Even if I speak hard truth to all I’m certain need to hear it, even if I speak words so piercing and timely that angels wish they’d said it, even if I’m convinced I’m doing prophet’s work, but I don’t have love—love that trembles, love that weeps, love that refuses to give up hope for those who seem hopeless—my searing, soaring words are just clanging cymbals. Just noise, noise—obnoxious, painful noise.
God, make our words healing and hopeful, true and tender. May they kindle fire that burns away the lies, even as it warms the soul. May our words be beauty–and not noise. 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.
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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
Lord, we woke this morning to another wave of sorrow. More of us are dead. We had to tell our children, once again, of the evil we’ve done. We have to face another grieving day, added on top of all the other grieving days. We have tears. We have anger. We are hellbent on destroying one another. You’re going to have to help us see the truth. You’re going to have to give us courage to be something different. You’re going to have to help us. Amen.
Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.
To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.
And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.
I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.
I wonder, when we’re praying our Advent prayer (Come, Lord Jesus) if we have any idea what we’re meddling with, if we have any sense of the power we’re invoking. I pray this prayer, and I think I mostly believe it. I cling to this hope because I can not escape the sense that our world writhes in convulsions, and I am unable to imagine any solution we humans could muster to ultimately fix the mess we’ve made. During Advent, we utter an honest confession: We are full of good intentions but weak at keeping promises; our only hope of doing God’s will is that You should come and help us do it… Painful as they are, these words ring true.
And yet, when we ask God to come, to act, we are not tinkering with some plaything we can maneuver to our own bidding. We’re dealing with the God who burns, the God who holds the world together, the Holy One. I hear the quake in the prophet Malachi’s voice: Indeed, God is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? Malachi continues: And don’t be so foolish as to think that when God’s justice lands, it only lands on those you think deserve it. We’re all in trouble, and we’ll all be healed together. We all need to be reborn. We all have to go through the fire. I wonder if we pray our prayers for justice too easily, aimed at everyone other than ourselves?
God is the God of endless generosity, boundless joy and unfettered delight – I believe this. I also believe that the God powerful enough to make such things true (the God strong enough to heal all wounds and silence all oppressors) exudes a furious love. A love that is for us. A love that will not let us go. A love that will not leave us to our own devices or abandon us to wallow in our narcissistic stories.
Good St. Annie (Dillard) says it right: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?”
We long for God to come, as we should – this is our hope. But this is risky business. This is a trembling sort of hope.
Over the past year, Miska has given our bedroom a complete makeover. First, Miska pulled out the paintbrushes, and when she told me she covered our walls with a shade called Silver Fox, I smiled. I imagined the voice of Barry White: Silver Fox, Oh yeah… Next we said goodbye to heavy furniture, replaced with small, simple pieces. We cleaned out bags of clothes, magazines, books and the trinkets you collect over 18 years and find stashed in the corners of drawers awaiting such a day as this.
My favorite touch, however, was when Miska gave both of us a new bedside table. I only wanted three things on mine: a lamp for reading, prayer beads a friend made for me and a small icon of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” and the image shows Jesus carrying this weak creature with gentleness and strength. I’m drawn to the firmness in Jesus’ eyes, as if Jesus’ says, This is my sheep, just try to come and take ’em. Scripture tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the Shepherd knows all his sheep and will never forget them. The Shepherd, Scripture says, will even leave the 99 of his flock to roam into the wild night and find that one sheep that has lost her way.
Sometimes this world, though chock full of beauty and goodness, can be a disturbing, perplexing place. What will come of us? What should we do? Will we know the right decisions to make? Will the woman next to me and the two boys snoozing a few feet away be alright, and will they live well – can I protect them? What will come of us? Will we have years ahead to love and enjoy one another, or will it all crash down, as it does for so many? Will all those friends and strangers who face ruin and despair be okay? What are we to do with all of the uncertainty? What are we to do with this one life we’re given? Why does our life sometimes feel so tenuous?
