Category Archives: Violence

Life in the city…

I once attended a large ‘mega’ church in Oklahoma City because I was visiting and acquainted via school with the minister. They just built a new building and he was quite keen to show it off.

The building was in the suburbs, and new the sanctuary was large and spacious. There were clearly marked signs pointing to the restrooms, the fellowship hall, and the sanctuary. There were hand sanitizer dispensers outside each door. The bulletin spelled out the order of worship clearly, and gave hints and the customs of the congregation. There was theater-style seating, with wide aisles and lots of leg room. The arm rests were padded and I could stretch out my legs comfortably. The minister was only a few meters from me, but they also had large projection screens so that I could opt to watch the sermon ‘larger than life’. And there were no troublesome hymnals to have to locate or share. All the songs were projected up on screens for all to see.

My friend came up after the service SO very proud of his church and asked me my thoughts. In all honesty, all I could think of was “I just went to church and never touched anyone. My hip didn’t rub up against anyone’s hip. I never had to share a hymnal, or ask for help to locate things. I didn’t even have to look at the live ‘performance’ of either the minister or the worship leaders. I could do it virtually. This has been one of the loneliest worship experiences I’ve ever had.”

It is experiences like this which make me love the city: the hassle and the congestion, the inconvenience and the need to deal with that which is less desirable. I want to touch and be touched. Even when it means risking harm. I want to get my hands dirty.

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An excellent sermon on Gun Control

This sermon is representative of my own beliefs on Gun Control.  Living in the city of Chicago, it is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.

Sermon by Steve van Kuiken, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Evanston, IL.   July 21, 2013.

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Remembering Trayvon Martin

they sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.
their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert…
they stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall.

psalm 10

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On Paula Deen’s Southern ‘Hospitality’….

Paula Deen is delusional.  This isn’t in reference to the obnoxious public apologies (both of them)–begging (quite literally) for forgiveness. Nor is it to the butter-slathered, heavy cream dishes which coat her arteries as she ponders her diabetes and weight issues.  Nor is it in reference to her apparent alcoholism, and questionable relationships.  I’m talking about the bizarre nostalgia she and others like her hold for the antebellum South: where ‘men’ were white wealthy landowners; women were pale, fragile accouterments; and ‘coloreds’ were friendly, happy helpers on the plantation and in the house, willing to offer hand and heart to anything the landowners desired.  But she’s not racist. No. Not at all.  She just pictures the ideal wedding reception as the bride and groom in dazzling white, and the wait staff all Black skinned with white gloves (so as not to contaminate the food?).  But that’s not racist.  That’s nostalgia for a simpler, better time, right? That’s just old school ‘class(ism)’? Right? For a woman who’s made a career on creating food as a key component of hospitality, her life has taken a strange twist–being outed as someone with one of the least possible hospitable mindsets–racism.

But she's not a racist...

But she’s not a racist…

Recently a friend I went to high school with brought back some old 8 mm home movies his cousin had taken in the 70s and 80s.  His purpose: get these converted into a digital mode to preserve for future generations.  A nice idea, indeed, and truly a gift to his family.  My father was his pastor in the mid to late 80s, and he invited me over to view some of the films, as I would enjoy seeing folks and reminiscing about old times–even though the films were all of a time before my family lived there.

One set of films was taken was a series of women’s ‘slumber parties’ sponsored by the Nazarene church women.  The films depict these holiness women being silly and playful, and it was fun to see this side of them.  But on occasion, the men of the church, possibly feeling left out of the ‘fun’, would burst in and surprise the women.  They only stayed a short period of time, and usually performed a silly skit and left.  All of this was very amusing, and fun to see everyone when they were young.  Amusing, that is, until the men ‘busted’ into the slumber party and performed a jamboree in blackface.  Horrified, I watched these holiness people play washboards, beat on over turned wash tubs, and act silly.  Their audience giggled and danced and delighted in the fun. This film was taken during the Regan era–not the Kennedy era.

