Proverbs 14:15 MSG
(A Children's Sermon in Verse)
This guy that I know, named Heironymus Black
Has the most amazing knack
Of turning his head so it faces in
The direction that he has already been.
So it’s hard to get where he wants to be
‘Cause his past is all that he can see.
He trips, he stumbles, he walks into walls.
He has the most horrendous falls.
But never does Harry turn forward his head.
He says he prefers to look backward instead.
And though it’s a marvelous, wondrous stunt,
It would be better yet if his face, faced front.
Then he could go walking or running so fast!
Into the future instead of the past.
He could open his eyes! He could take in the sights
Of all of the possibles, maybes and mights.
But it never will be. Oh, alas and alack!
For Harry insists that his head face the back.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43: 19
Today, 98 years after the first Sweetest Day was established, most people who celebrate it do so by buying candy for their sweethearts.
But that's about 100 miles from the reason the holiday was first celebrated.
Several years ago, I did some research into the real history of this strange holiday. There are lots of version of the story but they all seem to boil down to this: Sweetest Day was born in 1921 at the initiative of a Cleveland candy factory employee named Herbert Birch Kingston who, one cold, rainy October day, took notice of the newsboy hawking newspapers on the corner he passed every day. The boy was cold and wet and miserable so Kingston invited him to come in and get warm and he offered the boy a small box of chocolates to enjoy as he did. So genuine was the lad's gratitude that Kingston came up with the idea of giving candy to newsboys all over Cleveland.
He submitted his suggestion to a group of factory employees who established a 12 person committee to organize the event but they decided to broaden the charity to include all street people, shut-in's, nursing home residents, and the poor. They said that such charity would make that day the Sweetest Day of the Year and that's what they would call it.
Other candy makers were recruited to join in the effort and the following October (1922}, about 20,000 small boxes of candy were distributed, free, to steet people, nursing home residents, and others unable to buy candy for themselves.
The Cleveland Plaindealer picked up the story. Other major papers in the Great Lakes area (Ohio, Indiana, Wisconcin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) followed suit and, within a few years the charitable holiday had become regional as it, largely, is today.
Unfortunately, in most cases the charitable aspect has been lost and the holiday has become, a lesser, secondary Valentine's Day.
So, go ahead and buy your sweetheart a box of candy on Sweetest Day but why not remember the original reason for the season, purchase one of those big bags of Halloween candy you see at the store, and drop it off at your local food pantry or soup kitchen, okay? It will make somebody's day the Sweetest Day of the Year.
Columbus Day was first celebrated in San Francisco in 1869 to celebrate Italian American heritage. The idea spread across the country with the first statewide celebration in Colorado in 1907. By 1937 it was so widely celebrated that it was made a national holiday. But why?
Some believe that the minor holiday was popularized as a response to the New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian Americans in 1891.
Originally, 19 Italian Americans were indicted for the murder of police chief David Hennessy. After six of them were acquitted at trial on April 14, 1891, a mob stormed the jail, removed 11 of the inmates and hanged them in the public streets, the largest, single mass lynching in American history. Over the next 9 years, another 9 Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans.
No one was ever brought to trial for any of the lynchings.
Some historians believe that after the New York Times and other national newspapers ran the stories and indignant editorials about the lynchings, a movement to honor Italian American heritage pushed to make Columbus Day a holiday and the idea caught on.
Yet another lesson we didn't learn in History class.
I am grateful to my friend, The Rev. Marie Smith, who authored this article for the newsletter of the Wilmington United Methodist Church:
Perhaps you have heard someone talking in the hall way at church, or you have seen the news articles that are circulating around about our United Methodist Church and how we are responding to Human Sexuality. When I say Human Sexuality, I am specifically talking about ordination of people who are gay or lesbian; the ability to marry people who are the same gender within the United Methodist Church by an United Methodist Pastor, and if you are gay/ lesbian and desire to be married to your partner. The current Book of Discipline prohibits all of these things from happening. If you remember the Book of Discipline is our guiding principals, our historical document, and our set of rules by which we are held together.
