Friday, January 23, 2015

Meditation -- "The Treasures of Darkness" (inspired by a cool book by Barbara Brown Taylor)

This is a short meditation that I gave in the Kay Chapel at American University last night. It was inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark. The scripture reading is Isaiah 45:1-8. At the end of the reflection, we handed out paper and crayons and people drew pictures of experiences of night/darkness in their lives. Feel free to grab crayons and do the same!

Some of you will recall that last semester the panel that controls the lighting in our lovely Kay chapel got broken. And perhaps some of you also recall that, because of this lighting panel incident, we had one Thursday night healing service in which all of the lights in the chapel were on. Painfully, blindingly on.
            Now, if I am remembering this correctly, Tori was preaching that night, and she did a wonderful job, and we had communion, and time for prayer, and the service in general was everything that I’ve come to expect from a healing service.
            But those lights were on. And they were sort of…hot. And everything felt just a bit…off.
            There’s just something about gathering here, late at night, with the lights lowered and the music reflective, which lends itself to an atmosphere of contemplation and reflection. With all the lights up, I found it a bit harder to relax back into the healing presence of the Spirit. So I was pretty relieved when we got the light panel fixed (or at least sort-of fixed).
            I say all of that because I think that our gathering here every Thursday, with the lights lowered, gives some insight into part of the Christian faith that is oft-neglected: the importance of darkness.
            It wouldn’t take a newcomer to Christianity a very long time to notice that Christians love to talk about light. Scripture describes Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12); and tells us that “in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5). The latter is quoted in a popular hymn called “I Want To Walk As A Child Of The Light,” and the Christian community is supposed to be a light to the world as well (Matthew 5:14).  The images pile up after a while, leading to an obvious conclusion: light is good, and dark is bad.
            It’s not just Christianity, of course. We have some cultural hangups about darkness.: I went to see a movie the other day, and the trailer for the next Star Wars movie came on. There are only a few words in the trailer: an ominous voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? The dark side…and the light.” And I bet folks in the theater, even if they had never seen a Star Wars movie, knew which side we’re supposed to be cheering for. Dark Side equals bad. Light Side equals …well, it equals Mark Hamill, which isn’t so good, but he’s the guy we were supposed to root for, anyway.
            The metaphor makes sense in a lot of ways – there is something about our faith that tends us toward language about illumination, about being able to see or to understand in a new way. But there are some unintended consequences to the ease of our metaphorical preference for light. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things….To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it ‘full solar spirituality.’”[i]
Ironically, the movie that was preceded by the Star Wars trailer was Selma, a particularly powerful representation of one of the more obvious side effects of the “light-good, dark-bad” dichotomy. Of course there is more to our ongoing struggles with racial prejudice in this country than metaphors about light and dark, but it can’t possibly help with the unconscious biases of our society that we so often associate darkness with evil or pain. And Jesus himself has to deal with his own disciples making assumptions about a man with impaired vision when they ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Our preference for light and sight can lead to some problematic stuff. 
            Tonight’s scripture, from the prophetic literature of Isaiah, challenges our usual understanding of dark and light as they relate to our faith in God. As with all of our scriptures, this text emerges from a complicated social and political situation, marked by unrest and uncertainty. In it, the prophet speaks God’s word to Cyrus, the ruler of the Persian Empire. God calls Cyrus “his anointed,” which, if we were more familiar with biblical Hebrew, would startle us good Christians a bit. “Anointed” is the English translation of the word mashiakh, Messiah. In Greek, the word would be translated khristos, which we anglicize as “Christ.” So this passage opens with the line, “Thus says the LORD to his Christ, the Persian Emperor.”
            Why would the prophet Isaiah refer to Cyrus as Christ? Well, as with much of the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls of Isaiah take their final form during the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Empire, though, is weakening, and the star of Cyrus II is rising. Cyrus, it seems, might represent the Israelites’ best hope of returning to their homeland and rebuilding their beloved temple.
            So in this passage, we have a theological interpretation of sociopolitical events. And what the text says, again and again and again, is that, while Cyrus of Persia might be very strong, although he might represent the people’s best earthly hope for a return from exile, it is only because God is the God of all the world, in fact of all the cosmos, that such a thing could come to pass. That a foreign king could be hailed as a savior is characteristic of the universalistic message of the Prophet Isaiah, a message that is not always well received by people who are used to thinking of themselves as the sole recipients of God’s grace.
            And to communicate this comprehensive sense of God’s presence, to relativize the sovereignty of even the most powerful of kings, the text says things like:
“From the rising of the sun and from the west”—that is, where the sun goes down—“there is no one besides me.”
            Or, “I form light and create darkness.”
Or, “Let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up.”
What makes God, God, instead of just another powerful figure like the Babylonian and Persian kings, is that God is in the sunset as well as the sunrise, the dark as well as the light, bad times as well as the good times, springing up from underground as much as making decrees from on high. It’s God as comprehensive, universal, all-embracing, that distinguishes the God of the Hebrew Bible from the more particular deities of the surrounding nations and tribes. The God of the Bible is not one-dimensional. 
            Which makes me think, again, of Barbara Brown Taylor’s words: “full solar spirituality.” She says, “You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”[ii] She adds, “There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season….All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.”[iii]
            Much to my delight, though not to my surprise, Barbara Brown Taylor credits her university chaplaincy with opening her up to a spirituality more comfortable with uncertainty and with questioning, with waxing and waning experiences of God – a version of Christianity more comfortable with the dark.[iv] And so here we sit, in a darkened university chapel, somehow, I think, seeking an escape from too much light. Mark spoke about seeking silence last week and he used the term, “negative space,” like the rests in a piece of music. And with all of the artificial light in our lives – fluorescent overheads and smart phones and screensavers – maybe we need some visual negative space, as well.
            Our passage from Isaiah tonight recalls God saying, “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, who calls you by your name.” The treasures of darkness. I like that. The gifts that are waiting for us in the places where we can’t see.
            What have been the treasures of darkness in your life? I think the question bears some reflection. I’ve got some paper here, and some pens and some colored pencils. And I’m going to ask that we spend a little bit of time tonight thinking about our own stories of darkness. Maybe you remember your parents calling you inside when it got too dark to play. Maybe you remember the power going out and your family playing games. Maybe you used to be scared of the dark. Maybe you still are! If so, why? What did you imagine was hiding there? Think back over your life. Think about your experiences with darkness – take that as literally or as metaphorically as you like. And write some thoughts down, if you’d like; or draw a picture of an experience of darkness, if you’d like; move around if you’d like or stay still if you’d like. But I want to invite you, now, to take some time. To search for riches hidden in secret places. To uncover your own treasures of darkness.  