I don’t know why I was so shocked.  You see, a large portion of that church lived out on a country road that was known commonly “Nigger Lake Road“.  Back at the turn of the century, some Black people moved to town and purchased the cheapest land in the area: a place prone to flooding. During flood-times, those good ol’ country folk began calling the road that ran through that area, naturally, “Nigger Lake Road.”  Eventually, it was too difficult (socially, financially) for the Blacks to stay in the area, and once they’d abandoned the farm land, the surrounding farmers decided to build a drainage system in order to keep the land usable for farming.  But in order to apply for a government grant, it was determined that the name of the road perhaps needed to be a bit more benign: so it was changed to “Sand Lake Road”.  The name didn’t change until 1996.

I’m confronted once again with the mental gymnastics required for white holiness church people who proclaim the love and hospitality of Christ, to so very easily dismiss for so long the blatant racism in their midst.  And I realize there is a certain form of nostalgia that comes along with privilege: a rose colored lens through which events in the world are seen.

I am so ashamed.  We are so delusional.

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The political roots of Mother’s Day…

Mother’s Day had its origin in the United States soon after the Civil War. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe issued the original Mother’s Day Proclamation shown below.  This statement promoted disarmament, the promotion of peace, and the end of bloodshed. What a powerful proclamation!

There is no sentimental mention of cards, flowers, or jewelry.

Anna Jarvis actually founded Mother’s Day in honor of her mother Anna Reeves Jarvis who was an activist for health and sanitary conditions for children in the 1850’s and 60’s. She was led to this activism by way of her own personal tragedy of losing eight of her twelve children to diseases.

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis wanted a day to raise the appreciation for mothers and for what matters most to them, the health and safety of their children. She wound up so against the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she spent every last dime fighting against it.

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Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies;
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and
applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. ”
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. ”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of
counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

-Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe

First world problems…

A new found friend has taken up the mantle of victim advocate in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the capital city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She is wielding the weapons at her disposal against patriarchal traditions which are both native to her land and imposed from certain Western ideals.  As such, she is actively on the web setting up groups for discussion, message boards, etc. and is posting images of women who have suffered unimaginable brutality.  She’s emailed and discussed curriculum options for weekend seminars, and requested resources. She recently emailed me privately some photos: they are graphic and haunting–including fresh wounds from axes and bush knives, burns from hot irons, broken bones and bruises from beatings, amputations, and even images of a woman being burned to death and a beheading.

I am honored to be trusted with such images–honored and deeply humbled.

And traumatized.

Since receiving the photos I’ve not been able to sleep.  Days have passed and the images dog me, sneaking up when I least expect it. It isn’t that the level of violence is new to me: I witnessed ravages as such as a child growing up among the poor and prostitutes in the capital. I grew up not knowing that wounds weren’t normal–that amputations weren’t just a matter of course.  Rape was a real possibility (even if I’d gotten the logistics confused as a child).  I understood scars as women’s history written large on their bodies.    Yet as an adult, with feminist-educated eyes and a wealth of theological study behind me, the images sting anew: the status of women hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

And my initial response is silence.  I cannot bear the weight of these images alone, yet cannot share them–I don’t wish this sort of haunting upon anyone, especially those who for whom Western media has cushioned such blows (we don’t show dead bodies on TV or in our newspapers, they are censored out of our common news sources).  We witness domestic violence through movies–comforted that it is merely makeup we are viewing, and not real wounds.

I go talk to my therapist.  And I find I don’t care to introduce such atrocities to her psyche either.  I pour my heart out in frustration, but hold the pictures close to my proverbial chest.

I tell my best friend of them, and of the impossibility of sharing their burden.  He listens, pained at my frustration.  He allows me to hold them at a distance.  And finally, he offers to see them.  “I’m willing.”  And tears begin to flow freely.  And I consider it.

But I can’t help thinking back to my friend in PNG and the life-risking work she is doing on behalf of the women there.  How can I tell her that because of her pictures, I’ve been traumatized? That her emails have sent me to therapy?  That while she lives and breathes this atmosphere of violence, I spend $150 to talk to a therapist? That I fret because I’ve lost 3 nights of sleep? That I feel utterly inadequate and ridiculous?