In 2016 at General Conference the delegates asked the Council of Bishops to lead us to a place where we could resolve this conflict. This request came after many disputes from all sides regarding how we interpret scripture, how we see the mission and ministry of the church, and how organize. It was decided that in 2019 we would reconvene General Conference and vote on Human Sexuality. The Council of Bishops will propose legislation for the delegates from around the world to vote. From that request, the Council of Bishops formed a Way Forward Commission. This commission is comprised of people from across the globe with various ideologies. There are people on the commission who are openly gay and who are openly against homosexuality; and people in between. The committee has met several times independently after the Council of Bishops has given them outlined goals. The Way Forward Commission has worked diligently with the Council of Bishop to hear the needs of the General Conference (That is all of us) and put forth something that is helpful. The commission reports to the Council of Bishops and its sole purpose is to help clarify what legislation needs to be put up in 2019. Because of their work they have put several drafts of “sketches” forth for the Council of Bishops. The most recent set has been limited to two:
ONE CHURCH MODEL
MULTI-BRANCH: ONE CHURCH MODEL
So you might be asking why is she sharing all this information? First, I want you to be informed about our denomination. I also want you to know what questions we will need to answer in just a short period of time. With that in mind, we in West Ohio (our annual conference), has 16 clergy delegates and 16 laity delegates who represent us at General Conference. Regardless of what the final sketch looks like, I would like us as Wilmington United Methodist Church to know what we believe and how we stand on this issue. This may require we have conversations around the table, it may mean we need to have bible studies about human sexuality, it may mean we need to hear another side of the conversation to understand perspective. If you are on a team or committee your leaders are asking you what you think of all of this and if you have questions. In just a few weeks we will have some dialogue about it. I hope you will join us as we talk about this important issue. Finally, I invite you to pray, pray for our council of Bishops, for our brothers and sisters on the Way Forward Commission and for all those who are suffering for their faith.
Last week Stephon Clark, 22, was shot and killed by Sacramento police.
Police were responding to a report that a black man was breaking car windows in the neighborhood. A police helicopter reported seeing a person looking into cars and breaking a patio door/window. This person, they said, ran through several backyards trying to elude police surveillance. Two officers on the ground caught up to the man they believed to be the suspect in the car break-in’s and ordered him to stop but did not identify themselves as police officers. When he stopped they ordered him to show them his hands. When he did, they fired 20 shots, killing him.
The police allege that Clark had something in his hand which they thought was a gun. It was, in fact, a cell phone. That is what separates this fatal, police shooting from the other 243 that have taken place so far in 2018. He was unarmed.
The killing of unarmed civilians by police has been much in the news for the past few years. According to the Washington Post police shooting database and confirmed in two other sources, police shot and killed 68 unarmed people in 2017, up from 51 in 2016 but down from 94 in 2015.
The Guardian ran and in-depth study of police shootings in 2016 called “The Counted.” Here is their conclusion: The Counted was launched on 1 June, logging 464 deaths in the year to that point. At that time 102 or 22% of those killed had been unarmed. This proportion has since fallen slightly to 20% or 198 of the total 1,000. In 59 deaths, however, it remains unclear whether the suspect was armed. [This number would account for the disparity between the figures in the Post and the Guardian.]
As of 1 June, black Americans were more than twice as likely to be unarmed as white Americans when killed by police. At that point 32% of the 135 black people killed by police had been unarmed, compared with 15% of the 234 white people. This disparity has since shrunk, with 26% of the 248 black people and 18% of 490 white people being recorded as unarmed.
If the Sacramento case plays out as most others, the police will rationalize the shooting with one of two defenses, perhaps both:
1.) The victim did not obey a lawful police command; or
2.) I thought the victim had a gun.
The first defense is not offered so often by police as by their civilian defenders on social media and in private conversations. “If he just would have done what the officer said he would be alive, today.” The second defense might be credible if the victim is holding one of those toy guns that looks uncannily like the real thing, but when the item in the person’s hand turns out to be a cell phone or a wallet, the viability of the defense is considerably diminished.
To the families of the victims and, especially in minority communities where the majority of these shootings take place, as long as these two defenses of police officers who shoot unarmed civilians are accepted without question, they sound like a license to kill. Inevitably, we know, that those officers will be placed on paid administrative leave until it is determined by a group of fellow officers that they did nothing wrong. And even if they are found to be at fault the most we can usually expect is that they will be fired from their job or forced into early retirement. And whether this is true or not, it is the perception with which we must deal.
The problem with all of this lies at the very foundation of our justice system. When unarmed people are killed by police, the police are acting as judge, jury, and executioner. The victims are assumed to have done something wrong, the police try to make an arrest, the victims resists, the police assume they are guilty and kill them.
