Isaiah 40

God of all life, God of my life,
Whisper a word that I am longing to hear:
of solace,
of hope,
of love,
of a new day.
Fill me up where I feel poured out.
Do not let your servant falter;
give me your strength to run.

God of grace and strength,
Grant us all legs and hands and voices
to care,
to build,
to heal,
to do the daily work.
Save us from our idols of self-sufficiency.
Encourage us to risk a new vision
of living fully for one another, fully for you.

LAMENT: Trusting God’s Goodness

In the world of facebook, many of my clergy colleagues have been posting on their statuses: “Pat Robertson does not speak for me,” an important affirmation that hateful (ignorant, racist, bitter, inane, homophobic, sexist, self-important, life-defeating, godless) language that is spoken by a self-professed Christian does not mean that it is, in fact, Christian language.

I take serious issue, alongside my colleagues, with Pat Robertson’s recent statements regarding the devastation in Haiti (and with many other things that Robertson says), for all of the reasons noted parenthetically above and for theological reasons as well. As one colleague posted on facebook, “Robertson does not speak for me. Robertson does not speak for God.”

Robertson’s remarks do not reflect my theology of a God of grace…nor do they reflect my theology of a God of judgment and justice (a congruous theology of divine roles, contrary to popular opinion). But I find that Robertson’s comments also do a grave injustice to the ancient and deeply faithful practice of lament—an issue that is absent from facebook statuses and the blogs that I frequent.

By blaming the earthquake’s devastation on Haitians’ ancestors—or blaming Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 on gays and abortions—Robertson denies and demeans our common need for lament. He attempts to cut off the necessary space within Christian faith for wailing to and at God (1), and for anguished reflection on the nature of God and the nature of humanity (2).

(1) As part of the life of faith, lament draws us closer to God as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death—not further away, as one might think—because in lament we pour out all of our grief and rage directly to God, like a child who kicks and cries in torment to her mother because she knows that her mother is the safest outlet for all of her childhood angst. We cry aloud and beat our breasts (or we sit in stunned silence) before God, because the devastation of an earthquake is God-level stuff…and because we trust that God can handle it. No need to rationalize that a travesty is somehow part of God’s plan; God can handle the irrationality of the world, the intensity of human pain, and the anger of our prayers. (There are reasons why God is God!) Robertson’s God, it would seem, cannot handle human accusations, so Robertson attempts to divert our suspicion and blame away from God to—in this case—Haiti’s history and its complex religious traditions.

(2) Lament, as a faith-filled response to horrific events, is the necessary (albeit difficult) space in our religious tradition for theological/critical reflection on who we are and who God is. The lamentations throughout scripture often include an element of confession—not a scapegoating “confession” as we hear from Robertson, but self-revealing confession. For example, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts…or else my wrath will go forth like fire” (Jeremiah 4:3-4). “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-13).

Sidebar: check out John Stewart’s The Daily Show from 1/14/10 for a fantastic, if irreverent, reflection on who we are and who God is.

It is not Robertson’s place to “confess” (scapegoat) any supposed sin of the Haitians to satisfy his image of a judging God. It is his place—and ours, living in an industrialized and market-driven nation—to confess our collective sin of selfishness and neglect of our neighbors, to put sackcloth on ourselves (not on others), and to amend our ways—immediately and generously—even as we add our own voices to Haiti’s lament, trusting that God hears us and that God’s goodness is sure:

When people don’t understand life, they say things like:

“It’s for the best!” and

“We’ll see it clearly, someday.”

But I want to know, where is God?

Where is God when innocence is infested?
Where is God when dreams are scattered?
Where is God when potential is interrupted?

I once thought that chaos and evil and death
were the doings of people.
But I guess that sometimes God just says,

“I’ll sit this one out.”

And life is abandoned, and God is at fault.

Tears go uncomforted.
Wounds are not healed.
And God is silent.

Where is God when sorrow wallows and anger festers?
Where are the promises?
Where is the palm of God’s hand?
Where is the one who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs?

Where is God?

The Church as the Woman at the Well

I’ve been pondering what makes any given congregation feel vital and vibrant, a living and active part of the Body of Christ. Now, an abundance of programs and professionals currently thrive on the business of shaping & encouraging life within congregations—my home congregation participates in one such program, with valuable insights gained and wonderful results seen. Although I am a church professional, I am not one of these Church Professionals, so I offer these observations primarily as a church goer and church lover (though my “pastor voice” is never far behind!).