Yet I live and work in this world: surrounded by high rises, wealth, and opulence.

Damn my first world problems and first world solutions. Damn them.

 

 

tears

When it is hard to be ‘Christian’…

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘Christian’.  Last week I experienced this in a very acute fashion: a woman was accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and a crowd beat her and burned her to death.  Such violence is deplorable under any circumstance, but the fact remains that the outrage levied against this woman was fueled in part by norms and traditions taught by Christian missionaries: that is, that indigenous religious expressions are suspect and a work of  ‘Satan’.  The animistic traditions indigenous to PNG certainly bore their own share of violence, but the outrage and form of vigilante justice evidenced in this crowd of 50 onlookers is reinforced  by rhetoric of ‘spiritual warfare’ and such, common to Evangelical-speak.  And I cringe that the teachings of Jesus could ever be carried so far as to commit such heinous acts.

And yet I am aware of a long history of such crimes in the name of the Christian tradition (see for instance, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc.).  It is just hard to understand in the 21st century. Or so we think.

While people in Papua New Guinea were deemed ‘savage’  as the world looked on in horror while 50 people stood and watched a woman burn to death, last Tuesday we ‘civilized people’ in the United States watched by the millions as murder-suspect Dorner burned to death.  So much for ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  It seems Dorner required no trial–thus no attempt at stopping the fire or rescuing him was made.  Instead, it was urgent that ‘the threat be removed’.  How expedient we can be when brown skin is involved.

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘American’.

I have to confess I’m just grieved over both situations.  And at a loss.

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Identifying factors…

I was born with a very distinct birthmark on my knee: a dark mole about the size of a pencil eraser, just left of midline.  My father has a similar birthmark, only on the back of his leg.

Recently my birthmark has changed size and shape.  It is raised some, and I’ve caught it when shaving my legs. I went to a dermatologist to have it examined.  The doctor reassured me that she thought it was likely nothing to worry about, but since it was bothering me, she’d remove it and send it to pathology to ‘just be sure’.

My folks live several hours from me, so knowing I’d have a little anesthesia, I thought it best to let my parents know what I was doing.  My mother’s initial response:  “So how will I identify you?”

Huh?  What do you mean? I asked. I rarely wear skirts and my knees rarely are seen.

“Your body.  That was your distinguishing feature.  How will I identify your body if something should happen?” she inquired, quite seriously.

Stunned, I joked “Geesh, mom… I hope there is more than just a leg left of me when they call you in to identify me.”  She did NOT find that amusing, but we both realized how ridiculous her comment sounded.

Since this conversation, however, I’ve had some time to reflect. I think her ill-assumption about my possible fate is founded in a theology in which sacrifice is considered the highest calling, and in which there is no limits to the lengths to which God might test us.  This Job-ian theology is a theology in which not only ‘bad things happen to good people’, but faith indeed increases the likelihood of such trauma.  As if there is a certain amount of evil out there in the world, and if you are strong enough, God will reward you by allowing you to absorb more than your fair share of it (I Corinthians 10:13: “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear…”)

It is sick.

On American progress….

My cab driver this morning was a friendly, talkative Nigerian man.  I asked him if he was going to vote tomorrow, and he frowned and shook his head: “I cannot because I won’t get my citizenship until next year.  I’m sorry to be missing this election because I believe it to be very important.  This country is so divided right now–a house against itself.”  I asked him if he had a favorite candidate, and he was quite vocal on which candidate he thought was most trust-worthy, who most clearly is in touch with the poor, and who won’t abuse his power.  He went on to express his anticipation of becoming a US citizen, and how excited he’d be to have the privilege to vote in 2016.  “I never really understood human advancement until I came to this country.  In my country, if there had been this much ideological conflict, there would be bodies everywhere.  Corruption is pervasive and death would reign.  Here, we argue and fight and then life goes on.”