But that’s not how our system of justice is supposed to work. We are innocent unless (not until) we are proven guilty in a court of law. “Until” assumes that we will, eventually, be convicted. No, we are innocent “unless” we are convicted.
So, every time police shoot and kill an unarmed person they are executing an innocent man or woman.
I can imagine some, but let me first be clear that it is not my job to create legal remedies for this problem. That’s what we elect legislators to do. If you want me to come up with solutions, elect me to office. That said, however, her are a couple of thoughts.
1.) The law should say in clear terms that police may not shoot an unarmed person simply because they are non-compliant with a command, even a clear and direct command. Use a taser. Overpower the person with physical strength or numbers. But, if no one is placed in danger by the non-compliance, you aren’t allowed to kill them. That seems like a no-brainer to me but, given the number of unarmed shootings we see each year, maybe not.
2.) Police must be trained to tell the difference between a cell phone and a gun. Cell phones are ubiquitous and of a size that young people routinely carry them in their hands. If you can’t tell the difference between a cell phone and a gun you are going to be shooting a lot of innocent people. So, let’s turn the training up a notch. This may mean waiting just an extra beat or two before opening fire. I know, people will argue that that beat or two could cost police lives but police officers are paid to risk their lives and I am confident that they can come up with a safe way to wait two seconds before killing someone. As it is, the absence of that beat or two is costing the lives of innocent civilians.
3.) The command, “let me see your hands” must be abandoned. In several cases the victims have complied with this command while holding a cell phone or something else in one hand and, upon seeing it, police have opened fire. A command to “empty your hands” would be more reasonable and safer. People are not going to show their hands if they think that doing so will lead to them being shot and killed.
4.) Toy manufacturers must be held to account for making toys that look like real guns. This goes for BB guns and pellet guns as well. States must begin to require clear, identifiable markings that differentiate between real guns and toy guns. I’ll let them figure out the details but those details are crucial as the cost of inaction will be the loss of more lives.
5.) Police officers who shoot unarmed people must be held to the same standard as civilians who shoot unarmed people. The same laws should apply to both. “It was an accident” may make it a tragedy but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that a person’s life has been lost and someone is accountable for that death. Losing your job and moving to a different community to be a cop does not seem adequate.
Our democracy cannot stand if police killings of unarmed civilians are dismissed with equanimity. We have always been a nation not of persons but of laws and we will be safe in our homes only as long as we continue to be precisely, that.
Saturday, March 24, 2018 -- Columbus, Ohio
Those who grow rich by manufacturing killing machines, and their lackeys in the NRA, love to talk about their dubious “God given right” to make, sell, and own guns. But that so-called right is not God given, my friends. It comes from the minds of the privileged, white men who wrote and ratified the Constitution of the United States 229 years ago this month. It is, literally, a man made right and privilege. There is no divinity in it.
So, today, we gather together to put the lie to the claim of divine approval for gun ownership. Today, we are met in this place to speak of real God given rights, rights that have been conveniently forgotten by those who worship at the altar of weaponry.
It was not in the Constitution but in the Declaration of Independence that those God given rights were first articulated, when Thomas Jefferson, borrowing from philosopher, John Locke, and reminded us that we are all created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those are our God given rights, brothers and sisters. And they are the rights that are being stolen from us, our children, and our grandchildren by those who insist that their manufactured and unfettered right to own instruments of death somehow trump our rights to live and be free.
Gun fetishists speak loudly of their rights but tell me, please, what about the rights of Hannah Ahlers, the 34-year-old, a wife of 17 years, and the mother of three young children who was killed in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire on country music concert?
What about the rights of Jesse Lewis, 6 years old, "just a happy, little boy" who was supposed to make gingerbread houses with his family after school but was gunned down, killed at Sandy Hook?
And what about the rights of Scott Beigel, a geography teacher who was gunned down after he opened and attempted to relock his door to let a group of students into his classroom at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida just a few, short days ago?
What about the rights of the 461 people who were killed in mass shootings last year, and the 11,000 killed by guns in the USA every year? What about their rights? Their God-given rights of life and liberty?
Well, according to the gun manufacturers, their lickspittles at the NRA, and the gun worshippers whose god is the killing machine and whose holy writ is the 2nd amendment, the answer is more guns. More guns in people’s hands and more bullets in the air. This is their prescription for life, liberty, and happiness.