On occasion, I have the opportunity to worship outside of my own congregation. Although I’m prone to extreme academic analysis (during worship, naturally) of a congregation’s homiletic and liturgical traditions, I also pay close attention to my personal, emotional & spiritual experience of worship and the church’s environment. How do I feel in this space? How do the words and hymns settle in my spirit? What resonates, and what does not? How do I experience the interactions with people here?

The experience of aliveness in a congregation—by member and visitor alike—is both personal and communal, highly subjective and occasionally objective. In the jumble of understanding such a mixed experience, those of us in the church often turn to scripture; for me, thinking about living church has led me to reflect upon living water…and the biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus (John 4). What makes a church living, and what lends itself to my experience of that congregation as a place of living water? What makes a church—not dead, no, the opposite of “living” in this instance is “dry”—and what contributes to my feeling that a congregation is a dry well (at least for me)?

John 4:6-7. “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.'” Living Church observation #1: The person who asks for a drink—the member or visitor who comes to a church for spiritual refreshment through worship, education and fellowship—is always Jesus. Think Matthew 25:35. My experience of vitality in churches is immediately & intuitively assessed by my experience of people caring for one another (or not) as Jesus in their midst.

Here the subjectivity of experiencing congregational vitality is obvious: church members may feel deeply cared for within their own space among familiar faces, and therefore members experience strong vitality in their home church…yet a visitor can experience this communal bond as a barrier between the insiders (members) and outsiders (newcomers). Or, a visitor may feel warmly welcomed and invited into that system of support. Or, a visitor may experience an overbearing welcome (it’s possible) in which the congregation—supposed to be an avenue for Living Water—becomes itself the one that is thirsty and needs the visitor to supply the water (“Oh, thank goodness, a fresh face!”).

John 4:17-18. “Jesus said to her, ‘What you have said is true!'” Living Church observation #2: I experience spiritual vitality in a space where I can be who I am, as I am…whether at home, with close friends, or at church. The conversation between the woman and Jesus at the well is very candid and (as I read it) non-judgmental. Vibrant congregations welcome and make space for honesty with one another, honesty with God, honesty with ourselves: who we are, as we are, as we are becoming.

If however, when Jesus is among us and in one another at church, we feel the need to put on our best airs and hide our brokenness…well, pshaw…life is missing! (That said, kindness and grace are always appreciated, especially in church committee meetings!)

John 4:11-12 and 28-29. “The woman said to him, ‘Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?’ … Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'” Living Church observation #3: A vibrant and relevant church knows its history and sees its future. The woman at the well—the Church—knows the marker of her religious and cultural traditions (Jacob’s well: past) and she accepts new growth/revelation for her faith (Jesus the Messiah: future).

Now truthfully, this observation reflects my church professional voice, and my joy in building a congregation’s familiarity with its past and discernment for its future. If we assume the past/future work to be ongoing for a congregation, then we can focus on the woman’s action in the present: proclamation. Here my “church professional” observations can be set aside (sort of) to consider my observations as a church goer and church lover: What do I discover about a congregation by listening to what it’s proclaiming—both within its doors and outside of them? How do I feel invited and encouraged to proclaim alongside a particular church community as an activity of my faith?

We each experience the aliveness of a congregation in very individual ways, and the “fit” with one’s chosen congregation varies for reasons that can be measured and explained…and for many reasons that cannot be articulated: gut instinct, “mood” and language of worship, our own moods on any given day, the season of life in a church, etc. For me, a congregation is vibrant when it imitates the woman at the well: visibly caring for Jesus by refreshing one another, creating safe space for honest relationships (including relationship with God), and actively proclaiming good news.

Shine On!

The LORD God prays over the people:

Shine on, oh my people!**
Shine on through the winter nights of your spirit,
through the bitterness of the world’s hardships.
Be beautiful and brave when you feel least so.
Carry on when the strength is not in you.
Let the Light of the World shine through your brokenness
and warm you like a blazing fire.
Shine on!

Shine on, oh my daughters and sons!
Shine on in the desolate corridors of governmental injustice,
breaking through the shiny steel towers of cultural greed.
Be mouthy and sharp-tongued when truth is obscured.
Carry on with the light that has been given to you.
Let the Light of the World burn through red tape
and build love like a raging flood.
Shine on!

**”Shine on,” lyrical refrain from Michael Franti & Spearhead’s song “Crazy, Crazy, Crazy” on the album, Everyone Deserves Music.