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?

–Nonviolent Student Protesters singing “We Shall Overcome,” circa 1963. Photo by Adger Cowans

 

A Sermon in Four Movements

Ephesians 5: 15-20; Mark 14: 22-26

I

On a January morning in 1990, George Peck got out of bed, walked to the kitchen, fell to the floor, and died. It was to have been his first day back to work after a year’s sabbatical. He was the president of Andover Newton Theological School. He was 58 years old.

Just two years earlier, Orlando Costas had died after a short struggle with cancer. He was the Dean of the School. A few months after his sad death, the Chair of the Board died too. And not long after George Peck’s death, a beloved professor of ethics, Jane Cary, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died almost before any of us could say, “Oh, no!”

The older faculty of Andover Newton refer to those three years of death as “the siege,” because it felt like one. It felt like we were surrounded by a fierce enemy that was picking off our friends, one by one.

George Peck’s funeral was held at First Baptist in Newton Centre, a cavernous church. That day it was packed to the rafters. And when the service was over, that whole prodigious throng stood up to sing George’s favorite hymn.

George was an Aussie. Every Christmas he’d call us together to sing all nine hundred sixty-seven thousand verses of “Waltzing Matilda.” He loved that song, but the song he loved most was Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That was the hymn that closed his service.

I had always hated that hymn. I am a sophisticated person, and I found it embarrassing. Remember how it goes? The world is full of temptation. Nasty little devils are running around everywhere, trying to trick us into sinning. We can’t do anything to defend ourselves. We are totally doomed. But thanks be to God, Christ the Holy Swashbuckler swoops down to rescue us. He swoops down and swashbuckles away—and he wins!

Ugh. It’s all so… 16th century.

But then came the siege—the funerals, the exhaustion, the sorrow—and the scary realization that we were powerless against the onslaught of Death. By the time we gathered at First Baptist, I was so sad and defeated, I needed some swooping and trampling. I ached for some swashbuckling. I required some demon-squashing triumph. So, at the end of George’s service, I took a deep breath and belted out that embarrassing old hymn. I sang it like I loved it. Like I’d always loved it. Like I really believed it. I sang it like a Lutheran—with all my heart.

And then it happened. When we got to the part about demons snatching us, we felt those claws grab at us, and we started trembling. When we sang about God sending Christ to help us, and we felt a mighty Presence swoosh into the room. We burst into applause. When we sang that God is a mighty fortress, protective steel descended. You could actually hear it clang down. The more we sang, the more the demons ran. To this day, I remember the way we climbed on the pews, thrust our fists in the air, and ordered the forces of death to back off.

… Okay, I lied. We didn’t applaud. Nobody stood on the pews. We didn’t thrust our fists in the air. But we did sing. We sang and sang. And, somehow, because we sang, we won.

Congregational hymn: “A mighty fortress…”

II

Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, one small detail always chokes me up. Did you catch it when it was being read? It says, “They sang a hymn…”

Jesus was full of dread that night, as if he knew what was coming. Even so, he didn’t hurry the ritual meal. He didn’t shorten the prayers. And he didn’t say, “We don’t have time for all five verses of the closing hymn.” Only hours before being hauled away to be tortured and killed, he stood up with his little congregation and sang all the verses. And the song they sang at that Passover meal was probably a psalm of praise—praise to God for delivering the people from slavery and death in Egypt.

How could Jesus sing like that, knowing what was coming? How could he praise God for deliverance when there’d be none for him? In the face of disaster, how could he keep on singing?

Why do we keep on singing?

Because singing is what we do when we are really living. Even if we are also dying. It’s an act of faith. We always sing against the odds. The children of God have always been powerless against tyrants, helpless against hate, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to our necks in trouble, susceptible to weaknesses of every kind, hemmed in by death on every side. We don’t have a prayer—except for our songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.

Congregational hymn: “When in our music God is glorified” [include verse omitted from NCH: And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night….?]

III

Now, some people sing to entertain themselves. Or to forget their troubles. Or to look on the bright side. But the singing I’m talking about isn’t a distraction, a pep pill, or a night-light. It won’t help us cheer up, forget our troubles, or pretend that there are no monsters under our beds, no gremlins in our psyches, and no savagery in the world.

The song we’re talking about today is the song God sings into the world every day, especially on days of reckoning. It’s a song we know by many names—we call it amazing grace, firm foundation, everlasting arms, trust and obey, wondrous love, grace and glory, blessed assurance—but whatever name we know it by, God has sung it into us. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed in our baptisms, and like all the Spirit’s gifts, it’s no good unless we share it. Unless we give it away. Unless we sing it to others.

And because it is God’s own song we’re singing, once we’re singing it, once it’s out there in the air, things change.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, consider Sojourner Truth, the great abolitionist. Once when someone asked her how to destroy the evil of slavery, she said, “You lay a song on it.”

Or ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Remember, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roar of fire hoses and snarling dogs?

Ask the people of Chile who the priority victims of Pinochet’s death squads were, and they will tell you that they always arrested the songs first. They poets and the singers were “disappeared” early. The government knew that they were the most dangerous people of all.

The song God sings in us and through us against all odds is hope, courage, and life. And as long as God’s people are singing it together, truth will get told, walls will tumble, chains will break, stuck things will shift, tyrants will fall—and the new thing God is determined to do will win out, even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.

But this victory takes time. A song is not a bomb. It is not a quick fix, like a firing squad or a politician’s promise. And that’s why we teach God’s song to our children, so that they will teach it some day to theirs. To get the whole universe singing God’s song is a project bigger than one lifetime.

But faith assures us that sooner or later, the songs we pass from age to age, the capacity for singing we enlarge and encourage, the power of the song we sing together will so bewilder the enemies of Love that they will sheathe their claws, hang up their pitchforks, and stop dealing in death, once and for all. Sooner or later, the song from God that we sing together will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.

Jesus “sang a psalm that night, when utmost evil strove against the light.” That psalm was first sung by the Spirit to his ancestor, David. David then sang it to the people. They taught it to their children. And centuries later, Jesus learned it from his mother, who’d learned it from hers, who’d learned it from hers. He sang it countless times in his short life, that song chanted in exile and in freedom, in trouble and in peace for countless years. It was on his lips when he died, a failed prophet. It was on his lips when he rose triumphant from the grave.

Jesus knew what every faithful soul and every faithful community knows—as long as we are singing, the struggle goes on. As long as we are singing, we are invincible. As long as we are singing, we will rise.

Choral anthem: “We shall not give up the fight…”

IV

Jesus once said to his followers, “Go into the whole world and announce the good news.” In other words, “Evangelize!”

A lot of us are reluctant to evangelize. We can’t picture ourselves hitting the streets with a floppy bible and a converting message, buttonholing our neighbors, preaching to strangers, handing out tracts.

Okay. Fair enough. That’s hard. But maybe we would be willing to sing?

Maybe we could sing the church’s faith, its ancient story, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its vast repertoire of grace. Against the odds that are stacked up against the world God loves, maybe we would be willing to sing for its life and our own.

Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that God can make life different. Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that locked chains can snap and locked doors can open. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that at the sound of God’s song on our lips, one more hatred will shrivel and die, one more war will end, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger, one more wall will tumble, and another will never get built. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that one day the only sound in all creation will be a melody of delight—God’s delight in us, and ours in God.

If we believe, if we know, that God’s new song can do all this, can do it through us, then why would we, how could we keep from singing?

Congregational hymn: “My life flows on’ [How can I keep from singing…?”]

 

And Love Is Everything: A Newtown Carol

551px-David_Nativity_1490_detail_1

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.