And this, brothers and sisters, is idolatry of the most blatant and egregious kind. By it they cultivate hate and fear so they can justify arming themselves with instruments of pain and death against the very neighbors we are called to love. It is surrender to that hopelessness and despair that would turn this country into a state of perpetual war between, in their words, “good guys with guns and bad guys with guns.” It is the destruction of every good principle, every good value, every good thing that people of faith proclaim and upon which this country was founded.
And it is for that reason that we are gathered here, today, to say to these disciples of violence, “No. We’ve had enough. You shall not press down upon the brow of youth this thorny crown made of bullets. You shall not crucify our children and grandchildren upon a cross made of guns.”
LET US PRAY:
GRACIOUS AND LOVING GOD
CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE AND ALL THAT IS IN IT
WE COME TO YOU WITH HUMBLE AND CONTRITE HEARTS
FORGIVE OUR PROCLIVITY FOR VIOLENCE
FORGIVE OUR FAILURE TO LOVE OUR ENEMIES AS YOU HAVE COMMANDED US TO DO
FORGIVE OUR ARROGANCE AND PRIDE
FORGIVE US WHEN WE PLACE OUR FAITH AND TRUST IN INSTRUMENTS OF DEATH AND NOT IN YOUR LOVE AND KINDNESS
WALK WITH US, O GOD, AS WE SEEK TO BE PEOPLE OF PEACE AND LOVE
ARM US WITH GRACE
ARMOUR US WITH LOVE
BLANKET US WITH RECONCILIATION
AND MAKE US INSTRUMENTS OF YOUR PEACE
WHERE THERE IS HATRED, LET US SOW LOVE
WHERE THERE IS INJURY, PARDON
WHERE THERE IS DESPAIR, HOPE
WHERE THERE IS SADNESS, JOY
WHERE THERE IS DARKNESS, LIGHT.
GRANT, O GOD, THAT WE MAY NOT SO MUCH SEEK TO BE CONSOLED AS TO CONSOLE,
TO BE UNDERSTOOD AS TO
TO BE LOVED AS TO LOVE.
Walk in peace, brothers and sisters.
Walk in peace.
It’s a little before noon and 39-year-old, history teacher, Mr. Beckley’s stomach is growling. His last meal was breakfast at home before he left for school at 6:45AM. It’s also a little too warm in his classroom because the gosh darn heaters are on the fritz again and, apparently, there’s nothing that can be done.
That one student who is always a pain in the keister was his usual self, this morning, trying to be funny, making stupid remarks, not paying attention. The rest of the class was as usual: a few bored, a few distracted, and a small few who, bless their hearts, actually seem to care about American History. He gives the class the last 10 minutes to start their reading for tomorrow and sits down to rest and dream of the corned beef sandwich stowed in his briefcase under his desk.
THE FIRE ALARM SOUNDS!
Okay, stay calm, he thinks. Probably a drill but his kids are well trained. Even before he can get out of his chair they are moving in a neat, orderly procession out the door and on to the exit and the front yard of the school. He steps into the hall to monitor the evacuation and everything seems to be going okay.
Someone in another hallway screams and a group of kids come running around the corner and into Mr. Beckley’s hall. He hears the word “gun” as they run by and before it has had time to fully register in his mind that those pop, pop, sounds were gunfire, all of those kids who were making egress in a quick but orderly manner are now screaming, pushing, and running for the door. He is nearly knocked down in the sudden crush. He hollers, “Walk! Walk!” but no one is listening.
He can feel a sense of panic start to burn like a hot needle in the base of his skull and the pit of his stomach. Adrenalin starts to flood his nervous system and his normal “flight or fight” responses kick in. What he really wants to do right now is run with these kids as fast as he can go, right out that door and on to his home and the arms of his wife and children.
But he’s a teacher, sworn to himself and God, if not to the school district, to always act in the best interest of his students.
And, he has a gun.
It’s locked in a safe on the top shelf of the supply closet in the place where he used to store historic copies of Life magazine – a nine-millimeter semi-automatic hand gun with a 12-round clip that he bought at a local gun shop and the price of which was reimbursed to him by the school board on the promise that he would take a weekend concealed-carry course (which he did) (six months ago) and the gun would be the school’s property and could be removed from the classroom at any time.