I quieted as I listened to him speak.  I’ll admit that I believe I am lucky to be a citizen of this country, and in large part, what he says is true (at least for me, a white, middle-class woman).  But I get antsy and nervous when someone begins declaring this the greatest of all nations, particularly when that someone is from another land. I looked at his face in the rear view mirror and noted the scars running across his dark cheeks: a tribal ritual declaring his manhood.

I hesitated then finally offered this: “You are right: there are some places in the world where political differences end up in a blood bath. Guns run rampant, and disagreements are settled with weapons.  But here I think the violence is more insidious.  Here, we kill people through neglect by our trickle down theories.  We assume that markets will right themselves.  We are Darwinian in our handling of social problems–we watch the poor die slow deaths in food deserts: deaths of diabetes and cholesterol related illnesses.  We wring our hands in astonishment and murmur to ourselves about the respect for life as we watch folks on the south side kill each other in gun fights, gang fights, and drug deals.  Yet we don’t see how our latent racism contributes to the lack of self-respect and respect for others.  No sir… we don’t have politicians wielding armies or raising weapons over their heads, but we do have violence in our streets.  Violence that is too easy for white middle-class Americans to ignore.  And when we vote  so that an election only benefits a certain portion of the population, we are killing people slowly, in our own insidious way.”

He took a long look at me in the mirror and said “God knows you speak the truth, sister.”

Walking Papers and the Indefectibilty of Grace

The following is a sermon I preached at my local church this July.  Some of the content will seem familiar.

Ancient Witness(s):

Matthew 10: 5-14

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

The Normal Hand Opens & Closes

A devotee told Chan Master Moxian, “My wife is extremely stingy. She will not spend even a penny on charity. Could you please come to my house and talk to her about engaging in benevolent deeds?” Very compassionately, Chan Master Moxian agreed.

The next day, when he went to the devotee’s house, the wife came out to receive him. True to her miserly nature, she did not even offer Chan Master Moxian a cup of tea. Chan Master sat down and held out his fist, asking, “Madame, look at my hand. What would you think if my hand remained constantly in a fist?” The wife responded, “If it remained in a fist, then your hand is deformed! Something must be wrong with it.”

Chan Master repeated her words back to her, saying, “It is deformed!” In the meantime, he opened up his fist and held out a flat palm to her, asking, “Were it like this all the time, what do you think?” The wife responded, “That would be deformed too!”

…there should be a balance in your receiving and giving.

A story By Ven Master Hsing Yun: from Merit Times

 

The Sermon:

On Heroic devotion:

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down toward my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures. Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension somehow changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I lay in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio. The description of their friendship at times borders on the erotic. It is that intense! Antonio, willing to sacrifice anything for the budding romance of his dear friend Bassanio, agrees to offer a pound of his own flesh as collateral in a deal with a moneylender (who happened to also be Antonio’s bitter rival). There is no hesitation in Antonio’s desire to help Bassanio.   Risky business, of course, but this never impressed me much: as a child having grown up on the mission field, I knew the lengths to which one might go out of love.

But it wasn’t this arduous love and passion which caught my attention in the play.  It was Antonio’s unexplained depression evidenced in this ridiculous statement— his amazing line: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad”—which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake because Bassanio failed to pay his debt, indeed his life was soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than meets the eye more than simple platonic love between the friends–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused Antonio great pain—so much so that he experienced detachment to death itself.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

But it is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  These seemed to have numbed him to his own emotions, to his own needs.  Indeed it was foreshadowed in the ominous words on Portia’s casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”.  The words echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things.  Such potential demands can be psychic-ally numbing to say the least!

Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. The villain’s plans are thwarted, and it all works out in the end.

But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio had indeed paid with a pound of flesh? Or in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Are there no limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading of a good friend’s festschrift evoked these questions for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students) describe a radicality in my friend’s devotion which is dangerously seductive and inspiring: that nothing would get in his way of his discipleship.  As the editor’s wrote “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to noble ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitudes of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).