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 7
[ii] Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 7. Emphasis mine.
[iii] Ibid., 8-9.
[iv] Ibid., 43.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Impossible Advent -- the impossibility of blogging

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

I have been entirely delinquent in my commitment to blogging during Advent, and honestly I'm not feeling particularly bad about it.

As it turns out, finals week followed by a week of traveling, visiting with family, and getting to see the beautiful farm where Leigh and I will get married in September, hasn't left me with much time for tapping away at a computer, and I am quite content with this fact.

Maybe this will read as a somewhat thin justification, but nevertheless I think there is some truth in it: it seems to me that one of the main lessons of Advent, and all of the metaphors that tend to associate themselves with this season, is that the effort and striving and production of humans is not, in an ultimate sense, the main event. This is a season in which we talk about waiting, about birth, about the dawning of the sun after a long night. All things that, while they might require our alertness, or our care, or our intention, are not really about us, but rather about important things happening in us or through us or around us.

So I'm deciding not to be too concerned that I haven't produced much content here over the past week and a half or so. Advent isn't really about my content, anyway. Not about what I write or make or do. Certainly not about what I blog.

Advent isn't about our flurry of activity and frenzied preparation for five church services on one night (which I am blessedly spared by working with a campus ministry).

Advent isn't about me, or about us.

Which is good news, indeed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

Finals week means not much energy for blogging, but I did want to share this beautiful poem that I stumbled across while madly skimming a book for a final paper:

"Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

What is hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination
is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality
of facts that oppress and repress us
is not the last word.
It is a suspicion that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
That the frontiers of the possible are not
determined by the limits of the actual;
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection –
but the two, suffering and hope
must live from each other.
Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair,
But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete,
and drunkenness
Let us plant dates
even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let our creative act
be dissolved away by our need for immediate sense experience
and it is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints,
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Impossible Advent: Remembering to breathe in the world of "I Can't Breathe"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts

Over the past week, I've been telling a lot of people to take deep breaths.