He drops his shoulder and pushes through the crush of students, back into his classroom. His purpose in doing so is to get that gun and take it to the fight, to protect his kids, for that is how he thinks of them: “his kids.” First, though, he has to find the key to the safe. The key. The key. Shit! Where did I put that damn key?
Did those pops sound closer? The adrenalin is flowing freely now. His heart is racing. His empty stomach is rolling over. His hands are shaking. He’s sweating and his mouth is dry.
In truth, he hasn’t had the gun out of its case since he completed the concealed carry class six months ago. He was going to. He was going to go to the range and practice on human shaped targets every week but he never got around to it. Papers to grade. Lesson plans to create. His son’s baseball practice and games, his daughter’s dance recital, his wife’s desire to repaint the kitchen, all got in the way.
His briefcase! That’s where the key is. He fishes his briefcase out from under the desk pops the lid and the smell of corned beef rolls out and sours on his adrenalin filled stomach. He lifts his lunch bag out of the case and there’s the key, wedged into the corner. He takes it to the supply closet, stands on his tiptoes to reach the safe… and drops the key.
He finds it on the floor and, hands still shaking, on tiptoes, again, unlocks the safe and reaches blindly in to get the gun which is already loaded but he grabs the small box of cartridges as well, just in case.
The gun is concealed in a case designed for it to keep moisture out and prevent rust. He opens the case and there is the gun, smelling strongly of cleaning oil, and looking powerful, lethal, and, well, masculine.
Breathing slowly, deeply, trying to get control of his emotions – fear, excitement, anger, frustration, panic – he lays gun and ammunition on his desk. He takes the gun from the case, weights it in his hand, pulls the clip to make sure it’s loaded (just like they taught him at the C.C. Class.) He cranks a round into the firing chamber and walks purposefully toward the door, gun held in both hands, pointing upward, finger outside the trigger guard.
Most of the students are gone from the hallway but a dozen or so stragglers round the corner running full speed and, startled, he comes a millimeter from pointing the gun at them. He moves quickly to the T where his hallway adjoins the main hallway of the school. He peeks around the corner. Students running the other direction, teachers locking their doors. Several bodies on the floor. He does a quick count. Eight. Blood all around. He has no idea whether they are kids or adults, alive or dead.
Mr. Beckley ducks back out of sight raises his gun next to his right ear, pointed upward, finger still outside the trigger guard, takes a deep breath
POP…POP…POP…POP (Closer this time?)
He lets the breath out, takes another, holds it a moment, lets it out slowly and, while he is exhaling, steps around the corner and levels the gun, pointing it down the hallway. And just as he does this a young man in blue jeans and collared t-shirt steps out of a classroom and faces Beckley. It’s the math teacher, a new guy. Brian Cox. Beckley knows nothing about him.
What the hell? Has Cox lost his mind? Is he shooting up the school, killing his students? Why? What happened? Or, wait, maybe Cox is an armed teacher like himself. Beckley wonders: Maybe he thinks I’m the one shooting up the school!
Seconds tick by. Lives are at stake. The POP’s seem to have stopped. Decide, Beckley. Decide! Background, behind Cox: a few students running away, concrete block walls, hard, linoleum floors, a few windows in classroom doors. Anyone in those classrooms? Foreground between Beckley and Cox: bodies, blood.
Cox raises his weapon and points it toward Beckley.
Psychologist and Rabbi Edwin Friedman was one of the pioneers of family systems theory in understanding and perfecting human relationships. He was also the author of Friedman’s Fables, short stories that invite the reader to contemplate human condition and human interactions.
As we try to figure out a way to live in a country where gun ownership and use are largely unchecked, I thought of this fable. Enjoy.
The Friendly Forest
Once upon a time in the Friendly Forest there lived a lamb who loved to graze and frolic about. One day a tiger came to the forest and said to the animals, “I would like to live among you.” They were delighted. For, unlike some of the other forests, they had no tiger in their woods. The lamb, however, had some apprehensions, which, being a lamb, she sheepishly expressed to her friends. But, they said, “Do not worry, we will talk to the tiger and explain that one of the conditions for living in this forest is that you must also let the other animals live in the forest.”
So the lamb went about her life as usual. But it was not long before the tiger began to growl and make threatening gestures and menacing motions. Each time the frightened lamb went to her friends and said, “It is very uncomfortable for me here in the forest.” But her friends reassured her, “Do not worry; that’s just the way tigers behave.”
