to us about God’s alternative vision. From their tears, poetry and creative oracles we are shown not only how to grieve in a holy and healing way, but what such grief evokes in our broken hearts: namely, the blues lead us into humility, solidarity with the suffering and a radical trust in God is in charge. The prophet Hosea neither minced words in his day nor suffered fools gladly when he sang these blues:

O people of God, hear that the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no longer faithfulness or kindness among us – and no knowledge of God’s way in our nation. There is only swearing, lying, killing, stealing and committing adultery, breaking all bounds so that murder follows murder. Is it any wonder that the land itself mourns… and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea?

Now I don’t know about you, but this sounds all too contemporary to me:  global warming, social dysfunction, profound public mistrust of politicians and institutions to say nothing of anger and fear and a willful ignorance of God’s alternative to the chaos and tragedy.  So, in part two of my Sunday series exploring what the ancient prophets of Israel have to say about our renewal, I want to first highlight what the prophets teach about denial; and second show us how they urge us to use the arts to break through our lies.

So let’s get grounded in the prophetic methodology of a hopeful imagination right out of the gate by doing what Hosea and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Mary and Isaiah did on a regular basis: let’s sing a NEW song unto the Lord. This opens us up to the Spirit in fresh ways and refreshes our minds for the complex work required a prophetic imagination.  Listen – and join in if you feel inspired – to the old lament of Psalm 137 made new:

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept for Thee Zion
We remember, we remember, we remember Thee Zion

This Psalm is a double-whammy:  part one is a heart-breaking blues with universal implications, while part two is the only recorded curse allowed to remain in the Hebrew Bible. It was written while the elite of Jerusalem were being held captive in Babylon after 587 BCE. In what we know as contemporary Iran, those who had burned down the sacred Jewish Temple on Mt. Zion taunted their captives saying:  sing to us now your once triumphant songs of Zion. And to be clear: besides being provocative and mean-spirited, this call for the Songs of Zion refers to a specific set of Psalms once offered to God in the Temple concerning the invincibility of Israel’s king and the eternal dominance of Israel’s God over all creation.

+  These were worship Psalms amplifying the so-called exceptionalism of the nation, celebrating the chosen and honoring the uniquely beloved status of ancient Israel; in other words, they were tools of the reigning ideology of that generation. The proclaimed what the politicians wanted the people to believe. So when the Temple was sacked, it became politically, theologically and psychologically earth-shattering for those who had learned to think of themselves as God’s chosen but now found themselves shamed into singing songs to their captors.  It was as degrading as the Jewish musicians forced to form orchestras for the Nazis during the Holocaust.

+  Small wonder the Psalm concludes with tears of rage and bravado. Israel’s elite hand not yet learned the wisdom of the blues so they focused their venomous invectives against their conquerors in the cruelest way: O Lord, remember against the Edomites that day of Jerusalem when they shouted:  Raze it, raze it to its foundations! O daughters of Babylon, you devastator: happy shall be those who requite you for what you have done to us. Blessed shall be those who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC-Berkley, has written: “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious conclusion.” For this is the repulsive song of a privileged religious class expressing their embittered despair. Rather than take stock and wait upon the Lord they gave in to the acid feelings that enmeshed them in anger. This is the shadow side of exceptionality exposed, the dangerous and demonic side of denial dragged into the light. It is the polar opposite of what God’s prophets commend to those who are suffering – and this is where Professor Brueggemann can really help us by refocusing our energies upon the love of God and God’s alternative vision for creation.

In the book – Reality, Grief and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks for Our Time
Brueggemann shows us how the ruling elite of ancient Israel had worked hand-in-glove with the king and his priests to maintain social inequality and confuse the ceremonies of the Temple with life-changing spiritual integrity and compassion. Not unlike aspects of our own economic inequalities, in the era before Babylon scaled the walls of Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground, Jews were burdened beyond their ability to pay by some of the Temple taxes and worked beyond their capacity to sustain loving lives because more and more of their wealth was being taken from their rural farms and delivered to the markets of the city. If you read the prophets critically you find a story of people becoming weary, emotionally exhausted and spiritual dissatisfied because their leaders insisted on teaching them that the economic exploita-tion they knew all too well was the ordained order of reality:  your lot of suffering is really God’s peace. To which Brueggemann replies: au contraire!

