Awful grace

On the night back in 1968 when the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in Indianapolis. Riots were spreading across the country, and Kennedy had been warned to cancel his scheduled event. Instead he chose to speak to the waiting crowd. You could hear the gasps and cries as the people learned of Rev King’s assassination from Kennedy himself.

There was no teleprompter. Kennedy simply spoke from the heart, holding his rolled-up script in his right hand.

People could choose to respond with “bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he said, or they could respond as Martin Luther King did, replacing the “stain of bloodshed” with “compassion and love.”

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy concluded by calling on the people in the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King…and to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

I wonder how many of us could have done what Kennedy did that night.

Not only did Kennedy not give a canned speech; not only did he not pander (he quoted from memory an ancient Greek poet); he simply lamented with and for hurting people and a hurting nation.

He, like the poets who wrote the laments of the Bible, cast the nation on the goodness and justice of God.

Today, the Landmark for Peace Memorial honoring Kennedy and King marks the spot where Kennedy spoke.

Because of Kennedy’s speech, people there that night went home and prayed. Indianapolis was spared the violence that engulfed most major US cities.

Shared lament

This week a protest a few blocks from the church made national news when a protestor hit a bicyclist in the head with a skateboard. A few other protestors accosted diners sitting outside. It all felt like salt in a wound. Restaurants have been struggling to reopen, and most protests in Pittsburgh have been peaceful. So why this?

How long, O Lord?

We’ve been preaching on the biblical understanding of lament in response to the pandemic and the unrest across the country. We’ve said anyone can complain, but it takes faith to bring your complaints to God. When you lament in the biblical sense you turn to God, state your complaint, tell God what you want God to do, and then choose to trust God.

And then repeat. You remind yourself that God is good, and that God can be trusted.

Lament can be a source of strength in times like these. But Pastor Mark Vroegop, author of the book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, says that once you learn to lament, you next need to learn from lament. 

The Old Testament Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. But it was not just the destruction that made the poet weep. It was knowing that the people of God shared the responsibility. They had turned from God and worshipped idols. They had lived for themselves and failed to care for the poor and marginalized as God had commanded. God finally let them experience the consequences.

Most often we lament over bad things beyond our control.

Sometimes we lament over the bad things we do.

Sometimes we need to lament over the bad things we all do.

We all suffer from a condition called sin.

Not every white person is a racist, but racist structures exist and need to be dismantled.

Not every protestor is violent, but violence is destructive and must stop.

But we all suffer from sin, and shared sin calls for shared lament.

Growing season

Life for Sarah Frey growing up on the family farm in southern Illinois wasn’t exactly easy.

Even in the early 80’s, the house had no indoor plumbing. The family grew or hunted everything they ate. At age four Sarah was responsible for keeping the fire burning in the wood stove that heated the house. At five she was driving. At eight she negotiating the sale of produce with grocery store managers. At 15, she moved out of her parents’ house into another small house the family owned, fixing it up with earnings from after school jobs. At 16 the bank loaned her $10,000 so she could buy a truck to build her produce business. The banker insisted on giving her two years to pay it back. She paid it back in two months.

At 18, she bought the farm, by herself.

At 19, she closed a deal with Wal-Mart to deliver tons of produce a week. The deal became the subject of a Harvard case study.

In her new book, The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm and Built a New Life, Sarah tells how challenges like these, and the love of her very imperfect family, shaped her life. She learned to believe in herself, work tirelessly, and refuse to let obstacles stop her.

We all need some inspiration right now, and Sarah delivers tons of it.

There is a reason that the Bible speaks of seasons and the importance of bearing fruit. Hard times taught Sarah to see the beauty in imperfect fruit. When Sarah found that the small or misshapen fruit was often the most flavorful, instead of plowing it under, she used it to start her fresh juice business.

Sarah said, “I hope the book helps people see through life’s imperfections and hardships. Right now, everything that we’re going through as a country with Covid, just know that there’s a brighter season on the other side of this.”

 “You need to have the optimism of the farmer. The growing seasons that are fallow can teach us just as much as the growing seasons that are bountiful.”

“Why” question

Incoming freshmen at the military academies are only allowed to say four things when spoken to by an upperclassman:

“Yes sir.”

“No sir.”

“Sir I do not know.”

“Sir, my I ask a question?”

Freshmen are also taught that the only acceptable answer to a “why” question is, “No excuse, sir.”

There are good reasons to drill into future officers the discipline of not making excuses. When lives are on the line, there’s no place for excuses.

And often little time to explain “why.”

