In the Light We Will Stand

 

1A6BB78E-B362-4076-8D9A-0F7A98F8B40A“I have perfect attendance pins for Sunday School going back thirty years, and until last week, I never knew that the Bible told the story of someone who had been raped.”

I have heard similar comments many times when preaching from my book about Biblical women, “Voices of Our Sisters.” The truth is that Scriptural passages like those described by Phillis Trible in “Texts of Terror” are not your Mama’s Bible stories. We don’t teach them in our classes and we definitely do not preach on them in church. The stories of violence against women in the Bible are as hushed as the stories of abused women today. Shame on us.

It was one year ago that The New York Times published an investigative article about how Harvey Weinstein had for decades paid off acusers of sexual harassment. 

“Culturally, the article hit like a meteor,” writes Maya Salam in The New York Times Gender Letter, “drastically altering the landscape around how sexual misconduct is perceived, sending the #MeToo hashtag viral and, in turn, triggering an avalanche of accusations against powerful men. It wasn’t long before #MeToo wasn’t just a turn of phrase — it was a movement.”

RAINN*, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault network, experienced a 30 percent increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline since the current #MeToo resurgence, and last Friday — the day after Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee — was the busiest day in the hotline’s 24-year history.

The women of this nation will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Women who have been harmed by sexual violence will revere her for her courage. Because our courage, survivors all, has often been small and our fear very large. We know that people will not believe our stories of abuse, and that instead they will blame us for bringing our terrible stories to light.

We will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and we will remember Tarana Burke who first spoke #MeToo in 2007 to let young women of color who survive sexual assault know that they are not alone.

We will remember Alyssa Milano and her Tweet that reached dozens of countries and millions of people — over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” and 85 countries had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets.

So we join hands with those who understand us, hold on tightly, and speak our truth, because we need to move from darkness to light.

And in the light we will stand, hearts and spirits lighter because we have spoken our terror aloud. C47C1264-7179-455D-AA1A-6DF17B4673F8

In the light we will stand, even though staying in silence’s darkness would be easier. 

In the light we will stand, even as the people around us cling stubbornly to their darkness that screams out to us, “We will not hear you!”

In the light we will stand because that’s the only way to survive.

 

* RAINN — Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

 

 

 

Remembering the Levite’s Concubine

 

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“The Levite’s Concubine” by artist, Dee Jones

It is art we do not want to see, art that so closely mimics reality that we are compelled to turn away. But the artist, Dee Jones, captures every emotion, all the terror, every horrific aspect of sexual violence. If we care, we must look. And we must see all the ways in which sexual and domestic violence is a travesty. 

It is true that, when we find such depraved violence in our Scripture, it is shocking. But we find It today in the 19th chapter of the Book of Judges, and we must steel ourselves to truly hear this awful story. Ken Sehested describes it with these words: “The narrative is monstrous, quite possibly the most visually brutal story in all the Bible.”

The story is about a Levite traveler and his concubine. Though you may be daunted by reading the entire 30 verses of this chapter, it’s worth your time to hear the whole story of another nameless woman in Scripture.

In those days Israel had no king.

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. 

His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.

On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.

When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.”

His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.” 

So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.

That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”

He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me in for the night. We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants — me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.”

“You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 

He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!”

— Judges 19: 16-30 NIV

The story begins by telling us that Israel had no king, thus describing a violent and lawless situation in the land. The structures of justice had collapsed. The rest of the story is a brutal account of rape, torture and murder. In her book, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible offers this commentary:

Of all the characters in Scripture, she is the least. Appearing at the beginning and close of a story that rapes her, she is alone in a world of men. Neither the other characters nor the narrator recognizes her humanity. She is property, object, tool, and literary device. Without name, speech, or power, she has no friends to aid her in life or mourn her in death. Passing her back and forth among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally. Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered and scattered—this woman is the most sinned against.” (pp. 80-81)      

The story closes with the woman’s dismemberment and the scattering of her body parts across Israel. The last verse says: “Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, ‘Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!’”