Every day, as she went about her life, the lamb tried to remember this advice, hoping that the tiger would find someone else to growl at. And it is probably correct to say that the tiger did not really spend all or even most of its time stalking the lamb. Still, the lamb found it increasingly difficult to remove the tiger from her thoughts. Sometimes she would just catch it out of the corner of her eye, but that seemed enough to disconcert her for the day, even if the cat were asleep. Soon the lamb found that she was actually looking for the tiger. Sometimes days or even weeks went by between its intrusive actions, yet, somehow, the tiger had succeeded in always being there. Eventually the tiger’s existence became a part of the lamb’s existence. When she tried to explain this to her friends, however, they pointed out that no harm had really befallen her and that perhaps she was just being too sensitive.
So the lamb again tried to put the tiger out of her mind. “Why,” she said to herself, “should I let my relationship with just one member of the forest ruin my relationships with all the others?” But every now and then, usually when she was least prepared, the tiger would give her another start.
Finally the lamb could not take it anymore. She decided that much as she loved the forest and her friends, more than she had ever loved any other forest were friends, the cost was too great. So she went to the other animals in the woods and said goodbye.
Her friends would not hear of it. “This is silly,” they said. “Nothing has happened. You’re still in one piece. You must remember the tiger is a tiger,” they repeated. “Surely this is the nicest forest in the world. We really like you very much and we would be very sad if you left.” (Though it must be admitted that several of the animals were wondering what the lamb might be doing to contribute to the tiger’s aggressiveness.”
Then, said two of the animals in the friendly forest, “Surely this whole thing can be worked out. We’re all reasonable here. Stay calm. There is probably just some misunderstanding that can easily be resolved if we all sit down together and communicate.” The lamb, however, had several misgivings about such a meeting. First of all, if her friends had explained away the tiger’s behavior by saying it was simply a tiger’s nature to behave that way, why did they now think that as result of communication the tiger would be able to change that nature? Second, thought the lamb, such meetings, well-intentioned as they might be, usually try to resolve problems through compromise. Now, while the tiger might agree to growl less, and indeed might succeed in reducing some of its aggressive behavior, what would she, the lamb, be expected to give up in return? Be more accepting of the tiger’s growling? There was something wrong, thought the lamb, with the notion that an agreement is equal if the invasive creature agrees to be less invasive and the invaded one agrees to tolerate some invasiveness. She tried to explain this to her friends but, being reasonable animals, they assured her that the important thing was to keep communicating. Perhaps the tiger didn’t understand the ways of the lamb. “Don’t be so sheepish,” they said. “Speak up strongly when it does these things.”
Though one of the less subtle animals in the forest, more uncouth in expression and unconcerned about just who remained, was overheard to remark, “I never heard of anything so ridiculous. If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”
MORAL: Reasonableness is the natural manure of terrorism.
Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (The Guilford Press, 1990), pp.5,25-28
In the debate on gun safety and gun regulation communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.
Thanks to David Smith preaching minister with the Missouri Street Church of Christ (aka: MoSt Church) in Baytown, Texas, from whose blog I lifted the story.
February 11, 2018 -- Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9: 5-6 and Job 2: 11-13
We are in the season of words.
Recently, the president delivered the annual State of the Union Address to congress and we were invited by the news media to listen in.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of our history the president’s report on the state of the union was delivered to congress in a letter which was then read aloud in both houses. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the president’s report on the state of the union become a speech delivered to a join session of the two houses of congress. And even after Wilson not every president gave a speech every year. That’s a relatively new phenomenon which has grown along with the power of the electronic media to broadcast it to large numbers of people
And, as it became an annual rite, so it also became a somewhat empty ritual.
Listening to the current version of the SOTU, I was astounded at how much like former examples it was. The state of the union is strong because it’s people are strong. The military is strong (and here’s a person who exemplifies that strength, sitting among us as I speak) because the people who serve in it are strong but it could be even stronger if some more money was given to it.
I have done an awesome job running things up to now.
Taxes are bad but some are, regretfully, necessary.
Our youth hold the future of our country in their hands. And here are some youth looking freshly scrubbed and bored.
We need better crime prevention and better ways to fight crime that isn’t prevented.
We need to speak to our national adversaries from a position of strength.
All I want is unity which we could have if you would all just do as I say.
Blah, blah, blah, on and on. The form, if not the content, is pretty much the same as its predecessors.
