The Blacksmith’s Garden

**Note: This piece first appeared as a guest blog via the kindness and generosity of Zack Hunt on his blog at  http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/  Zack is rather amazing: great heart and humor and lover of Jesus and neighbor (an uncommon & wonderful combination!) You should really do yourself a favor and check out his blog. Just subscribe. You’ll be glad you did. I post this, as I recover from some health challenges and, honestly, it remains a piece that still ministers to me. I hope you find some meaning and blessing here also**

 

The Blacksmith’s Garden – By Preetamdas Kirtana

(H/T)

When I was a child growing up in Pentecostal churches the phrase “turn or burn” meant mouthing a panicked sinner’s prayer or burning eternally in the Monster God’s hellfire. Today as my heart breaks again for my friend, Jerry, that phrase unexpectedly returned to my mind. Less than a month ago Jerry lost his beloved brother suddenly in an accident. Today, just minutes ago, Jerry emailed me that his sister, the remaining half of his spiritual arsenal; his shield that had worked in conjunction with the sword that his brother had been, has received another diagnosis of cancer. And what can I say? “My God,” is absolutely all I can think as the tears well up and trace the paths of their countless predecessors: tears of pain and joy, of loss and gratitude, tears of questions with no answer whatsoever, tears when there are no words left at all. I weep. I cry silently and then I notice a peculiar emptiness.

I don’t know what to do except pray, even if it’s only these simple, desperate words, “My God.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing and that’s where the emptiness is – right there: right where a loud, accusatory, and raging “WHY?!” would have been before. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m not doing at least right now, in just this moment, is not asking why. This leaves this space vacant, empty; this space where previously tough resentment, hard obstacles, and heart-high walls have been hammered into fine, glistening, repellent fashion by a blacksmith of isolation whose every challenge and loss blew like bellows into the toxic fire of “whys” and bitter “One day…” threats. Oh, the smoke from the noxious flames always sent signals of alarm and distressed calls for rescue, but without fail anyone, anyone, even God, who cared enough to get close enough to help, also got close enough to get burned. But now, now a cool wind blows through the blacksmith’s darkened shop and the anvil looks more like an altar. Without the the echo of the hammer and the crackle and spit of the fire I hear “turn or burn,” which, frankly, with it’s brimstone baggage seems like damn cold comfort. But on the next breeze that stirs old ash, also comes a fresh understanding in this hallowed out space. If we can, through resistance and ritual, with white knuckles and bended knee, through sometimes saltine-dry prayers and sobbing surrender, if we can just empty the space, if we can just turn from any and all questions of “why?” even for a moment, lay down the bellows, douse the fire, take off the apron and sit, we sometimes notice, perhaps in the cooler corner opposite the old furnace, a tiny green sprouting intruder of trust. It’s a strange and welcome sight, though more than a little perplexing as all I’ve really known is blacksmithing. I don’t know nothing about gardening.

I’ve grown skilled in burning offenses, glowing hot resentments, cauterized wounds, and throwing relationships like kindling. I know nothing of growing something new and tender green. The wonder of the tiny sprig of trust with it’s reaching roots and the wonder of my own unknowing amid the smell of soot and ash lights this new understanding of “turn or burn.” I can burn with questions of why. I can be consumed by the fires of needing reasons and in believing that in each denial and in every loss that my answers are gone or I can turn toward my complete unknowing, my complete lack of questions and also toward this love that has been likened to a great, Good Shepherd, this gentle, determined Gardner, who asks me, as He asked Mary, with the tomb behind her and the garden before her,

“Why are you crying?”

“They’ve taken my answers and even my questions,” I reply.

But then, in the stillness of the glory of this single seedling of trust, hardly a garden, He speaks my name.

He speaks my name and, like Mary, the Knowing of His Spirit within me springs forth and answers,

“Rabboni! Teacher!”

My Pentecostal training of “turn or burn” left my soul’s only option for vocation as blacksmith but my not knowing is, with bleeding hands and soiled knees, preparing me to be, finally, a Gardner’s apprentice, a Rabbi’s ragamuffin disciple, a faltering, failed, trembling, and faithful child of God.

But without answers and without even questions, how does that help Jerry? What does that leave me to offer my frightened and grieving friend? What it leaves is something better than answers that never helped even when they came. It leaves me brokenhearted, but faithful and willing to weep and wait in the garden outside empty tombs with the brokenhearted and weeping and waiting and to listen for the Gardner, ready to recognize the Teacher, to sit together in our unknowing until Daybreak dries our tears and we feel That Which We Felt Was Lost rise up within us and we know resurrection.

That’s all we have: brokenness, hope, and glory.

– See more at: http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/#sthash.WxURtDn9.dpuf

Save the Date: Friday, May 8 & Sat. May 9th: Author Shawn Smucker reading & writing workshop

When a summer thunderstorm drives 12-year-old Samuel Chambers into a local antique shop, he finds himself watching through a crack in the door as three old fortune tellers from a visiting fair scratch a message onto the surface of a table: “Find the Tree of Life.” Tragedy strikes his family less than 24 hours later, and as those words echo in his mind he realizes that Finding the Tree of Life is his only hope. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict, and a series of strange events leads them closer to the Tree, closer to reversing the tragedy that took place. Can death be defeated? But as his own personal quest unfolds, Samuel comes face to face with a deeper, more difficult question: Could it be possible that death is a gift?

Friday, May 8th, 2015

6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Join Shawn Smucker, author of “The Day the Angels Fell”

for a reading/talk and book signing.

$5.00 cash or check donation requested (more appreciated, a portion of proceeds benefit our Social Outreach/St. Martin’s Hospitality Center)

Refreshments afterwards.

Child care provided.

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Join author, Shawn Smucker for Writing Workshop

“The Power of Story and Our Power to Write a New Story: Righting Our Way through Grief & Everything Else”

EVERYONE is welcome and encouraged to join us for this workshop focusing on the transformative power of story in our lives and in our hands. You don’t need to consider yourself a “writer” to attend. Everyone can benefit from this experiential workshop.

$20.00 donation requested (more appreciated)

Space limited. Please r.s.v.p. PreetamDas at pk.jaihanuman@gmail.com by Friday, May 1st to reserve a spot. No payment is required to reserve your spot. Payment by cash or check only accepted at the workshop.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1505280443/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk

http://www.shawnsmucker.com

The Resurrection…From the Back Pew

*one truly from the archives: circa 2004, but hey, it’s lighter! In-joy

My second cousin came to my very first public reading of my writing. In one of the pieces I read, I spoke openly about how dire my financial situation was at the time of that recently written essay. After the show, she, her mother, and sister showered me with congratulations and hugs. Then, her mother slipped some money into my pocket against my protests and her daughter planned a day to take me to the grocery and asked if I needed to do laundry. I pulled her close and said into her ear, “You have no idea. My socks actually stand upright in the corner, without me in them!” She laughed and we set a date to begin the mountain of laundry. This kind, generous gesture was made even more disarming by the fact that my cousin and I had enjoyed virtually no contact for years, despite living in the same city.