One week during fourth grade at the international primary school I attended in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Lorraine, one of my classmates, went missing from class.  No one said a word to us students about it, but her desk was packed up and belongings were sent home. I went home and asked my mother about her.  Mom didn’t know, but we pulled out the weekly paper to see if any news would enlighten us.  There it was: Lorraine and her mother had been gang-raped and were immediately removed and sent back to their home country.  Her father was tying up loose ends and would be meeting them there soon.

I remember the look on my mother’s face when she read this aloud to me.  I didn’t know what ‘rape’ meant at the time, but I figured it must be just about the worse thing that could ever happen to you–worse than even death.

That night, I lay in bed and fantasized about what the ‘worst’ might be.  My ten year old mind could not wrap itself around a concept of sexual assault: at the time that was a distant and meaningless reality.  So what could be the worst thing ever that could happen to you? I remember coming to the conclusion that it must mean that someone cuts off your arms and legs (I’d seen folks from the leprosy colony nearby: I knew you could live with one of these missing, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d live with all four gone!).  From that night on, whenever I’d get scared (such as at fortnight when guys got their paychecks and had been out drinking and carousing), I would lay in bed in a ball, face down on my arms and legs, trying to protect them from being ‘raped’.

While I’d gotten the specifics wrong, it never occurred to me that such a thing couldn’t happen to one of my family members: we all knew someone who’d been touched by violent crime or some other type of catastrophe.  In my head, it was a matter of time: odds were, sooner or later something awful was going to happen–it was an issue of numbers.

And so we lived in expectation of the worst: danger lurked everywhere, but it didn’t keep us isolated nor was it paralyzing: the work of the church was far more important than any ‘thing’ that could happen to us.  And if something bad did happen, it would be “all to the glory of God” (thus enforcing the cycle of the work of the church).  It was fascinating to imagine: How much money could be raised if something truly bad happened!  I could be the armless, legless little girl who brought salvation to New Guinea. Money from the U.S. would pour in!  As would my guilt, subsequently, for fear that if I imagined it–it might actually come true: and I didn’t want to be an armless, legless little girl! I didn’t have the courage to be ‘raped’.

The scripture we read today in Matthew was the preamble to a text that was frequently levied against me as a child. If you read the admonitions at the end of this chapter in Matthew, what I didn’t have read this morning, you’ll hear that (Matt 10:37-39) “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than [their faith] is not worthy of [their faith]; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than [their faith] me is not worthy of [their faith].  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow my path is not worthy. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of their faith will find it.”  This was the text oft quoted by the denominational leadership to justify boarding school to us missionary kids. Everything was framed within the context of heroic faith, where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’.  If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.

 

Against heroics:

The question I asked then is the question I still struggle with today: Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that anything worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

The problem was: I didn’t know how to be a moderate or ‘modest’ Christian.  I had no models.  Tales of moderation are not stories of the saints.  I didn’t know if it was possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential?

The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility (that is, the ability to respond at all) to those left holding your urn.

I found that much like the North and South poles, these extremes in ideas (even in faith) were fun to visit–a feat to visit even–but no one lives there for good reasons as they aren’t habitable.  Humans are a temperate bunch, preferring more moderate and livable climates–we need places that are habitable.  And we need a habitable theology.

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhartha Gautama compelling.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’—his is a path which isn’t repeatable… a path that led to a cross.  Siddhartha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

And in many ways, The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

And it is here that I want to return us to the text that was read in the ancient witness this morning.  Somehow how this is a message that was never fully conveyed to me as a child by my denominational leaders.  Allow me to quickly re-read the passage:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, find a worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

When presented with their spiritual path (with a ‘mission’-so to speak) the disciples were instructed to set their expectations high:

First of all: There is good to do.  And that they will be successful doing it: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

And moreover, that they should expect to have their needs met: “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.”  Being a disciple didn’t have to come at their own personal expense.  They could be both giver and recipient: and as such, they were not the final arbiters of grace.   Their hands both open and close…

And finally, that they deserve respect: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave.  Shake the dust off your feet.”  We do not have to be heroes.  We have our walking papers.  Our task, following our Spiritual Path, isn’t about making ourselves miserable or enduring abuse.  We have the freedom to leave, and to seek ministry elsewhere.  And as the text reminds us: we can do so in peace.

