Twice yesterday, tears came unbidden. Once when I was listening to my friend Kenneth Tanner proclaim, with clear and stunning conviction, how God is always and in every way the enemy of death, evil, and injustice. It’s remarkable how our theologizing and sermons, our bumbled attempts at comfort, our belabored equivocations in the face of dehumanizing evil, coax us into a gloomy stupor and blunt our unfiltered rage against every violent horror. Our many words (so many) mute the shadow-shattering pronouncement: Jesus is a friend to every human and every creature, but Jesus is a dread enemy to death and evil. I couldn’t stop the tears.
And then last night in the kitchen with Miska, as the yellow curry chicken simmered on the stove, we reflected on a story of devastating tragedy, the sort that would wreck any parent. The conversation opened inside me a larger reckoning with the agonizing pain so many of us carry, that terror and disillusionment that always lurks, just at the edge, ready to pour out its crushing weight. But into this abyss, the good news arrives. God is never far from our suffering, never distant from our despair. If the Cross tells us anything, it’s that amid great suffering — this is where Jesus’ love glimmers most radiant. In Jesus, God descends into the very center of every human horror. My eyes turned moist. God would rather die than leave us alone.
Buechner told us we should pay attention to our tears, especially our unexpected tears, because “more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
My tears tell me that I’ve come from God and that my end is in God. And my tears tell me, I believe, that this is true for you too, true for all of us. Among the many questions that haunt us, I believe this one cuts closest to the bone: Is God truly, deeply, profoundly good and love — and will God be this goodness and love for us always?
Yes. No matter the anguish that crushes you. No matter the tsunamis that overwhelm you. No matter the loneliness that presses upon you. No matter how far you run. In Jesus, God stands with you, inside your dismay, closer than your breath, opposing all that is evil without us and within us, whispering to us the truth of God’s powerful, undying love. Always. To the end of the age. Amen.
I’m awake in the wee hours of the night. The house is dark. I walk gently so the creak of these old floors won’t rouse those I love. I step onto our back porch and gaze at the starlit sky, breathing clean air. For weeks, this weeping world has writhed and groaned with the wounds of violent history and raging pandemic and a thousand shades of anguish.
But the world’s quiet now, for this one moment, with only the sound of crickets and frogs and the distant rumble of a train. I stand on the porch, wanting to know that this beautiful, aching world holds fast, that she’s still here, that we have not finally destroyed her—and each other with her. I need to know that she remains held by the mercy that has watched over us all from the beginning, cradled by the love that has carried us through so many toils and snares. I need to know that we are still nurtured by the kindness that—in spite of our persistent ignorance and foolishness and wickedness—refuses to let us go. Relentless mercy and love and kindness…in spite of us. It’s a wonder, isn’t it?
And here I sit, and I see that the hour is Lauds—that ancient, before-dawn office of prayer. Maybe all this has been a prayer. A groaning prayer too deep for words. But I’m searching for words now.
Help us, God. Some of us are unable—or unwilling—to see the evil we’ve done. Some of us despair, no longer believing the evil can be undone. Some of us turn cold toward those who weep. Some of us can’t stop the tears. Some of us have abandoned justice and righteousness. Some of us have abandoned mercy and hope. Some of us fear what repentance might ask of us. Some of us fear what love might require.
But all of us—all of us—are in desperate need for the mercy. God, hold us and renew us and show us our foolishness, the destructive ways we do not want to acknowledge, the clear-eyed freedom we’d know if we’d just relinquish whatever we hold with our iron grip. Teach us that we need not fear. Show us how to live whole and free and joyful. We’ve proven absolutely incapable of doing any of this on our own. I’m going to try to sleep now, again. I trust that the world will keep breathing, the stars keep twinkling, the crickets keep chirping, that the three I love in this house remain under your care, that this world I love, and all my sisters and brothers, rests under your care.
On August 12th, 2018, churches of varying ethnicities worshiped together in Charlottesville, remembering the violence a year previous and lamenting the evil those days made painfully obvious. I participated in Prayers of Repentance. The prayers broke me, yet grace was on full display. I pray these prayers might be so, deep in our heart. And I pray that this reckoning might transform us to do, as John the Baptist preached, “works worthy of repentance.” By God’s mercy.
+ + +
Repentance is how those of us who follow Jesus respond when we become aware of wrong we’ve done, wrong done on our behalf or evil in our collective experience. To repent is to tell the truth and then to seek to change, by God’s mercy. Whenever we are awakened by the Holy Spirit to the depths of either our personal or our national sin, then we discover repentance as God’s gift to us. Repentance is how we cling to God’s grace as we renounce evil. When we repent, we courageously name the wrong, and we rely on divine mercy to make us faithful to change our ways and to enable us to participate with God in mending what is broken. We must repent because there is no healing without repentance. We cannot deal with a wound if we never acknowledge the wound exists. And friends, a wound exists. This weekend gives evidence of the wound. But this is an old wound; it has festered since our country’s founding.
