Category Archives: Hard Times and Tragedies

In the Aftermath of Horror…

In December of 2005, in the aftermath of the great Indonesian tsunami, I wrote a reflection entitled, “No, Not Now.” I’m thinking similar thoughts  today, as we awaken to the mind-numbing carnage of Nice. I post it below in a condensed and edited form, prefaced by a bracing quote from an essay  by theologian Rowan Williams that Jason Goroncy recently called attention to on his blog, jasongoroncy.com (July 13, 2016). Williams is speaking about the character of Christian moral discourse in the public arena, but I take his assertion as apt for Christian speech and practice in general.

Here is Williams:

‘The weightiest criticisms of Christian speech and practice amount to this: that Christian language actually fails to transform the world’s meaning because it neglects or trivializes or evades aspects of the human. It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. So it is that some of those most serious about the renewal of a moral discourse reject formal Christian commitment as something that would weaken or corrupt their imagination. It may equally be that a Church failing to understand that the political realm is a place of spiritual decision, a place where souls are made and lost, forfeits the authority to use certain of its familiar concepts or images in the public arena’.

—Rowan Williams, ‘Postmodern Theology and the Judgment of the World’, in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World, ed. Frederic B. Burnham, 106–07.

And here is the reflection from 2005:

Watching the news coverage of the tsunami, I saw a stunning piece in which a reporter is interviewing several survivors, some of whom lost their entire families. They tell their stories, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Suddenly, a muzzein starts calling the faithful to prayer, as if reminding the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.

The reporter asks the men if they’re going to the prayers. Some nod, yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his extended family are dead, shakes his head. Through a translator he says, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.’

When I heard the muzzein invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, my stomach lurched. My mind filled with age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who stood by and did nothing while it unfolded?

My ‘good’ theology failed me. It didn’t work to affirm that God isn’t responsible when plates collide and the sea floor rises and displaced water needs somewhere to go. It wasn’t enough to assure myself, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” I needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that, to be able to say not only where God was not, but also where God was.

And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. In the face of all that carnage, everything that came to mind—God was close to the suffering, weeping with them, for example—was repulsive. Each pious thought left me emptier than the last. It was not until I heard that poor man say, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray,’ that my soul untensed. What he said rang true.

There are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to pray or give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything that exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything that can be done but to endure it.

And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will shield us from reality, our prayers will make nice, and our faith will separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the cruelties of war, the carnage of a mass shooting, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s betrayal, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be in our truth and allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass for faith in us is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.

I have no quarrel with people who turned to God that day as one who saves. But I found greater relief and blessing in one grieving man’s refusal to worship God ‘now.’ I also found relief and blessing in his implicit refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his simple confession that it isn’t up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.

We Christians often overwhelm the great human questions—those vast empty spaces and terrifying silences—with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and confident declarations about God’s abiding presence. We’re people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps, as Anthony Padovano once observed, this haste is why Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our hearts, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. And we need to allow this, to say so, to avoid facile accounts of the inexplicably tragic, to construct a Christian lexicon that’s more serious, less evasive, and harder to pronounce in the face of vast unrelieved pain, unrepentant cruelty, and truly senseless suffering. Sometimes, to be human, we have to say no. ‘No, not now.’

Ghastly Prayer

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“By your sword, deliver me from the wicked, O God. Fill their bellies with the wrath you have stored up for them. May their children have a surfeit of it too, with leftovers for their little ones.”  –Psalm 17:13-14.

What I pray for when I’m distraught, terrified, enraged, or overwhelmed is not what I pray for when I’m peaceful, content, hopeful, and safe. What comes out of my mouth when I’m beyond the end can be ghastly.

My most desperate prayers lay bare the damaged self I normally conceal under good Christian wraps—an aggrieved righteousness, contempt for those who oppose me, a primal impulse to pay back with lasting hurt those who have hurt me (and while we’re at it, their children too), and a cowardly urge to have God do the dirty work for me.