Ken sehested observes that the narrative closes with three imperatives: “Consider this, take counsel, speak.” Ken says it like this: “Let this horrible story instruct you. And finally, ‘speak.’”

For us, in these violent days, the message is just as critical, and yes, we must speak! The silence around violence against women must end. If we can find the courage to end our silence through the stories of unnamed, forgotten and reviled Biblical sisters, then their horrific stories have sacred meaning and divine purpose. 

“They have names, and we must learn them,” Ken Sehested insists. “They have histories and we must tell them. In the end, we must nurture a vision where our security and theirs are bound up together.”

It’s the only name we have for her, the Levite’s Concubine. Yet, we must mourn her and remember her and know her story. So let us hear, if we can, this monstrous Biblical narrative and allow it to instill deep within us an unwavering commitment to do everything in our power to end violence in the world.

Can’t Stay on the Mountaintop

909AB186-15E1-4DA7-9027-5FC7B28578BDChrist-followers will always know ascent and descent, knowing and not-knowing. I can recall so many spiritual retreats that ended too soon, leaving me with a reluctance to go back into ordinary time. I wanted to stay in the place where God’s Spirit was moving within me. But every single time, I had to go home, leaving the mountaintop of my transformative spiritual experience.

In the Scriptures, two companion pieces tell of a “God experience.” Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Moses is on Mount Sinai, God is somehow manifest in thick darkness. “You saw no shape on that day at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 4:15) Moses “sees” and “hears” to some degree, yet YHWH does not allow Moses to see God’s “glory” or “face.” The most that Moses can see is, humorously, YHWH’s backside. God placed Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him until He had passed by. Moses would not see his face.

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

— Exodus 33:14-23 NIV

In the parallel story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36; Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-9), there is first dazzling light. Yet a cloud soon overshadows the whole scene. Richard Rohr explains that “the epiphany is both light and darkness, knowability and unknowability, disclosure and non-disclosure.”

After the astounding experience on the mountain, Jesus deliberately walks with the disciples back down the mountain, onto the plain and desert of everyday life. Richard Rohr says that Jesus wanted to move the disciples “out of this enlightening, but also dangerously ego-inflating experience.”

We know that, always, we must return to the ordinary. We must come down from our mountaintops and walk on the rough road where life happens. We must experience the path’s twists and turns that take us through green pastures as well as through valleys of death’s shadow. That is the life we must live. Our Christian faith does not allow for permanent ascents. Mountaintop experiences for us are times of strength-gathering that make the rough roads bearable.

Jesus tells the disciples who witnessed his glorious transfiguration, “Don’t talk about it!” (Matthew 17:9). Because Jesus knew that talking too soon would only weaken the experience. Silence is important. Silence is necessary to preserve the sacred and the mysterious. Silence helps us remember how we felt on the “mountaintop.” And remembering helps us walk on, facing wherever life’s journey takes us with faith, confidence and perseverance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

At Any Age

D543405F-29D8-492C-B48A-4BB0EC12CF72I asked my husband a rather strange question last night. It was about my recent preaching at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon. This was how I posed the question to him:

“You have listened to me preach a gazillion times in past years when I was young. But now do I just seem like a little old lady in the pulpit?”

Apologies to all little old ladies who might very well preach as prophetically as ever in a similar situation! But back to my question, and my husband’s response.

“No! Not at all,” he said. “If anything, you seemed more confident and powerful than I have ever seen you.”

So much for my feelings of being inadequate just because I am now a retired senior adult who has not preached a sermon in a very long time. The truth is I agreed with my husband. I felt very confident within myself. I believed that I had received a holy and prophetic word from God, and was honored that God (and my pastor) chose me to speak that word. When I stood in the pulpit, I felt the memory and the wisdom of ministries past, all of them, and that recognition of God’s workings within me over the years filled me with assurance.