Two days later I stood in her kitchen as she began to cook and the first of the ‘winter laundry’ began to spin. I asked about her job and she explained that she hadn’t returned to work since the birth of her now toddler son, Little Joe. Her time was consumed daily by tending to the needs of her son and by occasional volunteer work. One of her volunteer activities is being a precinct judge and officiating at voting sites during elections. Now, after all these long years, my cousin came out to me. I had, of course, suspected, even knew this in the back of my mind. But, well, to hear her say it right out loud, well, it still cut like a knife. All the tell-tale signs had been there. She is white, very, very, white actually, married with a kid, and drives . . . a mini-van. We share an ol’-time Pentecostal religion upbringing and she still attends weekly services locally. Her family, with their backyard deck and two car garage, appear to enjoy middle-class status. Perhaps, even more telling, is her family’s holiday tradition of sending out those family update form letters that detail all of the family tragedies and triumphs with photographs since the previous Christmas. All of these signs and red flags and I chose to remain in denial, until she said it again, “Of course, being REPUBLICAN, I said that of course, I wanted the Bush campaign sign in our yard when they asked down at the headquarters.” I turned my face away, knowing it would betray me and register the shock, pain, and repulsion that I felt at her declaration. The intensity of my response was surprising, even to me. Instantly I just wanted to leave. I wanted to pack my baker’s dozen or so bags of still dirty laundry back into the mini-van, return the groceries, and have her drive me back home in stony silence. I just wanted out. How DARE here extend such kindness: invite me into her home and then casually drop this bombshell! “Oh, by the way, I strike preemptively and deny you equal status under the law. Would you pass the gravy and those potato rolls?” Great. “Bring it on”, I’d reply. This was horrible, unbelievable. I wondered if she had told her mother. She must have. No wonder the woman has had so much trouble with her heart recently. It must be just killing her. After doing her level best to raise her daughter right, to now be faced with the dark reality of her being: a Republican.

A moment later I became aware of just how snug this shoe was on my other foot. What kind of a Falwellian bigot did I sound like? Next I would instigate panic and controversy by suggesting that she and “her kind” should not be allowed to teach or adopt children. Jesus wept! So much for building bridges. I remembered again the Walt Whitman quote, “We convince by our presence,” and I stayed, despite my initially deep internal resistance. I insisted that this kindness was too extravagant and that she should allow me to do something to express my gratitude. “I could . . . wash the mini-van. I could give you some money when I get paid on Friday.” She said ‘no’ repeatedly to all of my offers, then paused. “Well, there is one thing you could do.” “Sure, what is it?” “You could come to our Easter cantata at our church this Easter.” “Alright. Okay.” I had already said that I was usually off work on Sundays. No saves there. In my mind I calculated exactly how much time I had before Easter Sunday to catch something that would render me bed-ridden and a risk for contagion, but aloud I said, “I can do that.”

On Easter morning I sat next to my cousin as the Passion play unfolded. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount, turned water into wine, and calmed a raging storm at sea. I had visions of Ted Neeley and Mel Gibson and lamented my decision to smoke that joint before church. I can hardly stay awake. I finger my mala beads and pray to stay upright. Apparently, “cantata”, the word itself, is an ancient Latin word used only in certain religious sects and roughly translates to the equivalent of the Spanish word “siesta, or more accurately “coma”. Now, Christ was dying and I was surrounded by people who would wet themselves trying to decide whether to stone my because I had been a ‘rebellious child’ or because I’m a ‘homosexual’. My mouth was as dry as disciple’s sandal. Smoking weed before Easter service was not a good idea after all. It feels remotely inappropriate to be looking forward to the last supper so much. Maybe they’ll have communion. Wafers and juice. LOTS of wafers and juice. God, I could eat my hymnal. The munchies seem so ‘high school’ like hickies. Nevertheless, they’re here and I ask my cousin if maybe she has any little thing at all, in abundance, in that huge purse of hers to eat. She clears her throat. “PreetamDas”, she says, “this would be the crucifixion part.” I cast my eyes downward, then back to the stage and think to myself, “It’s the Passion play for Chrissake, the whole thing is the crucifixion part.”

The pre-recorded clap of thunder startles me awake from another 8 second, head-bobbing nap. Base begins to rumble from the speakers throughout the church, apparently signifying the saviors final breath on the cross. Lights flashed as the choir hummed ominously and then, suddenly, all went completely dark and silent. A hush fell over the darkened church auditorium, with the exception of random, muffled sobbing. The director held the moment, caressed the moment, then squeezed the silent, dark moment like a wet washcloth for all he was worth. When the lights came back up, Mary rushed out of a papier-mache tomb declaring that Christ’s body had been stolen and she darted up the path to tell the others. In a flash, a painted, transparent screen was whisked up in front of Mary to reveal a scarred, but resurrected Jesus. I had wondered how they would effect the resurrection. I ‘d had amusing fantasies of an unfortunate messiah crash landing into Pilate’s balcony as his Peter Pan wires got crossed.

But, as the director would have it, a veil was simply removed and Christ was revealed.

I decided not only that I appreciated this dramatic treatment, but also that perhaps this was also part of the message: Christ hadn’t flown in or even descended. His feet still touched the ground, yet He was risen. Having seen several Passion plays with my family on summer vacations, yep, including “Christ of the Ozarks, the “greatest story ever told” was not new to me. There was no surprise ending. What I did find useful was the reminder that right where we are at, feet on the ground, we are called to and able to rise. My cousin took my hand in hers and together, we sat there on our church pew, both a little bit risen.”

pdk archives March 25, 2004

“Hide & Seek: 5-10-15-20-Reach (out)”

My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:

My own Rx:

5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.

10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.

15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.

20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.

Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.

These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.

What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.

Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)

PreetamDas Kirtana
3/5/15

Just another thought: Thin ice & the Gospel

The more aware I become of how thin the ice is that we’re all skating on,
the heavier my heart and footsteps become. The more heavy-hearted I am,
the more plodding my steps, the more I risk breaking through the ice
and sinking into piercing cold and suffocating darkness.
From here, the only theology of “Good News” that matters
looks like a branch, a blanket, and an embrace.
Anything else is just more thin ice.

God in a Gay Bar

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God in a Gay Bar

She approached me in aisle two of the cold, harshly lit, toxic retail store I was working in, we’ll call it “Nature’s Nook”. Her elderly ​spandex vacuum packed legs tottered on heels. She literally clicked and teetered. She ​was, like much​​​ ​ of the​ population ​in the little resort town, mean, over-privileged, and way too precious​ . With her left hand she fingered the many glistening charms that dangled over the dark, leathery valley exposed by her sternum-brushing neckline. With her right hand she massaged her temp​le.​​

​”Do you have anything for a headache?”, she asked.

I considered suggesting white willow bark, butterbur, or one of the many formulas that the store sells.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an “ascension headache”, she added. “You know when the right and left sides of the brain are merging. When you’re ascending to the seventh level.”

Now I considered shaking her really hard. I guess it’s just a different definition of “ascension”. I think if we start to love justice, live more humbly, and care more about our neighbor, That would begin to look more like ascension, or at least rebirth, which would seem like a necessary foundation to any kind of ascension. But, if our neighbor is, at best, a peripheral annoyance and “God” is something removed from our neighbor and lodged somewhere in our own navel like fugitive belly button lint then that “ascension headache” is most likely the discomfort of our unreal but dangerously expanding ego threatening the capacity of our very real cranium. Too often here I find myself wanting, needing, praying for anyone to make sense: just a regular non-pendulum-swinging person suffering from a regular non-metaphysical, tension headache. It feels increasingly hopeless to even try to connect with those who have clearly and efficiently put so much effort into disconnecting. Continue reading God in a Gay Bar

Did I Tell You the One About…?