I double-dip stress around finals time. I work with college students, and I'm a seminary student myself, so there's a lot of anxiety happening for most of the people I spend time with on a day-to-day basis. Not to mention that for church folks, Advent--which was supposed to be a season of preparation and contemplation--has turned into a season of over-programming. All of us students sort of need to take care of each other around this time of the year.

The advice rings differently in my own ears this year, though. "Take deep breaths," I say. "You can do this."

"I can't breathe," a voice echoes in my head.

"I can't breathe."

Eric Garner said it 11 times.

I tell people to breathe. To take deep breaths. And I wonder if for millions of people in this country, including friends of mine, colleagues, professors, pastors, those words sound like a sick joke. How do you breathe when the system is designed to choke you? How do you breathe in a world of "I can't breathe"?

My position is one of privilege. And so I write this, not as condescending advice to the righteously angry, but as a reminder to myself: that holding my breath does not help Eric Garner get his back. That holding my breath won't amplify a single voice.

I've got to remember to breathe.

I used to think that I could force my voice out, that if I buckled down and tried harder I'd be a better person, a better activist, a better Christian. I forced that voice out, and before I knew it I was trying so hard that I was gasping for air, holding my breath to try to make it through.

Even in the world of "I can't breathe," I've got to remember to breathe.

Leigh recently posted this article called "The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change." What with all its talk of burnout and campus ministers, I have a sneaking suspicion it might've been a bit of But it's a powerful reminder, and well worth the read: prayer and rest are not the opposites of action. They are essential to it. They are the fertile ground out of which it grows.

It seems like an odd contradiction, perhaps even like an excuse. But then again, there's an intuitive link between the inner stillness and the outer activity, the deep breath and the loud protest. There's an oft-quoted scripture verse, from Psalm 46, that is often offered as a comfort to people in times of stress: "Be still, and know that I am God." It's a reminder to still the racing of thought and heart and to relax back into the presence of God. But look at the previous verse, and you'll see this: "Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire." Only then, after all the desolation and the breaking and the shattering, does the psalmist declare, "Be still!" There's an exclamation point. A more recent translation says, "That's enough!"

"Take a deep breath" sounds like lame advice. But it's a bit of a gentler way of saying, "That's enough!" "That's enough of the interior monologue of anxiety and insecurity, enough of the feelings of inadequacy! That's enough of the self-hatred! That's enough injustice"

"Be still." "That's enough!"
"Take a deep breath." "Let him breathe!"

Probably the only thing I'm worse at than being an activist is being a contemplative. But in this season, I am remembering: we have to breathe.

For the sake of a world where "I can't breathe" becomes unimaginable:

We have to breathe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Impossible Advent -- 5,900 miles

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

In September 2007, I arrived in Jerusalem to begin three years of service with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. I worked with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, learning about the struggle of Palestinian Christians for unity and justice in the face of division and oppression.

During my time in Palestine/Israel, I saw houses bulldozed because the families living in them were Palestinian. I saw Palestinian families dragged from their homes, evicted by the Israeli military police to make room for Israeli settler extremists. I saw grandmothers pushed down by soldiers at checkpoints; saw unarmed children arrested, beaten, and intimidated; saw live ammunition fired into a crowd by Israeli soldiers; saw the evidence of blatant and systemic violence with no accountability for the perpetrators. One Palestinian friend was jailed for months with no trial. His crime? Organizing nonviolence in the West Bank.

I came back to the U.S. angry, angry and determined to work for justice, to change the ways in which the U.S. supports this awful situation with money and bullets and guns. Determined to change the ways that our institutions, including our churches, make money by investing in companies that help make this oppressive situation possible.

It's about 5,900 miles from here to Jerusalem. And for the past few months, ever since I saw photos like this ...

... not from the West Bank but from Missouri, the thought that has been rolling around in my head has been:

"Why the hell did I travel 5,900 miles when I could have just hopped in a car for a day?"

Palestinians were even tweeting protesters in Ferguson -- where, as it turned out, the police response was modeled after Israeli military policy -- to give them tips about dealing with tear gas.

5,900 miles away. 

And now, another black man killed by the police...and another...and another.  

5,900 miles.

I'm so grateful for my experiences in Jerusalem and surrounds. I learned so much, not only about the situation and the work of Sabeel and its allies, but about myself, about structures of power, about building community. 

But then, 5,900 miles later, and here are the images of militarization.  Here is the disproportionate violence with no accountability. Here are the immoral investments in racist infrastructure.