Still, we are used to prophets being young, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Prophets, after all, are given the mission of looking ahead. On the other hand, we think of elders as caretakers of the past. 

Pope Francis spoke about this in 2014 in his homily on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In that homily, he asks us to see the mission of our elders as looking ahead to the future. And looking ahead to the future as persons who possess the wisdom of age. He gives us Simeon and Anna as our role models, naming them “senior citizen prophets.” And what role models they are! Among all the stories in Scripture, I have long been inspired and moved by the stories of Anna and Simeon.

In the story, this older woman and man have just met the new parents, Mary and Joseph, who were bringing their baby Jesus to the Temple. Pope Francis preached it with these words.

“It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”

This is their story from the second chapter of Luke, verses 21-38:

And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul — to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

— Luke 2: 21-38 (KJV, NASB)

Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was looking for the consolation of Israel, was graced by the Holy Spirit. And in that Spirit, he came into the temple, finally holding Jesus in his arms and blessing him. This was the moment Simeon had hoped for over many years. And after prophesying about the child Jesus, he blessed the parents and began Mary’s preparation for the pain she was destined to experience when her son was crucified.

And the Prophetess Anna, now advanced in age, was there “at that very moment” the Scripture says. Anna never left the temple and she served God “night and day with fasting and prayer.” She lifted up her prayers of thanks to God for this child. And on top of that she proclaimed the message of hope that this child had come! Glorious news it was to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

The stories of Anna and Simeon give us a portrait of elderly citizens, full of life’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit, who prophetically present to the world Jesus as Messiah!

And their story is full of hope for us, too. Perhaps those of us who are “of a certain age” are truly senior citizen prophets. Perhaps the hope we need to hear is the hope that, at any age, God calls us to prophetic mission. At any age, God will use our voices to speak hope to a world in despair, a world waiting for the consolation that comes only from God’s Spirit.

“Think Justice!”

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A sermon preached on September 30, 2018 at the First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our hope and our refuge. Amen.

I

In July, I received a note from Ellen. She is 22-years-old, a college graduate with honors, a strong, confident young woman. This is what she wrote:

“I love all of you so much. None of this would be possible without you. My time with you had such an enormous impact on who I am, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to get me to this point. You’re my family forever and always.    Ellen.”       (Written on her wedding day, July 8, 2018)

Thirteen-year-old Ellen came to us at Safe Places, an organization where my staff and I cared for women who had been abused, children exposed to violence, and young girls who had escaped the evil grip of human trafficking. When we first met Ellen, she was silent, lifeless, angry — hurt deeply in her soul. But after a few months, Ellen’s vivacious personality began to emerge. Slowly, she opened up her hurt place and let healing in. 

Ellen was eventually strong enough to be a part of our Princess Program, where girls who had experienced violence spent the summer learning and sharing, and discovering their inner courage, resilience, and sacred worth. After the summer, we celebrated the girls at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion with a grand ball, a very grand ball. 

When they put on their sparkling gowns, and the most glittering shoes I had ever seen, they believed — for at least one magical night — that truly they were princesses. Our wise staff taught them that even princesses can be violated, but they already knew that. They had lived through the humiliation of verbal abuse, the pain of physical and sexual abuse, and the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse. For many of them, it happened in the one place that should have been safe — in their homes.

II

Throughout history, we encounter stories of violence. Such is our story today, a story about how violence devastates Princess Tamar, King David’s daughter. Sometimes historians, biblical expositors and even story-telling preachers come upon stories that are hard to tell. This is one of those stories. It’s probably not included in any anthology of  “The World’s Most Inspiring Bible Stories.” It’s a story we don’t tell to our children. We might prefer to skip this story altogether. Theologian, Phyllis Trible, would call it a text of terror. And yet, it is the word of the Lord, and, as such, it offers some truths, some warnings, some questions, and maybe even a smidgen of grace.