Perhaps the most famous “why” question in history was the one Jesus cried out from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

You might know that, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. What you might not know is that, in Jesus’ day, when you quoted the first line of a passage, it was a way of calling to the reader’s mind the entire passage. All the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, referred to Psalm 22. In other words, Psalm 22, the ancient cry of one who felt abandoned by God, is a key to understanding who Jesus is.

Many of us have never experienced such a prolonged time of discouragement and abandonment like we’re going through today, and we want to know why.

If Jesus prayed Psalm 22 from the cross, shouldn’t we pray it too?

Jesus so identified with our feeling of abandonment that he cried the words of Psalm 22 from the cross. No matter how discouraged, how abandoned we feel, we know without any doubt that God identifies with us.

God has not abandoned us.

It’s OK to ask God the great “why” questions.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

My first duty station in the Air Force was by far the worst.

Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, wasn’t the coldest of the northern tier bases. It wasn’t the snowiest (184 inches our first year there). It wasn’t the remotest (the nearest mall was in Bangor, a town of about 30,000, 170 miles away).

Loring wasn’t the leader in any single category; but Loring was the sweepstakes winner.

When the weather finally did get warm enough to go outside, the black flies made it nearly impossible. (Black flies are to mosquitoes what murder hornets are to bees.)

Loring had been on the base closure list for years, so the infrastructure had been neglected. Our first home was a 750 square foot apartment in a fourplex with no garage or carport. Sometimes the snow completely buried our Corvette.

Loring was so unpopular that maybe a third of people who received orders got out of the service rather than accept the assignment. The ones who were left found their three-year assignments extended to four, five, or six years.

But for me, the worst thing about Loring was the complaining. Nobody but the hardiest outdoor types wanted to be there; everybody else complained.

Jana and I escaped Loring after three years, and every assignment after that was better. But even when we were assigned to great places, some people still complained.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

But here’s an interesting thing. God says, “Bring your complaints to me.”

Something supernatural can happen when you cry out to God.

When you focus on God, your “why” questions can become “who” questions. Who is this God who cares about me?

I’m not saying that self-centered whining is OK. Neither is pouting when you don’t get your way.

But the one who set the stars in place cares about what you’re going through.

Telling the truth

I recently read a book about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” (it likely started in Kansas, not Spain) called The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John N. Barry. It’s not an easy read, with many different narrative threads. But it’s also one of those books everyone should read, because there is much to learn from the great pioneers of science and medicine from a hundred years ago.

And much to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There are two interrelated and overarching lessons of The Great Influenza: leaders must tell the truth, no matter how hard; and the virus will have its way, no matter what.

In 1918, truth was the first casualty. President Woodrow Wilson had mobilized every facet of the country’s life to fight the war in Europe. Telling the truth might, he reasoned, hurt morale and damage the war effort. Wilson never said a single public word about the pandemic.

In 1918 medical science and virology were in their infancy. The way viruses behave is so much more complex than most people realize. Not just the way the virus spreads, but the way they interact with human beings, changing, mutating as they spread. Sometimes getting stronger, sometimes weaker. 

The way we communicate today, with sound bites and tweets, makes it hard to get the truth out. And with our limited attention spans, are we even willing to listen?

By the time the Spanish Flu had played out, after the world had seen three waves of it, only a few of the remotest places on earth were spared. Remote Eskimo villages had been wiped out. Even in the cities that did everything right, in the long run casualties were just high as everywhere else.

Psalm 77 has some powerful imagery of God bringing order out of chaos. In verse 17, the psalmist says, “The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed.” And then in verse 19, “Your path led through the sea…though your footprints were not seen.”

God is bringing order out of the chaos. Nature can see it, even the water can see it. Shouldn’t we?

Through this pandemic, God has given us an enormous opportunity to seek God and to teach our hearts that we are not in charge, of nature, of our lives, or really much of anything.

But God is.

This takes practice, work. Like the psalmist, we have to keep reminding ourselves that God is the one who brings order out of chaos.

Here’s another truth.

We’re not in charge, but God is.   

Low grade depression

This week, former First Lady Michelle Obama spoke for tens of millions of us when she talked about how difficult the last five months have been for her. She described her feelings as “low grade depression.” I’ve had many conversations with people who described exactly the same thing. They’re worried about their businesses, their kids, their future, their country. They have trouble sleeping; they’re on edge, ready to snap.

I feel the same way too. And I worry about the homeless and marginalized who come to the church for help.

This must be how they feel all the time, pandemic or not.

Mark 7:24-30 is the story of Jesus venturing north out of Jewish territory to the Gentile city of Tyre. If Jesus’ presence became known there it could derail his whole mission. It was then a Gentile woman came to him, desperate for him to heal her daughter.

She must have felt this way all the time.

Marginalized, low grade depression, and on top of that, her child was demon possessed. Her conversation with Jesus seems shocking to us. Wasn’t Jesus being cold and sexist? No.