Remember the words Jesus preached: Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice and holiness and healing and restoration, the Kingdom of radical welcome – and when the Kingdom of God comes near, repentance is one necessary response. We believe that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has come near, and so we repent. We repent for the sin in our own hearts where that is appropriate. And today it is my place to specifically repent on behalf of the majority white church. We repent because of the sins of our history, our churches, our city and our nation.
Pray with me
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love,
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 52:1-2 Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy
Almighty God, we repent because we have failed in your most basic commandments: we have failed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind; and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. * Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy
We repent for the wealth secured on the backs of slave labor. We repent for land stolen from indigenous peoples. We repent for Jamestown, the first landing spot where our forefathers brought slaves to America. We repent of the forced slave labor used to build Monticello and the University and much of our city. We repent of lynchings and Jim Crow and the destruction of Vinegar Hill and mass incarceration and the ongoing evil of White Supremacy. We repent for how economic power, social power, educational power and legal power has often been used against our sisters and brothers of color. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
And Lord, with heavy hearts we repent for every time your church has been unfaithful to you, every time we have propagated these evils rather than pronounced your judgment over them, every time we have gone silent when we should have named injustice, every time we have failed to act in defense of the oppressed. We have sinned against you and against our sisters and brothers. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
We repent because we have bowed our knees to false gods and ideologies. We have abandoned the way of your Cross, where we are called to lay down our life for you and for the sake of love. Instead, we have coddled, and benefited from, systems of power that deny our brotherhood and sisterhood with all people you love and created, all people who bear the holiness and brilliance of your image. God, we have aligned ourselves with political powers that betray our witness as followers of Jesus. We have not stood beside our friends, beside communities of color, when evil pressed upon them. We have bowed to the false god of fear, the false god of power, the false god of superiority, the false god of safety and the false god of apathy. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
We repent for how the Church, we who profess Jesus as Lord and we who announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, we who are called to live as witnesses to your Resurrection and New Creation – we have often denied our faith and denied our Lord by living no different from the false kingdoms of this world. We in the white church have often held the resources and maneuvered the power. We have acted as though our voice and our theological distinctives and our preferences are the final word. We have not listened with open ears and open hearts. We have dismissed our brothers and sisters of color when we should have asked them to lead us. And God help us, we have not believed our sisters and brothers when they have told us what is happening, when they have expressed their pain, when they have reached out their hands in friendship. We have failed your name, Jesus, and we have betrayed the Family of God. And we repent with sorrow and humility. * Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy
Words, like ideas, gain and lose cultural steam. Thankfully, one of the words and ideas on the rise is justice. For too long, it's been too easy to wallow comfortably in the notion of my private life, my individual well-being, with little thought for the well-being of others or for how justice for the oppressed, the poor, the abused, the forgotten is essential if we are to live in a way that could be called faithful. The prophets gives us a stern dose here. No one says it better than Micah, reminding us that we are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. But the idea flows all through the Bible, cover to cover. You can hardly open the Old Book without running into the call to pursue righteousness, and the word righteousness should often be translated justice. If we are to do what is right and shine God's redemptive brilliance into the world, then justice is a non-negotiable.
One thing worth noting from Micah is how the call to justice goes hand-in-hand with loving mercy. This is a discussion for another day, but suffice it to say that if our justice is absolutist and hard-edged and feels like a stranger in the land of mercy, then something's gone massively haywire. Justice may show us our sickness and triage us to stop the hemorrhaging, but mercy's required if we're ever to be healed.
However, the way we talk about justice these days, it seems that sometimes we're acting like justice is a force unto itself. Justice is not a stand-alone concept we arrive at by sheer brain power, ethical evolution and historical perspective — then hope to God we can figure out a way for Jesus to possibly fit in. Our commitment is not to some intellectual category we call justice; rather our commitment is to Jesus who is the Just One. Justice needs Jesus.
Justice needs Jesus because our attempts at justice, left to themselves (and especially when wrongs are not righted swiftly), usually find a magnetic pull back to some expression of the same violent or dehumanizing energies that inflicted injustice in the first place. We are not unjust because humanity has a few bad apples, but rather we are unjust because left to ourselves, we resort to power plays and violence and manipulation and enemy motifs to protect ourselves or to enact the world we believe in.
Justice needs Jesus because the powers of this world have no generative, life-giving resources on their own. "Everything that is good and perfect," James says, "comes from above, from the Father of lights who does not change like shifting shadows." Every single thing that is right and true and beautiful and good comes from God, everything else is only (at best) derivative of what is true or good or (at worst) some degradation or twisting of that which is true and good. Every ounce of love and healing that exists in the universe comes from the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. God is love. The God who is love has revealed God’s own self through the first century Jew known as Jesus Christ. Justice as an ideal is very different from justice that is Jesus.
