And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Last night, sleep eluded me. The brutal plight of South Sudan took its hammers and beat down upon the sidewalks of my mind. Distant neighbors and pastors, their last seconds of this life butchered. Some of these harassed peoples huddled in churches for safety but God left the doors unlocked.
The question of God’s willingness to give us no immunity this side of heaven jolts me as I look into the eyes of my wife and my children, my church community and my neighbors.
There in South Sudan, they say this December is the last month for life unless 50 thousand children can find food. Here in Webster Groves, Missouri, its the weekend.
Doing this Day is itself an Act of Protest
How do we do a weekend when the world rages? Psalm 37:1 stretches out a lane for our walk in the night. When evildoers prosper, it says:
Perhaps there in those African nightmares, these words would come too soon, heal too lightly. The vomit and the blood must first wash away in rivers of tears and time. Silent presence, the tearing of clothes in ash, collective cries, time spent bodily flung into the ground, spittle in dirt. Such acts of neighbor love and trauma must come first.
But here, for me, distant on this day, pacing in night, I must somehow trust, do good, befriend faithfulness and dwell as an act of defiance to violent living. These words form our version of “Don’t let the terrorists win.” We overcome evil, not by returning it, but by relentlessly persisting in doing that which is good (Rom. 12:21). We do what our African friends will one day do again, just as they will do on our behalf, should terror ever come to our town. In this way, love doesn’t quit but maintains its witness in the world. Remembrances of Eden, foreshadowings of heaven, both refuse to die.
Jesus’ Song When the Violence Came
I wonder. Is this why Jesus sang a hymn? Was it a declaration? Was he taking a stand for a way of life with God and each other?
Judas had just betrayed him. Peter was about to deny him. Gethsemane waited. Lustful injustice was about to publicly demean him and hammer and hack, hammer and hack him down. And yet, he offers food and sings a hymn. He toasts the mercy of friendship to the betrayer. He foreshadows forgiveness to the denier. He cries the agony of seeking shelter with God and finds God leaving the shelter unlocked and infiltrated. He gives voice to the forsaken question, “Why.” He offers a vision for community life for a mother and a son. He acts in defiance of the violence. Even his enemies hear him speak of their forgiveness. In all of this, He maintains an alternative way of life and grace for human beings. He pays for it. He purchases it. His song in the night takes its stand in opposition to their swords in the dark. And soon, with tomb emptied, the singing redeemer will rise!
The World in our Neighborhood. Our Neighborhood in the World.
So, I search the internet and type in “South Sudan Pastors,” and the like. I read articles, see pictures, cry and pray. And I also persist to do the mundane act of riding my mower. What else can we do? Beneath blue sky, I clear grassy space for children to play. Tonight, its Parent’s Night Out. Our home turns hospitable toward junior and senior high school students, who hope to raise money for summer camp.
Tonight, four and five year olds will romp and laugh about the yard and rooms. They will squish playdo and color with crayons. They will need warm washcloths for cheeks smudged by the enjoyment of chocolate chip cookies. From the closet I grab the red plastic table cloths made for disposable use. I spread out toys and turn living rooms into playgrounds, made for song and laughter, safe provision for scuffs and tears.
Afterwards, I check my phone to see who has called. Two African Immigrant pastors give voice to my ears. The irony settles in.
How do we do a day in our places when distant neighbors suffer and our personal skies are blue and easy?
We donate money? yes. We pray sleepless, earnest, aching? yes. We learn to weep with those who weep? yes. We go there? yes.
And sometimes, oftentimes, we also vigorously get on with noticing the world in our local messages. We take our stand by picking up the phone and answering the call. We ache, pace, weep and wail for our distant neighbors, remembering that in the shadow of the cross, Jesus sang. They cannot, not today, but we can on their behalf. We carry them in our hearts and minds, songs and prayers. Not trite songs that underestimate our horrors. But hymns from the shadows. Just as they too will carry on songs to God, if tears should engulf and drown our voices, on some future barren day. And soon enough, in the light of conquered tomb, the coming One will come again, and together, we will sing the song of peace, all at the same time. The Savior’s hymn in humiliation will turn to anthem amid his glory! And never again will God leave the shelters unlocked. Never again.