So even though we find trouble in this text, God might just whisper, and gently nudge us to listen and to let the story reveal some important ways God calls us to do justice. 

Listen for the whisper of God in the reading of sacred scripture, 2 Samuel 13: 1-22.

In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.

Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”

Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”

”Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”

“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.

III

Indeed, there is trouble in this disturbing text. We discover it when we eavesdrop on Princess Tamar — daughter of King David, sister of Absolom, and half sister of Amnon. We learn that Amnon conspired to be alone with her. His sly servant came up with a plan, and she ended up in Amnon’s room. After hurting her, he rejected her harshly. He called for his servant: “Get rid of this woman! Banish her from my presence! Bolt the door after her!” 

He would not even use her name.

Tamar collapsed outside the door, plunged her hand into the cooling ashes of the fire, and rubbed the ashes into her hair. As she staggered away, she tore her richly embroidered gown as a sign of her deep-down despair. Even princesses can be violated!

King David was angry, but did nothing either to punish his beloved son or to comfort his despairing daughter. There was no consolation from father to daughter, not a single trace of compassion.  And her mother is silent.

Near the end of the story, we stumble upon a tiny touch of grace when we learn that brother Absolom takes Tamar into his home. But she is no longer a princess of royal lineage. She fades into oblivion and lives out her days as a refugee in her brother’s house, a desolate woman who will never marry and bear children. But did Tamar fade into oblivion? 

I don’t think so! Tamar’s voice was not silenced. She told someone her story, and that someone heard her, and remembered her story, and re-told her story, and told it at the right time to the right person so that this story made its way into our holy scripture. Thousands of years later, we do know Tamar’s name. Across all barriers of history and culture, and if we imagine, we can hear her speak across the ages:  

“I lost my life that day. Here in my brother Absolom’s house, I am a prisoner. I will never have children that will bear my name through the generations. I will not know that deepest of joys.”

IV

So just keep silence, King David!  Stay silent, mother of Tamar! Protect your violent son at all costs. 

What a deadly picture of family violence — the violence of a brother overpowering his sister, and emotional violence because both parents remained silent.

We might ask: where were the voices of her parents? We cannot help but wonder how Tamar’s father and mother might have responded differently. But this royal family decided to keep silence to protect Amnon.

In her sermon, “The Silences We Keep,” Rev. MarQuita Carmichael Burton speaks of “conspiratorial silence.” Reflecting on Tamar’s story, Rev. Burton speaks these words:

Reclaim our voices, shatter the façade of the deadly silence we keep. . .

We must trade in our torn robes and ashes for a bull horn and a listening ear and tell the truth of our story, so that our souls, minds, bodies and the people we say we love might be healed. 

As former silenced victims choose to no longer acquiesce to the demands of the clan elders and refuse the false healing promised by our conspiratorial muteness,  we move forward to reclaim freedom and wholeness on our terms, because we need it and so does the village.

V

In the end, it’s all about justice, and the Prophet Isaiah knew a lot about that.

Break every yoke!  Then your light shall rise in the darkness! 

You shall be called the repairers of the breach!

We have seen a breach, and from the abyss of that breach, the “Me Too” movement erupted. The movement is a wonder to behold, and perhaps the cry of “Me Too” is precisely where we find the movement of God. Secrets held for decades came out of the darkness into the light, and grief-filled silences found words. Tears flowed freely from hearts that held on far too long to painful stories.

But I wish that no person had ever needed to cry out “MeToo.” That no one had ever endured the horrifying violence that caused them to live with a silence and secrecy that held such power over their lives. 

I wish they had never felt the grief that tormented them in the voiceless spaces of their spirits. 

I wish that Tamar had always been a princess — loved, cherished, protected by her parents. 

But she was not. And so many of our sisters and brothers and neighbors and friends are not. 

We may not always know who they are, but perhaps it is most important for them to know who we are, a people committed to justice.