What a difference it would have made as a kid, if I’d have heard this good news:  That my needs mattered. That I don’t have to put up with abuse.  That there isn’t anything admirable in unnecessary long-suffering.  That there are appropriate times to walk away from situations. What is so often overlooked in the Christian tradition: that is, the tradition in which a ‘savior’ dies, is that Jesus had no expectation that his followers follow suit: Jesus provided for us in his teachings our walking papers!

Indefectible grace:

Saying ‘no’ to the heroic is neither an abandonment of faith nor a deviation from our spiritual path.  Indeed, it might call us to an even higher level of trust if we abandon our own self importance in any given situation and allow others to step up. It takes considerable faith in to be willing to open our hands in release.

When I first began attending Lake Street Church, my fellow theologians asked “What is a systematic theologian doing at a church which is pointedly nondogmatic and nondoctrinal?”  Well-intentioned folks inquired, concerned that I was having a crisis of faith:  How in the world can you be happy in a church where Jesus isn’t uplifted as savior?  Where doctrine—what you’ve dedicated decades of your life to studying—doesn’t inform worship? 

And while I could have set up shop in defense of the congregation, my responses have always been quite simple: I see evidence of the Divine here.  That’s what drew me, and that’s why I stay. All that the Christian traditions have passed along I’d mastered, but had I tried to manipulate answers or forced us into tidy categories, I’d have closed a tight  and suffocating grip on the very thing which made this congregation so special: the Spirit.

But aren’t you afraid of where this might lead you? What if you end up not believing in anything at all?

There is an old Reformed doctrine called the doctrine of Indefectibilty. Whereas in the Catholic tradition, indefectiblity functioned along the lines of ensuring the perfection of the church—that is, an insistence that the church can be trusted (which has been often used as a power play), the Reformed spin on the doctrine shifted the emphasis from the church to the Spirit.

In this way, in this shift in emphasis from the church to the Spirit, the doctrine is less about the promise of the church and more about the promise of the Divine: that is, that the Spirit is indefectible: she won’t defect from us.  She won’t leave us to our own devices.  She promises abiding presence, in spite of our selves.  She can be trusted!

So it is a robust pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) which has kept me here.  I can open my theological/doctrinal stronghold (open palm) and trust that where I see the presence of the Divine, I can relax my defenses, and I can stop pretending that ‘it is up to me’.  I can trust the winds of the Spirit to blow where she will… and I can breathe…

It yes to trust and a yes to the unknown, and a yes to the Spirit….

And more often than not, it is a YES to those who will eventually pick up the slack (and they will…),  to those who do things slightly differently than you would, to those who are testing the waters of their own leadership skills, to those who are learning…   Saying no to the heroic is a YES to the next generation.

 

Conclusion

What things heroic tasks have you taken on unnecessarily?  Are you functioning with an inflated sense of self importance? Perhaps the questions we need to be asking ourselves is not what it is I’m sacrificing, but who?  Can we trust one another to fill the gaps? Can we trust the presence of the Spirit….

BLESSED BE.

Call to Commitment:

“I wish for the seedling to become a tree. For a doctrine to become a tree, it has to be believed for a good while; for it to be believed, it has to be considered irrefutable. The tree needs storms, doubts, worms, and nastiness to reveal the strength of the seedling; let it break if it is not strong enough.  But a seedling can only be destroyed—not refuted.”

When he had said that, his disciple cried impetuously, “But I believe in your cause, and consider it so strong that I will say everything, everything I still have in my mind against it.”

The Innovator laughed in his heart, and wagged a finger at him.  “That kind of discipleship,” he said then, “is the best; but it is also the most dangerous, and not every kind of doctrine can endure it.”

–Fredrich Nietzsche,  Aphorism #106, The Gay Science

BENEDICTION:

Go in peace, knowing the good you have to do in the world, and also knowing that it all doesn’t rest in your hands!