I’m grateful to this bloodthirsty psalmist for being as nasty as I am when my heart is backed into a corner. Grateful not so much for validating my emotions, or for modeling honest prayer, or for reminding me that God is big enough to absorb my fury, but for shocking me into recognition. I hate what he prays for. I recoil at his viciousness. But I’ve prayed that way myself.

We could shun psalms like these, excise them from our devotions, denounce them for their violence. Or we could pray them. We could let their hateful words come out of our mouths. We could discover in repeating them that they are not as foreign and distasteful to us as we think they are, or as we want them to be.

Self-knowledge. It’s the beginning of wisdom.

Prayer: Have mercy on me, O God, just as I (really) am.

 

‘Do This’ [Luke 22:7-23]

dark bread on white

The night of the last supper, all was not well among Jesus’ disciples. Everyone was on edge. They all saw the handwriting on the wall—soldiers and swords, crosses and nails. One of them had already sold Jesus to the authorities. And Peter was boasting he’d be brave and follow Jesus, even if it meant death. Every time he said it, eyes rolled. It was Peter, after all. But they were all off kilter, scared and queasy. None of them felt much like eating.

The Bible says Jesus was aware of their fear, their questions, and their confusion. He loved them all. He knew their hearts were in the right place, but he also knew he’d end up alone. They were so frail.

As was he. He would have given anything to escape what was coming, and in prayer he begged God that it might pass him by. The Bible says fear ran down his face like drops of bloody sweat. He had seen crucifixions. He could imagine his.

The only difference between Jesus and his disciples was that when the time came, he didn’t run. But that doesn’t mean he welcomed his fate. He didn’t feel much like eating either.

But that’s what they did. On the night Jesus was betrayed, they shared a meal. They gathered at the table. Because that’s what they’d always done. A large part of their three years together was spent at tables.

In Jesus’ ministry, the table was where things got real—eating together, they began to understand that God’s love for them was real, no matter who they were or what they’d done. There they were, saint and sinner, rich and poor, all welcome to eat.

The table was where truth got told—Jesus would tell you stories about invited guests who were too important and preoccupied to come to a king’s banquet, so the riff-raff took their places, going into the kingdom ahead of the privileged and the powerful. And so the last are first.

The table was where the principles of Jesus’ movement got spelled out in object lessons of service and humility. Jesus on his knees with a towel around his waist, dragging a bowl of water from foot to foot, washing his disciples clean. ‘Servants,’ he told them at that table, ‘are not greater than their master. What I have done for you, now do for each other.’

The table was where pardon was given—to a sinful woman who could not stop bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to an odious little tax collector who’d climbed down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus into his home.

At table with Jesus it somehow felt possible for hard things to get better, and lost things to be found. At table with him, you could imagine a time when you would be able to forgive just about anything.

And so that queasy night they ate with him. And while they were at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’

The bread, his broken body. A sign of broken dreams, broken promises, broken hearts. A sign of mercy and presence to show us that in things that break, God is there.

‘Take, eat, all of you. Here is frailty made blessing,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And after the supper was over, he took a cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, drink, all of you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for the pardon of sins.’ Medicine for what ails you. And a covenant, a promise that we can begin again. And we will.

’Take, drink, all of you. Healing and the dawn of a new day,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And then, after he broke the bread and poured the wine, he said to them, ‘Do this.’

Do this. To remember me.

Do this, and I am with you.

Do this when you’re broken. Do this when you sin. Do this when you get sinned against. Do this when you’re afraid. Do this when you just can’t believe the way hard things have dropped into your life uninvited. Do this when you disagree and fear you won’t find common cause or a clear way forward. Do this when you want good company, when you don’t want to be alone. Do this when you’re joyous and want to multiply your joys. Do this when you’re grateful and want to taste again the goodness of the Lord who’s been so good to you.

Do this. Come to the table. Sit down. Eat and drink.

And so on that awful night they did.