Did I Tell You the One About…

Since my head injury from our car accident nearly a year ago I’ve sought whatever treatment might provide some relief from the frequently debilitating pressure and pain in the vertebrae in my neck. Enough pain will make you experimental. Nothing that has promised even a little blessed relief has been ruled out. I’ve tried prayer and prescriptions, ice packs and heating pads. I’ve tried rubs, balms, and bathing in a plant called “buffalo gourds” by locals. I try to remember to breathe from my belly to encourage even a little relaxation and blood flow in my traumatized muscles. I’ve had ongoing physical therapy treatments that were for awhile interspersed with acupuncture treatments. I know. I couldn’t believe it either. I laid there the first time, with a dozen tiny needles inserted all over my body, stifling laughter after thinking to myself, “Dear God, I look like a gay voodoo doll.” I didn’t care anymore. If it stood any chance of relieving this chronic pain, if I thought it would actually help, I’d watch the Christian Broadcasting Network IN a sports bar WHILE accordion music played on a loop, even if I ground my teeth right down to dust as a result. I’d try it. Really. I mean it. At some point, it’s really only about relief.

Today I had another massage therapy appointment. As I took off my shirt and shoes I shared with the therapist how much better I was feeling than last week; not off medication and not without any pressure, but better, and even a little “better” means e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. She made some notes and I laid down on the massage table. She began massaging the painful muscles that had robbed me of so much of my regular little life this past year. Then, as I was asking her how her holidays had been, she put her finger on it. I stopped speaking mid-sentence, caught my breath, and as my eyes filled welled up with tears I said, “Dear God! Don’t move. What is that? Where are you? Show me what you’re doing” I asked and offered her my own hand so she could show me exactly where she was at so that I could hope to replicate this myself. Just the right amount of pressure that she was applying to just the right spot gave unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure that, even on a “good” day has become a fact of my everyday life. It made me at once sad and hopeful. It made me sad that I had grown so accustomed to nearly constant discomfort and, at the same time, it made me hopeful that it could be different, that I still could heal and relax back into what I had almost forgotten.

It was then that I thought again about what Tom had said yesterday. Tom is straight, late sixty-something I’d guess, a retired Teamster truck driver, a vet prone to faintly off-color jokes, and who, by his own admission, started coming to church at all to bring his wife. I adore him. Unlikely kindreds perhaps, but kindreds never find each other by sight alone. Without fail, when I see Tom, I can count on his very next words after “Hey there partner,” being “Hey, did I tell you the one about…?” And Tom will be off again with three more nuns at the pearly gates or after a grand build up, deliver the punch line explaining that PMS is in the Bible. Walking away from Tom one day after playing the “straight man” to his jokes one day last month I decided that if I have to be old, I wanna be like Tom . . . Tom or Wendell Berry. Yesterday, after our regular Sunday service a workshop was being held around how we can be more welcoming, more inclusive, and more aware of the subtle ways that we might exclude others. The facilitator enthusiastically explained what the hour was all about and then said those dreaded words: “Now,” she chirped, “if you’ll all break into groups of three…”

I hate breaking into groups of three.

“How rude can I be without being called rude?” I wondered as I considered just leaving the room of only maybe fifteen people as quickly as I could. “Whoa! Look at the time!” “My grandma just died.” “I’m sorry, I just had an accident. If you’ll excuse me.” As every lame excuse ever tried by every fifth grader ever went through my mind, we broke into groups of three. I’m not sure why I’m so resistant to small group stuff. I think, aside from obviously not being in control, that I’m always worried that I’ll drop emotional trou and No one else will or someone else will drop emotional trou – someone I don’t even like! Then what? Well, then I’m left both, kind of heartbroken over what the person shared and feeling guilty because I hadn’t previously been able to bring myself to even think kindly of them. Typically, if the menu only offers: breaking into small groups or eating liver smothered in yellow mustard, I’d typically go for the disgusting organ meat and vile condiment.

My group of three included Tom and Ben, another longtime member of our congregation. The facilitator announced questions that each of us were to take a couple of minutes and answer. As the hour grew to a close the facilitator announced the last question.

“Alright now,” she said, “now share with each other about a time when you felt excluded.”

Ben went first, sharing his answer in our confidence. I mentioned one incident, unsure of how to pick one out of a lifetime of examples. Finally, it was Tom’s turn to share and this small group thing would finally be over. Tom thought for a moment, started to say something, stopped, then began again.

“You know, course folks look at me kinda funny or don’t really believe me, I think, when I say this, butcha’ know, I don’t think I ever really felt excluded,” Tom said. Then, just as I was wondering how that could really be true, Tom put his finger on it as he continued. “I never doubted God loved me,” he said and I just kind of froze, staring saucer-eyed at Tom when I realized I was fighting tears. I was was shocked and tearing up because “I never doubted that God loved me,” is the single most outrageous thing I’ve heard someone say in real life that I believed. I’m sure I probably looked nearly comically dismayed. I certainly felt stunned, like seeing color or light for the first time or seeing someone who recognizes you after so long of being a foreigner, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” post-Clarence the angel, “Mary! Do you know me, Mary?!” And this time, she does know him. I’m not sure that all our trying to find words for the simple, glorious recognition by someone who is in the dream we once dreamt isn’t why poems and music and all our God-seeking and possibility exist at all in the first place.

“Tom,” I said in a hushed tone, “I know the two of us are just s’pose to listen right now, but you just said, that you’ve never doubted that God loved you, which to me is Outrageous, so if you’ll forgive me for infringing on your time, but how? How is that true that you never doubted God’s love? really? How?”, I whispered urgently. I’m guessing that Tom was probably prepared to meet disbelief. I would also guess that he probably hadn’t planned on his words having such an impact on me. I’d guess he wasn’t trying to be a “witness”, but I can assure that he was. I can hardly imagine trying to come up with an answer if eager eyes were fixed in anticipation on my own, as I know my eyes were on Tom’s waiting, impatient that our time might run out before he had time to share this incredible secret to the commanding confidence that he was, is, and always will be loved by God. In true Tom-style, his answer to my Big Question was plain, no nonsense, just matter-of-fact.

“Well,” Tom began, “I grew up around some religious folks, Evangelicals and what-not, but, you know, I just decided pretty early on that they were just dumb asses and didn’t really have anything to do with them.”

Tom did reference his good health and the beauty of nature, but that was it really. He had simply denied anyone or anything else the right to have any say or impact on this fact that he took for granted. I was amazed by all of this. I’m amazed by all of us who have been “churched”, we who have gone straight from womb to Sunday school and who struggle with that. I’m amazed by all of us who have ever been exposed to those commissioned to love and have come away instead deeply doubting that God loves us. I imagine holding and protecting that Good News that God loves us like most of us hold and protect our core belief that that couldn’t be true, not in any meaningful way, not for real. I imagine what being able to take God’s love as a given must be like and I’m reminded that, of course, it is just that, “a given”.

After the workshop was over I approached Tom and thanked him for what he had shared, for how with just the right amount of pressure to just the right spot he had given unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure, that even on a “good” day had become a fact of my everyday life, the fact of not living in the absolute certainty of God’s love. It made me sad and hopeful at the same time. I was sad that so many of us never really inhabit and live from just knowing that God loves us and, at the same time, hopeful that it could still be different, that I can and we can still heal and relax back into what we’ve almost forgotten sometimes. If this could be true for Tom, it can be true for me and you!