VI

Dear people of First Baptist Church of Christ, I marvel at the many and mighty ways you do justice — creating beloved community across racial and cultural and ethnic divides, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, seeing the sacred worth of every person. 

Can we also find ways to do justice within families? One in four of us in this sanctuary have experienced — or are currently experiencing — family violence. 

Among all the things that doing justice is, it is also being healers of the wounds that happen in the prisons of family secrecy. What does that mean exactly? 

I believe it means finding healing and gentle ways to give voice to a family’s secrets and silences. 

It means being ever a kind listener and never a judgmental voice. 

It means making sure that church is a safe and sacred space. 

It means keeping a watchful eye, always, over children, teaching them to be safe, not only from strangers, but from people they know and trust. 

It means being aware of the invisible wounds that others carry, and reaching out with tenderness that brings healing. 

If Jesus were among us today, I imagine him speaking justice to the unconscionable abuse of power that causes violence. He would call out husbands who abuse their wives, brothers who hurt their sisters, parents who harm their children.  Jesus might look into homes and cry out, “Woe to you!” 

And then, in his gentle, loving way, Jesus would reach out to the those who suffer violence, take their hands, and speak hope to despair. 

Jesus is not physically among us. but he left us in charge. So when we fail to seek justice in every place where abuse happens, we confine him. Joseph B. Clower, Jr. expresses this most eloquently in the final lines of his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus:

If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with his compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among men [people].

 When we accept this weighty call and this daunting responsibility, the prophet Isaiah might call us repairers of the breach!

VII

So let’s end our story . . . Yes, Princess Tamar lost her royal status. But the final word in this story belongs to the brother who loved and esteemed her, and who honored her. In the chapter following our text, we learn that Absalom was the father of three sons and a beautiful daughter he named Tamar, in honor of his sister.  

Can you imagine Tamar taking her infant niece into longing arms that never expected to cradle a child who would carry her name? 

Can you imagine her full heart as she envisions the future of Princess Tamar the Second, daughter of Absalom, granddaughter of King David, niece of Princess Tamar the First?

What a surprise from God — anointing Tamar’s wounds with a holy, healing balm! 

And this is the very foundation of our Christian hope: the faith, the conviction, the assurance, the certainty that when Tamar was crying, God was listening. 

People of God, we must repair the breach and seize this holy task: covering survivors of family violence with the compassionate cloak of justice, confronting violence wherever it casts its shadow, following God into every place where justice must overcome oppression.

On the campus of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, there is a building that faces the interstate. On that building is a huge sign declaring a strong, prophetic message to over 100,000 motorists traveling past it every day. The sign reads “Think Justice!” But it means so much more! 

It means longing for justice, praying for justice, insisting upon justice — persisting, prevailing, creating — doing justice, breathing justice — in families, in communities, and to the ends of the earth. 

Then the mighty waters of justice will roll over us, and we will wade together in ever-flowing streams of righteousness. Amen.

Beyond the Sunset

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“The Beautiful Sunset of Lancashire” Photography by Martine Camlin

The song, “Beyond the Sunset” was recorded by Hank Williams, Bill and Gloria Gaither, Pat Boone, and other recording artists. But I remember the song as a beloved hymn of faith. It was an old fashioned hymn, to be sure, because the elderly church members sang it with deep emotion, every word tucked into their memories.

As a child in the church pew, I observed that, for many worshippers, this hymn is a testimony of their strong faith in eternal life. The comfort of music that sings of eternal life is powerful, touching even the most hardened hearts. So “Beyond the Sunset” lives in the hearts of worshippers as a thoroughly Christian hymn, not so much as a popular song. 

Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning,
When with our Saviour heav’n is begun.
Earth’s toiling ended, O glorious dawning;
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather,
No storms will threaten, No fears annoy;
O day of gladness, O day unending,
Beyond the sunset, Eternal Joy.