This doesn’t mean that someone needs to wear the Christian jersey to enact justice, not at all. In fact, often those who do not claim our faith reveal to us our own hypocrisy. However, all this does mean that whenever true justice happens, it’s consistent with the person of Jesus. Jesus defines justice – not us. No matter how noble or advanced or courageous our justice appears to be, if it doesn’t line up with Jesus’ way, it will ultimately, one way or another, end up inflicting harm. Justice is only possible in the world because God has made it so in Jesus Christ.
Justice needs Jesus because Jesus has uniquely and authoritatively disarmed the violent power games we humans play. Our justice often yields revenge or reverses the power dynamics or employs the notion of justice to atone for our sin or to deal with our shame. We thrive on the delusions of self-righteousness, the idea that we stand-in for justice and others stand-in for evil. And with our enraged "moral clarity," we divide the world in tidy sides and make the other to be an enemy, someone we can dehumanize. We play this game by clinging to our privilege or by bolstering our power. And we can do it even in our efforts to enact justice. Self-righteousness is insidious in the human heart. Most of us are desperate to justify ourselves, to show we’re on the right side—and it's so much easier to do that when someone else plays the part of the villain. And the violence and estrangement goes on and on and on…
Perhaps most of all, justice needs Jesus because God’s justice is not about evening the score or even merely wronging rights – but reconciliation. Paul tells us that the love of Christ compels us to reconciliation, to make friends of enemies, to envision a future beyond the enmity that fuels our outrage. There was once a Man who hung on the Empire's cross and endured the rejection of the religious powers. This man, with gasping breaths, cried out, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing." This is a strange, strange justice. This is a justice that requires Jesus.
There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.
The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.
He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.
Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”
Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.
Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”
Dr. King’s dream was for all of us, even for those of us who did not want his dream, even for those of us who reproached him and persecuted him and said all manner of evil against him – even for those who fueled the anger that ultimately gunned him down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It takes a brazen man to hold the dream of a future that, by all logical accounts, is pure insanity. It take a tender man to hold this dream for those who love you and for those who hate you, knowing that healing must arrive for all of us – or it will arrive for none.
We desperately need women and men who see a future the rest of us are unable (or unwilling) to see. We need dreams that pierce through the tinny noise, blow past our parochial concerns and unhinge our narrow agendas. The time is now (the time has always been now) for dreamers whose imagination burns bold and bright, unfettered by the assumptions the rest of us have accepted as gospel. And we will know our dreams are the noble and explosive sort when they unnerve us with their daring and shock us with their unflinching generosity.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. ~ MLK
When Martha invited Jesus into the home she shared with her sister and brother, she couldn’t have known the splendid friendship she’d just instigated. You never know the remarkable string of events you’ll set in motion by something so ordinary as opening your door and laying an extra plate at the table.
Martha got right to it, cranking things up in the kitchen and preparing for the many guests who followed the rabbi into her living room. After a while, Martha grew agitated because there she was working her finger to the bone over a hot stove while Mary refused to leave Jesus’ side, soaking up every word. When Martha protested, Jesus, in the gentle tone every over-exerted person needs to hear, answered Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted about so many things. Then Jesus added, Mary has chosen the one thing most essential here. Let’s not take that from her.
It’s easy to think that in this short narrative Jesus takes sides in the long feud between competing spiritualities: the spirituality of action versus the spirituality of contemplation. This war rages on even now, between the justice-loving activists and the mystic-minded contemplatives. Of course, it would be silly to think Jesus was interested in, much less bound by, our divisions, the ways we like to codify paradigms and categorize everything and everyone according to some flavor du jour.
Jesus did not push against Martha’s labor, but rather against her distraction, her worry. God knows we need people who clear the fields and announce the truth, people who get antsy whenever we forget that there’s a world we must tend to. But God also knows that those of us who’ve recognized how much our work matters are tempted to think it matters too much, to forget that God and love stand at the center of our labor and our noble causes, to forget that our soul is our deep treasure – and that our soul can absolutely shrivel and die. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to find a person who’s given themselves to a cause and then, amid their fervid exertion, completely lost themselves in it. Now, only a shell of a human remains, barking burdensome platitudes.
The truth is, however, contemplatives struggle just the same. When we too heavily emphasise “the disciplines” or “the practices,” as if they are a force unto themselves, we entirely miss the point. There are few things more obnoxious than a would-be mystic who’s worn themselves out (not to mention everyone around them) because they thought the work of silence or “spiritual union” was their mission they must accomplish.
What Martha and Mary needed, what we need – that one thing that is necessary – is Jesus. In our seasons of grit and grind as in our seasons of quiet and sabbath, what we need is Jesus. Jesus may come to us in a thousand ways, through Psalm and Gospel, wind and river, worship or children or wine or sweat or solitude – but we must choose him. We must choose that which is absolutely essential, the one thing that, unless we have it, we will die.