Don’t have anything to say? Make a speech!
Politicians are not the only ones who abide by the rule that the best thing to do when you don’t know what to say is to talk. Watch the awards ceremonies that are on TV. The Grammies, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Oscars. At least a few recipients always say, “I don’t know what to say,” and then take five minutes to say it.
The Super Bowl and the Olympics offer sportscasters filling empty air with words. Often, it seems that more airtime is given to talking about sports than showing the sports themselves. And much of that talk is done not because anyone needs to hear it but because sponsors have purchased airtime and the airtime between commercials needs to be filled with something.
With all these words flying around, it is hard to remember that sometimes the best thing, the prudent thing, the most effective thing to say is nothing at all.
In the Scripture
Compare these two passages:
Mark 9: 5-6 -- Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Job 2: 11-13 -- Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him…They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
In the first passage, Peter has just had an experience of awe and wonder. He’s afraid, as such experiences can sometimes leave us, and he doesn’t know what to say. So, like preachers and politicians have done down through history, he talks.
He fills the air with words not because he has something important, something worthwhile, something astute or bright or apropos to share. He fills the air with words because (1.) he’s afraid, (2.) the silence is awkward, and (3.) he doesn’t know what else to do.
And when he speaks, he falls back on the old and the familiar. First, he evaluates the situation and decides that it’s good, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.” And then, having established that the situation is a good one, he suggests that they all get busy and do something, something tried and true, something traditional, something familiar, something religious. “Let us build three dwellings…”
In the second reading above, Job’s friends have heard of Job’s misfortune, the tragedies that have befallen him, and they go to visit him. When they are not far away they see him but so miserable is he that they don’t even recognize him. So heartbroken are they for their friend’s miserable condition that they rip their garments and put dust and ashes on their heads as signs of their grief on his behalf. Then they sit down with him and simply share his pain for seven days and seven nights and “no one spoke a word for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Now that, my friends, is friendship. Most of us would, like Peter, break under the strain of being silent for 15 minutes, much less seven days.
But, alas, on the eighth day Job cries out his misery and despair, he puts his anguish into words and his friends begin to speak in reply and that is when the quality of their friendship begins to crack. That is when they start making a mess of things.
Interestingly, when God finally steps into the scene and starts to speak – to Peter, James, and John in the Gospel, and to Job and his friends in the book of Job – his answer is much the same. And, if you will allow a paraphrase, it is, pretty much, this that God says: “Shut up and listen.”
To Job and his friends, God says, “Shut up and listen to me.”
To Peter, James and John, God says, “This is my son, the Beloved; shut up and listen to him!”
When you are having or have just come out of a situation that is so overwhelming, so amazing, so awesome, or so horrible that it shocks you and makes you afraid, the thing to do is to “shut up and listen.”
In Our Lives
Most ministers are not strangers to the experience of awe and wonder. For many of us, it is why we became ministers. It’s the context in which we heard the call to ministry.
For me, it was at a weekend retreat when I was in college. We were studying Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” and I heard his words, really heard them, for the first time in my life: Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
A typical oldest child (of five), I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to please people, especially the parental figures in my life: my parents, my teachers, my coaches, my youth group leaders, etc. And when I read those words from Tillich’s sermon it was as though a huge, heavy backpack had been lifted from my shoulders.
I was accepted. God’s loving, reconciling, healing grace was ladled over my head and shoulders and I was accepted, just as I was, by the greatest parental figure that I could imagine, the God and creator of the universe.
I left that seminar walking about six inches off the floor, not giddy or excited, but relieved. The burden of earning acceptance had been taken away. I could be the me that I was, not the me that everyone else expected or wanted me to be.
And as I look back upon that wonderful, transformative, salvation experience in my life I am thankful that no one tried to explain it to me or expand on it for me.
They just let the experience wash over me and they said nothing. (Later, they said and did much.)
Maybe for you the experience happened in your childhood or youth. Maybe it was in a Sunday School class, in a worship service, at Vacation Bible School or at summer church camp or on a mission trip. Maybe it was words that brought God’s grace into your life, or maybe it was music, or acts of service, or a special relationship.
Regardless of how it came to you, you have experience God’s grace and, hopefully, those who loved you did not try to explain it to you or question you about it, at least not at first. Hopefully, they loved you enough to just “shut up and listen.”