Beyond the sunset, Oh, glad reunion,
With our dear loved ones who’ve gone before,
In that fair homeland we’ll know no parting,
Beyond the sunset, forever more.

— Blanche Kerr Brock / Virgil P. Brock

Christian hope for many devout believers is that they will see the glorious sunset ahead, and that when they get beyond the sunset, life’s earthly toil will end, joy will be eternal, and that they will reunited with loved ones gone before.

What a comforting, lovely message!

“Justice Could Have Called but Mercy Came”

 

82A65550-B655-4B99-9635-7EE6D11BC6A2I am a church woman, and I was a church girl — religious to the core. I have been in churches, and served on the staff of churches, large and small — Greek Orthodox churches, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist. Mostly Baptist. A 50-year Baptist and an ordained Baptist minister for 26 of those years.

I enjoy so many fond memories of my time in all of those faith traditions. Some poignant times, some hard times, some joy-filled times, some hilarious times — all made my journey a very rich one. So I will share with you just one funny story. I once was a part of a women’s choral ensemble in one of our Baptist churches. We sang lovely hymn arrangements, some contemporary pieces, and a few high-brow anthems. But at rehearsal one night, our director pulled out a piece of music that was rather mind-blowing. We looked at the lyrics and began to giggle. Soon we were laughing uncontrollably as we saw the opening line of the song’s refrain: “Justice could have called but mercy came instead.”*

Turns out, this was a bonafide gospel song, a quartet song, and we thought ourselves much too musically sophisticated to sing a gospel quartet song. But this is the interesting thing about those song lyrics that seemed to us so funny. In applying my theological and doctrinal knowledge to those lyrics, I determined that the sentence is true. It is very true that God can confront our sins and flaws with justice, but instead covers them with mercy. How full of grace is that truth! How many times have we needed God’s touch of mercy and grace! How many times has my sinfulness convinced me that mercy is out of my reach, that grace is impossible for me!

Pope Francis clearly understands sin in this way. Shortly after he proclaimed the Holy Year of Mercy in 2015, he was asked why humanity is so in need of mercy. He replied, “considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.” 

When all is said and done, the words of that gospel song are true. Indeed, “justice could have called, but mercy came instead.” It is my hope and prayer that all of us will find redemptive mercy in the God of grace who offers us love, patience and forgiveness.

 

* Written by R.R. Christian as listed in the Catalog of Published Music

Troubled Waters and Miracles

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I love the words and the melody of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna’ trouble the water.

There is just something about it that is moving to me. It digs down into my spirit and stops me in my tracks. I don’t know why I react so deeply to that simple bit of music. It could be that what draws me to it is its strong reference to healing as it recalls the miracle story recorded in the Gospel of John.

After a feast of the Jews, Jesus went to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda. It has five porches, and lying in these porches are many sick people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, each waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

Now a certain man was there who suffered from an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. Before I can get into the water, someone else gets in before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

— John 5:1-8 NKJV (paraphrased)

Or what inspires me about the song could be the stories that surround it. Some folk claim that “Wade in the Water” contained secret coded instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture as they followed the route to take them to freedom. The website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad explains how Harriet Tubman used the song to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by the slavers lost their scent. “Wade in the Water” was one of their most inspiring freedom songs.

Those moving stories remind me of the many ways music touches my life with inspiration, courage, and hope, how it reaches the depths of my soul during the times when nothing else can reach me, how it lifts me up when I have fallen into despair, how it fills my heart with just the melody I need to give voice to my sorrow and then gives me a way to express my moments of greatest joy.

Most of us can recall times in our lives when we needed a dose of Divine healing. We can remember times of sorrow and despair and fear when only an encounter with God could move us toward peace, times when we needed to be made whole again, times when we hoped beyond hope that God would trouble the water. Read it again.