Worry is nocturnal. It spreads its crow wings to caw and scratch. We, the night worried, toss and turn. Hollered and flapped throughout the night, we dishevel our breathing and muss our hair till dawn. What will the day bring?
Anxieties are agitated things; thoughts that pace the floor, feelings that bite their lips, a right thumb pressing deep into the left hand to push and scrub into the skin. Anxieties found me before I was a pastor. As my Pop says, “I got them honestly.” Bouts of anxiety dapple the biology of my kin. Add to that my own share of providential trauma along with ordinary cares proportionate to my age and calling and both body and soul contribute plenty to these ants-in-the-pants-moods that crawl about with their jitters and creepers. Getting ordained did not un-anxiety me. In this short essay, I simply want to try to describe some of what we the anxious experience and begin to hint at the grace Jesus brings.
When I was a boy I pleaded with my Pop to let me go into a haunted house. The last room was doused in strobe lights that bounced off of checkerboard floors, ceiling and walls. Awash in disorientation a hand reached out from an unseen cove and grabbed me. Instinctively I ran . . .straight into the wall. I knew I had to get out but I could not see the door even though it was right in front of me. My Pop yelled, “run for the door!” I got up and ran again and this time I hit the wall again and came crashing down. Anxiety is like standing in a haunted house, awash in strobe light in a checker board box with a haunted hand and a voice telling you to run for it. It doesn’t matter that the strobe light was bought around the corner in the daylight nor that the checker board floors were painted on, or that the hand was just a dude trying to make a living. Anxiety makes it scarier than it is. No matter how simple it seems to get to the door and no matter how clear the directions someone gives you, you find yourself on your rump feeling a welp on your forehead.
Flies, Restless Legs, Palantirs and Illusory Images
Anxiety makes a distraction out of ordinary moments that otherwise would bless us. Like flies at the dinner table, we must swat and throw our hands as we try to share with each other about our day. Our dog bites the air and clinks its teeth because these gnats can’t let a piece of bread crumb or pork chop, go.
Anxieties also harass our attempts to rest like mosquitos do. The bloodsuckers bomb the skin when all we wanted was a moment among the breezes at dusk. We run back in for shelter red welps stinging on the legs.
Speaking of legs, anxieties makes a mess of them at night. They can push and shove into a quarrel behind the back alleys of my knees. They take their fight into the shoulder blades and throb there.
These harassments in ordinary moments, times of rest, and at night can act like those Palantirs in fantasy stories. We try to see into the future and they tell us that the future is hopeless and full of doom.
Anxiety alerts us to fear. A threat, real or imagined, hides behind the bushes of our night thoughts and stalks them. Finances, reputation, expectations, sins-real or imagined, kids, wife, imagined enemies in the community, the church, real enemies in the community, real traumas, foul memories. Felt vulnerability with nothing to provide an illusion of control stomps up and down on the steps of our minds. The sun shines outside where friends smile and being loved is real but the hurricane pounds the inner coasts of our being.
Anxieties in care-givers expose our ideals. I hate knowing that at lunch the next day I will likely hold my Bible with hands that tremble. I will speak prayers out of haywire feelings and seek to offer the presence of pastoral care on less sleep than I want. “A pastor doesn’t struggle like this,” I tell myself. With such thoughts, I invite condemnation and shame to join the party and the spiraling continues.
Anxieties shout at us that everything that exists, whether virtual or non-virtual, is rioting, and no one can hold it or us together. Anxieties tempt us to believe that we must panic in the water and thrash about for any life preserver of relief that we can find only then to show us that every buoy we reach for is weighted. This feels miserable. What a blessing it is to have a pastor who understands or a friend who sticks by.
Paul testifies that it is Jesus who holds everything visible and invisible together. Everything real or imagined, foul or tricksy, obeys Jesus. This includes what ails me. What I need is the one through whom everything was created to bend toward my little pile of jittery thoughts and achey bones. Sheltering me He can look into the red-eyes of every looter in my being and with plain strength say, “Enough!” “Be Gone!” “Be Still!” And in my being grace, not as the world gives, can in Him kiss my soul and say, “shhhhh . . . be at peace lovely one. Rest now.”