He suggests that the first prophetic task is to puncture the people’s grief with a vision of God’s shalom that breaks through the denial and lies. Such reality talk, however, requires creativity and poetry because so many have been lulled into acquiesce.  Until our hearts are awakened, you see, we rarely question the double-speak of our culture’s euphemisms that distort reality by never calling things by their true names. A street poet who goes by the name of Rev. Billy says that our hearts:

Can’t believe that bombs bring security or that monopoly is the same thing as democracy, that foreign policy is ruled by gasoline prices and that police violence is the best way to fight racism. Our hearts refuse to accept that sweatshops are the way to efficiency, that the mall is better than the neighborhood, that corporations are the same as individual human beings and that love is for sale to the highest bidder… but such is the truth of the status quo.

To which Brueggemann says the time has come to learn from the unqualified master of truth telling: the ancient prophet Jeremiah. He boldly asserts to ancient Israel and contemporary America alike that God’s shalom trumps the status quo every day of the week. Paraphrasing and mocking one of the official worship liturgies of his generation, Jeremiah tells the people:

From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;  at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord…Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ 

The key here is the promise of peace when there is no peace by those who are so shameful they don’t even know how to blush.  The prophet calls out the lies and deception of his empire so that ordinary people know they aren’t going crazy! Brueggemann puts like this: People of denial create a façade with policy. They provide the slogans and mantras (and euphemisms) that link the whole of God’s order to their false assurances that obscure their illegitimate policies… They want us to believe that all manner of things will be well because their order is what God has promised” forever. But injustice is NEVER what the Lord promises:  God’s way is NEVER about doing evil.

The way of the Lord is to set the people free – it is exodus not bondage - a light in the darkness not moral obscurity – a vision of hopeful imagination rather than stagnation, fear and exploitation. So God’s prophets always speak the truth beyond denial – and their words always start with peace:  shalom – right relations between neighbors.

Now pay attention here: while the Lord’s prophet exposes denial and lies, the prophet never speaks with overblown zeal or hyperbolic anger, for this too would be a proclamation of peace where there is no peace, right? The words of an authentic prophet are saturated with truth, hope and beauty.  And that’s another Biblical clue to take to the bank: a real prophet speaks of a shared grief in terms of solidarity with those most wounded. The cry of the Lord gives voice to the condition of the most vulnerable, forgotten and broken of our neighbors.  

And this is where Jeremiah really shines: first he tells us that prophetic grief is born in the quest for true peace; second he reminds us that God’s true prophets always grieve in solidarity rather than rant in anger and ego; and third he confesses that our greed, denial and violence towards one another breaks God’s heart.  Listen carefully to the way the prophet speaks of the Lord’s pain at the close of chapter four of Jeremiah. It is an image that should rattle and destabilize us all:

For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands, ‘Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!’ 

If you don’t already know the brilliant new theologian and writer, Lauren Winner, you need to – especially in her recent book, Wearing God. She teaches at Duke Theological Seminary and serves as an Episcopalian priest. And in what is the longest essay in this book, Winner unpacks what it means for God to be described as a woman in labor. Using both the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah, she writes that for too long we have avoided hearing the word of the Lord in the sounds of an anguished woman in labor as she breathes: The first word for God’s breath, used just once in the whole Bible is pu’ah, often translated as cry out – but to groan or bellow is a better translation. I have often heard women describe the sounds they make in labor in animal terms. Mooing is the only sort of deep moaning noise that made my whole body feel good (some say.) Deep guttural, almost animal-noises came from within me… Noises I soon had no control over” say others.

Winner goes on to note that this word pu’ah has Aramaic and Arabic cognates: the Arabic means to hiss, which sounds like some of the breathing exercises women use during natural child birth; while the Aramaic root means to bleat or to bellow.  Other Biblical words used “stress that God’s breath is not at ease; it is, indeed, labored. God gasps – nasham – God pants – sha’aph – because the bringing forth of new life does not come without effort and cost on God’s part.” 

Please take this into your heart as well as your head – into your guts and into your brain – because this beautiful albeit unsettling truth announces that:  God comes to us, identifies with us and brings to “birth a new creation among us, through bellowing and painting and laboring. God, like a woman in travail, does not fight the pain (of life) bur rather works from within that pain” to set us free.

So, the prophets plead with us to understand:  if we deny this pain – if we self-medicate or obfuscate the ubiquity of human suffering – if we lie and pretend that there is peace where there is no peace – then we shut ourselves off from the sacred blessings God is working so hard to bring to birth within and among us. The prophets show us that the way of the Lord – redemption, faith, hope and love – is not easy – even for God.