As usual, much more articulate people than me are writing about this. Rev. Amy Butler, my preaching professor and now the senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York, traveled to Ferguson to learn from the protesters and wrote about her experiences -- even as protests in her new home of New York erupted over the Eric Garner (non)verdict -- here. My seminary colleague and friend, AhnnaLise Stevens-Jennings, wrote about her own experiences as an African-American woman engaged in conversations about race here. At American University, students organized a protest and faculty and staff stood in solidarity with them. And the most powerful theological response I saw yesterday was from Rev. Jeff Hood:
"I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."
So I won't repeat things here that are being said, more eloquently and powerfully, by others.

What I will say is this:

We are in the season of Advent. And for many in the church--and I would include myself in this--Advent has a tendency to be a warm and fuzzy time, a time of nostalgia and decorations and hot cocoa.

And yet the stories of Advent are stories of a place 5,900 miles away, in an occupied land groaning under the weight of oppressive political structures, violent policing, and economic injustice.

We sing "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie;" but last time I was in Bethlehem it was anything but still: fighter jets thundered overhead, practicing for an assault on Gaza.We sing "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan," distancing ourselves from the actual land from whence our Christian narrative emerged. We sing "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel;" and I'd challenge you to travel 5,900 miles and witness those who are locked in captivity, often with no trial, right now.

Our first gospel reading in Advent (Mark 13:24-37) tells of Jesus speaking to his disciples while sitting on the Mount of Olives -- where I lived in Jerusalem. The second gospel reading is John baptizing in the river Jordan, calling for repentance, in an area now under complete Israeli military control. John the Baptist appears again in the third gospel reading, being challenged by religious authorities from Jerusalem. And then the fourth reading, an angel visiting Mary--Mary, who far from a wilting maiden, is the voice crying out to a God who "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly"(Luke 1:52) -- in Nazareth, now a majority-Arab city in the state of Israel whose growth is restricted by racist zoning laws.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

And then I glance at my news feed, 5,900 miles away from that place, and there it is, in the U.S., in our cities, and in our neighborhoods.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

Jesus who is saying, "I can't breathe."

Ask people where they have seen God in a particular day, and they are likely to tell you that they saw God in a beautiful sunset, or in the kindness of strangers, or in a moment of quiet reflection. And those are all good and true and beautiful places to see God.

But, as impossible as it seems, in Advent we look for God in the midst of the blood and the tears, in a world aching for justice and wholeness.

We are looking for Jesus there. Here.

And if faith is about hoping for the advent of the impossible, this impossible Messiah who comes to "lift up the lowly" and "fill the hungry with good things," to use Mary's words ...

... then maybe folks like me, who sound a lot more like the "proud" and the "powerful" and the "rich" of Mary's song, ought to be a bit less cozy and a bit more uncomfortable about celebrating this season of impossibility.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "INCONCEIVABLE!"

This is [a somewhat questionable post in] part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts!

I got nothing today, so I'm just gonna leave this here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Impossible Advent -- On Vision, of the tunnel, 20/20, and prophetic kinds

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from.

In November, in honor of my 30th birthday, I decided to launch a little fundraising page for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My goal was to get 30 people to each donate $30.

39 people donated a total of more than $1500, and I am feeling immensely, incredibly, impossibly grateful.

It would be hard to overstate how amazed I am. Just three years ago, my parents were picking me up at the end of a several-month stay at a hospital in Connecticut -- a stay that came at the end of several previous months of bouncing in and out of various psych wards. It was a very, very difficult time. And three years later, here I am, smiling in gratitude as I check the fundraising page that will do a little bit to support other people clawing their way through very, very difficult times.

Diane Ackerman writes of those going through such difficult times: "But suicidal people have tunnel vision--no other choice seems possible. A counselor's job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel."

Looking back, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I can see just how right she is. During those 6 months in and out of hospitals, I remember how lonely I felt, how isolated, how convinced I was that nobody would care if I was gone, that in fact being gone would be better for the people that I could vaguely remember loving.

I was blessedly, decisively wrong. I was surrounded, during all that time and the years after, by the best support system that anyone has the right to ask for. Friends, family, and faith communities have lavished me with love and affirmation. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I just couldn't see it at the time.

At the time, my vision was a tunnel, and I couldn't see any light at the end.

Without making too light a comparison, I wonder what this human capacity for tunnel vision says about how we, as a species, view our world. I wonder how much we are all susceptible to that tunnel of despair, that tunnel that makes it impossible to imagine alternatives, or choices, or a better ending to our story.