At the other end of the continuum, we ministers are not strangers to experiences of abject suffering and grief , often not unlike that of Job.
In my years as a pastor I was called to the scenes of murders, suicides, and horribly tragic deaths from illnesses and injuries, deaths that were premature and all the uglier because the victim was so young and full of life with so much more for which to live.
I was called to hospital rooms where hopelessness and despair seemed to saturate the very air to the point that you could not breath without inhaling it and feeling its corrosive effects upon your soul. I stood at the graves and spoke the ritual words of committal that nearly stuck in my throat as I spoke them.
And in nearly all of those cases I heard people, well meaning people, people with good and generous hearts, say things, as Peter did, not because they needed to be said, but because the silence was so awkward, the occasion so unfathomable, the pain so intolerable, that they just felt that someone ought to say something if, for no other reason, to fill that leaden air with light, sweet, fluffy words. And often, those words were not only unnecessary but ill advised and even hurtful, as well.
In all those cases I just wished God’s voice would come out of a big, dark cloud and say to whoever was trying to give comfort with platitudes and clichés, “Hey! Shut up, and listen.”
Listen as this mother pours out her grief. Listen as this father tears open his heart. Listen as this widowed wife screams her shock and anger. Listen as this child sits in fearful silence because she has not learned words to apply to a situation such as this. Listen to the sniffs and snuffles and wails and moans and know that your presence, your hand placed upon a shoulder, your arms enfolding in a hug, your own tears shed in empathy, are comfort enough without the need for words to shore them up and make them effective.
Words are gifts from God, to be used in God’s service for the purpose of bringing joy, understanding, edification, enlightenment, reconciliation, comfort, and caring to our brothers and sisters. They are too powerful, too dangerous, and too precious to simply be thrown into the air because we don’t know what else to do and the silence is getting awkward.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here…We should have more people from places like Norway…Why do we want people from Haiti here? Take ‘em out.” Donald Trump
"Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’" Matthew 25:45
Many of us are rightly offended and outraged by the language our Supreme Leader used this week to describe poor countries where the majority of citizens happen to be people of color who hope and seek desperately to come here, to our country. And our indignation is appropriate. But not for the reason many think.
Let us not, in our outrage, fool oursleves. There is a sense in which the Supreme Leader's metaphor is appropriate. There really are some places on this earth that are, well, cesspools. They stink of poverty and penury. They reek of corruption and cruelty. If they ever had any political, philosophical, or moral foundations those values have been eroded away by constant deprivation and destitution. They are places where misery, hopelessness, and despair crush human souls in ways that are unimaginable to even the poorest Americans.
There is no sin in calling these places out and naming them for what they are as did the prophets of old. Perhaps this kind of painful honesty, spoken to the wealthy and powerful elite who always seem to live at the extreme edges of such places will budge them from their ennui and apathy.
Until such a time, however, we must remember and take care to remind our leaders and ourselves that those who are so unfortunate as to live in such places, are not to be denigrated and demeaned by any good and decent folk, but especially not by those of us who dare to call ourselves "Christians." Our Lord made it clear that we are to approach those who live under poverty and oppression with atitudes of empathy and charity. We are called, by him, to go to them and serve (yes, serve) them with acts of unqualified kindness, tender gentleness, extravagant generosity, and selfless love.
The fact that they happen to live in a, uh, cesspool, is the very thing that compells us to their side, not away from them. It is the thing that causes us to open our doors to them, not to slam the doors in their face. It is the thing that invites them in, not the thing that shuts them out.
Our Supreme Leader wants to bring into our country only those who have no need and, for many, no desire to come here. Why would they? They have plenteous comfort where are. They have free health care, universal higher education, lower crime rates, safer streets, and a happier citizenry than we have. Besides, even if they wanted to come here, is that really how we make our country great(er), by reaching out only to those who can serve us, who can make us richer, who can contribute to our economy and then go home?
Scripture would seem to indicate that there is a better way. If it is true, if Scripture is trustworthy when it says that we become great as individuals by serving others, by allowing oursleves to be broken and poured out for our neighbors, then how much truer must this be for nations? If we really want to make America great again, then let us do that which we did in the beginning, let us return to the love we had at first. Let us welcome again to our shores those tired, those poor, the wretched refuse, the homeless, tempest-tossed, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
For they are the ones who first made us great and will do so again if, indeed, that is really what we want, as it surely is what God wants for us.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.