I shook Tom’s hand again, saying goodbye. He assured me again of what he never doubted. “You’re a fine young man. You ain’t got a reason to ever think for a minute that God doesn’t love you just as much as He ever did love anybody.”

I smiled sheepishly, tried to absorb what he was saying and tried not to cry again.

“You’re a successful man,” Tom said.

“Successful?, I rolled my eyes, dismissing his unfounded appraisal.

“Well,” I said, “I’m pretty sure no one, including me, expected me to still be here, so I reckon that means Somebody loves me.”

“Yessir,” Tom said, “Listen, did I ever tell you the one about . . .”

“Tom,” I said grinning, interrupting him and hating needing to leave, “tell me this one Sunday. Next Sunday. Tom, I’ll see you then.”

No punchline, even delivered by Tom, could top him telling me the one about how we can be confident that God loves us; no doubt, no joke.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 1/16/15

“One Size, One Way, One Love”

One Size, One Way, One Love

There’s a lot of conversation lately about “third ways”, “middle ways” and new ways. There’s a good deal of energy being spent to “discern” what our approach should be to God’s children who don’t affirm our sense of “normal”, who are outside of our self-blown bubble. So far I’m convinced that most of these efforts are just more gently worded barriers to inclusion. A wall painted with a beautiful mural remains a wall. Most of what is manufactured and passed around as new angles and perspectives are actually “subways”, that is “sub-way”, not The Way, less than The Way. They allow those in power to feel better about themselves while those that they hold power over and who they are making decisions about remain “sub”; a little less, sub-“real” Christian, sub-“real” man or woman, sub-“real” human. It seems that our constant push back against the fact there’s been no revision to “love one another” is to do a little, or a Lot less than what was asked, by which I mean commanded , or we actually don’t do it at all, but instead do something maybe related, but still altogether different than what we were told to do. This reaction reminds me of my sophisticated tactics from childhood when I would do anything else, any other chore to try and appease my parents to make up for the fact that I had not done the chore they had actually requested done.

Picture it: Findlay, Ohio, 1978 (spoiler alert: more than just about anything, I hated doing
the dishes when I was a kid.)

Findlay, Ohio, 1978, and my parents return home, having told me to do the dishes when they left.

Mom: “Did you do the dishes like I asked?”

Me: “I took out the trash.”

Dad: “​Son, I think it was the dishes your mom was asking
about. Did you do the dishes like your mother asked?”

Me: “Well, I think I ran outta time because, Look! I
dusted Everything!”

Now picture it: Your church, my church, The Church, Judgement Day (which by the way, is
everyday; every day ​we’re judged to be living love or loving our life.)

The Church Judgement Day (tomorrow, for instance)

God: “Did you love women?”

Us: “We did Lord. They’re fine Sunday School teachers, just fine. Don’t have to tell you how
much we love’em at the church potlucks! Oh, and in the choir;like angels in the choir.”

God: “And did you love your brothers and sisters of color? Did you love black folks?”

Us: “Lord, we do. We love what they’ve done with their church on the other side of town.
Oh, and you know, the three that do go to our church have voices that are just such a
blessing in the choir.”

God: (inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly)
“I see. And my gay children? Did you love them?”

Us: “Well, Lord, we do love them . . . and we’re talking a lot, still, still meeting a lot
about how best to, You know, do that, but You know, there are a couple of very well-
behaved ones that have been attending,and You know where they really shine,
of course, is…”

God: (interrupting)
“I’m gonna just go ahead and guess, the choir?”

Why do we remain unconvinced that the same essentials that nurture and sustain us, nurture and sustain everyone. Too often in government, education, in The Church, our signifying differences and individual and cultural qualities are seen as “issues to deal with” or “problems to be addressed” and then we end up with serious seminars promoting serious new books that wrestle with proposed serious questions like:

“How do we minister to people of color? or single people?”
“How do we reach young people?
“How can we honor And define women’s role?”
and, of course,
“What is our new plan on how to deal with the ‘issue of the
gays’ in The Church?”

When we’ve chipped away enough of their humanity we create a new label for another category of “other”, of “subs”, and we comfort ourselves that they are not really like us. And, sometimes, you know, through terrific sacrifice and several years of listening committees and assembly debates and synod councils and after much division, we have finally “wrestled with the Scriptures” enough now to decide that God’s love does, after all, even include them, too. And then, sometimes we really “hear the message” and we “pick up our cross” and (deep sigh) deign to “love” those people. Some of us do this by ministering to them in their own special group. “Them”. “Would you look at them? Aren’t they something?” “God sure is good,” we crow, pretty pleased with our new “missions”, our “project” that we’re pretty passionate about now that we understand that God, in His grace, even loves them too, even though they’re not white, or male, or heterosexual, or coupled, or monied, or even Christian. Yes, God is good and now that we’ve decided that God loves Even them, we’d better let them know, too! (Imagine, right now if you will, Everyone who’s Ever been a “them” collectively doing the Most Epic eye roll EVER. Thank you.)

Our obsession with “us” and “them” confirms my often repeated suspicion that most of us, like myself, are on the spiritual path and most of us, like myself, are also on the short bus on the spiritual path. We’re slow learners, to put it mildly, repeating Love Class over and over again.

Not a “fresh approach”, but still the ancient words stand:

“Love one another.”

God, neighbor, and enemies, the unlikely “one-cruciform-size-fits-all” proposition, commandment actually, is to love them all.

But how do we really understand this beyond just an undeniably noble sounding idea? There’s none of us unwounded or learned in how to actually trust and how to be free, free indeed; free, even to be vulnerable. We’re all learning, all struggling until loving one another becomes so natural that it’s just how we live with each other. A vital part of our witness is helping each other understand that we’re not the lowest or the worst or broken beyond repair. It’s a vital part of our witness to distribute hope and relay the Truth that, contrary to echos from childhood playgrounds or the constant media assault of advertising, we are, Still and Always, loved and lovable. We need reminders from each other that our outstretched hands and open arms are not a siphon, but a bridge; a bridge somehow strengthened by the shared weaknesses of its’ frail and burdened crossing pilgrims.

When my spouse, Kevin, and I first attended the church that would become our home church, I noticed him right away across the sanctuary. First, of course, I noticed his outrageous full head of dark, curly hair. I say, “of course” because even though I’m not even fifty yet, I haven’t needed a barber in a few decades, just lotsa hats, and his hair is great. If a man can have beautiful hair, Rocky does. What? Does admiring another man’s hair sound gay? Really? Well, I promise that I am not saying that any man, straight or gay, with thinning hair or a bald head that says that they don’t notice other men’s hair is homophobic. I am Not saying that. What I am saying is that they’re lying. All of them. They’re liars. Their pants are on fire. We do notice. Rocky’s hair is pretty cool, pretty unforgettable. And then, of course, there’s his name, “Rocky Banks”, with its’ comic potential forever seared in my memory. I decided immediately upon meeting him that with a name like “Rocky Banks”, he’d better be a boxer or a patched-eye blues singer. But beneath the great hair and in addition to the great blues singer sounding name, there is in Rocky such a solidity and a tenderness that somehow coexist in him simultaneously that you feel welcomed. His integrity invites trust and a sense of safety. As Rocky and I have shared some responsibilities at church and a few lunches we’ve gotten to know each other better and discovered, among other things, that we have an Evangelical upbringing in common. Rocky shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, Sandy. Yes, that’s right, her married name was Sandy Banks. Personally, I’d like to think that if I was Rocky that I would have considered our first names and my family name and would have considered that a foreboding enough of a warning that this union canNot be a good idea. Recently, I aimed directly out of my comfort zone and asked Rocky if I could crash at his place in the city so that I could make it to an early morning meeting at church the next day. I stayed over, keenly aware of the new territories of trust that I was exploring for myself.