The Gill Giver
Everything in us wants the waters to subside. For some, they graciously will and do! For such a one, testimony has to do with being pulled onto the beach and chest thumped into breath through the CPR of Jesus’ grace. Anxieties like this never return. But for others of us, we are meant to learn that the presence, and not the absence of our anxieties will teach us the grace we offer others. For us, our ministry flourishes as we receive the fact that grace can hold its breath in the deeps, or better yet, grace has gills, it breathes under the waters that seek to overtake us. For us, we begin to declare to others, “Under oceans in this fallen world I am learning to breathe!” Jesus air tanks our lungs. Sometimes we realize it and we begin to laugh. We realize that we are learning to float! Shouts, and praises, and thanksgivings of deliverance bubble up. We smile under water. It’s like being given fins or flippers. If we were on land it would be as if Jesus’ grace was putting dancing shoes on our feet. Imagine that, dancing shoes for my Presbyterian-hands-to-my-side-slight-nod-of-the-head, old soul! Ha! From there, He bids me, “Go and Preach!” What? Drenched with sea stink and fins, these dancing shoes of mine, I announce the good news. “In the world we have tribulation” I say. “But Jesus has overcome the world!” And all of those dear one’s stinking of sea, lung-tired and treading water, with no fins or gills say, “Really?” “How Can this happen?” “Jesus!” I say. “Let me tell you about Jesus!” He is the gill giver.
The surprising result is that we anxious pastors are becoming makers of psalms; poets able by gracious experience to write songs of deliverance. We have stories, real stories, of rescue! We are veterans of a certain kind of labor, a particular kind of fight. We tell of the times Jesus met us in the deeps and on his back he swam us, showing us the beauties of coral and created nobilities that landlubbers hear about from people like us, but rarely see for themselves.
“To be cast down is often the best thing that could happen to us.” (Charles Spurgeon)
It is rarely wise and often unkind to say what Spurgeon says while someone vomits from the chemo, showers off from bodily assault, exit interviews for their lost job, or weeps by the graveside of their child. In such moments, we learn from the best practice of Job’s friends. We say nothing. We sit in the ashes. We weep with those who weep. We talk more to God about them than we talk to them about God. We need not declare in these early horrid moments what grace and time in God’s hands can prove without our saying a word. So, we speak Spurgeon’s sentiment sparingly and in time, but nonetheless we learn to embody it daily. I say, “we learn to embody it” because we know full well that Spurgeon’s statement is not automatic. We know full well how sorrows can negatively change a person–it can harden us, embitter us, shatter our faith in God and make us cynical about people.
How then do we learn to embody a benefit to sorrow? Spurgeon points us to Jesus. Jesus is called, Immanuel, God with us. He is not, (as I often wish) the God who gives us immunity from the world or the God who gives freedom to choose only good things so that no neighbor ever chooses anything to harm another. Rather, God is the One who does not leave us when people, sicknesses, devils or the weather do their worst. Spurgeon therefore makes the healing claim: “There is no remedy for sorrow beneath the sun like the sorrows of Immanuel.” “The sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice.”
Jesus speaks to our sorrows and orders them to serve His purposes. Sorrows are caused by ugly things. But Jesus adopts them as it were. He brings them into His own counsel. The One who loves even enemies, probations our sorrows. He gives them His own heart and provision and house. Living with Him they reform and take on His purposes to promote His intentions and to reverse and thwart foul tidings. In other words, sorrows belong to Jesus. He is their master no matter what fiendish thought gave them birth. With Jesus having authority over our sorrows in mind, Spurgeon identifies a handful of benefits recovered when Jesus boots with us and shovels out our pigpen muck.
- Sorrow teaches us to resist trite views of what maturity in Jesus looks like: Faith is not frownless. Maturity is not painless. Disheveled and bedridden amid the jittery and unanswered; this is no necessary sign of wickedness. It is the presence of Jesus and not the absence of glee that designates the situation and provides our hope. Spurgeon says it this way. “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace; the very loss of joy and the absence of assurance may be accompanied by the greatest advancement in the spiritual life . . . we do not want rain all the days of the week, and all the weeks of the year; but if the rain comes sometimes, it makes the fields fertile, and fills the waterbrooks.”
