Every generation has its crisis(es) moment(s). Throughout history, people have lamented that “it’s never been as bad as this.” I found an article that a Robert Wilson wrote in his column, “From Bob's Cluttered Desk,” that reminded me that, at times, it’s actually been worse. Consider these very Amero-centric crises (with a few of my own thrown in):
· Our country was partially founded upon the near-genocide of one race and the enslavement of another.
· The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was actually a coup, in that it developed documents and systems that completely threw out an existing but failing government structure.
· In 1804, a sitting Vice-President of the United States shot and killed the nation's first Treasury Secretary. (To put that in modern day terms: it would be as if Vice-President Mike Pence shot Bush-era Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.)
· More than 1,264,000 Americans have died fighting wars. The Civil War (1861-65) accounts for over 620,000 of those lives.
· The Depression.
· Two World Wars.
· JFK's assassination.
· MLK's assassination.
· Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
It does not diminish the pain we are going through now:
· Church and societal polarization over sexuality
· The Pandemic of COVID-19
· Watching a trusted police officer put his knee on a man’s neck until he died
· Political and ideological tribalism being placed above kinship and friendship
When people hurt, their emotions become involved. When our emotions become involved, we lash out: sometimes with righteous indignation, other times with angst and fear. We lament. Before you say that’s a foreign concept for us Jews or Christians, consider:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Now, your grandmother may have said, “Don’t be wishing hateful things on others,” but the psalmist certainly didn’t have any trouble doing it: he prayed revenge on the Babylonians, that someone might take their babies and kill them all. The psalmist wasn’t just pissed off, the psalmist was morally outraged: Jerusalem had been destroyed. They had been exiled. They lamented.
Moral outrage isn’t new; abolitionist Frederick Douglas even wrote a speech based on Psalm 137 entitled, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" making the point that it was similar to asking the Jews “to sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land,” thus humiliating them and adding insult to injury. He lamented.
We are living in difficult times. But we have been here before. The only thing unique about it is that it’s happening to us, in our time. We lament.
My denomination was set to split at General Conference 2020, except that it didn’t because the COVID-19 pandemic came upon the world. So our angst was delayed. The pandemic meant that we could not (safely) be about our business as usual, we could not (safely) worship, so we have been forced to be creative… yet feel stifled… about how we live, work, and worship. So more angst piled upon angst delayed. Worse, during all of this we as a nation witnessed a terrible act of aggression and racism, causing more (and justified) angst. It’s even difficult to know how to react or demonstrate, as ethical questions we have never been faced with now confront us: is it ok to risk endangering the lives of others during a pandemic to demonstrate against racism? What an unholy and difficult decision for some.
Our angst keeps on piling up. After a while it is easy to pray, think, and say anything about each other, whether we know the truth or not, whether it is righteous or not. We’ll say it on social media. We’ll text or email others. We’ll say in front of some and behind the backs of others. That’s how we lament. It’s not right, but we all do it.
A year ago, I honestly thought that the local church I serve was going to be split along the lines of our denominational struggle with sexuality. I wondered how to pastor a very diverse, non-homogenous church through that struggle, knowing that I was sent here to pastor all of the church and not just some of it. That struggle was soon yesterday's news as we began a new struggle about how many worship services to have and what one – or two – services should look like where music and style are concerned. That struggle became moot when the pandemic forced us to worship online, and now our future struggle will be - at least for several months or years - how MANY worship services will it take for all of us to (safely) worship in place? Since I’m not a doctor, I have to trust those who are for guidance.
Frustration. Angst. Lament.
Now the struggle has shifted to “where are we in the midst of this terrible time in our country and where are our pastors?” Over the weekend, the struggles have been:
· Is our church organizing a march? (The answer was/is no, but several in our church invited others to join them in previously planned marches and demonstrations – which is ok).
· Why can people gather to demonstrate but we can’t worship together? (Doing either in a pandemic is risky behavior. We’re supposed to stand up for the oppressed. We’re also supposed to protect each other’s health. I don’t know a good answer to this one.)
· Why aren’t our pastors at demonstrations? (They’ve been at some, but not all.)
· Why are our pastors at demonstrations? (They haven’t been to all of them, but they went to stand with those who are hurting and wanting justice for all.)
· Why do we have any racial demonstrations at all, we are all one in Christ? (Good point, I wish we could actually act as one in Christ).
· By the way, what are we doing about the homeless and needy? Are we turning people away? (The answer is no). Are we enabling poor behavior and making it hard by not cooperating with our other Downtown agencies? (The answer is also, no. We work closely with other agencies and have each other’s backs).
These are real issues. They are real painful issues. As Eddie and I talk about these things we realize that it is difficult to balance the scriptures that tell us “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” with “What good is it if someone says they have faith but do not have works?” All of us wrestle with what is the right thing to do. Being a Downtown church is messy. Being the body of Christ amidst those from diverse backgrounds is messier, still. We lament.
Politics and taking political sides will not fix this. It is good to know what you believe, but Jesus was clear that Caesar is not our Master. God does not make cookie-cutter disciples and Christians, as our differences from each other are our gifts to each other. For every Peter there is a Paul. For every Martha there is a Mary. We need to celebrate that, not lament.
Determining the number of worship services will not fix this. A vaccine will not fix this. Splitting a denomination will not fix this. A new president or re-election of a president will not fix this. The only thing that can “fix” what ails us is the grace, peace, and love of Jesus Christ. We are still not practicing this as well as we could – hence our angst. Our only healing will come by practicing the faith.
To be clear: racism is wrong. It always has been. It always will be. God will not condone us mistreating, much less killing, a child of God made in God’s image. Our history in the United States, even in the Church, even in the Methodist Church – is tainted with the stain of racism. Have I done racist things? Yes - sometimes aware, sometimes unaware. Do I consider myself a racist today? No. Is that good enough? No. I have to move beyond just not being a racist; I have to become an anti-racist. Christ demands no less than that. We are neither male or female, we are neither black or white, but we are one in Christ Jesus. The Scriptures are clear. Long before the Pledge of Allegiance, our faith demands that we live with liberty and justice for all. It is past time that we live out both our baptismal vows and our Pledge of Allegiance.
Striving to be that, anything else we fuss or complain about ought to pale by comparison. If someone wants to march, pray for them as they make a public witness. If someone chooses not to march, assume not the worst but the best - that they may be praying and acting in secret as our Father rewards in secret. If we are doing neither, may God have mercy on our souls for our inaction.
Brothers and sisters: life is short. Be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.