Then, Rocky called just the other morning. Another dating situation ended recently and he is, in the plainest terms, lonely; an intelligent, handsome, compassionate, tender-hearted and lonely man. My heart aches for his. I want so badly to somehow lift his heaviness, to help him know that his loneliness right now isn’t a price he’s paying for something in the past, but is instead, maybe, the cost he’s paying now for something beautiful still to come, and I want to dry his tears or know that he’s held while he cries them. Rocky had called to talk about how we experience God’s presence and those dark, quiet, desperate times when we simply don’t feel God’s presence at all; when the ether’s that previously seemed to spirit our prayer and longing to the ear and heart of God have suddenly become an echo chamber mocking our every plea.

“Hello? God? It’s me,” we speak again into the ridicule of the resounding silence and when the inevitable echo of our own voice returns,

“Hello, God. Its Me,” we are too easily fooled by the Holy inhabiting our voice. We don’t recognize the inflection and authority in the returned words and fail to credit the affirmation to God. We miss the lack of question in our echoed words. Where there was fearful, doubting desperation in our asking, “Hello? God?”, the same words returned are now, not a question, but a statement of recognition. God recognizes God seeded within us. Our prayer, it turns, might be like a two-way mirror that God passes. Looking out from our non-reflective side, we see everything or nothing depending on what appears on the side of our window. But God, drawn by our prayer, passes the mirror and whether it’s me avoiding vulnerability, or Rocky speaking his loneliness into the shadows, or you on the other side of the mirror, God, forever and always, sees only God – the image and likeness and spark of God, Herself.

We look out in fear of strangers.

God looks in and sees only family.

I imagine angels cooing and fawning over tiny, ethereal soul bassinets. One, shaking his head, warns, “He’s got a heart of flesh. That’ll be trouble for sure.” The other angel, though, looks more closely and says, “Yes, but he’s got his Father’s eyes.”

The family resemblance is always what God notices first, no matter how many other lovers or tribes we’ve tried to belong to.

He sees us.

He sees His own.

He sees His children, God’s co-creators created to look like and behave like their Savior. Designed to imitate God’s qualities and reflect the character of the Creator, we, too, are called to see the family resemblance in each other first. We were made to see each other and be fulfilled in each other’s vision. It is by design that we live the truth of St. Augustine’s words, “In loving me, you made me lovable.” (“Quia amasti me, fecist me amabilem”) It is on purpose that we were made to rightly feel like something is missing if we don’t know the regular blessing and balm and refuge provided by a firm handshake, a close, tight hug, or simply that look that assures us that we are each other’s own. We belong to each other and this, too, is the liberating work of the Spirit. Our broken places are mended and old wounds are healed as we practice the agape love that knows that the first healing is in being heard and in hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God and the Word of God is this:

“You belong. I belong. We belong.
We are reconciled and one day all of creation will be reconciled, but it begins now.
We rehearse,
with each breath.”

Rocky and I talked for awhile. I hope I said anything at all that was helpful. I hope I made any sense, but mostly, I hope I listened. Our conversation was ending as both of us needed to get the day started and just as I was about to say that I’d talk to him later in the week, Rocky said, “Thanks, I love you, man.” Half a beat later I responded, “You know I love you back,” trying to sound confident not startled, which is kind of what I was. I mean who knew? How long are you friends with a straight man before somebody uses the “L-word”? Who knew they even said that to each other?! But here, is such a man; a man whose priority is love; a man who offers hope through his humanity and points to God. I’d like to be that kind of man.

Our hearts and lives, communities and even our world depend on our answer to our call to care for each other and tend to each other: women and sisters and mothers, brother-to-other, and brother-to-brother living in the simplest acts of devotion like just hearing each other, like reminding each other that there’s Nothing we could do to be “trespassed out” of each other’s heart, and there is Nothing that can taper or tame God’s ferocious love for us. So many simple acts heal us, like extending trust, like risking intimacy, like surprising your friend by saying, “I love you, man.” These are witnesses to an outrageously subversive hope! These are words of Life speaking words of Life from the Source of Life and spoken by another living reflection of that Source right in front of us! If the light was less dynamic, if the hope was less radiant, unbelief might be a choice, but there wasn’t a moment of choice. There was only a moment with no hope and the next moment seeming to matter as if the next moment after that could somehow be different now.

Brennan Manning tells the story that “in 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballenger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter. On Christmas morning as she put on her shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words,
“I done it for love.”

Like Richard’s returned quarter, wrapped and placed in his mother’s shoe, inside our reaching out and back to each other is wrapped a bridge; a bridge that somehow grows more durable with use, a bridge made of and sustained by the One who “done it for love” and who guards our heart, sets its direction toward our Source and destination, wraps it, and places it, not in a shoe, but in the middle of our bridge and requires two sets of hands to lift it.

It may seem a simple thing to go on about: a man said, “I love you,” but in my life and in our world That IS cause for notice and celebration. Three or four days after Rocky’s phone call, one morning just before I was really awake, I smiled and relaxed more deeply for just a few seconds before I could even realize why. Because of Rocky’s call I remember some essentials, and when I do wake up, I feel lighter. Slowly, I realize that something is missing – the low-grade ache and the echos – they’re not here. Maybe this is when we really wake up: when we realize that our glorious differences are not obstacles and don’t require an approach fresher or a campaign newer than, “Love one another”, when we realize finally that our shared humanity makes the divine prescription always the same: Love, of course, but not love as a concept from a distance, but love that holds us close till we exhale; love that draws us home to roam in the vast hills and valleys of the heart space between outstretched arms; love that is, as that old chorus said, “deep and wide”: deeper than any hurt, wider than all our fears; love that plants hope with a phone call, love that waters that hope with tender truths and a gentle witness like, “I love you, man.”