I wonder if a hopeful vision of the future--the kind of vision spoken of by the prophet Habakkuk--requires exactly the sort of windows-and-doors imagination that Ackerman refers to in her work with those grappling with suicidal feelings. The cultivation of an imagination of what seems, in our tunnel-vision reality, impossible.

And perhaps some day, when we have lived into this sort of seemingly-impossible vision, we will look back on our tunnel vision days and, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, wonder aloud to ourselves:

"How could we not see it, way back then?"


The Diane Ackerman quote is from her essay in Paul Rogat Loeb's book, The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Impossible Advent - "The Impossible Will Take a Little While"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from. 

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help
  and you will not listen?
Or cry to you 'Violence!'
  and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
  and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
  strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
  and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous --
  therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
                       -- from the writings of the prophet Habakkuk

I haven't really known what to say about Ferguson.

Or, to be more accurate, I haven't really known what to say that wasn't already being said, in one form or another, sometimes fiercely, sometimes eloquently, often both, by many other people with quicker reaction times and deeper wells of experience than me. (If you're looking for some of those deeper wells, might I suggest the Theology of Ferguson page?)

Posting this quote from Habakkuk on Facebook was about all I could muster last week, but of course a few verses on a Facebook wall does not deep, lasting change make.

I always have this struggle -- this feeling that others are already saying what needs to be said, better than I could. I'm not trying to excuse myself here: walking across campus today and seeing the students gathered in front of the student center in a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose reminded me of how important it is to speak up:

Students at American University chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"
So these verses from Habakkuk keep echoing in my mind, these words of a prophet who seems at the end of words, who exists in what Howard Thurman, in his commentary on the book, calls a "mood of despair." Justice is perverted, and I don't know what to say, and by not saying anything I'm complicit.

God answers Habakkuk's despairing plea; but as I've reflected on elsewhere, it's hard to be content with God's response:

"Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay."

Not much comfort for those who are sick and tired of waiting.

Dr. Thurman is, as usual, helpful: "The reason for this necessity [of waiting] is made obvious....The vision may not come to pass as quickly as is expected. Here we are face to face with the ever-present problem of timing in relation to ends. The acuteness of human need at any moment may cry out for immediate release, immediate action at the point of urgency. Because the help does not come in accordance with our own timetables, we seem driven to conclude that it will not come at all--or if it does, that it will be too late." In contrast, Thurman describes what he calls "the waiting in anticipation": "Such is the waiting of the righteous, so the prophet insists. It is alert, charged with expectation. It is on tiptoe."

For Thurman, waiting has nothing to do with passivity. It is, to paraphrase the words of Jesus from yesterday's lectionary texts, a quality of alertness: alert to the impossible possibilities stirring under the despairing surface. Or, in Twitterspeak: #StayWoke

The author and activist Paul Rogat Loeb, in the introduction to his book The Impossible Will Take A Little While, writes; "History...shows that even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long period of time." Loeb is right. The impossible does, indeed, take a little while. So there is, to again quote Thurman, "the quality of relentlessness, ceaselessness and constancy" to the type of waiting that God calls Habakkuk to take on.

I haven't known what to say about Ferguson, as I often don't know what to say when the violent systems that often operate invisibly--at least, invisible to me and to others who are shielded by our privilege--reassert themselves in overt fashion.

But I am reminded by Habakkuk, by Loeb, and by Thurman, that if the impossible does, indeed, take a little while, that it is likely to start with small, seemingly futile steps:

Students standing together and chanting.
The slow work of creating safe spaces.
The steady growth of boundary-breaking empathy.
Owning my own silence.
Writing --
    -- if not a vision --
         -- then something, at least.

References to Howard Thurman are from his exposition of Habakkuk in The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 979ff; and from Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United, 2000). Reference to Paul Rogat Loeb from The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). References to Jesus are from the Gospel of Mark. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Impossible Advent

"For what is religion...if not a love for the advent of the impossible, the unconditional, the undeconstructible, where our hearts long to go with a desire beyond desire and a hope against hope?" -- Phil Snider, Preaching After God

Today, the church enters into the season of Advent, a churchy-word that means just what it means: Advent. Arrival. Coming.