Perhaps as evening ebbs, I feel the futility of trying to grip the hours, of trying to grip my life. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable here, embracing the loneliness appropriate to moons and midnights. Perhaps this is why I wanted the Good Shepherd close, watching over me and those I love in our sleep. I cannot stay awake, but the Shepherd does. I cannot hold the world on my shoulders, but the Shepherd does.
So each night now, before I put down the book and click off the light, I look into the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and I say Thank you.
Levi, now in his eighties, held his words with wonder and frugality, the same way he took care with those rare shiny nickels when he was a boy. There were never more than a few in his pocket, and he surrendered them only with great care. And since Levi prayed the same as he lived, Levi’s prayers were short and direct, never more than three or four sentences. Levi might express bewilderment “at the meanness of things” or ask God to grant kindness to Margie or Duke or the Simpson family as they faced their troubles; but whatever sentence or two might populate the meat of his daily petition, Levi always concluded with exactly the same affirmation: And God, we thank you for the bounty. Amen.
Bounty was a word out of favor, but Levi clung to it. It was not that Levi viewed the world through a rosy tint. God knows he’d lived through more than one man’s share of sorrows. Rather, Levi believed grace was abundant, that grace would surprise you with its persistence. Levi could not agree with modern sentiments grounded in fear, scarcity and exclusion. There was always enough faith, enough hope, enough love – even if some folks misappropriated God’s name and muddled these truths.
Levi assumed that his one-line prayer would do little to alter the stampede of popular opinion, that his prayer was likely only a protest in vain. Levi figured all this was not his concern, that God was more than salty enough to handle his own affairs. So Levi simply kept on. Levi considered this his duty, to speak this one word every day of his life: Bounty.
Well, alright. Here we are again. Another morning to wake, God. Another horizon of possibilities, treacheries, love and, to be sure, a little sadness. We never know what a day holds, but usually there’s a bit of each of these in the mix. If possible, Lord, double down on the joy and laughter. I’d appreciate that.
I’ve noticed how a lot of folks have been doing a lot of crazy stuff in your name lately. I guess that’s nothing new for you. I know I’ve contributed to this myself. I do wonder, though, if this weighs heavy on you. I know you carry the weight of the world, but you also carry the weight of our foolishness. I’m sure thankful, but I am sorry. I’m sorry.
There’s one thing I believe, and I’m pretty certain I learned it from you: Love holds us together. All of us. I forget this, but I want to remember. Will you help me remember? It really does change everything.
Alright, we’ve got to get to it now. The day’s calling us. I’ll be watching for Love today, watching for you.
The first time I saw her, I did not know whether she was an angel or simply disturbed. With silver hair shimmering down her back, past her waist, I could not miss her form even given the distance. I know every inch of this sidewalk, these blocks, the feet and the faces that frequent this route with me, but she was new. The tiny courtyard where she stood, back turned to me, is the lone and final outpost where those from the institutional home can go for smokes. It’s a sad concrete island, with one small bench, where smoke from the mufflers mixes with the nicotine.
The silver-haired woman did not sit, and she did not smoke. She raised her hands, shoulder-high and palms up. The outcast island transfigured into a sanctuary. One quiet person in one loud space can transform ugly into beauty, isolation into presence, endings into beginnings.
As I jogged closer, she turned toward the street, and I could see her face turned upward. She had a gentle, expectant smile. A smile of contentment, of revelation. She opened herself to the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she drank the sunlight. The warmth washed over her open hands, like water poured from a basin. And her lips mumbled words – or were they trembling? The woman with silver hair stood in the bright, her countenance shining. She prayed into the light as an SUV and a Prius and one curious jogger passed.
The next morning, the scene repeated. Only this time, the shimmering woman stood outside the front door, atop the rickety stairs. She stood straight, a pillar. Her eyes closed and face upward toward the warm beams, hands hung by her side. The same radiance, the same settled, knowing smile. Cars whizzed, honks, a man walking in front of the fire station across the street yelled to a friend in a sedan. I jogged past. She did not move. She was in tune with something beneath it all, over us all.
I do not know if the shimmering woman is an angel, but if she is disturbed, one could do worse than being a bit disturbed.