– PreetamDas Kirtana
11/11/14

“Moving from Job to Jesus (The Importance of Lament in Our Suffering)” Sunday morning message 7/20/14

​”The Importance of Lament in our Suffering
(Moving from Job to Jesus)
7/20/14

As we conclude our study of lament this morning, I found that I could not have the privilige of sharing with you without addressing what I find to be perhaps one of the most damaging
misunderstandings that we have internalized. For just a moment I’d like us to go back to those first few words that God speaks to Adam in Genesis 3:11. I continue to find this verse an invaluable barometor in my own life for discernment. At this point in the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have turned their attention from God and listened to the serpent, they’ve made themselves an audience for the Accuser, and, as is always the case when we listen to the Accuser, they found themselves ashamed. Adam is hiding in his shame and God’s first question to Adam hiding in his nakedness, which, of course, he always was, in Genesis 3:11 is “Who told you that…?” It is an valuable question. Who told you that you should be ashamed? Who told you that you were not God’s beloved? Who told you that you didn’t belong at God’s table? Who told you that you couldn’t because you just don’t have the education, because you’re too young, too old, because you are a woman, because you were divorced, because you are gay, because you’re theology is just not right? As you can see, contemplating this question and it’s implications can be another message in itself, but what we can be sure of is that “who ever told you that”, it was not God. And I think it can again be a valid way of addressing this tragic misunderstanding of scripture that has so permeated our consciousness and culture that folks who have never steped foot inside a church and who have never cracked open a Bible can frequently quote and find themselves believing Job 1:21:

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

And we ask the question that God presented Adam in Genesis 3:11, “Who told us that?” Who is speaking here in Job 1:21? ___, that’s right, Job. These are not the words, message, or truth of God. This is Job speaking. I’d suggest that this is Job speaking at his worst, from his worst, Not his faith. I know that, like most of us, when we’re really honest about it, that when I’ve been depressed, oppressed, traumatized by loss, and grief, and illness, that I have said some things about how I felt about my trials and life in general, and even some choice words for God, that I don’t even want remembered or repeated, let alone taken as Truth, because I, like Job in this verse, was speaking from my experience. I was not speaking the Truth of God or about God. This is where Job is at. This is where Job was speaking from. Yet this Untruth about God has saturated our hearts, minds, and culture at large. I’ve found in my studies that this Untruth about God has been propagated by some of the greatest, though fallible, theological minds of our time, including R.C. Sproul and yet I’m suggesting that no matter how deeply it has become ingrained in us and in our world that remains Untrue.

The Lord does Not take away.

When we deeply internalize this misunderstanding of Scripture, it leads us to refusing to take our rightful place as heirs of God’s Kingdom, because with this belief, you just never know what God is going to do. I mean how many times would you continue to trust me to pull out a chair for you to sit in if I routinely pull it away as you sit and you end up on the floor? This belief turns us into the consistently fooled and foiled Charlie Brown and turns God into the consistently pranking Lucy who routinely pulls away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it! When we believe this lie, we mistake the lies of the Accuser for a Truth about God. When our subconscious default is to blame God for our suffering, we end up, like Charlie Brown, flat on our backs, finally looking up, and feeling like a blockhead, which, of course was always the plan of the Accuser. One of just a few things that I want most for us to leave here with today is this: we do Not serve a “Gotcha!-God”.

God is certainly mysterious. I’d suggest that God is mysterious mostly because of Her unyielding and offensive grace, because most of us, in our humanity remain so deeply rooted in the idea of retribution rather than reconciliation. The foundation our God offers us of lives of unconditional love and radical forgiveness is inviting and compelling and completely mysterious and offensive because, as we’re reminded repeatedly in the Scriptures that this love, forgiveness, and grace includes absolutely EVERY and All parts of ourselves And absolutely EVERYONE and ALL of those around us in our world – which is, of course, Outrageous and why we’re all here at all.

So, yes, of course, God is mysterious, for as the Scriptures say, “His ways are not our ways”, and yet God is also predictable and knowable. When we want to know what God is like, we look, Not to Job, but to Jesus, the Only begotten Son of God, in the flesh. The Scriptures and God evidenced in our own lives give us clear descriptions, examples, mandates, and promises for just what God is like and what God will do.

I believe it was a character in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that was out a few years ago whose go-to, lean-on truth was, “If it’s not a happy ending, it can’t be the end of the story.” Isn’t that great? In the same way, you and I can be sure that if it’s not good, it’s Not God. We can pull out our Genesis 3:11 tool of discernment and ask, “Who told us that?” Let’s look quickly at just a few verses out of the countless verses that we could look at describing God’s character and interactions with us. The book of James, chapter 1, verse 5 describes our “God, who gives generously without finding fault…” James 1:13 tells us that “When tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, NOR does God tempt anyone.” And in James 1:17 we are assured that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights who does Not change like shifting shadows.” The Message Bible’s version says simply, “He is not fickle.” We will never have peace, let alone victory if we believe that God is behind our suffering. If we think God is robbing us we won’t even resist. Again, this is why we look to Jesus whom Job forshadows prophetically, but we do not look to Job, a drowning man for our Lifeline.

If I can get even just a couple “Amens”, I’ll consider it permission to move on. Thank you. Thank God.

We find in our Scriptures a rich history full of examples and complete permission and role modeling of lament. Jesus wept. Job wept. Jeremiah wept. And the least of what David did was weep. The “imprecatory psalms” or curses of David are riddled with anger and rage and had they been spoken in today’s vocabulary, I’m convinced that they would have been dotted with expletives that would offend the ears of some of us and have us showing David the door. And David was, “a man after God’s own heart.” The very same mouth that spoke, “The Lord is my shepherd…” also spat out curses like, “Break their teeth! Make their wives widows! Make their children beggars on the street!” Here is a man after God’s own heart Not because of the sweetness of his poetry, but because he voiced absolutely everything to God – the fear, the grief, the doubt, the anger, and fury, and rage. (And yes, when we see David stumble and fall in such grand fashion, it is always preceded by not having done this.)

Eugene Peterson, the man who gave us versions of the Scriptures in The Message Bible, that many of us are fond of, says this: “At least one reason why people are uncomfortable with tears and the sight of suffering is that it is a blasphamous assault on our precariously maintained American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness. It is a lot easier to keep the American faith if we don’t have to look into the face of suffering, if we don’t have to listen to laments, if we don’t have to deal with tears. They, and most often we, want to avoid evidence that things are not right with the world as it is – without Jesus, without love, without faith, without sacrifice.” We’ll note Peterson’s distinction here: “the American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness.” As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of Jesus, we are not called to happiness, but to joy. We are not called to success, but to victory. We are not called to ” 5 easy spiritual steps to prosperity”, but to faithfulness even through our suffering. This is, of course, the very antithesis of empire, the American empire or any other, that depends on our silence, depends on our withholding our lament for the empire to survive at all.

People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that our prayers of complaint, and protest, and sorrow, and doubt ARE prayers of faith! These prayers represent the last refusal to let go of God. This being true, Voicing our lament expresses one of the most intimate moments of faith, NOT a lack of it or a denial of it. Only lament uncovers this kind of faith.

In Job 7:11, Job boldly says, “I will Not keep silent. I will Not speak with restraint. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. I will give VOICE to the anguish of my soul.” And this, too, is worship, it is WORTH-Ship, because in speaking our lament before God, we affirm that God is Worthy enough, Big enough for everything we could ever bring.

I’d suggest that the most important reason to Voice our lament is because without lament, you and I are robbed of our true identity before God. Our best hope of finding our way back to true worship is through lament. Theologian Walter Bruggeman explains, “that nothing is out of bounds, nothing is precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God.”

Everything belongs, everything brought to speech, everything addressed to God.

When we understand and practice this, it brings us into a deeper presence of Christ that we can discover no other way. Job’s already close relationship with God is stretched and becomes even deeper and more personal through the process of wrestling with God through his lament. In fact, it seems, in the lament born of Job’s suffering, things get more personal than they’ve been since the garden of Eden. One of the many resources and authors I’ve studied in preparing this message, Michael Card, made what I thought was an absolutely outrageous statement. He said, “In the desperate intimacy that can only be articulated through lament, Job addresses God by an incredible New name, “You”. Now, if you’re like me or I’m guessing maybe Glenn (a congregation member), those kind of nuggets are just really exciting. I couldn’t believe it just because this wonderful songwriter and author said it of course, so I pulled out my old Strong’s Concordance. I consulted another concordance online and yes, I went through every single line of the Old Testament prior to Job with the word “you” in it and you know what? The man is right! Not Moses or Abraham or Elijah, no one until Job gets So personal with the Almighty God to dane to use a simple very personal pronoun like “You”. So through our voicing lament it gets personal like no other time. It brings us to a deeper intimacy with God. In contrast, to deny our lament is to isolate ourselves and deny that intimacy with God.