 . . . An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

So in John’s Gospel story, a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years was healed. He was too ill to make it into the troubled waters of the pool no matter how many times he tried. But Jesus was there and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered that there was no one to put him into the pool when the water was troubled. “Before I can get into the water,” he said, “someone else gets in before me.”

But Jesus said those extraordinary words to him: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 

Immediately it happened. The man was healed, and he picked up his bed and walked. Maybe the man rushed off to tell friends about the wonderful thing that had happened to him. Or maybe could only stand there in awe, not moving at all because the moment was just too overwhelming.

It was a miracle. Actually, the story tells of at least two miracles: that Jesus healed the suffering man and that an angel descended from above and troubled the water in that otherwise ordinary pool.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a pool of healing water, troubled and swirling, I want to get in. I want my faith to be big enough to expect a miracle from ordinary water, in an ordinary pool, on an ordinary day.

 

Please visit this link to hear a stunning arrangement of “Wade in the Water” featuring an excellent soloist and choir from the A Cappella Academy from Los Angeles.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uiqQKZZo-Uc

 

Rhythms

E9BB2F49-CFC4-4F5C-AB91-3DDC3A588333This morning I’m watching the sea, comforting waves that roll onto the shoreline one after another. The sound is hypnotic and very healing. The sea has a rhythm, an unending rhythm all its own. The weather affects the tides, of course, but the sea’s rhythm continues day after day, year after year. I can count on it to be there always, surging on to the shore with a bit of white foam at the end. And one more thing: nothing disturbs the sea’s rhythm. Not swimmers who frolic at the water’s edge. Not gulls that sweep down to get their fishy breakfast. Not dolphins that occasionally rise majestically above the water. Not boats that float by.

People have rhythms, too, almost as predictable. It’s what comforts us during turbulent times, that rhythm, because we know down deep that after our personal storm, our rhythm will still be there. What is it that can disturb our rhythms? Illness, loss of a significant other, problems in a relationship, worries about children. You name it. Our rhythms can go haywire for a time, but always to return to the predictable rhythms that make up life.

When Jesus was crucified, those around him lost their rhythm. Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and Salome, no doubt were gripped in their heart of hearts with grief and confusion. Mary the mother of Jesus kept vigil at the cross, mourning the senseless death of her son. But most quickly of all the disciples, the women gathered themselves and reclaimed their rhythm. The women at the tomb saw Jesus alive and they ran from the tomb to tell the others about the astounding miracle. 

Their personal stories after the resurrection move on through history, giving us the example of strength in turmoil. Do we hear from them again? Oh yes, for centuries we have told their stories to our children and grandchildren. Painters have captured them in stunning frescoes. Iconographers have captured them in icons from which worshippers through the ages have seen the sacred light. After the resurrection, we may not hear much from the women in the pages of the Bible. But the history of our faith venerates them, and has done so for generations.

The message? It’s a rather simple one, really. Just count on the rhythm of your life to continue, because it will, and it continues until the moment you take your last earthly breath. That’s a comfort.

I used to be . . .

734D4A65-1E4E-4705-A356-D13DF9C7F9B4I used to be . . . 

It’s a phrase I use a lot these days as I fight off the feeling that in retirement, I am useless. It’s not true, of course, that I am useless. But to be honest, I do feel just a little useless these days, at least some of the time. The reason? I used to be a bona fide workaholic. I used to feel important and productive. I used to be busy all the time, night and day. I used to be a perfectionist. I used to have just a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, and all,of that drove me to a dangerous place.

The problem is that when you love and believe in your work so much, your work can become your whole life. Then things can get unbearable. So I admit that I am a recovering workaholic. I was the person that put in far more than 40 hours a week and never took a day off. But the critical question I had to answer was this: Is my ego at the root of my workaholism?

What was the job that was important enough to push me to work so hard?

I was a minister and a trauma counselor, and I was executive director of Safe Places, a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence. There was always someone in trouble, someone who had been battered by a spouse, someone trying to escape trafficking, a teen that was recovering from rape, a child that had been abused. So the work was never done.