Now, if I were making this story up, I’d tell you that after eating with Jesus, all the disciples got up from the table, repentant, converted, faithful and brave. I’d tell you they were loyal, loving Jesus and each other with a love that could withstand anything. I’d report that they didn’t abandon him, but were with him to the end.

But that meal didn’t make the weak strong, or cowards brave. It didn’t give Peter a personality transplant or any of them more wisdom than they had when they first sat down, which was pretty much zero. They shared with Jesus a meal of love and memory; a meal whose heavenly food and intimate company was all they should’ve needed to find a faith nothing could shake. But it wasn’t. They went out that night and failed him, and he went to his death alone.

After Jesus rose from the dead, they ate together again. At Emmaus he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, just as at that last supper. And just as on that night, they were still who they were—betrayers, deniers, deserters, willing spirits with weak flesh.

In Galilee, he grilled fish and bread for them, and they ate breakfast in the cool dawn air by the lake. And just as on that night, he also fed Peter, who had sworn just two days before that he did not know and had never met this tender Lord.

Nobody at the table of the Lord was perfect, before or after the meal. The table isn’t magic. But it is necessary. We have to eat.

Jesus and his disciples ate together many times after his rising. And after he ascended to heaven, they keep on eating with him in the Spirit, in the church, in holy communion.

For two thousand years Jesus has been eating and drinking with disciples like us whose hearts are in the right place but whose lives are still kind of a mess. Two thousand years of ‘doing this,’ and we’re still suffering the small cuts and deep gashes of our human frailty. It hurts. The damage is real. There’s no denying the pain or evading the consequences. And still he comes to us. Still he says, ‘Sit down. Eat and drink. You, just as you are. You, just as I find you. Come. Do this. Again.’

What matters to him, it seems, is what’s real. What matters is that we are who we are. That we don’t hide our wounds in the dark where no light can reach them for healing. What matters to him is not that we have the right answers or the right opinions, or even the best behaviors, but that we do this. That we come to the table and do this, again and again.

It might take us another two thousand years to fully grasp the table’s lessons, two thousand more to receive the table’s truths, two thousand more to be transformed by its grace. But he is patient. And in the end—who knows?—it may be that becoming perfect, or even becoming ‘better persons,’ isn’t the most important thing. Maybe just being here together is. All he asks is that we don’t stay away because of our weaknesses, and that we don’t prevent others from coming because of theirs. ‘Do this,’ is all he says, ‘even when you don’t feel much like eating.’

Anchor your hearts here. For as long as we meet here again and again, as long as we are together giving thanks for the amazing grace that so willingly embraces the poverty and beauty of our hearts, as long as we are sharing the bread of life, all will be well, even when it isn’t—for Christ is with us always, and he is so kind.

So come today, lay it all out, everything you have—your emotions and questions, your strengths and weaknesses, your beauty and your struggle, your joy and praise and thanksgiving. Here with each other and with him, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, you will taste and believe again, like never before, the trustworthy Word of the Lord—that as many times as we stumble, we’ll be helped up; as many times as we fail, we’ll learn and grow; whenever we sin, we’ll be pardoned; when we’re sinned against, we’ll find a way to offer pardon; when we’re full of joy, our joys will multiply; and when we die, we’ll rise.

‘Do this,’ our Lord said.

Sit down. Eat. Remember me.

Do this.

Eat and drink. I am with you always.

Do this.

Again and again and again.

Until I come.

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman [Exodus 1:7-2:10]

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Image: Pharoah’s Daughter Rescues Moses from the River–Synagogue Dura-Europos

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you’re clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you’ve chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you’ve ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not one more step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will rise: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he tossed in the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which Pharaoh’s army is arrayed against us, no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

It’s Not ‘Newtown’

 

For all the meaningful declarations and politicking,  mobilizations on left and right,  piggy-backing on the horror to find channels for outrage about guns and school safety and mental health; for all the national breast-beating and blame, loathing and fear, what happened last year at Newtown was then and remains, simply and stubbornly, the awful deaths of people somebody loved—a teacher, a child, a cherished fixture in somebody’s universe, a star in the firmament of a friendship, a family, a school, a tree-lined street in a middle-class neighborhood in a small town in Connecticut.