Lament keeps the door open.

Secondly, expressing and giving voice to our lament in our suffering is vital because it brings us together as the community and the body of Christ that we are called to be. When we fail to voice our lament we cut ourselves off from each other. If you and I are to know each other in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger, and disappointments with each other, we must also lament them TOGETHER BEFORE OUR GOD who is moved by our tears. *ONLY then does our sharing become truly Redemptive in character.

The degree to which we are willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of our commitment and love for them. If we are not interested in another person’s hurts, we’re not really interested in them, and we’re not willing to suffer to know them or to be known by them.

As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we care deeply about our calling to care for the least and last, but our failure to lament also hampers us in being able to fully know and reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern. After all, how did Jesus come to know us except by entering into the poverty of our world as a “Man of Sorrows”?

How can we speak to the suffering and the poor if we do not learn the language of lament? Until we learn to honestly embrace our hopelessness and theirs, * there will be no true gospel to be heard. **Until we learn to lament, we really have nothing to say to most of the world. If we are to authentically connect with our own heart and soul; if we are to connect with each other, and to know true intimacy with God, we Must come to understand that our worship is Not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If that were true, then according to our modern American understanding of worship, the poor have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While we see Jesus consistently pronouncing blessings on the poor and those who mourn, we far too often pronounce the curse of making our own lament and the lament of others unwelcome. Those who “labor and are heavy laden” too often can find no place in our too comfortable, too programed church services to lay their burdens down.

But Job clings desperatly to God, who encourages us to offer Him everything, to give voice to every joy and sorrow, every protest, doubt and complaint.

All our broken hearts; all our contrite spirits.

I think that maybe we’ve confused lament with despair. I’d suggest that lament and despair are polar opposites.

*Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of our belief in God.

*Despair is the ultimate and total denial that God can even help, that God even exists.

Lament is our means of crossing over from sorrow and the anger of retributive justice to the mercy of God’s loving-kindness. If we are Ever to move away from hating our enemies toward eventually loving them, as Jesus commands, we Must cross this bridge. We must submit to this process until God is finished with the process of perfecting our hearts. Until then, it’s useless to stand in God’s Presence and each other’s company and mouth pretended words of forgiveness and love.

In essence, voicing lament is crucial in our suffering because it allows and grows in us authentic intimacy in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with each other.

In every example of lament in the Scriptures, in the laments of Job, David, Jeremiah, and even in Jesus, we witness a transition from despair to hope, from complaint to praise. Somewhere, somehow an invisible line is crossed and the focus of the lament is turned from self to God. In the course of the lament, frequently in our exhausting ourselves against God, something shifts, our memory is jogged and we call to mind, as did Job and David and Jesus, the faithfulness of God and we cross the line from sorrowful self-centered “I”, “me”, and “mine” to praise.

This morning we’d like to create together the space and opportunity to share this process. As Tony and the musicians come forward, I invite you to bring to mind whatEver sorrows, doubts, grief, complaint, and even anger that may be on your heart this morning. After Tony shares a song with us and the musicians continue to play quietly, we will have an opportunity to voice with a sound (sometimes all I can say is “mmm,mmmm,mmmm” or maybe “my God”) or only a word or two naming the laments that we want to bring before the Lord, and not take back home with us, that way we may have arrived here with this morning. And then, following that biblical example of crossing the line from sorrowful self-centered lament to remembering the faithfulness of our God, Tony will repeat some of our laments back to us and as a congregation bound together by our common experience of suffering and our common hope found in Jesus, we will affirm that God IS faithful, that God IS still our answer as we sing back, after each lament, the old “Amen” chorus that I think many of grew up with. Do y’all remember that? Just 5 enthusiastic “A-mens” in a row. “A-men, A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men”. Lemme give us an example just so we’re real clear before we move into this time. So, if during our time of voicing our lament, one of our members offers up, “Israel and Palestine conflict”. During our time of affirmation and praise, Tony will offer back, “Israel and Palestine conflict” and we, the congregation will affirm in enthusiastic song together, “A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men, a-men” and we’ll continue in that fashion till we get a little bit clearer, a little bit lighter, a bit more assured that God remains faithful, despite what we see with our physical eyes.

Tony…..

(**This message and my life are deeply indebted to the heart, wisdom,
and teaching of Sue Boykin, Charlette Franklin, Rebecca Trotter (you should totally check out her blog at “The Upside Down World”),
Brennan Manning, and especially Michael Card’s excellent writing on the subject.**)

*Just a note to readers of the blog, I’ve posted this as a few have requested me to; but typically, especially with classes beginning in just a matter of weeks and my own experience as a blog reader sometimes feeling overwhelmed by voluminous posts, I will only be posting once weekly, probably on Mondays. As always thanks by stopping by. I so appreciate it.

“An Epiphany of Angels”

An Epiphany of Angels

“I’ll decide, In a moments time, To turn away, Leave it all behind.

So we climb, So we’re all told the line, The crowd is home, The treasure found.

So let it go, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, We’re almost home . . . ” -Moby ft. Damien Jurado

After showering this evening I walk to the bedroom and lie down. The scent of cedar and myrrh rises from the body that carries me but that was never really mine. Lying here, what I can see framed by the bedroom doorway looks like a living still from a familiar movie, a screen that I could walk through and again be in a completely different world, like the children in the C.S. Lewis books, passing into another grand and terrifying world behind all of the woolen coats in the back of that old wardrobe. The doorway is itself a keyhole; a keyhole that we unlock by walking through. Resting here in dusk light and stillness, the soft, warm blanket of believing in safety for just a few minutes again, I only observe, free of any temptation to enter. To leave this space, to unlock the door by my entrance is to again enter the world of grace and brutality. To cross this threshold, in crossing every threshold and passing every portal is the magnificent, routine epiphany of birth and baptism. We are born of the Spirit, birthed from the womb of illusion and isolation, only to be born again of the Spirit.

Every doorway entered, every hand extended, every risk to speak and to listen, is certainly a kind of baptism, a happy funeral, the burial and resurrection that baptism represents. In all of these monumental, minute ways we are baptised: when we enter and close the door behind us instead of in front of us – we are burying isolation so that we can rise in community; when we cleanse ourselves of our need for protection to reveal the grace, to instead of being safe, being willing to risk love again; when we make an Exodus from the bondage of fear and self-obsession to the promised land of a loving God and neighbor-love, when we immerse our ‘no’ and it comes up out of the waters a ‘Yes’; a breathless, trembling, astonished ‘Yes’ perhaps, but distinctly a ‘Yes’.