Winner concludes: while “it makes me uncomfortable to think of God groaning in pain, God bleeding, God’s body uncontrollably shaking, God exhausted” there are signs of such anguish all around us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear – includ-ing the Cross upon which our Savior has been tortured to death..

And this brings me to the closing insight about prophetic grief: if we refuse to see the reality of God’s suffering in the agony we create by greed, guilt, fear and shame the Lord will inspire prophets to find new ways to get our attention. Like a woman in travail, God does not quit. Nor is God silent. And one of the time-tested ways God uses to wake up a sleeping, confused people is through the arts.

All of the ancient Jewish prophets were poets who learned that sometimes the suffering in the house of denial is so oblique and hazardous, that you have to sneak up on it with beauty and song and tenderness before the people can start to hear. You have to lure them towards the Lord as the Process Theologians put it. And if you think I’m making this stuff up, dig chapter nine of Jeremiah, where the prophet organizes a chorus of women keeners who are commissioned to sing the blues so ferociously that tyrants start to quake: Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach your daughters a dirge and each to her neighbor a lament. For death has come up into our windows and entered our palaces…

Jeremiah, you see, was one of the first in a long ling of Jewish blues artists who made a point of teaching the daughters of Jerusalem dirges to wail. They needed to sing the blues rather than the songs of Zion because the blues link grief and reality with hope and love.  The late B.B. King said: The blues began out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like you had nobody to turn to… and the funny thing is once you start to play or sing the blues, you start to feel better. The lies we tell ourselves are exposed, denial challenged and a humble sense of a love greater than ourselves starts to take hold of our soul.

To me the prophets are the essence of blues masters – and I am more and more certain that
America as well as First Church needs to spend some time singing the blues at this point in our histories.. We need to let go of all the stuff that gets in the way of trusting God’s greater love.  We need to let ourselves be surprised by the Lord.  So let me tell you something that will blow your mind on this weekend dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do you know who Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, once named as one the most important early white ally of the Civil Rights movement?  Are you ready? Elvis Presley. “Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker driver, dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay.” In an interview with Bono of the rock band U2, Mrs. King spoke of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against back in the 50s…. The hill we had to climb would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival were all introduced to the blues through Elvis. For he was already doing what the civil-rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. And while you don't often think of Elvis as political, that is politics: changing the way people see the world.”

Mrs. King got it – Dr. King got it, too. Bono got it, Jeremiah got it, Isaiah got, Jesus got it and after a long season of prophetic grief, I think I got a little bit of it too. And now I want to try giving some of it to you so that we get out of our own way and let the love of God lead us forward through the blues. And there are two things I want to ask of you today – two things that resonate with the heart and soul of Dr. King – that can keep the dream alive.  In just a moment Jon and I are going to play some white men blues for you and as we do I’ve asked the ushers to distribute an assignment to you.

+  Part One has the address of a website that I’d like you to watch sometime during MLK day.  It asks each of us to consider the difference between being a passive NON-racist and an ACTIVE anti-racist. It is short, compelling and eye opening. (Check it out @ com/watch?v=jm5DWa2bpb)

+  Part Two has to do with an act of moral and political conviction:  Church World Service – sponsor of the CROP Walk and other acts of mercy and hope – have asked their member congregations to place a phone call to their US Senators sometime before Wednesday and ask them NOT to vote for H.R. 4038.  It is one of those ugly, mean-spirited acts of fear with a 1984 double-speak name:  American Security against Foreign Enemies Act that would grind to a halt any US help for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Call your Senators TODAY!
The U.S. Senate plans to vote this Wednesday, January 20th on H.R. 4038, “The American Security against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act,” which would grind to a halt the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This bill was passed by the House of Representatives in November, so it is critical that it not pass the Senate. Such proposals and the anti-refugee sentiment that has accompanied them are morally reprehensible and go against who we are as a nation. It is critical that Senators hear from their constituents NOW. Call your Senators TODAY & EVERY DAY leading up to the vote: Urge them to vote NO to H.R. 4038 and any legislation that would stop, pause or defund the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. 1-866-940-2439

In the spirit of Dr. King - in the spirit of Jeremiah - in the spirit of the daughters of the dirges - and the very presence of Christ: it is time for us sing the blues as we open ourselves to the truth and the heart of the Lord., So, take a look – make a prayer as we play the blues – and let God’s grace guide you on behalf of neighbors who need our loving solidarity.

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