For all its public symbolism, ‘’Newtown’ is not a generic name for the pain  bereft families feel this week. That pain has no name. Who could name it? There is no name, no word for it, not even ‘Newtown.’ It’s not symbolic of anything, this loss. It doesn’t belong to me or to some global “us.” It isn’t fodder for larger purposes, it isn’t even necessarily ennobling. It is, simply and stubbornly, intimate personal pain, sharp enough even after a year to slice away the body from the soul. It’s not “Newtown.’ It’s Charlotte, Chase, Jesse, Jack, Avielle, Olivia, Ana, Ben…

It’s understandable that ‘Newtown’ has become a cover term, a summation of every befuddling thing that’s wrong with Americans’ resistance to reason when it comes to violence and guns and mental health and self-protection and government tyranny, and… you name it. It’s inevitable that ‘Newtown’ should be employed as shorthand for horror and as a galvanizing slogan for the committed. But this week those who most wish not to remember—not to have to remember—are not remembering ‘Newtown,’ but a cowlick that will not lie down, a wobbly crayon drawing of a horse with a yellow mane, a squealing scream of glee as the swing gains speed and altitude, higher, higher, higher.

It’s good to have public observances of the anniversary. Good to mobilize again around the issues and declare commitment to change and love and peace, and  find beautiful ways to turn horror into life and grace. It’s good that many are active and vociferous and resolute.

What would also be good on the anniversary of such an unspeakable thing is not to speak, at least not all the time; to pause the impulse to make meaning and to make right and to make better; to observe a certain inner and outer restraint; to draw in a breath that, before it’s exhaled in resolutions and speeches and even in prayers, lets Newtown be for its length what it is, simply and stubbornly, a small town in Connecticut, and each horrific death the death of someone somebody loved.

Charlotte Bacon 2/22/06

Daniel Barden 9/25/05

Rachel Davino 7/17/83

Olivia Engel 7/18/06

Josephine Gay 12/11/05

Ana Marquez-Greene 4/4/06

Dylan Hockley 3/8/06

Dawn Hocksprung 6/28/65

Madeleine Hsu 7/10/06

Catherine Hubbard 6/8/06

Chase Kowalski 10/31/05

Nancy Lanza, 52

Jesse Lewis 6/30/06

James Mattioli 3/22/06

Grace McDonnell 11/04/05

Anne Marie Murphy 7/25/60

Emilie Parker 5/12/06

Jack Pinto 5/6/06

Noah Pozner 11/20/06

Caroline Previdi 9/7/06

Jessica Rekos 5/10/06

Avielle Richman 10/17/06

Lauren Rousseau 6/82

Mary Sherlach 2/11/56

Victoria Soto 11/04/85

Benjamin Wheeler 9/12/06

Allison Wyatt 7/3/06

How Can We Keep From Singing?

 

Ps 98; Eph 5: 15-20; Mk 14: 22-26

In January of 1990, Andover Newton Theological School’s president dropped dead at the age of 58.  George Peck had been a mentor to me, giving me my first job. His sudden death was a staggering personal loss, and it seemed a disaster for the seminary. At that time, we were also without a dean. Orlando Costas had died not long before, in his early forties, consumed by stomach cancer. Together, these two men had tried to revitalize the school’s mission, turning us toward the future with energy and vision, albeit not without resistance and controversy. Suddenly, both were gone. It felt like we were adrift; it felt like we were under assault.

A memorial service for George was held at First Baptist, Newton Centre — a cavernous building that usually swallowed up even big congregations. But on the day of George’s service, mourners filled it, every corner. Many solemn words were spoken, and at the end of that sad hour, we all stood to sing George’s favorite hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

It had never been my favorite hymn — not even my second or third favorite. It has too many devils running all over the place seeking to do harm to embattled human beings, and a triumphalism too heavy-handed for my blood. I never liked crowing about the “one little word” of faith that overcomes Satan and I was never comfortable declaring Christ the “right man on our side” who single-handedly wins the pitched battle between good and evil. I could not sing that it’s okay to “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also” on the sure bet that God will always be vindicated. (I wasn’t all that sure it was a good bet!) That hymn was definitely not in my top ten.