I loved my work. I believed in it with all my heart. But I could not see what others saw. I could not believe the truth spoken by friends and colleagues, that I needed rest, that my work was hurting me. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was working myself sick. Circumstances, and maybe the alignment of the stars, brought me to a “come to Jesus” moment that forced me to take stock of my life. I realized I couldn’t do it all. So I took a very slight respite and pulled back from the constant work. In the meantime, as the stars would have it, we lost our federal funding, and suddenly Safe Places was gone. It was over. 

The stress did not end, though, because those that needed help kept calling . . . my phone. I had no staff left and, though I tried, I simply could not continue helping all these hurting people by myself. So I was forced into an unwanted and unplanned rest. 

During this “rest” time, grief and loss took over my psyche. But miraculously, my body began to rest. My pace slowed down. I was becoming mindful of every moment and what was going on in every moment. And in spite of the grief and sadness, my mind and spirit began to heal. What happened next was the shock of a lifetime. As my mind and spirit began to heal, I finally allowed my body to tell me what was going on. My doctors got to the bottom of it and diagnosed me with end stage kidney disease. Before I could even begin to take it all in, I was hospitalized and on dialysis.

I honestly believe I had worked myself to death, or at least nearer to death than I wanted to be. I spent a great deal of 2014 in the hospital trying to stabilize and then working to take my life back. It was hard work learning to write again, to think again, to walk again. But I made it through to a “new normal” that meant for me at least 7 1/2 hours of dialysis every day for the rest of my life, unless, of course, I am able to get a kidney transplant.

The experience of serious illness changed me. After I began to recover, people told me that I was unusually quiet. I didn’t speak much even when others around me were engaged in meaningful conversations. I knew that I was being quiet, quite unlike my normal personality. I was often silent when normally I would have had a great deal to say. I was different, to be sure, but inside myself I was okay. If I had to describe myself I would say that I was soft, broken open and free. And I was content in that place, although my family was concerned about me. I had traveled to a new place in my life, and it was a good place to be.

So here I sit in my “new normal,” tending plants, painting, cooking, writing, reading, and doing all things for pleasure. Most often I am still tempted to dive in and work on something until I am exhausted. But when the tiredness begins to creep up, something in my body remembers. Remembers I need to rest, to embrace stillness, to just “be.”

Still, I fight my old workaholic ways. Sometimes they push me to do things faster and better and longer. Sometimes my old workaholic ways push my button, the button that accuses me of uselessness, as in, “You are not worth much anymore! What are you going to do to change the world?”

Good news! I have finally given myself permission to not change the world. It has been a major shift for me, but I am seeing the truth more clearly, that I never could have changed the world anyway! So most of the time, when I feel myself pushing past my edge, I walk away. I write a blog post or fiddle with my flowers. I cook something fabulous or watch a little Netflix. So what will I do to live happily in these retirement days? I hope that I will keep studying the secret art of rest. I hope that I will continue to learn the grace of mindfulness, just cherishing the moment, every moment.

I used to be a workaholic. Not anymore.

Oh, and one more thing . . . a prayer. Though my faith tradition has always eschewed prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, many very beautiful and meaningful prayers are prayed to her. I leave you with this one written by Mirabai Starr.

Mother of Consolation, help me to let myself be consoled. 

I hold it all together, Blessed One. 

I have convinced myself that it is up to me to keep the airplane aloft with my own breath, that I am the only one capable of baking bread and scrubbing floors, that it is my responsibility alone to alleviate the sorrow in the heart of every single person I know. 

But I have forgotten how to weep, Tender One. 

Teach me to reach out to the ones I comfort and ask for their comfort. 

Let me feel the tender touch of the Holy One on my cheek when I wake in the night, weary and frightened. 

Help me to be vulnerable and soft now, broken open and free.

— Mirabai Starr