Jesus didn’t come to heal a few people of one tribe or region.

He came to redeem all of heaven and earth.

He came to fix what was wrong with us all.

Mrs. Obama said she was depressed by what was happening in the White House, but she was encouraged by the peaceful protests she saw.

Others say they’re depressed by what the Democrats say and by the violent protests they see.

Look, if we are all depressed, and if we all think the problem is them, maybe the real problem is something deeper.

Maybe defeating people with different political beliefs won’t solve anything.  

Maybe the problem is not them, it’s us.

It’s our fallen hearts

Jesus loved us all so much he let a fractured world tear him apart.

It was the only way to put our hearts back together.

Just do something?

Presbyterian pastor and author Rodger Nishioka told of stopping at a grocery store to buy milk after flying in one night from a speaking engagement. It was late, Rodger was tired, there was only one cashier, and the woman in line ahead of him was short of cash. She was sorting through her groceries trying to decide what she could afford. 

“How much does she need?” Rodger asked the cashier, as he made up the difference.

As the woman started to leave, she turned to Rodger and said, “You didn’t even ask me my name.”   

Bless Rodger for telling this story on himself.

Was he helping the woman, or was he solving a problem so he could get home to bed?

What if the answer has cosmic consequences?

The preaching text this week is Jesus’ parable of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus from Luke 16. In all of Jesus’ parables, he’s the only character with a name.

It means “the one God helps.”

In the parable, the rich man lived in luxury while the poor man had nothing. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, but the man gave him nothing. Then the rich man died and went to hell and was in agony. Looking up to heaven, he saw Lazarus resting in comfort next to Abraham. He pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers that hell was real. Abraham said that people have had all the warning they were going to get. They wouldn’t believe “even if someone rises from the dead.”

So, what’s the lesson? Help the poor or you’re going to hell?

I don’t think so.

A better question might be, why help the poor?

Why do justice? Why fight racism?

In the midst of multiple crises today, it’s easy to feel helpless. In our desire to “just do something” it’s tempting to latch on to any cause, any movement, that might feel right.

But what do we accomplish when we abandon Christ and his ways?

Nothing that matters.

When we serve, we have a choice to serve in his name, with his heart and his ways, or not.

There is someone who rose from the dead. He’s bringing in a new kingdom; setting things right, and painfully few seem to believe it.

Feeling helpless?

The pandemic has taken away many of the things we relied on for purpose and meaning, and rioting has shaken our faith in our institutions.

We want to do something, but what?

Acts 17 tells the story of the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus in Athens, where the elites of the first century Roman world met to debate philosophy, religion, and politics. The elites listened as Paul explained who the God of the Bible was and how God was the force behind much of what they believed.

So far, so good.

But then Paul told them they needed to repent; God was sending someone to judge the world; the proof was the resurrection. 

End of discussion. Paul and his talk were cancelled. The philosophers thought Paul was crazy.

I wonder if Paul left feeling helpless.

But God wasn’t done. 

Paul wasn’t totally helpless after all; a few people who heard him believed.

Less than 300 years later, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in recognition of the fact that Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world.

The Gospel changed the world from the margins, not from the places where the elites hung out. Members of the new Jesus Movement had begun sharing their faith with relatives and friends, who shared it with their relatives and friends. People began to see there was something different about them.

Today, Christianity is the dominant religion in the world, and it’s still growing. Growing, not through force or programs, but through the quality of the members of the movement and the relationships they form.   

Friends, we’re not helpless. 

Share your faith. Point to the resurrection. Do it winsomely, fearlessly, and relate it to your audience, as Paul did.

It’s when we feel helpless, and step out in faith anyway, that God does some of his best work.

Seeing stars

This week, my son Patrick and I drove up to Cherry Springs State Park in north central Pennsylvania. The park is mostly a big open field, but people go there from all over the world because it’s one of the few accessible places left that’s almost totally free of light pollution. It’s one of the best places in the world to see stars.

So, at age 68, I saw the Milky Way with my own eyes for the first time.

Even if it had been cloudy and we couldn’t see a thing, it was great to get away with my son. It was nice to do something “normal,” like a road trip, for a change.

In Genesis 15, God was talking with Abram, later Abraham, old and childless Abraham, the one God had chosen to father a new nation. He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6).

We know a bit more than Abraham about the stars, but not that much more. We know what stars are; we know that the nearest one is over four light years away. But we don’t really know how many stars are in our own galaxy (100 to 400 billion), or how many galaxies there are (100 million to 2 trillion).

The God that engineered all that has told us that he’s mindful of us, loves us.   

This week the stars reminded me that God kept his promise to Abraham.

We can trust him too.