That is, until George Peck’s memorial. When hundreds of weeping people stood to sing, when they insisted, at the top of their lungs, that God is a Rock, I knew for the first time in my life that it was true. We were under assault from malicious enemies. We did not possess any native strength with which to beat them back. God had sent us — still sends us — the right man to fight on our side. Christ does win battles for us. One little word is all it takes to send evil packing. We can be threatened with and even suffer the loss of everything — goods, kindred, our own lives — and still live, still win, still be safe in God’s eternal victory and vindication.

When we sang it, I believed it. I knew it. Everybody in that church knew it. You didn’t even have to catch all the words to know that in the midst of our painful grieving, a triumphant joy had seized us. As we sang loud, in four-part harmony, everywhere in the cosmos devils ran for cover; and in the heart of that assembly, Christ presided serenely over us and over George’s precious life.

That hymn consoled us, but it did not merely console us — it came true. It created solace, yes, and conviction — but it did even more: it delivered what it promised. It gave us life. To this day, when I remember the moment we rose to sing, I feel that stone building shake as we climbed up onto the pews. I see hundreds of upraised arms, fists thrust into the air, defiant in the face of demonic onslaught, a signal to all who would harm God’s people to back off, for God’s awesome power was there, turning everything (especially death) into life.

Of course we didn’t actually stand on the pews  or thrust our fists in the air, but we might as well have, we could have, we should have…

“After they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last hours, I never fail to register this poignant bit of information, off-handedly inserted in the gospels of Mark and Matthew: they sang a hymn.

The gospels portray Jesus as full of foreknowledge: “One of you is about to betray me.” The night reeked of death. Jesus even gave them a sign, sharing with them the Passover bread and cup in a way that spoke bluntly not only of future fellowship, but also of spilled blood and broken bones. He knew what was coming, but not for that did he shorten the ritual meal, not for that did he omit the final hymn. Only a few hours before brutality found him in the garden, Jesus joined in on his ancestors’ psalm of praise for delivery from slavery and death.

But how could he sing of victory when that night all the evidence pointed to a God indifferent to the ugly plot, already underway, to kill him?

He sang because it is what you do when you are really living, when you believe in life, when you believe in God. You raise your voice in the everyday, you raise it in the joys that punctuate the everyday, you raise it in ordinary sorrows, and you raise it when unspeakable evil threatens to engulf the world. This human capacity for song at any moment, and especially in the teeth of death, is the way we declare our hope, our hope against hope. It is a way for our hearts to get around a corner.

All human singing is done against the odds; it is always an act of faith, fundamentally defiant. It has always been this way: people of every time and place sing of hope when there is none, of courage when they are terrified, of gratitude in the midst of grief, of a new tomorrow when they are being led to the slaughter. Communities of faith and resistance have stood for centuries powerless against terror and tyrants, weaponless against bigotry, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to their necks in trouble, hemmed in on every side, without a prayer — except for their songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.

I have a cynical friend who calls this response “The King and I Syndrome.” You will remember that in that musical, Anna teaches her son to tough out his little-boy-fears by holding his head erect and whistling “a happy tune” so no one will know he’s afraid. But my friend is wrong. The songs I’m talking about are not given to us merely to make us “feel better,” to get us through a tight spot, or to help us keep a stiff upper lip. We never pretend for a moment that there are no monsters under our beds, no horrors in our psyches, no savagery in the world. The song we sing every day, and especially on days of reckoning, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us so that, in the face of the real dangers of real life, we may have power to tell the truth, meet and confound evil head-on, change the world, glorify God and emerge victorious.