Advent is often mistaken for the prologue to Christmas, but that's not quite right -- the name of the season comes from the Latin adventus, which is in turn a translation of the Greek parousia, a term that usually refers to the traditional Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ. So Advent isn't a breathless buildup to the "real event" of Christmas day. It's actually a time of slowing down, of paying attention, to the signs of the advent--the arrival--of Christ, not just in the celebration of Christmas, but in our very midst.

But it's hard to slow down and to pay attention right now, to prepare quietly and introspectively to invite Christ into our spare rooms. Hard to imagine readying a space for Jesus in the midst of the injustice, violence, rank materialism, and racism that have [once again] splashed across news feeds and TV screens over the past week. Hard to justify looking for a space for reflection when there is so much to be done, so many calls for action and righteous response.

Not just hard. Almost impossible.

I've been reading a book called Preaching After God, by pastor and theologian Phil Snider. Snider attempts to bring some of the insights of post-modern philosophy to bear on the task of preaching in a congregation where doubt and questions are welcome, where, to use his words, "listeners...believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time." And I stumbled on the quote that began this post, in which he calls religion "a love for the advent of the impossible."

Advent is a season of expecting the impossible. And it is exactly against a backdrop of injustice and violence and unrest that we tell the stories of this season, stories of hope stirring in the deep, dark waters of hopelessness.

What impossible things might be arriving in our midst this season? What seemingly absurd hopes might be stirring even now, in the wake of yet more bad news, more infuriating reality checks to the myth of inevitable progress?

What might it mean to observe an impossible Advent?

Over the next four weeks, I'm going to reflect on some of these questions. Some of these little pieces might be explicitly religious; others, perhaps not. Some will be responses to the urgent events of the world, and some will step back from the urgency. Some will be quite concrete; others, perhaps a bit meta.

But I hope that they'll help stir up hope.

Hope in the midst of whatever it is you carry with you these days, whether you "believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time."

Hope in the advent, in the arrival, of the impossible.

Monday, November 3, 2014

"The Noonday Demon" -- a sermon about mental illness

This is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago at one of our Thursday night healing services in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. It's based on Psalm 91, and it focuses on mental illness. I've included the text, but the audio clip below actually extends beyond my written manuscript -- I got a bit more personal at the end when during the actual service. 


I miss Robin Williams.
To be honest, I usually get sort of annoyed about the media coverage surrounding celebrity deaths. With so much tragedy and heartbreak in the world, it always seems a bit unfair that we get so focused on the death of someone just because they’ve been in movies; and I always wonder how the families and friends of famous folks feel about all of the attention paid to them during such a personal, painful time.
But Robin Williams. I grew up with Robin Williams. He was the genie in Aladdin; he was Mrs. Doubtfire; he was O captain, my captain. Mr. Williams made a lot, a lot, a lot of people laugh; and he made quite a few of us cry, too. And I have to admit that when I heard that he had died, and that it was likely he had killed himself, I had the same reaction that a lot of other folks had: “How could someone who made so many people happy be in so much pain?”
Of course, speculations flew, and there was a lot of talk about Mr. Williams’ past struggles with drug use, health problems, and depression.
It’s important for me to say, before I go on, that we don’t actually know whether Mr. Williams had a diagnosis of depression or of bipolar disorder, and honestly maybe it’s none of our business. But for folks who do have such a diagnosis, Williams’ self-description of his emotional swings, the intensity of his highs and his lows, sound very, very familiar. How can someone who made so many people happy, who seemed to be such a bright light, be in so much pain?
As it turns out, it’s awfully, awfully common. There is a type of anguish, a type of suffering that lurks in the wings of some of our personal theaters, immune to lights or to applause. There is a type of pain that is able to live on in the daylight.
It’s often very, very difficult for people to talk about a pain like that. The church has, unfortunately, played no small role in the creation of the kind of societal stigma that makes mental health challenges particularly hard for people to share about. The journalist Andrew Solomon writes, quite bluntly, that “The rise of Christianity was highly disadvantageous to depressives.”[i] The church often equated mental illness with demon possession and thus with sin, moral failing, or a lack of faith. In the Middle Ages, theologians and church authorities used the expression, “the noonday demon,” to refer to the phenomenon we might call depression. Their solution? Manual labor, isolation, or intensified ascetic practice.[ii]
The phrase, “noonday demon,” comes from the Latin translation of the Psalm we heard read tonight. In the Common English translation we heard the Psalmist say: “Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, arrows that fly in daylight, or sickness that prowls in the dark, destruction that ravages at noontime.” In the Latin Vulgate translation, that last line is “daemonio meridiano.” According to Andrew Solomon, church authors seized on the phrase to describe: “the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God.”[iii]
Solomon’s book on the topic of depression is called The Noonday Demon. He explains why:
I have taken the phrase as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to seem them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.[iv]