To leave the banks of the river and step into the waters, to leave the bed, to step out the door, to leave the house and risk the first chance of eye contact again today is to trust the forgiveness we’ve received and given; and the forgiveness still in progress. It’s to invest in hope despite all of the backing from the deep pockets of despair, it is to face fear again each time for a moment as we brush by it on our way out. It’s a disappointing realization, the incredible shelf life of fear compared to that of hope. If fear has the shelf life of say, canned beans; hope is the local organic dairy product and seems to need to be restocked constantly. This is why some wise teachers counsel us to not believe in hope as an emotion, but as something much deeper, something unchanging, something solid. Take a shovel to the surface and it’s hard to tell what you’ll find, but once we hit the foundation, there’s only Rock, only unyielding firmness. This is not just “where hope lives”, this, down here, underneath, this is Hope itself. This is hope that propels us out of the safety of our solitude and into relationships in this world where fear seems to be always in the spotlight and has a longer shelf life and shame sells better. This is an insidious hope that sends us daily into our world where grace is more abundant than grief, but rarely reported, rarely celebrated. This hope is the assurance of those not blind since birth; those that walk in our world where we are so rarely seen that it is unsettling when we finally are. This is our world, populated with what Hafiz called “thirsty fish swimming in the Ocean”, and yet these waters are the hope of Life that move through us. Parched for communion, desperate to be heard, to be seen and to belong, we look past each other and then complain that we can’t find God. But if our “searching for God” leads us past each other, past ‘Jesus in all His disguises’ on the corner, at the check-out lane, the pride parade, in the shelter, and in our enemy, not only have we passed God, we’ve stopped looking for God and have simply resumed our regularly scheduled self-seeking. Chances are good that we’re trying again to “protect our heart by acting like we don’t have one” to quote an unforgettable Facebook meme. I loved that. Boy does that fit. I loved it more of course, before quickly realizing how often and how well it describes…me. I mean why on earth would we Not be scared? Why on earth would we not be guarding our hearts?

Too often another driver’s bad decision can change our lives in a moment, shaking our core so deeply, that like i did, we find ourselves vomiting weeks later. Too often she says that she Never did, when your whole life has been built around believing that she always had. Too often he says that he did, when everything in you needs to hear and believe his Denial Not his confession. Too often the doctor says, “Stage 4, cancer”. Too often people are hungry and shamed rather than fed. Too often the test is positive, the funds have been cut, the medication unaffordable. Too often we recycle paper, plastic, and glass but treat each other as disposable. Too often there’s still no work, there’s still no sleep, still no relief to be seen. Too often they don’t call back, we don’t apologize; too often there isn’t another chance. Too often our isolation is finally no longer a choice. “He just couldn’t live by himself anymore.” “People will look after her there.” Too often we never saw it coming. Too often we knew it all along, but there’s still nothing we can do about it. We can’t even attempt to weigh these without being weighted by them. When I take a measure I find ample reason to be scared and abundant reason to guard our hearts except for this prior situation, this pre-existing condition, the condition of my being included; all of us being included. There’s that more ancient epiphany: that the gift of the Magi was not the gifts that they brought, but the gifts of invitation and calling and acceptance that they received – the first Gentiles to witness the birth arrival of God as man, signaling that all of us are now included in every “Don’t be afraid”, in all of the “glad tidings”, in every bit of the Good News to come. This is for everyone, no exceptions. “Peace be still” is for this storm. “Still waters” and “green pastures” will calm this mind this very night. Because we are accepted, we cannot ever really be alone; never really despairing. We are born of community to be in community. We’ve been accepted. We’ve been included and there’s no way to un-include ourselves. Of course, we can turn in exactly the opposite direction, but that only changes our position, not our inclusion. Because we too, have been invited, called, and accepted, we slowly learn to be less afraid, to guard our hearts less vigilantly, less often. Because we bear the family name of “Accepted”, of “Reconciled”, of “beloved Child of God”, we hold fast to the words of the prophet Isaiah even when the storm is raging or the drought unending:

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. Your Mine.
When you’re in over your head, I will be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end –
Because I am God, your personal God, your Savior.
Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert. Be present. I’m about to do something brand-new! It’s bursting out!
I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.

Strengthen the feeble hands, the weak-in-the-knees, say to those with fearful hearts,
‘Be strong, don’t be afraid. God is here, right here to put things right. Blind eyes will open,
deaf ears unstopped, lame men and women will leap like dear,
the voiceless will break into song. Water will gush in the wilderness
and streams flow in the desert. Gladness will overtake you
and all sorrow and sighs will flee away.”

(Isaiah 43:1-4,16-21/ 35:3-6)

Perhaps because we’ve been a witness to the voiceless breaking into song, we also believe in the hope of water in our personal wilderness; in streams flowing in our intimate desert experience. Perhaps because we’ve had a moment, at least, of being overtaken with gladness, even if we only dreamed it so vividly or the life of the vision was so tangible, it was still, however fleetingly, very real and because we know the reality of this, we also trust in the possibility of “all sorrows and sighs fleeing away.” Perhaps because I’ve lost so much; because we lose so much, because I’ve been so lost so often; because we all find ourselves so often lost, I’m reminded of how much it’s all about being lost and found; of losing and finding again. In “the gospel of the Gospel”, Luke 15, everything is lost. Those three parables that encapsulate the gospel: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. But everything is risked by the shepherd, the woman, and the prodigals’ father and everything is found; everything is reconciled and all of it is celebrated. If it or they can be loved, it says, we can be reconciled. And so we hang on to hope, the hope beneath our feet, filling our lungs; the hope that is both, the beating and the opening of our hearts. A chorus becomes more clear now from a song heard faintly long ago. In our longing search for hope the song’s words I can finally begin to hear:

“Where is hope you ask?
Where can hope be found?
Look beneath your feet my child,
You’re standing on hope-full ground.

Remove your shoes and Look to the Hills;
For hope rides the wind as well –
Never departing AND always arriving,
My Hope will never fail.”

In our crisis and grief, in trials and in isolation, in physical pain and emotional distress we cling to that foundation; we go that Rock. We are a cruciform arrangement of surrender, sacrifice, and acceptance as we prostrate ourselves toe to toe, palm to palm, face to face, face down in our foundation. In our chronic state of recovery, our healing always “in-progress”, we move to the banks of the river. We inch toward the water’s edge, the open door, the pregnant pause, the moment of commitment. In our baptism, as Christ did in His, we choose Presence over protection, person hood and kinship over individuality, community at any price over ‘our way no matter what the cost’, and we commit ourselves to the mire of grace over stainless self-righteousness. And we hang on to hope, but not like a teddy bear, no, we hang on to hope like the Mother Bear she is. We hang on to the the hope of love and acceptance, the hope of lullabies singing comforting truths to us; we hang on to the hope of angels.

I remember my birth mother. In an effort to calm my night time fears she would come to my bedroom and sit on the edge of my bed. She’d sit there on my bedspread with the astronauts on it that I had pressed wrinkle-free around me, where with my three-foot stuffed Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the pair of teddy bears, she would sing; not sweetly, but lovingly. She couldn’t sing “sweetly” any more than I can, but her heart for me was in every word as she sang,

“All night, all day, angels watching over me, my Lord. All night, all day angels watching over me.”

I hope that she was right about this one good thing. I hope that angels do come. Angels that leave behind our tears and trials, our failing bodies and slipping minds and carry our broken and longing spirits across that next threshold. There in that first wordless, holy moment of darshan, of seeing and being seen by God, each in our fullness, I will forgive God and God will still forgive me and, in mercy, understand that even though I failed, I was still, against all odds a man who still loved, who still occasionally stumbled into grace and shared the hope of that ever after.

– PreetamDas Kirtana