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. 

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