I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to you, either from firsthand experience or from the accounts of someone close to your heart. A recent annual survey by the American College Health Association reported that 30% of college students have felt “’so depressed that it was difficult to function’ at some time over the past year.”[v] The Mayo Clinic now has a section on its website dedicated specifically to college depression.[vi] The number of students seeking counseling for "severe" psychological problems jumped from 16 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2012; the percentage of students who report suicidal thoughts has risen along with it.[vii] And according to Emory University, 1 in 10 college students have made a plan for suicide during their undergrad years. Emory reports that there are about 1,000 suicides on college campuses across the country in a given year.[viii] College students – students such as you – are, it seems, no strangers to the noonday demon.
          And if that’s the case – if the noonday demon, the sort of personal darkness that seems immune to even the brightest of lights, stalks its way across our campus – then we, as a community of faith, need some sort of way to confront it.
          As I said before, the way that the church has tended to deal with mental illness and anguish in the past has been to ignore or to stigmatize it, to associate it with demon possession or laziness or personal sin. So part of what’s required is for us to roll back that stigma, to bring what has been hidden in the shadows out into the light. Just having a conversation about mental illness, just naming it as something that can be talked about, helps.
          But if the thing we’re talking about is capable of doing its damage, even in the light, then more is needed. What do we do? What do we say, when people we know – the people on our hallways or in our classrooms or in our worship services – seem to be drowning?
           Early on in the first three gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Jesus is baptized by John. And we are told that the skies open up and that the voice of God declares Jesus to be beloved of God. Can you imagine that kind of assurance – a voice from heaven saying that you are loved, that you are valued and cared for and accepted?
          And in each and every one of those stories, Jesus immediately finds himself in a wilderness, hungry, alone, and haunted by a demon who is immune to daylight.
          Jesus, we are told, was tempted by the devil. And in Matthew and Luke, where we are given some details about this temptation, the devil appears quoting the Psalm that we heard tonight, Psalm 91. Matthew’s gospel, for examples, tells us: “The devil brought Jesus into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written –and he quotes the psalm – I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” Jesus’ tempter says, “Have faith, Jesus. If you’re so high, so beloved – if you’re here, literally at such a high point, at the pinnacle of this holy place, go ahead and throw yourself down.”
          I don’t think that the devil makes people kill themselves. I don’t think mental illness is caused by literal demon possession. But it sure does sound familiar to me – a voice that can come to you even when you’ve just been told how loved you are, that can make you feel lonely and isolated, make you doubt your mission and your passion and your identity. It might not have horns and a tail and a pitchfork, but that voice is very real.
          What is notable about the story, I think, when it comes to how we relate to those in our lives who are wrestling with the noonday demon, is that the devil shows up to test Jesus’ faith, and what Jesus says is in response is, “Don’t put God to the test.” A test, as it turns out, is not what people need when they’re feeling alone in wilderness places. They don’t need a test of faith. They don’t need to be told that if they just tried harder or just prayed harder or just thought more positively that they would feel better. They don’t need judgment. They need acceptance. Friendship. Companionship.
           John Swinton is a theologian who also works as a community health chaplain in Scotland. He writes of the importance of friendship in reclaiming the personhood of those struggling with mental illness: “Unlike many agents with whom people with mental health problems may come into contact, the task of the Christlike friend is not to do anything for them, but rather to be someone for them—someone who understands and accepts them as a person; someone who is with and for them in the way that God is also with and for them; someone who reveals the nature of God and the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in a form that is tangible, accessible, and deeply powerful.”[ix]
          Ultimately, what the psalm we read tonight witnesses to is a God who is with and for us. And so we, too, are called to be with and to be for those who are suffering. Perhaps someone you know, or perhaps you, are feeling the pressure of always having to be on, always having to be up, when they or you are really feeling the sort of anguish that seems immune to even the brightest light. And there are many, many resources on this campus and in the wider community that can help. But it starts with a simple commitment, for each of us as individuals and for this community, to reach out to those who are grappling with the noonday demon. To be with them. To be for them. To be friends.

[i] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 292.
[ii] Ibid., 292-293.
[iii] Ibid., 293.
[iv] Ibid.  
[ix] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People With Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 143.