- “Sorrow exposes and roots out our pride: Perhaps we can think of it this way. When standing at a thrift sale, the saying goes, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” We often mix-up what Jesus treasures with what Jesus willingly gets rid of. Sorrows show where we’ve been passing over His seemingly used treasures with eyes wide for brand new nothings.We are very apt to grow too big” Spurgeon says. ” It is a good thing for us to be taken down a notch or two. We sometimes rise too high, in our own estimation, that unless the Lord took away some of our joy, we should be utterly destroyed by pride.”
- Sorrow pushes us to take a second look at ourselves, to be more honest about ourselves and our situations: Sorrow unthreads the hem of our rationalizations. Spurgeon says, “When this downcasting comes, it gets us to work at self-examination . . . When your house has been made to shake, it has caused you to see whether it was founded upon a rock.”
- Sorrow is a means of drawing us closer to Jesus in truer dependence: As a child I watched a cartoon. It pictured a Coyote trying to catch a roadrunner. The Coyote used a saw to cut a circle hole out from underneath the Roadrunner’s feet. But when the hole was completed, it wasn’t the Roadrunner that fell. Rather, the rest of the floor crumbled down all around and upon the Coyote, leaving the Roadrunner held and fixed in the air; his feet still standing upon his piece of floor. Jesus stays put though everything else fall around us. Strength emerges. Spurgeon says it this way, “When you and I were little boys, and we were out at eventide walking with our father, we used sometimes to run on a long way ahead; but, by-and-by, there was a big dog loose on the road, and it is astonishing how closely we clung to our father then.”
- Sorrow teaches us empathy for one another: “If we had never been in trouble ourselves, we should be very poor comforters of others . . . It would be no disadvantage to a surgeon if he once knew what it was to have a broken bone; you may depend upon it that his touch would be more tender afterwords; he would not be so rough with his patients as he might have been if he had never felt such pain himself.” Jesus shows us his wounds, the slanders, the manipulations, the injustices, the body blows, the mistreatments piled onto Him. From there He loves, still. He invites us into fellowship with His empathy. We receive it from Him in the deeps. Rarely quickly but often truly, we rise again and actually give, maybe for the first time in our lives.
(See Spurgeon’s sermons, The Man of Sorrows and Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul)
When trauma finally leaves us its memory stays to haunt us. Here, ministers have no immunity pass. We too must tread the creaked floors. We too suffer nightmares that shriek and push their way into noon. Day-dreams can shiver muscle and bone. Flashback can dizzy us. These ghosts and chains clank and howl with no sense of propriety. They care little that we stand with a bible in our hands, a sermon on our lips, or a prayer upon our breath. A nuisance, they never tire to remind that though Jesus never breaks down, spiritual giants do. Foul remembrances can spook even the gritty and most valiant among us. (more…)
“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
By poetic language we sometimes learn empathy and gain wisdom for what neighbor love can require of us. Moses writes the historical headline of Abel’s death by using the poetic metaphor of “blood crying out.” We too learn from God in this way how poetic language takes our hand and walks with us down the sometimes back alleys of our days.
In the poetry of the Bible for example, the Psalmist gives voice to describe what a murderous heart does (Psalm 10:8-11). By means of these words, God enables us to see how neighbor-love gets broken like twigs thrust down with hands upon our legs.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
As human beings, we imitate God in this way. Our language is not His nor perfect as His is. But for example, in her prize-winning collection entitled, Slamming Open the Door, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno gives voice to what it is like as a human being to recover from the murder of one’s own child. She provides us words for what it is like to walk through the burned out remains of neighbor love when it is torched like this. I often think to myself when reading about such providences in the lives of others–“what would grace require of me to serve such a family if I was their pastor and if with me they looked for Jesus and His grace in the wreckage?” Kathleen helps us if we can learn to listen. She enables us to feel her rage for justice in Sticks and Stones or how one’s imagination goes into anguish in Nighttime Prayer or what it is like to hear the horrible news you cannot stop from coming in How to Find Out. The subject matter is thick enough. The poet assumes we know that already. So, she wastes no time with morbid or maudlin descriptions. She simply tells us who want to care What Not to Say.
“Don’t say you choked on a chicken bone once and then make the sound, kuh, kuh, and say you bet that’s how she felt . . . and you whisper I think of you every day, Don’t finish with because I’ve been going to Weight Watchers on Tuesdays and wonder if you want to go to.”
For brief excerpts go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111218053