If you have trouble believing this, ask people who know. Ask, for example, Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and suffragist. When asked how to confront the great evils that oppressed her people, she replied with utmost seriousness, “First, you lay a song on them.” And ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery about singing. No, ask yourselves, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roaring fire hoses and the snarling dogs. Ask the people of Chile, repressed by a cruel military regime after the fall of Allende. Ask them who the priority victims of the death squads were, once the politicians had been purged, and they will tell you that the soldiers came next to arrest the songs. They will tell you that poets and singers were slaughtered early; and that those who escaped continued defiantly in exile to sing the songs of liberty — songs like Cambia, Todo Cambia… “Things change, everything changes. What changed yesterday can change tomorrow, but singing…, that will never change.” Ask early Christians why martyrs sang in the prisons, the galleys, the arenas, and at the stake. Ask Paul why he instructed the Ephesians to “sing always” if they wished to live the challenging and risky life that Jesus led, a life of selflessness and inclusion, against all odds. Ask them all if they were dupes, pie-in-the-sky Pollyannas whistling away their happy tunes.

Not on your life. The songs the Spirit of God prompts in human hearts against all odds are God’s own songs, God’s vision, God’s will, God’s integrity. Thus, they are songs of infinite worth and unimaginable efficacy. They can be counted on to make things happen: as long as such songs are echoing in the world, truth will get told, boundaries will weaken, chains will break, and new things will become possible — even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.

But it may take a while. That’s why songs have to be taught. Why we have to pass them on to the next generation, and they to the next. We will go to our graves still singing, but if our children have become singers too, and theirs in turn,  there will always be someone singing, and that endless singing will always disturb and bewilder the enemies of love. Sooner or later they’ll feel the terror of self-accusation and they will have to confront the Mystery that erodes the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life; sooner or later, the door will fly open in joy. Sooner or later, the songs of a few will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will materialize. It has happened before. It is happening now. It will happen again.

Jesus sang a psalm that night “when utmost evil strove against the light.” Jesus’ song — taught by God to his ancestor, David, taught to Jesus by his mother, sung in exile and freedom, in trouble and in peace — that song was stronger than death. It was on Jesus’ lips when he rose from the grave. He knew what every community of faith knows: when we sing, and as long as we are singing, we are invincible.

That life-affirming song resounds in the church. The Spirit sings it in us. We receive it like a new thing every day.

Do you sing it? Do you want to sing it? In the church, in our families, our communities, our world, what songs are shaping our future? What songs do we teach our children? Do we know the power springing from the songs of experience, of our heritage, of faith?

Whenever you sing, from this day on, sing for your lives, sing for our world still struggling to vanquish lovelessness and lies. Sing together the song of God’s fierce determination to make us all free and alive, God’s plan for reconciliation and peace. Sing because we believe God’s promise is coming true. Sing to make the walls come down, to break the chains. Sing for generous hearts to embrace the stranger. Sing through the “centuries of wrong” the church’s wisdom, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its repertoire of grace, its conviction about the wholeness meant for all in the steadfastness of God.

Sing until the only sound heard in the whole creation is the melody of delight — God’s delight in us, and ours in God. Sing! With such a hope, with such a promise, how can we keep from singing?

 

And Love Is Everything: A Newtown Carol

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1.

Sweet on the breeze of angels,

songs in the night ring clear:

Heaven to earth is singing

anthems of peace and cheer.

Unbrightened, in reply

poor earth sends up its groaning:

Peace is an orphan here.

2.

Swift on a path of longing,

roused by the angel song,

shepherds run to the stable;

hope makes their going strong.

The manger cold and still

meets eagerness with anguish:

Here hope is killed by wrong.

3.

Brighter than sun and planets,

sign of the ancient vow,

Star of the East is shining,

even the wise men bow;

but shadowed hearts in mourning

see only rays of darkness:

No light shines on us now.

4.

Close by the cradle, Mary

bravely the secret sings:

Love is a sea of sorrow,

love is a broken wing;

love has no guns, no forces,

love cannot win a battle:

And love is everything.